Mental health awareness week: Zoe's story

Last updated: 19/05/2023

Zoe is a single parent, living in temporary homeless accommodation in Edinburgh with five of her seven children. Her two oldest children are 18+ and have moved on with their own lives. Zoe wanted to share her experiences of mental health and support she gained from OPFS counselling services in hope that her story will help at least one other single parent that is struggling to reach out and ask for support.

I’ve painted the walls, but I can’t paint the trauma and bad memories away.

Mental health awareness week

If you are affected by any of the issues discussed in this story. Some of the following links may be of use to you:

Women’s Aid – Find local support if you are affected by domestic abuse.

My life, and me – Tips and advice for single parents by single parents.

Hollie Guard – An app useful for safeguarding that can record conversations, store evidence and alert emergency contact person of your choice.

Hidden in Plain Sight – Short video created using experiences of survivors to explain coercive control and domestic abuse.

Mental Health Foundation – Support for anxiety, and information about mental health awareness week.

Breathing Space – Helpline to call if you need to open up to someone about how you are feeling.

“We have been living in temporary homeless accommodation for over 3 years. We have a small chest of drawers each and tiny little fridge. One of my kids sleeps on the couch. Feels like we are sardines in a tin. My son loves his own space, been squashed up like this is affecting him and he’s been self-harming and refusing to go to school because he cannot cope with these living arrangements. There’s not enough space to breathe. I can’t make this house a home.

We are still in the house the abuse happened in. I’ve painted the walls, but I can’t paint the trauma, triggers and bad memories away. We ended up here because of rent arrears that my abusive ex ran up when he started a new business and ran up thousands of pounds in debt. He wouldn’t let me go back to work after I was pregnant so he had financial control over me. At first I didn’t realise that he was doing this to control me as he would put it in a way that my hours would not fit around his work and I would have to stay home.

I lost my home. Lost contact with my family. Lost friends. And lost my community that my kids grew up in.

I don’t want much. I just want to be able to build a home again. Put up a shelf. Do a proper shop, not having to shop every day because my fridge is too small to store any more food than that. I enjoy cooking and baking and it’s something my kids used to enjoy doing with me, but we don’t have the space to do things like that anymore. We have just been put in here [temporary housing], and it feels like we have just been forgotten about.

Last week I was finally allocated a dedicated Housing Officer – I don’t understand why it has taken years for that to happen. I am constantly checking the council website, and there is rarely anything that I can apply for. I just want to be able to create a home for me and my children again – living like this is affecting them – they don’t have space to study or relax properly with their own things. I will need to start again when I finally get a home again. It’s really frightening not knowing when it will end.

I will be there tomorrow, to stand up for myself and every women that's went through domestic abuse.

Looking back there were some signs and something felt a bit off. He made me cut off my friends and my family. For the first five months he was ‘love bombing’ me and by the time I started to question things that did not feel right, I felt trapped especially when I was pregnant. He made me scared to be on my own and I questioned if I could be. It was during lockdown that the abuse began so we were even more cut off from people. It took a long time before I could fully recognise what was happening to me and it was when a health visitor asked to speak to me on my own and ask if I was ok and I told her how horrible he was to me and it was tearing me apart.

Unfortunately, his gaslighting and controlling behaviour went beyond our home and he had social work and another health visitor on his side which made the process even more difficult for me. I just needed someone to believe me. Eventually, it went through the courts and I was told that I would have to attend to give evidence against him. It seems his lawyer had advised him to deny the charges in hope that I would feel too intimidated to attend the court and he might not have been convicted. I was determined not to back down and let him away with this. I said “I will be there tomorrow, to stand up for myself and every women that’s went through domestic abuse.” This seemed to surprise him and his lawyer and he pleaded guilty before I had to appear in court.

I can be on my own and feel happy again – it’s hard but I am surviving.

Now I realise I can be on my own and feel happy again – it’s hard but I am surviving. At least I can get on with my life without him, I wish I had the strength to leave earlier. It has made me cautious and distrustful of other relationships. It’s a trauma that sticks in my head, every time I look in the mirror, I hear everything he used to say. But I am gradually rebuilding myself and trust with others.”

Things to look out for are;

  • Slowly telling you who you should and shouldn’t talk to.
  • Putting down your friends and family and make you question your relationship with them.
  • Comments like “Are you really going out looking like that?”
  • For you to feel like you are always questioning yourself – gaslighting.

“My advice to anyone feeling that are constantly doubting themselves and being told you are wrong – is to secretly record conversations. I did this to listen back to in private and it reassured me that what he was telling me wasn’t true. I was also able to use all these recordings as evidence in my case against him. There was one police officer who was really helpful, he believed me and went out of his way to support me. He asked me to save all the evidence I had gathered on a USB so he could look through it all to help my case.

Counselling gives you someone to talk to, that's not emotionally involved. They could delve right into it. Talk differently to a counsellor, than I do with my friends. It's a safe space.

I felt alone, and that I must be to blame for everything that ever happened. I was so low, I believed it was my fault and I caused it all and it felt like my whole life was a lie. I didn’t know who I was because I was trapped in a trauma bond. Even after I left my abusive partner, I refused to believe what happened to me was real. I had to accept I was never loved by him – counselling helped me sort all that out in my head and to process everything that happened to me.

I feel really thankful for the support I received from Women’s Aid. Jenifer from OPFS was a great support to me and she came to visit me with a laptop so that I could start counselling online. Counselling gives you someone to talk to, that’s not emotionally involved. They could delve right into it. Talk differently to a counsellor, than I do with my friends. It’s a safe space.

Although our lives still feel like they are on hold in some ways, until we can somewhere permanent to live and become our home. I am in a much better place now and I have a new partner that is very loving and supportive. My eldest son is also a great support to me and his younger siblings. I have been gradually rebuilding relationships that I was forced to cut off before. I’m able to teach my children about healthy relationships and be a better role model to them.

I am also attending a ‘Survive and thrive’ course which is helping me learn about cycles of abuse. It has helped me understand more about behaviours, safety planning and talking about my experience.”

Zoe’s advice to anyone else that’s struggling with their mental health is to reach out, don’t be ashamed. We all struggle at some point in our lives. Even if it’s online, it helps to speak to someone. Reach out and be as honest as you can about your situation and how you’re feeling. Don’t hold back.