By Bunmi Sofola

To be honest, I knew my ex was probably damaged within weeks of meeting him,” confessed Hajara, a relationship counsellor who operates a very lucrative practice.  “The alarm bells were screeching.  Could I hear them?  Of course!  Did I listen to them?  No!  I was 22, an ambitious personal assistant to a successful and well-sort after events manager when I met Oscar at a party.  A little older than me, he runs a fairy successful IT firm and looked like a model – tall, fair and handsome.

“He was standing alone in a corner and I noticed him right away.  He had a drink in his hand as our eyes locked.  There was something innocent about him, so vulnerable.  I walked over to him and said ‘hello’.  The sexual chemistry was instant.  ‘He’s the one’ I thought, such was the intensity of the connection we had.  We talked and laughed for hours.  Although the room was full of gorgeous women, his attention was only on me.  When it was time to go, he promised to call.  I went home on cloud nine.

“I waited a few weeks without any word from him.  In the end I couldn’t bear it, I called him.  He was just as charming.  His honesty appealed to me.  ‘I’m sorry I didn’t call.  I want to take you out but I was too embarrassed to tell you I’m skint,’ he confessed.  He just paid his annual rent on the office that doubled as his residence and had little money left.  ‘Don’t worry’, I said, ‘I’ll pay’. That evening, we went to a popular joint near my house where a band was playing.  I noticed girls sizing him up as we entered the joint but, again, I had his undivided attention.  It was intoxicating.  He talked about our future lives together, painting a beautiful picture of our big house filled with lots of children.

We saw each other regularly for a few weeks, spending most of the time at my flat, having lots of great sex.  He told me I was what he’d been looking for all his life.  He spoke of marriage and a long happy life together.  Then nothing.  He went home to get some clothes, picked a fight over something I didn’t understand and slammed the down the phone.  I didn’t hear from him for weeks.

“When he re-appeared, it was as if nothing had happened.  He brought delicacies he knew I enjoyed and love-bombed me again with how much he needed someone like me in his life.  Perhaps a more secure girl would have walked away from this hot and cold tap right there and then.  But I was already too hooked on a drug that felt as powerful as any opiate.  It’s taken me decades to understand why I didn’t split up with him at this point.  Instead, ours would be a whirlwind four-and-a-half years relationship that descended into a destructive one.  It did lead to marriage.  But, ultimately, it almost cost me my life, when, years later, he strangled me.  It sounds crazy.  I know, but even after that, I went back to him.

“An abusive partner operates as an emotional bait.  The romantic wonderful person hooks and reels you in.  Then bam!  A lurch to his moodier side.  But no sooner do you get a glimpse of that, than it switches back and it’s to get you confused.  The bad behaviour is explained away.  They had a ‘difficult past’ or a ‘traumatic’ childhood.  Past partners cheated on them.  When it’s still early days, why wouldn’t you believe them, feel sorry for them?

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“I started to see less of my friends who Oscar implied would ‘be a bad influence on me’.  I started wearing more conservative clothes, those he wouldn’t dream ‘slutty’. 

You do anything to keep the peace.  But no matter what you try, nothing works.  They find another reason to blame you for their anger.  Then the first signs of physical abuse may appear.  A push or a shore that comes out of the blue.  But the thought of ending it and never seeing your partner again terrifies you even more than how they’re treating you.”

According to a relationship counsellor: “You earlier ignored the warning signs, now you deny the reality of the abuse.  Denial is aided by the fact their remorse is equal to the scale of any attack, verbal or physical.  They sob, bring you flowers to make up for it, vow never to do it again.  The highs and lows of abuse becomes a vicious circle.  After each dreadful low, you’re desperate for a ‘fix’, to get that high again.  Slowly, it wears you down.  You start to feel worthless, almost deserving of their anger.

“Deep down, I did feel shame,” continued Hajara.  “But I, like most others I’ve talked to was good at covering most of it up.  And in those days, domestic disputes were seen as a private matter.  If I’m honest, my behaviour deteriorated too and I’m not proud of it.  Whenever Oscar pushed me away, the more clingy I became.  When the cycle returned us to a calmer phase, I grabbed the opportunity to try to turn him into the man I wanted him to be.

“When I got pregnant, he was elated.  I thought: ‘This is what he needs to make him happy, this is what will make things work out all right.’  So, I agreed we should get married.  Four months later, he tried to kill me.  It happened after a row, about nappies, of all things, I was frustrated with him about being out of work.  He needed to take more responsibility now we were to have a baby.

“With a torrent of verbal abuse, he started smashing everything in sight.  A vase shattered, glass spread across the floor.  Then he turned on me.  I was seven months pregnant when he pushed me down, pinning me under the weight of his 6ft 2in frame and putting his hands round my throat.  ‘Die!’ he screamed, tightening his grip.  I thought his was the last face I would ever see.  That the man I loved would murder me.  Then a desperate voice cried out.  It was a terrifying rasping sound, squeezed out of my last breaths of air.  Begging for my life.  ‘Please Oscar, don’t kill me. Please!’

“How long I was unconscious for I didn’t know, but I came to as he was dragging my body across the floor.  I didn’t even feel the shattered glass as it cut into my flesh.  Then for some reason, he went to the kitchen and started smashing everything there.  I fled for my life.  Hopped into a passing taxi and went to my parents’ house.  My parents were livid and implored me not to have anything to do with him.

“Easier said than done.  It seems incredible to admit, but I let him back into my life shortly before our baby was born.  It was a combination of fear, now I knew what he could do to me, and a yearning for my baby to grow up with a  father.  He promised things would be different now and I wanted so badly for us to be the happy family he’d said we’d be.  I’ve since learned that if your partner had strangled you in the past, the odds of them killing you are nearly eight times higher.  On average it takes a woman seven attempts to leave an abusive man.  I tried the first time when my son was six month old.  But the drug-like pull back to Oscar was so great.

“It took a lot for me to accept that the risk of my death far outweighed that illusive high.  I left for good when my baby was one – taking just him and whatever I could fit into my car.  What changed?  I had a sudden moment of charity.  If I loved Oscar unconditionally, I had no right to expect him to change.  I was also a mother now.  I had to give my son the best start in life I could.  I didn’t want to bring him up in a violent home.  That was just a first to recovery.  When you leave a toxic relationship, the withdrawal is agony you’ve been numb for so long and then a rush of emotions pours out at once.  Shame, anger, loneliness, guilt.  But you need to feel those emotions.  You need to go cold turkey.

“You need to ask: why is it I still love someone who abuses me?  Why is it I need to numb myself with someone who is like a drug to me?  Why with someone who is no good to me?….   Eventually, I turned my life around.  I remarried.  Thanks to the lessons I learned from my relationship with Oscar, I’ve spent 20 incredible years with a man who is my best friend.  We had two children and all children have since grown up into beautiful, loving, well-adjusted children I am proud of…”

When the menopause strikes, learn  how to hit back!

Facing the menopause is one     of the harrowing experience an older woman would rather do without. But face it she must.  The menopause marks the end of a woman’s fertile years.  While some women said through the turmoil, for others, the change can make life very tough.  Around eight out of ten women will experience symptoms such as anxiety, vaginal dryness, depression and hot flushes – and they can last for years.

When Christies menopause started, she recounted that: ‘My periods had tailed off, and my mood got progressively worse.  At work I felt stressed out.  I was irritable at home, snapping at my family over silly things.  Right now, I’m still having hot flushes and night sweats which leave me exhausted.  If this is the menopause, how am I meant to cope with it?  According to a gynaecologist, “The average age of going through the menopause is 51.  And your symptoms do point towards the menopause.  It can be unsettling, but there’s a lot you can do to make it easier,” she ten gave a few suggestions:

Speak up:     See your doctor if your symptoms are impacting on your life.  Your doctor will be able to talk you through your options, such as HRT (hormone replacement therapy).  It’s not for everyone as it can carry a small increased risk of breast cancer, strokes and blood clots.  Your doctor can assess you suitability.  Starting an open dialogue with mum, sisters and aunts will mean they can offer tips and hints on how to get through it.

Keep cool:   Hot flushes can be embarrassing and uncomfortable.  Keep a record of what triggers one, such as stress, alcohol, certain food…  When a flush starts, take slow deep breaths through the nose and out through the mouth.  Night sweats can disturb sleep, so try keeping a fan in your room.  Cotton is best for sheets and pyjamas.

De-stress:    Anxiety, stress and depression are common.  Try mood-boosting activities such as yoga, tai chi or meditation.  Not only will they help you relax, they’ll help you sleep too.  If you opt for more vigorous exercise, try and do it at least three hours before bed, so you have time to wind down.

Use it or lose it!:   Memory blanks can be disconcerting, but it’s important to fight ‘fuzzy’ thinking and keep your brain active.  Challenge yourself by learning a language or skill, or starting a new hobby.

Sexual healing:    A staggering 84% of menopausal women find sex painful due to vaginal dryness unsurprisingly, many women face a drop in libido, which in turn causes relationships to suffer.  Avoid washing intimate areas with soap and shower get as these can make dryness worse.  Use warm water or soap-free cleanser.  Lubricants such a Sylk, K-Y Jelly and Replens can help too – you’ll find them in pharmacies.

Embrace:    Look on ‘the change’ as an opportunity to re-examine your body and general health, and make some positive changes.  Eating a wider variety of food groups, or more unprocessed foods is a good way to start feeling better.  And embrace not having to worry about periods – or getting pregnant!

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Comments expressed here do not reflect the opinions of vanguard newspapers or any employee thereof.