FOR almost three years, Julie* was married to a sexual sadist.
A man who used the most degrading and debasing assaults to batter her into submission.
Torment designed to humiliate and isolate her from her friends and family.
This vile abuse continued while she was pregnant and soon after the birth of her son.
When the tipping point came.
Julie finally understood what was happening to her, and what could happen to their son if she didn’t leave.
More than $24,000 in debt, thanks to her husband, and her four-month-old son in tow,
Julie waited until her husband had gone to work, got in her car and fled to her parents.
It was 2002 and Julie still hadn’t heard the words ‘domestic violence’.
“On the way back to get my stuff, I stopped at the police station and told the officer at the counter, ‘I am about to leave my husband, he nearly hit my child, he’s been doing all sorts of horrible stuff to me and I want someone there to keep me safe. I feel like I’m going to die if I go back over there now’,” she said.
It was the first time Julie had said those words out loud — let alone admitted it to herself.
“I did not expect the words that came out of his mouth,” she said.
“He said ‘look, we’re right on the long weekend. I would suggest you apply at the courts for an intervention order and you’ll have to do that Tuesday’.
“I told him ‘I’ve just left my child at my parents’ house, I fear for my life, I’ve got to go back to that house now to confront this man and tell him that I’m leaving. I need somebody there’. So he said, ‘if you’re in any real danger when you’re there, ring us’.
“I then told him ‘if you get a phone call in the next five minutes, which is how long it takes to get to my house, and there is no-one on the line, here is my address’.”
And with that, Julie left — not realising the most dangerous time in a violent relationship is when a victim decides to leave.
“I went back there, I confronted him and he said to me ‘where is my son?’. I said: ‘He’s not here and I’m leaving you’,” she said.
“He just came at me so I ran to the door and closed it. I didn’t get any of my stuff, I ran to the car and tried to reverse out and here he is in a pair of boxer shorts bashing on the windscreen and trying to open the door. It was almost comical. But it wasn’t. It was the exact opposite.
“I’m amazed he didn’t break the windscreen, the force he was using. And I was just fleeing for my life.”
Because it was a long weekend, and she couldn’t apply for an intervention order for three days, Julie was basically a prisoner in her parents’ home.
“The next few days were a blur,” she said.
“I had no support apart from the comfort of my parents and no-one to turn to. Police back then weren’t very good at recommending support groups.”
When Julie, supported by her dad, went to court for an intervention order, her husband was there to fight it.
Speaking to an advocate, it was the first time Julie had heard the term ‘domestic violence’.
Thankfully, the intervention order was granted, giving police the power to escort her husband out of the house that was rented in her name.
“He’d emptied out the baby’s money pot, took most of my good Tupperware and didn’t leave me with much,” she said.
“He took my baby book that had everything in it relevant to my child and wouldn’t give it back.”
But that wasn’t the end of it. It wasn’t long before Julie’s husband served her with papers for full custody.
“Not only am I constantly looking over my shoulder, he’s served papers on me and I’ve got to go to court again,” she said.
Completely broke, Julie managed to get a part-time job and get a lawyer through Legal Aid.
“All the while I’m giving statements to police about the abuse and going to court for custody,” she said. “I also had to give my husband supervised visits, so my poor Mum had to take my child to play centres and sit there and watch my husband playing with my child knowing everything that was going on.
“It was a very stressful time.”
And in what she was told “never happens”, the Family Law Court judge followed Julie’s case to the end.
“He told me he was using my case to take a stand against domestic violence and that it’s not okay,” she said.
Julie ended up with full custody and an open-ended restraining order for her and the entire family.
“I was very lucky, but I believe the amount of evidence I had recounted in detail really helped,” she said.
Yet, in the end a restraining order is simply a piece of paper.
Knowing he was in the area and receiving threatening phone calls from him, Julie felt she had no other option but to leave.
For five years she moved every year around Victoria, before finally settling in Moama, along with her parents, in 2008.
While she is thousands of kilometres from her abuser, Julie says she will never truly feel safe until he dies.
And the trauma is never far from her mind.
“If you’ve ever been raped, you will understand what that does to you, what it does to your soul, what it does to your core. It will never leave you,” she said.
She credits art therapy as her saviour.
“It’s the one thing that made me come through this,” she said.
“The support groups were really important for understanding what domestic violence is, why I was reacting the way I was, for connecting with other women who’d been through it, not feeling alone, learning how to advocate for myself again and learning what a healthy relationship and healthy sex looked like.
“But the art therapy mixed with sexual assault counselling was what allowed me to heal and touch what had been blackened and what had died in there.
“I still use music and creative art to work that out. Because that will never leave me but I’ve learnt to manage it. That level of assault I have been through does shape your view of the world and the way you react to the world but you still have a choice how to react.”
Julie said a lot of her artwork wasn’t about the end result.
“It’s about giving yourself the space and time you need to be yourself in a safe and secure environment,” she said.
“It’s the feel, the tactility of art. I love using a brush and clay as I found it very grounding and it allowed me to feel what was going on to give it an outlet without having to worry about what that outlet looked like.”
When she was asked to be part of a felting exhibition, Julie felt like she needed to tell a story, her story.
“I wasn’t doing it just to put something pretty up there,” she said.
“So I did a seven-piece story and it was based on marriage. Happy time, meeting my person, locked in the house, being held captive, baby, sodomy. I actually put that word on there which was huge for me.
“It was very confronting. It was a travelling exhibition and my piece got removed from nearly everywhere it went because people didn’t want to be confronted with it.”
And that’s what Julie wants to change. Because domestic violence is no longer a ‘behind closed doors’ issue.
“It’s everyone’s problem,” she said.
“If I had someone who confronted me about what was going on in my life, things might have been different.
“My friends created a barrier and didn’t want to know what was going on, or didn’t think it was their place.”
That is where education comes into it.
“The more you’re suspicious about something or if you hear something, you need to know what words to use and how to approach this situation and most people don’t,” Julie said.
“How do you? You need to somehow get into the conversation ‘is everything okay?’ They’re the three most simple words you can use.
“Most people will say ‘oh yeah’ so you’ve got to be watching for those non-verbal cues, do they look away when they answer you, do they hesitate, do they catch their breath? Quite often you’ll get the instant denial reaction, some people will just break down, other people get angry but it’s about learning not to take that personally.
“Then maybe next time, you say ‘I care about you. If you ever want someone to talk to, I’m here’. But don’t give up.”
She knows this after speaking to countless survivors over the years, in support groups and art therapy groups.
“My family didn’t give up. But they didn’t know what was going on,” she said.
“They’d never really known what domestic violence was. I’d never heard those words. They didn’t fully understand what he was doing to separate me from my family.
“That’s why you need to get the perpetrator away from the person. They’re much more likely to elaborate, discuss, break down or show some sign if they’re not with them. You’re already afraid. This is your captor essentially, this is your abuser. You can’t say it in front of them because you’re going to cop it later.
“I remember my family saying at one point ‘We knew you’d cop it later’ and they never explained what that meant. And I don’t think they really understood but they knew by how much I’d withdrawn and how much I’d changed as a person that something not good was going on but at the same time they didn’t know how to deal with that.
“My father used to describe him as the black hole but I never knew that until I left. He said when he looked at him he could just see the evil.
“But I never saw that. I just wished my parents knew how to communicate in a way I understood at that time.
“Out of anyone, my parents are the ones I would listen to but they didn’t know how to communicate that and they were worried about the ramifications.
“And without anyone offering help, you feel alone. You need lifelines being offered to you, even if you don’t take them. I wouldn’t have pushed them away but I know a lot of women do. I was essentially just waiting and I didn’t know how to ask.”
Julie hopes her story will give women the confidence to reach out and seek help if they are in an abusive relationship.
And teach victims’ friends and family what and what not to say.
“Asking them why didn’t they just leave is the worst thing you can say. It’s putting the blame on them,” she said.
“If I hear someone say that, I tell them they need to go and get some education and talk to someone like me who can explain it’s not that simple. We all wish it was, but it’s not that simple. Because when everything escalates, you can’t do a damn thing without being afraid that the next time he’s going to grab a knife and slit your throat.”
While time does heal, Julie will never fully recover from what has happened to her.
But with loving parents and her son, now a teenager, Julie says the future looks bright.
Even if that means she will never marry or have a long-term relationship.
“I haven’t had a real relationship since because I’m so hyper vigilant now. I see one sign of something and I’m out of there,” she said.
“For me safety is paramount, so I don’t mind being on my own because at least I’m safe.”
* not her real name
If you or someone you know is impacted by sexual assault or domestic violence, call 1800RESPECT on 1800737732 or visit 1800RESPECT.org.au