There has been lots of suffering throughout the coronavirus pandemic, and not just from those who have caught COVID-19. In what campaigners have called 'an epidemic beneath a pandemic,' the number of domestic abuse incidents have risen dramatically over the past year. Today, on the one-year anniversary of the UK's first lockdown, domestic abuse charity Refuge announced calls and messages to its National Domestic Abuse helpline rose by 61% between April 2020 and February 2021. The charity says it was recording an average of 13,162 calls and messages per month, where the previous rate would have been around 8,176.
Here, we speak to Sophie*, 21, from Norwich, who explains how she left her abusive boyfriend during the COVID-19 pandemic and lockdown.
"I met Lewis* when I was 18 and he was 21. I’d just got out of a relationship and we’d been friends for a while before it turned into something more.
The first year was amazing. Lewis was really funny and charismatic, and everyone liked him, but he was having issues with his flat, so he moved in with me at my dad’s house. We lived near the river, so we’d spend time going for long walks along the footpath and meeting up with local friends for picnics. It felt like a healthy relationship.
Then, after a year or so, things started to change. If I wanted to stay out with friends after he’d finished at work, it’d turn into a big drama and we’d argue. Soon, I'd feel iffy if I was going out without him, and he came everywhere with me.
Things really escalated about a year ago, when I moved out of dad’s house and into a two-bedroom flat with my friend, Ryan*, and Lewis moved into my room with me. Without my dad around to see what was going on, his behaviour got worse. We'd be at clubs and I'd go to the toilet and he'd say in an accusatory tone, “You’ve been in there too long. What have you been doing?” We’d only been moved out a month when he began threatening me.
Lewis became more and more emotionally abusive. If I spent more than five minutes in the bathroom, he’d knock at the door and ask if I was texting another guy. He made a rule that I couldn’t go on my phone after he fell asleep. In the mornings, he’d scroll through my messages to check. He'd check who I followed on Instagram, and whose photos I liked, and wouldn't let me eat what I wanted. Freedoms that most other people take for granted. Lewis was also financially abusive. He would earn £1,000 per month from his job, and I received about the same in student finance, but within a week, he would have blown the lot on alcohol and video games, and then beg me for money for food. Every month, he’d owe me £500 which meant as soon as he was paid, his money was gone again, and so I’d top him up. It was like a vicious circle.
When I heard about lockdown, I wasn’t too worried. Lewis stopped me from going out much anyway, and having my flatmate around more made me feel safer when Lewis and I argued. But lockdown did mean that I became even more isolated from my female friends. Before, they would come over every weekend - but I was suddenly cut off. I did want to talk about my relationship with my friends, but I couldn't because he’d go through my messages. The flat soon turned into a pressure cooker, waiting to blow.
Our relationship reached a head a few weeks into lockdown. Lewis was at his most abusive after drinking, and during lockdown, we drank more and more. When he became so frustrated during arguments that words weren’t enough, he would throw things at me, including drinks in my face, and glasses at the back of my head when I tried to walk away. Once, he kicked and pushed me. I felt scared, and like I couldn't away from him.
Throughout our three-year relationship, friends and family raised concerns with me. One of my best friends, Laura*, was quite vocal about how much she disliked him, and told me outright that she didn’t think we should be together. My mum, too, didn't want me to be with him. Friends asked why I didn’t just leave, but it’s never that simple. Just because someone is abusing you doesn't mean you don't love or care about them. Paradoxically, I worried about how the breakup would affect him. He lived with me, so if we broke up, where would he go? I felt responsible for him. Abusers are also usually manipulators: they make you feel like you can't do any better, like this is all you deserve or they'll kill themselves if you leave them. Of course, lockdown made it more complicated, too.
In some ways, I was lucky. I had a housemate, and Lewis was at work so I wasn’t trapped with him all day. But in early May, we had yet another petty argument that blew up. He threw a games controller at my head, punched a hole in my wall, and smashed my make-up. That night, I tried to leave him, and he sobbed uncontrollably. I’d never seen anyone heave and cry like that. He was so upset that I gave up attempting to leave. I tried to stay in a bed with my female friend and when he saw her, he accused her of trying to sleep with me. Back in bed with Lewis, I was furious with myself: now he thought I’d stay with him when I didn’t want to.
The week after, we were arguing again and he began hurling abuse at me when I snapped. “The only reason I stayed with you is because you made it too hard to leave,” I said. He stormed out of the flat and texted me, saying he was going to a bridge. Despite everything, I was terrified he’d take his own life, so my flatmate and I went looking for him. We couldn’t find him, and I realised I had to take the opportunity to leave while I had it - so I hurried home, packed a bag, and ran down the stairs. As I reached the door, Lewis was outside. He grabbed my arm and dragged me back upstairs, screaming at me. He went to the toilet and my flatmate looked at me and said, “I'll keep him talking, just go”. So I left, got in a taxi, and drove to my dad’s house.
Sat in the back of the cab, I cried my eyes out. Ryan called and told me that Lewis had assaulted him, punched a hole in my TV, and smashed our coffee table. Ryan had then locked him out and called the police, but he'd banged on the windows so hard that Ryan thought they would break. When the police arrived, they tackled Lewis to the ground and he spent the night in a cell.
The next morning, I woke up at my dad’s house. Even though I felt sad and drained, the overwhelming feeling was relief. The police told Lewis that he couldn't contact me, but as soon as he was free he called and begged me to get back with me, saying he'd stop drinking and he'd change. But he'd said that a million times. I said no. The police accompanied him to the flat to collect his things, while I hid in Ryan’s room.
After he realised I wasn’t going to get back with him, Lewis turned nasty. It's only been a month but he’s got a new girlfriend already. I messaged her to warn her about him, but then they both began messaging me with abuse. Eventually, I blocked him, and we haven’t been in contact since.
I’m doing a counselling course with a local women’s shelter and that has helped me not only accept what has happened, but also to look for red flags in what attracts me to men, so I don’t end up in a similar situation again. Now, I feel confident that I know what to avoid. Before I met my ex, I was with someone for a year who told me that they’d take their own life in I left. I told Lewis this, and then he did the same thing. He knew how to exploit my weaknesses. He also left me in £1,500 debt and owed my parents money, too.
One day, I was talking to a friend in the park when she burst into tears and started crying about what I’d been through. For now, I’ve lost faith in relationships. I don't want anyone in my bed or in my room. I like my space. I also enjoy doing exactly what I want to do: meeting friends for socially-distanced dates in parks, and drinking wine and eating pasta while watching horror films with my housemate. I couldn't shower alone or go to the toilet without my ex knocking on the door, so even those things are now a joy.
When I was with Lewis, I felt so weak because I didn’t know how to leave, but once I left, I realised how strong I was. I sat online exams the week after it ended, and the past month has been the best of my life. To other women in a similar situation, I’d urge them to stay in touch with family and friends where possible.
We tend to use words like ‘controlling’ or ‘toxic’ when really, we mean ‘abusive’. I’ve learned that it’s important to call things what they are in order to stop yourself from playing down what the abuser has done. Just because you're not black and blue, it doesn't mean you’re not being abused. Don’t excuse their behaviour by saying, “It’s only when he drinks too much” or “He’s nice to me most of the time.” None of those things are justifications.
Life has changed for everyone over the past few months, but it's torturous for women and girls who are trapped with abusers. I'm in a domestic violence group on Facebook that was set up to help victims. Sometimes, I read other women’s posts and think, “I could have written that,” because the patterns of abuse are so similar. But there are silver linings: some mornings, I’ll log on and see a woman has said, “I've just left my relationship!” In the comments, other abused women say, “Well done – just don’t go back!”."
*Names have been changed
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