HOW does a woman know she’s being abused?
That’s a question Michaela Hillam has been asking formore than eight years.
While she’s known for being the Ignite Conference project officer and working as the marketing officer for Christian Supplies, Michaela is also a prolific writer and aspiring author.
The 24 year old recently finished the draft of her first book, Seasons.
The novel follows Evelyn, a young woman in an abusive relationship.
Author: Michaela Hillam hopes her new book will inspire others to recognise and escape abusive relationships.
She suffers bouts of loneliness, emotional abuse, and even attempted rape, before she begins to take charge of her life and finds healing, forgiveness, and the opportunity to face the abuses in her life.
The novel has taken Michaela through an eight-year journey of discovering the meaning of suffering, relationships, and self-worth.
But pertinently, it has helped her answer the question posed at the start of this story – how does a woman know she’s being abused?
In the summer between high school and university, Michaela, almost 18, started a relationship with a young man.
He was charming, taking her on picnics and giving her flowers.
He was two years older, so naturally, was wiser, more mature, more experienced in life, and seemingly knowledgeable about how to live a good life.
“I had never been in a serious relationship before so he almost set the precedent for how I should be treated,” she said.
Then came the suggestions and questioning.
He started to dictate her friendships, what she should eat and what time she should be sleeping.
They would go for 10km runs that took her away from quality family time.
And, as a steady protestant, he confronted her about why she was a Catholic.
Not having any answers to his questions, she was convinced that he was right, and Michaela slowly walked away from the Church.
“A lot of times in that relationship, it was almost that ‘who I am’ was not enough,” Michaela said.
“He had an idea in his head of what the perfect wife looked like – what the perfect Michaela looked like and I didn’t fit the bill yet. But he would approach it from the perspective of looking out for my best interest, but he wanted to change everything.
“I came home crying most days.
“The strange thing was that I didn’t even see this behaviour, this way he treated me, as not being right because it all happened so gradually,” she said.
Friends and family began to notice a change in Michaela’s personality, asking questions about why she “never smiled anymore”.
“I was in denial,” she said.
“I’d say, ‘Nothing is going on – it’s fine, it’s great’.
“My dad intervened – and praise the Lord for my dad.”
Michaela thought she had found a man who was concerned for her wellbeing, for her soul, and really, for her life, a man who showed her love.
Six months after the breakup, Michaela realised it was not love, but emotional abuse.
“My family could see it, but I just couldn’t. I was too close to it,” she said.
“It wasn’t until I saw a billboard in the city that said, ‘Is he watching what you spend, is he telling you who to be friends with, is he telling you how to dress? Did you know this is abuse?’” she said.
“I thought, ‘Oh – I was abused.
“When I was in that relationship, I had no idea that I was being abused.”
The truth about being emotionally abused by a man took a while to sink in.
“I was in shock for a really long time,” she said.
“I still don’t think it’s hit me.”
Sadly, emotional abuse is not uncommon among Australian women and men.
A research into domestic violence in Australia, filed under the Australian Parliamentary Library, defined emotional abuse as “blaming the victim for all problems in the relationship, undermining the victim’s self-esteem and self-worth through comparisons with others, withdrawing interest and engagement and emotional blackmail”.
The Australian Bureau of Statistics Personal Safety Survey of 2005 showed 15 per cent of women and five percent of men over the age of 15 had experienced abuse, including emotional abuse, from a former partner.
For Michaela, the statistics are overwhelming.
Because of this, she hoped Seasons would become more than just a decorative book on the shelf.
While parts of the main character resonate with Michaela’s painful story of an abusive relationship, she said it was not an autobiographical novel.
“The reality is the emotional abuse did happen, but this story is more than just the emotional abuse,” she said.
In her book, the main character Evelyn also experiences physical abuse in the form of attempted rape, a topic that Michaela said “wasn’t pleasant stuff to write”.
“There were times when I didn’t want to write about stuff, like abuse, but I wanted that to be an element in the story,” she said.
She would question how far to go in describing a scene, and what was appropriate for the reader to know.
For these moments, prayer was a constant part of the writing process.
“Those are the times I went to Adoration and said, ‘Okay Lord. I’m just going to be here, using my fingers, and you can be the rest’,” she said.
“(Writing this book) has helped me to realise that this is not a unique story, what I experienced.
“Emotional abuse is actually really common, and this is why I wanted to write this part into the story and make it such a central focus.
“I had dinner with a friend about six months after the break-up, and I told her the story.
“She broke up with her own boyfriend two weeks later.
“I knew they were in a bad relationship, and I spoke to her recently, and she said my story was the reason she broke up with him, because of the type of relationship it was.
“So many women get into these relationships and they are so desperate to be loved, and they’ll get into these relationships, but they don’t want to get out of them because it’s comfortable and they’re afraid if they do end the relationship, nobody else would want me.
“They deserve so much better.
“So I think at least from my experience you can’t be told that it’s a bad relationship and you need to get out – you have to realise it and choose it for yourself.
“A book is so personal, in your own little world, your own little space, and you really do put yourself in the shoes of a character.
“You escape, but you are reachable in a new way in that place,” she said.
And reaching women with her book is what she hopes to do, even if it only means the beginning of a conversation about the dangers of an abusive boyfriend or husband.
“Whether or not in that moment as they read they realise and say ‘I need to get out’, or it’s planting the seed and then other things will happen in their life to help them see the light and see that they need to get out, I don’t know.
“I’m praying, it doesn’t matter either one, as long as they realise it.”
And fame? It’s not an option.
“I don’t want to be famous at all,” she said.
“I would love to put this under somebody else’s name.
“My hope is it will gain traction out there and get into the hands of people in those kinds of relationships.”
While the consequences of an abusive relationship still linger somewhat in Michaela’s life, she has had a radical transformation over the past four years.
She served on the National Evangelisation Team in 2009, is working on a new children’s television show, works for two organisations that bring her immense joy and freedom, and regularly blogs about the dynamism of the Catholic faith.
Soon, she will begin editing Seasons to get it ready for a publisher.
“My life has changed so much this year,” she said.
“This has been the best year of my life.
“I’m pursuing writing seriously for the first time ever and I feel like I’m doing what I was made to do.
“I’m fully alive, fully living, and it’s because of God.”