We shouldn’t suffer in silence
None of this makes any sense
When I was a much younger man, I believed I knew something about heaven and hell. Heaven was waking up on a Sunday morning beside the person I loved with no plans for the day. Hell was waking up on a Sunday morning beside the person I loved, knowing that she didn’t love me back.
Since then, I’ve experienced hells that make that one feel like a summer’s day at the beach. Coming to the realisation that I was being abused – that I’d been abused for ten years – and that nobody would do anything to help me: that was hell. Having my in-laws take the children for the weekend to ‘give us time to talk’, only for my wife to pack a bag and leave, thereby stealing my children out from under my nose: that was worse.
But there is a deeper, darker hell than all of that, a personal hell inside your own head and heart: the fact that you still love them.
Walking away from the person you love – your wife, your best friend, the mother of your children – because you realise they will eventually kill you: that is agony. Walking away from someone when you still love them, when they complete you, when your hopes and dreams for the future revolve around them, is a pain I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemy.
When I told my wife it was over, I took the dog for a walk around the block. I rang my parents and tried to tell them what had happened, but I couldn’t get the words out – all I could manage was a high-pitched whine. Holding things back for so many years, my emotions came out in such a rush, I thought I might die.
I fell to the pavement, sobbing uncontrollably. I was wailing, choking, hyperventilating. The dog sat next to me, howling at my distress. We made a pretty sight.
Cars drove by. Pedestrians stopped and stared, and then hurried on. I was utterly broken.
Everything I loved, everything I’d worked for – a wife, a home, a family – it was all over. Even though I chose it for myself, even though I’d made the decision to end it, I was devastated. I wanted to take it back. I wanted to reset the clock. We were going to grow old together. We were going to be together until the end of time.
Most of all, I just wanted to hug my wife.
Even at the time, I knew it was ironic. She was the one who’d brought me to this place, on my knees in the street, sobbing. Yet I wanted her more than anything. My only comfort came from the very person who caused me such pain.
What makes this hell worse than any other are the questions that torture you. What if I went back? Could I have done things differently? Should I have given her another chance? Was it my fault? How can I survive this heartbreak?
But the absolute worst question, the one that keeps me up at night, and cuts my heart to pieces, is: who the hell was she?
Did the person I loved ever exist? She was very good at pretending she was an innocent, loving person, even as she threatened me and beat me and took away my dignity and self-respect. I was equally good at pretending she was an innocent, loving person, even as I sank deeper and deeper into depression and ill-health as a result of her physical, mental and emotional abuse. And now I wonder if the person I miss so much – the innocent, loving girl I married – was just a figment of my imagination, someone I dreamt up so I could endure what she was doing to me.
I was devastated to leave, but she wasn’t sad that I left. She wasn’t upset in the slightest. She was angry. What kind of person is angry when their partner leaves?
She still maintains to all who’ll listen that we had a perfect marriage until the day that, out of the blue, I upped and left her. She acts all sweet and innocent, and claims she still doesn’t know why I left. To her, she is the victim of my betrayal. My heart breaks for that girl, that sweet, innocent girl that I loved.
This is the worst hell: loving the smiling face of the devil. Loving the mask that the monster wore.
Was any of it real?
Sometimes, the light at the end of the tunnel is the headlight of an oncoming train.
Asking for help isn’t easy. It’s hard to admit that you’re being abused, hard to admit that you’re struggling with your mental health and you can’t cope anymore. When you’re having suicidal thoughts, when you’re fighting the urge to burn yourself and cut yourself, you’re terrified that if you admit it, people will think you’re crazy; they’ll think you’re dangerous; they won’t let you see your children.
When you’re a man, it’s particularly bad.
In our society, men have to be strong, independent, self-contained and in control. There is such a stigma against not meeting these norms that asking for help is considered a sign of weakness, of defeat. You have to overcome years of social programming, guilt and shame simply to say, ‘I am vulnerable. I need some help. I can’t do this on my own.’
But when you do ask for help, the humiliating, sobering, heartbreaking reality is that nobody in a position to help you gives a shit. At all.
A year ago, at great personal risk and through pangs of guilt at my betrayal of my marriage vows, I told my social worker that my children and I were being abused by my wife. She gave me the number of a women’s domestic abuse helpline, who wouldn’t talk to me because I’m a man. When I went back to my social worker, she said she’d fulfilled her statutory duty towards me, and that my domestic arrangements were nothing to do with her.
When I went to Children’s Services, they offered to send me on a course to help me ‘better cooperate’ with my wife. I had no idea how I was meant to cooperate with somebody who had been dominating my every waking moment and gaslighting me for ten years; who hit me and threw drinks over me; who threatened the children to control me; who said that if I didn’t like it, I knew where the door was, but she’d get custody because the courts always side with the mother; who was actively lying to my children to turn them against me; and who, when I shaved my head in protest and grew my beard long, cut it off with a pair of kitchen scissors.
Children’s Services later admitted that if I was a woman, they’d have had me and the children out and in a shelter, but because I was a man, they had no idea what to do.
When I told my doctor what was going on, he told me to do whatever she wanted and maybe she’d treat me better, then sent me home to her with the instruction that I should use the strength I no longer had to appease my abuser so she abused me less.
I guess I was expecting something more. To have Social Services give me a women’s domestic abuse helpline number, Children’s Services offer me a course to better cooperate with my abuser, and my GP tell me, essentially, ‘best not to piss her off, mate’ – don’t men deserve better than that? Didn’t I deserve better?
Four days after walking out of the doctor’s office, I had a breakdown, lost my marriage, my children, my home and my health, was put on tranquilisers and became a danger to myself.
When I reported her to the police for Controlling and Coercive Behaviour, they didn’t care at all, even though I had dozens of witnesses, 200-pages of emails, diary posts and text messages recording what she had done to me for ten years, and several confessions where she apologised for hitting me, apologised for threatening to abort my children to control me, and claimed that when she’d done it, she had been ‘Mr Hyde’, the evil side of her nature.
Then, when they dropped the case, the police decided to tell her I’d reported her, but that there wasn’t enough evidence to do anything about it, thereby letting her know she got away with it.
When I tried to go to Family Court for help, it took so long for my Legal Aid to come through and for the case to be heard, and my children had already spent so long living with just their mother (and a nanny to safeguard them from her behaviour), that it was deemed too disruptive to take them from the home they grew up in and place them with me, the responsible parent. I became a weekend dad, but that was more than she’d been giving me since I’d left.
I settled down to heal.
And then, two months ago, I realised I was heading for another breakdown. I was uncontrollably binge-eating several nights a week, getting up at midnight to eat a pizza, four chocolate bars and half a tub of ice-cream in under an hour; I was staying up until two or three every morning; I was having scalding hot baths; I was exercising to the point of exhaustion; I was having urges to burn myself again; I was sobbing for hours at a time; I couldn’t concentrate on anything; I was overwhelmed by anything and everything. Because of the amount of meds I was on, I was chasing a feeling – since I couldn’t feel good about anything, I made myself feel bad, because at least I was feeling something.
I’ve had several nervous breakdowns in my life, and I know the signs, so instead of waiting until I was standing on a ledge, I decided to ask for help: I was going downhill and I needed somebody to save me.
I went to a different doctor, who told me there was nothing she could do for me, but I should really go to Slimming World and try to lose some weight (because clearly, the term uncontrollably binge-eating isn’t in her vocabulary). I spoke to another doctor about how I was feeling, who promised to refer me to the Community Mental Health Team. The following day, the CMHT rejected me, because my problems weren’t yet severe enough, but my doctor didn’t bother to tell me.
For five weeks, I clung on. ‘If I can just survive until I see the psychiatrists,’ I thought, ‘then it’ll be okay.’
In the meantime, my wife resumed harassing me by text and email, cyberstalking me, finding out from the children what was going on in my life and using it to intimidate me (“I hear you’ve been seeing friends”/”Looks like you had a nice bike ride yesterday”/”Who’s the girl that lives above you?”), telling them lies about me, breaking the court order and trying to emotionally blackmail me into changing it by telling my children more lies about me. Six emails and ten text messages in eight days. It got inside my head, and I didn’t know whether I was coming or going. I was panicking, breaking. I couldn’t think straight. I was nosediving fast. I couldn’t cope anymore.
Then Revenue and Customs told me I had to repay them £500 because they had overpaid my wife £1000, and I was liable for half because we’re still married (how can you ‘repay’ money that you never had?). I lost it. I just wanted to kill myself. I couldn’t take any more. I was overwhelmed. I was desperate for relief.
Finally, my doctor rang me to say the CMHT wouldn’t see me, and he was going to switch around my medications.
When I said I was desperate to see the CMHT, he asked, ‘Well, what do you want them to do for you?’
‘Help me,’ I said.
‘All they would do is what I’m doing: change your medications.’
‘But that’s just treating the symptoms; it’s not dealing with the cause, which is that I’ve been abused, and traumatised and broken and I just don’t know how I’m going to keep going.’
He said the only treatment I would be offered was through the county’s counselling organisation, so I should refer myself to them.
Switching meds has been a nightmare. I can’t sleep; I’m plagued by suicidal thoughts; I’m crying all the time, and I just want to hurt myself every minute of every day. I keep thinking of buying a cigarette lighter, but I know that if I do, I’ll burn my upper arms (out of sight), so I’m avoiding shops at the moment. My ex is still harassing me, manipulating me, destroying my mental health, and there’s nothing I can do about it. I have no faith in the police or the courts to protect me.
When I rang the county’s counselling organisation, they said, ‘What do you want from us? We’re not a crisis management service. We offer short-term interventions of six sessions, but you’re far too severe for that, so we’re not going to offer you counselling. You should go back to your doctor for help.’
‘I went to my doctor for help. He’s the one that told me to go to you.’
‘Well, you need to go back to him.’
It’s farcical. The lack of help and support I’m getting is triggering my trauma from last year at being ignored by my doctor, social worker, Children’s Services and the police when I asked for help.
This week, my new social worker (who is a gem) tried to put together a MARM meeting about me – a Multi-Agency Risk Management programme – so that all parties with a duty of care towards me can get together and work out a way of helping me, because she can see that I’m now at significant risk of harm from my ex’s harassment and the effect it’s been having on my mental health.
It didn’t go ahead because my doctor declined to attend.
But he did suggest that if I wanted help, I should refer myself to the county’s counselling service.
I asked for help in a timely manner, and now two months have passed, and I am much worse that I was too months ago, but still not enough to meet their criteria for assistance. What the hell is the point of having doctors, psychiatrists, psychologists, psychiatric nurses, counsellors, psychotherapists, if they refuse to speak to you when you ask them for help?
I’m just waiting for the next crisis, the next text message, the next abusive email, and I’m terrified that my strength and my sanity are leaving me, and the next one will be the one that breaks me.
Maybe then, somebody will give a shit.
I am who I am
Abusers abuse. They abuse because they’re abusers, and they’re abusers because they abuse.
I know this is a circular argument, but it’s the safest way to think of them. They are the spider, and you are the fly. Anything beyond that, and you make yourself vulnerable.
In my talks with other survivors of domestic abuse, the most dangerous question almost all of them ask is: why? Why did they do it?
That way, madness lies. I’ve seen it; I’ve experienced it. They’re an abuser. It doesn’t matter why they do it; it doesn’t matter what causes it; it doesn’t matter whether they can even help it. Pity should be reserved for the righteous, the innocent, and the victims of abuse – never the abuser.
Trying to see things from your abuser’s perspective is a step away from making excuses for their behaviour. She had a bad childhood; she has a personality disorder; it’s not her fault. From there, it’s very easy to blame yourself.
I do it all the time. As I wrote in Victim-blaming and Coercive Control, I’m plagued by what-ifs – what if I’d done things differently? What if I’d tried this? What if, what if, what if?
Leaving an abuser throws up so many questions, none of which have satisfactory answers. So many of the men that I talk to want validation for what they’ve been through, some acknowledgement from the abuser that what they did was wrong, an admission of guilt, remorse, empathy. You’re never going to get that from your abuser.
My own story is a prime example. During our marriage, my wife threatened me, hit me, cut off my beard, threw drinks over me, stole money from me, undermined me with my children, stopped me from sleeping, attacked me if I was ill, cut me off from family and friends, locked me out of the house, monitored my emails and texts, and used me as a slave, and whenever I tried to stand up to her, she told me I knew where the door was, but she’d take away my children because ‘the courts always side with the mother and my parents can afford better lawyers than you.’ It got so bad that I had a breakdown and had to be removed from the family home for my own safety by support workers from a local charity. Then, true to her word, she set her lawyers on me and did everything she could to destroy me.
Yet according to her, our marriage was fine. According to her, one day I simply got up and walked out, and she has no idea why. Mutual friends told me she was angry that I left – not sad, not upset, not remorseful – angry. She believes that I wronged her by leaving. She doesn’t think she did anything wrong.
When your abuser refuses to acknowledge that they’ve even abused you, it messes with your head. I’ve wondered if she’s capable of understanding right and wrong; wondered if, since she has no conscience or empathy, she is even responsible for her actions. How can you blame someone for what’s in their nature?
That’s what they want you to think, because they’re gaslighting you. Pretending they don’t understand – denying that they’re in any way to blame for their actions – is a way of exerting control over you. They’re abusers: if their behaviour is confusing you, it’s because they want you to be confused.
Abusers know right and wrong – that’s why they’re careful not to act out in front of others; why they lie about what they’ve done; why they excuse, and minimise, and blame you for their behaviours. The simple fact is that they choose to abuse you, and equally, they could choose not to. But they don’t, because abusing is what they do.
In her book The Sociopath Next Door, Martha Stout writes, ‘We feel that if someone is bad, he should be burdened by the knowledge that he is bad. It seems to us the ultimate in injustice that a person could be evil, by our assessment, and still feel fine about himself. However, this is exactly what seems to happen. For the most part, people whom we assess as evil tend to see nothing at all wrong with their way of being in the world.’
Abusers abuse. It doesn’t matter if they’re sick or evil, if it’s in their nature, or if they can help it. Stop psychoanalysing them, stop making excuses for them, and stop trying to fix them.
The defining characteristic of an abuser is that they abuse. Remember this the next time your abuser tries to lure you back in with sweet promises of better days.
They are the spider, and you are the fly.
Am I talking to myself?
This is a plea to anybody who works in mental health: the psychiatrists, psychologists, CPNs, case managers, social workers, GPs, counsellors and psychotherapists.
It is a plea to anybody in a position of power: politicians, CEOs, celebrities, public servants, journalists, writers, bloggers and influencers.
It is a plea on behalf of all those affected by mental health struggles: the sufferers, their families, their friends, their communities, and our society itself.
As someone who suffers from depression and anxiety, and has struggled with abuse, trauma, self-harm, suicidal ideation and an eating disorder, I’ve been involved with the mental healthcare system since I was 16, some 25 years now, and one thing has been true all my life: it is oversubscribed and chronically under-resourced. As a result, it operates on the basis of crisis management. All the money, time and expertise is directed towards the problems so big they can’t be ignored. It is focused on severe mental illnesses, on high-risk individuals, on putting back together people who have been broken apart.
What the mental healthcare system does not do is prevent people reaching a crisis. It does not prevent people succumbing to severe mental illness and becoming high-risk, and it does not prevent people from breaking apart.
For 25 years, I have received the same message dozens of times when I’ve tried to access mental health support: you’re not yet at crisis point. It’s not yet serious enough. Come back when you’re worse, and when it is going to be ten times as difficult to put you back together – and ten times more costly.
So you’re uncontrollably binge eating several nights a week? We’ll only see you when you’re making yourself sick afterwards. So you’re burning yourself with cigarette lighters? When you’re admitted to A&E, we’ll get involved. So you think you’re going to have a breakdown? Well when you have it, let us know, we’ll do something for you then.
You keep thinking of suicide? When you’re on the ledge, we won’t be able to ignore you any longer.
In the meantime, in the absence of psychiatric treatment, the GP throws more and more drugs at me. For 25 years, I’ve been on a cocktail of psychotropic substances: Fluoxetine, Paroxetine, Citalopram, Escitalopram, Sodium Valproate, Carbamazepine, Mirtazapine, Amitriptyline, Zopiclone, Trazodone. I’ve been numbed, sedated; plagued by side-effects.
I’m in my forties, and I haven’t had an unmedicated adult thought.
These drugs have their uses, but they’re nothing more than sticking plasters, sealing over the symptoms while leaving the causes untreated. Without therapy – without addressing the trauma, the thought-processes, the identity issues, the abuse, the pain – they’re kicking the can further and further down the road, so nothing ever gets dealt with. Instead of helping, the current mental healthcare system is an endless deferral of help; that is, until you’re so broken, the journey back to any form of functionality is uncertain at best.
There’s a humane argument for early intervention. A little input at the point you ask for assistance, some psychiatric treatment to help you on your way, the prevention of things escalating to crisis point, could save a world of suffering for people such as myself. I shouldn’t always be saying, ‘How much longer can I stay afloat?’ but ‘Thank God they’ve given me a life raft.’ Happier, more positive, and healthier outcomes are a benefit to individuals and society as a whole. That argument is obvious.
Instead, I’m going to make an economic argument for early intervention, because I know that some of you are already thinking: ‘nice idea, but how do we pay for it?’ Simple. It pays for itself.
Take me as an example: I had a breakdown fourteen years ago, and haven’t worked since. Had I received help when I asked for it, before I had the breakdown, I would likely still be in the workforce. That’s fourteen years that I’ve been on benefits, not earning an income – fourteen years in which I’ve been taking antidepressants and mood stabilisers of one sort or another, paid for by the taxpayer. Intervening before things reached crisis point would have been considerably cheaper than waiting until the crisis occurred.
And even after the breakdown, a small investment to get me the help I needed and back into work could have saved thousands of pounds. I would have required fewer GP appointments. I wouldn’t have had to be under social services. I would have been a net contributor to, rather than drain upon, the public purse.
Now suppose that I do have another breakdown; that I harm myself so severely, I have to go to A&E; that I end up on that ledge. The cost of a little bit of psychiatric help to prevent these outcomes is infinitesimal compared to the expenditure once they do occur, in terms of costs to emergency services, medical treatment, inpatient services, and the much longer, tougher job of putting someone back together who has reached that state of collapse.
The economic side of the argument is even more profound when it comes to suicide. It is reckoned that every suicide costs the British economy £1.7 million, including funeral costs, inquests, use of emergency services, insurance claims and the person’s exit from the workforce (1). Furthermore, for every suicide there are more than six ‘suicide survivors’ that are intimately affected by the suicide, who require counselling, take time off work, and are at substantially increased risk of suicide themselves (2). A small outlay that prevented a suicide – even £100,000 of psychiatric treatment – could potentially save £1.6 million.
Given that there are around 6,000 suicides in the UK each year, these cost the UK economy a total of £11 billion.
A mental healthcare system that spends money preventing people reaching a crisis, that intervenes before a person’s problems have developed into a serious mental illness, that helps them remain in the workforce, and that treats the cause instead of just the symptoms, is far more cost effective than waiting until things have escalated to the point that the person is a risk to themselves and others. We do have the money; we are simply not utilising it efficiently.
A country that invests in its people’s mental health creates a stronger, healthier, more resilient society, better able to withstand and thrive amongst the stresses and unexpected changes of the modern world. A country that only intervenes when someone’s mental health has reached the worst case scenario creates a fractured, pessimistic, alienated society that is less productive, less cohesive, and less able to bring about positive outcomes for individuals or the community as a whole.
The mental healthcare system in this country doesn’t work. We need a new model of mental healthcare, one that is based around prevention and early intervention instead of crisis management. We need a mental healthcare system that helps people get better instead of encouraging them to get worse. And we need a mental healthcare system that provides treatment, help and support to deal with the cause of the problem instead of simply numbing the symptoms with medication.
I’m just an ordinary person. I can’t change the world. I can’t change the way the mental healthcare system is run. But maybe somebody that reads this can.
And maybe one day, I’ll get the help I need.
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?