This is my story, I’m Jo Symo, and MY Great Escape is my idea. You’ll learn where it came from in my story.
My Great Escape…
I stood on the back of the flatbed lorry that was creeping around the edges of a gigantic, steep, green canyon, on a beyond rural dirt road in Guatemala. My hands gripping the top of the cab and wobbling as I tried to stay upright. I felt the wind in my hair and the sun on my face and I laughed and I cried behind my sunnies.
I laughed for how far I’d come and how ridiculously amazing this journey was; travelling all across Central America with zero transport costs. We’d already failed, we’d set out to walk it, but after boredom and other realisations caused me to have a mini meltdown at the Belize/Guatemala border – my friend and I changed the goal.
But I hadn’t failed, far from it. I had come around the world, yes, but I’d also come a million miles from the image of the girl I was remembering, the stark memory which was making me cry in this crazy brilliant moment. In that moment of pure joy, I was transported back to a previous life, a vastly different life, a horrible life. I saw me, the me of then, crouched on the kitchen floor of my old home, sobbing, wailing and rocking because I couldn’t take my life and the abuse I was living with anymore. I was frightened and so alone, I couldn’t see past the next moment, never mind to an unimagined future filled with joy and adventure.
If I’m honest with myself I always knew it was a bad relationship, I went into it thinking it wouldn’t last 6 months. It lasted nearly 18 years and to this day I do not understand what happened to me to make me stay so long. My father was a violent alcoholic, he would drink, have flashes of brilliance or get frustrated with life then take it out on us. I had always heard that abuse follows patterns, follows people, and I vowed it wouldn’t with me. I was wrong. Back then I had a stupid cut-off point, one I have heard from so many women and one that breaks my heart now; ‘he’s never hit me’. I used to pray that my ex would hit me, because if he did, leaving would be justified, leaving would be easy.
Abuse isn’t just physical though; for me, abuse took many small and strange forms that built up and up until I thought I was going insane. I was shouted at, and I don’t mean normal having a row level shouting, I was screamed at. I was stood over and shouted at, as spit flew from his mouth, he towered his huge 6-foot frame over my smaller 5 foot one, I was often crouched in a corner on the sofa. Every day and moment was a potential for more misery in our house. I walked on eggshells constantly, never knowing the right thing to do to make him happy, to make it all OK. Nothing I did was right, dinners were thrown at walls when they were wrong, objects were punched, and life carried on, one miserable day after another. The way I dressed was wrong and was critiqued constantly. My friends were no good and he was paranoid they were against him. I was regularly accused of cheating and my time arriving home from work was commented upon frequently, my time away from the house was also noted. The way I drove was wrong and I was told forcefully, I even talked in the wrong way, a regular complaint from my Dad of my Mum I later remembered.
My ex had depression and other mental health issues, he was also a heavy user of amphetamines and I always used this as a reason for his behaviour. I naively thought I could fix him and make his life better. I slowly came to realise depression is not a reason to treat another human being so badly, to control and manipulate them – for that there is no excuse. I was backed into a corner because if I ever vaguely mentioned leaving he threatened suicide and until the last time he always talked me into staying.
Our life in the last few years was the worst. In quick succession, I’d lost both my parents and my dog, I was in two major car crashes and we were up to our eyebrows in debt. My life at home was so insular it was suffocating, I couldn’t go out because of his paranoia, people didn’t visit anymore because he was so unwelcoming. My brother and family visited my home only once in all those years and he mostly ignored them while they were there. My mother had very rarely visited and never for dinner or longer than a few minutes and usually only if I was ill. Friends stopped coming all together, when we’d first got together our place was party central, we always had people popping in for an hour or a week. It all stopped. No one invited us anywhere and we stopped going to the pub or even for a curry and no one knocked on our door.
Then there were the silences, the sulks, the going to bed straight after work and not getting up until the next day (to be honest these worked best for me) or often never coming to bed. These nights he would charge up and down the stairs to shout at me about ‘one more thing’. I still feel dread when I hear loud footsteps on stairs. The sulks and silences were the worst though, after a long rant he would stay silent, seething, and I would fear what was bubbling away, what was coming next.
The moment I was thinking back to was typical, on a day working at home he had come back for lunch. I find it hard to explain and still struggle to fathom many of the rants and tantrums he would have. Incoherent monologues about how shit life was, how terrible our life was, how he hated everything and everyone hated him, how the world was against him and how none of it could be fixed. Anything could set him off, often our cats meowing or similarly tiny things. Not a door in the house hadn’t been punched or kicked and they were slammed so hard the whole house shook on a regular basis. On this particular day he’d stood and screamed, spittle flew violently from his lips as he snarled about me and the state of life from the doorway, the dog cowering behind me, both of us shaking and unable to move. Unable to find the strength to get up, even after he’d gone. After he had gone, slamming the door, (yet returning 3 times for good measure – ‘one more thing’), I had sunk further into the floor, arms over my head and sobbed and rocked.
Now I’m aware that I may sound pathetic, how this was a man with mental health issues and I should have dealt with it better. But this was day in day out, nothing was ever right or good, he would wake me in the middle of the night to tell me it all again. I wasn’t trained in any way to deal with this, I’d tried and tried to get help but it he never wanted or accepted it. He would go on meds for a few days then stop and start self-medicating again. I’d dread coming home, driving slower and slower afraid to find what mood was behind the door each evening as my Mum had before me. I’m sure I wasn’t perfect either, who is? To prevent rages I would hide things from him that I knew would cause more trouble, I sometimes flared back and said reckless things and I’m sure in other ways I wasn’t the perfect girlfriend. I also know I enabled his behaviours in some ways.
So why didn’t I leave? I’m an intelligent woman, I always had my own job (for 10 years I was the only wage earner, often holding down 2-3 jobs to keep us), I had family and friends I could and eventually did turn to. Who I never told what was happening – but who were all seemingly aware there were big problems. Amazing friends and family who supported me and helped me become the me I am now – so why stay so long?
I don’t know. I was scared, terrified of what would happen if I left. I knew what I was dealing with there. I hated it and myself but I could handle it – or so I thought. I had been ready to leave before and then my Mum died. This ripped me apart in ways I hadn’t anticipated and I went into a bubble of pain. I couldn’t cope with anything new, but I could just about cope with what I knew, even if it was toxic and damaging. So many questions and worries. Would I be able to have a good life when I left? I was scared for him, what would he do? How would he survive? I even worried on the day I left that there wasn’t enough toilet roll and washing up liquid! Also, I’d invested a huge amount of time, love and work into our life and home. It was awful but it was all I had and all I knew.
It was whilst talking to a social worker about a case at work that I started to see my life and relationship for what it was. It’s easy when you’re busy getting on with it not to stop and think, to build walls to hide behind and others to ignore and forget things. My previous experiences as the child of an alcoholic and the stupid limit I’d put on peoples behaviours had been blocking me seeing my reality. As the social worker described the case of a woman being mentally and emotionally abused I saw myself and my relationship. Everything she said I mentally ticked off in my mind ‘yes, he does that’ and sadly worse. I don’t know if he understood what he was doing or if he does now, I like to believe he didn’t, I never saw him as a cruel man and this is part of the problem for so many of us, we love(d) them and always want to believe the best.
I went away and researched these terms which were new to me but shouldn’t have been.
Mental abuse. Emotional abuse. Huge words with gigantic implications. Lists of behaviours appeared and again I was living with most of them…plus uniquely painful extras. The more I read the more I saw and understood. I had to get out, I had to save myself.
I am a very lucky person in spite of some of the evidence. I had the most incredible people in my life, ready and waiting to support me. I was given a place to go, friends helped me and gave me the most amazing support. I am not proud of how I left, it was history repeating itself, as I had with my mother many years before…I ran. One morning after he left for work I packed up over 17 years of life, including the essentials, clothes, books, my Mum and Dads belongings and I left. I have never been back, I have not seen or spoken to him since and right or wrong that is the way I want it.
After I left life was tough, I lived on the road, in different hotels for work every night, never in the same place twice. Always looking over my shoulder. Having recurring nightmares that I am back there, trapped. Scared my mind would betray me and he would retain control of my thoughts, behaviours and actions if I saw him. Slowly I built a new life. I entered into an IVA to clear our debts, I changed jobs again, got my own place and I quit smoking. I travelled all over the UK with my new job, and I remembered the wanderlust I’d locked away for all those years. The sense of adventure I’d had and how I loved to be reckless.
Then I really found adventure and it changed my life. I started slowly. Long walks had always been my escape and headspace, these I continued and extended. I got back to the mountains I’d fallen in love with as a teenager and found freedom and peace in the hills. A couple of years after leaving I set myself three challenges, The 3 Peaks Challenge, Tough Mudder and Walk the Walk. Through training for these events, I found a love of physical challenge. I renewed my love of walking and met new friends at the gym and later boxed for a while, stopping because I was rubbish and it hurts when you get whacked in the boob! I went on to do lots more mud runs and the 24 Peaks Challenge. I grew strong and I stopped being scared.
By learning how physically strong I could become and what I could achieve I built a new life. Since then I have travelled a lot, last year I left my corporate job and worked for the circus in Australia, I explored New Zealand alone, and more recently have been on a 14-month adventure from Alaska to Panama. I’ve climbed a 14,000-foot mountain in Colorado and travelled all 7 Central American countries with zero transport costs. Along the way doing many other amazing, incredible and at times dangerous and stupid things.
I’ve still got a way to go and a fear of relationships to overcome but I’m sure I will. I’m a survivor and now I know I can survive everything from abuse to the jungle!
I have debated writing this article for months. Should I write it? Should I share it? The question of anonymity for us both has been another huge concern. Will it hurt me and my life now? Maybe. I still worry about him, if writing this would cause so much pain to him and me is it worth it? The answer I kept returning to was yes, yes I should. Because if I can be a catalyst and can help one other person (men are vulnerable and victims of abuse too) see and understand and make positive change then yes. I am unimportant in that and so is he.
The great outdoors, adventure and travel have helped heal me and I want to help others do the same now. This is the foundation for MY Great Escape.
Thanks for reading, if you would like to join us on an expedition, or support us in other ways, please get in touch.