Monday 11 December 2017

Dr Ciara Kelly: 'If you are in an abusive relationship you don't have to continue to live your life like this'

Dr Ciara Kelly. Photo: David Conachy
Dr Ciara Kelly. Photo: David Conachy
We can all hide a million secrets
Dr Ciara Kelly

Dr Ciara Kelly

I met a woman recently - late middle aged, reasonably well off, beautifully turned out - and we got talking. Being a doctor is a funny thing because people will tell you stuff that they won't tell other people. They know you won't gossip about them. They guess you might understand or be someone they could confide in.

And she told me the story of her marriage. Of a husband who had spent 40 years with poor anger management, smashing glasses, pushing her up against walls, once kicking in the bedroom door she had locked, "because he had rights".

She was getting older and was weary. Weary of the shouting. Weary of the constant veiled threat of violence, weary of demands for sex that felt, in her words - like 'barbed wire.' But she couldn't think of doing anything about it - or of seeking help. She, like a lot of middle-class women of her age, had never worked. She had never had to, so she had no means of her own. No way out as she saw it. And after 40 years of domestic abuse she didn't have the confidence to even imagine she had a choice. "He'd never allow it," she said. And that was all there was to it.

I asked her if she had spoken to friends or family about this. "Oh God no!" she answered quickly, horrified at the thought. Why? I asked. She didn't answer that as readily, like she wasn't sure why she couldn't talk about this, it was just unimaginable. When I mentioned it was domestic abuse, she seemed surprised that I'd called it that. She had never named it. It was just the way her husband was. And in her social circle it was simply unthinkable to admit this was going on. So unthinkable she could barely really even admit it to herself.

Lots of things that go on in all walks of life - like domestic violence, alcoholism, gambling or mental health issues - are hard to talk about and therefore often go unspoken.

But among those who find it hardest to talk about or to get any help with these issues are middle-class women. They drive nice cars and wear nice clothes and live in nice houses, so have the veneer of happiness, the facade of success. Or - particularly in the slightly older group - the veneer of respectability.

For these women, admitting that they have a problem is incredibly difficult. So many live what amounts to a sham life, an unhealthy mixture of covert behaviours, hidden emotions and an almost impenetrable layer of denial.

There may be myriad reasons why these women don't or won't or can't seek help, but the upshot is that they as a group are very hard to reach when they have a problem.

They as a group find that the stigma - or perhaps stigma is the wrong word; perhaps it's more like the fear of breaking with the collective consensus that this isn't the sort of thing that happens in their world - means they cannot say out loud what's occurring. And so dysfunctional coping mechanisms ensue.

I know that reading this article today, there are women who live this life.

Some will pause and think when they read this and wonder could things be different - should they look for help? Some will push it straight back out of their minds and think about something else - as there's no need to dwell on this kind of thing; it's best forgotten.

But the truth is, middle-class Irish women, particularly of a certain age, may be the backbone of the family, may be the most undemanding people in the country, may be the least likely to rock any boat. But they are no less likely to suffer with problems, particularly hidden problems, than anybody else.

In fact they're possibly more likely to have issues like domestic violence - because perpetrators tend to find victims who are unlikely to stand up for themselves, and this group is very unlikely to do that.

If you are in this position I would say this to you: life is short, very short, and as you get older you are less well able to deal with these kinds of stresses. And there is always a way out, a third way - it's never just A or B. There is always C. You will be believed. You will be supported and you don't have to continue to live your life like this.


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