I met somebody recently. Someone who has known me for nearly a decade, only I can’t remember them at all. All the references check out, the dates line up, the stories match. And yet, there’s a gaping hole in my memory where this person should be.
All I can find to explain this is, that when we first connected, I was sunk deep in a toxic situation. I could barely keep my head above water and also put on a cheerful front (because it always feels like the world is full of vultures waiting for a chance to pounce). I have a way of buckling down to the business of survival when this happens. And clearly this happens often enough for me to have a way, a system even and one that happens on autopilot. It involves minimising contact with other people, including what I let into my mind because everything, everything hurts so much. I still haven’t gotten over the shock, the grief of losing so many years, so much to such painful experiences.
A friend and I talked about how surviving an abusive relationship can involve a form of PTSD. Disjointed memories, feeling violated by things that happened years ago and you thought were long resolved, confusion when you know fully well you’re a very intelligent, high-functioning person — aren’t these signs of PTSD? Yes. I struggle, I still do. I probably always will.
I’ve run away. It’s too hurtful. This person’s existence is a reminder of horrific things in my past. It’s a reminder of how badly I fail to erase a monster from my narrative, how ridiculously I crash in my intention to not let it define me. Trust feels dangerous. I never want to enter a minefield again and it doesn’t matter how many times I’m told it’s a crop field, not a minefield.
I made the mistake of watching JOKER last evening. It’s a mistake because I’ve been more careful these past few months about steering clear of triggering stories. And this one came gift-wrapped with all the forms of toxicity popular media has — toxic masculinity, white male privilege, glorifying rage, escalating abuse cycles, violence. I’m so tired. I just thought it would be nice to watch a movie.
It’s time to go to sleep. I don’t know if there is anything else one can do with shell shock. For now, while I can still fall asleep, I will.
The next time you hear about a victim of abuse and think of her (or him) as weak, think again. There are things you can understand only when you have experienced them. I used to think a person who was being victimised deserved it for letting themselves be tortured. Perhaps I was meant to learn to be more compassionate. Perhaps it was a punishment for being so arrogant. Whatever it was, I wouldn’t wish the same fate on my worst enemy.
It’s tough losing your friends and your sucess and your health. But the worst is losing your self-esteem. People stay in abusive relationships because they don’t believe that thay deserve better. The human mind, so capable of infinite creation, is equally capable of ruthless destruction. Which is what the abuser does. I had actually forgotten that life could be any other way than the way it had become. Crying in bed every night, waking up with a headache, giddy spells during the day. People who saw me at that time, said that I’d become a bundle of nerves, constantly edgy and scared.
We all have our defense systems and ways to cope with the world. Sometimes, someone gets around those defenses. We do make friends and relationships. And we share those parts of ourselves that we normally keep carefully secure. Our dreams, our fears, our hopes, our insecurities. We hope these will be treated with as much care as we do ourselves. And we don’t expect the people we trust to secretly use them against us, wage wars inside our own heads and make us our worst enemies.
It happens so subtly and imperceptibly, you don’t even notice. Everyone expects some friction in relationships. There are bound to be disagreements. But its a long way to realising that you are fighting more than enjoying the time. And it is yet another horrendous realisation that the other person is actually deriving pleasure from insulting you, humiliating you….being happy in your unhappiness. Yes, there really are such people. And the longer you stay with such a person, the more difficult it is to get out. Each minute your self-worth is plummeting and all you are left with, is the thought that you have nothing else to live for, except this person, this relationship…and so you better do everything you can to keep them happy….even let them run all over you, if necessary.
This was more than two years ago. Getting out was difficult enough, facing the world again was really scary. The voices haven’t left me. Even today, I wonder if a new person I meet will turn out to be like that one.
It hurt a lot that the people I thought were close to me, never cared to help. The few people I did reach out to, were always too busy or ‘it wasn’t any of their business’. And yet others offered advice….so much of it…and got angry and left when I didn’t seem to take it. I was angry for a long time after that. They were being judgemental rather than compassionate, missionaries rather than friends. They were being right. If any of them should fall into trouble (and I hope they don’t) I’ll be there, being a friend. I don’t have to change because they did. But I’ll never need them again.
In a strange way it has made me more wary of people, but also less caring of them….less dependent. Maybe that is a good thing.
It isn’t easy to admit that you trusted wrongly. It is not easy to talk about being humiliated and putting up with it. It is definitely not easy to put up with the condescension or pity that you encounter when you talk about it. I know because I haven’t been able to, for a long time.
But I have nothing to be ashamed of, anymore. If anything, I think more people need to be sensitised to what a victim is going through. If you can’t support her, at least don’t judge her. She is probably judging herself, very harshly, already and punishing herself for being herself.
One thing it definitely does, is make you more compassionate. One of the first bloggers I met was and still is the author of a very popular blog. She said “You sound like you are in a lot of pain.” I told her I had just ended a bad relationship. She listened without a word. At the end, she told me that she was in an abusive marriage….had been for 10 years. She is the mother of two children and at that time had just started working for the first time in her life. Despite the pain I can only suspect she was living in, she was coping somehow and finding a way to look forward to life. She walked out of the marriage last month. I am so proud of her in a way I can’t begin to explain.
I have tremendous respect for people who have survived abuse. She is the real survivor.