In the early hours of the morning, Leigh Spencer heard her husband creep out of bed and head downstairs. Quietly, she followed him, careful not to wake her two young sons.
"My husband had been tossing and turning all night and when I got downstairs he was behaving oddly," says Leigh, now 60, who lives in Nottingham. "He turned to me and said: ‘Get the children up. We are going to get in the car and we’re going to drive off a cliff."
"I went cold. I honestly don’t know how I managed to hold it together, but I did. I decided that the best thing to do would be to simply ignore him and I went back to bed. But it was terrifying. Next morning, it was as if nothing had happened."
It is only now, more than two decades later, that Leigh can find the strength to talk about that chilling night. Because this was not a one-off incident. Over her 25-year marriage, she was subjected to a stream of ‘invisible abuse’ - cruel emotional taunts and controlling behaviour - that gradually eroded her confidence and estranged her from her own family.
Her husband – she refuses to use his name as she finds it so triggering – is now dead, collapsing suddenly at work at the age of 52 in 2015. Now, she has found the courage to write a book and set up a website theinvisibleabuseproject.co.uk in the hope of helping other women in her situation.
"It sounds like an odd thing to say but it would have been easier if he’d hit me," says Leigh. "If he’d ever laid a finger on me I’m sure I’d have taken my two boys, walked out of the door and never looked back.
"But this was a different kind of abuse, subtle and insidious but still very cruel. I liken it to being a frog in a pan of water. If he’d thrown me in a pan of boiling water, I’d have hopped out immediately.
"But if he placed me in cold water and gradually turned up the heat, I wouldn’t have noticed I was boiling to death until it was too late."
Leigh, whose two sons are now 28 and 30, met her husband in 1988 and they were married in January 1990. She was pregnant within the year and although admits she loved him in the first few years, she realises there were already ‘red flags’ with his behaviour.
"There was never any ‘one thing’ that I could say: ‘That’s cruel’ about, but it built up over many years," she says. "He didn’t like me wearing high heels because it would have made me the same height as him. One minute he’d tell me that he liked me with long hair, the next it would be short hair.
"He’d stand behind me and touch my neck, knowing full well that I hate people touching my neck. He’d want his dinner on the table at 6pm but then he’d change his mind and it would be 8pm. Other times he’d just storm out for hours on end and I wouldn't know where he was or what he was doing but I’d end up apologising for something I didn’t even realise I’d done.
"I’d quite like to have worked, but because I was bringing up the boys, he made excuses for me not working and that meant he had full financial control of the relationship," says Leigh.
"Although I had access to our joint account I even had to ask permission to buy things like new tights. Due to his job as an engineer, we ended up living in America for many years when the children were younger. But I remember thinking then: ‘If he leaves me here, I’ve got no way to even fly home’.
"At one point I started having panic attacks but he’d make things worse. I was once on a walk with him and started having an attack and needed to sit down. But instead he kept saying: ‘Come on, come on!’ quickening the pace."
The couple were just about to celebrate their 25th anniversary when Leigh received a phone call that her husband had collapsed at his office. He died shortly afterwards in hospital.
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"I went into total shock and telling my sons was one of the worst things I’ve had to do," she says.
"But in the days leading up to the funeral, I began to feel a sense of liberation. I refused to wear black. I wore red with shoes that had a bit of sparkle. I wore quite a lot of make-up because I wasn’t going to cry and even as I sat there looking at the coffin, the song from South Pacific about ‘wash that man right out of my hair’ kept replaying over in my head."
Coming to terms with the invisible abuse over the last six years has not been easy, however. Her husband left her in financial difficulties and in 2019 she contemplated suicide.
"The scars are not visible and one night, when I didn’t know where my life was heading and I had no money, I thought about ending it all," she says.
"But I got through it and now I really want to help others by telling my story. When I first started telling people about my abuse, no one believed me. Even I had no idea that financial and emotional abuse was even a thing. But it is. And I don’t want to be afraid to tell my story because it could be the key that unlocks someone else’s prison."
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