This is what happens behind closed doors. This is what happens when a solvent, educated parent gets trapped in a terrible situation thousands of miles from home. We are speaking out about domestic abuse. It should not happen, ever. Read on for one mama's story...
Editor's note: due to the sensitive nature of this topic we have removed names and certain details in order to protect the writer and her son.
HE is going crazy again. My heart is broken. How do I protect my son from this?
I have been going out of my mind since the day my son was born (less than a year ago) trying to work out how to get us out. When my son was still a newborn we had reached a point of Emergency as HE had attacked me again and I had called the police.
I grew up with violence in the house. I had always promised myself that if I ever had children I would never ever have them in the hell of anxiety that I now found myself in. It was a total nightmare growing up in my house. People screaming. Never knowing what was going to happen next. And I have dropped my precious child right in it. The little guy is the most important thing in my life. How do I get us out?
For the rest of the day after HE attacked me, my son seemed fine. But the next morning when I went in to take him out of bed, for the first time in his wee life he was not beaming smiles at me. He seemed angry, upset and totally miserable. It broke my heart. What have I done! I started keeping a record of things that day. It took my son five days to seem like himself again. And the urgency of the situation really sank in.
For the first time in my seven-year relationship with the father of my son, I called one my oldest friends from back home who was now living in London and told him the truth about what had been happening. My friend was totally horrified. He could not believe that this was going on and he offered to fly over that weekend and get me and my son out. But it was not that simple. I had to stay in the Netherlands to "wrap things up" if I was going to leave, but I did fly over for five days to clear my head and try to get some peace.
After that trip I started 'fessing up to everyone. My physiotherapist, my doctor, my son's nurse at the GGD (who was totally amazing and lovely, by the way), other people. It was incredibly difficult as it was totally humliating, that I had let this happened to me and put up with it for years.
I went on massive rampage trying to get us out. I made several trips to the Juridisch Loket, Gemeentehuis, housing association. I discovered that I could be eligible for emergency housing in my town except for one thing, even though I was on 100% parental leave, living off my savings and planned on reducing my hours when I went back to work, on paper right at that moment, I earned too much.
The nurse from the GGD told me to go to an organisation in the city. I still to this day do not know who they were, but the woman had a very tough love approach, which was far too hard for me to handle at that point. It seemed like a scare tatic. She told me that the only option for me right now was to get out and go into a women's shelter. She said that me and my son could be placed anywhere in the country. I told her I wanted to think about it. Truth be told there was no way I was going to have my son and I live like refugees. I had a whole apartment full of all my things and furniture. What would happen to that? Trying to protect my son, keep his life calm. What she was proposing seemed to go against protecting him. The woman told me that as his mother I had to protect him. It was my duty. And, if I did not, my son could be taken away from me.
I was a total mess. I could no longer speak. I just howled. Just the thought that I was now being threatened to have my son taken away from me. I left the appointment feeling totally destroyed. I had to get out of the country. I booked a flight home as a kind of reconnaissance trip. I wanted to find out how we could move ourselves back to where I had come from. How could we survive financially?
Around this time I was totally exhausted on a regular basis. Like a smoldering plane wreck. I suddenly started putting on heaps of weight. About 1.5 to 2 kg a week. I could hardly hold conversations, forgetting where I was in mid conversation over and over. Getting up in the mornings I really felt like I had to drag my tired carcass out of bed. I later discovered that my thyroid had stopped working. It was directly responsible for my weight and energy levels. I personally think it was brought on by the stress.
The prospect of staying with my parents in my home country was terrible. And actually, with the help of Amsterdam Mamas I had the guts for the first time to say no to staying with my parents. We lasted about three days before my father blew up. Thank goodness I had prepared in advance and had a backup plan with an old friend.
Staying with old friends from high school, the trip home was just heavenly, even though I was so exhausted every day. Lots of sunshine, hanging out on back gardens amoungst the hanging laundry, excited dog, sounds of lawnmowers humming in the background, girlfriends one and half year old, trees rustling in the wind and the smell of salt air.
When I arrived back in the Netherlands, I found I had little tolerance for the crazy. I really felt like I was in hell. HE had become less physically aggressive but was being passive aggressive, behaving very oddly. After a couple of weeks HE started yelling again.
Within a few weeks I knew I could not going to let my son be exposed to this anymore. I didn’t care what happened to us, but this situation was no longer an option. HE began yelling again and my son started vomiting in the lounge looking distressed. I knew it was from the stress of HIS behaviour.
No more hiding ourselves in the bedroom to not be yelled at. No more being scared about what is going to happen next. Scared that HE is going to rip the door down again or hit me again or throw me. HE is over two meters and it always worries me that HE could easily kill me. No more hiding the knives in case HE sees them when in a rage. No more pleading with HIM to stay calm and try to calm down for the sake of HIS son. I took back control.
I gathered some essential items and put my son in his pram and walked out.
I had asked HIM to go to a hotel for the night to give us some peace. But I realised that I no longer wanted that. I wanted us to be gone for good. HE was panicked and offered to go to a hotel. I told HIM it was all way too late. I have always tried to be really kind to HIM. I told him it was going to be ok. I do feel bad for HIM because HE is mentally unstable and HE did try to get help.
I had been given a lead from the Gemeentehuis about a shelter nearby. I was not going to have my son and I stay there as it was very rough, but maybe they could tell us where to go. They were totally barricaded up. So in the cold dark night we went on to the nearest police station.
There was a long record of reports with them, so we did not have to explain very much. Just that I had made the decision, HE was yelling again. We just wanted to go to a shelter. While we waited a really friendly woman was ooing and aaring over my son. Really sweet. And I kept it together as best I could. I had gotten good at that. They told me there was a place in another city. Maybe someone would be available to take us there.
Two women were finally available and escorted my son and I to the shelter. The room was like a cell. It was horrible. My visa was not good so they didn't really know what to do with me. I had to stay in the tiny room with horrible furnishings for about 5 days. The kitchen was near by and it was noisy until about 11pm every night.
My thoughts swung between "I've got to stick this out." and "Oh my God, what have I done?"
We were finally able to move to the room upstairs which was much larger. I did my best to make it homely. Some of the women were incredibly hostile, most were nice, but I really felt like a complete outsider. Most of the women spoke no English. And I had to learn Dutch fast. Which given that they were still slowly increasing my prescription for my thyroid, everything was a massive struggle.
The First Shelter
Daily life in the shelter consisted of my son being my alarm at clock about 6am, changing and feeding him and then getting him back to sleep ready for the daily meetings at 9am. At the 9am meeting I was so tired I often turned up in my dressing gown. This might sound odd, but it is strange that your “home” is also where they have offices. Feeling shattered, I was planning on lying back down again. The laundry and kitchen were both communal. My room had a kitchenette with no cooking facilities, but it was nice to have a kitchen type space there. The room was reasonably large, maybe 4 by 4 meters or slightly larger. From the corridor there was a miniature room that I put my son in at night as we do not sleep well in the same room. I stayed up until late - until I would just drop asleep in front of the tv.
Some days I could not get up off the floor as they were still increasing my thyroxine dosage so I would lie there so my son would not complain, and I would be there while he played as I drifted in and out of sleep.
In the first week there was a woman who screamed at her children until past midnight every night. Because of my history as a child, noise like this fills me with a sickly fear, and the fact that I felt like leaving to protect my son was just ironic. To my great relief she was gone after one week.
I had become a bit obsessed with the plastic bench above the sink in the bathrooms because I wanted the place to look as good as a home. The apartment I had moved out of was lovely. They were stained and no cleaning was ever going to get rid of the stains. I was so frustrated that they were not porcelain like the rest of the bathroom. I bought Antikal to try to clean the grouting on all the floors.
The cot was horrible. It had thick toxic looking paint roughly painted over it with each bar a different colour. Very rough. I like to surround myself in beauty to feel comfortable; I am a bit of a magpie for beautiful things. And I became a bit obsessed with everything looking tidy and nice. So the cot strangely dragged me down and I would pretend it was crisp white. I had brought my son's mattress with me as I did not want him to sleep on the plastic coated ones that they have. After a couple of weeks a white cot turned up in our cleaning cupboard. I started cleaning it and one of the Moroccan woman joined me in cleaning. As I cleaned it all over with alcohol she told me how her boy was blond also, that not all children are dark haired from there. She told me about how he was too old to be allowed to live in the shelter with her because he was 15. She only got to see him once every 2 weeks and missed him terribly. Once she got a home she could live with him again.
I had very little money as I was still living off savings and I was on the last few hundred euros but I bought some daffodil pots to brighten up the table in the corridor and my room.
They seemed not to be used to an English speaking woman on a skilled migrants visa. The amazing woman who processed my visa told me they had never had someone on that visa before. She did an incredible job and had direct contact with the IND to help me with my visa.
Although some of the women were unstable, the place did have a family feel.
One of the most poignant events there that I will always remember involved a woman who was bipolar. She sometimes shuffled along like a zombie when she was feeling low. And when she was happy she wore flowers in her hair and she loved King Louie fashion with wraps and florals. Originally from China she was adopted by a Dutch family who she found to be quite clinical. She broke down and cried one day in the lift because they never hugged her on her first meeting with them, telling them about having been moved there. She said she had become bipolar after her second pregnancy.
One Friday she could no longer take care of her children. An older Dutch woman, a younger woman from Sri Lanka and a middle-aged woman from Afghanistan had suddenly found themselves having to take care of her two girls and deal with the slow disintegration of the Dutch-Chinese woman. She was not well I kept hearing. I popped over to say hi to one of the Moroccan woman on my floor in the evening and she told me that the Chinese woman had been taken away to a metal insinuation by taxi. So I told her I wanted to go upstairs to see how the children were. Apparently her alcoholic husband was to come to pick them up and take them.
I told her that I wanted to go upstairs and see if the girls were ok while they wait for the father. What we found was one of the women from Afghanistan (who had been taking care of the Chinese woman and her two girls) completely catatonic and unresponsive. It was such a shock. She had become completely overcome with grief. The Chinese-Dutch woman had a chance for a future, and she was in despair at how quickly it had all been taken away.
We all cried. We were all heartbroken for her. But the Afghan woman could not be revived. We tried rubbing her arms; finally the Moroccan woman I came upstairs with pulled her head back and started reciting the Koran. Finally The Afghan woman, who had such a heavy burden for the day with her own troubles, started convulsing, her eyes rolled back and slowly slowly she came to herself. It was one of the saddest, most heart breaking things I had ever seen. I will never forget it. We were all in tears, desperate for her, worried that perhaps she might be taken away too. Eventually a worker came from upstairs to console us. saying that it is not so easy for a woman to be taken away, that she was bipolar and she may be coming back. The Chinese-Dutch woman did come back, only to be taken away again a few days later.
I had the most amazing social worker you could possibly wish for. Very intelligent, warm, funny and interesting. She told me that I would not be able to stay there if I did not learn to cope with these women. One of the women seemed a bit obsessed with me and had strange outbursts like she had Tourette's syndrome. Some other woman kept coming to my door and asking for things that I did not want to lend out. My social worker taught me techniques for dealing with them. To listen to my body and my chest for signs that I am not ok with a situation; I needed to learn to say no. When walking to work which terrified me she told me to put my focus on the weight of my feet into the ground. And so on.
We had lovely long amazing conversations. It didn’t feel like counseling sessions but long chats with a best friend. She taught me about how aspects of my childhood now affected me today. We would sometimes talk for three hours when we should really only talk for one. I cried when we said good bye and it pained me that there was no place for her in my life now. She was just a counselor. We really clicked and were on the same wavelength.
When I had arrived at the shelter the first night she asked me if I wanted to stay, and I told her I wanted to move back to Amsterdam as that is where I used to live. But my visa had to be sorted out first. After about two months, my visa was finally sorted. Since the whole system is no longer centralised, every city and organization is now an island and each organization has to place ads for women wanting to move.
After my visa had been approved she finally found a match. Just in time as she had started saying that I might have to stay. I felt somehow scared to move. I had become a bit at home in my homelessness in the women’s shelter. I was told that I would be in a short stay room for a couple of weeks and then be moved to my own apartment for up to 3 months before being moved on again. No one could arrange the move as I was going to another city and another organization. So, after calling on Amsterdam Mamas for help, an amazing Amsterdam Mother came to my rescue.