Photo by Kat Jayne

Clara Barnhurst

I like to fix things. You can’t fix people, but when I see a problem I want to help. I wanted to help my ex; she was in a tough spot and I was able to give her a stepping stone to solving a problem. We ended up going rather a lot further than that, but that’s how it often ends up. She had a problem, I wanted to help.

Help was what she needed. Help keeping away from her many triggers, as I discovered after I left. I didn’t see that as the issue while I was there; I just saw things that needed doing. She needed help going outside. She needed help getting her business on its feet. She needed help calming down after a stress at the shops. Help keeping the phone away from her: it made her nervous.

It’s not that her problems aren’t real. All abusers have mental health problems and they are very real things that they need help with. It’s not that my willingness to help was somehow misplaced. It’s that no amount of help was enough. We come to a place in our growth where we start managing certain things on our own; we stop needing so much help for certain things. That never happened.

She might not have ever worked on her independence, but she happily accepted what I had to offer. And it grew in small ways. I was asked to go into shops she drove us to. She drove, right? An exchange: she drives, I run in. Innocent enough.

She worried about me. She wanted to know when I would be home. She would text to see if I was okay. Her family would wait up if I stayed out. I felt bad: I wanted to be helpful and people losing sleep over me wasn’t good.

I was a guest in her house. OK, I moved in but I still felt a bit ginger about making waves. I was the newcomer. So I tried not to make too much noise (the place was like a museum). Her mum was house proud; she would clear up after me. I didn’t want to be an inconvenience, so I took care not to leave a mess, but she would follow along with a dish cloth wiping behind me anyway. I learned how long I could be in the kitchen before she came in and started scurrying after me. I was a good guest.

Of course I noticed. I joked about it. I made it sound endearing: they’re all so careful to make sure I have nothing to do! I was touched that they worried and fussed over me. I felt valued.


That I was valued in one way made me worthless in another. A guest has no real input on the space. They can offer ideas but they aren’t taken with the same weight as the residents. They can assist in basic chores but aren’t seen to be contributing to a household. They are transient and treated as such. They suffered my presence. A happy suffering, but I was never welcome to live there.

But that isn’t how it began. Abuse began with kindness and warmth. Care. The framework of my prison was lovingly erected around me, reinforced by my desire to help. Strengthened by the assurance that I was helping.

“Thank you for taking care of Angela,” my ex’s nan, Mary, said to me shortly after the abortion. “She is very precious to me.” Summer 2006, two years into our relationship. Mary was not part of the prison closing in around me, but her words resonate: Angela is precious. Protect her. It was the only time anyone in her family recognised the dynamic.

I was touched by the recognition, but I shrugged it away: I was taught to do this. It didn’t matter that I lost my daughter. It mattered that my ex was protected. My feelings were considered but never addressed. I didn’t notice; the abuse began then. It was normal now.

Me being the free thinking, questioning person I am, I continued to fight. I fought to keep my corner: the computer desk. I fought to let it be cluttered. I fought to play my weekly Dungeons & Dragons game with my brothers. I fought to not assume financial responsibility for my ex. In these things, I at least partially succeeded. It was the battle of a prisoner: I accepted my confinement and I fought for privileges.

Photo by Sydney Sims

But that isn’t how it began. It began with fierce conflict. I made demands. I hotly rejected the second class status they offered, but I was the newcomer and I wanted a place. In the end, my fight excluded the nature of the place I was given because I did want to be there. I was helping; they told me I was valued. I relented because I loved my ex and wanted to be with her.


Like many, I was worn down over the course of years. It was a subtle thing that was noticed and resisted, but living with another is a process of constant negotiation. We all have to make allowances for the others; it began with compromise. I loved her.

“So what will you do to make sure this doesn’t happen again?” Sanne asks me.

“You don’t stop this. By the time you notice, it’s already happened,” I replied. But I was wrong. I could stop caring. Stop loving. Stop compromising. But what kind of life would that be? I don’t know how to not care; I like helping.

Abuse begins with kindness. It begins with caring and compromise. It begins because there are problems to solve and you want to help solve them. It begins when one takes another’s vulnerability and uses it to fill whatever gap they have. We enter with perfect love and perfect trust, and we’re made to feel loved and trusted. Abuse is not this monster that pounces. Rather, it’s a kind destroyer: it begins with love.


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