We shouldn’t suffer in silence
I’ve been trying to see a doctor for 13 months. During that time, I’ve lost my marriage, my children, my home and my health. My hair fell out in clumps; my body is covered in boils; and I’m traumatised by the ten years of abuse I suffered.
Worse: I was retraumatised every time I had to ask for help; every time I tried to tell my story; every time I had another door slammed in my face by Social Services, Children’s Services, the NHS and the Police.
The last time I saw my doctor, I told him I was being abused and that I doubted I’d make it to the end of the day. I said that I was going to have a nervous breakdown because of how she was treating me and I was terrified I would have to be sectioned.
He told me to give in and let my wife do whatever she wanted, and then sent me home to her. Within a week, I had a breakdown and lost everything.
When I finally regathered my strength, I put in a complaint about him to the surgery. They handed it to him so he could investigate himself, and what do you know? His investigation concluded that he’d done nothing wrong. He lied about what I’d said during the appointment; lied to cover his back. Apparently, I never told him I was struggling with my mental health, despite that being the sole reason I’d gone to his office.
The Police investigated my abuser for Controlling and Coercive Behaviour, and said they had ample evidence that she had abused me physically, emotionally, psychologically and financially for ten years. Unfortunately, they added, none of that is a crime. In order to charge her, they’d have to show that she abused me and that this abuse had a detrimental effect on me, but because of my GP’s shoddy record keeping, there was no third-party evidence of the harm she caused me. Therefore, there was no case to answer.
How can they prove she abused me and still not have enough to take action?
Over the past year, as I’ve battled PTSD, depression, anxiety, self-harm, binge eating and suicidal thoughts, I’ve repeatedly begged to see a doctor, but every time, they’ve fobbed me off. Over the phone, they’ve prescribed me more and more antidepressants and tranquillisers, upping the dose until I have no idea how I get out of bed in the morning. This isn’t any kind of solution.
Every night, I have nightmares about my abuser, because she is still in my life, still trying to get to me, using my children as weapons.
A couple of months ago, I realised I was in a really bad way. I was uncontrollably binge eating several evenings a week, 3000 calories in half an hour. I’d totally lose control, the voice inside screaming at me to stop as I kept eating and eating, no matter how uncomfortable and bloated I felt. I’d starve myself the next day to compensate, only to binge again in the evening.
I was thinking about self-harm all the time. I went on bike rides so long I couldn’t walk for days afterwards. I took baths so hot they scalded my skin. I put an elastic band on my wrist and pinged it so many times, it broke the skin. I had to fight the urge to burn myself, something I regularly did in the dying months of my marriage. I was desperate for help.
I rang my doctor’s to get an appointment, but they wouldn’t see me. Over the phone, the doctor told me that unless I was making myself sick after my binges, there wasn’t anything they could do for me, but I should really try to lose some weight. I’m not sure what part of ‘uncontrollably binge eating’ she didn’t understand. And my self-harm? It wasn’t bad enough for intervention. At least, not yet.
The message seems to be: come back when you’re worse; when you’re even more damaged; when recovery is even further away. The health service effectively encourages you to get worse simply to be seen. How can that be right?
I’m in a deep black hole that I can see no way out of, and I’m well aware that this is a warning sign for self-harming and suicidal behaviour, so I asked my social worker for help. She contacted my doctor’s and gave them a kick up the arse, pointing out that I have self-harmed many times in the past, I’ve struggled with suicidal thoughts, I’ve been abused and traumatised and then completely abandoned, and I’ve been given multiple high-dose mood- and mind-altering drugs by doctors who have never even met me, which simply mask rather than treat the problem.
My doctor referred me to a psychiatrist five weeks ago. Thank God, I thought. Finally I’m going to get some help. Finally somebody will listen. For five weeks, I’ve been waiting for that appointment, clinging on to it like a lifeline.
This morning, I discovered that five weeks ago, the very day after receiving my referral, the Community Mental Health Team rejected me because I ‘don’t meet their criteria’. But the psychiatrist has sent a list of powerful drugs the GPs can experiment on me with.
So I’m left with two questions: 1. Why the hell didn’t my doctor tell me my referral had been rejected five weeks ago?
And 2. How much worse do I have to get before they’ll take me seriously?
Maybe it’ll be different this time
Abusers don’t change. They might appear to; they might promise to; they might even give you guarantees. But they’re only showing you what you want to see.
I said in The Narcissist’s Call that I understand why people go back to their abusers. They sing a siren’s song, luring you onto the rocks. They’re an oasis in the desert, and too late you realise it’s just a mirage. You still love them, so you’re desperate to believe their lies. This time, you think, this time it’ll be different.
It won’t be. Think of who you were at the start of your relationship, and who you were at the end. Then ask the same question of them. You made all the sacrifices and all the compromises; you ended up a shell of your former self. They remained exactly the same.
You can call them abusers, narcissists, sociopaths – whatever terminology you want to use – but the long and the short of it is that abusers abuse. There’s something missing in them, something that they can never have. You can’t fix them; you can’t make it better; you can only stay out of their way.
They’re like drowning victims. We see them splashing about in the water and, being the generous, empathetic people that we are, we dive in to rescue them. That’s when they grab onto us and push us under to keep themselves afloat. We struggle with them as long as we can as they continue to drown us. But eventually we have to make a choice: do I stay, and allow this person to drown me? Or do I let go, swim to the shore, and save myself?
It feels wrong to leave someone to drown. For so many years, your abuser swung from worshipping you to hating you and back again that you got caught in a psychological trap. The love that they lavished upon you was so intoxicating, and the hatred when you didn’t do as you were told so destructive, that your self-worth became bound up with their approval. Making them happy became your job. Your only validation came from their praise.
So when you finally disengage, when you walk away from someone you still love, it breaks you. You still crave their approval. You still want to make it right.
The hard truth is that you were nothing but a floatation device to them.
‘It’ll be different if I go back,’ you tell yourself. ‘I’ll go into it with my eyes open. I’ll walk away if it gets too much. I can’t just abandon them. They need me.’
No. If you get within reach, they will push you under again, but it’ll be worse than before, because you almost got away last time. This time, they’ll hold on tighter; they’ll push you down further; they know what it’s like to lose their floatation device, and they will never let it go again.
‘Carry me across this river,’ says the scorpion.
‘No,’ the frog replies. ‘You’ll sting me and I’ll die.’
‘No, I won’t,’ says the scorpion. ‘If I sting you, you’ll sink and we’ll both drown.’
Seeing the logic to this, the frog allows the scorpion onto his back and starts to swim across the river. Halfway over, the scorpion stings him.
‘Why did you do that?’ asks the frog as he starts to go under. ‘Now we’ll both die.’
‘I couldn’t help it,’ said the scorpion. ‘It’s in my nature.’
Your abuser is the scorpion and you’re the frog.
Don’t ever go back to your abuser. It’s not your job to save them. It’s not your job to fix them. They’re only looking for their next floatation device; another victim to abuse. It was you once.
Don’t let it be again.
Who am I?
Two years before I had to be removed from the marital home for my own safety, my wife discovered her old school reports in a box. She gave them to me and went to bed, and I spent the next couple of hours poring through them, growing more and more horrified, and angrier than I’d ever felt.
The reports could have described her as she was now. From as early as five, the teachers had been very concerned about her aggression, her deceitfulness and the severity of her mood swings. She had two sides to her character, they said – a cheerful, pleasant side, and a stubborn, aggressive side. She needed to be kinder to her peers, they said; she was spiteful to the other children, did not see the importance of telling the truth, refused to respect or obey authority, would not follow instruction or accept correction, gave up on things she didn’t want to do, and constantly veered from friendly to sulky and back again.
She was physically violent to the other children if she felt they were antagonising her, and was strangely content to hand in substandard work, refusing to persevere even though she was capable of doing better. She was disruptive, and jealous, and ruined the rest of the class’s work.
As a teenager, she hung around with much younger children that she could physically dominate. She wrote a letter to another girl telling her to kill herself.
There were so many red flags in those reports, I couldn’t believe that nothing had been done about it. Apparently, the school wanted her to see an educational psychologist, but the parents had refused, as there was nothing wrong with their precious little girl. The bullying was simply because she’d fallen in with a ‘bad crowd’. She’d been led into it. It was never her fault. And it being a private school, the headteacher couldn’t go against the parents for fear of losing the large tuition fee.
These reports were thirty years old, and they described my wife so well, they could have been written the day before. The aggression, the lying, the moodiness, the antisocial behaviour, had all been present in her when she was five-years-old. She hadn’t changed in thirty years. Couldn’t change, because she wasn’t being treated.
It was the first time I truly understood what it meant to be married to someone with Borderline Personality Disorder.
I started to research online. Personality disorders tend to manifest in the young, and are caused by a combination of an awful childhood (check), a parent who also has a personality disorder (check), and a parent who is an alcoholic (check). To a certain extent, then, her nature was biologically determined – innate. But I don’t think that’s enough to create someone like my wife. With love and nurturing, even someone with the kind of bullying, aggressive, disruptive personality as hers can mature into a well-rounded individual.
Love and nurturing were conspicuously absent from her upbringing.
When I was married to her, she used to have friendships – short, intense friendships, that always ended abruptly. She’d meet up with the other person four or five times a week for a few months, and suddenly they’d just cut her dead one day. She’d always say she had no idea why.
Since I left, I’ve heard stories. She had to be the Queen Bee, with everybody in her orbit. She bombarded them with questions about what they were doing, where they were going, when they were going there. She wanted to know everything about everybody else without anyone knowing anything about her.
When one friend left her in charge of her toddlers when she went to the toilet, she returned to find them sitting on the edge of a 100-foot cliff, their feet dangling into space, and my wife nowhere to be seen. She repeatedly pried into another friend’s marital difficulties after being warned not to. She spread nasty rumours about one of the mums at school; she was caught stalking another one when she followed her home in her car.
But at the time, I didn’t know any of this.
When I read those school reports, I realised she’d been having no treatment for her personality disorder. She’d been badly let down by her parents, by her teachers, by the doctors. How different things might have been if she’d gotten the help she needed.
I didn’t want to give up on her. I didn’t want to abandon her like everyone else. If I could get her help, I thought, then we could be the family we’d always dreamed of. I wasn’t ready to give up on her. She was just a lost little girl, more deserving of sympathy than contempt.
That’s how I talked myself into staying with someone who had no compunction about hurting me.
Was it my fault?
A year before I left my wife, I read a book by Matt Wesolowski that disturbed me to my very core. On the surface, Changeling is a supernatural-chiller-cum-crime-mystery, but by the end you realise it’s about something else entirely, something that only becomes clear as you peel back the layers of lies and misdirection and see the ugly truth.
In his author’s note, Wesolowski explains that he wrote the book after discovering several people in his life had suffered abuse and control in their past relationships:
‘These people were a mix of male and female, as were their abusers…
What astounded me is how, even after years of abuse, these victims, these people who I hold dear, could still find an element of blame in themselves. Unfortunately for victims of people like [redacted], this is not uncommon. Monsters like [redacted] are cowards; they hide in the darkness. One of my motivations for writing Changeling was to thrust these cowards into the light and expose them for what they really are.’Matt Wesolowski
Something about the book got under my skin, touched something I wasn’t able to get a grip on. For weeks, I couldn’t stop thinking about it. Everything in it was so ghastly, so horrifying, yet at the same time so familiar. It unnerved me that I could relate to so much of the book, despite not having experienced it myself.
It was only when I left my wife that I realised why it affected me so much: she had been abusing me for 10 years.
It was so familiar because I was reading about my life. I recognised myself in the victims featured in the book; I recognised her in the monster; but because I was so under her spell – and her true self was so hidden in the darkness – I didn’t understand what was really going on. Because, as I’ve mentioned before, when it’s happening to you, you often don’t even know it.
And even now, a year after leaving, and fully aware of the monstrous things she put me through, I still can’t help blaming myself.
When she became aggressive, I backed down: didn’t I therefore teach her to be aggressive to get her own way? When I drew a line in the sand and she crossed it, and I redrew it where she was now standing, didn’t I show her my boundaries were flexible? Every time she hit me and I stayed, didn’t I tell her that there were no consequences for her behaviour? When I married her, despite everything she did to me, didn’t I validate her treatment of me? And when I swore to love her until death do us part, didn’t I break the contract when I walked away?
I’m haunted by what ifs. What if I’d been firmer with my boundaries – would it have worked? What if I’d stood up to her sooner? What if, the times I threatened to call the police, I’d followed through with it? What if, what if, what if?
I reproach myself for my behaviour, my decisions, but never her. What she did to me was wrong, but she’s like a force of nature – if you stand in front of a boulder crashing down a hillside, is it the boulder’s fault if it crushes you, or yours for standing in front of it? It’s not like I wasn’t warned. People told me for ten years that she was abusing me; I only realised it a few weeks before I left her.
And as much as I want to blame her, I can’t help but think it’s my fault. I mean, she might have been an abuser, but she couldn’t have abused me if I hadn’t let myself be abused, could she? If I had walked away, I wouldn’t have been abused? Therefore, didn’t I bring it on myself?
There again, the first time I tried to leave, a few weeks into the relationship, she rang me 200 times in four hours, even when I threatened to call the police. When we got back together, she sat outside my flat and stared up at my window for hours at a time. She bombarded me with text messages demanding to know what I was doing every minute of the day. She stood behind my car to prevent me leaving; took my keys; sat against the door. On several occasions, she followed me home and forced her way in. As soon as she was pregnant, she threatened to take my children away if ever I left.
I think, when you’ve been the victim of controlling and coercive behaviour, it’s natural to blame yourself. Even when you never had a choice.
And as for Changeling? It should be required reading in schools.
Why didn’t I just walk away?
The violence of being hit isn’t about the pain or the damage caused. She used to hit me when she was angry – normally an overarm thump with the bottom of her fist – and she kicked me in the shins, bent my fingers back, dug in her fingernails, threw things at my head and whipped me with belts. It hurt, but not very much. In a physical confrontation, I would’ve dominated her. But that wasn’t the point.
Hitting someone debases them. It takes away their dignity and self-respect. When she threw drinks over me, or poured water on my side of the bed and then went to sleep, it made me something less than human. When she cut off my beard, I became chattel. I had nothing left.
People ask why I didn’t walk away the first time she hit me. The answer’s simple – I made excuses for it. I downplayed it. I pretended it wasn’t a big deal.
She seemed just as surprised as I was when it happened. She hit me and then burst into tears and went in for a hug. Part of me knew I should have left, but the bigger part thought, ‘Well, it was just a little tap, it didn’t really hurt that much and it probably won’t even leave a bruise. Just tell her it’s not acceptable moving forward and all’s good.’
The second time it happened, I thought long and hard about physical violence, and came to the conclusion that it wasn’t worth throwing away a whole relationship because in a split second, her hand had moved at speed from one position to another and made contact with my chest. I couldn’t reduce the complexity of a human being to something that lasted less than a second, could I?
That’s how I talked myself into staying with an abuser.
It didn’t help that after she attacked me, she’d ‘forget’ it ever happened. If I brought it up, she’d deny it. If she did admit it, because there were bruises, witnesses, evidence, she’d say it was my fault. If I’d just done what she said, she wouldn’t have had to hit me. If my behaviour had been different, hers would have been too. Couldn’t I see that it wasn’t her fault?
She was so convincing, I’d doubt myself. I’d start to believe her.
Even when she followed me back to my flat when I walked away from an argument, forced her way in and assaulted me, I thought that if I’d just stayed and had the argument, then she wouldn’t have had to follow me. I’d provoked her by walking away. It was therefore my fault for leaving, and not hers for following me and attacking me.
It’s that kind of double-think that keeps you chained to an abuser. It was that kind of thinking that meant she could slap me across the side of the head while I was driving; that she could hit me with coat-hangers; that she could cut off my beard with kitchen scissors, and instead of walking out, I simply endured it.
This is what people fail to understand about domination. I might have been bigger than her, stronger than her, able to fight back. But I couldn’t. You need pride and self-respect to stand up for yourself. By hitting me, she’d taken all of that away. She convinced me I deserved it.
And besides, when I told people she hit me, they found it funny.
If it had been the other way around, and I had been hitting her, can you imagine anyone laughing?
Am I enjoying this?
In my early teens, I was big into surfing. I wore surf clothes, read surf magazines, thought about surfing all the time. Every chance I got, I went out on the board.
One day, after riding a wave, I had a sudden thought that came out of nowhere, a question of life-changing importance:
Am I enjoying this?
The answer has plagued me ever since. Terrifyingly, I didn’t know. I wasn’t smiling. I wasn’t feeling a sense of elation. I wasn’t feeling anything at all.
I figured that I must be enjoying it, because I was doing it. It’s not like somebody was forcing me to surf. Every time I caught a wave, I rode it as long as I could, then swam back out to catch another. I wouldn’t do that if I didn’t enjoy it, would I?
I felt driven to surf, I concluded, but that wasn’t exactly the same thing. It was a psychological compulsion, then, a decision I had made and wanted to see through, regardless of how it actually made me feel.
Surfing provided me with an identity, parameters to define who I was, what I thought, what I should feel. It made me seem interesting to the other kids at school, and gave me something to talk about. I didn’t surf for the enjoyment of surfing – I surfed to be a surfer.
This effacing of my self, the subsuming of my identity into another persona, is something I’ve struggled with all my life. I do things not because they make me feel good, but because I feel driven to do them; to become someone or something other than me. I see people doing something they enjoy, and I emulate them, thinking that if I act the way they do, if I become them, maybe I’ll feel the way they do.
This is what depression does to you. It strips away your feelings, dislocates you from your emotions. You become a stranger to yourself. You second guess your decisions, your behaviours. Everything you do in your life becomes a stop-gap, a way of filling the void until you find something that actually makes you feel good – however nebulous and ill-defined that might be.
So I drift from activity to activity, persona to persona, always doing, but never being. The best I can say about my hobbies and interests is that they distract me from feeling bad. I felt nothing when I was surfing, but compared to how I usually felt, feeling nothing was an improvement.
Now, when I ask myself if I’m enjoying this, I have my answer ready.
Not feeling bad is enjoyment enough.
I’m so alone
‘Do you still love me?’
‘Do you miss me?’
‘I just wanted to check on how you’re doing?’
‘Did you have a good day today?’
‘Did you remember it’s our wedding anniversary?’
I know why abuse survivors go back to their abusers. It isn’t weakness or stupidity. It’s because you live inside a cage, desperate to escape, dreaming of the day you’ll be free. But when you finally get out, the world isn’t the way you remembered.
You find yourself in a featureless desert; nothing as far as the eye can see. No joy, no peace, no comfort. You feel disconnected from everyone and everything. The world is as empty as you feel inside.
And then the siren song begins. The text messages; the phone calls; the little tugs at your heart. Your hopes and dreams were so bound up with this person for so long, you want to believe them. You’re desperate to believe them.
You can just make out an oasis in the distance; lush and green and tranquil. You could rest in the shade of its trees; you could drink of its cool waters; you could find solace for a time.
If I went back, I wouldn’t be so alone. I’d get to see my kids every day. Maybe this time, it’ll be different. Maybe this time, my dreams will all come true.
And anyway, being a victim is all I know.
Worst of all, you still love them. Despite everything they did to you, despite all the pain they caused you, you still love them. The only person who can make you feel better is the one who made you suffer; the only one who can heal your wounds is the person who caused them.
‘Do you miss me? I miss you.’
Don’t answer the call. Don’t reply to the text. They just want to know they’ve still got you dangling on a line; that they can still get to you and play with your emotions. They want to know they still have power over you.
Love isn’t enough. Love without respect is worthless. Love bound up with fear isn’t love. As hard as it is in this wasteland, this desert, that oasis is nothing more than a mirage. It is the illusion of safety. It is where dreams go to die.
It’s time to dream new dreams.
Will I survive?
Your abuser controls your perceptions of the world for so long, erodes your sense of self to such a degree, that you’re not sure of anything. I kept asking myself if I was making it up; if I was causing it; if what I thought was happening was really happening. At what point does awkward and aggressive become abuse?
It’s not like there were any bruises I could point to. Sure, she hit me, sometimes with coathangers; she bent my fingers back; she threw drinks over me; she cut off my beard with kitchen scissors; but she didn’t ever give me a black eye or a split lip. I knew my marriage was hell, but I had no tangible sense of just how bad it really was. Deciding to leave an abusive relationship is nowhere near as cut-and-dried as it looks from the outside.
The best way of describing it is to imagine standing on top of a cliff with a fire at your back. You dare yourself to go to the edge, to look down into the darkness below. Do you have what it takes to jump? You know the fall is going to hurt. You know it might not save you. There are jagged rocks down there. There are monsters in the dark.
You lift one foot, and fear overtakes you. Even if you survive the fall, you know you probably don’t have the energy to fight whatever comes next. So you back away from the edge. You look over your shoulder at the fire. It’s not reached you yet. You have time. Maybe if you curl up into a ball and wait a little longer, you won’t have to jump. Maybe the wind will change direction. Maybe somebody will come along and rescue you. Maybe by some miracle, the fire will burn itself out.
Staying where you are, singed by the heat but not yet burning, seems the safer option than jumping to what could very well be your destruction.
Every time I plucked up the courage to leap off that cliff, I dreamed up new ways of fighting the fire, holding it off so I didn’t have to jump. I might have been afraid of staying with her, but I was more afraid of leaving her. That’s why we stay with abusive partners. Leaving isn’t cowardly – it’s an act of courage.
I left it too long before I jumped. I was already on fire, and I almost didn’t survive.
But I did survive. I survived. And I will never regret leaving.
Lost in the Forest
When you’re in an abusive relationship, what’s so clear to everyone else on the outside isn’t so clear to you. Your abuser has so many holds on you – on your thoughts and your emotions, on how you see the world and your place in it – that you can’t get a handle on what’s actually happening. You live from moment to moment, crisis to crisis, thinking that if you can just get through this moment, then it’ll be better.
It’s like you’re in a dark forest, blinded by smoke. You see a tree on fire, so you tackle it, and you have a moment’s relief when the fire goes out. But then you see another tree on fire, so you go to tackle that one. Again, you rest, overjoyed that you’ve extinguished that fire. And then you see another one, and so on. You go from tree to tree putting them out, expending all your energy fighting these fires and thinking that if you put out enough of them, eventually you’ll be able to simply enjoy the forest.
It never happens. What you can’t see, because you’re right in the middle of it, is that the whole freaking forest is on fire. You lost this fight before you even started. If you were able to stop a moment, pause, reflect on it, you might realise the truth of the situation – and that’s why abusers don’t allow you any time to think. They need you to be confused; they need you in the smoke.
People told me for years that I my wife was abusing me. I didn’t believe them, because ‘abuse’ is such an ugly word. She was just awkward, I said; aggressive; intimidating; sometimes violent; but she had a pleasant side to her. In my mind, my wife couldn’t be ‘an abuser’ because abusers are ugly people, and I wouldn’t love an abuser; thus, if she wasn’t ‘an abuser’, then the abuse wasn’t really abuse, was it?
That’s just one of the weapons an abuser uses to keep you off-balance, and they have plenty of others in their arsenal – money, emotions, housing, family, children, sex. After they’ve put you through hell and you’re on the verge of realising the kind of relationship you’re in, they remind you of the good times, promise to change, ask for another chance to prove how much you mean to them. When you think they’ve changed for the better, and you let down your guard, that’s when they pull the world out from under your feet.
Worst of all, you never stop believing their promises. ‘If I can just put out this next fire,’ you think, ‘then it’ll all work out.’
Eventually, the fire will consume you.