I like to start my writing with a tremendous intro, really getting my hooks into you. For this piece, I had an endearing anecdote about the large ribcage I inherited from my grandad, and how it didn’t stop me buying my dream dress.
But this piece is about domestic abuse.
I don’t want to dress it up in glitter and dance you halfway down the page. So I’ll just tell you straight: Dear reader, we’re going to talk about domestic abuse; Domestic abuse and a dress.
Clothes are always an emotional purchase for me. There’s nothing in my wardrobe I don’t love wholeheartedly. My rule is that a piece of clothing must make me do a dance of happiness in the fitting room before I’ll buy it. This particular love affair was a hot pink tea dress from Topshop that tied into a bow at the back. I was smitten. But every time I put it on, I’d have to ask my boyfriend to help me with it. “It doesn’t fit you,” he’d complain, cross at having to force the zip up over my barrel of a ribcage once again.
I wore it on a night out with him and a group of friends and we were all photographed as we went in, against an ugly backdrop with unflattering lighting. He drank too much, so I stayed sober, a routine we’d developed to minimise the fighting once we got home. “I just don’t think you should drink,” he’d told me softly. “I know I get angry, but you overreact and there’s just no reasoning with you so the whole thing escalates.”
When we got back that night, he was furious with me and it could have been about anything, or more likely, nothing. Reasons could always be conjured and he’d talk for so long and change the subject so often that I’d get confused, which gave him reason to be even angrier. He didn’t hit me that night, but he did order me to take my beloved tea dress off. “It doesn’t even fit you,” he said, disgusted by my sobbing. He tore it in half with his bare hands and used scissors to finish the job so there’d be no way for me to salvage it with a needle and thread. When I wouldn’t choose another piece of clothing for the guillotine, he did it for me; a vintage playsuit I loved, with an ugly Fresh Prince of Bel Air pattern.
One of the important lessons I learned in counselling is that there is no ‘spectrum’ of abuse as such. There is simply a line that, once crossed, means you are in an abusive relationship. I imagine people who haven’t experienced (or inflicted) abuse themselves find it hard to see beyond the most shocking cases of fractured skulls, swollen eye sockets, or even murder. For the majority of us victims, domestic abuse has its own normality and mundane routines, which are what makes it so difficult to leave. I always found the physical attacks easy to bookend and file away. Having my property destroyed was harder to dismiss, especially my wardrobe, which had such sentimentality attached to it.
I got out of the relationship two and a half years ago, after six years with him. Every day is a fact finding mission, like I have amnesia. Who is Lauren? What does Lauren like? What does Lauren want? Having freedom and choice is overwhelming when you have a partner who’s loving and supportive, as I do now. Domestic abuse is about stripping the victim of their very identity. Clawing back your sense of self, who you are as a person, is arduous.
I buy most of my clothes second hand now; it’s cheaper and it’s good for the environment. I was trawling eBay last summer for Christopher Kane and Henry Holland outfits I’ll never be able to afford, when I had a thought.
I started a new search and began narrowing it down. Women’s clothing, dresses, Topshop, pink, sleeveless. There it was: My tea dress, back from the dead. When it arrived, I tried it on alone in my house. As I slipped my arms in the sleeves, I realised there was no way I’d be able to get the zip up on my own, but I gave it a go anyway. It slid up my back, over my ribs without a fuss. A little miracle (or a little extra material).
Having that dress back in my wardrobe was a landmark moment for my recovery. To those who aren’t emotional about their clothes, it may seem strange, but that dress symbolises my escape, a return to my true self. Like my identity, it can never be taken away from me again. I still look for my ugly, Fresh Prince-patterned playsuit now and again but it might be time to let it go. There will always be a part of me I can’t get back.