Tara South never wants to be known as a victim of domestic violence.
After a volatile two year relationship in which she was thrown down the stairs by her hair and threatened with being stabbed in the face, she considers herself a survivor – and is determined to share her story to help others.
“It’s a life changing experience that has made me grow in so many ways, but I’m not defined by it,” Ms South told the Herald from Kuwait, where she moved in July.
“It’s something that happens to you, but it’s not you, it’s not what you are.
“I want people to know they are not alone – this is something that occurs worldwide and they can do it, they can get out.”
Newcastle-raised Ms South left her former partner in December last year and returned from their Morocco home to the Hunter for 10 weeks of trauma therapy that “got me through to the other side”.
As she approached the end of her treatment she decided to record a series of frank videos about her experience, which have since been viewed from across the world.
“I wanted to share my story so hopefully it can assist other people who find themselves in the same situation or are helping people in this situation,” Ms South said.
“I’ve had more than 100 people reach out to me – people that I know and people that I don’t know – sharing their stories of support, or of being in the same situation, or picking up similarities in their past relationships.
“I love [Pastor] John Hagee’s quote ‘Your story is the key that can unlock someone else's prison, so share your testimony’. If this can help anyone in any way, shape or form, my work is done and I’m happy to have done it.”
Ms South moved to Morocco for work three years ago. She became friends with her former partner and they started a relationship three months later.
“He was very engulfing, he wanted to be with me all the time, he would pick me up from work, drive me around, cook me dinner. He seemed loving, caring and was always there for me.”
The couple enjoyed a honeymoon period for about six months, before cracks started to appear.
His growing anger at his work and his colleagues slowly pivoted towards her.
She asked him to leave after he punched a wall, but he returned the next day crying and “pushed the right buttons” to manipulate her into continuing the relationship and moving into a new home.
Ms South said he soon started putting her down and criticising her about the time she spent at work, her friends and what she wore, said and did.
“The constant subtle belittling, the isolation and the manipulation – when you’re in it you can’t see it,” she said. “But when you hear it a lot over time you start to believe it. I’m a very strong, independent woman, but it does not matter who you are, what background you come from, what you’ve done or what you’ve gone through, we can all find ourselves in these kinds of relationships – even friendships or family relationships can have abusive elements.”
She remembers returning home to him entertaining friends in their home as a major turning point.
He rushed downstairs to their bedroom and threatened to stab her in the face.
“That was the start of it getting very bad,” she said.
“He would then do things like lock us in the house and take away my keys, lock all the doors and windows and say ‘Now you’re going to get it’, talking really big and not doing anything.”
But the verbal abuse escalated into physical violence soon enough.
Ms South was thrown against the wall, down the stairs and left with cuts and bruising.
“One time he grabbed my arm so hard a vein popped out and protruded for weeks,” she said. “He was very smart about it – he would hit me so it was coverable and I did hide it.
“We get very good at hiding, faking it, because we want to believe that it’s going to be okay and we’re going to get through it.
“But at the end of the day it’s not okay, you don’t need to put up with it and you don’t need to get through it, because it’s not normal behaviour.”
However, Ms South said, it’s hard to see clearly while in the eye of the storm.
“The verbal abuse was the worst – with physical violence you can heal from anything that occurs on your body,” she said. “But it’s the mental abuse that leads to that feeling of entrapment or that you can’t get out.
“I would go ‘Thank God nothing has broken’ or ‘That didn’t hurt as much as I thought it would hurt’.
“My first concern was him and not me. My instant reaction was to take care of him. He would be remorseful after he would hit me, he would apologise and not leave the house before everything was okay between us.
“The manipulation is so great you do go back, because you feel love for these people who have hurt you.”
Ms South said the last straw came two weeks before Christmas, when she stepped out of the shower and he started kicking her on the floor. “I looked into his eyes and I saw this hatred,” she said. “That’s when I knew I had to get out. If I did not get out, I did not know where it would go.”
Racked with adrenaline, anxiety, guilt and self-blame, she drove to another village to house-sit for friends, changed her telephone number and cut off all contact.
Ms South developed post traumatic stress disorder but stayed in Morocco for another five months and threw herself into work.
She said leaning on her loved ones was crucial.
“The support and love of my good friends once I got home was nourishing,” she said. “They really listened to me, never labelled me and never judged me.”
However Ms South found some friends were not comfortable with her discussing her ordeal.
She said supporting someone through an abusive relationship was complex, but asked concerned family member and friends to be patient as they helped their loved one to heal.
“For those people it’s like watching a ticking time-bomb,” she said.
“You can understand the frustration, especially if those people have never been in a relationship that is manipulative.
“I know it is heart-breaking watching someone you love go through it, but I urge you to be patient.”
Ms South encouraged domestic violence survivors to maintain their independence by pursuing their interests and hobbies during and after the relationship – and not be afraid to seek help.
“At the end of trauma therapy we started to look at moving forward and projecting what you want outwards,” she said.
“The message is don’t stand for anything less in your relationships.
“You create the standards now.”
For help: 1800RESPECT, Lifeline on 13 11 14.