It all started with a coffee that I was late for. Amy* was early, as usual, and, as I sat down to order, she apologised for my lateness. That was typical of her. We joked that she’d apologise to her own mugger if it came to it. After a round-up of our week, she posed a question that I’d never been asked before.
“Does James ever scare you?” she enquired. Eyes set firmly on her coffee.
I replied, quite honestly, that James had the temperament of a cheery labrador. The idea that he, my partner of five years, would scare me seemed ridiculous. And, as our breakfast arrived, I considered what an odd question it was. But, the moment had passed, the conversation had moved on to a new pair of boots she’d bought.
Knowing what I know now, I hope I would have asked her the same question. Or, simply packed her a bag and told her that from now on, she’d be staying at mine.
Amy and I met online. Our friendship was a slow-burner. Coffees here and there, before coffees turned into the pub and dinners at mine. We were both in a similar place in life. Long term boyfriends, hating our full-time office jobs that somehow funded our ASOS habit. We just ‘clicked’.
She didn’t mention her partner, Joe*, that often. In fact, in the year I’d known her, I’d only met him once or twice. My boyfriend joked that he was the small and silent type, a man of a few words. At best, I thought he was intimidated by Amy; her fierce intellect and humour was something that seemed to unsettle him. The only time I heard him speak was to quietly mutter that she wasn’t funny. We all laughed.
"She was frequently sporting bruised arms and legs, mementoes of taxis she’d tumble out of"
One night, Amy explained that she didn’t have too many friends up where we lived. It wasn’t that she was new to the area, she just struggled to make them. Despite her comment, it seemed to me that she made friends everywhere she went. I reasoned that she was just one of those people you’d struggle to get close to. So, in many ways, it was a surprise when we did. She became my confidant, the first person I’d tell good news to. After once bemoaning my inability to keep a plant alive, my birthday present was a delicate Jade plant. She remembered thoughtful details. It was just who she was.
Amy was also clumsy. Two glasses of wine and she’d be on the floor, crumpled in a heap of limbs, a grin plastered to her face. She was frequently sporting bruised arms and legs, mementoes of taxis she’d tumble out of. Clutching her sides with laughter as she regaled us with tales of her inability to stay on her feet.
A year or so into our friendship it was Joe’s birthday. Amy had invited us to the flat that she owned. Joe simply lived there. We all knew that she paid for everything and, in all honesty, she seemed happy to. She never seemed to resent his inability to curb his spending, it was just ‘who he was’. His birthday was a small group, a mix of Amy and Joe’s university friends, work friends and us, her new pals from the internet.
"I watched Joe ask Amy if she could talk a little quieter"
On arrival, I watched Joe ask Amy if she could talk a little quieter; he couldn’t hear himself think when she spoke. She shrank back, apologising, as always. For the first time, a look was shared between our group. Something felt off. I thought back to the question in the cafe. In the taxi home, I asked a friend what she thought of him. She shrugged, admitting he wasn’t her cup of tea, but Amy must see something in him that we don’t.
The next day was a Monday morning. As the only work-from-home employee among our friends, it was well-known that my Mondays were mostly spent in my pyjamas. So, I was surprised to hear Amy’s voice on the phone and not in the office. She told me she needed to pop round, she’d be there shortly.
She arrived looking, as always, immaculate. She strode in, asking for a cup of tea and perched on my battered sofa, carefully painted nails tapping nervously. Amid the whirr of the washing machine and my surprised silence, something shifted. Tears streaming down her face. Silently at first, before she was engulfed in shaking sobs.
She lifted her trademark fringe, an angry dark bruise smarted across her forehead.
“He hit me.” She sobbed. “Again.”
I was devastated. In an instant, I knew who she meant. But, it was the ‘again’ that got to me. Again. Meaning more than once, meaning this wasn’t a one-off.
Looking back, the signs were there. And, I missed them.
"Meaning more than once, meaning this wasn’t a one-off"
Amy’s now safe. Having left her partner, she’s a different person. She has more confidence than you could imagine and writes frequently about her experience. She completed six months of therapy and no longer has her trademark fringe. She also has a new partner, Tom, who is one of the most caring people you could imagine.
Yet, it haunts me. I know now what she suffered through those months. How scared and lonely she must have felt as I complained about never-ending to-do lists and why the house wine at our local was far better than any other. The love that I feel for her is only marred by the guilt that rots me.
She doesn’t blame me. But, I do.
It sounds so ridiculous, so childlike to say that she wasn’t someone who could be a victim. She was always cleverer than me. Bolder in many ways. Travelling alone never scared her; there were few things she didn’t take in her stride.
“So often, our idea of a victim is skewed. It’s important to know that there is no one-size-fits-all victim. They’re as varied as the rest of us. Often the person experiencing domestic violence doesn’t think of themselves as a victim,” advises Evie Muir, Domestic Abuse Specialist.
“While victims are often very good at hiding the signs, they’ll often drop hints. Conversations like yours are their way of testing the water and it’s always worth trying to pick them up. This can sometimes take the form of jokes about their relationship that hint at abuse. The best thing a friend can do is try and spot these red flags, but remember that abusers are very manipulative. The unfortunate likelihood is that the abuse will have gone on for some time prior to you even having the conversation.”
Evie continues to highlight that there are practical things that we can do to help a friend that has trusted us with their experience:
So often we will want to go in ‘all guns blazing’, but this approach rarely works. Instead, you can help your friend create a safety plan. Signposting them to services that can offer practical support such as Refuge and Women’s Aid
Understand that statistically, most victims will go back to their abuser at some point. While this is painful for friends, don’t shut the victim down. Remind them that there is a friendship outside of the relationship and a support network.
Make leaving and seeking support a regular conversation. However, be careful not to badger them as this can often lead to the victim shutting down.
Remember that for a lot of victims, leaving their abuser is more intimidating than staying with them. It can often take months for them to leave and having a friend that is a constant support is really important.
I ask Evie the question that I’ve dreaded the answer to.
“Could I have done more?”
“Realistically, most abuse victims will only reflect on the outcome. If they’ve had access to support, they’ll know that the most important thing is that they’re out of that relationship. Guilt is a complicated emotion. And, in almost every case of domestic abuse, it’s felt in some form. There’s the guilt of loved ones, occasionally guilt from the abuser and most likely, guilt from the victim - for staying with someone that hurt them. Even guilt for going back to an abuser. It’s a process for everyone involved.”
A year on, I posed her the same question to Amy. I was desperate to hear that I was a terrible friend. I needed her to tell me that I failed her in some way or form. That I should have spotted her covert plea or packed her a suitcase, that I should have turned to her in the cafe and forced her to stay at mine.
But actually she paused, a mix of confusion and surprise. She took a sip of her coffee, eyes meeting mine with ease.
“I didn’t know I was a victim myself,” she said. “How would you?”
*Names have been changed
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