Student debt made domestic violence worse

‘Talking about money problems can trigger terrifying flashbacks.’ Photograph: Alamy | Courtesy
‘Talking about money problems can trigger terrifying flashbacks.’ Photograph: Alamy | Courtesy

A healthy person doesn’t snap at someone for chewing too loudly or too fast. Getting your hand slapped for trying to show a funny YouTube clip isn’t normal. And being in debt shouldn’t result in bruises. But it did.

The first time my ex-boyfriend got violent, we were both graduate students living in Britain and had been together for less than a year. He violently shoved me and then acted like he didn’t mean it and that it couldn’t have hurt. Moments later he did it again. Nearly yanking my arm out of the socket, he threw me down the hallway.

I yelled at him that I would tell everyone, surely someone in the building had heard. He said it wasn’t a big deal and somehow convinced me that I had concocted the story in the midst of a panic attack. Being in this relationship was hard, and debt made it all the more difficult.

College debt

I had accrued over KSh8.5 million ($85,000) in debt over the course of six years. Around Ksh500,000 ($5,000) of that was credit card debt, and the rest was entirely education debt from undergraduate and graduate school. I had scholarships but they barely scratched the surface of reducing the financial burden.

He was from Europe and didn’t have to pay a dime for his undergraduate degree. But I couldn’t talk about my debt because my boyfriend would berate me for going to college when I didn’t have the money to pay for it outright. He would yell and blame everything on me and my financial instability. That’s when I created filters to block emails from my student loans and credit cards, because my economic woes were too dangerous a topic to risk breaching.

Violent attacks

One of the worst fights broke out when I purchased tomatoes from a slightly more expensive store than the one he told me to go to. He stood in the doorway of the living room, repeating the same phrase over and over: “I pay your life! Why didn’t you learn the first or second time?”

I attempted to respond, but he barked at me to stop ranting and pulled me towards the kitchen. I tried to plant my feet and stand outside the door. I was crying out to leave me alone, to let me go, to just stop. Half of what I said was to him, begging him to stop, the other half was to myself, trying to wake myself from the nightmare, trying to convince myself that it wasn’t really happening.

He grabbed my shoulders, to drag me closer. I struggled free. His hands left dark splotchy bruises up and down my arms. He shoved me violently against a closet door before disappearing into the kitchen. When he emerged, his demeanour was as if I was the one acting irrationally and he was there to calm me down.

I landed a job at a prestigious university after working as a part-time childcare worker for several months. My new gig was also part-time, but the pay was better and the future brighter. After my first day, I was brimming with excitement and had a reinvigorated sense of determination. It was a blistering cold evening so I decided to spend an additional KSh80 ($8) to take the train home. I was on the tail end of a nasty cold and didn’t want to make it worse with a long bumpy bus ride. When I got home, I let it slip that I took the train.

He had given me $8 that morning to help me pay for my ride, and he gave me explicit instructions not to take the train home. He allowed me to take the train to work, because it was over an hour faster. The fury unleashed on me for misappropriating the money was horrific. “You bought expensive train tickets when you didn’t have to, then expected me to pay for your travel? How stupid was I to help you? You repay my kindness by being selfish and you are blind to it. Why do you have a degree? You are always miserable! Oh, great, you’re on another rant. You’re just lazy and pathetic.”


Things were so bad that I downloaded an app to track my emotions. I encrypted journal entries and pictures of my bruises, locked behind a passcode. I stacked up evidence to fight my denial. The physical violence seemed to happen on a schedule, just enough bodily harm to keep me fearfully in check during the frequent emotional abuse.

It took two years, but a day came when I had nothing left in me. I laid out the data and I could no longer convince myself that I was to blame for the flood. He was drowning me. I was fighting against a rip tide and couldn’t keep my head above water. I called my mom and asked for help. Without hesitation she said: “We will not let you sink. You are loved and you are coming home.”

Today, my debt continues to follow me. Talking about money problems can trigger terrifying flashbacks, but they lessen as time goes on. The fear of my debt feels like chump change compared to the fear I used to live in.

  • Courtesy of The Guardian Online