Sitting alone in the bedroom Stephanie* shared with her husband Richard*, she watched a spider crawl along the windowsill. “That spider has more freedom than I have,” she thought.
Stephanie was completely isolated by her husband. He watched her all the time, monitored the phone calls she made, stopped her from seeing friends and family, decided what their money was spent on and even what they ate.
“He could just look at me or look at the kids and they knew, ‘We won’t say anything or do anything.’ You always had to look to him to see his reaction and if it was OK for them to watch TV or something, then it was OK for a while. But it was always controlled, everything was controlled.”
When Stephanie first met Richard, she thought she was lucky to have someone so “perfect”. “He made me feel I was lucky to marry him.”
“Once I got pregnant with my first child, he was totally controlling over that, saying you can’t be doing this or that… I just thought he was minding me because he’d buy flowers and things to pamper myself with, he always made it look like he was looking after me. But it was a little bit like being in the pot of water and gradually the heat’s being turned up and you don’t notice it because you’re in it.”
“He never hit me as such but he would use threatening behaviour, he would block me if I was going out the door or he would bang something or break something in front of me… It was total fear.”
Richard would only allow her to speak with certain people. “I couldn’t meet up with anyone unless he agreed that it was OK.” She saw her own family rarely, only on special occasions, and any time they came over Richard would be “on his best behaviour.”
“He’d be making the tea, making everything look normal, as if it was a normal house.” But Stephanie’s family saw through this. “They didn’t like him and I didn’t understand why. I thought he was the best person, that he knew everything, he always got everything right. And I didn’t know what to do.
“The thing was, he never listened to me anyway, anytime I made a suggestion or had an idea he would tell me to be quiet or, ‘No, we’re not doing that’. He dismissed everything so I never had a say in anything. I think my brothers and sisters knew, they had seen the way he was before I did.”
A turning point came when Stephanie was pregnant with her third child. “We were sitting in a coffee shop, he was gone to the toilet and I picked up a magazine. It was a house and home magazine or something because he would never let me look at those glossy magazines… I picked up that one because I knew if he sees me reading it, he won’t say anything.”
Flicking through the magazine, she spotted an article about domestic abuse. It listed signs of abuse and included a helpline number.
I had to act normal when he came back, as if I was still flicking through the magazine. But in my head, there was alarm bells going off. That was really the start of it for me, the start of getting help.”
Afterwards, she kept thinking about the article. “I began to realise that it was true, that I wasn’t imagining it.” She rang the helpline and was directed to COPE Galway’s Domestic Abuse Service at Waterside House. Feeling relief that she had somewhere to turn, she called and arranged to meet one of the Staff. “That was brilliant, that I was able to come in and talk to someone and make sense of everything.”
At the time, Stephanie was breastfeeding and used a doctor’s appointment as a cover to meet with her Support Worker. Richard questioned her delay in arriving home, but never knew she had visited COPE Galway.
“It was brilliant because it was all confidential… he never knew I came in here. It really, really helped me. The support I got was brilliant,” she says.
“Coming in here made me open my eyes to certain things and it gave me more courage, it made me feel, ‘I can leave him’. He had me beaten down, he had chipped away so much at me that I felt like ‘I can’t do anything’ but from talking to someone in here, from them saying, ‘He can’t do that, you have rights, your kids have rights,’ it helped me understand it.”
“It’s done in a very respectful, dignified way. It’s confidential, they wouldn’t turn you away, no matter how small it is, you always feel like you can come in and say it. It’s just to know there’s something there on the other side, it’s very important that the support is there for a woman in that position, to know that they can just pick up the phone or arrange to come in and talk to someone.
“It’s all private, he had no clue I was coming in here countless times and he had no clue that I even came in here once.”
With support from COPE Galway, her GP and a social worker, Stephanie took her children to her brother’s house. Richard arrived soon afterwards, begging her to return, but the next day COPE Galway helped Stephanie to obtain a Protection Order and ultimately a Safety Order.
Richard moved in with a friend but began writing her notes, telling her he would change, saying he understood why she had left, and spending more and more time with the children. “I was nearly believing him, he was being really good, doing stuff at the house, being really nice to everyone, allowing them to do things he wouldn’t have before.”
Throughout this time, Stephanie received support from her Support Worker in Waterside House. “Even after I left him, it still felt like he was watching me. I still felt like I needed permission to ring someone, and I had to keep telling myself, ‘It’s OK, I can do this now’.”
Richard was “gradually going back to his old ways”, not listening to her or caring about how she felt, when a family member passed away. Stephanie attended the funeral by herself and met people she hadn’t been able to see for years. “I was thinking about things, the people that I hadn’t seen for a long time, all saying they were glad to see me and it was really nice and I thought I want that kind of thing again.”
It was a significant moment as Richard continued to pressure her to allow him to return. “It was a long hard battle for years, to keep him from harassing me…But at least he was out of the house and I had my own space and was able to get the house running and look after the kids.”
“It took such a long time and it was very draining and tiring and it prevented me from doing a lot of things. But it was the best thing I ever did, leaving him.”
She has stayed in contact with COPE Galway, “It’s great to know it’s here.”
“If you don’t know what to do, it’s good to phone up and say, ‘I don’t know what to do, is this OK, is this normal because there’s something going on here and it doesn’t feel good or right.’ It’s good to talk to someone because they can see it from the outside and make sense of it.”
The offence of ‘coercive control’ came into law just this year, and Stephanie believes it’s past time that this aspect of domestic abuse is acknowledged. “I feel he should have been locked up because of what he did to me and the kids, the way he treated us. It was inhuman. It was like being in a prison. And it was made look to the outside like we were all a big happy family, going to Mass on a Sunday.”
Her advice to others who may be in an abusive relationship is simple – ring COPE Galway. “The first thing someone should do, even if they’re not sure, is to ring up and ask “what can I do, to get advice and support.”
COPE Galway Domestic Abuse Service is available 24/7 on 091 565 985.
Names have been changed.