My husband punches me at a wedding. He smashes my head into a concrete floor again, and again, and again. He puts a bag over my head and a knife in my hands.
"Kill me," he screams. "Kill me now."
My knuckles are white and I can barely breathe. The plastic bag clings flimsily to my face. Both our hands are twisted around the blade.
I know in this moment I could kill him.
My husband came to me when I was 24 and vulnerable, a single mum to six-month-old Jake and sister to a man who had just been diagnosed with leukaemia.
My husband treated me as if I was the centre of his world. His devotion and desire to be by my side at all times felt amazing.
It was intoxicating, a dream romance. I wanted to share the rest of my life with him.
He moved into my flat within weeks and soon the red flags started to show.
We could only go out together. Couples who went out separately, he said, must be cheating.
He’d want to know about every conversation I had with people and where I had been.
But I liked being around him. I had no idea that my freedom was slowly slipping away – and that soon he would oversee my whole life.
I can remember the first punch to this day, a hammering blow that sent me hurtling down a grassy bank.
It was a year after we first met and we were at a family wedding.
We were outside the venue and I was trying to leave because he’d become aggressive.
As I walked away, he started punching me in the back and, dressed in my smart clothes I’d carefully chosen for the day, I fell.
I was so stunned and shocked, I couldn’t fully grasp what had just happened.
His parents gave me a lift home. We sat in the car in silence.
The next morning he turned up at my house crying. I let him in.
I know now that I should have ended it. But the horrible truth is that I was already broken by him. I didn’t think I deserved any better.
The second beating was at home and I thought he would kill me. Each blow to my face smashed my head into the concrete floor.
White bursts of light erupted in front of my eyes. But by some miracle I survived. I knew by then that my life was entirely in his hands. How could I escape now?
We got married in 1997 and had our first daughter Daisy two years later. Danielle followed in 2000.
By then the violence was part of my day-to-day life, stripping me of any sense of who I was. I was black and blue and lost – and I saw no way out.
My husband did terrible things but the worst was not physical.
Bruce, my brother, had fought a desperate battle against leukaemia. I had donated bone marrow to try to save him but the surgery was unsuccessful.
He died in 1999 when he was just 30. I was devastated.
My husband would not let me grieve and when I cried in front of him, he told me to stop because I was ruining his day.
I wasn’t able to support my family when they needed me and that is something I can never forgive him for.
My 32nd birthday was to be one of the most significant days of my life.
I was excited and, as I celebrated with friends, I tried to push the previous night’s ordeal where he’d wrapped my head in the plastic bag away.
Then he started to get aggressive at the party. Many friends weren’t fully aware of his violent ways – but some of them were.
A friend turned to me and said, "Charlotte, this has to stop because you are going to lose your children.”
It was a lightbulb moment.
I left him later in 2002, went to court in secret and got orders to have him removed from the house – although he still had contact with the children.
I felt so relieved, but I knew it wasn’t over. For the next eight years, he saw the kids and was still incredibly controlling.
He’d ask the children what I was doing, how I was spending my time and who I was with.
But my husband was now my ex husband – and I had started to rebuild my life.
I began work as a support worker at the RBWA Women’s Refuge in 2009, My job involved giving domestically abused women food, clothes, bedding, money, uniforms for their children – giving them their life back.
Some of them had taken their children and fled hundreds of miles with just the clothes on their backs.
The women at the refuge changed my life with their bravery. At this point I had not reported my ex husband to the police. But in 2010 these amazing survivors gave me the strength to go.
Officers did a risk assessment and said mine was one of the worst cases of domestic abuse they had ever seen.
They asked me to press charges, but at that point I was still too scared.
I told them the only way I would press charges is if he was harming other women..
Not long after, I got a call telling me two women had pressed charges against him and I took strength from that.
I made a formal complaint to the police and then, in abject terror, went into hiding in a country cottage for six weeks with my children.
It took 14 months for the case to get to court but finally, after so many years, he was found guilty of 11 offences including two counts of threats to kill against me and three of aggravated bodily harm.
It was 2011. I stood in the courtroom to see him jailed for seven years. He would not even look at me.
I felt so proud of myself and couldn’t believe I had finally taken the steps to remove him from my life.
We had seven years of peace and being able to live our lives.
The family courts said he was too dangerous to see the children after release and probation prevented him from coming anywhere near us.
However, his probation ended in March last year and I had to get orders in place to protect ourselves.
The fact that 16 years on I am still having to do that proves abuse of the coercive and controlling kind never goes away.
That person will never give up.
He is still their dad and he is out there and all the time he is living and breathing he is in the back of my mind.
But I also want other victims to know that there is hope in refuges like the RBWA.
The women who come to the refuge are at the highest risk of murder.
Why else would you leave everything behind? They can’t bring many possessions, as they can’t draw attention to the fact they are escaping.
They will probably be leaving jobs, the children will definitely be leaving schools, friends, family, pets – kids find that really hard.
But there’s light at the end of the tunnel and on the other side of seeking help, an incredible life can be waiting for you.
For more information on the RBWA refuge for women, visit www.rbwa.org.uk
Safe at Last: Inside a Women’s Refuge can be viewed on Channel 4
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