Battered wives gain support
WHEN someone hits you on the head, your hair hides the bruises: So starts my interview with a woman, who for years hid the fact, she was beaten by her husband.
For three years Stephanie kept up appearances: her husband was smooth and charming, the sort of bloke who gave her red roses after he smacked her around.
She can remember the first time he hit her, but not the reason why.
“I’d known him for five years. Then I moved in with him, we’d been living together for three months, I can’t remember what I did, or didn’t do, but he knocked me down and banged my head against the floor,” Stephanie said.
“I was completely shocked and he was convincingly sorry, full of promises about it never happening again and carrying red roses.”
But in the cyclical nature of domestic violence it happened again and again and again. Each time he returned armed with roses and contrite apologies.
“Over a period he made me believe I was completely useless and stupid,” she said.
“The coffee isn’t hot enough, you’re stupid; why isn’t dinner on the table, you’re stupid.
“He hit me on the head, he punched me on the body, but I took a lot of care to hide the bruises, so no one ever saw.
“Nobody would have believed what he was like at home, because he was so very, very smooth when we were out.”
It wasn’t until she was pregnant with her third child that she finally scrapped together every ounce of courage she had and got out of the relationship.
“He hit me when I was pregnant. At the time I didn’t think I was worth protecting, but I knew I couldn’t let him touch my children, it was a protective instinct,” Stephanie said.
“He hadn’t hit the kids, that’s why I stayed.
“The kids were important, I wasn’t.”
Unlike the movies, her escape didn’t happen in the dead of night.
She waited until he left for work one morning and put the kids in the car and left for her parents’ home.
“It was terrifying. I was so scared he’d catch me before I got away. It was a very real fear,” she said.
“Because I knew what he would do to me.”
This happened 30 years ago, in a different country, with different laws, but the problem remains real for many Warwick women today.
Back then Stephanie fled from her marital home on New Zealand’s south island to the security of her parent’s home on the north island.
“At the time I didn’t tell my parents why I had left him but I think my brother knew,” she said.
“I was safe with them: Men who beat women are cowards and my husband didn’t want other men to know.”
Despite the breath-holding anxiety of her escape across New Zealand, she believes it was worth it.
“Somewhere, some place there is always someone who can and will help you.”
But before you can ask for help, she said you have to admit to a problem.
“I think there is still a certain stigma about being in a domestic violence situation,” Stephanie said.
“In a small town you worry about what your friends and neighbours are going to say.
“Yet, in truth, you have to worry about yourself and your kids.
“Your kids can’t be OK unless you are OK.”
She knows people still sit in judgement asking why women like her didn’t leave violent relationships.
“It is hard to make that decision, when you have no self worth.”
Eventually she found a man who treated her right but there were no red roses in this romance. For Stephanie the flower remains a painful reminder of an extraordinarily difficult period in her life.
A decade ago she put the Tasman Sea between her and the traumatic memories of her homeland.
“It is amazing how it stays with you. Occasionally I will hear a voice like his in a shopping centre or somewhere and just freeze.
“For a long time I lived in fear of running into him.”
Their relationship remains a bittersweet memory: After all without it she would have missed having the children, who remain a pivotal part of her existence.
She has also made a point of never degrading her former partner in front of her children.
“Being bitter only hurts the person who is bitter, hate only hurts the hater,” Stephanie explained.
“I believe we are only given challenges in life that we can cope with; I am stronger for what happened to me.”
In an effort to help other women, who may be struggling to leave an abusive relationship, Stephanie has become a volunteer at Warwick Domestic and Family Violence Prevention Strategy Group’s first women’s refuge.
“I always wanted to help other women but the opportunity wasn’t there or I wasn’t in the right place,” she confessed.
“Now is the time. I want to make a difference.”