‘How selfish! Men looking at you in your leotards?’ On the outside we had it all. I was trapped.’: Woman finally escapes abusive relationship to pursue dancing dreams, ‘No one should fear for their lives, especially not in their own home’

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“Ten years ago I owned a home, a fancy BMW, and I was in a long term relationship. I had the handsome husband everyone adored, a beautiful home, and a bright future ahead of me. Down to the white picket fence and floral front garden, from the outside we had it all.

Beyond those pretty exterior walls? I was broken, and trapped.

I lived in a situation of traumatic domestic abuse for 4 years, living in constant fear of my long term partner. The man I had met in an ice cream parlor in my home town and fallen in love with at 16, had grown into a bully and an abuser. I was battling a trauma induced eating disorder and the tearing apart of my former confident self. I was drowning out of view.

My partner and I met in the local ice cream parlor, he was the handsome guy everyone liked and all the girls were after him. But he paid a lot of attention to me. I was very shy and amazed someone like him would be interested in me. Looking back, I feel he picked up on my vulnerability, naivety even. We bonded over a shared love of comedy shows and travel, and I was smitten from our first date. It moved very, very quickly; again a very typical sign of a manipulative relationship, unfortunately. But I was in love, he was my first love, and in those early years we were very happy.

Publicly, my successful, handsome partner was enigmatic and friendly. With the same charm I had fallen for at the start, he was able to con everyone we knew. As is common with narcissistic abusers, my partner was able to be the most charming person in the room while hiding the abusive behavior he saved for when we were behind closed doors.

In the early years, we’d been blissfully happy. But once we had bought a home and married, everything changed. The man I had fallen for was gone. In his place stood a disapproving, sarcastic, hurtful person. I never saw the man I fell in love with again once we closed the front door of the house I grew to hate. He never came back. Perhaps he was never truly that person in the first place.

Courtesy of Helen Victoria

During my time living in our home together, control became the theme of our relationship. Control over who I saw, and who I befriended. Control over how I dressed and what time I returned from work. Control over how I spoke to male friends, and when. Even what I ate was carefully watched, often met with jeering criticism from him and his frequently visiting cousins.

There was some physical violence, like Chinese burns on my arms if I touched his phone and similar. But the majority of the abuse I suffered was coercive control. My partner would put down how I looked, what I believed in, and even my choice of meal or hot drink at home. There would be moments of him being kind and friendly, which was kept me there, as I clung on to the hope ‘my’ man would return as he had behaved before we moved into the house. But over the years things just got worse and worse. It got to the point where I was desperate of his approval, and I would visit him at his work (which was a public service space) to bring him sandwiches I’d made as a surprise. He’d be friendly and grateful in front of everyone there, but as he walked me to my car he’d hiss at me for embarrassing him, especially when I wasn’t wearing make-up. ‘Why are you here, you’re embarrassing. You really think you’re going to impress me? I told you to stay away. Now go home, I don’t want you here.’ I drove home in tears, angry at myself for making even more mistakes.

Most hurtful of all, my partner did all he could to stamp out my ambitions. My dreams. My passions. He wouldn’t allow me to dance, even within studios let alone on stage. It hadn’t always been that way; my dancing had seemed to be something he loved about me when we first met. But as is common with abusive relationships, the very things once used to reel you in are quickly turned against you.

Dance was my outlet. Creative since birth, I had explored many art forms over the years and during my schooling. But dance had become my true love, and I couldn’t get enough of it. I daydreamed of a life of dance in whatever way I could find and my aspirations lay in those passions.

But as long as I lived with him, this was never going to be a possibility. ‘A professional dancer? How selfish! Don’t you want kids? You actually want to dance more than you want to look after me? That’s so sad, sweetheart. You wouldn’t do that to us, would you? With all those men looking at you in your leotards?’

The thing with a dream, is it isn’t easily silenced. Ballet filled my soul in a way my experiences at home couldn’t touch. When I was dancing, I was free. I was the most myself I could ever feel. I felt alive, in every way I didn’t when I was in our home together.

Gradually, I began to cultivate two lives. I had no choice but to hide my passion. I hid my ballet leotards and dancing slippers in the boot of my car, telling him I was going food shopping when really I was slipping away to dance classes. I timed my escapes to class wisely – for nights when he worked late, or when he’d be engrossed in a football match. I knew how to survive.

One winter, I got a job as a cleaner for my local church so I could have a space to practice. I’d push the pews to the sides of the small hall, plug in my speaker and fill the room with the music that moved me. And move I certainly did! I would practice my routines, my ballet practices and my stretching before falling into ecstatic, heady releasing free movement until I exhausted myself completely. I would then lay on the cold, empty church floor gathering my breath and trying to push reality away from me for just a few moments longer. This was how I coped.

As time went on, my opportunities as a dancer became more and more prominent. As that happened, my yearning to pursue my dream grew all the stronger. I was fighting to keep my head above water at home, but my mental health was taking a constant toll. I suffered from an eating disorder. It was a way I could feel somehow good about myself, in a way only I could control. In truth, it stemmed from a desperation for approval from him. When I met my former husband I was a chubby (happy!) teenager. He encouraged me to lose weight, telling me I’d look ‘even more beautiful’ and giving me ‘helpful’ tips about not snacking and limiting my food. When I lost the weight it made him happy, me happy, and others also complimented me a lot. This lead to me to start to get addicted to weight loss, and I went too far. But at the time, I thought I was achieving something in some way, and it helped me feel I was able to cope.

Courtesy of Helen Victoria

There was no amount of dancing that could heal the pain I was in, nor take away the nights I slept curled up crying in a ball under our bed, silently sobbing into a pillow so as not to wake him. I formed an eating disorder and constantly fought off panic attacks. Dance was my respite, but it couldn’t be my savior.

One summer night, when things were at their worst, I begged my partner to go on a drive with me. I built an idea in my head if I could just speak to him away from the house, then I would be able to bring back the man I had fallen for originally. I was clutching at hope, with nothing else left to lose. I dressed up in my favorite dress, applied my make-up perfectly, and got into the passenger seat, holding on to my last shreds of hope and self respect.

As you might imagine, it didn’t end well. A few short hours later, I found myself bleeding and alone, thrown from the car I had only hours earlier gotten into with the last echoes of faith. The contents of my handbag were strewn across the road. And finally, I broke. The conversation in the car dissolved into chaos very rapidly. I wasn’t able to stay calm, and I had a panic attack. This always made him very angry with me, and he shouted at me while he was driving, speeding up the whole time. ‘I knew this is what you would be like. I knew you wouldn’t be able to control yourself. This just proves to me you aren’t right for me, and this is dead for us. I have known for a long time. It’s too late Helen, you’ve proved you can’t change to be a nice girl for me.’ I was hysterical by the time I met that road.

Thankfully, I was not alone. A kind and well timed stranger happened upon me, and she called the police. And so began the beginning of my rescue from the chaos I was living in. I never returned to the house again, aside from with police support when I collected some of my belongings a short while later. But I would never sleep in that bed ever again.

I was free.

Courtesy of Helen Victoria

I was terrified what he would think. The police tried to take statements from me that night but I refused, for fear he would find out I had told anyone. I was so scared of what he would think, and frightened for what would happen next. It was a true breaking point for me, although looking back I can see the broken girl I was emerging from the nightmare rather than staying within it. It took many years to recover, and I was suicidal for many years. But dancing was my strength and my outlet. Without it, I wouldn’t be here writing this to you.

Courtesy of Helen Victoria

In the year following my liberation, I fell into deep, dark depression. PTSD (post traumatic stress disorder) filled my mind and heart, and caused me painful flashbacks crossed with memory loss. Thankfully, I was still able to dance, which became a healer to me in more ways than I can ever describe.

Courtesy of Helen Victoria

And of course, I was now freed to pursue my dream. Amongst the nightmare of what I was going through, and the vicious, expensive legal battles that followed also, I was able to keep moving forwards enough to pursue my passion.

I went on to perform as a professional dancer and aerialist all around the world for 7 years. I danced in circus arenas, on tours, in cabarets, and in French galas. I danced for royalty, for a wide variety of audiences, and even in music videos and film. I taught others to dance also, which brought me so much joy. I really did live my dream!

Courtesy of Helen Victoria

I am now a public speaker and relationship educator, working in prevention of domestic abuse. I speak to young people in schools and online to educate them on what a healthy relationship should look like, and where to go for support if they feel they are in danger of being abused in any form. I do as much as I can to stop others going through what I suffered, and I am undeterred from this cause.

I have also met the love of my life, a kind, gentle man who supports who I am and my dreams. He has proved to me the hope I kept for a better in life was truly worth it. I couldn’t be happier, or more grateful.

No one should fear for their lives, especially not in their own home. Domestic violence isn’t love, no matter how much you might feel you need or want the person who is harming you. You deserve to be treated with respect kindness, no matter your circumstances, age, culture or gender.

I am living proof anything is possible – and I am here to share that story with the world!”

Courtesy of Helen Victoria

This story was submitted to Love What Matters by Helen Victoria. Follow her journey on Instagram, Facebook, Twitter and her Website. Do you have a similar experience? We’d like to hear your journey. Submit your own story here. Be sure to subscribe to our free email newsletter for our best stories, and YouTube for our best videos.

Read more amazing stories about escaping abuse here:

‘I came home around 2 a.m. Something wasn’t right. In a matter of minutes, my carpet was on fire.’: Brave woman recounts how she escaped domestic abuse

‘Wow, he really cares about me.’ His scheme to butter me up to lose his virginity worked.’: Domestic violence survivor reveals she’s been ‘scared to speak my truth’ for years, but finally realizes ‘I’m stronger for what I’ve been through’

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