Things I wish I’d known before I dialled 999
By Emily Mckenzie
I was in an abusive relationship. My mum knew it. My friends knew it. My neighbours knew it.
My sweet and timid housemate endured countless sleepless nights listening to it.
And deep down, I knew it too.
In the space of just a year, the man I loved had raped me, cheated on me, threatened me, tried to kill himself in front of me, damaged furniture in fits of rage, and destroyed things that had sentimental value to me.
But part of me was holding on to that one last sliver of hope that actually, he was right – this was all my fault. Maybe I wasn’t doing enough. Maybe I was doing something wrong. Maybe there was
something wrong with me. At least if it was me, then it was something that could still be fixed.
Then one night, I got the clarification I needed. As he charged toward me, pinned me up against a wall and wrapped his hands around my neck, I barely had time to register the severity of the
situation I now found myself in. I didn’t panic about the fact I couldn’t breathe. It didn’t occur to me to fight back or try to get away. I just became very silent and very still as the realisation washed over me… it wasn’t my fault.
People don’t tell you about that – the sense of relief that sometimes comes with being physically assaulted by your partner. The fear and the pain are very present too of course, but you’ve become accustomed to those feelings over time. And they’re entwined with self-doubt, insecurity, and denial. But that feeling of relief? That’s a brief moment of clarity for a victim. You’re seeing tangible evidence that you really are being abused. And no matter how much you love that person, no matter how much you hate yourself – a line has now been crossed. And you
weren’t the one to cross it.
In the moments following the attack, it was fear that gave me the strength to barricade myself against the living room door. But it was relief which gave me the confidence to finally call 999 and ask for help.
And you’d think that’s where my story ends. That his arrest and his conviction of assault would be the start of my journey to heal and recover. But when my trembling hands picked up the phone
that night and asked for the police, I had no idea that it was actually just the start of a far more confusing, far more painful, and far more traumatic experience than anything I’d ever been through with my ex.
The world is full of tips and advice on how to spot, avoid and escape abuse. But rarely do we ever talk about how to ‘be a victim’. That’s why I’m speaking out. Not against my abuser – although I admire and respect any survivor who finds the strength to do so. But against the system put in place to protect people like you and me should we ever be unfortunate enough to cross paths with an abuser.
For the last four years, I’ve had first-hand experience of how the criminal justice system treats survivors of rape and domestic violence.
Here are some of the things I wish I’d known before I was thrown into the deep end of ‘victimhood’ and labelled a survivor.
You’re going to need to keep a record of everything.
Trauma has a habit of making your memory a little hazy. Days, phone calls, conversations, dreams… they all start to blend into each other very quickly. But within hours of calling the police, you’re going to be bombarded with more life admin than you ever anticipated was possible. You’ll be getting phone calls from the police, solicitors, doctors, family, friends, work, charities, victim support organisations, letting agencies, and more. Start making a list of every person who contacts you, where they’re calling or emailing from, why they called, when they called, and what you spoke about. This information is invaluable, and you will be expected to remember it even years later. No matter how insignificant the contact is, write it down on the list. I found it helpful to use an online document so that I could access it wherever and whenever I was either by phone or laptop.
You need to get an ISVA or an IDVA… as soon as possible.
An ISVA (Independent Sexual Violence Advisor) or an IDVA (Independent Domestic Violence Advisor) is someone who can support you through the investigation process and beyond. They know what you’re going through, they know the support services in your area, they know the law and can guide you through it, and they can act as a ‘middle man’ between you and the police when things get too much. They act completely independently of the police and they’re on your side. The police should be able to assign you one but most victim-survivors have better luck requesting one from a domestic violence charity or victim support organisation.
The police are not on your side.
While you may be lucky enough to be assigned an officer who is kind and understanding, the Police are simply there to investigate whether or not a crime happened. They won’t ‘take sides’ and this often leads to them being cold and blunt in their communications with you. In particular, if you are reporting a rape, you can expect to be treated with suspicion by the police. The investigation process often lasts for years, and if the case makes it to trial you will be waiting even longer.
You will be asked to provide an overwhelming amount of personal data.
More so than your perpetrator in most cases. This can be everything from school records and social services records, to your entire life’s medical history and the contents of your phone. Sometimes this data will seem irrelevant – for example, your school records bear little relation to your experience of rape or domestic violence in your 40s, however, they are often asked for. The Police and the Crown Prosecution Service will say that it’s to get a judge of your character – to see how reliable you are as a witness to your own abuse or rape. It is not uncommon for victims of rape to feel as though they are under investigation themselves. If you feel this way, know that you aren’t alone and that it’s nothing you’ve done or said which has led to you being treated this way.
You’ll be advised not to seek therapy.
It sounds surprising to ask a victim of rape or domestic violence – someone who’s currently going through one of the most traumatic periods of their life – not to seek out the medical guidance that could support them through it. Unfortunately, therapists and counsellors are sometimes asked to give evidence in court about your mental state following your trauma.
Anything you disclose to them that seems contradictory to your version of events when talking to the police (for example, if you feel you are to blame for what happened to you) can be used by the defence to de-legitimise your account.
If you do seek out therapy, find a service that understands how therapy can be weaponised against victim-survivors and who can provide it to you in such a way that makes it less likely to be used as evidence in court (for example, by not taking notes during your session). Your ISVA or IDVA should be able to advise you on the best approach here.
If you’re neurodivergent, you’re going to need extra support.
As a neurodivergent woman myself, I know all too well how the criminal justice system looks for any reason to invalidate your account of what happened. Women with ADHD and autism especially are treated as unreliable witnesses due to the differences in how we process memories and how we communicate with others. Our body language will be analysed in video interviews and potentially on the stand too if your case goes to trial.
You are still deserving of justice, but you may need to help people within the criminal justice system and in the support services you access to understand more about your condition and the different ways your symptoms manifest. There is very little understanding and almost no training within the police force on how to work with neurodivergent victims of rape or domestic violence. Sometimes you might need to ask for help from someone you trust (like your ISVA or IDVA) to help you communicate your needs to the people who aren’t making reasonable adjustments to support you.
It’s going to be a fight.
It’s not easy to go through a traumatic event like rape or domestic violence. It’s even harder to find the courage and strength to report it to the police. And then it’s harder again to see the investigation process through to the end. People will tell you that you’re so strong and you’re so brave – and they mean well when they say that. But you won’t feel it. You’ll feel fragile. Vulnerable. Alone. And you’ll feel like giving up – probably more than once. I wanted to give up more times than I can count.
And if you do decide you can’t proceed with the investigation anymore, it’s not because you failed. It’s because you prioritised yourself. An abusive relationship feels like a constant state of fighting sometimes. To leave that fight, emotionally and physically battered and broken, only to enter a new one – a fight for justice… well that’s a big ask of anyone. But that’s why it’s so important to go into that fight mentally prepared for it.
If you have the right tools to fight if you know how to defend yourself against the onslaught of admin and judgement and suspicion that will be headed your way, and if you have people around you that can pick up the fight for you when you need a time out, then you can make it.
And honestly, you don’t have to ‘win’. When it comes to justice, there is no winning – even if your abuser is convicted and sentenced you won’t feel like you’ve won.
You just have to know that you tried. You didn’t hide. And most of all – you survived.