Leav­ing an abu­sive re­la­tion­ship

The Star Malaysia - Star2 - - FRONT PAGE - By S. INDRAMALAR star2@thes­tar.com.my

It takes more than courage to leave an abu­sive re­la­tion­ship; sur­vivors also need strong sup­port and strength to re­build their lives.

WHEN Karen Loo (not her real name) walked away from her abu­sive 20year mar­riage three years ago, she felt strangely ex­cited. Sure, she was also ner­vous, anx­ious and afraid – “How would I sup­port my two young chil­dren on my own?” – but the over­rid­ing feel­ing was of ex­cite­ment.

“I felt free. I felt like there was hope in my life again,” she says, re­call­ing the two tu­mul­tuous decades of liv­ing with a con­trol­ling and abu­sive hus­band.

Un­for­tu­nately, her ex­cite­ment wore off af­ter just a few days, when she be­gan to be over­whelmed by the daunt­ing prospect of start­ing her life over on her own and in an un­fa­mil­iar place.

“The first three months in KL was hard. I was very lonely as I didn’t know any­body in KL. I re­mem­ber, I would walk the shop­ping malls by my­self, like a ghost, feel­ing lost and alone.

“We’ve all heard sto­ries about abused women who go back to their hus­bands af­ter a cou­ple of months. Well, I can re­ally re­late to them be­cause I thought of go­ing back to my hus­band more than once. Yes, I know I had a very hard life with him but at least it was a life that I was fa­mil­iar with.

“It’s like when you have a wound – when it is raw, it is painful. Then you treat it and it gets bet­ter and you for­get about it. The next time you get a wound, it’s not so bad be­cause you know how to treat it. I knew how to treat those wounds. I knew how to cope with that sit­u­a­tion and I had friends and fam­ily around me. But I wasn’t too sure how to cope in this new sit­u­a­tion,” re­lates Loo who re­lo­cated from Taip­ing.

It didn’t help that her hus­band kept call­ing her, im­plor­ing her to go back to him.

WAO’S so­cial work man­ager, Wong Su Zhan (who was Loo’s coun­sel­lor), says the urge to go back is com­mon.

“Many women feel they’d rather re­turn to an environment that they are fa­mil­iar with – no mat­ter how dif­fi­cult or painful – than face the uncer­tainty of their fu­ture. It’s nat­u­ral be­cause they are scared.

“I told Loo right from the be­gin­ning that it wasn’t go­ing to be easy. I warned her that she may feel like go­ing back and giv­ing her hus­band an­other chance. But, I as­sured her that things would get bet­ter and eas­ier. I urged her to hold on,” says Wong.

Loo was de­ter­mined to make a bet­ter life for her chil­dren and her­self, and it took about four months be­fore she be­gan to be­lieve she’d be able to make it on her own.

When love is a battlezone

Ac­cord­ing to global sta­tis­tics on do­mes­tic vi­o­lence, the av­er­age abused wo­man leaves (and re­turns) to her abuser seven to eight times be­fore she leaves per-per­ma­nently.

WAO re­search re­veals that many bat­tered women who seek help from agen­cies have suf­fered re­peated as­saults and/or psy­cho­log­i­cal abuse for a num­ber of years. It is only when the vi­o­lence reaches an in­tol­er­a­ble level – when it threat­ens their phys­i­cal and emo­tional well be­ing – that they ac­tu­ally reach out for help.

Things got so des­per­ately bad for Loo that she was ac­tu­ally con­tem­plat­ing killing her­self and her chil­dren.

“You read news re­ports of women who kill them­selves and their chil­dren and you think they are ter­ri­ble peo­ple but I un­der­stand why they do it. Life was just un­bear­able. I couldn’t see a way out. I thought that if I left my chil­dren be­hind, what would hap­pen to them? Who would look af­ter them?them? Why would I want them to be miser-mis­er­able?” she re­calls her worst mo­ments.

Loo’s hus­band had bipo­lar dis­or­der, and she had to bear the full brunt of his ex­treme mood swings.

“When he was ‘high’, he was re­ally hy­per. He’d talk non-stop, wouldn’t sleep for days and he didn’t need to eat much, ei­ther. He thought he had pow­ers and some­times he thought he was God. It was scary; he was like a rub­ber band that was stretched and ready to snap.

“Then, when he was ‘ down’, it was the com­plete op­po­site. He’d be moody and sleep all the time. He could not work. I had started my own di­rect sell­ing busi­ness but he didn’t want me to work or go out at all. He ex­pected me to just sit be­side him and be mis­er­able. He was happy when I was mis­er­able. I would cry for hours each day.

“I was scared and I tried every­thing to make him bet­ter … I went to see a bo­moh, I prayed … but noth­ing worked.”

She sought help from her mother and sis­ters, but they ad­vised her to ta­han (bear it) for the sake of her two chil­dren.

“That was the think­ing at the time. You marry the first man you date and you stay mar­ried even though you are un­happy for the sake of your chil­dren. My sis­ters’ mar­riages were more or less like mine too. I re­alised then that if I chose to leave, I wouldn’t have their sup­port. So, I stayed,” she re­calls.

How­ever, when the ver­bal abuse es­ca­lated into phys­i­cal abuse, Loo made se­ri­ous plans to leave.

At the same time, her friends were help­ing her over­come her de­pres­sion.

“My friends ad­vised me to pray when such (sui­ci­dal) thoughts came into my head. So I did. An­other friend gave me a book by (self-help guru) An­thony Rob­bins which helped me stay pos­i­tive. I also went to see a psy­chi­a­trist to ask how I could get out of my de­pres­sion. He told me to keep my body healthy and fill my head with pos­i­tive thoughts. So, I did that too,” she says.

Leav­ing for good

Loo went a step fur­ther – she reached out to WAO through their helpline.

Says Wong, “Karen first got in touch with us in 2007 af­ter the first time she was beaten up badly. She was con­fused, scared and didn’t know what to do. I just lis­tened to her and told her how she could pro­tect her­self and her chil­dren. Be­tween 2007 and 2008, she called us three times but she was still un­cer­tain about leav­ing. Each time she put down the phone, I re­mem­ber feel­ing very wor­ried for her,” re­calls Wong.

Loo was hes­i­tant about seek­ing shel­ter at WAO be­cause she had the im­pres­sion that it was a run­down place that wouldn’t be com­fort­able for her chil­dren.

Still, she took Wong’s ad­vice se­ri­ously, and made prepa­ra­tions to leave. On the day that she left, she woke up with ab­so­lutely no plans to do so.

“I snuck out of the house that morn­ing be­cause I needed to go out­sta­tion to reg­is­ter my di­rect sell­ing busi­ness. My hus­band usu­ally sleeps all morn­ing, so I planned to be back be­fore he re­alised I was gone. But on that fate­ful day he didn’t sleep in, and kept call­ing to de­mand to know where I was.

“He then threat­ened me; he said, ‘ Wait till you come back.’” That scared me. I called a friend of mine and told her I was afraid to go back. She and her hus­band urged me leave him. They helped me pick my chil­dren up from school and let us stay with them while I made ar­range­ments to go to WAO in KL.”

It’s been three years since Loo left, and things have not been easy. As she didn’t have a job or a place of her own, she had to en­rol her daugh­ter (who was 14 at the time) in a res­i­den­tial school and tem­po­rar­ily place her son (who was nine then) in a home while she re­built her life from scratch.

Loo went on to start a busi­ness sell­ing eco-friendly thermo lunch boxes and she plans to pur­sue a de­gree in psy­chol­ogy some­time soon.

De­spite the un­cer­tain­ties, Loo is hap­pier now. “Now at least I can de­cide what life I want to lead. I don’t re­sent him. Some of my friends have told me that he is dat­ing some­one, so I hope he finds love and learns how to be a bet­ter hus­band.

“My ex­pe­ri­ence hasn’t made me dis­trust­ful of men but I can see the signs now. I am more aware. I want to get a de­gree in psy­chol­ogy so I can help other women. When I tell them it is pos­si­ble to leave and start again, they can trust me be­cause I speak from ex­pe­ri­ence.”

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