Trigger warning: this article heavily references domestic abuse which some readers may find distressing.
“I spent half a decade living with a man who I should have been able to trust. But instead, by the time I escaped, his physical abuse had left me bruised, his emotional abuse had broken my heart, and his psychological abuse had destroyed my mind.”
Australia’s ongoing issue with domestic violence is well documented at this point. Cases such as that of Hannah Clarke who, along with her three children, was murdered by her estranged husband, have brought the crisis to greater national attention in recent years.
Victims such as Doreen Langham, Kelly Wilkinson and Katie Haley, have also become the tragic and unwilling poster women for the epidemic of abuse against women.
International Women’s Day 2022 is yet another chance to put Australia’s problem with gendered violence under a microscope and to increase pressure on our governments to implement meaningful change — something that women such as Grace Tame and Brittany Higgins have joined forces to do.
The sad reality is that on average, one woman a week is killed by a current or former partner and 1 in 4 women has experienced emotional abuse by a current or former partner in Australia. According to research conducted by Destroy The Joint and Counting Dead Women Australia, the total number of domestic violence deaths among females in 2020 was 55 — which supports the one woman a week statistic.
Also in 2020, Women’s Safety, New South Wales reported the worst year ever for domestic and sexual abuse, likely worsened due to the increased pressures and isolation brought on by the coronavirus pandemic.
“There [have been] just so many more strangulation cases, so many threats to kill, so many more serious head injuries, and sexual assaults [have been] going through the roof,” chief executive Hayley Foster told The Guardian.
While there have been increasingly desperate calls for the government to provide greater protection for women and for coercive control to be criminalised, much of the burden still falls on the women themselves to not only recognise the signs they are in a controlling or abusive relationship but to extricate themselves from it too.
“When we first met we fell in love quickly and things moved very fast,” recalled Bilston in an interview with The Latch. “There were red flags in the beginning, but mostly I wrote those incidents off as him having a temper or anger management issues and I really separated those things about him from our relationship.
“But slowly that type of behaviour crept into our relationship. He became very controlling. One of the earliest signs that something was seriously wrong was that I remember waking up during the night, and realising he had been on my mobile phone and had been texting male colleagues pretending to be me.”
This behaviour is eerily reminiscent of Shane Robertson — the person convicted of beating his partner Katie Haley to death after creating fake social media accounts in order to spy on her.
As Bilston explains though, she was able to push aside these early red flags because she was in love, something which no woman should be ashamed to admit.
“I loved him,” she says. “And it’s important to admit that and for society to understand that. Because perpetrators are not evil monsters that live in dark corners of the world. They are everyday men that we know, that we care about and that some of us love and are in relationships with. I wanted things to be OK and move forward positively because I cared for him.”
Elaborating on the red flags Bilston now recognises as being harbingers of what was to come, she cites “jealousy, controlling my actions, humiliating me publicly, picking on my appearance and slowly chipping away at my confidence” as things that other women should be aware of.
One of the most troubling aspects of domestic violence can be the invisible side of it. Yes, physical injuries such as scars and bruises can make it easier to identify but ask any survivor of abuse and they will tell you there is so much more to it than just being hit.
These other factors such as emotional and financial abuse, controlling what somewhere wears and tracking their every move take just as much of a toll and yet can make it extremely difficult for friends and family to know that something is amiss. Add to that society’s general discomfort around the topic and you start to see how so many women suffer in silence and isolation.
“Like myself, my friends and family noticed that things were not right, but they struggled to know how to name it and how to talk about it,” recalls Bilston. “Because of this, they avoided talking to me about it.”
To that end, Bilston offers this call to action for the loved ones of abuse victims.
“As a society, we need to get comfortable with these uncomfortable topics. We should approach people we know and care about respectfully. Be cautious and considered with your approach. Talk to your friend or family member privately, tell them you love them and are worried for them.
“Respect their choices and their agency if they are not ready to leave — because victim-survivors are the experts of their own experience and may not be ready to leave. Leaving is the most dangerous time, and we should support victims while respecting their choice if they are not ready to leave.”
Elaborating further, she suggests giving victims options such as asking them to secretly leave some belongings with you in case they want to leave in a hurry or setting up a code word and escape plan so that they could use that word to text or phone you if they need urgent assistance.
“Most importantly be committed to persistently loving your friend or family member through whatever choices they make,” she urges. “Having the support and care of friends/family, without judgement, is so affirming during such a challenging time.”
Bilston was finally able to escape her relationship, explaining that after being physically assaulted and with visible facial and body injuries, “I walked into a medical centre with my young daughter in my arms and my perpetrator beside me.
“Once inside I just screamed ‘He did this to me!’… he fled,” she says.
However, she cautions that oftentimes that initial separation or escape does not mark the end of the ordeal.
“What followed was two years of police, courts, and the system,” she says.
“I went to the police and obtained an Intervention Order. Unfortunately, this did still not grant me safety and protection. It took some time before I was able to establish our (my daughter’s and mine’s) physical safety. And even beyond that, it took such a long time to try and put myself back together. Once I was physically safe it took a lot of work to really face all that I had been through and try and put myself, and our lives, back together again.”
Ultimately, Bilston advises anyone in a dangerous situation or controlling relationship to seek help, as terrifying as it may be.
“I strongly encourage anyone who thinks they may be in an abusive situation to reach out for help. There are support services and people who will believe you and want to help you.”
Geraldine Bilston has shared her story with journalist and author Jess Hill on her podcast, The Trap. To hear more of Bilston’s experience in an abusive relationship, you can listen to the episode here.
Violence is never ok. If you are worried about violence or abuse in any of your relationships, support is available. #1800RESPECT is Australia’s national sexual assault, domestic and family violence support service. Anyone can access the confidential information, referral and counselling service at any time of the day, every day of the year at www.1800respect.org.au or 1800 737 732.
If you are in immediate danger, call 000.