‘I wasn’t afraid any more, I didn’t blame myself’: the women who rebuilt my life after a coercive relationship | Relationships

The day I found out, I was sitting in a bar alone in Brooklyn. A woman on the other side of the world had drawn a picture of my ex-partner’s face and posted it on Instagram. Beneath the stark black and white image of him, she had hashtagged his name and alongside it came the warning. Beneath that, women who had previously not known each other were now commenting. “So sorry he did this to you, too,” one woman wrote.“Took $5,000 from me. Lived with me for a year while he impregnated me and stole from other women. He’s a piece of garbage and I bet you’re wonderful. Be kind to yourself as you work through this.”

The comments all read the same. Tens of thousands of dollars stolen, items from their homes gone, women who had become pregnant, suicide attempts, dead relatives, lie after lie after lie, until finally the man was gone. The women, it seemed, had all found the post the same way: abandoned and confused, they had searched his name on social media looking for answers. Beneath an illustration of their ex’s face, they had finally got one. This is how I, too, had come to understand what had happened to me. How a relationship that had started with so much potential had descended into horror.

In 2016, I was still new to New York, after moving over from London. I don’t believe it’s true that New York is the London of America. To think so sets you up… the cockroaches and rats that hold court around the bins brimming over with half-drunk coffee cups and mustard-covered napkins, the sweltering summers at Coney Island, or the relentless winters leaving rows of parked cars fully buried beneath the snow.

So when I met him, perhaps it was a relief to find something that felt familiar among the strangeness of it all. He was kind back then and seemed well liked by the people around him, interesting and interested in equal measure. This was a rarity for a city like New York, perhaps most places, where people come across each other and feel attraction with little purpose, communication or commitment. Finally, this was a man who convinced me he wanted monogamy, or love, or a faithfulness that these days still seems unusual.

It didn’t last long, the gentleness. And soon, his demands began. The rules. How to be with a man just like him, or else be crossing his boundaries, or else be ableist, or else be selfish, or a bitch, or worthless, or worse. If you asked for your needs to be met, you were quickly told it was his mental health and wellbeing that you were agitating and the punishment came in the form of lengthy, condescending messages documenting his criticisms of you, before the silent treatment or the abandoned plans.

Soon, there was always a reason why he needed more. More importantly, there was always a reason why I was always wrong.

By the end of 2016, when the summer months became cooler, I was pregnant. It wasn’t the right time, my partner said. His mother was ill. And in the absence of knowing what else to do, I booked myself into an abortion clinic. There were metal detectors as a result of attacks from anti-abortionists that had occurred some years before.

I didn’t want an abortion. I also didn’t want a child. It’s important to understand that complexity. There is something that I think remains flawed among the pro-choice community: we belittle the impact of it. We argue that it’s nothing, that it’s just some cells, not a baby, not a life, not remorse, nor grief and so, unequivocally, it has to be the absolute right decision to make. And yet, I believe it can be all of this, and still feel wrong. That you can feel remorseful and yet it can still be the right thing for you. This is where choice matters. I don’t believe that absolute human rights around abortion can exist until we acknowledge this complexity, this nuance, the contradictions that come with it; the pain, and frankly, sometimes the regret. But that is true choice – to feel all of this chaos at once. And so, I was wondering on this, thinking and feeling my way through the disorder of it all, as I walked out of that clinic and realised I would never see my partner again.

‘It didn’t last long, the gentleness. And soon, his demands began’: Chimene Suleyman. Photograph: Sophia Spring/The Observer

He was gone. Without warning he had vanished from the waiting room and my calls and messages were blocked. I was beside myself, manic and frantic, as I tried to comprehend the incomprehensible. I made my way home, in a kind of frenzied state, where the anguish and confusion continued. Whatever belongings he had left at my place were gone – and he had taken some of my things, too.

It was a few months before I searched his name and found the drawing of his face. I messaged the woman who had drawn it, nervous and unsure what I needed her to say, and she, with all the kindness of women who expect others to call on them, put me in touch with someone else. I had been the second woman to reach out to her and she had wanted me to speak to the first.

Jessica only lived a few blocks away from me. We also, as it turned out, had been pregnant by the same man around the same time. We had also both been persuaded into abortions. While he hadn’t disappeared from her life in exactly the same way, he had been equally unpleasant, unsupportive, and absent. He had also, I learned, taken $30,000 from her. Jessica, eventually, couldn’t handle it any more and ended their relationship only a few weeks before he vanished from my life. She had done her own research before the Instagram post and realised he had been in a long-term relationship with a woman in Los Angeles some years before, and driven the woman to illness.

It seemed we were not his first rodeo. By the time he had got to us, he had honed a pattern of behaviour and lies to get his girlfriends exactly where he wanted us, primed either for his financial wants or to satisfy his sexual and emotional sway on women. Whatever questions had previously been unanswered for me, finally Jessica seemed to be answering them.

Jessica and I became friends. We often met for drinks and our conversations soon turned away from him and how he made us feel, to politics and music, celebrities and work, and the things that mattered to us when we weren’t consumed by him. I started to feel something akin to normality.

After almost a full year had passed, I was in a bar after a meeting, when Jessica messaged: “Holy shit! Have you seen the illustration lately?” It hadn’t occurred to me to revisit it. But I opened Instagram and searched again for the image of his face, both curious and electrified by the possibilities. Beneath the drawing of him, other women had now began to post about what he had done to them. By the end of the week, 500 comments spread below the picture.

It was completely exhilarating. His lies were finally being retold as our truths. It seems so rare as women to talk openly about the abuse we’d experienced, let alone be believed, let alone watch the person responsible be in any way held accountable, and it came with a kind of satisfaction and joy, a release of tension I had not felt until that point.

By now he, too, had been alerted to the post and it seemed he was unravelling beneath it. His comments and replies to us, the ex-girlfriends, were erratic, manic. This person who could go for days or weeks without feeling the need to speak to you, suddenly had a lot to say. Below his picture we made jokes, mocking the man who had stolen so much from us, who had made us chronically sick, who had pushed so many of us towards wanting to die. For the first time, with these women around me, I wasn’t afraid of him. More importantly, for the first time I didn’t blame myself.

In private, we set up group chats – one large group for all of the women, and smaller ones according to the women’s locations; these were chains of women within chains. Here, we finally seemed to be making greater sense of it all, the cheating and stealing, and the endless often disturbing lies. We consoled each other and reminded one another that the only person who was at fault here was him. A great shame lifted from me. I looked forward to speaking with the women most days. They were funny and charming and smart, and it was this, too, that helped me see I couldn’t have been worthless, when all of these women he had done the same things to were in fact remarkable. Above anything else, there was a kind of power we had together, that we didn’t have when we were isolated and alone.

When I first sat down to write a book about it all, I remember constantly being sick. My eyes were often swollen and blistered. As one healed, the other would close shut, then back again. When I look back I wonder just how much was stress-induced as I relived what he had done to me, in the days before I had found my chain of women, who reminded me I was not the person he had made me believe I was. I lost sleep as I made detailed notes and outlined the sequence of events. I didn’t eat when I interviewed some of the women in detail about what he had done to them, away from the chatter of the group.

Eventually, the writing got easier. The crying after every new chapter eased up. I no longer felt like I was going through it again, an endless Groundhog Day of abuse, unable to escape. I started to understand what I was doing it for; that it wasn’t just a purge, or wounds of mine that I had needed to expel – but to actually keep the chain going. To remind the women in the book, the women I had first met under a black-and-white illustration, that we had all survived. I finally realised I was writing in the hope there would be women elsewhere who needed to hear the same, to recognise the support, or let others in if we hadn’t already, and to see that a man who can cause so much pain, so much destruction, hadn’t done so because he was better than us, but simply because he wasn’t. I realised I was writing a book because there were too many women who hadn’t been deceived in such an extreme way or weaved into a drastic web of lies, but could still relate, who were still as betrayed or as proud of themselves all the same for surviving. Women who needed their own chain.

The Chain by Chimene Suleyman is out now (W&N, £18.99). Buy a copy for£16.71 at guardianbookshop.com.

Samaritans can be contacted on freephone 116 123, or email jo@samaritans.org

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