LOOKING in the mirror for the first time after being doused in acid in a sinister attack arranged by her ex-boyfriend, Adele Bellis could barely recognise herself.
However, six years on – and despite lockdown bringing back painful memories of the control and isolation she endured with him – the 28-year-old now sees those scars as a reminder she’s free.
In recent years, the UK has had one of the highest rates of acid attacks per capita in the world according to Acid Survivors Trust International (ASTI).
The latest figures show for the year ending March 2020, police recorded 619 violence against the person and robbery offences involving corrosive substances.
Now, as BBC Radio 4 launches an appeal for ASTI, experts tell Sun Online they're concerned that lockdown could trigger haunting memories for many trauma victims – as well as reducing access to health and wellbeing services.
Here, two acid attack survivors share their stories.
'At times I wished he’d killed me'
Survivor Adele, 28, from Lowestoft, Suffolk, was targeted in an acid attack arranged by her violent and emotionally abusive ex-boyfriend, Anthony Riley, while she waited at a bus stop in August 2014.
The attack destroyed Adele's right ear, she was left partially bald and suffered serious burns to the side of her face, neck, and arm.
The beautician has refused to let the attack destroy her life, but she says the current situation has brought back painful memories of being controlled by her ex for six years.
She then lost a further four years as she struggled with recovery, so her life being put on hold again over the past year has been hard to accept.
Adele, who is now single after splitting with her long-term boyfriend of four years, Josh, in May, says: “Everyone’s lives have been put on hold in a way, and living in lockdown makes you think more, and gives you more time to reflect on things.
"It hasn’t been easy and at times it has brought back memories of what I’ve been through in the past.”
“While I was recovering from being attacked for example, at times I felt quite lonely and isolated.
"I was forced to stay in hospital for months, endured countless operations and relied on strong painkillers, and then had to stay at a safe house away from home and return to hospital every other day for months.
“I just wanted to return to normal, but my life, like it is now in a way, was put on hold.
“But because I managed to get through that, I’ve been able to deal with this lockdown much better than I ever could before – nothing will ever be as bad as what I was forced to go through.
“I prefer the new me to the one before the acid attack, and I just feel lucky and appreciate the small things now.”
‘It felt like my face was melting'
Riley was jailed for life after it emerged he had paid accomplice Jason Harrison, who has now been freed from jail after serving just over half his sentence, to throw acid at Adele.
Adele first met Riley when she was 16, and he was 19. She says: “Looking back, he was psychologically abusive and controlling from the beginning but I was young and naive.
“He would tell me, now I had a boyfriend I didn’t need Facebook, or he’d tell me what to wear.
"Then he punched me. We split up and I took a job on a cruise ship, but whenever I came home he’d threaten to come to my parents' house if I refused to meet him and he always found a way to get me to meet him.”
On the day of the attack, Adele was on her phone when a hooded stranger walked up to her and threw a bottle of sulphuric acid in the direction of her face.
She says: “I instantly knew it was acid. I was burning, it felt like my face was melting. People rushed to help me. I was in agony.”
Rushed to hospital, Adele endured weeks of painful skin grafts and operations, and months of gruelling treatment followed.
She adds: “When I first saw my injuries I was in shock and felt numb, but now when I look in the mirror my scars just remind me that, despite the current restrictions, for the first time I’m free.
“I lost six years in an abusive relationship and then four years of my life ripped away from me due to the attack, and at times I even wished he’d killed me, but I’m proud of how I’ve coped, and I refuse to let this ruin my life.”
‘My recovery has been delayed’
She's not alone in her agony, and dad-of-two Andreas Christopheros, 35, suffered burns to 90 per cent of his face when stranger David Phillips knocked on his door in 2015 and threw acid in his face in a horrifying case of mistaken identity.
The extent of Andreas’ scarring means he requires regular operations. Sadly, the past year has delayed his physical recovery, as he’s been unable to travel to America where he is usually now treated.
He says: “This is the first year I haven’t had surgery since the attack. That’s the biggest issue for me and I’m just treading water with my recovery. I do worry about if this will continue into this year.
"Two years with no surgery, when my attacker will be out of jail soon – that’s a kick in the balls to be honest.
“I’m lucky that I can afford for this to happen. If the pandemic happened four years ago I would have been in a much worse position because I really needed surgery then.”
However, despite the difficulties, property manager Andreas has found the lack of social situations a lot easier to deal with, and has also been glad to have the opportunity to spend precious time with his wife and two sons, seven and three.
He adds: “I missed so much of my eldest son’s upbringing as he was 18 months old when I was attacked, and lockdown has given me the time to focus on my kids, and see them grow up.”
Phillips was jailed for life in 2015, but had his sentence cut to 16 years a year later – with him eligible for parole after he has served eight.
'These are callous and premeditated crimes'
Recently there have been concerns victims of traumatic experiences such as acid attacks could be heavily impacted by lockdown – both physically, with access to treatment limited, and emotionally, with the restrictions and isolation potentially triggering painful memories of being controlled.
Additionally, while it is yet unknown how the pandemic has directly impacted the number of attacks taking place, it’s clear these horrifying incidents are still happening.
Just this week, police offered a £5,000 reward to help catch an attacker who left a London teen permanently blinded after throwing a cup of acid over him in December.
Rachel Fletcher, partner in the Crime and Regulatory team at Slater Heelis, says: “The worrying prevalence of acid attacks and other corrosive substances, such as bleach or ammonia, is a stark reality that is a huge cause for concern.
“Such attacks are particularly horrific crimes, with the perpetrators seeking to cause extensive physical and mental damage. They are callous and premeditated crimes using weapons that are cheap, easy to obtain and difficult to trace back to the perpetrator.”
Sarah Green, Chief Executive of The Katie Piper Foundation – which currently offers a rehabilitation service via video – adds: “Survivors of acid attacks experience devastating long term physical and mental trauma, living not only with the effects of a burn injury but of a violent assault.
"This can include severe scarring, loss of sight, loss of limbs, PTSD, anxiety and depression, it often results in long periods of social isolation as survivors struggle to deal with the lifelong impact of their injuries and with negative body image.
“The COVID-19 lockdown periods have exacerbated these feelings of isolation and in many cases have hindered the recovery of many survivors, bringing back past traumas and reducing access to health and wellbeing services.”
‘It’s an intentional, violent act, designed to disfigure’
TV psychologist Emma Kenny has worked with acid attack victims in the past, and says these attacks not only do terrible physical damage, but the injuries caused also act as a permanent reminder of a hugely traumatic incident.
Where can I get help?
You don't have to suffer in silence.
If you are experiencing domestic violence, or someone you know is, there are groups that can help.
Refuge runs a free, 24-hour helpline on 0808 2000 247. You can also visit the website or contact Women’s Aid.
For help and advice for survivors of acid attacks and other burns and their families, visit The Katie Piper Foundation
She says: "It's a hugely isolating experience, with hospital visits and treatment often taking over their life, and while victims often feel like they want to hide away from the world, the physical injuries often attract huge amounts of attention which can in turn cause insecurity.
"With lockdown, there's a very high level of control and restrictions, which can be triggering for someone who's been through a traumatic experience like an acid attack, because it's a reminder of a time when they had no control over their lives in a very damaging way.
"The triggers can include feeling like you don't have choices, you're at risk or scared – add that to the increased isolation, and they're all causes for concern that could cause low mood and flashbacks to past trauma.”
For many victims of such cruel attacks, their recovery will sadly be ongoing due to the nature of the injuries sustained.
Emma adds: "It's an intentional, violent act, designed to disfigure, and the person has to live with that for the rest of their life.
"The attacker knows every time their victim looks in the mirror, their presence will be made known."
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