** This story includes descriptions of domestic and family violence **

Toby and I got together in the early 90s in NZ and divorced after we’d been together more than 20 years. After the divorce, it still continued. To this day I get debt collectors and people following up with me about him.

I was 20 when we met through church and I was quite a devout Christian at that time. I’m not now. At the time he was living in a beach front apartment which was worth close to a million dollars even back then and he led a very swishy sort of lifestyle. But as time went on, I realised that he didn’t own any of it. That he didn’t have hot water. He turned off the hot water in the apartment because he wasn’t paying the power bills. He had found a rich man and devout Christian who was looking after him and who owned the apartment. I didn’t know that at first. But then he said he had this opportunity that was happening – a big contract – because he was very creative. And I was 21 and I believed him.

The relationship with the rich guy ended because I came into his life. He didn’t need him anymore. He moved into my flat that was in my parents’ house – my parents were quite wealthy – and they had this lovely granny flat and that’s where we were living. At that stage I was a registered nurse. I wasn’t earning a lot of money, but it wasn’t terrible. And he was able to live off that. About eight months into the relationship we moved in together ‘officially’. That is, out of my parents’ place into a bigger place, because I got a job with a government agency, earning good money.

Toby wasn’t good at earning money, and he wasn’t good at managing his finances. He wasn’t paying child support for his son, Andrew. He was still waiting for his ‘opportunity’, which just never eventuated. And then we were waiting for the next big thing, the next thing, and the next thing, and that was a pattern throughout his life. I ended up paying the child support for his son because I thought it was the right thing to do. And I did that until his son was 18 because I didn’t want his son or his ex-wife to be impacted by that.

Early warning

The first time a debt collector called, I was petrified. You know, when your blood runs cold and you just get that rush of adrenalin? It’s like, “Oh my God.” That was just before we got married. We’d been together about six years at that point. It was a credit card that he had gotten alongside my credit card that he hadn’t paid, and he’d been getting cash advances out to go gambling with it, to the tune of $10,000 at that stage. And I had to ask my Mum for the money. I remember vividly just before my wedding, having a cup of coffee with my mum in a cafe and telling her about it.

Now I think, ‘if somebody had reached out to me,’ if my Mum that day had said, “What are you doing? Don’t do this.” Maybe I would have thought twice.

His control

I was travelling for work a lot, so I would go away for up to 14 days. And I knew that he would need money in that time because he wasn’t earning it. He didn’t have his own money. So we had a joint account and he was largely in control of that and he’d be spending money out of our joint account. It was really my account that he had access to because he didn’t put any money in. I used to do these budgets and I just couldn’t figure out why we couldn’t make ends meet. I’d ask, “what are you spending money on when I’m not here?” And he’d say, “just groceries and having a beer at the pub with my mates; how dare you ask me?”

In hindsight, I know now that he was gambling at the time, and spending on alcohol. Because I wasn’t home often, he’d say, “I’m so lonely when you’re not here. You just don’t understand what it’s like for me; you are out there in your five-star hotel with your fabulous work mates, drinking cocktails on the beach.” I wasn’t. I was actually staying in my room, saving my allowances because I knew I had to take them home with me.

He used to work out my allowances, so he would know exactly how much money was coming in. For example, if I was doing a two-night trip to Japan, he would know exactly how much money was coming in as my ‘living away’ allowance. And he would say, I need you to bring back $480 of that $550 work allowance. I had to take a lot of non-perishable food with me on work trips. And he’d say, “do you want more than that? Do you need more than that?” And I’d learned to say, “no, I, I don’t need more than that,” because if I needed more than that, it was, “what do you need it for?” Or if I went out drinking with the team he’d say “That’s fine. You go. I don’t mind you having a good time enjoying yourself with them. I don’t mind that,” but he absolutely did mind it.

For instance, I had seven nights in London. And he’d said, “well, you need to bring home X amount.” And I said, “I actually want to go with the team.” The team were planning a trip to Paris over the weekend. I said, “I think I’d like to go to Paris with them.” Again he was like, “okay. That’s fair enough. That’s fair enough. You know, we could go to Paris, I could take you to Paris. You know, I’ve been to Paris and my family’s from France.”

So I did the Paris trip and he said, “Just ring me every day, so I know that you’re safe.” I ended up with a $1,000 dollar phone bill as a result of having to be on the phone to him all the time. My team would get pissed off with me because I’d be on the phone and they’d be saying, “we need to go, we’re due at dinner.” And he just would not let me get off the phone. And if I put the phone down in his ear, the cost of that when I got home would just be too high to pay, you know? So my choice was keeping these people happy or keeping him happy.

It was quite isolating. I think some of my older female colleagues clocked what was going on, but just didn’t have the words or didn’t particularly care perhaps? Or they’d been there before themselves. Anyway – they were just like, ‘stupid girl.’ There was a bit of that.

Implicit threats

There was a shift when he started earning a little bit more money. He worked for a marketing agency and he started earning some money. And I remember once, he got paid $40,000 in one go, and it became a bit of a story with him and among friends and family, that he earned at least as much as I did. It became something that I accepted and supported and repeated even though it was patently not true.

Very early on in the relationship he made some comments about loyalty and how important loyalty was to him, for us. You know, “if you ever have an issue with anything I’m saying, you must never say it in front of other people. Support me in front of them, but then take it up with me afterwards.” So I could never do that. It was like I’d been programmed to never speak out and to always support publicly the things that he was saying, even if I knew they weren’t true.

So I didn’t usually say anything. If I occasionally did say something to him, it could go one of two ways. He could either be really vulnerable and honest and respond to it in quite an emotionally sound way. Or he could go off. In the immediate aftermath of the untruth or the lie, I could sense which way it was likely to go from how he would look at me and his body language, how much he would speak to me.

It got to the point where his ‘going off’ was something I just couldn’t face. He’d be standing over me, berating me, physically intimidating me, raising his hand. He didn’t actually hit me. To this day he says, “I don’t know how you can tell people that I was abusive, ‘cause I never hit you.” But he was a very large individual; a big man and a trained soldier. So that was always in my mind, that he had the ability to really hurt me if he wanted to. And he made no bones about telling me that, that he could hurt me quite seriously if we wanted to. He’d tell me stories about the things that he’d done; physically harming others. His training in harming others. He told me he had been involved in some quite serious black ops type stuff where you have to kill people without it being obvious. I understood what he was doing in saying these things; the threat. One hundred per cent I understood what he was doing. And I think he knew I understood what he was doing too. It was like an unspoken contract.

Friendships

I have lost a lot of friends over the years. That is one of the big things when I look back on that relationship, that the isolation was a very real thing.

One of my bridesmaids Jess, we were very close before I met Toby. We were like sisters and we went through a lot together. Then she got married to a guy that Toby didn’t like. He’d say, “He’s a creep,” and he was a this and he was that. He was actually quite a nice guy; very successful business owner did a great job of looking after Jess.

So Jess and I stopped seeing each other because we couldn’t get together as couples because Toby didn’t like her partner, and we didn’t get time just the two of us because my time was monitored by Toby and it wouldn’t have been cool if I’d gone out with Jess. Also, I had no money. There was no driving to see her and having coffee together or lunch together or something like that, which somebody in my financial position really should have been able to do. It just wasn’t possible.

Also – when I was on my days off after travelling, he was just demanding all of my time. You know, he’d say, “I haven’t seen you for three days, five days, 10 days.” Whatever it was.

Financial loss

The worst thing that happened to us financially was when we moved to England for my work.

I had saved superannuation from a very young age. And the government agency where I worked had a dollar-for-dollar super scheme. It was a grand-parented one where I had got in just before they closed the scheme. So up to 12 per cent, every dollar I put in they would put a dollar in as well. It’s an old government relic from the days of nationalisation. So by the age of 36, I had saved a lot of money. I had around $650,000 in there.

I’d also bought a house with a gift from my father when he died. And when we moved to England and sold that, we made a lot of money out of it, about $400,000 profit. And I had the $650k sitting in my super account. Because we were leaving New Zealand permanently, I had the option to cash out of the scheme. And I thought, let’s do that, so we can buy a home in London and start a new life over there.

We were in London for about a year and we had been living in a place that came up for sale. And so I put an offer on it and put a one or two per cent deposit down until I could get the rest of the 10 per cent from my account in New Zealand. Toby was in New Zealand at that time, and I said to him that day as I was leaving for work, “we can’t play the currency market any longer. I need the money here tomorrow. The deposit needs to be paid Monday and it’s Wednesday today.”

And I got in the car and on my way to work he phoned me and said, “the money’s gone.” And I said, “Oh, okay, cool. Like when’s it going to be in the account?” And he said, “no, it’s gone.”

And then when he said that the second time that’s when I started to feel it. Like, “Oh my God.” I was driving to work and I can just remember that feeling; like the dawning realisation that what he meant was, the money was gone. A million dollars.

I was like, “what do you mean it’s gone?” He said, “what do you think was funding all those dinners out and all of the clothes that you’ve been buying, what do you think was funding that?” And I was like, “My £70,000 salary!” And I said, “that’s it. I can’t talk to you anymore. I can’t, I’m, I am speechless. I have so much shit to clean up right now. What I need you to do is tell me where you’re moving out to, cause I’m done. This is it. Over and done with.” At that point, I meant it too.

In a year and a half he’d spent a million dollars on all sorts of stuff, mostly gambling. Unbeknownst to me, he had access to my email and was deleting any emails from the bank. He was the only one who had a key to the letterbox. I never had a key for the letter box because that’s where the letters would come in through. And he would be the one that cleared the letter box every day.

As I was going through the aftermath of losing the deposit on the house and all of that, I got a phone call. In fact, I got three phone calls in quite rapid succession from people in New Zealand. And I initially didn’t answer them. But when a mutual friend of ours phoned me a second time. I was like, “oh shit.” So I picked up the phone and he said, “Mel, I think you need to call Toby.” And I was like, “why?” He said, “he’s attempted suicide.” He tried to hang himself in the house.

I went home to New Zealand and I remember a friend of mine driving me to the hospital, and I was thinking very vividly, “Okay. That’s it. I can never leave him now. Now that he’s done this thing, I can never leave him. So what does that look like for the rest of my life? What do I need to do for myself to protect myself for the rest of my life?”

Fear

We stayed together for another six years, living in the same house, but I was becoming afraid for my life.
We were driving one day in his car. And you know, when you know somebody so well? He made this microscopic movement towards a power pole and started to accelerate. And I put my hand on the wheel and just looked at him. Said nothing. We never talked about it, but I never drove anywhere in the car with him ever again. We never discussed it. We never mentioned it. I knew he was going through my stuff. He was in my emails, he was tracking all of my movements. I was actually afraid for my life.

He was drinking openly and excessively. He’d started taking steroids and bulked up and was physically even more threatening. And he was quite deliberate about why he was doing it. On those nights when he was so drunk and throwing things I just had to get out. But of course, I couldn’t afford a hotel because he controlled all the money, and so I had to sleep in my car.

Employment

I was in this very senior role. I’m wearing designer corporate gear every day and there are days I can’t afford to drive my car to work because we haven’t got money for gas. I’d be sleeping in my car because I was afraid for my life and I found it very difficult. It was just constant stress; a constant state of alert.

I lost heaps of weight and I was finding that I was having trouble concentrating at work. Our organisation had just done all this training in domestic violence, so I went to my HR manager, who was my colleague and I expressed this to her.

I had a whole strategy laid out. I said I was going to access the EAP (employment assistance program) and asked if I could work one day a week from the training centre, which was a much quieter space with less distraction. Unfortunately she spoke to my manager and that turned into ‘we have concerns about your ability.’ They even questioned my capability to manage my budget due to my “poor decision making” in my personal life. It became untenable to stay. I will never trust somebody from HR, ever again.

Post-separation

After I left Toby, I moved to Australia and I had started to see this guy. I was very worried about pregnancy and STDs and all that kind of jazz because it’d been a thousand years since I’ve done any of that stuff. I went to family planning and the nurse says, “so we have to ask everybody, are you experiencing domestic abuse?” She was like, “I expect your answer is no, but you know, we have to ask.” And I said, “actually, I am.” At that stage, I’d had no contact with anybody except for HR and EAP back in England. And the nurse says to the receptionist, “You’re going to have to delay my appointments.”

That was so important to me. I think it was just the power of having somebody validate my experience having been completely shat on. You know, I’d learned not to rely on anybody else so when she put her hand out… It was like a drowning person getting thrown a lifeline.

The thing I loved about that particular nurse is that she didn’t feel like she had to fix everything on the spot and get me into a women’s refuge. She just went, “when you’re ready, call this number. Okay. Come back here anytime you need.” And she gave me a little leaflet that had the 1800-RESPECT number on it and they were amazing.

Reflections

I wish more people understood abuse is more than just physical violence. You can abuse somebody without raising your hand. And I think there’s an increasing understanding because of Hannah Clarke that we [victims and survivors] know our abusers better than anybody. She knew what he was capable of. I know what my ex-husband is capable of and still is capable of.

People are interested in the fact that we have remained friendly. It’s because it’s safer. I will always be alert to him. Until he passes away, it’ll be something I need to manage. And let me tell you that COVID makes me feel so safe because he can’t come here. Cause he’s in England, he can’t be here. So I’m golden right now, golden.

* All names have been changed.

Support and resources

If you are reflecting on your own experiences of abuse, you may be interested:

  • To explore Insight Exchange’s My Safety Kit which includes contact details for services across Australian states and territories that may be able to support you in your next steps.
  • To explore services and information that may be helpful in relation to experiences of economic abuse, visit the CWES Directory.
  • To access counselling and support 24/7, you can call the national sexual assault, domestic or family violence and abuse counselling hotline, 1800RESPECT (1800 737 732).