Veronica* describes being in an abusive relationship as akin to being at the bottom of a pit and having dirt shovelled on to her body.
“It’s like people were throwing shovels in and telling me to dig myself out, when what I needed was a ladder,” she said.
“No-one would give me one and I didn’t know how to ask for one, so I didn’t know how to get out.”
Over the past two decades Veronica has weathered two abusive relationships, as well as two serious health problems, a car accident and negativity in the workplace.
I thought ‘He’s not physically harming me, we’re just going through a rough patch’.
“I lost all my self esteem and confidence,” she said.
“There wasn’t a single day where I didn’t cry. I did not think that the pain would ever end.
“I used to feel like I had a suit on and I needed to unzip it and step out.
“I did not feel like it was me – yet I didn’t know who I was.”
But over the past two years, Veronica has made up for lost time.
She’s pursued new careers. She’s gone sky diving, climbed the Sydney Harbour Bridge and become a voluntary firefighter.
“Everything’s changed,” she said.
“I remember being in the passenger seat and feeling a lot of anger, hurt and pain and saying ‘I hate that grass, that tree, that phone booth, that dirt’. I could not see the positive.
“Now I feel like the sun is shining where it wasn’t before.
“The flowers are blooming, the birds are singing, everywhere I look I see beauty.”
Veronica said she disliked the terms victim and survivor.
“I see myself as experienced,” she said.
“I used to use the word victim but I felt it was negative and dragged me down.
“If anyone sees themselves as a victim I encourage them to change that to victor, even if they don’t feel it yet.
“They can rise above and come out the other side.
“I want to share my experience to help people know the awful situation they are in is not okay, that they are better than that and there is help and support out there.
“You are valuable, you are worthy and you won’t be in that relationship forever.”
Veronica was 17, “incredibly naive and quite sheltered” when she met her future husband. She was pregnant with their first child when she first witnessed his fury.
“We had a huge fight and I remember sitting in the nursery, absolutely sobbing and completely heartbroken,” she said.
“Everything went downhill from there and it just got harder and harder.
“He’d give you a look that was so full of venom and anger and hatred.
“I was terrified.”
The verbal abuse started soon afterwards.
Veronica was told she was worthless, fat, ugly, a doormat, “only good to be barefoot, pregnant and cooking meals in the kitchen” and a burden on her family.
“I used to say ‘I wish you would hit me because it wouldn’t hurt as much as the manipulation and deceit and words’,” she said.
“I thought bruises would heal, but this stuff felt like it never would.”
“I wasn’t aware I was in domestic violence, I was in complete denial.
“I thought ‘He’s not physically harming me, we’re just going through a rough patch’.
“But it just kept going and going and didn’t ever end.
“When you’re in that flight or fight mode you’re exhausted and drained.
“I felt as though he could hear my eyeballs open in the morning because he would start yelling and abusing me and it wouldn’t stop.
“I always felt there was something in the front of my head and if I could just crack it open, all the pressure would come out and the pain would stop.
“I completely lost all my self-respect and felt I had no identity anymore.”
Veronica’s husband took away her phone, her access to money and made it clear he didn’t want her leaving the house.
Her parents had a reverse charge call service installed on her landline and would pick her up and take her grocery shopping.
“They knew something wasn’t quite right and thought we weren’t quite getting along, that things were a bit rough,” she said.
“I did not want my dad to know. I thought he’d be ashamed of me.”
She was sure her husband’s father and brother knew, “but none of us knew how to make it stop”.
“They were aware I was not coping, but I don’t recall any explicit discussions about it.”
Despite Veronica not having a driver’s licence, her father-in-law bought her a car, “so that when things got really bad I could put the kids in the car and we could drive away until things calmed down”.
“He was not able to accept what was happening and did not want the family to break up.
“He said ‘If you have to drive, it’s there’.
“There were maybe three or four times I tried to go, but my husband would come and get me and tell me if I tried to leave again he’d put the kids in the car and drive off a cliff.
“I would call my father-in-law and say ‘Can you please come and talk to him?’
“There was only one time he said ‘I don’t want to get involved today’ and that broke my heart because he was my back stop, my safety line.”
Veronica’s brother-in-law would visit before and after work each day, “which I think was to check we were alive”.
“Yet if there was a family function we’d go and everything would seem normal,” she said.
“I did not want people to know how badly I felt and was in denial it was as bad as it was.”
Veronica said the violence soon turned physical.
She remembers when the dirty dishes piled up he tied her to a chair and gagged her.
He hurled the dishes at her.
He also tied her to the bed for a number of days and sexually assaulted her.
Another day, he threw her down the stairs.
“I thought ‘I’m not the obedient wife, I’m not doing the right thing, I deserve this punishment’,” she said.
“I thought ‘I can’t keep doing these things to upset him’, but then I realised there was always going to be something to upset, anger or infuriate him.”
Veronica said the relationship ended the day he stood over her and her son lying on the lounge.
He had one knee on her stomach, one hand on her throat and the other ready to punch her in the face.
“He said ‘I’m going to shoot you both’.
He picked up her car keys and appeared to throw them into their rear garden.
When she went outside, he locked the door behind her, put their son in his car and drove away.
She tore the palings off the side fence and went through her neighbour’s yard to get to her own front door.
She called her parents and her father arrived.
“He asked me what I wanted to do and I had a light bulb moment, ‘I’m going to go to the police’.
“We went down and I was sobbing, overwhelmed and distraught.”
He was arrested and charged. Police took out an apprehended violence order on her behalf.
When Veronica remarried a few years later it was to a man who she said was deceitful, neglectful and verbally abusive.
A few years after the relationship ended she decided “to do something to better myself”.
She took up yoga, walking and volunteer work; practised gratitude; and improved her mental and physical health.
“I started to find myself again.
“My goal is to start coaching and mentoring people going through or emerging from domestic violence.”
If you or someone you know is impacted by sexual assault or family violence, call 1800RESPECT on 1800 737 732. In an emergency contact 000.