Claire Turner suffered for 10 years at the hands of her violent partner: she was hit, kicked and verbally abused. Now, she’s out of the relationship and training to compete in a 6-day marathon across the Sahara Desert to raise money for domestic abuse charity Women’s Aid. As International Women’s Day 2014 sets about “inspiring change,”ELL speaks to Claire about her relationship and how running in Hackney helped her to run out from domestic abuse.
It was 10 years ago when I met Daniel. I was 23 and had just started my first teaching job in South London and he was 30 and working as a printer. I met him out at the pub and we just got chatting. He asked me out on a date –rather than try it on with me –which I though was a good sign, but he was very persistent. At the time I had quite low self-esteem and was just flattered that someone wanted to be with me.
The first time Daniel was physically aggressive towards me was about three months into our relationship. We had decided to move in together so I took him to meet my family. But afterwards, when we were walking home, he just turned on me. He grabbed me by my throat and pinned me up against the railings, shouting in my face. I was so upset that I went home alone, but all I could think was that I had just told my family we were moving in together. That was it: I had made my decision.
It soon became clear that Daniel drank quite a lot, but I thought we were happy in our own little bubble. When he was drunk he would just switch. Sometimes he’d fall asleep in the pub and when he’d wake up his eyes were gone. Then he’d start swearing incoherently as we’d walk home and he’d be poking me and shoving me into the road, and I’d be left trailing behind as he swayed about the pavement.
My friends never liked Daniel, but your friends are never going to tell you that. The one friend that did: that was the end of our friendship. After that –especially as things got worse –I just couldn’t tell anyone because I always knew I’d go back to him after whatever he’d done.
In the 10 years that followed there wasn’t too much physical aggression. I learned how to avoid it and would just freeze in one spot. The times he did hurt me were when I fought back: one time, he was kicking our dog so I jumped over it to protect it and he hit me in the back of the head. Initially he was upset about that, but the slapping and hitting slowly became normal. In one argument he threw me on the ground and kicked me in the face, chipping my front teeth. That kind of violence didn’t happen all the time, but I was always controlled and I was always scared.
I had always wanted to have children and Daniel knew this. In 2009, we moved from London to the south coast, bought the perfect family home and began trying for a baby. I was still teaching when living on the south coast. It was a 5 hour daily commute – that seems like madness now…
Daniel’s drinking and mood swings got worse and worse, and in December 2011 we moved back to London. Soon after, he came home from work and announced: “I don’t want kids and I never have done. If that’s what you want, you can fuck off and find someone else.” It broke my heart but I said nothing.
I tried to think about the goods things. I booked a flurry of gig tickets and a holiday to Sri Lanka for that Easter. But when we were away Daniel drank continually and behaved awfully. One night he was so bad that a stranger came over and intervened. He told me: “That man in there treats you with no respect”. No one had ever said this to me before and Daniel just walked off. The next morning Daniel was taunting: “What are you doing, look at the state of you, you look like a slag.’And in that moment I saw absolute clarity. I knew I was leaving him, I just didn’t know how to do it.
I decided to wait until we got back from holiday. I left work early to collect my stuff from our flat and had just half an hour to pack everything. I was a state. Even the dog could sense the tension, and was wondering around the house after me whining and crying. I packed a backpack and two bags and put them by the door. When he arrived home I told him my plans to leave.
He started shouting: “No you’re not, you don’t make those fucking decisions. You are not going anywhere.”He picked up his fist and I thought he was going to punch me but he missed and smashed it through a door. I was shaking and terrified but I walked right past him, put my backpack on, picked up my bags and left. I will always remember the weight lifting as I walked out that front door.
After leaving Daniel I was homeless for four months, moving around between friends. Work was very supportive in that time. Somehow I managed not to take a single day off— everyone just got used to seeing me carrying lots of bags around.
That May a friend’s husband invited me to go running with him with the Hackney Run Dem Crew running club, and although I never knew where I’d be staying, I ran every Tuesday — that became my routine. It was so nice to be among a group of people where nobody knew me and I didn’t have to say anything about what was going on. I could be whoever I wanted to be and just run. I think that I wanted to pull some sort of control back and there was something about getting fitter that felt really good. Also, running gives you space to think: whatever bad things have happened, when you’re running you can be calm and think things through and leave it there. I really think that Run Dem kept me sane.
Eventually, with the help of Citizens Advice, Daniel moved out of the flat and I was able to get my home back that August. But, even then, Daniel kept trying to creep his way back into my life. He used the dog, like a child, to claim access rights, and he told me that he would always have a key to where I lived. My dad died that December, which was a real low point, and Daniel got even more involved. He started calling me at my mum’s house and even came to the funeral.
The last time I saw Daniel was after I decided to change my phone number. He pushed his way into the flat one evening and I knew in his eyes that he was wasted. He went into the lounge at started to cry. I told myself to be brave and asked him to leave, but he started smashing the room apart. I was terrified. He had told me before that he would cut me up into little pieces and I thought that this was it: he was going to kill me. I had to escape.
I seized the moment –as he was tugging the dog out from under the sofa –to run out of the door. It was cold and I was only wearing a cardigan, but I ran a mile to the police station. When I got there I was in such a mess that I could hardly speak, but they sent a police van and a car and seven police officers round into the house while I hid in the car. Daniel had left.
The police put me in touch with Women’s Aid and I got what is called ex parte non-molestation order. The judge worded it really strongly: Daniel wasn’t allowed within 250m of my house or 500m of my workplace and he wasn’t allowed to contact me in any way, shape or form. I also had to go back after two weeks to see Daniel in court and get the order extended. But he didn’t show up and the judge extended it for another year. Daniel broke the order almost immediately, but that got him fined and he’s now got a criminal record — the order runs out in May.
I never thought I could be as happy as I am now, I didn’t think it was possible. And now I’m training to do the Marathon des Sables, a six day run across the Sahara Desert. To do it, your body has to be fit but it’s more of a mental battle. I have trained my mind to be strong –when everything was kicking off around me I used to transport myself away through a kind of meditation. Now I can use that ability to block everything out; to focus, to keep going and finish the marathon.
I realise now that I’ve been lucky, I’ve got a good job, and I’m financially independent. But for many women, when they walk out, they really don’t have any friends to support them; they will be in a refuge because they’ve got no job, or they might have children. The thought of that is really tough. Women’s Aid helped me, but they also help so many other women. It just feels amazing to raise money for such a good cause. I hope that sharing my story will help other women to seek support so that they can feel as happy as I feel now.
Support Women’s Aid by sponsoring Claire Turner to run the Marathon de Sables here.