How do you catch a cloud and pin it down?
How do you find a word that describes the effects of non-physical abuse on the psyche and advocate for yourself when most people think physical bruises must be present for abuse to have occurred?
I’ll stop ruining a beloved song from one of my favourite movies now.
I want to write about a problem I’ve faced ever since I realised I was a victim of domestic violence yet I had never been hit and my abuser had never called me names or rarely even raised his voice. I still panic about how in holy hell I can make people understand what has happened and that legally I am a survivor of domestic violence. Yes, violence. I have a blog entry pinned in the menu of my blog about this for those interested in the legal definitions of domestic violence. This post is about a few of my own personal experiences of trying to explain extremely covert abuse, what I have come to think of as silent abuse, hence the name of my blog.
The context: while we were married, my abuser cleverly made sure the vast majority of our money was in bank accounts in only his name. After separation he cut off my access to our money. I was unable to work due to psychological trauma and physical ailments, many related to my trauma. My parents had run out of money paying my medical and legal bills. My ex-husband had postponed and postponed the financial settlement mediation and then when we got there blew it up and had gone aggressively litigious, wanting to take things to court. So I needed help. I decided to reach out to the council of my ex’s church. I started by contacting one of the women on the council to tell her what had happened to me and ask for a meeting with the full council to read a statement describing the abuse I’d experienced. She is a wonderful person, she has the kindest heart, is sweet, loving and generous. She has in fact sheltered women escaping domestic violence in her family home. After hearing that I wanted to report abuse she told me the story of one of those women she had helped. I’m going to paraphrase what she told me about this woman below:
She was with him, and it wasn’t bad, but she just wasn’t happy, she wanted something more or better. Then when he started abusing her, hitting her, she needed our help. She was so broken when she was living with us. Locking the bedroom door whenever she was in there, unable to do much at all, terrified all the time.
I want to translate what I believe was actually going on, and how most people, no matter how good their intentions are or even if they have experience with abuse survivors, misunderstand the emotional and psychological aspects and effects of domestic violence.
Part one:“… it wasn’t bad, she just wasn’t happy, she wanted something better”.
I remember very clearly a conversation I had with my best friend about two years before my ex and I separated. I wasn’t happy in the marriage because deep down I knew something wasn’t right. But I didn’t have the words, I didn’t have the knowledge of abuse to understand that I was in the midst of a vicious and cruel cycle of daily attacks of quiet anger and subtle and silent control and coercion. All I knew was nothing I ever did was good enough. I would try to talk about things and they would spiral until small things became huge fights that seemed to almost always be my fault. I was scared, but didn’t recognise the feeling as being fear. Nothing seemed to work. I made him unhappy. I was unhappy. I didn’t know much but I knew what I was living wasn’t what a healthy relationship should be.
I had also internalised the abuse. He had made sure it was my fault, that he was the patient saint and I was the emotional mess making his life a nightmare. So I didn’t have the ability to say “help me, rescue me from this hell.” Instead I expressed a general unhappiness, and thought that if we could have the chance to go our separate ways our lives would be better. Instinctively I knew I would be happier without him and remember fearfully opening up to my friend about how I wanted to be single. I may have seemed controlled and calm to her, maybe even sullen or annoyed, but I was awash with shame at finally saying it. I was feeling a giddy rush of terror like I would be punished, like I was committing a sin just expressing a desire for freedom. What a selfish bitch, to want to leave him and want something better after all he had done for me and how he had helped me.
My friend was single, unhappily so, and told me to stay, that single life at our age was horrible, that having someone was better than whatever idealistic image of singledom I’d concocted. If I asked her now, she would probably say she saw no warning signs of abuse. Just unhappiness, stress caused by a situation where one spouse was sick and unable to work. That friend is a loving and wonderful person too just like the councilwoman, and almost universally adored for her heart, dedication and humour. She would never knowingly turn an abuse victim away. We were both trying to talk about something dark, hiding in the shadows, not knowing what it was, what it looked like, what its name was. So we projected onto it our own fears and insecurities.
I imagine the councilwoman would have had similar conversations with her friend she eventually ended up sheltering.
Part two: “Then when he started abusing her, hitting her, she needed our help”.
To the councilwoman, domestic violence is physical. The moment he physically hurt her friend is the moment he started abusing her. But that’s so rarely what happens. Victims are groomed. They are lured in with charm and promise, a call to whatever brand of empathy the potential victim is used to willingly dole out unconditionally, and a manipulation of any psychological injury unique to the victim that the abuser can use to keep her or him weak. If an abuser was horrible on the first date we’d never come back for a second one so they start slow. Abuse escalates so that each little transgression that can be explained away and then forgiven opens the way to slightly greater abuse, abuse that may end up in a physical form. And almost always before physical violence occurs, there is a long history of emotional abuse.
While the councilwoman and her friend were talking about how unhappy she was, her abuser would have been pulling all sorts of stunts, wrecking her self-esteem, isolating her, making her doubt herself. But she wouldn’t have seen it for what it was.
I had to convince this woman and the rest of the people on the council that I had been abused so badly I was showing symptoms of PTSD yet I had never been hit, called names, or overtly threatened. I had to convince a woman who had sheltered victims but still seemed to believe abuse starts when things get physical.
Part three: “She was so broken when she was living with us. Locking the bedroom doors whenever she was in there, unable to do much at all, terrified all the time.”
It took almost a month to write the statement I would eventually present to the council. I fell back into memories of the abuse I had suffered, I heard my abuser’s voice in my head telling me I was never abused. He had never hit me, called me names, lied to me. He had financially supported me. How could he be abusive? I had nightmares, I broke down over and over again. But I eventually produced almost twenty pages of abuse examples. Sexual coercion that effects me to this day. Lying and gaslighting. Denial of access to medical help and basic items of comfort. Control via witholding of physical affection. Mind games that confused me so much I was voluntarily hospitalised twice in a psychiatric institution.
To this day I still always lock my bedroom door behind me because I’m still constantly scared. Yet I was never physically hurt, so why do I feel so scared? Just like the councilwoman’s friend, I need those small acts to add some sense of safety and control back into my life. It takes longer than a few months of physical intimidation and violence to induce the kind of trauma the councilwoman described of her friend. It should be clear that there is more going on with women in those situations. Something has gotten into their brains and made them so frightened and broken that basic day-to-day tasks become impossible. That kind of damage takes time, and it is psychological and emotional.
If people see abuse as just physical violence they will ignore the rest of the picture. The build-up, the years of escalating emotional abuse that leads to physical violence. They deny the survivors their trauma, not letting them deal with the immensity and complexity of the horrors they endured.
Later, after giving my statement, I talked to the councilwoman over the phone and she said offhand that “whether what I had experienced was real or just my perception…” Just my perception? No. No no no no no no no! The rage I experienced hearing that, carefully bottled up and kept inside so as not to offend her at the time, was so mighty I’m sure it could have shattered the glass in my bedroom windows if I had let it out.
If people see abuse as just physical violence they deny survivors like me the chance to actually be survivors. We are just oversensitive. We have mental health issues. Yeah, maybe our ex-husbands were jerks but we weren’t abused and we shouldn’t trivialise the word to take attention away from the real victims. I had a GP tell me once that I just needed to move on and get a job and I’d feel better. This was after I’d gone to her to report that my anxiety episodes had gotten so bad I had started losing consciousness and the previous day and passed out and hit my head against my bedroom door. I refused to ever see that GP again. I will never heal unless I am able to acknowledge that I have been abused and that I have deep and severe trauma.
To people like my friend or the councilwoman: you are not bad people. You are good people. It’s just that society doesn’t properly educate you, me, any of us about the many types of abuse that constitute domestic violence. Read up on and remember the red flags of abuse. Also remember that they may not present as simply as stated in such lists. My friend would not have seen overt signs of coercion and control, of my ex removing me from my friends and family, but she would have noticed me pulling away from her and my other friends, becoming more isolated, using various excuses of being tired or overwhelmed. She knew that there were problems in my marriage. She knew I was mentally struggling. She knew my husband could be demanding and had the reputation of being a difficult person sometimes. She saw my weight increasing, my self-care and hygiene practices becoming less frequent. She saw me changing from the person I had used to be. She saw me fading away.
I will continue to try to explain how I experienced abuse. Hopefully the more of us that do so will start to expand the vocabulary and scope of what we as a society understand abuse to be to help both the victims of abuse and those trying to help those victims.