LOOKING back, Sarah* still doesn't fully understand why she spent five years of her life with a man who beat her.

She can't completely explain why she dropped the complaint after calling the police on more than 20 occasions, nor why she not only went back to him, even when he'd blackened her throat with bruises, but also stood up in court to defend him when the police did insist on pressing charges.

And she seems a bit bemused when she says she lost count of the times that she left, only to be persuaded to return to the relationships, with promises that her ex would change.

As she tells her story, she adds "I thought I was going crazy. I didn't understand why I was putting up with it".

Today, living back in her hometown of Southampton, far away from the nightmare relationship, she is working hard on understanding what happened, why she made the choices she made and making sure that she never finds herself in that situation again.

And she also wants to help other people to escape from domestic abuse, by telling her story of the the abject lows and her eventual escape.

The couple met on a night out seven years ago.

"He was a real charmer," says Sarah.

"He was a big bloke, a big stamp of a guy, and I felt really looked after.

"I'd had a string of very bad relationships but this felt different. He treated me like a princess. I thought I'd become quite robust after my previous relationships, and I swore I'd never get into anything like that again, but I dropped my guard immediately.

"Looking back, there were lots of warning signs, but I didn't see them. He drank a hell of a lot, but I didn't realise the extent of it until I was already living with him, and it was too late."

Sarah says that there had been some violence, but that the relationship took an extreme turn for the worse literally overnight when a family member of her ex died, and he began drinking far more heavily.

"There was some violence before, but I could handle it," she says, adding "that sounds ridiculous. But I did stand up to him.

"After it got much worse, I used the death as an excuse, to myself, to friends, to the police.

"The first time I left was after a year and a half but he talked me into going back. I lost track of how many times I left, but I always went back within 48 hours."

Sarah tells stories of numerous violent and verbally abusive incidents, from beatings to a metal pole being put through the windscreen of her car while she was driving it to get away from her ex.

"It was triggered by drink, and he was always drunk by 11am.

"I had no control of my finances. I had no bank cards. I was given a weekly allowance. When I went out, he came to the shops with me, or he arranged for his mother to go with me. Sometimes I couldn't wear the clothes I wanted to wear. I'd have to wear something that wasn't appropriate but I'd do it rather than have the hassle," explains Sarah.

"It was only good at the beginning. I think I stayed because I didn't want another failed relationship. I'd told my family 'this is it'. And I was in love with him. I just hated how he was. I always thought he'd change.

"By the end, I was frightened to leave him," she adds.

Sarah called the police repeatedly, but always dropped the complaint, sometimes almost immediately.

But her local police force put her in touch with a specialist officer and also with a domestic violence support worker, who helped her through the last year of the relationship, encouraging her to document abuse and giving her somewhere to turn when times were very hard.

"I was a mess. I'd gone from being very strong, in a good job with a company car and money in the bank to having nothing within eight months," she says.

Sarah's eldest child had moved out of home and her daughter lived with her, but her two youngest children lived with their father.

"Their dad stopped them from coming to stay with me and I don't blame him, so I didn't see them for two years," she says.

"That's the hardest thing about this. You'd have thought losing the kids would have been enough for me to leave him, but it wasn't.

"Part of it was I was trying to get access to my children and I didn't want their father to know how bad it was, in case that affected me being able to see them."

Sarah recalls the incident which led to her ex's arrest and conviction, although not the end of their relationship.

"We'd had an argument about the electricity key. I'd gone to put £20 on it when I got petrol but had forgotten to do it and he accused me of keeping the money," she says.

"I went upstairs to pack a bag and as I came down he grabbed me by the throat and I slipped down.

"His kids were there and they were hysterical. He pinned me to the floor and punched me in the head. I drove a mile and a half and phoned the police, mostly because I was frightened for the children, because he was very drunk and I'd never seen them so upset."

Despite what had happened, Sarah returned to her partner again and asked the police to drop the complaint, but charges were pressed and her's partner was taken to court, where she stood up and defended him.

He pleaded guilty to beating her, was handed a community order to attend a rehabilitation programme, and he and Sarah went on with their life together.

"I didn't go anywhere or do anything," she says.

"I used to get up at 6am and walk the dog in the park opposite our house, and he would lean out of the window and keep an eye on me. If he didn't think I'd done it properly, I'd be screamed at.

"I can remember seeing him leaning out of the window with a beer in his hand and thinking 'what a life this is'.

"Then I'd make breakfast, take his kids to school and spend the day cleaning. Sometimes he was out all day with his friends and sometimes they spent the day drinking at our house.

"On Fridays I did a shop and his mum came with me.

"It was awful. I hated it."

Then, one day, she was offered an unexpected glimmer of hope.

"I'd been looking for a way out for a while but I didn't know what to do," she says.

"I lived in a small village where everyone knew what was going on, but no one ever said anything. Then one day I was in the post office and the post office lady said 'you do put a brave face on it. You know, I can put a stop on your post and you can come in here to collect it if you want to."

Sarah had wanted to set up a bank account, but hadn't known how to, as her ex opened the post.

"I went home and thought about it, spoke to my domestic violence outreach worker and from that day, it took me about seven months to leave."

Sarah explains what led to her finally making the break, in January last year.

"I'd never thought that he would cheat. I'd held onto that. I trusted him completely," she says.

"One evening he came home, and had a shower and got dressed like he was going out again. I asked him what he was doing and he got very angry and gave me the worst black eye I'd ever had and he went out.

"At 4am I had a message from his brother asking me if I'd seen Facebook. My ex had posted photos of himself in bed with another woman.

"That was it for me. I packed as much as I could fit into my car and left.

"I can't get my head around the fact that I didn't leave due to the violence. It took the cheating to do that."

Sarah came back to Southampton, where she grew up, and stayed with a friend while she got back on her feet.

"At first I just felt relieved. I remember on the first night in her house sitting there feeling like I could breathe again and that it was all going to be OK. Then the next morning I started to feel hurt. I felt I'd given everything to someone who didn't give a damn about me."

Sarah's ex still contacts her, sometimes telling her he loves her, sometimes with abusive messages. She doesn't reply and blocks the number, but the messages still come, every month or so.

She has worked hard at rebuilding her life. She got a job and saved up enough money to buy a car and rent some rooms in a house for her and her children, so they could come and stay with her again.

She now runs her own business, and has joint custody of her youngest children, who she sees every other weekend, and she is working hard on their relationships.

"I put so much into it, because I have an immense amount of guilt," she says.

"We have a lot of making up to do.

"For the first time in years, I feel grounded," she adds.

"I feel like I'm home for the first time ever. I spent so many years trying to find somewhere that felt like home. It's weird, because it was always here.

"I was honest and I was welcomed back. All I had to do was open up and say I needed help."

Sarah says that she knows she still has a lot of work to do, to mentally leave her ex.

"I don't think that when you leave, it stops," she says.

"That's the beginning of learning how to deal with it. I've learnt a lot about me over the last year. The abuse has made me a completely different person. I used to roll with things before. Now I don't.

"It's made me really strong. I've come through so much.

"I want to let people in a similar situation know that it's not right, it's not your fault and you don't have to feel ashamed," she says.

"There is a way out of it and you can have a new life.

"This is my story. This is what I went through and I got out. If I can help one other person to get out, then it's worth it."

*Not her real name. ‘Sarah’ could not be identified for legal reasons.