“I hope to help women in the future that get stuck in these relationships – it can happen to anyone of us no matter how strong you think you are.”
I spoke to my friend, Nicola Kaye, 53.5kg ISKA female British and European title holder about the Muay life and her unexpected experience of domestic abuse.
Before I met Nicola, I saw her in action. It was a Friday night “big fight” at Bangla Stadium in Patong, Phuket and Nicola was fighting one of my close friends. They both clambered into the ring, rolling under the ropes and into action. Round 1 started and I was immediately captivated by Nicola’s confidence and her fast and heavy punches. Being partial to Dutch style boxing, it was inspiring to see another woman dominating using a similar technique.
Whilst she was a powerhouse on pads, the ring was not the place for my friend and Nicola asserted herself with a flurry of jabs to the face. My friend was knocked down and did not get up. K.O.
Who was this girl?
Fast forward to a year or so later at Chalong Stadium. I had turned up, unaware that Nicola and I would cross paths again. In the midst of the sweat and stadium buzz, Nicola and I were introduced by a mutual friend.
Nic was funny, outrageous, confident and a demonstration of girl power in action.
Having forgotten her groin guard for the fight, she wasn’t sweating it. Instead, she had fashioned her own by layering 10 sanitary pads on top of each other. I was immediately sold. I needed to get to know this girl.
As we began to talk, it turned out that we had a dark story in common: domestic abuse.
How did you meet your ex partner?
I was training at a gym in Phuket and he was a family member of the owner. When I arrived, I was training hard and had no interest in relationships. I think my lack of interest proved to be a challenge, as he would always make an effort to come and talk to me with such confidence. He soon mentioned that he was keen to support me at my up and coming fight and suggested that afterwards, he would take me around Patong as I’d never been. He was Muslim and Thai – two cultures that I previously didn’t know much about. He seemed so normal and easy going. Soon I was captivated by a cool, very charming and generous guy who seemed to want to give me anything I wanted.
How long were you in the relationship for, and for how long was it abusive?
It’s hard to say because it carried on after I had left the country, but I would say up to a year. After about 3 months I would say it became physically abusive, however I believe the manipulation and emotional abuse started from the beginning but at the time I just didn’t realize it.
Domestic abuse is a gradual process. In the beginning, it’s usually a heady mix of charm, intensity, excitement and passion. What was your relationship with your ex partner like in the beginning and how did it slowly change?
In the beginning we had a great time, although it was very intense as you mentioned above. We were always together from day one, and at one point, he was using my mobile, as his battery died; and he just continued to have his sim card in my phone and I didn’t have a mobile, which made me feel vulnerable in a different country alone. At that point, I remember feeling a little overwhelmed by him for the first time, and asked him to stay at his place for a couple of nights so I could have a bit of space and my mobile back. He didn’t seem to mind and respected my wishes, but there was nonstop communication, and he came to stay a day after; we couldn’t stay away from each other.
A couple of weeks later my rent was up and he mentioned I could move in with him and his cousin’s until I found another place to stay. I agreed and at this point I was unaware of actually how isolated I was.
A couple of friends I had met would ask me to come hang out, he would make comments that I shouldn’t hang out with them, and that I shouldn’t go places without him. During the time I stayed at his cousin’s place, I didn’t realize what I was involved in. I would indirectly be told how to live my life and was constantly told my way of thinking was wrong.
When did you realize that you were in an abusive relationship?
The first time he physically grabbed my face after I was complaining about not being home in time to start my work as I had a new online job, and had to be online at set times. Generally, if I am irritated I will let the person know. I have a strong personality so that didn’t go down well when I would complain or argue my point. I was shocked he had hurt me like that grabbing my face telling me to shut my mouth in the back of a taxi. I was quite upset and was just silent thinking maybe I was complaining too much and that I pushed him too far. But no man had ever grabbed my face like that so I was feeling a bit confused.
Jealousy can sometimes be mistaken for an expression of love. Was your partner jealous, and at what point did it become clear that his jealousy was turning into control?
His jealousy was there from the beginning and it slowly turned into complete control. He began telling me what I could and could not wear. I was not allowed to be around men, I wasn’t allowed to talk to men, I wasn’t allowed to go to a bar and if I did, I would be considered by him and ‘everyone’ a whore. I could not even go to the beach as he said I wasn’t respecting myself if I wore a bikini at the beach and that If I loved him I wouldn’t do that.
How did living in and amongst different cultures effect you and your relationship?
We moved to another house alone, however his cousins and friends were around us on a daily basis. As I was not around any westerners, it was difficult. I was heavily influenced to believe that the way I am was not the right way to be, and instead that I must change myself to be better, and align myself to his religious and cultural values.
He consistently made comments about how I didn’t cook and clean enough etc, and how Thai women in particular make good wives. He was constantly comparing me to other women and it was really frustrating. His family and friends would tell me that we should get married, that they could organize it quickly and that I should convert to Islam.
Living in Thailand, you are part of a different culture. It can be difficult to know where paying your respects stops and disrespecting yourself starts. What was your experience of negotiating this fine line?
Yes, I think whenever I tried to draw the line, this would be seen as being disrespectful and this would result in violence so it was a lose-lose situation.
Personal freedom is something that we all take as a given. How did the situation develop to the point where you felt like you couldn’t leave?
I don’t think I ever appreciated freedom until it was taken away and that is something I never thought could ever happen to someone like me. Petty arguments would turn vicious and become more and more out of my control. Things like having the motorbike keys taken away from me if I didn’t make breakfast so that I couldn’t leave the house; my bank card being ripped up so I couldn’t access my money and towards the end, when I wanted to leave, my passport being ripped up. It consistently escalated. There were no boundaries to what he was capable of; I belonged to him and he would tell me when and where I would go.
Rather than being disempowering, your experience with domestic abuse empowered you. Through being isolated, you actually ended up connecting with some pretty amazing women. What’s the story there?
Through the experience I did get to meet what would later be his new wife, who reached out to me, and also his ex girlfriend who I reached out to shortly after I returned to England. It was through them that I really understood the control and hold this person had had on me, how he did it to others, and how everything was so similar. Both were beautiful women inside and out. We arranged to meet up in person and we had an incredible weekend. It really gave all of us closure to know we had been through similar experiences and helped each other overcome it in some way or another. It really was amazing.
We have both come a long way since our first meeting in Thailand! Where are you now, what are you doing, and what have you learnt along the way?
After I left Thailand, I turned my focus to my Muay Thai career and achieved more than I could have imagined in such a short space of time. I gained two different title belts, one British ISKA champion, and one European. During my first two years back in the UK my motivation was stronger than ever. I also started to do seminars focused on self defence for women, meeting women who had been in domestically abusive relationships and also just women who wanted to feel empowered through having some knowledge if they ever needed to protect themselves. I hope to help women in the future that get stuck in these relationships – it can happen to anyone of us no matter how strong you think you are.
The topic of domestic abuse is pretty murky water. It requires you to leave what you thought you knew at the door, and to face up to some big questions, and some even bigger answers. As well as being physical, domestic abuse can be verbal, financial, sexual and emotional – just to name a few. Questions such as “why doesn’t he/she just leave” illustrate how little we understand the issue and how common misconceptions are. Do a little research and get clued up so that we aren’t just fighting for ourselves inside the ring, but fighting for each other outside of it too.
If you want to learn more about domestic abuse:
Schooled in the West, so removed from the societal parameters that shaped her parents’ lives, Jess Boyd had always been motivated to dig deeper and research harder, in order to understand the countries that had influenced her family’s lives from the inside out. What began as an exploration of Vietnam developed into a love of Thailand and a relentless battle for women’s rights in Southeast Asia. At eighteen, Jess left London for Vietnam and ended up in Thailand where she started a life long relationship with Muay Thai. Five years later, this relationship has not only taken her into the depths of Thailand, but also into the depths of herself. Dig deeper with Jess over at dailydesiderata and on Instagram.