How I escaped my abusive ex during lockdown with just a letter: 'If I didn't, I would have died'
For ten years, Mina* was in a "coercive, abusive relationship".
"He controlled everything. Everything. My finances, what I ate, where I went, who I saw," she tells me. "Everything I did was criticised. Everything I did was wrong. Every advice I followed, including his own, was contradicted."
But while the threat became more "immediate" when the first coronavirus lockdown began in the UK, it also proved to be the last straw for Mina. She knew she had to escape or, as she states, "I would die, through his hands, or mine."
Mina's story of domestic abuse
Within the first month of her relationship, Mina had already been raped. But she told herself it was nothing.
"My ex is intelligent, articulate and convinced of his own righteousness," she says. "He was able to play on my insecurities. I believed that I was getting this treatment because he loved me.
"He said he was training me because I was so useless. His voice was always there in my head, micromanaging and dissecting everything I did. Nothing I did was ever right. Before long I could not remember what I was good at. He was gaslighting me every day."
Mina worked two, sometimes three jobs, while she studied full time – and her abuser pocketed every penny. So, when she received a reduction in pay, she was too scared to tell him.
"When the physical abuse began to increase, I was terrified of making him angry," she explains. "I took out payday loans to cover my tracks. When he inevitably discovered this, he took my bank cards and keys and his control became absolute. From then on, I could not make a move without his approval."
"I could only travel as much as he allowed. He gave me money each month for a travel pass, usually late, sometimes forcing me to walk two hours to work," she continues. "When clothes or shoes fell apart, he would not replace them. I began stealing small change from him until I had enough to buy shoes in Poundland. I bought books from charity shops and read them secretly as I was not allowed to read."
Mina became ill in 2018, and had to take time off work. But this forced her to pay more attention to her situation.
One day, while her partner was out, she shared a coffee with a female friend, who broached the topic of Mina's mental health, and how she felt about herself. By approaching it in this manner, Mina was not tempted to jump to her ex's defence.
"I had been told for years that I was worth less than a piece of sh*t on my ex’s shoe," Mina tells me. "I thought I was nothing. [My friend] showed me, quite plainly and logically, that I was worthy of love. From that day, I began to see I did deserve better. That was the start of coming back to myself. Over the next months, I began – without even realising it – gradually distancing myself."
Domestic abuse during the coronavirus pandemic
Lockdown, however, made the threat more "immediate", and everything became more intense, and more quickly. "I could see in his eyes that there was a good chance there would be an explosion if he was not sent back to the office soon."
After several fits of rage – which involved grappling, hands around the neck, and a power drill thrown into her back – Mina knew it was time.
"More than that, I knew I could finally do it," Mina reveals. "I texted my boss at the weekend to ask to come into work the following Monday. She was ready for me."
Escaping domestic abuse
Mina's employers had long known that something was wrong. She used to come into work in shabby clothes, with no handbag, and often without a proper lunch.
Her boss, a female, had put up a Woman's Aid poster – the Pattern of Abuse – in all of the toilets. "I [used to look] at it every day, quite casually thinking: 'Yup. He has said that. And that. And that.' but I was not ready to admit that this was abuse."
But this time, it was different. Initially, she told her boss that she wanted to go to a women's refuge, but as a working professional, she earnt too much to be eligible for housing benefit.
"I would have had to pay over £340 a week," Mina says. "But I had not had any access to my money for ten years! This angers me: does the government think abuse only happens to poor people? So many people are forced to stay in an abusive situation, especially if they have children because they do not have access to their finances."
Ultimately, Mina and her boss drew up a plan for her to return to her native Holland. Together they booked a Eurostar ticket for the next day, and her employer wrote her a letter to show to passport control saying that she had a legitimate reason for travel as the borders were closed due to the pandemic.
"This letter proved invaluable. Each time I was asked for a valid reason for travel, both at the hotel and at every point of border control, I could not get the words out, I could not say that I was fleeing abuse. So I just showed my letter each time, and I was met with kindness and understanding immediately."
When Mina arrived in the Netherlands, she immediately began an intensive 30-day therapy course specifically designed to "come loose" from narcissistic abuse. She used writing to help her process the events that had transpired, and eventually found a suitable therapist.
Despite therapy involving some "really, incredibly hard work that was very painful at times," Mina is reaping the rewards. As she tells me, "I know I will never again be in a position where my past will repeat itself.
"If I can get out of this nightmare, then anyone can. If you are in such a situation and you are still alive and functioning then that is a testimony to your strength and your endurance. There is always someone who will listen. There is always a way, and there is always hope."
Sophie Francis-Cansfield, the Senior Campaigns and Policy Officer at Women's Aid tells Four Nine that while "the pandemic has heightened the public's awareness of domestic abuse," home continues to be an unsafe place for victims.
"That is why the third national lockdown is yet again a chilling time for Women’s Aid and our national network of life-saving local services," the representative continues. "Our research has shown that perpetrators use Covid restrictions as a weapon of control, and that lockdown measures make it harder to leave an abuser. In 2020, over three-quarters of survivors said they felt they could not get away because of the pandemic."
Mina's story – while in equal parts distressing and inspiring – rings home Women's Aid's mission to support the many women who remain in abusive relationships throughout the pandemic. While the charity welcomes that the UK government has stated that lockdown restrictions do not apply for those experiencing domestic abuse, funding remains their "number one concern".
"Domestic abuse services continue to operate on a shoestring and many of our member services have no financial certainty for the next financial year," Francis-Cansfield tells Four Nine. "It is vital that survivors know they are not alone and that Women’s Aid’s member services remain open and there to support them throughout the pandemic."
If you are suffering from domestic abuse, or know someone who is, please contact the National Domestic Abuse Helpline.
*Mina's name and some details have been changed to protect her identity.