• Cate

He Doesn't Hit Me, But It's Still Abuse

There is this age old myth that demands that abuse be defined by physical brutality. Physical violence can and does happen quite frequently. But this isn’t the norm for abusive relationships. Not all abusers hit. But that doesn’t make the abuse any less terrifying or damaging.

There is a very pronounced cycle to abuse. The thing that struck me most when I went to a support group for abused women years ago was how similar our stories were. Not in deeds so much, but the characteristics of the men we were all describing were the same. The terror of being raped by your husband is as damaging as being beat up by him.

The escalation is only a small part of the cycle. The part that lasts, the part that we have to live with, that’s the part that makes us think we’re crazy. Because you can explain away the escalating episode if your mind has been conditioned enough. You’ll tell yourself it wasn’t as bad as it was. You’ll take the blame because you were crabby that day and pushed them too far.

But the mind games, that day to day chipping away at your self worth and confidence, those are what bring you to your knees. It’s so frustrating. Because they know just when you’ve had enough and they’ll turn on that old charm that gets you every time. Until it’s just not cute anymore and you’re only pretending that it works.

What’s it like to have your mental wellbeing assaulted day after day, month after month, year after year? That’s what I’d like to explain, because I think it’s a hard thing for the un-abused to understand. How could you believe what this person is telling you?

When I was a small child, my emotions were played upon by my dad and his sister. I was made to feel like a bad person if I didn’t submit to the abuse. I was told I was hurting someone’s feelings and how mean that made me. Or I was a naughty child for not obeying, wasn’t I going to receive a reward?

My mom was busy projecting her bad qualities onto me and punishing me for them, so I learned that I was an awful person. I was taught that it was awful and unladylike to have an opinion. It was rude to dislike something or someone. I was taught that my consent meant nothing in the face of other people’s feelings.

Many abused children become very compassionate adults. From the very earliest we are taught to overlook bad behavior because deep down they are our parents and we’re supposed to love and respect them. Society backs this up. Time and again the victim is blamed for coming forward with what happened to them. As if perceived past behavior or what you’re wearing has anything to do with whether you would accept sex from just anyone when you’re incapacitated.

I remember how much my mom loved my brother. She would praise him and criticize me. I wish I was making it up, but my mom would gleefully tell her sisters what she’d say to me or how she’d embarrass me in public. Even when they told her it was wrong, she told them to mind their own business.

My mom’s favorite phrases of admonishment were: “Shame on you!” And “You should be ashamed of yourself”. I learned to be ashamed of myself always. I learned to be hypercritical of myself. Clearly I was stepping out of line so often, I couldn’t control myself! How grateful I should be to have a mother to set me straight.

And when the anger would break through and I would cry about how unfair it was that I was treated this way and my brother was so loved, I was told I was selfish and that life isn’t fair. Some people are more gifted in life, like my brother. Some people couldn’t do anything right, like me. That’s just how the world was and it was my mom’s job to teach me how naughty I was.

I was afraid to play with my toys. If I didn’t put them away right, I would be in trouble, so I was terrified to touch anything. My mother was a clean freak. Not a speck of dust anywhere. I learned to read because I could put a book on a table and it was okay. Reading always got a pass with my mom, so it became my safe place. I would hide away inside the story I was reading. My head was always in the clouds.

So I grew into an adult with no confidence, no sense of self worth, no right to consent, always fearful of hurting others, never wanting to overstep my place, always trying to please. I was a nervous wreck. I would always analyze whether what I’d said could have been taken the wrong way and if that person now hated me. It sounds crazy, but I still do it sometimes. I can’t help it. I can’t shake the “Who could ever want YOU!” Sentiment that has been beaten into my skull.

So as an adult, I became the perfect victim for anyone who might want to abuse me. I feel like this needs to be noted clearly. Because people who have had otherwise healthy upbringings might find themselves in an abusive relationship and free themselves through their strong support systems of friends and family. But someone like me doesn’t have that. Someone like me goes it alone. Someone like me doesn’t feel like they deserve help, doesn’t want to take advantage of the friendships we do have, or is just afraid to ask because the price of help has been so high in the past.

I have no idea what it’s like to experience an isolated abusive relationship or to only have one abuser. I don’t even remember all of my abusers yet. What I’m trying to assimilate is a year’s worth of horror filled memories that I could never understand at 6, so I am struggling to decipher them at 42. This could take years. I may never get all of my memories back because it could be too damaging to my psyche.

None of my relationships as an adult began in a way I was comfortable with. But I explained it away. I was told that it didn’t matter how we came together, that we stayed together was what mattered. But it did matter. Maybe not at first, but after a year or so, it cast a shadow on the relationship. It had set a precedent. It’s why they stuck with me, because they had disrespected me and I had accepted it without question.

I was always responsible for all of the housework. It was always my responsibility to figure out what to eat for dinner, but it could never be something that I liked, it had to be something he liked. I was taught to not have an opinion. I became an amiable sort. I adapted to whatever my partner liked. I reminded myself it was selfish to want anything else.

As the relationship progresses, the good qualities fall away, until there are only the barest glimpses of who they were left. You hold onto those glimpses because that’s your rationalization for staying. They’ll help you rationalize too. They’ll remind you of that time you had the best time together. You’ll smile and go with his recollection of the event, flattered that he’d had a good time with you. Maybe I can be likable from time to time!

And you start to question whether you’re remembering things right. He keeps saying he didn’t say what you know he said. He says you said things you know you would never say. He won’t let you draw on any example because it never happened. The more you push, the more cruel he’ll become.

But despite all of his clever work, you will hit the end of your rope from time to time. The tiptoeing around his anger. The financial toll. The picking up more and more responsibility that used to belong to him, but you’re too afraid to bring it up. Then you get fed up. You think of his laziness and his cheating. You feel trapped. You remember your life before him for a moment and remember the freedom you used to have.

You might lose your composure. You might slip and say something. Your temper might get the best of you. The floodgate bursts and all of the frustration comes out. There, you’ve just given him all the ammunition he needs. He will tell you that you’re abusive for having this outburst. He will tell you you’re crazy. He’ll act like you’re out of line. He’ll say why he’s perfect. He’ll say some pretty mean things about you too, just to make you feel small. Then he smiles, because he knows he’s won. You both know if you push any farther you could be inviting an escalation.

You walk away feeling like an asshole. You walk away feeling invalidated. You walk away feeling less. Now you have to submit and not complain because he’s got you over a barrel.

So you go out in the world and you are easily triggered. You are afraid to speak up for yourself. You are afraid to stand up to the bully. You begin to believe YOU are the bully.

The mind games are the worst. I’m told I’m wrong over and over on a daily basis. I am looked at with wry derision as I explain what I’ve just read in the paper. My opinion is brushed away, even though I studied in my spare time. I am not given compliments. How does this look? Does it make me look bad? He looks at me as though I’m stupid. He says nothing.

I turn around and go change into something else, something plain. He then asks why I changed, challenging me, daring me to say something he doesn’t want to hear. I’ll see the smile creep onto his face. He feels he’s won. He makes me think I’m thin when I’m fat and fat when I’m thin. He says I look better when I need a shower and am “comfortable” and shakes his head after I’ve put on something nice and brushed my hair. I’m always a little afraid to wear perfume or lipstick.

It’s what he doesn’t say. It’s the way he looks at you when you ask him to do something he used to do but now expects you to do. It’s the way he shakes his head at everything you do. If you resist, he may escalate. You can’t hold him accountable, he’ll snap.

For me it’s a he. But it could just as easily be a she. It’s not a gender thing, it’s a personality type. It’s someone who is too arrogant to deal with their own trauma, so they project it everywhere but onto themselves, where it ought to live. But they exempt themselves from accountability. They feel extraordinary. They feel special. No one appreciates them, but boy if they did! You can’t challenge their view. No one can.

You may long to be free like me. You may fantasize about what life will be like once you escape. But try as you might, everything you know how to do fails. You’ve got nothing left. You are only in this frame of mind because you’ve been pushed to your limit.

You’re not sure where to turn. There are a lot of people who will tell you what resources are out there, but you still have to call. Many times the resources are outdated or expired. Representative after representative, more numbers, more paperwork, more hoops. No one seems to understand how you could be trapped. They don’t understand how each rejection is a blow to your hope.

The phone is a trigger for me. Talking on the phone, especially to a stranger, is a physical strain. It can be traumatic because when I hang up the phone I will worry that I’ve been rude and short because I was so nervous. I might have cried because all I wanted to do was hang up the phone. I’m embarrassed because I can’t handle myself properly. Talking on the phone is the worst. Yet it’s all I can do these days.

I do much better in person. I operate on cues and energy. I can observe body language, I can match inflection with facial expression and learn a persons reactions. I have a bit more confidence in how I’m perceived. That goes away completely if I’ve had any alcohol. Having alcohol ruins me socially. I become dis-regulated.

So time and again when the phone call leads to 10 more phone calls and no leads, I feel heavy. I feel afraid that I’ll be trapped here forever. I worry that he’ll snap and hurt one of the kids. I can’t ever leave them alone with him. If I do, I worry and I am anxious. I worry when I go to bed before he does that he’ll confront my son and hurt him.

I can’t talk about it either. It feels like dwelling and I feel like it annoys my friends. It’s not that I’m complaining, it’s more expressing frustration at dead end after dead end. What am I doing wrong? Would I be more effective if I wasn’t trying to unload trauma at the same time? Probably. Because I feel triggered often. It’s not easy to seek out help.

I’ve written to everyone. The newspaper, politicians, the Dalai Lama. No one responds and I understand that it’s because they’re inundated with requests for help. They don’t feel that they can respond to everyone. And what would they say anyway? What can anyone say? If they offered help, would I even take it, could I even take it? I’m not sure that I could.

I’ve become fiercely independent. Afraid to trust. Afraid to be vulnerable. In fact, I’m not quite sure how to be vulnerable. I know how to be strong, but weak? I’m not sure I could admit that. I don’t know how to feel that. I don’t know how to let down my guard. I don’t know how to relax. I can’t give myself a break, I am much too hard on myself.

But in the face of defeat, I can’t give up. I can’t stop trying. I just won’t think about it until it doesn’t feel so worrisome anymore. I will shift my focus and begin again. It’s not because I want to. It’s not because I know I’ll be successful. It’s because my will won’t let me crumble. Each time I stand up and square my shoulders. Each time I take a deep breath and remember my calmness and patience.

I’m not sure if the qualities I have are good qualities. My mom convinced me pretty well that I haven’t got any good qualities and anyone who says different is just being nice. I just know these are qualities that I have. I know that if I lose my calm, if I lose my patience, then I let him win. He wants to break my composure. He’s not even nice to anyone anymore. He dares me to say something.

But my patience is mine, and so is my calm. My happy is mine too. No one can take those things from me because they don’t come from anyone else. I can and often do experience happiness in the presence of other people, but it’s not them that’s happy for me, it’s me who’s happy. As long as I am kind, as long as I am accepting, as long as I let people be who they are, my disposition shall remain unperturbed.

Though I’m still unsuccessful, I have learned throughout the process that each query leads to another one. One closed door doesn’t mean another one won’t be open. I push through the anxiety. I let it burn away. Sometimes I just refuse to acknowledge it. The more I try, the more I learn. I won’t make the same mistake twice and I’m so much better at keeping my cool. It’s important to recognize the gains.

I can’t in good faith move on until I’ve noted that I am a rare sort. The amount of abuse I’ve lived through might have killed me at any time. My mind could have broken at any point and almost did more times than I’d like to admit. I have longed to kill myself, then felt animosity towards my kids because I couldn’t leave them to fend for themselves. I have wished to run away and never look back. I have prayed for someone to burst through the door and rescue me from my plight.

But none of it broke me. I’m made of some pretty strong stuff. My base level of happy is set pretty high. Being able to compartmentalize the abuse has been my way of keeping my happy safe. The coping skills I learned are not skills that everyone like me has. Other people have been through so much more horrifying things than I have, I could never expect them to cope the same way. We do what we have to do to get through the event, to remain human.

Something else I feel like is important to point out is this: You can’t compare your pain to other people’s pain. The moment you felt that pain it was real. The trauma some life events cause is real. I would never invalidate anyone’s trials based on my own. If I could have the guarantee that no one had seen troubles like mine and mine were the very worst, I would be glad - so, so glad. If I could end abuse I would.

I hope and wish that no one has to go through what I went through ever again. But the reality is that millions go through worse every single day. Not everyone has the same reasons to hold onto hope that I do. Everyone’s path leads them through different experiences. They’re not meant to be compared. They’re meant to be learned from.

I have learned so much from my path. I have learned so much about people. I am grateful for my capacity for compassion, especially in the midst of all the selfishness these days. I’m so glad I can see how dear each soul is. I can see how much each person I’ve run across has helped me to learn about life.

But not everyone can get to where I’ve managed to get in the healing process. It took a lot of work to get to a point that I can share these things with strangers. It’s important to me to increase the concern and compassion towards those of us women who are trying to free ourselves from our abusers. Fixing this problem is a social issue that stems from mental illness and will be solved by taking care of each child as though they were precious. Because they are all so very precious, each and every child.

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