I'm at that time in my life where every summer involves a wedding or two. Or three or four or five as it’s worked out so far this year. I know this peak won’t last forever and I feel a bit sad about that. I love how a wedding brings people together in spite of distance, from around the country and around the globe, because people don't miss weddings for the world. I love how you can look around the room at any one point and know that every person in it is joined by mutual feelings of love and affection for the two people at the centre of it all. When I got married, it made me so absurdly happy to see that all of our friends were now friends.
Recently, I met a woman called Tara at a friend’s wedding, and we ended up feeling like we’d known each other for years. She was warm and open, funny and fiery, and her power to draw me in was electric. I found myself migrating towards her whenever there was an opportune moment. We shared really honest stories with each other throughout the day, and I was very touched when she so willingly agreed to be part of A Mile in My Shoes.
I’d heard her say things like, ‘Always the bridesmaid and never the bride’ and ‘when will it be my turn?’. She had a young son, but didn’t mention a partner, and I wondered what her situation might be. Later on, when we talked, she filled in the gaps to her story.
Tara lives in the North East with her sister, her nephew and her little boy. She works as a domestic abuse support worker for a charity, which she talks about with fire and passion in her eyes.
“I love my job more than anything,” she says. “I can’t imagine doing anything else.”
Her role involves enabling women to flee domestic abuse. She helps them to be rehoused, in safe, private places, along with their children, if they have any. She assesses women’s needs and puts them in touch with services that provide counselling, sexual health information, financial support and employment. I can only imagine the relief these women feel when they arrive at the door in a crisis and get taken in by Tara. She’s a person you want listening to your story, she’s a person you want fighting your corner, she’s a person you can trust to make things happen.
Because as much as Tara has the knowledge and the experience, the qualifications and the degree, and all the correct training, she’s also been there, to some extent, and she knows how dangerous a toxic relationship can be.
She met her ex-partner, Paul, on a night out in town. It was a particularly low point in her life when she was working at a mental health unit. She’d been let go from her position in the Job Centre due to a long period of absence because of depression. A long and drawn out work tribunal saw her win an unfair dismissal case, but with few immediate options for work, she took the only thing available at the time.
She admits that the warning signs were there when she and Paul initially met. He confessed the following day that he was already in a relationship and she told him that she wasn’t interested unless he became single. Six months later, he was back on the scene and ready to try and win her affection.
“I was very vulnerable at the time. I was still struggling with depression. When I met Paul, I was just desperate for affection.”
They started going out, and six months later, she moved into his house when she found out she was pregnant with his baby.
“It moved really fast, but I was 34 at the time. I really wanted a baby so I was happy, and you haven’t got time to mess around at that age.”
Although the baby brought them together, Tara soon started to see Paul’s true colours. He was a drinker and a gambler, and she’d sometimes find bottles of spirits hidden around the house.
“He could sometimes be really aggressive. Once, he chased me round the house when I was carrying Jack [her son]. He was drunk and I didn’t want him to pick the baby up. When I put Jack down, he pushed me really hard into a wardrobe.”
“Of course he was really sorry afterwards,” she tells me, almost laughing. “They always are. He threw bottles of alcohol down the sink and told me he’d change. I’d studied domestic abuse at university so I knew all the signs, but leaving him wasn’t an option. I didn’t have rights to anything. It was his house, I wasn’t on the mortgage. I had a young baby and no money. I was a bit stuck.”
Time went on and he didn’t change. He was very controlling and psychologically abusive. He complained about how long she spent in the shower, reminding her that it was his house, and he made her deduct personal items from the weekly shopping before he’d give her half the money towards it. He wouldn’t contribute to the childcare when her maternity leave ended because he said it was her choice to go back to work. He wouldn’t let her surname go on their son’s birth certificate because he was the man, and taking the man’s name is just what you do.
I am speechless when she tells me this. I can’t imagine how a man could treat the mother of his baby this way, but equally, I can’t match the woman of this story with the woman standing in front of me – so confident, so strong, so spirited.
“What changed?” I ask her.
“I came home early from work one day because I had a problem with my car and I wanted him to look at it. But the door was locked and I couldn’t open it because his keys were in the lock. The window cleaners were out the front and I asked them if they’d seen him. I knew the answer by the look on their faces."
“Eventually, Paul came to the door, all sheepish-looking, and he pulled the door closed behind him so I couldn’t get in. But it didn’t take me long to notice the girl sneaking out the back door. And that was it. That’s what changed."
"I was distraught. After everything we'd been through together, and everything I'd put up with, I couldn't believe he'd do that to me. I re-lived that moment of finding them together over and over again, every day, for months."
But, as much as she was devastated, it gave Tara the kick she needed to finally leave him. She moved into her sister’s two bedroom house for a month, while they looked for another place to live. She took Paul to court when he wouldn’t let her change their son’s name to be double-barrelled - and she won.
“He turned up with a short paragraph on a scrappy bit of paper, and I arrived with pages and pages of legitimate reasons for why I wanted my son to share my last time. I go to court all the time for work. I knew exactly what to do. That was a satisfying win.”
When she couldn’t find a suitable place for her and her son to rent, her sister suggested they all look for somewhere big enough for the four of them.
“I thought she was a mad at first,” Tara says. “We’re sisters, so we could have easily killed each other, but in actual fact, she saved me. If I didn’t have people around me, I would have slumped into a deep depression. It was exactly what I needed. I feel like a different person now.”
I can see that Tara has thrown everything into her family and her work. She has channelled all those bad memories into helping other women who have been through similar experiences and worse. I ask her about the future, a promotion maybe, to save up for a place of her own. But she tells me, no. She doesn’t want to be a manager, she’d prefer to stay doing what she does best. “I love empowering women to change things for themselves and being able to give them information that can save their lives.”
And now I can match them up. The woman from the beginning of the story and the one telling it.
She and her sister and their children are an unbreakable little family of four. Life has its ups and downs, as it does with any family, but they’re happy there for now. Tara would like to have her own place one day, but right now she’s exactly where she needs to be.
I think to myself that it’s the perfect end to this story: women holding up other women in a way that only they know how. Sisters, doing it for themselves.
But this is really only the beginning of the story. I think Tara is destined for incredible and powerful things. She is a woman, hear her roar.