In-depth Story: Lucky Unganqotshwa Mthembu – Rebuilding my Life After an Abusive Relationship

Photo provided by Lucky Unganqotshwa Mthembu.

Lucky Unganqotshwa Mthembu is a 31-year-old mother of a precious 3-year-old girl. I mention my second name “Unganqotshwa” because it resonates with the core of who I am. It means “Do not be conquered” in isiZulu.

I believe I am the poster child for hope, resilience and strength because I have not been conquered by the things life threw at me. Instead, God ordered my steps to make it work together for His good, which placed me at the forefront of making it my life’s mission to speak on gender-based violence-related issues and the complexities that come with being in toxic relationships. My goal is to help people spot red flags and also successfully leave such relationships and thrive in their own right.

I did my tertiary education at the University of KwaZulu Natal, and I am currently working as an online English Teacher for an Italian-based school while also rebuilding my modeling and acting career after it was shattered into pieces by my abusive ex-fiancé. I am also a motivational speaker who uses her story as an anchor of hope for people who may feel they no longer have a future for whatever circumstances they are faced with.

Love gone horribly wrong

I was engaged to a person who was very abusive emotionally, physically and financially. At the onset of the relationship, he was extremely loving, attentive and the future seemed bright for us. To me he was the ultimate prince charming and I notably classified myself as the few lucky people who can proclaim that “I have found my soulmate”. Then slowly, everything started to crumble.

At first, it was hidden disrespect that turned to blatant disrespect, then a push on the forehead, a slap and eventually punches. In one incident, he broke a glass on my head.

I had always been the type of person to say: “I would never stay in a relationship with a man who hits me,” not realizing the slow progression that happens before that first slap. The straw that broke the camel’s back for me was when he landed me in hospital.

I realized the kind of evil I was dealing with when the morning afterwards, my parents informed me that there had been an attempt to set my mother’s car on fire the evening before, with sightings of my ex’s car speeding off after an explosion. The had occurred after I had him banned from coming into the hospital to see me.

How I realized how this was the beginning of my nightmare was when police suggested it couldn’t have been him, and this became the resounding response from law enforcement with every case that was opened against him. One infringement after another, he used his financial muscle to bribe his way out of trouble.

An ultimate tragedy

The worst of my nightmares was realized when I lost my mother due to a violent attack in which he was the main suspect; but that too disappeared into thin air. As if this weren’t enough, my pushing through life and trying to pick up the broken pieces that remained seemed to anger him. “If I can’t have you, no one else can” came into full throttle. He sent hitmen seven months after my mother’s murdered and I narrowly escaped because God’s grace swooped in and caused the gun the jam. I dropped out of my Master’s degree program and disappeared. I lost four years of my life after that incident because I had to hide from the man I once proclaimed my love to because he was actively hunting me down – he was out for blood.

Coming to terms with grief and loss

What I learnt from this relationship more than anything was who I was. I realized that all my life I thought I knew who I was, what I stood for and what my boundaries were, but I didn’t. I say this because I realized that I allowed so many things that I had always said I’d never tolerate from a partner, and I was too forgiving of things that gradually chipped away at my self-esteem, my self-worth as well as my identity. This continued until one day, I looked into the mirror and literally asked myself the question “Who are you?”

I analyzing the dark circles under my eyes, my frail-looking body and the girl who once graced the Miss South Africa Teen stage and Garnier television commercial campaigns hidden deep somewhere within the evidently soul-sucked eyes. The twinkle was gone.

I struggled to find myself again for years while maneuvering the guilt of being the person who unknowingly [introduced] the person who took away the most important person in my life to my family. Above and beyond this, I also lived in constant anxiety and PTSD while simultaneously trying to make sure that justice was served and having to figure out how to do this without disclosing my location to my hunter.

Finding me after an abuse relationship

One day, I decided to stop holding a pity party for myself and decided to use what I went through to empower others. But before doing that, it was important for me to figure out why I allowed such treatment to be imposed on me. I had to take responsibility and realized that I decided to stay in an abusive relationship. I needed to figure out what it was about me that allowed everything to snowball in the manner in which it did.

My search led me to the discovery that I was in a narcissistic abuse [cycle]. I researched the topic rigorously and learned that it was my undealt-with childhood traumas that led me to tolerate abuse. This awareness led me to unpack certain behaviors and thought patterns, giving space for my ability to love myself regardless of my flaws. I set out to discover why I lacked self-love and was unable to create healthy boundaries.

I finally met Lucky for the first time ever in my life! I loved her so much that I now had boundaries. Furthermore, building a real relationship with God was at the core of this process.

Spreading awareness through my story

The Nokuthula Legacy is an NGO which I formed and use to spread awareness and empower other women who may be going through what I went through, or are trying to rebuild their lives after abusive relationships. Nokuthula was my mother’s name and it means “mother of peace” in isiZulu. She lived her life in the embodiment of her name, which is why my reason for naming the foundation after her goes beyond just keeping her legacy alive…it strives to carve the path towards a peaceful society.

The biggest message behind my story is that no one has power over your destiny. The organization does this work by empowering both the girl child and the boy child through school visits. It also focuses on creating platforms in which men are afforded the space to be vulnerable because the biggest enlightenment I received was that nobody wakes up and decides they want to be abusive and violent.

In society in general, men are brought up with the notion that showing emotion is a sign of weakness with the constant “man up” and “men don’t cry” being echoed throughout. This means bottled-up trauma will naturally manifest itself through anger and violence because this is the only emotion that has been deemed acceptable for men. Therefore, I believe that by empowering women, while simultaneously allowing men to speak out on their own difficulties, has the potential to drastically decrease the levels of gender-based violence we see in society.

Getting through tough days

What keeps me the woman I am during difficult times is knowing, through reflection, that God has the steering wheel. My mother was very optimistic and preached love, not only with her mouth but with her actions as well. A month before her passing, I remember sitting on my bed with my Moon Boot, engulfed with defeat after being discharged from hospital. I was expressing to her how I think I should drop out of my master’s program because. According to me, my ability to spring up regardless of everything my abuser continued to throw at me even after the relationship ended was why he continued to terrorize my life. I believed that this infuriated him, and that accepting defeat would make him leave us alone.

She spoke against that and said, “You will finish your Master’s degree, and you will stand in front of people who may seem hopeless one day and tell them that you made it through regardless of the circumstances you were faced with.” Then she asked me to cup my hand. “That right there is your destiny,” she continued, “and nobody has the power to take it away from you. It is in your own hands.” Whenever I feel down, this nostalgic memory floods my mind.

Rebuilding my life after loss

My other significant push is my daughter and my younger brother. Living a purpose-filled life has become of utmost importance to me. Being present and continuing to push for my daughter and my brother has kept my head above the water regardless of any situation life throws at me. My daughter missed the opportunity to experience abundant love and warmth her grandmother had in excess, and my brother was only 11 years old when tragedy struck. I have to be their mirror of hope before I am the mirror of hope for anyone else.

I doubt there will ever be a point where I truly get over the loss of my mother. For years, my conscience was plagued with guilt because I brought this monster into our lives. But the truth is that I didn’t know he was a monster because it wasn’t plastered across his forehead. To effectively use what I went through to help others while simultaneously ensuring my mother’s legacy lives on, I had to forgive myself for staying in a relationship that my mother was collateral damage to.

For a very long time, I depended on prescription sleeping tablets and alcohol to numb myself so that I don’t feel the pain. How I finally made it out of that state was by starting the journey of intentionally finding myself and healing the childhood traumas that had remained dormant for the entirety of my life.

My relationship with God also caused me to see myself through God’s eyes. When I saw what God sees when He looks at me, I started transforming into that version of myself – a self which is purpose-driven, healed, whole and is in full awareness of who she is. Instead of numbing myself, I took my issues to Him, and He restored me.

Advice for women in abusive relationships

The advice that I would give women who are in abusive relationships will always be to leave. Speaking to someone they trust about what they are going through is key for them to be further validated about the importance of leaving such relationships. In most cases, women suffer in silence because of the shame they feel and also because the abusive person has successfully isolated them from loved ones.

Being in an abusive relationship means being in constant chaos, and being in constant chaos means not having the ability to really tap into who you are as a person.

There aren’t enough opportunities to really tap into who you are in such an environment. The main objective of an abusive partner is having control over their target, especially mental and emotional control, which hinders the ability to thrive even more.

How to leave an abusive relationship

It is, of course, necessary to evaluate the situation first and plan the escape if the situation is dangerous. But leaving needs to be the end result. Then, the next step is to go “No Contact” because abusive people have an uncanny way of reeling their targets back into the relationship, and most times they are successful. So the only resolution is not giving the person any access to you.

In situations where the woman can’t completely go “No Contact” because there might be children involved, communication needs to be kept at a minimum or else have a third party speak to the abuser on the woman’s behalf. Life is so much better on the other side.

The first thing to do after leaving an abusive relationship is go on a journey of re-finding yourself. Such relationships cause one to lose oneself because the abuser defines who you are for you so that they can properly control and manipulate you. Finding yourself and figuring out what it is that allowed you to allow such behaviour positions you to form healthy boundaries.

Having boundaries is essential in protecting yourself, and it’s the biggest proclamation of your love for yourself.

Knowing yourself and having boundaries means that no one can come into your life and define who you are for you, and you become unapologetic about leaving any situation that is a threat to your peace, joy and self-worth.

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