She just calls him “Ex”. She doesn’t dignify him with a name. The darkest memories of scarring long-term domestic abuse, though, are harder to expunge. To look at her, you would never guess. She radiates good health and happiness, reveling in a new life with a new boyfriend, competing round the globe in the adventuresome enduro mountain biking. The physical dangers, high-speed crashes, adrenalin rushes – they’re easy.
Living with a man who calls you “fat”, “ugly”, “unlovable”; smashes a glass on your head, beats you up, threatens to slit your father’s throat in his sleep: that was the hard thing. But it’s done with now. Sport saved Traharn Chidley’s life and when she made a film that talked about it she took another brave step to changing other peoples’ perceptions, too. When it was presented to the Women’s Sport Trust’s #BeAGameChanger Awards this month, there was a long moment of disbelieving silence as the film came to a close. The audience rose to give her a standing ovation.
People are used to hearing about sport reclaiming the lives of people beset by poverty, injury, disability, lack of opportunity. Domestic abuse seemed a new departure.
She was 17 when she met Ex. “My self-esteem was really low because I’d been out with another boy from 15 and I’d thought he was ‘The One’. My lovely mum and dad has been together from 15. I naively thought that was the way it would be. When it didn’t go to plan I was devastated. So when I met this new guy I was just desperate for someone to love. I liked the idea of buying someone a present on their birthday and for Christmas. I loved the idea of being in love.”
She can look back with absolute clarity now and wonder how she could have hidden the truth of the physical abuse so completely, although the perpetrator was always careful to leave her face unscarred. The emotional abuse was harder to hide because his belittling of her was so often public. “He slowly began to tear me apart,” she said. He bruised her with bites, he held her down while he spat at her, he dragged her down stairs by her hair. Emotionally, he separated her from friends and close family, including the sporty younger brother she adored.
“I became more and more a shadow of the girl everyone knew. I lost count of the number of nights I lay awake staring at a picture of myself as a child, crying and saying sorry and feeling devastated at how I’d let that baby down.
“I got to the point where I knew it wasn’t healthy. I know it was a miserable life I was living, but I’d convinced myself I could carry on like that. I thought I wanted to help him. I knew I didn’t love him but I’d probably marry him and have his kids because that way I’d be protecting my family from all the things he’d threaten to do like burn down the house and kill everyone in it including the dogs. That’s why I couldn’t tell anyone. If they knew what he was doing, they’d be in danger because they’d want to protect me.”
She spent five years with this man, vainly trying to reclaim him as a decent human being or deluding herself that such a transformation was possible. “I was constantly on eggshells trying not to set him off.”
Ironically, it was a friend of this Ex who opened up the possibility she could lead a less wretched life. He paid her a couple of compliments by text and, having witnessed something of the horror she endured, he told her she deserved better. She began to wonder if she did. “It made me realise I might be worth loving.”
Her family had banned Ex from their house by then but were at a loss as to how to separate her from such man. In the end it was her brother, Joel, in a flash in inspiration as he was about to set off for long-term trip to Canada who came up with the suggestion. “Why don’t you borrow Dad’s mountain biking and go out riding with friends.” He loved the sport, she was his sister, why wouldn’t she love it, too.
She thought about it. But she’d never done it before. It seemed too steeped in “male-dom” when she was growing up.
“Now you see girls mountain-biking all the time. But then, growing up, you just didn’t. We lived in this tiny little village in Shropshire and it’s absolute perfect for biking. My dad and my brother were into it but it didn’t occur to anyone that I could do it, too. I was quite girly. I was into my dolls, I played the piano, I was part of a brass band. But I was into my sport, too. Trampoling, hockey, netball, rounders. Just not biking.”
She tried it.
“I was awful. My butt hurt, I fell off lots. But I smiled the whole time. It gave me a sense of freedom and control. Something about my brother made me instantly stronger. Biking was a way I could connect with him without him being in the country. It gave me strength.”
It was the beginning of the end of a horrific relationship, which unraveled with the eventual help of police and her family. No part of it was easy. Aware that she was leaving him, her Ex held a knife to her throat and threatened to kill her, bombarded her with texts and ultimately had to be arrested and prevented from getting in touch with her. She no longer hears from him.
“Sport – oh, it’s given me my life back,” she says of all the different sporting activity that her fearless existence now encompasses. “My life has completely changed. I absolutely love being outdoors. I love running. I do marathons. I compete with my brother in Enduro. And on June 11 I’m taking part in the Three Peaks Yacht Race – a sail and three marathons in three days up Snowdon, Scafell Pike and Ben Nevis. I’m so excited. As soon as I was asked if I’d take part I said, ‘Yes’.
“I was quite nervous when the idea of the video came up. I thought people might accuse me of lying or would make bad assumptions about me. But in the end the reason I felt I had to tell my story is that domestic abuse is so common. I want people to know they can get out of it. Hobbies are so important. Being outdoors – climbing, running, swimming – it doesn’t matter what it is. Anything and it will give them strength.
“A lady emailed me a month or so ago out of the blue to say thank you for sharing my story and that after watching the video she had managed to leave her abusive husband after 20 years. I burst into tears. She said she’d wanted to leave for a very long time but she had stayed for the sake of their two children. She’s been overweight, on anti-depressants, but after seeing the film she’d joined the Ramblers and she’d just been for her first 10-mile walk. She felt on top of the world, met these amazing people, loved being outside and couldn’t wait to go again.
“That’s why I wanted to tell my story: to give people courage.”
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Sue Mott is an award-winning sport journalist who has worked on radio, TV and the written press. Sue’s latest articles.