New Zealand has the worst rate of family and intimate-partner violence in the developed world and over the Christmas and New Year period the number of incidents spikes dramatically. Less than 20 per cent of incidents are reported to the police - so what we know of what we know of family violence in our community over the festive season is barely the tip of the iceberg. Today we have a simple message - every Kiwi has a right to a safe, fear free and happy holiday. We are revisiting our campaign We're Better Than This, and over the next few days we want to raise awareness, educate, and give an insight into the victims and perpetrators. We want to encourage victims to have the strength to speak out, and abusers the courage to change their behaviour.

They say Christmas is a time for joy, but for many years Kate and her children dreaded the holidays - for them it was a time punctuated by abuse, violence and fear.

For many years Kate and her three kids lived in a home rife with family violence and psychological abuse. Christmas was a particularly horrible time.

Today she has spoken out about her experience in the hope that she can help other women suffering at the hands of abusive husbands and partners.

READ MORE:
Christmas violence: We're Better Than This
Family violence: My fear-free Christmas
Family violence: 525,000 New Zealanders harmed every year

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For safety and privacy reasons the Weekend Herald is not identifying Kate.

"Christmas was hell. Every single year," she said.

"Explaining every purchase, hiding gifts so as not to get in trouble, secretly buying a Christmas tree and quickly sneaking it out of the car before he came home then dreading the response, feeling so sick and so afraid of what he was going to say and of the many days of punishment that there would be, because I'd bought a Christmas tree."

Kate was married for 15 years to a man who she initially thought was her perfect match.

He was successful, a professional, he loved her and her two little boys - he was everything she wanted.

But soon after their wedding everything changed.

"It was almost instantaneous, everything deteriorated. Unfortunately, I was married to a narcissist.

"He had no empathy, he never acknowledged anything he did, he never said he was sorry. If anyone was hurt he would say it was because we'd brought it on ourselves.

"I was a strong, independent woman with two young boys; I was used to running my own home, being self-sufficient. Most people would describe me as somebody who wasn't a pushover, someone who wasn't easily manipulated. I think that's what is so shocking ... You don't realise what's happening, it's very carefully and cleverly done. It starts with little put downs and gets worse and worse."

"He was a monster. He was very, very controlling ... It always felt like we were walking on eggshells, I was so afraid but I got used to it, it became a way of life for me. It started with psychological and emotional abuse and once he had reduced me to a point where I was so feeble and weak - then he started with the physical abuse.

"He was always careful not to cause obvious marks. He was smart like that."

Kate is a survivor of family violence and spoke out about her experience in a bid to help other women. For her, Christmas was one of the worst times.

Kate, who had a daughter with her husband, said that as Christmas and New Year approached, she would be filled with dread.

"Not just anxiety but absolute dread and uncertainty. Everyone should be able to enjoy Christmas, but for us that was a luxury we didn't have," she said.

"We grieved for what other families had ... It's a really simple thing, it's just one day where everyone should be filled with joy and it's about the children. I always found that pretty hard.

"We're a family who is obsessed with Christmas. We always go and spend hours choosing the tree, decorating it with the Christmas music on - singing all the kids songs while you're trimming the tree, that is one of the most exciting days. For us Christmas has always been a really amazing connecting family time.

"But as the years went on it got worse and worse.

He had all of these rules - how to behave, how loud, how happy we could be, no singing. As soon as he'd get up on Christmas Day he'd do something to ruin it for us

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Kate said it often felt like it would be easier if there was only violence, something people could see, something that was easier for her to explain.

"Psychological abuse is so cleverly done, so carefully done. It's so hard to explain. It's often not recognised as a form of abuse because it's not visible but if you have the ability to make each person feel worthless, to belittle them, to make fun of them to take away their joy, to control, to make them live in fear - that's so abusive."

A few years back Kate left her marriage. It was just before Christmas and she spent the holiday in a women's refuge with her young daughter.

"I think I would have stayed in that marriage for the rest of my life because I was so afraid of what would happen if I tried to leave. My biggest thoughts were 'if I try to leave he is going to be so angry, he's an unpredictable angry man as it is, if I go and do something to indicate that I want to leave ... ' I couldn't imagine it.

"Financial thoughts: 'If I do go there's the anger, the fear, on top of that how am I going to live? What have I got?' You start to think there's no way out of this."

Kate escaped an abusive marriage five years ago, just before Christmas, and spent months living in a safe house.. New Zealand Herald photography by Alan Gibson.
Kate escaped an abusive marriage five years ago, just before Christmas, and spent months living in a safe house.. New Zealand Herald photography by Alan Gibson.

Her then-husband told her if she left he would take the house and their daughter - something she was not prepared to risk.

When he presented her with a list of rules and demanded she agree to live by them, she knew she had to leave.

"If I didn't agree to the rules then I had to leave but I couldn't agree to it," she said.
Kate's sister was with her when she tried to leave. Her ex-husband was violent towards both women and tried to physically block Kate leaving the house. Her sister called 111.

"I don't think I would have got out if someone else hadn't rung. I was too scared. I think there are so many women out there that will be the same. It's so hard," she said.

Not long after, she was waking up on December 25 in a safe house.

"There were two distinct emotions. One was just incredible, incredible relief," she said.

"But it was also very sad ... I was in a place where I didn't live; this wasn't my home I had no family around me apart from my daughter - but it was safe. It was quite foreign but it was the first Christmas in a long time that I felt safe."

"There was also that extreme fear, because even though you're in a nice safe place ... that extreme fear, because you know that he is somewhere and he is fuming. When you leave you feel the most terrified you've ever felt. You've done the ultimate thing, you've really disobeyed him, you've rung the police and people are going to know."

Kate is now living in a different city and is slowly rebuilding her life.

"When you imagine control and anger and violence you imagine a lot of noise, but he was the opposite. It was eerily frightening. He had me at such a point of vulnerability that with just one look from him I'd be like, 'oh my God ... '

"You actually get to a point where you are mentally very, very unwell, you're not functioning, you cease to function as a normal person ... You just live in constant fear of what's going to happen.

"You've been stripped away, there's not much left of you, you're just a shell of who you were before. You're mentally so frail."

Kate wanted other victims of abuse to know that whatever their story - they could get out, there was help and support available and all they had to do was ask.

She called the Shine crisis line and through a series of secretly placed phone calls, found people that she could trust and got the advice she needed.

"It's so worth it," she said.

If you're in danger now:

• Phone the police on 111 or ask neighbours of friends to ring for you.
• Run outside and head for where there are other people.
• Scream for help so that your neighbours can hear you.
• Take the children with you.
• Don't stop to get anything else.
• If you are being abused, remember it's not your fault. Violence is never okay

Where to go for help or more information:

• Women's Refuge: Free national crisis line operates 24/7 - 0800 refuge or 0800 733 843 www.womensrefuge.org.nz
• Shine, free national helpline 9am- 11pm every day - 0508 744 633 www.2shine.org.nz
• It's Not Ok: Information line 0800 456 450 www.areyouok.org.nz
• Shakti: Providing specialist cultural services for African, Asian and middle eastern women and their children. Crisis line 24/7 0800 742 584
• Ministry of Justice: www.justice.govt.nz/family-justice/domestic-violence
• National Network of Stopping Violence: www.nnsvs.org.nz
• White Ribbon: Aiming to eliminate men's violence towards women, focusing this year on sexual violence and the issue of consent. www.whiteribbon.org.nz

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