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The first time he punched me, there was no warning.
For a split second, I didn’t understand what had happened. As we walked back into our flat, he was behind me, so I hadn’t seen the fist that came flying at the side of my head. I cannoned forward, hitting the wall hard with my shoulder and sliding down as my legs curled beneath me. My head dropped forward, my face hidden beneath my long auburn hair. I froze, pretending to be unconscious so he wouldn’t hit me again.
I still remember what I was wearing: a loose cream jumper and fitted gray skirt with a side vent, both bought by him. The skirt tore as I fell, and I remember thinking I would have to mend it. There was a sharp pain in my shoulder and a dull ache above my left ear. I wanted to lie down, to be cushioned by the soft, dark carpet. In the pause that followed, I could hear us both breathing — mine, ragged and fast; his, calm and regular.
We had been visiting one of my oldest friends — the only time this happened while we were together. By then I had been with Franc for about eight months, and I had already learned that under his rules, my friends were off-limits. Another rule was that if he gave me what I came to know as “The Look,” I would shut up and do as I was told. But I hadn’t yet learned how far he would go. I wasn’t yet afraid.
He wanted to leave early and I didn’t, so I smiled and prevaricated and thought he wouldn’t begrudge me this bit of fun, even though I knew he could be a bit “difficult” when he didn’t get his own way.
I remember feeling utter disbelief as I lay folded against that white wall. Worse still, this wasn’t my first relationship with an abusive man, but my second. The realization that I was a repeat offender brought with it a hot rush of shame. I had destroyed my trust in myself and in my own judgment, and for a second time.
I was an off-the-peg victim, ready-made and delivered right into his arms.
The odd thing was that I didn’t immediately hate him. I felt shocked, but perhaps not as shocked as someone who hadn’t experienced this kind of thing before. Instead, I continued to feel the same overwhelming love for him that I’d felt during our first few weeks together, when we laughed a lot and he swept me off my feet, charmed me, supported me, treated me with kindness and respect and, I believed, loved me. I still believed that. But by the time he landed that punch to the side of my head, I had, in fact, been sweetly coerced into resigning my free will. Now I knew what would happen if I tried to take it back.
Before Franc, there was my husband. I married him on my 20th birthday, having persuaded myself that I was a grown-up and knew what I was doing. There were clues of what was to come, but I ignored them and my gut feeling because this, I lied to myself, was what I wanted.
When we later divorced on the grounds of his “unreasonable behavior,” I wished with all my heart that I had trusted my instincts. Instead, I trusted him to be decent about it, and then he took everything. I had been ruined financially, I was homeless, I was heartbroken, and, worst of all, I had been separated from my three children. That was the first time I destroyed my self-trust.
We lie to ourselves all the time but only court disaster when we allow the small deceptions to grow large and noisy enough to drown out our gut feeling, the trust in our own selves that we should hold onto, and tightly.
Then began a three-year battle to get my life back, starting with a court case to regain custody of my children. In doing so, I slowly and painfully learned to trust myself again. I took an admin job in a small local firm and sofa-surfed, working my way up to a bigger salary and a house share, and from there took another step up to a position at a local hospital and a rented cottage. I proved to myself that I got it right more often than I got it wrong. It was a tough lesson in my own strengths and weaknesses. I discovered, with surprise, how resilient I was, and how brave — that I could tackle an enormous, daunting task and patiently work through to the end.
But at the same time, I lost entire weekends to a blizzard of guilt, self-recrimination, and alcohol, as though all the bad thoughts lay in wait for me when I was alone. It left me drained and nihilistic and inclined toward self-sabotage. That had to stop. I took up walking instead.
Ten years later, I met Franc. When we were introduced, I was going through a very tough time that would have challenged even the most robust of people. I’d never been able to get back on the housing ladder after the divorce, so I was still renting and had been forced to move my little family twice within a year, downsizing each time. I was struggling financially and working all hours to keep us afloat. Then my ex-husband casually dropped back into our lives after an eight-year absence, and I could feel my family beginning to fracture and break apart. My doctor put me on medication to help control the anxiety. I felt like I was skating along the edge, and then the death of a close friend in a car accident tipped me over it.
When I look back now, I understand exactly what happened. I first met Franc on a blind date on Halloween (you couldn’t make it up). Afterward, my inner voice whispered, “This man will break your heart,” and I turned a deaf ear. I know this is true — I wrote it in my diary. I trusted Franc because he was tall, French, handsome, the friend of a work colleague, and I wanted him. I couldn’t believe my luck. What, I asked myself, could possibly go wrong?
I cast Franc in the role of rescuer, and he, spotting my vulnerability, was more than happy to oblige. When he told me he had fallen in love with me the moment I said hello, I believed him. I trusted him. I loved him.
I was an off-the-peg victim, ready-made and delivered right into his arms.
Moving fast, as predators do, within a couple of months, Franc had moved in with me. Over the next four years, he slowly took me apart.
He would confront me with failing after failing after failing. He couldn’t trust me, he said. I lied, he said. I walked wrong, stood wrong, dressed wrong, breathed wrong, spoke wrong. I wasn’t a writer because I never wrote anything. When I did write something about him, he told me it wasn’t about him at all, but another man. “Who is he?” he demanded to know. “It’s you,” I sobbed pointlessly. He left me and came back again. I took an overdose. He said he loved me more than life itself but would lose his temper and strangle me. Then he would patiently explain that all of this was my fault.
“You,” he would say, looking me straight in the eye, “made me do that.”
Eventually, when I couldn’t save myself, fate took pity and intervened. Franc’s company relocated him.
A little normality, a little of the lost me, crept back during his long absences.
The practical damage he inflicted was considerable: I’d been sacked from the job I loved and isolated from my friends and family. The psychological damage was much worse, but without him watching my every move, I discovered a tiny spark of self-belief, like Pandora finding forlorn Hope.
I remembered what those other periods of crisis had taught me: to focus on what I wanted.
It was oddly liberating having nothing left to lose, and so I secretly set about finding myself a new life as far away as was practicably possible. I told Franc only after I had escaped to safety. None of which meant he left me alone, because he didn’t. He doesn’t.
Dostoyevsky was right in that “lying to ourselves is more deeply ingrained than lying to others,” and it’s a hard habit to shake. But a degree of self-deception is human nature and, generally speaking, makes life more bearable. It means we can have the things we want without feeling too guilt-ridden, another hardwired human trait. Perhaps we adopt a new kitten and lie to ourselves that it won’t grow into a bird-murdering psychopath, but, of course, we want the kitten.
We lie to ourselves all the time but only court disaster when we allow the small deceptions to grow large and noisy enough to drown out our gut feeling, the trust in our own selves that we should hold onto, and tightly. All too frequently, the result of ignoring that inner voice is bleak devastation. I know this now.
When I reached middle age, I found myself tested again: My father became terminally ill; two of my friends were also dying; I was dealing with redundancy and once more the looming threat of homelessness. I had a breakdown because I didn’t address those familiar feelings of anxiety, panic, and depression. I didn’t seek help. Instead, afraid of what might happen if I gave in to these feelings, I pushed myself ever harder, trying to work through it until, inevitably, I broke.
For several weeks, I did nothing but sleep until I moved beyond the exhaustion and began to come back to myself. I remembered what those other periods of crisis had taught me: to focus on what I wanted. Me, no one else. I walked, and thought, and listened to what my head was telling me: that all lives contain upheaval and change; that this was a crossroads, an opportunity. What did I want to do, I asked myself. What did I really want to do?
I decided to leave my busy and high-pressure life in London and move back to the countryside where I grew up. I wanted to create the space to do what I should have done all along — become a full-time writer.
Before I left, I asked a friend to check out a rental property for me, and she sent me a photograph from her phone. I burst into tears. “This is the one!” my gut told me. And I listened. I trusted it. I arranged all the paperwork before I’d even set foot in the place.
That was four years ago, and I’m sitting in that house now, at the kitchen table where I’m writing my third book. When I stop for a break and a stretch, I walk over to the window to look down over the meadows to the river beyond, where in the early morning the mist lies thick along the valley. And it is beautiful, and so right, and so me.
In a way, I can’t regret my turbulent life, because it has taught me so much. Occasionally I still have to squash what I call the “Franc voice” when it creeps into my mind to tell me I’m not good enough. I silence it by walking, by reminding myself how far I’ve come, of where I am and what I’m doing; that despite everything, I have achieved what I always wanted to do with my life. And in those moments, I know that I can trust myself again.
Author: Look What You Made Me Do https://amzn.to/2JqOBbh ; The Invisible Woman https://amzn.to/2xBOswX http://blakefriedmann.co.uk/helen-walmsley-johnson/
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