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Abusive relationship: Chlo’s story

Chlo, 20, talks about her experience of a long term abusive relationship.

Content Warning

This page has discussion of emotional abuse, sexual assault, eating disorders, self harming, suicidal thoughts, child sexual exploitation, and threats of sexual and physical violence.

I met Shaun online

I met Shaun online, on Twitter, when I was thirteen, nearly fourteen. I ran a fan page for a TV show and we got chatting about how much we loved the program. He was super-friendly, always joking around and giving me compliments. I didn’t have many friends in the real world, I’d been bullied at school and didn’t get on well with my parents, so talking to Shaun was a welcome distraction. When he asked me to be his girlfriend I was ecstatic. Looking back it was too intense, he’d send me eight-page word documents telling me how much he loved me and turn down going out with his friends just to talk to me online, but he was my first boyfriend and three years older than me so I was flattered by the attention.

About six months after we met online I was forced into hospital with anorexia against my will. I was very homesick – they wouldn’t let me have any access to the internet and I only got my phone once a day to call my family. I tried to keep in contact with Shaun but it was too difficult, and I was more worried about being put on a mental health section and sent to a secure unit (which was a constant threat). After a month or so I broke up with him and I didn’t think it was a big deal because we’d never even met face to face.

Shaun was absolutely furious. He said I’d ruined his entire life and swore at me in texts and called me a bitch. I didn’t think much of it and I didn’t tell the hospital staff or my mum. During the next few months I gradually got more leave from hospital and we spoke on and off, sometimes we’d get into arguments and he’d sulk and refuse to talk to me for a few days. He could be quite nasty when he was angry but I still thought it was just normal bickering. I’d say to anyone in that situation now, to stop it really early on.

If someone is shouting at you or calling you names then they aren’t worth your attention. Make it clear that you won’t put up with it and remember whatever you’ve done to upset them, bullying someone like that is never okay.

Meeting face-to-face

In April 2012 we arranged to meet face to face for the first time; Shaun got the coach to where I live and met me and my mum. He was incredibly shy and polite, shaking hands with my mum and thanking her for meeting him. When we were left on our own he was still tentative, we held hands and hugged goodbye but he didn’t try anything else so me and mum were both reassured! He came to stay with us for a night so he could come to my fifteenth birthday party and impressed my parents again by sleeping on the sofa. We had our first kiss on the bouncy castle at my party with One Direction’s What Makes You Beautiful playing in the background. That was ‘our song’ because he used to sing it to me on webcam.

I think people often don’t realise that even when someone goes on to be really vile and abusive they can be really nice too. If there hadn’t been good times with Shaun I would never have stayed through the bad ones.

Over the next few months Shaun came to stay with us lots of times and I went to stay with him in Birmingham. When we met he was the perfect boyfriend, charming and devoted, always buying me presents and taking me on dates. In between visits it was a bit different… He’d lose his temper a lot and scream and call me names like a slag and a whore. He started self-harming because he was stressed about exams but sometimes he said it was because I made him so unhappy. He wanted to kill himself and stashed fifty boxes of paracetamol ready for an overdose. I saw them when I visited him but he said if I told anyone he’d take them straight away and it would be my fault. I was terrified and told my mum who eventually told his mum, but they both swore not to say I told them.

Whenever we argued it always seemed to go back to how I’d broken up with him when I was in hospital. He insisted something about me had changed and I was no longer the ‘sweet, caring girl’ he met online in 2011. He still wanted to be my boyfriend but he could never love me quite as much as before. I often asked what had changed but he’d say it was no good telling me because ‘I might try to change back and it wouldn’t be genuine’ so instead I would have to work it out for myself. I think it was in the first few months after we got back together that he really got me under his control.

I tried harder and harder to be exactly who he wanted. I reread our previous conversations trying to figure out how I’d changed.

Nothing ever worked, he was always nice face to face but in between it got worse and worse. He’d go on about how ugly girls looked in trousers or tops that weren’t low cut enough, he also accused me of dressing like a slut. I planned every outfit I’d wear when we met. If you’re changing your behaviour because you’re worried how your boyfriend or girlfriend will react that’s a definite sign that they’re not treating you right. No one should be frightened in a relationship or feel like they can’t be themselves.

The assault

I ended up letting him do sexual things I wasn’t comfortable with because it was better than saying no and dealing with him losing his temper. One time when we were kissing he grabbed me hard between my legs and just kept grabbing with his whole hand and nails. It hurt so much I had to grit my teeth to hold back tears. He also put his hand inside my knickers and it really hurt so I tried to put my hand in front of his to block him, but he pushed me out the way. I pulled his arm up and told him to touch my breasts instead, but he laughed and said the other thing was more fun and carried on. I didn’t realise at the time that what he did was sexual assault and therefore illegal.

Once on the phone I’d told him I had been slightly nervous about something and he’d sulked and refused to talk to me for days, he said if I didn’t like it we should never meet again. After that, I always told him I was ok with everything.

What I’ve learned since is, consent isn’t as simple as what you say is okay.

He’d got me so completely under his control I wouldn’t have said no to anything. I didn’t stop him, but I didn’t say I enjoyed it or encourage him either, I was just silent. I’d say to anyone in a similar situation now: if someone is abusing you then you don’t have the capacity to consent, there’s no free choice even if they don’t threaten or force you at the time.

Breaking up (again)

Our relationship continued until September 2012 when we formally broke up because he said I just wasn’t the same person anymore. We didn’t meet again for a little while, but we still spoke to each other as if we were boyfriend and girlfriend and had an agreement not to see anyone else. The only difference was that it was okay for him to flirt with girls online but if I even put an ‘x’ on the end of a message to a boy I was a ‘dirty whore and obviously wanted to have sex with them’. Sometimes I would point out how hypocritical he was and he would say I was too insecure, insecurity had ruined our relationship and I would have to be cured if we were to get back together. I believed him because I was quite unconfident, especially about my appearance because I have anorexia. Shaun started coming up with strategies to cure my insecurity. They involved periods of days or weeks where I wasn’t allowed to speak to him at all. If I broke the agreement and contacted him extra days would be added on. Funnily enough he always contacted me before the time was up and there were never any consequences for that.

I was resigned to playing by his rules, anything else and he lost his temper.

I’d started a new school and left the hospital in September and I think I felt I needed him then because he was the only person who really understood what I’d been through in hospital and how bad my relationship was with my parents.

We would be on the phone on and off all night so I was too exhausted to go to school. Shaun would hang up saying he was on the edge of a building ready to jump and then not pick up the phone for several hours. I told my mum almost everything because I was so scared he would die and it would be my fault. She didn’t want me to stay with him, but she couldn’t stop me either.

In March 2013 I was meeting Shaun in Birmingham and I got to the train station early, as I sat in a coffee shop waiting for him he texted me to say he knew I was having sex in the public toilets. He sent streams of messages calling me a slag and a prostitute, it was really strange because I’d never had sex with him, let alone anyone else. I sent a photo of my coffee mug on the table, but he wouldn’t believe me. We met and he said he and his friends would find me and ‘stab me in the face’, then he grabbed my hand waving it in the air as we walked shouting for everyone to look at me because I was a ‘dirty slag’ and a ‘whore’. Strangely, by the end of that day he’d decided he was in love with me again and we were going to get married etc. etc.!

People who are abusive tend to switch very quickly from lovely to vile and back again – it makes you feel like if you try hard enough you can make them change.

I was so relieved I had talked Shaun down from screaming at me in public that I was happy to accept affection, but as his wild accusations of me having sex show, someone like that will find any excuse to get angry again and there’s really nothing you can do to stop it. One particularly bad day I hadn’t gone to school, I was on the phone sat outside my house because I didn’t want my mum to hear him shouting. He was accusing me of all sorts of sexual affairs which were blatantly not true; he said girls like me deserved to be raped and killed and if I tried to defend myself or just get a word in he’d scream ‘bullshit’ at the top of his voice over and over again until I shut up. I just snapped and hung up on him and dialled 101 for the non-emergency police. I hadn’t been planning to call the police, it was just a spur of the moment reaction because I felt so trapped and so scared of him I didn’t know what else to do.

Telling the police

The police who came round to talk to me were really helpful because they said what Shaun was doing was abuse. I’d never seen it like that before and seeing two officers shake their heads in horror at the way he spoke to me was a powerful message. They made a record of my report but couldn’t take it any further because to fall under harassment you have to tell the person, in writing, that you don’t want contact anymore and then only if they contact you after that can they be arrested. I don’t think this works in general for domestic abuse because when a person has been so abusive already why should one more message turn their behaviour from not-criminal to criminal?

It’s so hard to avoid contact with someone when you’re used to listening to them and being controlled by them all the time.

I tried to stop talking to Shaun but it didn’t last and then he started using Ask.fm (the anonymous messaging website) to bully me. An Ask.fm account allows anyone to send anonymous messages to you whether they have an account or not. In the months following March 2013 I received thousands of messages most of which I knew were from him.

Shaun started making remarks about my little sister who was twelve at the time. We’d been out for my sister’s birthday and I posted a photo of us online; minutes later Shaun was tweeting about how shocking it was one sister could look much more sexy than another, how surprising it was that one person could go from pretty to hideous whilst their younger sister remained gorgeous. He didn’t name us but it was blatant what he was doing.

He started calling me fat and picking on specific body parts describing how disgusting I looked. He also sent anonymous messages saying things like ‘you look so sexy now you’re filling out! Keep eating girl!’ He knew I’d never recovered from anorexia and was losing weight since I left hospital so it was just another way to attack me. People say I should have known he just wanted to upset me and ignored it or deleted the Ask.fm account, but I didn’t because I was scared of him. Whatever I did he always found a way to get back in touch and I thought if I didn’t engage with him online it might drive him to confront me in person. He’d described in detail how he fantasised about luring me to his house to then pin me against a wall and rape me before stabbing me to death.

Feeling trapped

My self-esteem was already very low and the constant abuse and criticism made it worse. I started self-harming with razor blades copying what Shaun had done and I lost a lot more weight. I think self-harming was a way of outwardly showing what he was doing to me inside. It’s hard to explain how trapped domestic abuse can make you feel; I wanted to die because I couldn’t see any other way to make it stop. On a few especially bad nights the abusive messages just didn’t stop and I picked up kitchen knives saying I was going to kill myself because he’d told me to die. Looking back I find it frightening just how much power he had over me, he wanted me dead and without even coming near me he’d reduced me to hysterics, screaming and sobbing for someone to ‘make him stop’.

The final straw that made me go back to the police was at the end of August 2013. I was staying in a hotel alone and Shaun chose that night to send a constant stream of anonymous messages from the afternoon until the early hours of morning. He taunted me for not self-harming ‘properly enough’, said I should do everyone a favour and slit my throat or drink bleach, the world would be a better place if I was dead and if I wasn’t brave enough to do it someone should stab me that night. A few days later my Ask.fm account was hacked, all the messages were deleted and I received an email to tell me my password had been changed to ‘I look stupid’. I reported it to Ask.fm numerous times with no response but eventually called the police again.

The arrest and sentencing

The police officers who came around that time weren’t as helpful. I think it’s really important to remember that the way the police respond to domestic abuse is very inconsistent.

It’s a lottery as to which officers you get, and just because one thinks what you’re reporting isn’t serious or worth looking into it doesn’t mean they’re right.

They told me it wasn’t harassment because I’d replied to the messages and they couldn’t do anything because Ask.fm won’t co-operate with the British police. I said I really couldn’t take anymore, I was frightened of him and he was threatening to kill me. They eventually agreed to take a statement from me in the form of a video interview. (If you’re young or have another vulnerability the police will sometimes use a video interview instead of a written statement because it’s easier to express yourself.) The case was handed over to West Midlands, Shaun’s local police force, and around the end of October 2013 he was arrested for harassment – they had been able to trace the emails about Ask.fm to his IP address.

He broke his bail conditions and started contacting me. At first it was indirect messages written in his biography section on Twitter. One was written in Russian and when translated read “poison will kill me before justice is served, you will be sorry I’ll make you suffer”. He had a thing about Russia and said he would abscond there, so writing it in Russian was another way to scare me and he probably knew I was the only person who would bother to translate it. Later he started talking to me on Twitter and Facebook, he threatened to kill himself or me if I didn’t drop the charges and even said he’d get me arrested for harassing him!

In one of these conversations, Shaun told me he watched child pornography, some of which was stored on the laptop the police had seized. I don’t understand why he told me because he must have known I’d tell the police. He said he only looked at girls who were under sixteen, anyone older he didn’t find attractive. He was nearly twenty then. That changed my perception of him from someone I was responsible for and wanted to help, to a man who really was a danger to young girls. Sometimes it can be easier to help other people rather than yourself so I’d encourage anyone thinking about reporting abuse to the police to remember the likelihood is that the person abusing you will do it to someone else.

Even if you don’t think you deserve help, getting them convicted could help protect other people one day.

It was incredibly difficult waiting for the police to carry out their investigations but in February 2014 they finally got back to me with a decision. Either they would caution Shaun (which means a formal warning but no conviction) and that would be it over or they would charge him with harassment. They advised me to accept the caution because there was a good chance he would plead not guilty and then I would have to face a trial I was unlikely to win. I asked for the police to charge him because I was frightened nothing would change if he was cautioned.

I was really lucky because he pleaded guilty and in March 2014 I went to court to see him sentenced. The police had told me only to expect him to get a fine because it was his first offence but the judge took it more seriously. Shaun’s solicitor said he should be lenient because it was a ‘silly mistake’ and Shaun had already lost his job. The judge said it was cruel, calculated abuse and gave Shaun an 18-week suspended prison sentence (this means he’s not actually in prison but if he breaks the conditions of his sentence in the next 2 years it will be ‘activated’ and he would go to prison), electronic tagging with a curfew for two months, and ordered him to pay me £250 compensation. He was also given a restraining order that says he can’t contact me via any method or come to the street where I live, anywhere I’m in work or anywhere I’m in education for five years (if he does he’ll go to prison for that). I am so grateful to the judge for taking it so seriously, I know a lot of people don’t get the same result or even a trial and it really does make a difference to me to know that a judge who sentences criminals everyday thought he deserved that sentence.

My advice

It’s really hard to say what would have helped me avoid the situation all together because there were so many things that made me vulnerable and so many times when I wish I’d put a stop to it.

I think the most important thing is just to be aware of all the warning signs of a controlling or abusive relationship.

I had no idea that someone could abuse you without physically hurting you or that it was something that happened so young. Be clear what you think is acceptable in a relationship and stick to it. If you’re concerned or something doesn’t feel quite right, talk about it with a parent, teacher, counsellor, friend… whoever you trust, and see what they think.

Domestic abuse really can happen to anyone, I was the last person anyone would have seen getting into a relationship like that. It sounds obvious but don’t let any one person or relationship become your whole world. Remember who you were and what you wanted before you met them and keep doing the things you like and seeing other friends. When someone’s controlling you they’ll often get jealous of you seeing friends or family and might try and stop you going to school or work. Shaun knew I had a hard time with my parents and he said as soon as he had money we would live together. When he was angry he said there was no point in me going to school because I was too stupid to learn anything. I said once I wanted to go to university in the future, he suddenly went really off and wouldn’t talk to me for days. Then he said he was furious I’d want to waste my time at university instead of spending it with him! Try and take a step back and think about what you’d think if someone else was in your relationship – would you be worried for them?

Looking to the future

I won’t pretend it’s all been easy since he was convicted! Especially to start with I really missed him and felt incredibly guilty that I gave up on him and am the reason he has a criminal record. There are days when I can’t get the things he said to me out of my head and I’m frightened he’ll keep his promises of getting revenge on me one day. Most of all now though, I’m worried he’s going to do the same or worse to someone else. As I grew up he was still interested in twelve and thirteen year old girls and he posts pictures of semi-naked child celebrities all over his Twitter and Facebook. That’s why I went back to the police and reported the sexual activity he pressured me into when I was under 16, I have to feel I’ve done everything in my power to stop him.

That’s the bad bits though – trust me, it does get easier after you stop having contact with someone whether it’s because you’re brave enough to leave or after they’re convicted. I threw all my energy into raising awareness of domestic abuse with young people and now all sorts of other feminist and political campaigning too. Learning about gender inequality and violence against women in a wider context helped me see what happened was the result of a sexist society in which many women are oppressed, rather than just entirely my fault.

Even if you think you couldn’t live without someone, please remember you’re good enough on your own and you don’t need them!

It might take a little while but once you’re free from someone like that you’ll start noticing how much they held you back. I was so determined not to conform to Shaun’s idea of what girls must look like anymore, I got my hair (which was down to my waist in blonde ringlets) cut short!

Thinking about the future, I want to finish my A-levels and go to university to study law. Then I want to train as a barrister and work on domestic abuse and women’s rights cases. What I went through with Shaun has opened my eyes to a lot more problems in the world. I don’t think the government does anywhere near enough to protect women from male violence or protect vulnerable people in general. I was angry at Shaun and determined to stop him hurting anyone else, but now I’m angry at the society which made him that way and systems which let men like him get away with it. I’m definitely going to keep campaigning.

In April 2014, just after Shaun was convicted, I applied for and got funding to start a project to raise awareness of domestic abuse with young people. The Speak Out project launched with an awareness event in July 2014. Since then we’ve done things like help run teacher training about abuse in teen relationships, trained staff at the mental health unit I was an inpatient at and taught lessons on domestic abuse to sixth-formers. I’ve given talks at several different events and conferences as well as becoming a member of the Women’s Aid Young People’s Advisory Panel. Being a part of the Women’s Aid group meant I got to go to the House of Commons and speak to a select committee as part of their inquiry into violence against women and girls. It’s really nice to be able to try and raise awareness and make things better for other young people who’ll go through something similar.

In terms of future relationships I think Shaun has put me off for a very long time! I want to focus on my A-levels, getting a degree, becoming a barrister, raising awareness of domestic abuse, campaigning for a more equal and just world first, and to be honest that’s quite enough to be getting on with!

Who can help

There are loads of organisations and people you can talk to about relationships. After the police investigation started I was referred to Victim Support and met with one of their counsellors for a few months. It would have been better if I’d spoken to people much sooner though. You can talk to someone from Brook if they have a service near to you. There’s also the National Domestic Violence Helpline (0808 2000 247) run by Women’s Aid and Refuge who are specially trained to support people experiencing domestic abuse and they can advise you on how to hide phone calls if someone is checking your phone.

Brook, Women’s Aid and Refuge’s websites all have lots of information about recognizing abuse and asking for help. There is also a really good BBC program called Murdered By My Boyfriend. It’s a real-life story of a girl who was abused and eventually murdered by her boyfriend. I’ve found watching things like that really help because I recognise so many of Shaun’s behaviors in the way Ashley’s (the girl in the program) boyfriend treats her but when you see it happen to someone else it suddenly seems much more serious.

When it comes to contacting the police I would say talk to another adult or organisation first and ask them to help you speak to the police. The police should take you seriously but they’re not all perfect. I went back after Shaun was convicted to report the sexual activity I never mentioned in the first investigation. The police officer I spoke to told me he thought I’d ‘misremembered’ and they tried to convince me there was absolutely no point in investigating Shaun even though he still had pictures of really young teenage girls in tiny clothing all over his Twitter. Over a year later and I am still trying to make complaints against those officers! If you take someone with you to talk to the police they can help you explain the situation and make sure the police treat you fairly.

I think the most important thing to remember when you’re thinking of asking anyone for help is that abuse is never your fault and no one apart from you will think it is. In fact, most people will probably be horrified at how much you’ve suffered already. No one deserves to have their life manipulated and taken away from them, domestic abuse is really serious and everyone deserves to be helped.

Chlo runs the Speak Out Project which is a campaign to raise awareness about domestic abuse between young people. Work she has done on the project includes organising an awareness event in July 2014, training teachers and mental health staff, teaching sixth-form classes on domestic abuse, and giving talks at various events and conferences.

Chlo also won Young person of the year at the 2015 UK Sexual Health Awards.

It’s OK to not be OK

Approximately 1 in 4 people in the UK will experience a mental health problem each year (NHS England, 2020).

If you are worried about your mental health, or about someone else’s, there are lots of places that can offer you help and support. You don’t have to be diagnosed, you don’t even have to know exactly what’s wrong. Whenever you are ready to talk to someone, you can.

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