Emotional abuse isn’t always easy to spot – even when it’s happening to you. Therapy helped one writer come to terms with what actually happened in her past.
Last year I started seeing a therapist. I didn’t want to. I knew I’d had complications in my life, but I thought I was pretty sorted, getting on OK. Yet for various reasons, I reached a tipping point, and the reluctant opening up during my sessions led to a slow dawning of understanding that I was carrying round a whole sackload of shit that I kind of knew about, but had hidden away for a very long time.
Abuse. The word (to me at least) conjures up images of women with black eyes and burn marks, or children on an NSPCC poster, neglected and broken. Extreme and violent in every sense.
It’s taken me a very long time to understand that abuse is a dirty secret lurking at the heart of a frightening number of lives. It doesn’t have to leave a visible mark to be real, and it can continue for decades, not exactly coming to a head in the way that we’re led to expect from the dramatisations shown on our screens.
The very word ‘abuse’ is so loaded with meaning that admitting I’d been subjected to it by my own family and a former partner, attributing that dirty word to their behaviour, has felt like a wall crashing down around me.
Now I stand amid the rubble and wonder who I really am. Slowly I’ve come to understand that I’ve spent a large part of my life being controlled by the people closest to me – the people I should have been able to trust the most.
“Don’t dismiss just how successfully a drip feed of this treatment over a number of years can leave you almost blind to what’s taking place and unable to walk away.”
No one ever laid a finger on me (although, well, there was that one time with my ex when I didn’t want to, but he did, and in the end I was just too numb and exhausted to stop him, which has lurked in the corner of my mind ever since), but they did plenty of things to my mind. This is now properly recognised as emotional abuse or ‘coercive control’.
Inconsistent behaviour with a child, showering with praise in one moment and telling them they are worthless the next. Making it clear that love has long strings attached. Placing expectations on them that are age-inappropriate. Manipulative behaviour, allowing other family members to bully, gaslighting… the list is extensive and these are just some of the things that I grew up with.
The whole time, I knew something wasn’t quite right, but didn’t know how to express it. I was bullied extensively at school and often called a loner. The truth is, I just didn’t know how to trust anyone.
Unsurprisingly, this segued neatly into an abusive long-term relationship, where my ex tried to isolate me from my friends, took my money, cheated on me and threatened me into submission. Thankfully the claims of suicide if I left him, and that I’d never have such great sex again proved to be entirely false. My friends didn’t give up on me, and after five years I managed to break free.
Written down, it’s pretty clear that all of this amounts to an extensive account of emotional abuse (although I know that not one of the other people involved sees it that way).
Don’t dismiss just how successfully a drip feed of this treatment over a number of years can leave you almost blind to what’s taking place and unable to walk away. The sense that you’re losing your own mind, being over-sensitive and imagining the whole thing – for an abuser, that’s the goal really. It’s never enough, though. I’m not sure what would be.
Through my counselling sessions I’ve come to understand that none of this was my fault. A part of me always worried that it was. I don’t feel the anger that I used to, and for that I’m incredibly grateful.
“Abuse is a dirty secret lurking at the heart of a frightening number of lives. It doesn’t have to leave a visible mark to be real, and it can continue for decades.”
What I’m left with is sadness that so many years of my life have been lost to abuse. I desperately wish that I could go back in time and give that lonely little girl a hug and tell her how to make things better. Or have a cuppa with my teenage self and reassure her that she’s a fighter who will make it through.
The most important things I know now are:
1. You know if someone is saying or doing something to you that doesn’t feel right. You know deep down that it’s not OK. Trust that instinct, and don’t let it go – use it to fight your way free.
2. This isn’t about you. It’s about them. There is no justification for abusive behaviour, even if someone else has suffered it themselves. You are not their punchbag, whether with fists or words. You deserve better. You deserve to exist.
In December 2015 a law was passed making controlling or coercive behaviour in an intimate or family relationship illegal. Let’s face it, arrest isn’t always the answer, and removal from the situation isn’t always possible, but if you know a child who is suffering abuse in any form the NSPCC has lots of useful guidance. Even if you don’t feel able to intervene, being present and someone a child can rely on for unconditional support and love will help them more than you realise.
If you think you might be experiencing abuse check out the Refuge website for more information about the warning signs and how to seek help. http://www.counselling-directory.org.uk has a list of counsellors in your area if you are looking for someone to talk to.