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Domestic Violence: Destroyed in Paradise - Trigger Warning - Sarah Elle

In The Beginning

In the way that it usually begins with domestic violence, it started off well. Very well. I was so enraptured with *Riley, my first love and first proper boyfriend. I was a late bloomer at 21 and I was so thrilled that I had finally met someone who wanted more than a one-night stand. He seemed smitten with me and we started an intense relationship right from day one.

I recall our first date – the fun we had at the fair, the romantic walk on the beach, the way he pointed out stars and constellations, impressing me with his sentiment and knowledge. That first date stretched on into three days of bliss. We were cocooned in a little rose coloured bubble, one which I could never imagine bursting.

I was young and impressionable then. He amazed me with his cooking skills, surfing abilities and musical talents. He was one with nature and he taught me how to grow vegetables and how to read the waves to spot a rip. He showed me different musical genres and took me to live shows. I think he enjoyed teaching me things.

It was summer when we met and the skies were lit up late into the hot, sticky nights. We would go skinny dipping and moon bathing on a careless, youthful whim. We spent all our days and nights together and felt as though we couldn’t tolerate any time apart. He would even drop me off at work and pick me up again just to spend an extra ten minutes with me.

Riley became my entire world, and I became his.

The Cracks Appear

It wasn’t long before the first red flags appeared. They weren’t red flags at the time, but hindsight always gives us a different perspective of things. Riley was quick to temper. I distinctly remember the first time he yelled at me. We were sitting in his car and in a bid to impress and please him, I had bought some weed for him and his housemate. I took it from my pocket to hand to him, and he quickly snatched it up, snapping at me viciously about being careless in front of the neighbours. I looked around and there was no one in sight. Nevertheless, he was angry with me. As he slammed the car door and walked away from me, my stomach flipped in the most sickening way and I cried, as much from shock as from feeling hurt.

Riley and I developed a very unhealthy pattern from early on. I would stay at his house most nights. We lived and breathed one another and everyone else was kept at a distance. Sometimes, I would venture back home, only to have Riley phone me at all hours of the night, saying he would pick me up. I was giddy with delight, thinking how lucky I was to have a man who desired me so much he couldn’t bear a night without me.

Riley also expected me to go looking for good surf with him each morning. Although I loathe early mornings and I had no interest in driving from one beach to another at 5am, it didn’t seem to matter. It simply was an unspoken expectation and that’s what happened. If we didn’t come across any good surf, a foul mood would descend on Riley causing him to throw temper tantrums like an overgrown child. He would become sullen and wouldn’t speak to me. I quickly learned to keep silent and look the other way.

The Honeymoon Is Over

Six months into our relationship, we decided that we may as well live together since we spent most nights together. But soon after this decision, Riley took me to the beach for a walk and told me he didn’t feel the same way about me anymore and that he wanted to break up. I remember sitting in the cold sand in the shadow of a big sand dune, feeling as though my entire world was folding in around me. I couldn’t breathe. I was in shock. We drove back to his place and by the time we got there, he had changed his mind and was apologising profusely, squeezing me tight, repeating over and over how much he loved me. I felt an immense sense of relief and we fell back into our honeymoon bubble of bliss.

And so that set the precedence for our relationship. Riley said jump and I asked how high. I would have jumped over the moon for Riley, I was so inextricably tied up in the world we had created together.

The red flags became more common, yet they appeared so slowly over a period of months and then years, that I can scarcely pinpoint when different behaviours became normal for us. But things started to change. I no longer felt important and desired when he dropped me off and picked me up from work, but controlled and smothered instead.

At some point, perhaps a year into our relationship, I started feeling uncomfortable eating in front of him. I’ve been overweight for most of my adult life and as the kilos increased, his judgement did too. He started chastising me when we walked on the beach because I wasn’t as fit as he was and I couldn’t keep up. He would storm off ahead of me as I puffed and chugged along, crying from embarrassment at having my boyfriend snap at me in public. He scrutinised what I ate, so often when we were together, I would eat half the amount of food I would normally consume, secretly shovelling down mouthfuls whenever he was in another room or having a shower.

Riley became incredibly critical of everything I did. He didn’t like me wearing certain track pants because my ankles showed. He would scold me for not starting university assignments on time or for being late to my lectures. He told me off for not washing my dog regularly enough or for not walking my dog often enough. If he stubbed his toe or dropped something, he would find a way to blame me and would cuss and yell. He was a light sleeper and if I went to the toilet at night, he would wake and then punish me the next day with the silent treatment. I felt like I was walking on eggshells constantly and Riley was a ticking time bomb.

And in between all of this criticism and control, Riley showered me with loving words and attention. He would forget my birthday and then make extravagant gestures, buying gifts or taking me out for dinner when he felt like it. He had a huge sexual appetite and he wanted me all the time. He would cuddle into me at night, clinging to me like I was his lifeline. He put me down and he elevated me all at once. Within the same hour, he could make me feel like a goddess and then he would criticise my uneven breasts or my full tummy. Having lived a life of instability and turmoil all through my childhood, I was very accustomed to this kind of tumultuous, volatile relationship, and so I took it all in my stride and I basked in the glory of the good times.

The other aspect of my imprisonment to Riley was the compassion and sympathy I had for him. He didn’t have many friends and he was the black sheep of his family. I had never met a man so lonely and so sorrowful in all my life. My heart bled for Riley. Every time he apologised to me, I saw the desperation in his eyes, and I would hold him tight and tell him I would love him forever. I wouldn’t abandon him like all the others.

The Abuse Intensifies

I was in a relationship with Riley in one form or another for nine long years. In this time, I didn’t date anyone else, although he had a number of girlfriends and one night stands. There are certain incidents that occurred and I don’t have much of a timeline of them, as is often the case with people who have been abused. Time fades and particularly traumatic incidents stand out from an endless stream of chaos and darkness.

Riley would sometimes smash up a room in a temper tantrum. I believe now that he was trying to intimidate me. He would smash anything in sight, often ruining items of sentimental value, like the guitar his mother gifted him or the scrapbook I had made him.

Riley coaxed me into doing sexual acts that I wasn’t really into. He didn’t force me but he didn’t let my ambivalence or reluctance stop him from getting what he wanted. On a few occasions, he became infuriated when I couldn’t perform for him the way he wanted me to. This filled me with a deep sense of shame.

Riley used emotional blackmail a lot. I had a little dog that I loved more than anything in the world. Riley would threaten to harm or kill my dog, even though most of the time, he was just as besotted with him as I was. We had also bought a Mexican Walking Fish together and we kept the translucent, pink salamander in a tank in the kitchen. One day, Riley scooped out our lovely salamander and wrung its neck. When it lay on the kitchen bench flopping about miserably, Riley, in his foul temper, picked up a sharp knife and sliced its head clean off. He looked at me sideways and the message was clear without him speaking a single word – “watch out, or this could be your precious dog”. I was sick to my stomach and inconsolable for hours.

Riley made many threats. He threatened to kill one of my male friends who he believed I had slept with. He constantly threatened to kill himself if I left him because I was the only person in the world who knew him and understood him. And I believed Riley would go through with it. I believed it so strongly, that long after I stopped loving him in a romantic sense, I went on with the façade, unable to face a world without him in it.

One of the last memories I have of being with Riley is one of the saddest. We were in a luxury hotel and he had just splurged on another night of accommodation for us. Yet he had been acting strangely all day, receiving many messages on his phone which he claimed were all from unknown numbers. I thought this was very odd, so as he went to pay for another night’s accommodation, I went through his phone. I saw that he had been messaging another girl the entire time.

When he returned to the room, I confronted him and he became enraged that I had ruined the evening. He smashed a bottle of red wine against the wall. He yelled and screamed and swore. He upended a lounge and smashed a chair. He spat vitriolic words at me, calling my family “classless scum” and telling me that I would amount to nothing. He spat in my face and he shoved me hard until I fell against the bed laughing and crying all at once in some kind of hysterical state.

Life After Domestic Violence

It’s been five years since that incident in the hotel room. Ironically, Riley was the one to end the relationship with me. I never had it in me to end it with him. I loved him every day that I was with him and for many days after he left me. I remember when he called me and ended it over the phone. I had never cried so much in my life. I cried so hard I made myself sick.

It must be hard to comprehend how someone could tolerate such abuse and yet feel so broken when the relationship ends. It’s a very difficult experience to try and convey to someone who has not lived it. But over the course of time, abuse like that slowly whittles away at your sense of self, your identity, your dreams, your entire being. It’s a soul destroying process that leaves you feeling as if you’re less than a shadow of your previous self. How do you find the strength and confidence to leave someone who has convinced you that despite your flaws and worthlessness, they love you anyway? Why would you leave the only person who could ever love you? What is left in the world for you when you’ve pushed away everyone and everything that was important to you?

That’s how I felt anyway. So in reality, it was a blessing that Riley ended the relationship with me. Within two months, Riley had found another girlfriend and had moved on, leaving me completely shattered and heartbroken. I couldn’t fathom a life without him and yet there he was with another woman so soon after our time together had ended.

It took me a long time to move on, and even longer still, to cut all communication with him. He still called me and emailed me all the time and it wasn’t until I was in a committed relationship myself two years after our split, that I told Riley I would not communicate with him anymore.

Two months after that, Riley committed suicide. He was revived after being dead for seven minutes. So in the end, he really did kill himself once he lost his control over me. I am blessed that he is still alive because that would have been the ultimate control, for his death to hang over my head for the rest of my life.

I have no resentment towards Riley. I still care for him and pray that he finds peace in this world. I wish him love and a life partner who he can love without the need to control and abuse. Above all else, I wish him self-love. I have absolute faith that he can achieve this.

If you are reading this and you are being abused, please, know that you are worth more. And if you are reading this and you are abusing someone, please, know that you too, are worth more.

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