“Love,” says Rachel Lim, shaking her head, “is not violence. Love and violence cannot co-exist.”
It is advice she wants to dispense to every woman who is in a violent or abusive relationship.
“Get out. No one should live with violence,” says the 29-year-old content strategist.
Her conviction is borne out of experience – she was involved with a brutal man who almost killed her.
In August 2017, when she refused the demands of her former boyfriend – a doctor – for sex, he became so enraged that he smashed her face with his fists, breaking her nose, leaving multiple fractures and causing her brain to bleed.
The ordeal, which lasted several hours, only ended when the abuser’s father called the police who arrested his son. Ms Lim’s wounds were so extensive that she was hospitalised for three weeks.
It was not the first time Clarence Teo Shun Jie had assaulted her. Over the six months that they dated, the then locum battered her on three occasions, each beating more vicious than the last.
The case went to trial two years later. Last year, Teo was sentenced to three years, six months and two weeks’ jail with four strokes of the cane. He was also fined $4,000. Two months ago, he was struck off the Register of Medical Practitioners.
It took a while for Ms Lim to emerge from the shadow of this violent relationship. However, she deals with her past by facing it squarely, talking openly and even writing about it.
“Because I know my story can help people,” she says simply.
Slender with lively eyes and hair dyed a cool shade of aubergine, she is unguarded, articulate and endearingly self-deprecating.
A journalism graduate who is now pursuing her post-graduate diploma in psychotherapy, she also appears well-read and intelligent, traits which will make many wonder why she allowed a man to hit her. But as she will tell you, education and intelligence are not talismans against violence.
And like their victims, abusers can come from all types of social, economic and educational backgrounds, she says. Teo was a prime example.
So are her middle-class parents and elder brother, she adds.
“I’m estranged from my family. They were emotionally, psychologically and physically abusive as well,” says Ms Lim who has lived on her own since she was 22 and not seen her family members for several years.
To prove that she is not lying, she sends me copies of police reports made against her civil servant father, and her financial adviser brother, for acts of violence. She even applied for a personal protection order (PPO) against her father in 2015.
Although bright, the former student of Ai Tong and Anderson Secondary had to endure caning by her mother if her marks were less than perfect. “After a while, I just gave up on studying and almost gave up on life,” says Ms Lim, who started cutting her arms when she was in her teens.
A school counsellor who noticed the self-harm and found out about the domestic violence wanted to call the police. But Ms Lim pleaded with her not to, for fear that her father would retaliate.
Asked if she harboured thoughts of fleeing the family home, she says: “Of course, but mostly, I was thinking of dying.”
Things got better when she enrolled for a diploma course in film, sound and video at Ngee Ann Polytechnic in 2009. “I made some of my best friends there, they were all on the same frequency,” she says.
To pay her fees and earn pocket money, she juggled three part-time jobs – barista, waitress and banquet server.
“The course was gruelling but I enjoyed it,” says Ms Lim who went on to get a degree in journalism, communication and media studies from Murdoch University at a private institute.
When she was 22, she finally moved out after a violent altercation with her father, one which required the intervention of police.
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She rented a small room in Ang Mo Kio and for a couple of years made a living as a journalist, writing for titles such as Wine & Dine; the Asian edition of BBC GoodFood; and Food & Travel.
The perks – including opportunities to travel and dine at fine restaurants – were good but the pay was not great, she says.
Stress and accumulated angst conspired to push her into depression, and she attempted suicide – not her first time – by cutting her thigh in 2014.
“I thought I could bleed to death but I clearly did not do my research,” she says.
Her then boyfriend found her and took her to the hospital. “And when we were there, he broke off with me,” she recalls, laughing at the absurdity of the situation.
Fortunately, a former neighbour came along to offer some stability not long after. Ms Lim was then applying for a PPO against her father, and had contacted the neighbour – a business executive – for her testimony. “She knew from the daily screamings that I was often beaten.”
The neighbour then asked Ms Lim to move in with her.
“So I rented a room with her. Slowly this stranger neighbour whom I never spoke to since young started to take really good care of me and treated me as her own daughter. She’s my godma, I call her mum,” she says.
In early 2017, when she had already worked as a copywriter for a couple of years, she met Teo.
It was instant attraction, she candidly admits. “I’ve never felt such an electrifying connection with anyone. Things went well for a while,” she says.
But there were also red flags right from the start, she adds. He was rough when they were intimate, and would not stop when asked to.
Barely one month into the relationship, he punched her face one day after suddenly grilling her about her past relationships.
Her teeth cut the insides of her cheeks, causing her to bleed all over his bed sheets.
“I was shocked beyond words. I thought maybe he had mental health issues and that he didn’t know what he was doing,” she says. “I thought if he were willing to go into therapy, there could be a chance for us.”
She could not reconcile how a man who made her so happy could also beat her up so badly and was reluctant to leave him. “When things were good, they were so good I just felt I was in heaven.”
She now realises those were superficial moments of joy, not real happiness.
Before the horrific assault which led to Teo’s arrest, there was also another incident where he waylaid her when she was on her way to work, pushed her into his car, took her home and abused her for more than 10 hours.
This second beating led to another suicide attempt. Ms Lim checked herself into a hotel and swallowed dozens of pills. Sensing something was not right when she did not return home, her godma called numerous hospitals and hotels before she found Ms Lim.
The hotel had to break the door of her room down because it was double-locked from within.
Because of the incident, Teo agreed to see a therapist and all was good for a while. And then that third and final assault happened.
At the hospital, doctors had to fix, among other things, her nose, her eye sockets and her little finger which broke while fending off his blows. “I had brain haemorrhage and if it didn’t go away, I could have died,” she recalls.
Even though they knew what had happened to her, her parents and brother did not get in touch.
When the trial started and made newspaper headlines, her mother sent her messages. “Among other things, she insinuated I was not a good child and that I was also to blame for what happened to me. I did not respond.”
Shortly after being discharged, she started receiving calls from Dr Sudha Nair, the founder of Pave (Centre for Promoting Alternatives to Violence), a family violence specialist centre.
The Adult Protective Services, a scheme by the Ministry for Social And Family Development to protect vulnerable adults from abuse, neglect or self-neglect, had alerted Dr Nair, 61, about Ms Lim.
She says: “From what I understood of the situation, the violence was very severe and she needed a lot of support and help. I was starting a women’s group-work programme for survivors and I wanted her to know that she didn’t need to go through this alone.”
Ms Lim, however, was reluctant and it took numerous calls before she agreed to go. “I thought I’d go for the second session just to get rid of Sudha,” she says with a grin.
She ended up going for the remaining eight sessions, sharing her experiences with a group of high-functioning and accomplished violence victims, including a doctor and a lawyer.
“All the women thought what they went through was unique, but it’s not unique at all.”
Dr Nair says what stops victims of violence from coming forward is shame. “I told Rachel: ‘You’ve got nothing to be ashamed of, you didn’t perpetrate the violence. The attacker should be ashamed.”
The sessions, she says, were good for Ms Lim and the other participants.
“Because they were independent women, they thought ‘Why me?’ But ‘Why not you? What makes you different?’ You have to get them to see it’s not about their social economic status or education but their beliefs about what is acceptable,” says Dr Nair.
Now working as a content strategist with The School Of Positive Psychology, Ms Lim says the sessions helped her tremendously. Writing about her experiences, meditating and reading philosophy also helped to heal her, as did a good friend who suddenly held her hand one day when they were on an outing.
Ms Lim has been in a loving and respectful relationship with the design engineer – who’s also a musician – for the past two years.
There was also a spiritual awakening which made her realise how precious life is. The experience led her to change her name; she is now Saraswati Rachel.
She is not ashamed of what she went through.
“How could I ever be ashamed of myself now, when I’ve learnt to discover and accept myself for who I am?,” says Ms Lim, who hopes to pursue a Masters next, perhaps in psychotherapy, counselling or art therapy.
To women caught in violent relationships, she says: “You may not believe it now but there are actually guys you can actually like even more, guys who don’t hit you or violate you in any way.”
As for Teo, she says: “I know he can never experience peace, joy, gratitude and contentment the way we do. And that’s enough punishment for a human. He created his own hell and he’s living it. That’s sad.”
This article was first published in The Straits Times.