Sarah* sits with her baby daughter on her knee. Her home is a happy one, with pictures of her children smiling down at us from the walls of her living room.
She admits she is the ‘happiest she has ever been’ in her life - but just a few years ago an abusive relationship left her physically and emotionally broken - and contemplating ending her own life.
She struggles, even now, to understand how she fell under the spell of an abusive man or why she didn’t leave him sooner - spending six years of her life with him - but she also knows that he was a champion manipulator who led her to believe she was fat, ugly, useless and incapable of being loved.
She also lived in fear that if she left him he would act on his threats to beat friends and family to a pulp, or try to take their children from her.
“Looking back, I was vulnerable when we met. I had a difficult childhood in some ways. I was abused and had been raped in the past which had a lasting effect on me.
“I had also recently come out of a long term relationship with the father of my two children - and while we had parted on good terms and remained friends - I found myself, at 21, having never really been single and not knowing how to be single.
“I was aware I was a young, single mum and I thought no man would want me. So when I met Jimmy*, and he lavished attention on me I was flattered.
“He would buy me expensive gifts, take me away - spoil me rotten. And after I introduced him to my children, he would spoil them as well. He did well for himself and said he was happy to spend money on us.
“I had gone from being a single mum, worried about where money was coming from, to someone being treated like a princess - which is what he called me - his ‘princess’ or his ‘angel’.”
Very early on in the relationship Jimmy started showing another side to himself. “At first he was jealous. I grew up in a house with just brothers - so I had a lot of male friends. Jimmy* wouldn’t like it when I spoke to them. He would become aggressive - shouting at me, roaring into my face, telling me he didn’t want me speaking to other men.
“I had booked a girls holiday - the first time I had ever been away with the girls - before I met him but when the time came around he didn’t want me going. When I did, he would top up my phone every day and call or text me up to 50 times a day, asking what I was doing and who I was with.
“A part of me was flattered - thought he must be mad about me, even if my friends were telling me it was too much. That he was full on.”
The first time he hit her came a few months later. “We had been having an argument. I knew, even then, when he was in a bad mood to get off side so I went up to my room. He shouted something up to me, and I replied - I don’t even remember what I said - but the next thing I heard him thundering up the stairs like someone possessed. He stormed into the room - took the remote control for the TV and hit me off the head with it.
“I remember asking him what he had done - he told me he had hit me, and if I spoke to him like that again, he would hit me again. I sat, in floods of tears - I didn’t know what to do.”
Of course the apologies followed. Jimmy told her he was sorry. He couldn’t believe he had hurt his “princess”. He wouldn’t do it again. “And then he started to tell me it was my fault. I made him do it. I had wound him up. I was so ground down by his constant insults - telling me how useless I was - that I started to believe him.”
The violence crept up - slowly at first. He would pinch her arms tightly if he saw her talking with anyone. Then the kicks to the shins started. And still she believed he would change.
The couple went on to start a family together - with Sarah believing that the birth of their twins would herald a new start. “He hit me less when I was pregnant. I thought he was changing - that this would be a new start. That’s the thing - you always look for new starts, you always believe things might change.”
However just minutes after they arrived back home, with their new babies still in their car seats, Jimmy subjected Sarah to a brutal assault.
“I had asked him to get a few things ready in the house for us coming home. When we got home, I noticed he had used a brush we normally used for our pet dog to brush up broken glass in the living room. I had been told the twins were more vulnerable to infection so I told him we would have to keep them out the living room until I cleaned it again.
“The next thing I knew, he had hauled me by the hair to the ground. He pulled me up the hall and threw me into the cupboard under the stairs. I remember sitting there sobbing my heart out, wondering what was happening. I was too scared to move. He came back then and pulled me out by my hair and threw me up the stairs and told me to get my hormones under control.”
Sarah told no one what she was going through. “I felt ashamed. I wanted people to believe I had a good life - that I had a happy ending after everything I had gone through when I was younger. I wanted them to think I had the perfect wee family.
“I am a daddy’s girl, and I didn’t want to let me daddy down. I didn’t want to upset him.”
When Jimmy asked her to marry him, she initially resisted. “I did everything I could to put him off, but he threatened to leave me. He told me no one would want me - not with four wains, my saggy t*ts and stretchmarks. He told me no one would look after me financially the way he did and the wains would suffer.
“I believed him, and I married him - putting on a big show of pretending to me happy on my wedding day.”
To the outside world Sarah did look happy. She had lost four stone in weight - but while she may have looked “the best she ever did” - the weight loss was through depression and worry.
By this stage Jimmy was controlling every aspect of her life - from what she wore, to when she went out. She would have curfews to be home by. He would go into a jealous rage if she so much as spoke to another man - or if another man looked at her.
“I was terrifed, constantly. I lived my life under constant threat. If I mentioned leaving him he would threaten to beat up my family, beat up the father of my first two children. He would tell me how awful I was.”
On the couple’s first wedding anniversary, they went out with friends to celebrate. The night ended horrifically - and Sarah broke down as she recalled what happened.
“He had seen some boys look at me in Sandinos and he had started them. We had been out with my best friend and her husband. She had never seen Jimmy act that way before and she was really shocked. She asked me was he always like that, I replied no. That it was the drink. It was fine. I was too embarrassed to tell her the truth.
“They came back to our house and I could tell she was reluctant to leave me, but I assured it was okay. When they left, I went to bed and left Jimmy to sleep it off downstairs. My friend called me after half an hour to see if I was okay - Jimmy heard the phone and came thundering up the stairs and knocked the phone out of my hand - it didn’t disconnect though, and my friend heard everything.”
That night Jimmy subjected Sarah to a savage beating. He punched her, grabbed her by the throat until she lost consciousness, beat her around the body, using an iron to rain down blows on her before throwing her, semi conscious into one of the twins’ cots.
“He smashed it around me. I was curled up in the foetal position, losing consciousness.”
Having heard the commotion, Sarah’s friend drove to her house, and battered on the door until Jimmy let her in. “She shouted at him ‘What have you done?’ - I remember his answer as clear as day; ‘I battered her’.”
Sarah’s friend carried her from the house and brought her back to her own home, where she pleaded with her to call the police.
“She thought I was going to die but I was still too ashamed to admit the truth. I told her it was a one off. I pleaded with her not to tell my mammy and daddy.”
With Sarah left battered and bruised, unable to move, her parents soon found out. “I tried to protect him. I told them I had been jumped on in town. My daddy went to the police and they told him there had been no reports of an assault - he went mad. He was so angry at me for lying to him and for covering up for Jimmy. I begged them to give him another chance.”
But by the then the relationship had become irreparably damaged. Two months later, they split up and it was only then Sarah felt able to tell people what actually happened.
“I just cried myself to sleep every night. I was humiliated and disappointed in myself. I still believed what he told me - that no one would want me. That I would be alone. That I was fat and ugly. When I tried to press charges, he pressured me to drop them. Threatened the wains again. Threatened my family - I didn’t have the energy to fight any more. I didn’t want to be here. I was left suicidal.”
Slowly Sarah started to rebuild her life. And while she found it very hard to trust anyone, and to open up to a new relationship she did meet someone who has helped her put the trauma of the past behind her.
“I am with a man who treats me with the utmost respect. Without him, I am not sure I would be here. He has taught me that I deserve to be loved. That I can be happy. We have a beautiful baby daughter together and I have never been so happy.”
“I want girls who are where I was to know they can be happy. They don’t have to stay - I know how scary it is. I know how these men can control you. I know how they make you feel like you are nothing. But you can get away and there is life afterwards.”