In our second survivor blog, and the sixth of our 16 blogs for 16 days, Naima talks about the impact of repeated failures by health care professionals who ignored the signs of Domestic Violence and were later on reluctant to give a diagnosis.
As a survivor looking back now, I can honestly say that I was the last person to realise that I was being subjected to domestic violence. It’s so often generalised as only being the case if your partner actually hits you. Me? I can only describe it as like a living hell inside an invisible prison that only you can see the jail bars to. It only really dawns on you when you wake up and look in the mirror, questioning your existence.
Coming from a BAME background where DV can be ‘normalised’ by older generations, I ended up having a nervous breakdown due to the intense pressure from my ex-husband, his family, as well as my own immediate family who “felt sorry for him”. And all because I wasn’t getting pregnant. My partner mentally broke me down and made me feel worthless over a period of 6 years. He regularly shamed me in front of friends and family and when I reacted, I got called mental. He also cheated on me several times. It started off subtly and behind closed doors but gradually got worse to the point I actually started believing the lies he told me over and over again.
I didn’t feel I really had anyone I could confide in as my friends at the time were the wives of my ex’s friends. I felt so nervous about speaking to my GP about it but decided to book an appointment with her. I couldn’t completely trust my gut feelings back then and was a nervous wreck as I sat there in the consultation room. The doctor was Asian, and this made me question if she would understand because of what I mentioned earlier about my community. I was so ashamed to tell her what was going on. But she held my hand and told me not to be so negative and that she would make a referral for me to get fertility treatment. How could I tell her that the abuse had started getting worse when she made me feel like I was worrying for nothing, and she saw my ex-husband as a genuine, kind person who just badly wanted children?
I remember miscarrying due to my partner’s insistence that I go to work at my manual cleaning job. Even the doctor who extracted the eggs from me during my IVF procedure was shown another side to my ex as he kept telling them it was my fault we were there. She managed to put him right about that too and told him it was actually him who was to blame. No one at the hospital throughout my treatment ever mentioned domestic violence to me or explained what it was, despite seeing me walk in as an indecisive mess each time.
After I finally left him, I thought the pain would stop, but how wrong was I? I had no emotional support, few personal belongings and very poor mental health. I was unable to stick up for myself in an argument and developed an eating disorder due to stress and low self-esteem. The bullying continued. This time I was threatened with the marital home. My community made me feel like a failure and my ex-husband would regularly cry crocodile tears in front of my family. Members of his own family just turned a blind eye despite knowing what he was doing was wrong. Again, no one ever mentioned domestic violence to me or explained what it was.
I had to leave my family home and therefore became homeless. I thought the hostels I stayed in would help and support me but the first one I stayed in was awful. They showed no empathy towards the women there and I received no mental health or housing support. I started suffering flashbacks. I had to go to a new doctor’s surgery near the hostel in an area I knew very little about, and the treatment I received there wasn’t great either. I’d developed a stress-related physical illness and they did not care at all so I continued to suffer in silence, becoming very anemic and losing an awful amount of weight. No one during this time ever asked me if I was experiencing domestic violence either.
The new doctor explained that I would only get 6 weeks respite and would then be expected to start looking for work. I plucked up the courage to speak to a male doctor about the sexual violence I’d experienced and had to cover my face for the tears. He just shook his head and said I was suffering anxiety. Nothing changed. They refused to give me sick notes and the job centre and medical fitness for my ability to work came back as able to work despite my verbal flashbacks, unkempt appearance and being badly underweight. I feel sad writing this but I think the job centre assessment is very cruel and abuses the vulnerability of applicants. Even job centre staff turned me away when I attended my so-called ‘job search’ appointments.
A good friend from one of the hostels I stayed in referred me to CRISIS the homeless charity. I wanted to learn support worker training, so I enrolled on a mental health first aid course with Birmingham Mind. That’s when I read up about mental illness and realised I actually have PTSD. Eventually a support worker helped me get a medical diagnosis from the doctor. I was both heartbroken and relieved, as at least now I could start getting help.
Naima is an AVA Peer Researcher. For more information on the vital work that AVA do, please click here.