After having S, I lost my baby weight quite quickly: a combination of stress, breastfeeding, and doing a lot of walking. I still felt very much trapped by my previous situation with her father though. He had left; I had taken my health visitor’s advice and stopped all contact… but mentally, I was still trapped. Without even really realising I was doing it, I was conforming to all the things I’d spent the last year conforming to.
While we were together, he controlled everything I did, from the way I washed (you have to start with your shoulders and work your way down; you have to scrub more at the rash on your sides; you have to use antibacterial Fairy Liquid instead of shower gel) to what I wore, who I spent time with and everything in between. A lot of this wasn’t explicit control (though the washing was); it was done with looks and questions and suggestions.
Why was I bothering with makeup and jewellery for work; who was I trying to impress?
Why didn’t I just wear his t shirts if my clothes were in the wash? In fact, why not just wear them all the time? I didn’t need to look good for anyone, after all.
Why did I insist on drying my hair before leaving the house; what did it matter?
How could I be so extravagant and selfish as to just go to the hairdresser and have a hair cut?
Why was I using aerosol deodorant? I should use the men’s roll-on he used.
Looking back, my every move was questioned and coerced – but it was done so quietly, in such small increments here and there; there were never any outright demands of “you must do this” that there was never anything to complain about. I could never pin anything on him.
So by the Summer of 2012, I was single and caring for S alone, but still very much doing as I was told. Every time I took a shower and washed my feet first I felt like, yeah, I’m doing things my own way! (actually, I still feel like that to this day; some mornings, I deliberately wash my feet first, to prove to myself that I can do as I please)
One day I was wandering through town thinking gosh, these jeans keep falling down, I should probably buy some new ones.
But buying new clothes for myself wasn’t allowed. For one thing, I didn’t want anyone saying I was spending money on myself that could have gone on my child. I didn’t want him having that ammunition against me. Also I felt incredibly guilty about spending money on myself, despite the fact I had a room filled with clothes, nappies, bedding and toiletries for S that would last until she was at least a year old (I still haven’t bought any toiletries). More than that: the entire time I was with him, I recall buying clothes for myself just once. And when I came home from that shopping trip, a big deal was made about me and my fancy lifestyle, swanning off to Primark and spending money on myself without a care in the world (conveniently ignoring the gifts I had brought back for him and his children).
One should, apparently, get all their clothing from bags left on the doorstep by well meaning neighbours. Even underwear.
One day I had just been for a long walk with S, and stopped to pick up some groceries in the M&S food hall on the way home. I saw a pair of teal green jeans on the way through… teal is my favourite colour, but it’s a bit… bright and noticeable for me. At this point in my life, my wardrobe was all about blending in, being invisible. Teal was so far from anything I would normally buy, and they were £20. A lot of money to just spend on myself on a whim. I left it.
For the next week, every time I was passing M&S I would walk through instead of passing, and look at those jeans. A voice in my head told me there was no way I could buy them. They were bright; they were probably too small; they were too expensive; they were wrong. They were naughty. It would be bad and selfish of me to buy them.
I realised that voice was not my own. That voice was my ex, still wielding his control over me without even lifting a finger. I bought the damn jeans.
I remember taking the bag from the cashier and stuffing it under the buggy, terrified that someone would see me buying clothes from M&S and judge me for spending money on myself. Terrified that I would be spotted buying something so selfish and frivolous as a pair of brightly coloured jeans.
When I got home, I took the tags off and tried them on; they fit perfectly, and I loved them.
Jeans these days come with all sorts of paraphernalia and tags attached, and one of the tags was attached by some brightly coloured thread. I saved it, and made it into a bracelet which I put around my wrist.
The bracelet was to remind me to ignore that voice, until it left of its own accord.
The bracelet was to remind me that I am my own person, and I can damn well wear teal coloured jeans if I want to.
The bracelet was to remind me that I am worth £20 for a pair of jeans.
Now, years later, that bracelet is still there. People sometimes ask me why I have a piece of tatty thread tied around my wrist. Sometimes I think perhaps I should just get rid of it.
But there is no way in this world I will risk going back to what I was. I will keep that piece of thread to remind me every single day that I am worth £20 for a pair of jeans, and that I am entitled to them and much more besides.
And do you know, I still have those jeans. And when I look at them now… they’re not so bright. They’re very dark, in fact.
Edit: five years on, I still have the piece of string. I no longer feel the need to wear it constantly, as I did previously. But every now and then, I do put it on for a few days to remind myself. Being abused leaves mental scars that last so much longer than the physical ones, and I still sometimes need to remind myself that I am not bad or wrong or useless.