Anushka* suffered seven traumatic brain injuries at the hands of her violent former husband. She explained how he would beat her up with his bare hands and use chairs, cutlery, crockery, hangers, vases – anything convenient – to attack her. He was jailed for his campaign of abuse.
“There were so many times I was literally beaten and battered until I would fall on the floor and then he relentlessly kicked my head like a football,” Anushka, 40, a former banker, adds. “And I pleaded for him to stop and he did not stop.
“And then he would grab my head and bang it against the floorboards and scream in a rage.”
Anushka’s devastating story comes as pioneering research found half of people who have endured domestic abuse in England and Wales could be living with a brain injury – a far higher prevalence than a global study which found around one in 12 in the wider population has endured such a trauma.
Researchers at the charity Brainkind spoke to 60 women who were victims of domestic abuse. Of those, some 55 per cent had experienced violence which suggested they had suffered a brain injury, according to assessments performed by the researchers.
A traumatic brain injury can be triggered by many incidents such as an assault, a car crash, a fall or an accident. Head injuries can have long-lasting repercussions on an individual’s cognition and behaviour as well as making people less able to cope with feelings of anger.
Some 80 per cent of the 60 women had sustained a serious blow to the head, while three quarters had at least once been held in a way which stopped them from being able to breathe.
It took me five years to try and get some stability back in my health
The study found those who appeared to have experienced a brain injury were more likely to grapple with moderate to severe post-concussion symptoms, as well as low mood and post-traumatic stress.
Anushka may have managed to escape her husband but his abuse haunts her each day due to the multiple brain injuries she has been left with.
“It took me five years to try and get some stability back in my health,” she adds. “I was very, very ill last year and this was linked to the brain injuries. I had a relapse. Everything came back – the trembling of my hands. My blood pressure dropping to the point health professionals have told me multiple times I could die from organ failure. They’ve admitted me to hospital previously and put me on a drip immediately and given me medication.”
She also recalled: “Sickness. Memory lapses. I couldn’t remember that I had a shower an hour ago. Not being able to drive, not being able to take a train, not being able to do anything on my own. Dizzy spells.”
Anushka, who has a lifelong restraining order against her ex-husband, explained she was virtually bedbound for a lot of the summer. She said the brain injuries had also profoundly impacted her mental health, causing suicidal thoughts, with his abuse also leaving her with severe post-traumatic stress disorder.
The domestic abuse ultimately resulted in her losing a successful banking career spanning decades, her home, her health, and her life as she knew it, she added. Anushka said her ex-partner had obliterated her credit rating by racking up debt under their joint mortgage – adding that he continues to harass her through third parties.
“I experienced domestic abuse in the form of psychological, economic and physical abuse at the hands of my former spouse,” Anushka adds. “And I learned through that process that I had multiple post-traumatic brain injuries.”
If you have a brain injury we know you have a higher likelihood of mental health issues
Stephanie Bechelet, domestic abuse and brain injury researcher
Stephanie Bechelet, a domestic abuse and brain injury researcher involved in the research, said brain injuries can cause low mood, anxiety and depression.
“If you have a brain injury we know you have a higher likelihood of mental health issues,” she adds. “That can present in lots of different ways for people – at the extreme end that can present as suicidal thoughts. The symptoms of trauma often overlap with the symptoms of brain injury and that can make it very hard to get a diagnosis.”
Other brain injury symptoms include extreme fatigue, insomnia, feeling dazed, headaches, struggling to concentrate, she added.
Ms Bechelet said she hopes the research will raise awareness among medical professionals, police, social services, barristers and those in the domestic abuse sector about the prevalence of brain injuries among victims.
While the sample size of 60 is small, she noted this is comparable to other equivalent studies. Ms Bechelet explained much of the research about brain injuries overall in the UK is old which means we do not have an accurate view of the scale of this issue.
“There is a lack of awareness about brain injuries, even outside of the context of domestic abuse,” she added. “We want to take this research and turn it into training and tools for professionals working with survivors to use.”
Brainkind’s report calls for there to be a greater understanding of the connection between brain injury and health inequalities for domestic abuse survivors, as well as demanding potential changes to the 2021 Domestic Abuse Act to incorporate an improved understanding of the repercussions of brain injuries.
Anushka explained her ex-husband pleaded guilty to many of the assaults which led to her brain injuries as well as pleading guilty to the charge of coercive and controlling behaviour.
“He had multiple sexual partners whilst he was married to me,” Anushka added. “He was also on multiple dating sites at the same time telling people he was a single man whilst he was married to me.”
She said he appeared incredibly charming when they first met as she noted narcissistic people have charisma due to their ability to mirror the behaviour of others. “You get sucked in and then you start to see the mask come off, by which point your trauma bonded,” she added.
Anushka said her husband would frequently make threats to kill her during their relationship, as well as forcing her to wake up at 6am to pack his lunchbox and ensure his clothes were washed and ironed before going to work herself. She said she would often be exhausted while doing so because he had woken her up in the middle of the night to abuse her.
*Anushka’s name has been changed to protect her identity
For help or support contact the National Domestic Abuse Helpline, which is open 24/7 365 days per year on 0808 2000 247, or go to its website at www.nationaldahelpline.org.uk