I knew something was wrong in the dynamics of my marriage a really long time before it ended. Even before a couple of our children were born I had a sense that the end was inevitable, that things were not as they should be. But I told myself that I had made vows, that I was tired and oversensitive, that I was just run down like so many other mothers with young children. I ignored behaviours that shouldn’t have been ignored and told myself over and over that my husband’s mental health issues didn’t define him and he couldn’t help the things he did and said.
I made excuses.
I didn’t have bruises. He could go weeks on end being the most amazing guy, the guy I fell in love with and created four beautiful children with. He’d been through some hefty emotional trauma and I just felt like it was my duty to overlook the yelling, the paranoia, the slamming doors and punching walls, the constant calls checking up on where I was and who with. Over time all of these things seemed normal and he assured me that they were, that everyone behaved like that and I was just soft and hypersensitive.
For a decade, as he would sink into the depths of depression time after time, I would beg him to get help. On the occasions that saw things become so bad that he would end up in hospital I would plead with the psych teams out of his hearing to please find a way to make him DO something. But of course it didn’t work. Our mental health system failed me time and again, and in time I accepted that only he could decide to create change. I could not do it for him and I could not make him do it.
So I carried on. I fed the children and made a million meals and washed thousands of loads of laundry. When he was cruel to me I absorbed it and I tried to smile and cheer him up and I hoped with every fibre of my being that this time it would pass quickly. And on the inside I got smaller and smaller until it felt like I didn’t even exist any more. I existed on autopilot and I did what I was ‘meant’ to do and I smiled on the outside while quietly wishing my life away and hoping that I was doing a good enough job that my children would not see me disappearing.
In late 2012 I made the radical decision to learn to run. I created Operation Move and with the support of the lovely little community it engendered it wasn’t long before I was running further and further, spending more and more time by myself out on a country rail trail taking on distances I could never have imagined myself capable of. At 36, mother of four and a heavy smoker, I was discovering for the first time that my body could do things I had always believed to be impossible.
It was the first step to discovering who I was, and that I was MORE than what my life had become. It gave me back the first shreds of self confidence. It set me free.
I quit smoking. I lost some weight. I grew stronger and happier and even began to like myself a little. But the healthier I got, the more glaringly obvious the cracks in my marriage became. I trained for my first marathon through a brutal Ballarat Winter in 2014 and those hours in the freezing cold and blistering wind taught me that I could be determined. The repetitive motion of the easy, slow, long runs set my mind free to work through the ‘whatifs’ and ‘howtos’ of reclaiming my life.
It was around that time that I joined a gym as well, and discovered that not only could I run long distances but I LOVED lifting weights. There was something about the sheer force and effort of strict weightlifting that fed into a deep need in me. The need to be stronger.
Running a marathon taught me that I could do impossible things and that whilst they hurt, the rewards were great. Lifting weights gave me a physical strength that helped me understand my mental and emotional strength as well. It exemplified the process of building up only to be broken down, but in the knowledge that the base strength continued to increase and would be enough to get me through.
And so I finally left what I had come to recognise as a psychologically and emotionally abusive marriage. It was ugly. Every bad thing that I imagined might happen did happen, and more. There are things people should not see or hear in their lives and I saw and heard a lot of them. But I protected my children from the worst of it, and I got out.
If I’d not been as physically healthy as I was, I think it would have been a lot harder. My training helped give structure to a life that had been turned upside down, and forced me to eat well to fuel my activity. For my kids, seeing me working out and prioritising my health helped assure them that despite the fact that I cried a lot and had huge anxiety issues, I was okay and some things were still normal through the transition.
I’ve since been diagnosed with PTSD. I’ve been working hard on my mental health and speak openly to my children about my psychologist because I will not have the stigma and fear that stopped my ex-husband seeking help for so long exist in their lives. Both my older children see psychologists and counsellors regularly as well and whilst the time after the separation was like some sort of horrific nightmare, my ex has also finally accessed some support and seems to be doing a lot better also.
If you’d told me a few years ago that at 38 I would be running 30kms or so each week, training hard in the gym every other day, have studied as a personal trainer and be helping motivate many other women to make positive changes in their own lives through moving more, I would simply have laughed in your face.
It is still hard. There are lots of challenges parenting four children solo let alone working from home on a business that takes up so much of your time and your heart space. But these days there is so much more happy than sad. We’re getting used to the new normal. I have amazing support from family and friends, and I’m in a relationship with someone who lifts me up rather than the opposite.
I guess there can be a happy ever after after all. Even for me.
* Domestic abuse doesn’t look like you might think. Emotionally abusive and controlling relationships don’t leave physical bruises but they do leave pain that can be incredibly debilitating. If you suspect you might be in a damaging relationship, please please seek support for yourself and your children. Safe Steps is a great resource to find help and guidance as well as helping you understand your own situation more clearly. There is also help available through Beyond Blue 1300 22 4636 and Lifeline Australia 13 11 14.