It’s a seven-hour drive to the north. For long stretches of the highway, I don’t see any other cars and the emptiness plays on me.
“I’m 58,” I say out loud, to hear the sound of my voice, to know that I’m real, to remind myself that the situation I’m in is absurd. I have a bag of clothes in the boot, no income, nowhere to live and I’m leaving – a 30-year relationship, my home, my dog, everything I know.
Sunlight smears the windshield. I can smell and taste smoke in the air, see charred trees. These are the tangible things. The beautiful day, the haze, the broken white lines on the bitumen and the tacky feel of the steering wheel beneath my hands. If I concentrate on what’s in front of me, I’ll make it to the other end of the trip and to my parents’ place.
Somewhere up the coast I stop for petrol. This is where I see my first “X” taped to the floor. I don’t notice until it’s pointed out and have to step awkwardly behind it. I think about buying something to eat but can’t decide and leave with nothing.
Back in the car, glimpses of my past come to me in unwanted visual grabs. Passionate physical love, mad acts of pursuit, fits of jealousy and rage from a good, generous man who sometimes hates me, says he has eyes for no one else, says I’m a fucking cunt. And my part in this? I’m no angel. Difficult in fact. A fucking cunt who deserves this.
My parents are moving interstate in a few weeks, but I’ll have a place to stay until then. They greet me at the door, arms held wide knowing something’s not right. I’m rigid, unyielding, unable to melt into their hugs.
Dry-eyed, I unpack my clothes, drink a cup of tea, sit on the lounge. Instead of admitting I’ve gone for good, I give a clinical description of what happened, explain why it’s no longer safe for me to be there. Maybe it’s my neutral tone. It distresses them.
Mum says if she’d known what was happening, she would have tried to talk me into leaving. But I have said things over the years. One close friend told me it was a lot to expect him to give up drinking. Others said it was my job to manage him. When I looked around I saw that everything they said was true, whether I liked it or not. And I loved him, loved him, loved him.
The day before the moving truck turns up at my parents’ I get back in the car and drive south, stopping an hour short of my old address. I’ve applied for JobSeeker and a friend has found me a unit, leased without references because the owner has been through the same thing herself.
My ex-partner – the word makes me want to cough – brings me a bed and a couple of other items. So, there you go. He’s a good person.
The bed belongs to our eldest child. We have two children – adults now. They’ve lost their family unit and will lose their family home. I suspect they’re angry with me for leaving and for not managing things. I’ve hidden so much from them.
Each morning when I wake I’m already crying. I tell myself that it has to end if I’m going to survive this. I stop crying, but the grief stays.
I know logically that he was not a great partner, that it was an abusive relationship. So why do I feel guilty, embarrassed, outed? What rules do I think I’ve broken?
“He has problems,” I tell a dear friend.
“That might be so,” she answers. “But his problems are not your responsibility.”
There are nights when I’m lonely, where I miss my home and my life. On one of these I ring my mother.
“Talk to me,” I say. “About anything. I have the urge to go back. Not to him but to the house, to pat the dog, and because I miss the kids.”
I find casual work, not enough to live on, but something. A distraction from the home movies that run on a constant loop in my head. Him telling me he loves me, looking sad, depressed, running in the yard with our children, laughing, dancing, sitting beside the Christmas tree, telling bad jokes, saying “look at you”, saying “let’s forget about it, start again”, clenching his fists, telling me I’m a fucking cunt, drunk and angry, sober and angry, leaving me time and time again, unable to look at me, excluding me, not listening, wanting to see me brought down a peg or two, seeing counsellors because he knows he has problems, bragging about me, sorry, so sorry – on his knees, arms around my hips, head on my belly, angry again, telling me we should split up, that we’ll sell the house. And there are the scenes I can’t unveil. Not here. Love is not enough, I say to him. But it’s a good start, he replies.
“I don’t want to destroy his life.”
“That’s an interesting choice of language. Destroy.”
It’s taken months to get in to see the trauma psychologist because of all that’s going on in the world, and she has me reflecting on my choice of words.
Would I destroy his life by saying the word “abusive” out loud? Do I have that power, really? Does he wonder about destroying my life too?
I think I’m not scared of him. It’s unlikely he’d come after me, but he’s impulsive, volatile. It’s not impossible either. I plan escapes, imagine what I’d do if he caught me unawares, dream sometimes he has me cornered. And I realise I’m fooling myself about the fear. But I don’t hate him, don’t have the urge to see his life ruined.
“What if he got help. Would you go back?” I can see why the counsellor asks, but no, I’d never go back. That part of my life is over.
On the next visit the counsellor comes prepped to talk about domestic violence. I don’t use this term, domestic violence. Because it doesn’t apply, is not about our relationship.
It feels as if she’s laying the cards on the table in front of me; she wants me to recognise for myself what I’ve been dealing with.
As she explains the parts of the domestic violence cycle, it hits me. She’s describing my life. I look up from the piece of paper. A current passes through me. Shock. Then there’s that moment of clarity.
I say, “It must have been blatant to you. Domestic violence. Thirty years plus.”
“Yes,” comes the reply.
The relief is incredible. That I can see it. That she sees it. The validation. The reason our relationship was never going to work. Why love is not always enough. Even now, as I write, the emotions scour me. The relief, the sadness. The wishing that it was something else, the knowing it’s not. The belief that he might go on to do something about his problems. The understanding that he probably won’t. The knowledge that I’ll question at times whether it really was domestic violence. Because I don’t want to believe it. Even though I don’t love him anymore, I want him to be happy, for me to be happy, for our kids to be happy. I want to be able to hug the dog again.
“Why don’t you write about what it is you’re trying to navigate in your head?” the counsellor suggests.
And I do. Convinced it’ll be okay to say out loud, to let others read it. Not long after, I replace my name with a pseudonym. That’s the advice. De-identify, don’t use your real name. There’s a risk of harm, a risk of him delaying the settlement, a risk of …
I mentally beat my chest about agency. Am defiant. Want to use my real name. Will use it. But I’m not brave enough. Besides, it’s not a heroic story. Do I tell it? Under a fake name? Wish I’d read it? Years ago? Would it have helped? I pick up the article.
And here I am at the start. In the car, driving away.
National Sexual Assault, Domestic Family Violence Counselling Service 1800 737 732
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on October 23, 2021 as "Leaving".
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