Sarah* had been married just two weeks when she was first abused by her husband.
The 26-year-old says she stayed because she was pregnant and her husband had convinced her she had nowhere else to go.
Sadly, Sarah admits she didn’t know if she was strong enough to leave.
“I did love him. I still love him,” she said.
“But it just got too much for me really.”
After seven years of suffering both mental and physical abuse at the hands of her partner, the mother-of-three eventually fled her abusive relationship in April.
“I’d had enough,” she said.
“I pushed him off me and told him that I’m leaving.
“His dad called the cops on me because apparently I was stealing all his property.
“I got arrested because I didn’t tell my story.”
Fearing retribution, Sarah said she remained silent each time the police became involved in her marriage.
“I didn’t tell them my side, I just didn’t speak,” she said.
“I didn’t want to deal with it so I just used to ask them to leave because I knew if I did speak there’d be consequences if he returned.
“So I just kept quiet.”
When his hands weren’t assaulting her, Sarah says her husband’s mental abuse was always causing her pain.
“He would say things to put me down, like I wasn’t worthy of living or having my kids, and calling me ugly and saying that if I left him I’d have nothing and nobody to care for me,” she said.
“He’d say nobody would want me because of all my problems.
“I found out he was cheating on me all these times too.
“He’d go away for work and find them (sexual partners) on dating sites. It was embarrassing for me.”
Her children, she says, became her main priority.
“He never hurt the children and that’s part of why I stayed with him,” she said.
“He kept doing it to me but the kids didn’t see any of it.
“They heard us arguing all the time but I think that’s all.”
Sarah said she met her partner on social media.
The pair had attended the same school and shared mutual friends. She thought this meant she could trust him.
“No one shows their true colours until you’re already in it I guess,” she said.
The abuse became ‘normal’ and an escape-route unfathomable.
“I had nowhere else to go,” she said.
“I didn’t want to burden my family with all my problems because they’ve told me many times ‘you need to leave him’.
“But I never listened.”
Sarah eventually contacted several helplines seeking emergency accommodation, but her search was fruitless.
“I nearly killed myself that night,” she said.
“But I thought about my kids and that they wouldn’t have their mother around and that stopped me.”
Years of slowly becoming isolated from family and friends meant Sarah felt she had nowhere to go.
What happened next, however, is what Sarah now says “saved her”.
“My support worker got in touch with Allira House and they said they had a vacancy for me,” she said.
“At first it was just for me until another lady left and then I could have my kids here with me.
“Not seeing them (the kids) for that time killed me the most though.
“I wasn’t able to do my day-to-day things. I pretty much stayed in my bed the whole time.”
Sarah has been at Allira House for eight weeks now, gathering paperwork, obtaining her driver’s licence and searching for a new home for her family, all things that will help her regain her independence.
“I was very independent before meeting (my ex-husband) and then relying on him so much made me forget that I could do it,” she said.
“I’ve also been seeing a counsellor and it’s been really helping me.”
Allira House Director Sally-Ann Price said Sarah’s story was not uncommon.
Ms Price said, when women arrived at the refuge, they were “defeated and dysfunctional”.
“They are just so sad. So, so sad,” she said.
“They’re not happy and they’re not healthy and we need them to start feeling empowered by their own ability and to start forward planning.”
Ms Price, a former police officer, said Allira House was a non-government refuge for women and children that relied solely on the funds raised at its six Newcastle and Central Coast op shops.
Its suburban address houses up to five families at a time in crisis, providing a safe place for women to re-establish their lives.
“This is not just about giving these women a set of keys and some phone numbers,” she said.
“This is real life. We are not a motel, or a holiday or an institution.
“We are a refuge with a difference. We try to avoid the revolving door model, which spits women back out after 28 days.
“We take a holistic approach to make these women feel safe, confident and healed, to go back out and live their best life.”
For Sarah, the refuge has meant the beginning of a fresh start for herself and her young family.
She is now adamant that what’s needed most is more refuges and better services for women in crisis.
“I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for this place,” she said.
“I don’t really know where I’d be, but I wouldn’t be able to talk about all this.
“You don’t realise it’s happening when it’s happening because it’s normal, you just put up with it.
“It comes slowly.”
If you or someone you know is impacted by sexual assault, domestic or family violence, call 1800RESPECT on 1800 737 732 or visit 1800RESPECT.org.au. In an emergency, call 000.
*Sarah is not her real name.