Sam Billingham’s experience of domestic abuse powerfully highlights the impact an employer can have on the wellbeing of a victim.
Sam met her perpetrator at her local pub when she was just nineteen years old, and moved in with him two weeks later. Her abuser was nine years older, charming, and seemingly very popular. Experiencing her first real relationship, Sam fell head over heels.
But things soon changed. Her perpetrator subjected her to verbal and physical abuse, as well as coercive control and manipulation, isolating her from others. “He’d hate me having any contact whatsoever with my mum. I would have to meet her in secret because when he found out, there were always consequences. When I went out with my girlfriend to a pub only five minutes from my house he bombarded me with so many phone calls and texts saying that if I loved him I wouldn’t leave him on his own. So I stopped going out, because it was easier,” she says.
Things escalated, and Sam began to lose her confidence and sense of identity. She spent her life walking on eggshells. Everything she did was highly controlled, to the point that she was not allowed to go to the toilet on her own. Her abuser, an alcoholic, would lock her in the house if he was going out and punish her for small infractions. Anything could set him off, particularly when he was drinking. Living in constant dread became a feeling that was painfully familiar.
No Workplace Support
One morning, Sam’s perpetrator locked her in their flat and threw her mobile phone out the window of their building. As a result, she couldn’t call work and make an excuse for why she wasn’t going to be in. For Sam, this was disastrous. She loved her job as a legal secretary, it had always given her a sense of purpose and belonging and provided her with financial independence. She was dedicated to her job - always early to work, and always leaving late.
When she was finally able to escape from the flat, the first place she went to was her office. “If anyone could help me, I thought it was my boss because he knew me personally, he knew that I was really responsible and good at my job. I’d never missed work without calling in sick and it was totally out of character,” Sam says.
It was a shock then, when her employer threw his arms in the air, told her he wasn’t interested in what she had to say, and fired her on the spot. Sam was devastated.
“When I was sacked, it took away my identity and my sense of belonging and sense of direction. That was the worst part of my journey because I loved my job and I worked really hard. For me, if anyone should have been able to see the difference in my behaviour it was my boss. I just wanted him to listen to me. I didn’t need him to fix anything, or rescue me or tell me what to do, but I was looking for a bit of comfort or reassurance that everything was going to be okay.”
The experience was profoundly unsettling on other levels as well. Sam’s perpetrator had always told her that no one would ever believe her if she reported her abuse, and through his actions, her employer had made that fear very real.
The Decision To Leave
After her experience with her boss, Sam returned to her abuser. Now she was jobless, which led to even more loss of control over her life. Like many victims, Sam left her partner and then went back a few times over a period of time. Sometimes it felt safer to stay in the relationship. “I went to a safe house and he found me in that safe house, and sometimes it was safer to go back because I could see what he was up to at least. When I did leave there were times he would phone me and describe what I was wearing. He was watching me or getting his mum to watch me. I was constantly looking over my shoulder,” she explains.
Sam finally left for good three years after the relationship had begun. By this time, the two had a daughter together, and it was when her abuser split her lip open while Sam held their ten-month old baby in her arms that she realised she had to leave to protect her child. It was difficult, and Sam was scared, but she walked away.
The journey was a bumpy one. Her perpetrator called social services and tried to make her out to be a bad mother, she was dragged through Family Court, and he threatened to take their daughter away from her. Sam persevered, and eventually, she and her daughter broke free.
In 2009, Sam founded Survivors of Domestic Abuse (SODA), initially as an online support group, to empower domestic abuse victims and survivors as they transition to a life away from their perpetrators. SODA helps anyone, regardless of where they are on their journeys, and Sam herself has been active in the media, and has given various talks and presentations, raising awareness as much as she can. Two years ago, at a networking event, a woman came up to her and told her that she had saved her life.
“She told me that I was one of the first people she had spoken to and that she did what I had suggested and then she left. And I thought ‘wow, I am making a difference’. As horrific as my experience was, I was meant to go through what I went through to do the work that I’m doing now,” she says.
Lessons for Employers
She wants employers to acknowledge that domestic abuse does happen, and can happen to anyone in any workplace. If her own boss had been able to signpost her to support, it would have made a world of difference in her own journey.
“I’ve spoken to employers who insist domestic abuse doesn’t happen to anyone in their office, and my question is, how do you know? It’s not a reflection on an employer that one of their people is experiencing domestic abuse, but it can be a positive reflection if they adapt and address domestic abuse issues in the workplace. Sometimes employers fear they have to get directly involved, but it’s about listening and signposting. You don’t need to get directly involved, you need to acknowledge, address, and adapt. This could be as simple as letting an employee come in half an hour early or letting them leave half an hour later, for example.”