The manager of a women's refuge shares her experiences of domestic violence in a story of triumph over appalling abuse. The New Zealand Herald has not named her for legal reasons.
I wasn't really academic in high school. I was more of a hands-on person and because I really enjoyed woodwork, I left school early to do a carpentry course at polytech in Napier. Once I'd finished that, I was going to go to Palmerston North to do a two-year joinery course but I got pregnant. I was only 17 and my parents, who were quite traditional, were not happy, so I moved out of home and in with my partner and his mum.
My first son was born a month after I turned 18 and 14 months later I had my other son but, when he turned 6 months old, for no reason at all, I decided I didn't want to be in a relationship, even though we had the foundations of a really nice life.
I was never a big drinker but, when I left the boys' dad, he would have the kids every second weekend and I started partying then when the boys were at kindy, I met another man and we moved in to together.
I knew the new guy was abusive, but it was that old cliché, I thought his behaviour had been the fault of his previous partners, not him. Everyone tried to warn me, but I thought he'd be different with me, that I'd not give him any reason to get upset - boy was I wrong, and that relationship was abusive from the get-go.
During the time we lived together I left seven or eight times, but I kept going back. I'd feel sorry for him, or believe things would get better and I did love him. When my partner assaulted one of my boys, they went to live with their dad, which was heartbreaking for me but they needed to live in a safe place because, by this stage, we lived in the gang life, which meant all the things that go with that lifestyle.
I only saw my boys every second weekend and, with nothing to stay sober for, to stay clean for, except every second weekend, life became party central then, when we were introduced to methamphetamine the violence got out of control.
In 2000 things picked up for me when I did a women's furniture-makers' course. I really got into that, but then I got pregnant with my daughter. One day, when she was about 2, I decided to leave. I ran into my brother, who I'd not spoken to for ages, and he said he was going away for the weekend, and I could stay at his place. But my partner found us, he broke in in the middle of the night and went crazy. He beat me up and took our daughter and that was the first time in that relationship the police were called. It was also the first time I had contact with Women's Refuge.
But I went back to him because I had this idea that, at least if I was with him, I'd know what he was thinking and I felt safer being with him, knowing what mood he was in. Of course, that's dangerous thinking, and I know it makes no sense, but the psychological abuse was extreme, so you just try to be good and keep your head down. But then it got to stage where I wouldn't back down and I started to fight back, which made him even angrier and injure me more seriously.
Just before Christmas, things were ramping up and I made an excuse to go into town. I said we needed stuff for Christmas Day. Driving away, I said to the kids in the backseat, "put your hands up if you never want to go back there". All three of them, including the youngest, put their hands up. So I found a phone box and called Women's Refuge.
Eventually, it was decided, the best thing for me and my daughter was to get as far away from Hawke's Bay as possible. As I drove over the bridge that divides Hastings from Napier, my cellphone kept ringing. It was him. So I wound down the window and threw it out. And that was the catalyst. I knew I had to stay away. I had a meth addiction, an alcohol addiction and I needed to fight for my life.
Refuge arranged for me to go to Christchurch and that's when my life turned around. It was just me and my girl, the boys had been put through enough so they stayed with their dad. When I look back, I was a really sh***y parent to them but they're in good places now. The funny thing is, as soon as I crossed that bridge, there was no more him, no more of that lifestyle, no more drugs, no more drinking. The first week was shit, but I must have just been ready.
I'd never been to the South Island and it was scary sitting on the ferry as we moved away from the North Island - but when my daughter and I arrived in Christchurch, women I'd never met before treated me with such respect. They were kind and caring and just let me be me. That first week, I wanted to do all these things but they made me relax, have a bath, eat good food and sleep while they played with my daughter. I stayed there for two-and-a-half months and did the women's programmes and counselling. I hated going to the counsellor but I went every week. I didn't even know if I liked peanut butter or not. In order to survive, I'd lost all sense of my self. I didn't know who I was as a person, but slowly I rebuilt my self-esteem.
Those women helped me into a statehouse and helped me apply for jobs. My daughter went into daycare and I worked in a call centre. I also started volunteering for The Battered Women's Trust, to say thank you. I did the gardens and picked up donations, I took people to WINZ appointments and after I'd been a year free of violence, I started volunteering on the crisis line.
There were many nights when I thought it was too hard, that it would be easier to just go home but I got through and, after I'd volunteered for a year, a position came up as residential worker with The Battered Women's Trust and I got it.
The kids are all grown and doing well and I now manage a Women's Refuge. We support victims of family violence, we put safety plans in place, we run programmes and provide a counselling service. We have a good relationship with our police, and they ring us when they've attended a family violence incident so we can make contact more quickly.
The biggest thing is to be non-judgmental and show kindness. A lot of people haven't had any kindness shown to them. Then we give them time and space to make their own decisions about what they want to do, and we respect those decisions, even if they decide to go home. Regardless of what they choose, we'll be here for them and, if it happens again, for them not to feel ashamed or stupid or a failure. We walk alongside the people we work for. There are no timelines. We are quite busy, but we're never too busy for people
This work doesn't wear me down, because it's so rewarding. Sometimes a case is really sad, but women aren't putting up with that s*** any more. They're getting out of violent relationships a lot sooner. When I facilitate women's programmes, I love to watch the penny drop, to see someone's self-worth physically build-up, for a woman to bounce in the door instead of moping. That fills my bucket. This is what I'm supposed to be doing. That is why I'm here.
• Help victims of family violence by booking a room for someone you'll never meet, in a place you'll hopefully never visit. Just $20 gives a person the gift of a Safe Night when they need it most. Donate by visiting www.safenight.nz
Where to go for help or more information:
• Shine, free national helpline 9am-11pm every day - 0508 744 633; www.2shine.org.nz
• Women's Refuge: Free national crisis line operates 24/7 - 0800 refuge or 0800 733 843; www.womensrefuge.org.nz
• Shakti: Providing specialist cultural services for African, Asian and middle eastern women and their children. Crisis line 24/7 0800 742 584
• It's Not Ok: Information line 0800 456 450; www.areyouok.org.nz