I Fled My Abusive Relationship And Spent The First Lockdown In A Women's Refuge

My refuge helped me rebuild my life again. Despite the pandemic, I am happy and free for the first time in my life.

Content warning: this article contains description of domestic violence and emotional abuse

By the March lockdown, I had moved in with my then-boyfriend after a house share fell through. In a vulnerable financial position due to debt and working freelance, I became dependent on him for a roof over my head.

We had been in and out of each other’s lives for years. In that time, he had always been controlling and aggressive: telling me what to do, who to see, what to wear and how to act. He heavily smoked weed and had mental health issues which he refused to address.

Picking an argument with me when I had been drinking was his modus operandi, thinking no one would believe me if I described his abuse.

I first left him after an incident of violence which really shook me. I locked myself in the bathroom until he had calmed down, staying on the phone to my friend whilst he screamed and banged on the door. I managed to leave with a small suitcase and sofa surfed, then stayed in an Airbnb until I ran out of money – and went back to him, feeling like a failure, like I couldn’t cope in the world alone.

Things then escalated to the point where I was genuinely scared for my life. He tried to kick me out in the streets at 4am but I refused to leave (like I usually did) because we were in lockdown. His reaction to my defiance was particularly violent, even for him. He strangled me, punched me in the face multiple times and slammed a door on my hand. I was in love with him at the time so I didn’t understand the amount of danger I was in whilst living with him. It sounds bizarre but I wasn’t frightened when he was strangling me. It almost didn’t seem real, like those dreams so vivid you remember them all day after you wake up and wonder if they were real after all.

“When I got to the refuge I was in a state of shock, but the staff were so warm and welcoming.”

What confused me the most was his behaviour after. He walked over to the window with his head in his hands, shaking and crying. It was the only time I had ever seen him cry in the years that I had known him. A neighbour heard the noise and let herself in, which was humiliating, and I left in bloodstained pyjamas with my handbag and went next door until I could find a safe place to go.

Family booked me a hotel and I stayed there for about a week until I found a place at a women’s refuge. Finding a place in a refuge was actually quite straightforward – I called a domestic violence helpline and they called back with phone numbers for available spaces. I also had a keyworker from a women’s charity texting me phone numbers for refuges with vacancies near me. I worried about talking to people about something so personal but the domestic violence workers I spoke to were supportive and encouraging as they listened to me describe my situation.

When I got to the refuge I was in a state of shock, but the staff were so warm and welcoming while they talked me through the rules designed to keep you and others safe. I wasn’t allowed to give the address to anyone, not even taxis or takeaways, and there was a PO box address I could use for banking and official letters.

Being in a refuge was nothing like I had imagined. I thought the women would be unfriendly and unwelcoming but that was not the case. Despite the lockdown we all socialised – despite the pandemic, we lived together under one roof as one household so it was okay. At the very least, it was preferable to treading on eggshells in a confined space with a violent man.

“I’m now in a career I am passionate about, and it’s all because I received help when I most needed it. I don’t know where I would be without our literally life-changing, life-saving domestic abuse services.”

Straight away I made intense friendships with the other women and children there. We all cooked dinner together, stayed up at night smoking in the garden having heart-to-hearts. We became an unexpected family. Emotions ran high and there were fall outs, of course, but more than anything, there was understanding. The other women knew my feelings of love, rage, betrayal, and my confusion. I learned from them how to stay strong, and realise that it always gets worse, never better. The next time I went back, I might not be so lucky.

I have since left the refuge and I’m living safely in my own place after six months of support. When I found out that I had a flat to move into I was excited, followed by deep concern about how I would cope without the safety of the refuge. My emotions were all over the place and leaving was bittersweet, but the refuge offers you two months of floating support during your transition into independent living.

The refuge gives you food, books, clothes, toiletries and a shoulder to cry on. They help you rebuild your life again so that you never have to go back to the situation you fled from. It’s scary to leave after experiencing complete safety but it feels liberating to know you can survive independently.

I’m now in a career I am passionate about, and it’s all because I received help when I most needed it. I don’t know where I would be without our literally life-changing, life-saving domestic abuse services. I’ve made lifelong friends who share my trauma, we experienced the emotions of leaving domestic abuse together, and speaking to them made me feel less isolated when I felt overwhelmed by my situation. All abusers seem to read from the same playbook, I learned. They think they’re so smart but the truth is they’re nothing more than a sad cliché.

I’m now sober, independent and embarking on a new path that I never thought possible, with a wonderful support system in place. I am happy and free for the first time in my life. If you or someone you know is trapped in a violent relationship, I want you to know there is help out there. The phone number for the National Domestic Abuse Helpline is 0808 2000 247. The most important thing is getting out and staying out, everything else can wait.

Cleo Turner is a journalist, writing under a pseudonym

Have a compelling personal story you want to tell? Find out what we’re looking for here, and pitch us on ukpersonal@huffpost.com

If you, or someone you know, is in immediate danger, call 999 and ask for the police. If you are not in immediate danger, you can contact:

  • The Freephone 24 hour National Domestic Violence Helpline, run by Refuge: 0808 2000 247
  • In Scotland, contact Scotland’s 24 hour Domestic Abuse and Forced Marriage Helpline: 0800 027 1234
  • In Northern Ireland, contact the 24 hour Domestic & Sexual Violence Helpline: 0808 802 1414
  • In Wales, contact the 24 hour Life Fear Free Helpline on 0808 80 10 800.
  • National LGBT+ Domestic Abuse Helpline: 0800 999 5428
  • Men’s Advice Line: 0808 801 0327
  • Respect helpline (for anyone worried about their own behaviour): 0808 802 0321

What's Hot