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He didn’t hit me—but that doesn’t mean he didn’t hurt me

I have carried the weight of these stories with me for my whole life, because I wasn’t brave enough to speak out—and because I didn’t want to accept it. But we can’t heal what we don’t talk about.

CW: Discussion of emotional and physical abuse.

Like many people, I’ve experienced some horrible things when it comes to relationships. But because they didn’t physically harm me, I always dismissed it. I’d tell myself I was lucky—because other people had it much, much worse. After all, we live in a country where an average of one woman is killed every week at the hands of a former or current partner: something so shocking, yet so frequent. It desensitises us.

But abuse is so much more than just physical: it can be emotional, psychological, financial, cultural and more, which can have huge impacts on your well-being. Especially when 2.2 million Australian women and 1.4 million men have experienced emotional partner abuse since the age of 15.

In the moment, I didn’t always realise the gravity of what I was experiencing—especially as an undiagnosed autistic. While research is new in this area, emerging studies show that autistic women are more likely to experience abuse and violence, for a number of reasons, including communication challenges, literal thinking, missing contextual and social cues, and difficulty seeing red flags. According to French study, 9 in 10 autistic women have experienced sexual violence, while another study indicated that 70% of autistic adults had experienced some form of sexual abuse.

We definitely need more research into this area, but these findings resonate with me—because I often didn’t understand when people were being awful to me—and when I did, I’d dismiss it. It didn’t seem so bad. But as an adult, I can look back and say I didn’t recognise it because I was simply used to being treated poorly. I’d look at the bare minimum of a decent person, and hold them up on a pedestal—even for the tiniest things that do not deserve praise. And when I started dating, I’d make excuses for their behaviour.

He calls me stupid, but he sometimes makes me laugh.

He won’t let me use my money, but he compliments me.

He wants me to stop talking to my mum, but he bought me a chocolate on Valentines Day.

It was hard for me to accept how I was treated—and it was even harder to know I’d let myself be treated this way: because I didn’t realise it was bad. Because I didn’t realise how I should be treated. Because as a young person, I was more excited about the prospect of a man having interest in me than how he was treating me—especially when I was a teenager, and he was an adult.

We accept the love we think we deserve. And I was drowning in a pool of low self-esteem and self-hatred. It would inevitably end—and then someone would be “nice” to me, and I’d fall back into the same cycle.

Not everyone I dated was bad—a lot of them were wonderful humans who treated me with kindness. But a lot of them didn’t. And we often don’t realise how bad a situation is until we’re out of it: because we tell ourselves that abuse is something that happens to someone else. Not us. We feel like it’s not bad enough to recognise it or fix it. We feel silly talking about it and sharing it, because surely the world will scream at us for our candour.

I didn’t see the signs of abuse. Like when a partner would ignore me as punishment for weeks on end when I did something—or talked to someone—he didn’t want me to. Like when a partner made up lies about my friends to isolate me from them. Like the partner who would guilt-trip me into doing things I really didn’t want to do.

Like when an ex-partner told me he was hurting himself because I didn’t want to get back with him, and harassed me for months, begging me to take him back. Like when a partner came over to tell me he’d cheated on me, and then ended up raping me.

Like when a partner yelled and swore at me for not being able to do a particular thing when my disabilities were bad. The words still ring through my head so often, sometimes I believe them—even though I know with brain inflammation, it’s not my fault if I can’t do things.

I never told anyone about most of these things—because I knew the people around me who cared about me would judge my partners (rightly so). And I was ashamed—and oh, so terrified. Because it’s scary to talk about these things. As I type this, my hands are shaking. I am afraid of the potential backlash that women who speak out about these types of things so often experience.

We don’t talk enough about non-violent abuse. We’re often shamed into silence, and if we do publicly speak about it, we become targets: from our perpetrators, from the media, and from society. It sends us the message that we dare not speak about these things, lest we too become targets.

I grew up hearing claims like “if you talk about it after years have passed, it’s not true”, which is so ridiculous and harmful. Every single woman I’ve spoken to about assault or abuse has shared their own stories with me. Every. Single. One. And none of them ever reported it. Not to mention the fact that a lot of us don’t realise something is abuse, assault or rape until much later: because we often diminish our own experiences, and often don’t talk about them.

But we have to. Especially because rates of violence and abuse increase when you add in intersectionality, like disability, being LGBTQIA+ and being a person of colour. When more than half of disabled women between the ages of 18 and 64 have experienced violence, and when 90% of women with intellectual disabilities have experienced abuse, we have a huge problem.

I have carried the weight of these stories with me for my whole life, because I wasn’t brave enough to speak out—and because I didn’t want to accept it. It was easier to just shove it down.

But we can’t heal what we don’t talk about.

And I think it’s time a lot of us deserve to heal.

Zoe Simmons is an award-winning disabled journalist who writes to make a difference.  Check out her website, or follow her on Facebook, Instagram or Twitter for more.