Irene Wakefield runs Prepair NZ, a service that educates 15-19 year-olds about healthy relationships. This is her story, in her own words.
I identified abusive relationships as being physically abusive. I had no awareness throughout the relationship that I was in that mental and emotional abuse existed. Physical abuse was my only boundary. There was never anything that made me think the behaviour I was experiencing was serious.
It was really normal for me and for my friends at the time to have to get permission from our partners to go out partying with our mates. We never questioned why we were asking, we just did it because it was normal to us.
I would never commit to plans with my friends because I wanted to revolve my schedule around this person.
Everything that I did—even the way I chose to dress—revolved around keeping somebody else happy. I would never commit to plans with my friends because I wanted to revolve my schedule around this person. I did nothing for me. You've probably heard someone saying the words "I am nothing without you." And that was very true for me in that relationship, because everything I did was for him.
A whole series of events happened that led me to realise that I needed to leave him, and [after four years of being together] I did that. One year later, I decided to go on my first overseas holiday and I booked a trip—10 days alone on a tropical Island. I was waiting for the plane when I stumbled across a Facebook article. This was just a random blog post I was reading through and it talked about the early signs of abuse in a relationship, like control, isolation, possessiveness, and using alcohol as an excuse for behaviours. When I read through it, I realised that it was like seeing my own story reflected back at me. That was the moment that I realised that my relationship had been mentally and emotionally abusive for four years.
There was anger, there was shock, there was embarrassment.
I was angry. I was really angry. I just didn't understand how I was unable to identify it. There was anger, there was shock, there was embarrassment, but there wasn't any ill-feeling towards that relationship. It was more about okay, what can I do about this now? I now have this knowledge that many other young women probably don't, so how can I get this information to the masses? To me, it really, honestly hurt me to think there could be other young women putting their lives on hold for something they perceive to be love but actually isn't. I could have advanced myself and my life a lot more, had I had this vital information earlier. But I didn't, because I was in a relationship that I thought was demonstrating love to me. It wasn't.
A couple of years [after my trip], I was driving home from work, managing a bank here in Wellington. I'd had a rough day at work. I was ready for something that was a bit more meaningful to me. I got home from work—it was Christmas Eve actually—and I was wrapping the presents. I said to my partner, "There's this thing that I've always wanted to do." I wanted to make sure that young women across New Zealand were educated about abuse, and I wanted them to feel confident in themselves as a woman in a relationship. That night I launched an Instagram page and started a blog and Prepair NZ started there.
I can sit in a café for an hour and drink a coffee and I don't need to talk to anyone. That's the difference. I do things for me.
What I learned from the three years in between that relationship and the one that I'm in today is how to be comfortable in my own company. I can sit in a café for an hour and drink a coffee and I don't need to talk to anyone. That's the difference. I do things for me. I know full well if my current relationship was to end, I will be okay. Of course I would be sad, of course I would be. But I am so comfortable now in who I am, that I know that the world's not going to end. I have a lot going for me. I have a great circle of friends around me. Back then, I didn't. When that relationship ended, so did every friendship that I had because they were not my friends, they were his.
We're almost two years in and obviously PrePair has grown a lot. We use social media quite actively to engage our audience, online resources, and I deliver talks and workshops all across New Zealand.
If we are to try and prevent domestic violence in our country, then we have to get right down to the low level forms of abuse and tackle that. If you flick through a newspaper, you watch the news, when you hear somebody talking about an abusive relationship, it's almost always physical. We don't talk about mental and emotional abuse enough yet. How will we ever change it if we can't go right back to the things that happen in the infancy of a relationship and tackle it there.
Abusive relationships are like a road block to the potential of many young women in our country. What I wanted to do was build some sort of organisation that was instrumental in moving those road blocks out of the way so that young women could carry on and become whoever it is they're supposed to be and not put their lives on hold for a relationship. A core part of that is ensuring that they are educated about mental and emotional abuse, instilling a sense, a belief, and a desire to look from a self-loving place. We want to help prevent domestic violence in our country through education and radical self love.
Irene Wakefield is speaking at Festival of the Future in Auckland this weekend. See more about the festival here.
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