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Hunter domestic violence survivor becomes advocate

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The final straw for Mia after years of abuse came when her six-year-old turned to her with a sobering suggestion.

“He said to me, ‘Mummy I think it’s time you, me and [my sister] find a new place. Dad’s always angry at you and you’re always crying and I think it would be for the best’,” said Mia, who also grew up in an abusive household.”It floored me because I could see in him what I was as a child, wishing for Christmas for my parents to get divorced.

“Straight away that cycle was smack bang in my face. I thought ‘How am I doing this to them?’ Everyone told me ‘Keep the family together, you don’t leave, the kids need a father’, so a lot of those things are going through your head.

“You feel embarrassment, the gas-lighting leaves you just completely lost. You don’t know what’s up, you don’t know what’s down, you’re a complete shell of yourself.

“So you don’t see it. You just don’t see it. I didn’t know any of those things. I just knew the violence – if there was a bruise on my wrist I knew that was abuse.

“But it’s everything else I call death by 1000 cuts, it’s the stuff you can’t see and it just chips away and that is the scariest part, because before you know it you no longer exist. You’re constantly walking around on eggshells.”

Mia contacted Jenny’s Place’s Domestic Violence Resource Centre in Newcastle in NSW’s Hunter region about making a safe exit.

She started moving important documents out of the house; reconnecting with and seeking help from friends; diverting small amounts of money to another account; contacting government agencies and working on her confidence.

“It was planning,” she said. “I could have just stepped out the door but I would have fallen first and taken longer to rebuild.”

She walked away seven months later with her children and a bag of clothes.

“Jenny’s Place was there whenever I needed someone to talk to,” she said.

It also connected her with a psychologist, who helped her see she had been in an abusive relationship.

“Jenny’s Place knew early, but they weren’t going to scare me and tell me ‘You need to leave now and you need to do all these things’, they were just there with no judgement to support me to make the decisions that I needed to make.

“Without their support I’d still be there, I’d be trapped. I would not have been able to leave if it weren’t for them. I owe everything to them.”

Mia shared her story ahead of the first Empowered Walk on Sunday, which Jenny’s Place is hosting to raise funds for its resource centre and awareness about domestic violence; the support it provides; and what awaits people after escaping abuse.

Chief executive Marcia Chapman said 200 people had registered.

They will walk from Hannell Street Wickham to Newcastle Foreshore for a family day of food, entertainment and an exhibition.

Mia said her mother was physically violent and emotionally manipulative towards her and her sister.

She said her mother held her head under water, threw her to the ground to stamp on her and once refused to pick the girls up from ballet class because they “weren’t important”.

Neighbours and friends may have had their suspicions about the abuse, but no-one intervened.

Mia was determined to break the cycle.

She moved to Europe, completed a degree, started a successful career, bought a property and was known for being strong, outgoing and confident.

She met her former husband online.

“He was engaging, charismatic, it was a Disney whirlwind adventure,” she said.

“I blinked and before I knew it we were engaged after six months, he gifted me dogs after two, he moved into my house after one.

“I just thought ‘This is what love is supposed to be’.”

But Mia couldn’t shake the feeling something wasn’t right.

She said he would keep tabs on her movements, email and phone; sit outside her place of work; force her to justify what she spent her money on and caused conflict with her friends.

He was first physically violent when she received a group text from a male friend.

“He accused me of cheating, trashed my house and I was punched and thrown across the room,” she said. “Some of my closest friends were begging me not to marry him… I kept thinking ‘He’ll be better once I marry him, once we have a baby’.”

Instead, Mia said, things escalated.

He would threaten to leave for reasons such as her wearing a skirt and imposed silent treatment that would last for months.

She said she was heavily pregnant when he disappeared for a week and a half, claiming her father had “ruined our house” by helping with some repairs.

After she attended a concert he locked her out of the house.

“He said ‘You were supposed to be sleeping in some other man’s bed tonight’ and because I had the audacity to talk back to him I was pushed against the wall and his forearm [was] against my throat and I was held there, pinned, not able to breathe until I blacked out.”

Relatives discouraged her from calling police or leaving.

Mia escaped on her ninth attempt and after contacting Jenny’s Place for the third time.

“I had no access to funds,” she said.

“He refused to leave the house, I had nowhere to go, I knew going back was going to be hell but sometimes it was the only choice.

“Jenny’s Place was there along the way and must see it all the time, the yo-yo effect of people coming to them saying they want to leave and then going back and then coming back again… my friends just got jaded with it all.

“I lost a mum’s group over it because it became way too hard for them. Some of my friends stayed there but they just got tired of being the advocates. I lost a lot of people in my life.”

Even in the last seven months, Mia deliberated about her decision.

“Thankfully the plans were all in place so I had no excuses anymore, I thought ‘I can, there’s my path and they’re the steps I’m taking and I’m on that path now and I can’t go back’.

“People are always so scared to leave… ‘What’s going to happen when I walk out that door?’ We need to do better to support people so they don’t fall.”

Mia said she now felt empowered and wanted to be an advocate for others.

“I want them to know they can use their voice and their voice will be heard and their community will be here to catch them and support them,” she said.

“I want to create understanding in the community this is a community issue, this is a human issue… it’s a cycle we need to educate people about to stop it. There’s a lot more work to do.”

HELP: 1800 RESPECT

IMAGE | Mia, right, with Marcia Chapman, said both her abusers worked in caring roles. “Perpetrators can be anyone, they don’t have a big hat on their head that says ‘Look at me, I could be a perpetrator’.” Picture by Marina Neil.

This story was written by Helen Gregory on 26 November 2022 and published in the Canberra Times.

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