Life finally seemed to be slotting into place for 27-year-old Sophie*. She had just bagged her dream job in advertising, enjoyed holidays with her girl gang, and was getting to know a great guy at work who seemed to be her perfect match. Then they started dating and everything began to dismantle – including the truth. Here, she reveals how the relationship robbed her of her sanity, and why she wants to speak out…
I met Dan* on my first day of a new job – we were both starting at the same agency together and we clicked straight away. He was charming, athletic and very intense. I remember him having a strange effect on me from the beginning; you felt special if he paid you attention. Quickly, we realised that we shared a lot in common – he always wanted to know what I was reading and told me I was the most interesting person he’d ever met. I soon found myself opening up to him in a way I hadn’t been able to with even my closest friends before.
Having grown up in foster care, I carried some emotional baggage about my past, but Dan made me feel powerful and inspiring. He admired me for turning my life around and climbing the career ladder, and he comforted me when I felt insecure. In return, he opened up about his dad passing away and the friendship became very intense very quickly. Then, within two months of meeting, we were accepted on a prestigious secondment together. It felt like the stars had aligned and I took it as a sign: we were perfect for each other.
Once we moved, though, things started to change. His moods became unpredictable – one minute I was his soul mate, his ‘special angel’; the next he was accusing me of flirting with strangers. He began to track what I was doing on social media; asking who I was texting and constantly bringing up my ex, who I still occasionally talked to. He asked me to block his number but I refused, explaining that we were just friends and there was nothing to be jealous of. But Dan was adamant that any guy would have a problem with their girlfriend being mates with their ex. He said it was normal and that I was being selfish and unreasonable.
Eventually, worn down by the arguments, Dan made me construct a message asking my ex not to contact me any more and I agreed to block him. Sending that message deeply upset me, but Dan comforted me and thanked me for being such a kind girlfriend. He said no one else had ever understood his insecurities like me before and I began to think I’d been unreasonable all along. Dan had a way of making me feel guilty even when he got his way.
Then, one night, the verbal abuse became physical. Dan and I were at a house party and someone I didn’t know very well made a derogatory comment about me. I was hurt, but brushed it off. Dan’s face, however, changed completely and he asked to see me in the room next door. I was confused, but assumed he wanted to ask if I was OK. Instead, he screamed at me for flirting in front of him, wrestled me to the bed and started to strangle me. In complete shock, I fought back and scrambled into a friend’s bedroom down the hall. Still trembling, I tried to explain what had just happened, but I could barely make sense of it myself and although she calmed me down, I could tell she didn’t quite know who to believe – Dan was such a nice guy that she couldn’t square my turn of events with the gentle, humble man she knew.
The following morning, Dan convinced everyone I’d made the whole thing up: suddenly, I was the girl who lied about domestic violence. And while he attended more and more social events, I stayed at home, feeling ashamed of myself. One night, overwhelmed with confusion, I threatened to leave, but Dan went one better – heading straight for the balcony and threatening to jump. I had to physically pull him down from the ledge, terrified he’d kill himself if I left. Now, I know it was all just a game to him.
By the time we returned, I had few friends left (Dan had convinced me to block all my male mates to ‘protect me’), no job and nowhere to live. Without family to fall back on, the only person I felt I could turn to was Dan.
Together, we moved into his mum’s house and, for the first time, I began to see who he really was. Back in his familial home, Dan became the controlling, violet tyrant I had met before. Here, there was no Jekyll and Hyde: just Hyde. He would scream at his mum for not doing the washing on time, or call me a ‘council estate slut’ for wearing the ‘wrong’ thing. When I rarely ventured outside, I had to detail exactly where I was and what I was wearing, often sending photos to prove it. I even felt like his mum was keeping tabs on me, messaging me to make sure I was still coming home.
After every screaming row – because by now everything I said and did was wrong – his mum would assure me that, deep down, Dan was a nice guy; that he was just insecure and didn’t handle stress well. And I genuinely believed it. Every time he tried to strangle me, I’d blame myself for not understanding how hurt he was about his dad dying and we’d agree that perhaps I needed therapy to deal with his anger in the ‘right way’. It was never about him. There was never any accountability.
So why did I stay? Because my life had become Dan. When he was happy, I was allowed to be happy. But when he was low, I’d be on the floor, crying my eyes out, covered in bruises. Besides, I didn’t feel I deserved any better. He had completely broken me down and manipulated me into believing my troubled upbringing was to blame for all our problems. Six months ago, I’d seen myself as a powerful go-getter; now, I felt worthless.
I didn’t think things could get worse, but one night, stone-cold sober, he flew into a jealous rage about my ex again – who I hadn’t spoken to since blocking. Tying me to a radiator and stuffing a sock in my mouth, Dan did something that will haunt me forever. He raped me. And in that moment, as my mind scrambled to disconnect itself from my body, I realised for the first time that he didn’t love me. That he had never loved me. That I was nothing more than a toy to him.
When I first met Dan, I hadn’t even heard of gaslighting. But now, after eight months of abuse, I realised that I – along with everyone else I knew – had been brainwashed by him. Finally, I knew I needed help; that I wasn’t crazy or disloyal or a ‘slut’ (Dan’s favourite putdown) – I was being abused. But even after the rape, he still had a hold over me and I couldn’t bring myself to tell anyone. I was too ashamed to admit that I had let this happen to me. Suffering from PTSD, I had begun to drink heavily and have suicidal thoughts. I would walk out in front of cars and text Dan over and over again, begging him to talk to me. I now know that this is actually common in mental abuse cases – it’s called trauma bond. But at the time, I felt like I was going crazy. I knew that Dan had caused all this hurt, but I also needed him to be the one who took it away.
Finally, a month later, I completely broke down and told one of my friends everything. It was the start of my recovery. The next day, I reported the abuse to police and saw a therapist. Now, 10 months on, I can finally see Dan for what he truly is: a predator. He knew I came from an unstable background and he weaponised that vulnerability against me.
Looking back, the red flags were there from the start – he’d just gaslighted me into believing his version of reality instead of mine. Would he have killed me? I honestly think that’s possible. But a part of me died in that relationship anyway. Now, only I control how I see the world. And that feels like a sane place to be.
Gaslighting: the signs to look for and how to seek help
‘A form of emotional abuse, gaslighting is an attack on your mental wellbeing,’ explains Lisa King, Director of Communications and External Relations at Refuge. ‘Examples include being made to feel like you’re going mad or being blamed for the abuse you’re suffering. An abuser may control you through threats and intimidation, or use technology to track and monitor your movements. The grinding impact of this can start to chip away at your sense of self and, gradually, you may begin to believe your abuser when they tell you day in, day out, that you’re worthless; that no-one will believe you; that no-one cares.
If any of that sounds familiar and you’re worried about yourself or someone you know experiencing any of the issues discussed in this article, go to refuge.org.uk; call Refuge’s Freephone 24h National Domestic Abuse Helpline on 0808 2000 247; or visit nationaldahelpline.org.uk to book a safe time to be called back. You can also use a live chat service, Monday to Friday, 3-6pm.
*Names and ages have been changed.