Emotional abuse and why I stayed
- Refiloe Nt’sekhe
- 06 Aug 2017 11:32 (South Africa)
I have been following intensely the stories of many women such as #Karabo – women who come out of abusive relationships or those who never come out.
As I listened, I wondered how or when someone like me should speak out about her situation. My newly found insult is when people say that “I am strong” because that tends to mean that I don’t need any help – I am seen as this super-woman, raising three boys as a single mother, juggling that with a highly demanding political career and trying to hustle so that one day or in 2019, when I am no longer the flavour of the month, I have something to fall back on because I have to raise my boys and don’t have the husband who will provide.
Some things I have bottled to the outside world for so many years – except the one man who knows me intimately – the counsellor God brought into my life and whom I sit with every counselling session pouring out my heart. Sometimes crying.
Since 2011, I have gravitated towards the portfolio of social development because I “just felt it” and believed I could make a meaningful impact in such position. I have always known what abuse was and is. Worse – I knew that I have been in a very abusive relationship but have no scars to show for it.
In 2012, I met a man; it was not love at first sight but friends convinced me that he was a great guy. By 2013, I gave birth to our son. The abuse started from day one but it was subtle. I’m no slender girl; I’m a proud plus-size woman.
As a little girl, I dreamt that I would meet a great guy who had his own thing going and was confident like my father I guess. The last thing I expected was that I would meet a man, fall pregnant immediately and then be cheated on – repeatedly – but choose to stay. This was not me. The real me was a strong woman who would leave as soon as she found out that he had cheated. He lost his home and I invited him to come and live in mine – today, looking back, it feels like I invited him to come into my home and abuse me. He had lost his cars and so we shared mine. When he wasn’t working, even his friends could not tell because I gave him money and we were fine. When he worked he did contribute financially.
Mind you, I had two sons from a previous relationship. He loved my boys – and that made me love him, or so I thought. We shared my life with him but I was in over my head because I was pregnant and ignored all the warning signs – which I knew and saw. He would go out at night, return in the morning – high from weed and drunk – driving my car. He saw nothing wrong. At 11pm, I would call and he would say, “Mama, I’m on my way home, can’t you hear the car that I’m driving.” By one in the morning, his phone was switched off – I wouldn’t be able to sleep, panicking that something had happened to him. Then, around six, I would hear the gate open, loud music as he drove into the driveway, drunk and high. He would mumble something and pass out – I would be so angry to the point of crying and he just didn’t care: sometimes accused me of crying crocodile tears.
One day I found a pair of stilettos in the passenger’s front seat. They weren’t mine – I’m a size seven and these were size six. He made his brother say that they belonged to his girlfriend. I knew they belonged to someone that he had been with.
This continued for the next four years. He would even give me interesting descriptions like “baby, you have beautiful legs but your thighs are touching and that doesn’t look good”, “your body is good but your stomach is too big”. What did he expect, I had had three children via C-section. You try having a flat stomach after that – do-able but not easy.
The years passed, I lost my self-confidence. I was already a politician – a ward councillor. The more successful I became in my career, the more he trampled on my confidence. I would bury myself in my work and my children. I became very good at that – smiling but dying on the inside.
In 2014, I got elected to serve as a Member of the Provincial Legislature. The abuse got worse, and the cheating became his norm; he even told me about it in church – during offering, he would point at women with a similar body type to mine whom he had slept with. He would tell me how he spent money in nightclubs on women – he would confess in front of the congregation how I had made him a better man. As soon as we got home, he would drop me off with the children and head out to his mistresses, coming back late at night or the next morning.
He told me that being an MPL had changed me – it had gone to my head and made me think I wore the pants in the relationship, that I had forgotten how to be a woman. He told me that when he slept around, those relationships had meant nothing and but gave him energy to make love to me better – a real wife would understand these things.
Everything he said and did seemed to be aimed at destroying my self-image – to make me feel worthless. My cooking was ridiculed, my body was ridiculed. Nothing I did was ever right.
Many times, I asked myself why I never listened to my gut the first time. Many people asked me why I didn’t leave him. I wanted to – so many times – but he had convinced me that I was an embarrassment. “South African women very rarely stay married to one man until they are old.” I was ashamed and there it was, I had three children by three different men and somehow, I was determined to make it work this time. I wanted my kids to have one of their biological fathers to be a part of their lives. I felt that I had embarrassed my parents and family at large.
The church convinced me that I had to be a praying woman, that my man was possessed by the devil (adultery) – only my kneeling down and praying for him would deliver him. He showed me how he was never loved by his mother and had grown up moving from home to home, even boarding school, because he was unwanted. I had for the first time given him love and a home.
His moods were like a yo-yo. He could be an incredibly loving man one at one moment and without warning the absolute opposite – upset with me and when things were going wrong or his business was not getting work, I became the ultimate emotional punch bag. He brought out the worst in me.
I’ve lost count of how many physical and verbal fights he got involved in, either with his own friends or one of my neighbours who had become my friend, and I was accused of not taking his side. I’ve also lost count of how many times he fought with my neighbours and the police were called and how many times I was embarrassed and told to cut ties with those neighbours – people whom I had known for over 15 years and had never fought with during that time.
I was damaged emotionally yet to those I was helping in my work as a politician, I seemed strong. I would speak in the legislature about men who have sexual relations with young teenage girls, yet I knew that in my own home, he was doing exactly the same.
I was full of anger and felt helpless because I did not know how to get him out.
Finally I’m on my way out, but it is a difficult process because I am not completely out.
Sometimes, looking back, I wonder how I ever got into such a toxic and unhealthy relationship. I fear the worst in that I hope my sons don’t grow up believing that what their father did to me is the way that women are supposed to be treated. I work on myself every day and try to ensure that my boys also spend time with men who are proper role models.
The one thing my counsellor taught me is that I am a rescuer and I had to continue working on breaking that. I still believe in love and that one day I will meet someone who will truly love me – genuinely. I know that for now, I must focus on rebuilding me, especially my confidence.
The lesson I wish to share with fellow South Africans – don’t judge when a person is in an abusive relationship. Understand that getting out of an abusive relationship is difficult – be supportive and where others talk or seek help, help them or find them someone who can. DM