It didn’t start with me

The Indigo Press is an independent publisher of contemporary fiction and non-fiction, based in London. Guided by a spirit of internationalism, feminism and social justice, we publish books to make readers see the world afresh, question their behaviour and beliefs, and imagine a better future.

This is an exclusive Indigo Express essay published by The Indigo Press

It didn’t start with me

Nataliya Deleva

 ‘When I was little, did you ever play with me?’

My mother looked startled and offended when I asked her this question recently. ‘Of course I played with you. We played together all the time,’ she replied defensively.

The thing is, I have no recollection of my parents positively interacting with me or engaging me in a game. My memories of those early years are imbued with fear, shame and anger; with spending many hours alone in my room, trying very hard to distract myself with activities that would give me temporary relief from the daily terror that took centre stage in my family. Growing up with a physically abusive, alcoholic father had altered my brain and had placed me in survival mode. When a traumatised child is in that state, the brain constantly looks for threats, ready to fight, fly or freeze. It captures the warning signs and stores them as events, excluding everything else. My brain behaved the same way: storing the traumatic events, ready to respond to new threats, excluding any pleasurable moments. This is why, regardless of how hard I try to remember a day when my parents interacted with me in a joyful way, all I can recall are the instances of domestic abuse, memories which, years later, continue to overwhelm my body and hijack my emotions.

I recently watched Maid, the Netflix miniseries inspired by Stephanie Land’s memoir Maid: Hard Work, Low Pay, and a Mother’s Will to Survive. It follows the story of Alex (played by Margaret Qualley), who leaves an emotionally abusive marriage along with her two-year-old daughter Maddy (Rylea Nevaeh Whittet) and is faced with poverty, homelessness and gruelling bureaucracy. It’s about survival as well as domestic abuse, transgenerational trauma and the shame that comes with it. It struck me that, when we speak about domestic abuse, we’re likely to blame the perpetrator, to shame or pity the spouse, but we rarely explore the ripple effects of domestic abuse on children. The fact that children depend on their parents’ often non-existent care and on one parent’s decision to stay in or leave the abusive relationship makes them the most negatively affected ones in the family.

‘It takes most women seven tries before they finally leave,’ said Denise (BJ Harrison) to Alex in the show. Her words resonated deeply with me. It took my mother five tries before she finally managed to escape with me and my little sister, and to relocate to another city. It happened after a near-death experience at home when, for the first time, I somehow managed to overcome the flight or freeze mode and instead chose to fight back. As a fifteen-year-old girl I obviously wasn’t physically stronger than my father, but the act of me pulling him away from my mother, screaming like a wild animal while scratching his face with uncut nails, took him by surprise. He looked at me in shock, which gave my mother a window of opportunity to reach the door. The neighbours who had heard our calls for help entered the flat and forcibly removed my father.

We slept over at our neighbours’ place and the next morning my mother packed our bags and we boarded a train, fully aware that overnight we’d become homeless and without any source of income. It wasn’t the last time he was violent towards us; he found us quickly. Although the abuse continued to take place over the next few months, when he’d wait for us on the street and humiliate me in front of my friends, it was the beginning of the end.

I know that many of you will pause here and think, ‘This could never happen to me, and even if it did I would leave straight away.’ I used to think that too, and blamed my mother for years, unable to understand why she was blind to my fear, and how she had been persistently manipulated by the man she loved and I detested. At the time, I wasn’t aware of something called coercive behaviour. ‘Coercive controllers don’t just abuse their partners to hurt, humiliate or punish them. They don’t just use violence to seize power in the moment or gain the advantage in a fight. Instead, they use particular techniques – isolation, gaslighting, surveillance – to strip the victim of their liberty, and take away their sense of self,’ writes Jess Hill in her book See What You Made Me Do. Power, Control and Domestic Abuse.  She refers to Biderman’s Chart of Coercion as a guide to outline the basic techniques used to varying extents by abusers. Before the process can start, the coercive abuser establishes love and trust.

Just after a harrowing episode of violence, my father would buy Mum flowers. He would promise it would never happen again and would stay away from the alcohol for a while to regain her trust. In their first months as a couple he was the most gentle, reliable and loving man a woman could ask for, my mother recalls. In their friends’ circles, everyone liked him and women secretly envied my mother for being the one he had chosen. Spending the warm summer evenings by the beach, listening to him playing the guitar, had mesmerised my mother. In Maid, Alex is charmed by Sean (Nick Robinson) the moment she sees him in the bar, when he is the only one who seems intrigued by her poem she reads. We then see them both laughing in a hammock in the sun, unable to resist their desire for one another – a dreamlike picture of their life as a new couple.

It is love that first ties a woman to her abusive partner and which makes her forgive him time after time. But it’s a kind of love defined by his deeply held sense of entitlement. In the TV show, an example of this is Sean’s belief that Alex owes him sex, or his verbally violent outbursts towards her male friend Nate (Raymond Ablack).

Once the abuser has earned the love and trust of the woman towards whom they feel that sense of entitlement, her guard is down and they start applying, often unconsciously, the Biderman’s Chart of Coercion techniques. The first one is to isolate their partner: to cut her off from the rest of society, even from her parents and closest friends. By doing this, the coercive controller eliminates all sources of support and becomes the most powerful person in her life. It happens gradually, a small step at a time. If the victim has a troubled relationship with her parents, the abuser may seek to side with them. This is clearly the case in Maid when Sean gets close to Alex’s father Hank (Billy Burke), a recovered alcoholic who abused her mother when Alex was still a small child. Hank becomes Sean’s supporter at a time when his own daughter needs him as a reliable father, which further alienates her and damages their father-daughter relationship.

The second step is to monopolise perception. This means that, once the victim is isolated, the perpetrator will be able to take complete ownership of the way she thinks about the world around her, including her perception of self. He redirects her attention away from his abuse towards her faults, making her take responsibility for his behaviour. In Maid, this happens after Alex gets pregnant. Sean acts as if the pregnancy and Alex’s decision to keep the baby make her responsible for him becoming an abusive alcoholic. This is another aspect of the film that resonated with me.

My mother married young after getting pregnant. Unlike Alex, she decided not to choose between her education and a newborn, between a career and a family life. Instead, she was determined to have both. She is one of the most inspiring people in my life and yet, despite her determination and motherly care for us, I used to judge her choice to have me. After once hearing my father’s confession that this pregnancy was unwelcome to him, a feeling of guilt was born in 7-year-old me. If I was the reason they got married, was I also the cause of the abuse my mother had endured for years? The feelings of guilt and of being unwanted stayed with me and grew bigger and bigger, while I was desperately trying to take up less space, leave no trace, remain unnoticed. I wished I could become invisible and disappear since there was no place for me to hide, no safety, no protection from the violence.

Today, I am able to enjoy food. I love experimenting with flavours and trying different cuisines, and I often host dinner parties at home. But as a child everyone in my family used to say I was a fussy eater. The truth was, I wasn’t picky about food, I simply didn’t want to eat anything. By the time I was seven or eight, my anxiety was so overwhelming that there were days I would throw up just after a few mouthfuls – not by forcing myself to vomit but because even the smell of cooked food would make me physically sick. Mealtimes became as traumatic for me as the incidents of violence at home. Gradually, I started to lose weight and children at school would laugh at me, calling me ‘bony’ and ‘skinny’, which made my anxiety flare up even further. My parents took me to several doctors, who ran a number of tests and scans, but my daily stomach ache and lack of appetite remained unexplained. Without a diagnosis, there was no treatment. When the mind is in a state of severe stress and anxiety, several systems in our bodies shut down, including the digestive system. While some people binge-eat when stressed, others are unable to take a bite. The body reacts by sending signals like abdominal pain or inflammation, which have no apparent medical source. ‘Research has shown that people who’ve been abused as children often feel sensations (such as abdominal pain) that have no obvious physical cause,’ writes Bessel Van Der Kolk in his book The Body Keeps the Score.

I recovered fully after we left my father when I was fifteen, but I only recently connected my eating disorder with the effects of the domestic abuse I had experienced. This connection is now widely researched and the link between childhood trauma, anxiety or mental illness and eating disorders has been firmly established. While bulimia nervosa, binge eating and anorexia nervosa are most common forms of eating disorders, there are others, and one of them is called Avoidant/restrictive food intake disorder, or ARFID. The name is often described as an ‘umbrella’ term linked to different types of food avoidance, such as sensory-based avoidance or restriction of intake. In some cases, the person may not recognise that they are hungry and generally have a poor appetite. For them, eating is not something enjoyable but a rather unpleasant act, resulting in them struggling to eat. As with other people who have experienced childhood trauma, my body refused to eat because my mind was telling it that I wanted to disappear.

Other techniques from the Biderman’s Chart of Coercion are to induce debility and exhaustion, to enforce trivial demands, to demonstrate omnipotence, threats, degradation, and to alternate punishments with rewards (known as the Cycle of Violence, where an act of violence is followed by a period of contrition, promises and pursuit, then a ‘false honeymoon stage’ before a new build-up in tension and another act of violence). All of these techniques reassert control and power over the victim, reducing the woman to an object owned by the abuser. Sometimes, cultural cues play a part and negatively impact this perception. In one of the chapters in Arrival (The Indigo Press, February 2022),  I write about a Bulgarian wedding ritual which can still be witnessed in some parts of the country today. The tradition requires the groom and his family to ‘buy’ the bride. It’s a symbolic act: the bride takes off her wedding shoe and gives it to the groom who stuffs the shoe with notes until it ‘fits’. Once the groom has paid for his new wife he becomes, figuratively, her owner. The custom is quite outdated, but this allegorical transaction is deeply rooted in patriarchal beliefs and systems. The inflicted gender roles and stereotypical perceptions are constantly reaffirmed at home, at weddings and other family celebrations and in school, surfacing during the children’s early years. You live under the veil of tradition because if you don’t you risk being expelled from the community. This was especially valid during the communist regime. Inflicting shame on women who dared to escape an abusive marriage and to disperse the family union was a common practice. To be a child in a dysfunctional home wasn’t easy either.

For years, I felt ashamed because of the abuse that happened to me, and also because of the way I reacted to it: by refusing to eat, by not doing enough or not doing anything soon enough to stop my father, and finally, for saving my mother by turning myself into an animal. I wasn’t alone.

‘One of the hardest things for traumatized people is to confront their shame about the way they behaved during a traumatic episode,’ explains Bessel Van Der Kolk. ‘Victims of child abuse… suffer from agonizing shame about the actions they took to survive and maintain a connection with the person who abused them.’ This is especially true if the abuser is a close family member or caretaker, as is the case with children experiencing domestic abuse. This makes the child confused and leads to an inability to differentiate between love and terror, care and aggression.

In most instances, a child in this situation is likely to repress and/or suppress what takes place behind closed doors. It could be due to the shame associated with the abuse, but sometimes it’s because they’ve been told not to share what happens in the family. I never invited friends over when my parents were at home. To allay suspicion that something might be wrong at home I studied twice as hard as my peers, determined to achieve outstanding results at school at any cost. Perhaps I even managed to trick my mind during the day and push any stressful thoughts to the corner – a typical flight response. When I was outside things seemed to be normal, so I acted normally too. I would giggle with my girlfriends in school just like any other girl my age, we would write childish love letters to the boys, and would chat for hours on the phone after school despite having spent the whole morning together. At times, I even questioned my experience of abuse, uncertain whether my father’s behaviour was something ordinary I just needed to endure. But this is not healthy behaviour in the long run.

In her book Childhood Disrupted: How Your Biography Becomes Your Biology, and How You Can Heal, Donna Jackson Nakazawa asks readers to take the Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) survey. Each question answered with a ‘yes’ equals one point.

I invite you to take the test with me.

Prior to your 18th birthday:

1) Did a parent or other adult in the household often or very often swear at you, insult you, put you down, or humiliate you? Or, act in a way that made you afraid that you might be physically hurt?

Yes. It is something I write about in my upcoming novel Arrival. The book is literary fiction, but some events are inspired by my own childhood experiences of growing up with an alcoholic father.

One incident took place on a night when my father came back drunk after the rest of us had gone to bed. The living room and my bedroom were connected by a terrace, and I was awakened by my father’s banging on the window from the terrace. In one hand he was holding the pullover my mother had recently knitted for me, and in the other a lighter. Before my eyes, he started a fire, staring at me with a grotesque grin on his face. I thought we would all burn and die that night. My mother didn’t say a word, perhaps fearing that if she did he might set her on fire just as he had the new pullover.

I think of Alex in Maid who, as a child, used to hide in the cupboard while her father abused her mother. That incident is important to portray the intergenerational trauma experienced in the family, which is often passed from generation to generation unnoticed, almost forgotten, hiding in our cells. I will be also calculating her daughter Maddy’s points here. The effects of childhood abuse on a child can have a serious negative impact in their adulthood, making them more likely to suffer from diseases such as depression, cancer, rheumatoid arthritis and other autoimmune and inflammatory illnesses, according to the ACE survey study. So, considering the instances in which Maddy witnessed Sean throwing bottles, making her afraid that she might be physically hurt, she is also a ‘yes’.

2) Did a parent or other adult in the household often or very often push, grab, slap, or throw something at you? Or, ever hit you so hard that you had marks or were injured?

Yes for me and no for Maddy. One of the events which has stuck in my mind was a time when my father hit me in the face and I lost consciousness for a few moments. My body’s reaction was an act of protecting my mind, to save it from further, even greater damage. 

3) Were your parents ever separated or divorced?

Yes for both of us. But I would view this as a positive event when we finally escaped the constant abuse, so I won’t give myself a point for this answer. There’s a scene in Maid in which Maddy spends a day with her dad and grandma Paula in the playground, and is returned to her mother extremely distressed from the meeting. The child is able to recognise the danger, and the separation is a positive outcome for Maddy, too.

4) Was your mother or stepmother often or very often pushed, grabbed, slapped, or had something thrown at her? Or, sometimes, often, or very often kicked, bitten, hit with a fist, or hit with something hard? Or, ever repeatedly hit over at least a few minutes or threatened with a gun or knife?

Yes. And yes. Household objects were weapons – this is how I viewed them. The balcony was not a balcony, but a dangerous place on which your mother could be locked or over which she might be thrown, at least if threats were to be believed. The cutlery was not just cutlery but tools to be pointed at us if we disobeyed my father’s orders. After one such incident, my mother stopped sharpening the knives at home. Because I regularly witnessed such instances, I developed a phobia of sharp objects.

In Maid there is a scene that is often repeated as a flashback, in which Sean throws a glass bottle at Alex and punches the wall next to her before Maddy’s eyes. Later, Alex finds pieces of the broken glass in her daughter’s hair; this is perhaps the moment she realises the danger she and Maddy are in.

5) Did you live with anyone who was a problem drinker or alcoholic, or who used street drugs?

Yes for me and Maddy, clearly. I have no recollection of a time when my dad was not drinking. At first, he used to drink mainly at family gatherings and celebrations, where he entertained others with his musical talent and witty jokes. However, over time, his behaviour changed. He started drinking every evening at home and became aggressive, feeding on our fear and the power control gave him. I was shocked when my nana, my dad’s mother, once said to us that it was my mother’s fault that he was drinking, since he hadn’t been a drunk before he met her. My shock stemmed from her inability to acknowledge her son’s abusive behaviour, turning the blame towards the victim instead. Years later, I came to the realisation that perhaps we hadn’t understood the extent to which her parental neglect towards my father, and the adversity he had faced as a child, had probably contributed to his insecurity, and to his addictive and controlling behaviour as an adult.

6) Was a household member depressed or mentally ill, or did a household member attempt suicide?

I now realise that my father’s alcoholism was indeed due to his insecurity and depression, although he tried to hide this by displaying an excess of ‘masculinity’. As with so many people who are unable to control their drinking habits and who show violent behaviour when drunk, this demonstration of physical power arises from a lack of emotional intelligence due to childhood adversity, which can translate into feelings of insecurity and unworthiness in adulthood. If left unaddressed, it can lead to violence, as was the case with my father. So, I’ll take it as a ‘yes’ and will give it a point.

The scene in Maid in which Sean accuses Alex of causing his violent behaviour because she had decided to keep the baby made my stomach churn. I knew exactly how both Alex and Maddy, who was old enough to understand them, felt. I also empathised with Maddy when she is taken away by Sean, passed back and forth between her parents, and has to witness her mother frantically trying to find a safe place for them to live in a system overwhelmed by bureaucracy. Alex is poor, alone and on the verge of mental collapse.

7) Did a household member go to prison?


8) Did an adult or person at least 5 years older than you ever touch or fondle you or have you touch their body in a sexual way? Or, attempt or actually have oral, anal, or vaginal intercourse with you?


9) Did you often or very often feel that no one in your family loved you or thought you were important or special? Or, your family didn’t look out for each other, feel close to each other, or support each other?

No. Both in my case and in Maddy’s we had a loving parent who took care of us: our mothers. This is extremely important. When stressors are strong and prolonged, including behaviours such as ongoing violence, neglect or living with a parent experiencing addiction or mental illness, and there is no close adult to help the child regulate their feelings, stress becomes toxic. However, having a parent or close family member who is there to love you and to help you understand your feelings after a traumatic event is beneficial for the child’s developing brain and can prevent the stress from reaching harmful levels.

‘Clearly, when a child has a reliable parent or adult to turn to, she has a far better chance of being able to make sense of the stress she faces,’ is how Donna Jackson Nakazawa describes this process. ‘Researchers at Emory University recently found that even when children experienced adversity, if they also had a positive family environment and someone to turn to, they showed encouraging changes in the oxytocin receptor gene, which in turn wielded a protective influence, helping those children be more resilient and better at coping.’

10) Did you often or very often feel that you didn’t have enough to eat, had to wear dirty clothes, and had no one to protect you? Or, your parents were too drunk or high to take care of you or take you to the doctor if you needed it?

No for me and a yes for Maddy, although in Maid, despite Alex and Maddy being homeless and often hungry, Alex does everything possible to feed her child.

Now add up your ‘yes’ answers and this will form your ACE Score. Mine is five and Maddy’s is six. The number of categories of Adverse Childhood Experiences someone has encountered can predict how much medical care they will require in adulthood. For example, people with an ACE Score of four are twice as likely to be diagnosed with cancer and 460 per cent more likely to experience depression than someone with an ACE Score of zero. For each ‘yes’ answer an individual has, the chance of developing an autoimmune disease in adulthood rises by 20 per cent.  No wonder so many of these conditions are so difficult to treat.

However, the test is not perfect and doesn’t take into consideration other environmental, cultural or economical factors which could influence, in many cases positively, the outcome for a person. Not everyone who has experienced adversity as a child, develops any of the diseases mentioned. With therapy and other trauma healing practices, recovery is possible. We see many examples of children losing parents to a disease who then go on to become doctors and researchers to help others suffering from the same illness.

Going back to Maid, it must be said that some aspects of the story veer towards stereotypes. Alex is portrayed as an uneducated woman, without any previous work experience or life skills, who gets pregnant very young and drops out of college. Her mother Paula (played by her real-life mother Andie MacDowell) is flaky and described by Alex as having ‘undiagnosed bipolar disorder’. And Sean is an alcoholic abuser who struggles to keep a job. Presented this way, the relationship dynamics diminish the reality of domestic abuse into cliché. Because the truth is, it can happen to anyone, regardless of social status, education or their history of mental health. As the film director of HBO’s Private Violence, Cynthia Hill points out in an interview for the Guardian, ‘over the years I’ve worked with women who are married to PhDs, who are heads of research and development at big companies, who are doctors, lawyers, professors, you name it… But what people don’t understand is that what the offender wants to do more than anything else is get inside her head. Once he is inside her head, then he is the one that’s running the show, which again goes back to the tactics.’

I also couldn’t quite forgive Paula’s irresponsible behaviour towards Alex. I find it hard to accept that a mother who’s been physically abused would ignore her daughter’s confession that she has been emotionally abused, and that she would push her blindly back towards her violent husband, calling him a good man.

But regardless of this, Maid is a poignant show that illustrates the daily struggles of the one in three women in the UK and the one in four in the US who experience domestic abuse. And if you still question the decision of a mother to stay with an abusive partner and to put her children at risk, perhaps the statistic that up to 75% of abused women who are murdered are killed after they leave their partners will shine a light on the fact that it is while leaving an abusive partner that women face the biggest danger. These stories need to be told, and most importantly need to be heard.

In Maid, Alex starts running a creative writing class at the shelter, inviting women to write about their stories and to also imagine their futures. The way we narrate trauma plays an important role in healing. It’s a well-known fact that people who have experienced trauma struggle to construct a clear narrative of events; in their brain what happened is fragmented, scattered into pieces, and what remains are the emotions and the sensory recollections such as smell, touch or noise. These sensory experiences often trigger flashbacks, making the person re-experience the trauma with the same intensity even decades later. This is especially relevant for childhood trauma.

In his book It Didn’t Start With You: How Inherited Family Trauma Shapes Who We Are And How To End The Cycle, Mark Wolynn explains that language not only exposes trauma, but also unveils the tools and images that are needed for healing. This is often the language of our worries and fears, buried inside us. In his family trauma practice, he helps people to navigate their past and to discover the root cause of the physical and emotional symptoms that keep them stuck.

Reading his book while watching Maid helped me to ask another question: how about the intergenerational trauma transmitted from person to person? Is it a coincidence that Paula experienced domestic abuse years before her daughter Alex feels trapped in a similar situation? And what will this mean for her daughter, Maddy? I’ve been reading recently about emerging trends in psychotherapy that look beyond the trauma of the individual and consider traumatic events in the person’s family history to help form the bigger picture. From abandonment, to losing a child or a sibling, to suicide — all these distressing experiences can send shock waves of distress cascading from one generation to the next. In order to understand the mechanism behind patterns of trauma and suffering that repeat in this way, we need to examine at least three generations of family history.

‘In your earliest biological form, as an unfertilized egg, you already share a cellular environment with your mother and grandmother,’ Wolynn continues. ‘When your grandmother was five months pregnant with your mother, the precursor cell of the egg you developed from was already present in your mother’s ovaries. This means that before your mother was even born, your mother, your grandmother, and the earliest traces of you were all in the same body—three generations sharing the same biological environment.’

I find this fascinating. What it means is that pain and stress from a traumatic event can remained submerged until it finds a pathway for expression, often manifesting itself as an illness affecting our own bodies.  It’s not uncommonly found in subsequent generations, resurfacing as symptoms that are difficult to explain.

I think of my own parents and how the fact I’d been unwanted by my father has affected me both physically and emotionally. I draw the lines, create maps of generations, look for traumatic events occurring in my past that had nothing to do with me, and yet everything to do with me. I give each person a descriptive word, each stressful event a language, so that I can go back in time just like Hansel and Gretel following their trail of breadcrumbs, to untangle the narrative of inherited trauma. Understanding the roots of trauma in one’s family history is the first step to recovery. Writing about it is the second one. My journey has just begun.

The truth is, I wouldn’t be the person I am today if my life were different. Overcoming trauma for me was a long and painful process but it made me resilient. The healing process spanned decades, involved a number of therapy sessions, many more honest and emotional conversations with my family, and hours of self-reflection. Without wanting to reduce my writing to therapy, constructing the fictional narrative of Arrival helped me not only to understand the roots of my behaviour, but also to imagine my own trauma-free present and future. This might not be an ending, but rather a beginning that reveals the possibilities of the human mind: that despite the scientific facts, we’re not all doomed and, with the right support, we’re able to release the trauma locked in our bodies.

Some nights my little daughter wakes up from nightmares, screaming. Her fears grow bigger in the darkness, her worries hide in shadows and reappear in her sleep. In the morning we talk about the nightmares, but she is often too distressed and confused to be able to put her night terrors into words. So, I ask her to take a pen and paper and to write a story. I invite her to imagine the frightening monster as a fluffy toy that hides in the wardrobe, not because it wants to scare her but because it is afraid of humans. She frowns, she doesn’t want to think of the scary monster, but in the end, she sits down and writes a beautiful story about it. She is calm and wants to read it to her classmates for show-and-tell.

This is perhaps what Arrival achieves for me too. I wanted to take my traumatic childhood experiences and to transform them into a book that will hopefully be an enjoyable read and start, and contribute to, important debates. On the one hand, about domestic abuse, and on the other, about our resilience and willpower to craft and change our lives. Stephanie Land masterfully does the same in her memoir and the TV show, highlighting the possibilities of a positive outcome. There are moments of joy and laughter in the series, of closeness and love. At times when Alex feels desperate and her world seems to crumble, she meets people like Daniele, Denise, Nate and even Regina, who understand and are willing to help. Support does exist, and it is important that we recognise this.

I also had my support network as a child: people like my grandparents, my mother and sister, close friends who were there for me like invisible scaffolding built around me, protecting me, helping me grow into the woman I am today. To build my own loving family, my careers in marketing and as a writer. Looking back, I feel so much stronger, and I’m grateful.


A week after moving in with my grandparents, we returned to the flat to collect a few more items. There was my wooden desk in classic oak: a heavy, stable thing with two cabinets and a drawer, which occupied a significant part of my tiny bedroom. I used to hide underneath it; my safe place since I lacked another. The men who helped us move loaded the desk in the van, drove it to our temporary home and placed it in the corner of my new room, next to the window.

The desk was a constant reminder of traumatic events and its presence bothered me at first. But as the years passed I started to pay less attention to it and its impact faded. The desk remained in its corner after I moved out to study at university, and when I left the country to settle in London.

During a return visit last summer with my husband and children, my mother decided to renovate my room and asked for help. All the old, heavy furniture had to go, starting with the desk. As I emptied the cupboards I was filled with a feeling of liberation. We dismantled the desk, stacked the boards in the back of the car and drove them to the villa where my mother was planning to burn them in the fire pit. All that remained was a metal key from the desk cupboard, which I slipped into my pocket.

That key is now my only physical connection to those events. I wasn’t sure if I kept it in case I might want to revisit the past, to untangle the reasons for the way I am today, and try to make peace with them. Or whether I’d kept it as a symbol of a past that no longer belongs to me, a gesture of locking away that chapter of my life forever.


Jess Hill, See What You Made Me Do. Power, Control and Domestic Abuse (C Hurst & Co Publishers Ltd, 2020)

Donna Jackson Nakazawa, Childhood Disrupted: How Your Biography Becomes Your Biology, and How You Can Heal (Atria Books, 2015)

Jana Kasperkevic, ‘Private Violence: up to 75% of abused women who are murdered are killed after they leave their partners’, Guardian, 20 October 2014. Available at

Stephanie Land, Maid: Hard Work, Low Pay, and a Mother’s Will to Survive (Trapeze, 2019)

Bessel Van Der Kolk, The Body Keeps the Score: Mind, Brain and Body in the Transformation of Trauma (Penguin, 2015)

Mark Wolynn, It Didn’t Start With You: How Inherited Family Trauma Shapes Who We Are And How To End The Cycle (Penguin, 2017)

ACE Survey available at:

About the author

Nataliya Deleva was born in Bulgaria and now lives in London. Her debut novel, Four Minutes, was originally published in Bulgaria (Janet 45, 2017), where the book was awarded Best Debut Novel and was shortlisted for Novel of the Year (2018). It has since been translated into German (eta Verlag, 2018), English (Open Letter Books, 2021) and Polish (Wydawnictwo EZOP, 2021).

 Nataliya’s short fiction, reviews and essays have appeared in Words Without BordersFenceAsymptote, Empty MirrorGranta Bulgaria, and the anthology Stories from the 90s (ICU Publishing, 2019) among others. 

You can order Nataliya’s book Arrival here

Our gift to you…

This essay is part of a series of Indigo Express works exclusive to The Indigo Press. Our authors have written moving, insightful and entertaining pieces in conjunction with and in celebration of the publication of their books with the press.

From passionate and polemic essays to compelling quizzes that reveal who you really are, read about everything from the #MeToo movement to the possibility of starting your life again.