In this extract from her book The Whole Intimate Mess, Holly Walker describes the time her anxiety led her to breaking point.
“In fact, I had been punched in the face, but not by Dave. I got those bruises by repeatedly punching myself in the face to end an argument...”
I’m a radio, turned up loud, but not tuned properly. I’m trying to make sense but I keep emitting bursts of loud static. These fill my head and I can’t remember how to find the right frequency, turn the volume down. I’m playing a programme I’ve played over and over again, and it always ends the same way. I’m stressed. I’m anxious. I’m overwhelmed. And I’m angry.
Dave’s here, and he thinks we’re having a conversation, but we’re not. Most of the time I can’t hear him over the static, but what I do hear fills me with rage. He’s not listening. He thinks he knows what’s going on. He thinks he can turn off the static by reasoning with me. And when that doesn’t work, he gets angry too.
Esther’s here, and she definitely doesn’t know what’s going on, but she’s getting upset. Something is wrong. She wants her mum, not this loud, staticky radio. Or her Dad, not this cold, rational statue. Every few minutes I turn to face her, smiling through tears, trying to reassure her that it’s really me, but I can’t make it stick.
I’m trying to show Dave that we need to stop because the baby is here, but now he just thinks I’m hiding behind her, using her as an excuse to get the last word. He’s a patient, kind and tolerant man, but he’s also stubborn as f.... He’s latched onto his rightness, and he won’t let go. He charges ahead with his rationality like a bull, ignoring the crying, clinging baby. Why does he assume that I will be the one to stop and meet her needs? I’m furious.
I feel all the muscles in my body tense. I’m clenching my toes as tight as I can, trying to bury them in the carpet, and then unclenching them with a flick. This is a bad sign. Dave should know it, and he should stop. He should let me stop. ‘We need to stop.’ I say. ‘We’re freaking the baby out.’ ‘No,’ he says. ‘You don’t get to treat me like this.’ I blow. I suppose in a similar situation, if our gender roles were reversed, or we hadn’t both been raised with an unshakeable knowledge that domestic violence is never, ever okay, I might have hit him.
Instead, I hit myself. I’m on the floor, raining blows on the side of my own head, and then smashing it into the ground. I’m screaming, crawling up the hallway, sobbing. I’ve lost hold of my tenuous grip on myself, become something wild, animal. The radio has been thrown into the bath, and everyone has been electrocuted.
Dave throws himself over me, pinning me to the ground, forcing me still.
And then Esther screams a scream I’ve never heard before. Her cries of pain, hunger, tiredness and frustration I know. This is a scream of terror. She is nine months old, and everything she knows – mum is safe, mum is constant, mum will make everything all right – has been turned on its head by a sight she cannot comprehend.
Esther’s scream brings me back to myself and I am flooded with shame and regret. I pull her into my arms, kiss her face, tell her that we are all okay. I carry her to an armchair and she breastfeeds. I stroke her face. Dave wraps his arms around us both and we all cry.
For two weeks in March 2014, not long after I had returned to Parliament full time, I sported a swollen face and colourful bruised jaw.
This was inconvenient, because I was still an MP and I needed to appear in public. I needed a good explanation. I told my colleagues and anyone who asked that I had had an emergency wisdom tooth extraction. They bought it. I told my family, who knew that I’d had all four wisdom teeth out years earlier, that I had managed to hit myself with the car door while trying to get Esther, then five months old, out of her carseat, juggling multiple bags. This was so ridiculous they must have thought I couldn’t have made it up.
As the days wore on and the bruises refused to fade, I had to explain myself to more and more people. One time, I caught myself telling the car door story within earshot of a colleague I’d told the wisdom tooth story to. If she noticed she didn’t say anything.
Quite a few people joked that it looked like Dave had punched me in the face (which, given the prevalence of domestic violence, was not funny). In fact, I had been punched in the face, but not by Dave. I got those bruises by repeatedly punching myself in the face to end an argument about who should install the printer driver software on my laptop.
Even before I gave myself a visible injury that I had to explain to people, since Esther’s birth I had found myself finishing arguments with Dave by hitting myself in the head. Usually flat-handedly on the top of my head, so that sometimes I had a bit of a headache and a sore spot, but no visible injury. We would get into these circular arguments, hours lost into a tunnel from which I could see no other way out. Something would snap, and I would lose it.
It happened a few weeks before the printer driver incident, the night before I went back to Parliament for the first time after Esther’s birth. She was three months old. I wanted Dave to promise to bring her into me for a breastfeed at lunchtime. He said he would try but couldn’t promise because he didn’t know how the day would pan out. I screamed that he didn’t understand how important it was for me and smacked myself on the top of the head repeatedly before collapsing in a sobbing heap. I felt a wild, primal fear about being separated from my baby, and an overwhelming frustration at not being able to explain myself properly. It felt as though I was tearing myself in two.
The Whole Intimate Mess, by Holly Walker (Bridget Williams Books) is out now, RRP $14.99