It had been a good night. A concert, on to a club and some laughs with friends.
As her partner pulled her to his side to whisper gently in her ear, Nicola Borthwick thought it was to pay her a compliment, say something nice, maybe share a romantic moment.
The sharp jab in her ribs suggested something different.
“He said ‘I could put a knife in you’ right there,” recalls Nicola. “We had been having fun, we were with friends. It was completely out of the blue.
“I didn’t know what was going on. I told myself he’d had a difficult past, he had anger issues.”
It was early in the relationship, but with that jab in the ribs, the die was cast. There would be no black eyes, no obvious bruises, no scars and no broken bones, yet Nicola would go on to be emotionally and mentally battered by her partner’s abuse for years.
There were the times she recalls being scared to pick up the phone in case she didn’t say ‘hello’ in a tone of voice that suited him.
Inexplicable rages that would erupt for no reason, and constant put-downs and criticisms were commonplace.
“I was a fat bitch, I didn’t do things properly, I ate too much, I was criticised for the way I breathe, he’d shout and kick the walls,” she recalls.
“I had to breastfeed my son in the dark, he’d kick me out of bed when my son was feeding, saying it was too noisy. I had to sleep downstairs on the sofa bed so I didn’t disturb him.
“Next day he’d be like a ray of sunshine. You start to feel you’re going insane. It was the two extremes, it was frightening.”
Smart, with a strong Christian faith and a good support network of family and friends, she might seem an unlikely victim of abuse. Yet she claims it was so insidious that even she struggled to figure out just what was going on.
It took a call to Scottish Women’s Aid in the days after she finally fled in fear, to help her realise exactly what had been happening.
“People who are abused have black eyes, broken bones. They didn’t look like me,” she says.
“But that call switched on a light. The woman I spoke to completely understood what had been going on in my life. I remember thinking ‘you must know him’, no-one else understood like this.”
Nicola, 41, now lives in Colinton Mains, is studying English literature at university and rebuilding her life after five years of abuse. Chillingly, she now realises that her experience is far from unique.
There were 59,882 domestic abuse incidents reported in Scotland in 2014-15, compared with 58,439 in 2013-14 – an increase of 2.5 per cent.
While some undoubtedly involved physical assaults, others are likely to have involved persistent dominating behaviour, undermining and controlling, whittling away at the victim’s self-esteem, threatening them and manipulating them.
Now Nicola is appealing for other women experiencing abuse at the hands of a partner to contact the new National Domestic Abuse and Forced Marriage 24-hour helpline, operated by Scottish Women’s Aid.
It offers crisis support, referrals to agencies that can help, emotional support, as well as guidance with housing, safety planning and benefits. It’s also there to support professionals, family members, colleagues and friends concerned about someone they know.
Nicola contacted Scottish Women’s Aid after taking a “split second, instant” decision to leave her home outside Glasgow.
“Quite often with abusers, it’s not terribly physical, the abuse is so ambiguous and subtle, it’s something that grows and they build on it. But at that moment I felt it was clear something else could happen. My son was four years old, and I was scared for him. I left my home where my family and friends were close by, all my possessions, everything I had, and fled.”
Talking to a Scottish Women’s Aid counsellor put everything into perspective.
“The words she spoke, I could cry just thinking of them,” says Nicola. “Everything slotted together. You get to the brink of losing it. I went from being adored to being called a fat bitch. If he called and I said ‘hi’ the wrong way, he’d say ‘how dare you answer the phone like that to me?’.
“I wasn’t allowed to spend money. He had complete control of the finances. One day I took my son to Largs for a day out on the ferry. It cost £4 for a ticket. He went bananas, swearing and shouting at me. He was a high earner, it wasn’t about money, it was about control. It drives a person mad. I thought I was the only person these things happened to.”
Even after she fled, the stress continued when her ex discovered where she was. “Abusers don’t like to let go,” she adds. “He was arrested several times but it’s hard to prosecute someone for being a bully.
“Now we’re protected by a court order but we still live with that fear. I can’t give my son the freedom other children have because there’s always that fear.
“Thankfully Women’s Aid has been there throughout – it’s an incredible service.”
She’s now in a new, loving relationship. And while the abuse has ended, it has had a lasting impact.
“I don’t know if it will be the same again,” she says. “I’m not as relaxed as I would have been before I met my abuser. And I don’t know if I will ever regain that sense of peace.”
Nicola now hopes to put her experiences to positive use, helping others.
“It’s important to change people’s minds about what domestic abuse is, and educate men not to be abusers,” she adds.
“It feels like I lost years – they were stolen from my life. I’ll never get them back. One of the most healing things of all, has been to speak about it.”
Help at any time of day or night
SCOTTISH Women’s Aid helps thousands of women every year who are at risk or experiencing domestic abuse or forced marriage.
Domestic abuse is persistent and controlling behaviour by a partner or ex-partner which causes physical, sexual and/or emotional harm. It often gets worse over time.
It isn’t always the result of a fight or argument – in some cases it can take the form of withholding money and finances, monitoring women and children’s movements, restricting what they wear, who they see, where they go and what they say, on and offline. And it cuts across class, ethnic and social boundaries.
The new helpline is designed to provide immediate support and advice – any time of day or night.
Dr Marsha Scott, pictured, chief executive of Sottish Women’s Aid, said: “We have assembled a skilled and specially trained staff team made up of the most incredibly warm and welcoming women as well as a new phone system that connects male callers directly to a specialist service designed just for men.
“With the support of the Scottish Government and partners across Scotland, we plan to end domestic abuse and forced marriage; in the meantime, those in need of help can be assured that our new helpline is there for them when they need it.”
The new 24/7 helpline can be contacted on 0800 027 1234 or e-mail [email protected] For more information, visit www.ndafmhs.org.uk.