Nearly four years ago now, I got a letter which I answered in my column from a woman who had left her husband, after 14 years of domestic abuse.
I was struck by how genuinely self-deprecating the woman who had written in seemed. Couldn’t she see how much she had achieved? I replied in the newspaper and, because a reader wrote in after publication, asking to pass some information on, I emailed the original reader who had written in, asking if she’d like to receive this (any emails sent in with support or “I’ve been there” stories are passed on anonymised). We struck up a correspondence that has continued to this day.
What follows is a series of letters from the reader, whom I shall call Paula. Her story is incredible and inspirational and everything here appears with her prior approval and express permission.
“Thank you so very much for that lovely reply in Saturday’s Guardian. I really do appreciate it so much that it made me cry! Tears of joy and acceptance I think, not sad tears anyway.
It is one thing I have struggled with, seeing how far that I have come and you are so very right, I was thinking that the best option was to concentrate on my studies but I was feeling guilty and not giving myself permission to.
I would love to hear from the reader who has advice, I am always open to learning.
Thank you once again for your lovely lovely reply. I appreciate it and thank you for taking the time to be a true angel
Over the next few months, I wondered about Paula and how she was getting on, in the way that I do wonder about some readers. Then, late that summer in 2011, I got this:
“I hope that you are well and having a good summer? I don’t know if you remember me but you featured me in your column on 14th May 2011? I was the university student who had experienced domestic abuse and was feeling, for want of a better word ‘very low’. The last email that you sent to me telling me of the kind people who had commented on my situation was to keep in touch. I’m not sure if you meant it, but I thought I would send you a brief update, if that is ok?
I finished my second year with 2 A’s and 2 B’s so I can progress to third year now. I have completed a course in CBT, which has helped greatly. I have a relapse prevention plan in place which is working and although I have dips in mood, the awareness that I now have has enabled me with skills to overcome them quicker, before they become too bad. I also got a job working [identifying details removed]. I started just by covering the some holiday leave, but soon added in other shifts as the lady who was doing those left. So I have been able to work practically the hours that I’ve wanted around the children.
As I come almost to the time of starting 3rd year uni again, the manager of where I work has said to me that if I wanted hours, even just 6-12 hours a week, whilst at uni, he would and could accommodate me anywhere in in the company. Just that one shift alone would cover my petrol costs for the month, so I think that would be a good idea. The amount of experience and training that I have gained from this has been vast and I’m hoping that my CV will look great next year as I will have the experience and, hopefully a good degree.
I have also joined a running club, not just for fitness but also as a way of improving my social circle. I was a little daunted at first but am enjoying it and it fits in almost perfectly with my younger son’s martial arts lessons, so I don’t feel so guilty about having ‘me’ time. It’s been a few years since I entered a race but I look forward to my first race on Boxing Day of this year with a six mile run, which may turn out to be madness, or fun-I’m not sure which yet. However, it is an aim!
I have to thank you once again for your kind and encouraging words that you wrote to me. I was feeling like a pathetic waste of space when I wrote to you and really thought you would tell me to pull my socks up and be grateful for what I have. So I really do thank you for your kindness. My levels of hope for the future are greatly higher than they were and that is, in no small part, thanks to you with your kind understanding. I hope that this email will bring a smile to your face, so that you can truly know how much your heartening and supportive words helped to change someone’s life.”
I think her email made me cry a bit. Well, wouldn’t it you?
A year later, Paula wrote back. This time with a photo of her graduating.
“I wrote to you last year about my situation. Well, my last update for you is visually attached [as it was] as well as explained here.
I have just graduated with a First Class BSc (Hons) in [details removed]. It was such an emotional but wonderful day, Annalisa.”
Paula went on to tell me about her degree and her work and how something she worked on would be directly used by a government department to implement change. I can’t publish the details here as I don’t want to risk identifying her, but it’s impressive.
“Sadly my paid employment will end in September but I have access to other jobs and the experience and extra training courses I have attended will boost my CV no end, so hopefully, it will convert to another position soon. So I am just looking for part time work now as I feel that it is a vulnerable time for my youngest (now nearly 14) and I feel that he still needs supporting in a parental way to help him to grow strong and independent. But work is work and we will make do. We’ve lived on a limited budget for a while and it hasn’t killed us and the boys don’t go without the necessities. We save up for the luxuries but I feel that adds value to them when we get them and a good life lesson for the boys.
I am still using the CBT skills learned last year and am still a member of the running group, which I love. I am training for a half marathon in October and another race next year. I seem to be getting busier but am conscious to keep a balance for myself and the family so that I don’t do too much and relapse. The boys and I are going camping for a few days, which I would never have done on my own before and we are going to tackle Scafell Pike, Go Ape and kayaking as a family. I like to feel that my degree and the exercise that I do has rubbed off on the boys who are both active in running, badminton, cricket and orienteering.
I just thought it might make you smile to know that someone you helped has really come through. Just the fact that you didn’t judge me for whining was a tremendous help and responding to my letter gave me a feeling of validation, which helped me so much as I hadn’t had much validation before.”
In November of last year I wrote to Paula asking if I could use her story on my website in the What Happened Next section (I know, I know, it’s taken me this long to put it up!). She wrote back:
“How lovely to hear from you and thank you for thinking of me! Of course you may use the story in your ‘what happened next’ website. That would be a lovely gesture and hopefully may give someone else hope too.
I shall add a little bit more of an update for you too. The job that I thought was going to end in September didn’t end! A role has been created for my job now and I am the first one of my kind (a pleasing thought). It is only a one-year contract.
I hope to do some further study but am not sure which path to take. I would have to work out things financially first.
To add to this good news, my oldest was able to turn his predicted A,C,D grades in A levels to outcome at AAB and is now studying at University. He attributes it to ‘his change from negative thinking to positive thinking. He is loving uni and is a member of many groups enhancing his uni life (none of the alcohol related as he made a conscious decision not to drink). I am so very proud of him. He has done wonders.
My 15 year old now sees his father for what he is and that caused a lot of sadness. However, we have talked about acceptance and doing what’s best for him and his emotions and he seems to be settling a bit more. He is estimated to be a high achiever on his GCSE’s but I am aware of anxiety levels with this one, so have mentioned it to school, in order that he keeps a good mental health.
I still have my doubts about myself particularly around men, following the abuse. However, I am working on them, trying to learn and get better around men. So all is good.
Oh and I also forgot, I was asked to deliver a lecture at University and have been asked to do another in January! Another possible avenue to go down perhaps?“
When I wrote to Paula today to get her permission to post the above, she gave me an update which is that she is now studying to be a school teacher, her eldest is at uni and doing incredibly well “he’s very secure in himself and has a good emotional intelligence for one so young. I do think it is down to our experiences and how we have had to survive and overcome after DV. I could not be more proud of him and how he has adapted so positively and confidently after such a negative time. “
Her youngest is on course to get great grades. “There were times, where I doubted myself so much that I didn’t think I would get through it all. I doubted that I would raise well round, caring and resilient young men. I couldn’t have been more wrong. “
Finally, Paula is dating again, “I know how I want to be treated and how I want to treat someone and don’t want second best. I am happy on my own if it doesn’t work out.
Sending you the biggest hugs that I could ever could send to you, my love and eternal gratitude for being a light of hope and belief in one of my darkest times.”