THE BLOG

What Is It Like Living in a Women's Refuge?

10/12/2015 18:34 GMT | Updated 10/12/2016 10:12 GMT

There is a brief moment after you receive a blow to the head where you feel pure emptiness, before your body realises it is under attack. It's lasts about three seconds. You hear a cheekbone crack, your ears ring, you close your eyes then... nothing.

People spend years studying meditation to feel that kind of emptiness. Do you know the moment I mean?

After your head goes back it's the second before you hit the ground. It's just before your nose feels like it will implode. It's before the blood trickles out of your nostrils. Time standing still - a brief nothing after a confrontation.

My therapist calls it 'primary consciousness'.

It's a similar feeling when you move into a woman's refuge. That empty calm. Real violence is silent and the quietness of the refuge hallway echoes the experience of every woman who has ever slept there.

Only this place will not hurt you.

The day I arrive I am 10 weeks pregnant, I leave four weeks before giving birth.

On my first night I meet a woman two years into her refuge tenancy. I meet another woman who has been in and out of refuges for the past 25 years. I meet a woman who checks in every six months for a domestic violence holiday - a safer option than leaving her husband for good. I meet women who move from one abusive partner to the next with safe house pit stops in between.

This is my first and only time - I tell them.

I feel sick to be in their company, I refuse to relate. I spend the first three weeks in my room.

Eventually we bond over injury excuses, we deliver them like Michael MacIntyre; how did you get that bruise? I slipped in the snow whilst running. I was blackout drunk and I fell down some stairs. We are all clumsy women who can't be trusted near lampposts, doors or windows. Real clichéd stuff. We laugh at ourselves.

And it turns out I did relate. People who end up in a house shares littered with broken women and panic buttons have a lot in common - we are there for no other reason than to save our lives.

During my stay life started to belong to me again. Every day I would cycle to Marylebone to attend a Narcotics Anonymous meeting, every day I would jog the outer circle of Regents Park. A drama class in Kentish Town. Weekly counselling sessions. People kept inviting me to see The Vagina Monologues - I'd always leave during the interval.

I became obsessed with dining alone at 'all you can eat buffets'. Every day.

After a vegan Indian buffet in Islington I returned to find that one of the girls had hanged herself...

* * *

At night we'd sit around the kitchen table guzzling tea. We attempted normality discussing reality television and sharing make-up tips. But the conversation would always lead back to police reports and court cases. We'd share the incidents that led us to the refuge. Abusive relationships are fraught with drama yet all of our exits were calm - I did not seek help when he pulled a gun on me or chased me around a house in Essex with a knife. Constant shouting and crying; when he took away my money. When he told me stop wearing make-up. When he'd wake me up at 3am and force feed me bacon sandwiches. When he head-butted my face and broke it into pieces.

... Then I fell pregnant. Then he offered a bespoke termination which if I declined would result in my termination too. This was what he said to me - less eloquently, of course. I didn't shout, I didn't cry. He did. And he would be killing me and my unborn baby. The next morning I got up, got dressed and left 29 years' worth of possessions behind.

My exit so pragmatic.

My new life: £2 in my purse and a baby growing in my belly.

My therapist calls it fight or flight.

I walked to the train station slipping through the barriers behind a man who had purchased a ticket. On the platform I called the National Domestic Violence Helpline. On the train I locked myself in the toilet to avoid the ticket inspector. And somewhere between Leicester and London a woman from a refuge called me offering me a place to escape and recover.

She was waiting for me in an Addison Lee outside of St Pancras. She told me she was my key worker. We made small talk as we drove a to a grand Georgian house. We sat in her office for hours filling in forms before she issued me with my PO Box address, door keys and the one refuge rule - no one must know where you are.

She showed me my shelf in the fridge. There was a pay phone and some fire exits. She took me to the police station to make a statement then registered me with the doctors.

Everything so calm.

In the laundry room were piles of clothes from domestic violence victims past. My new wardrobe. I picked out three stretchy dresses from Primark that would see me through my pregnancy. A Breton stripe and a classic navy. A black maxi dress. My Keyworker went to the shop and bought me a white chocolate Magnum.

It was the kindest moment I had experienced in a year. And she congratulated me on my pregnancy - the first person to do so.

That is what it is like living in a woman's refuge; experiencing the calm that might just save your life.

It saved my daughter's life too, she arrived the month after I left.

  • Refuge - Domestic violence help for women and children - 0808 2000 247

  • Visit Women's Aid - support for abused women and children - or call the National Domestic Violence Helpline, run by Women's Aid and Refuge, on 0808 2000 247

  • Men's Advice Line for advice and support for men experiencing domestic violence and abuse - 0808 801 0327