When I was 12 years old, I got head lice.
I waited for my mother to notice. I waited for what felt like weeks. It was disgusting, and I was disgusted with myself; they were crawling everywhere, falling off my head onto my school books, fat with my blood. But I never took any action to deal with it myself. I waited for my mother to notice.
When I visited my father, as I did every fortnight, within about twenty minutes of my arrival he said “Oh my GOD. You’re crawling with lice!” and immediately went out, bought lice shampoo and dealt with it. This isn’t to say that my mother didn’t care for me, and it isn’t to say that my father was a more attentive parent. I understood even then that my mother had a lot of things on her mind and not a great deal of emotional fortitude. My father noticing was more a matter of coincidence—and to be honest, at twelve, I was probably capable of taking action myself. This was merely one of many incidents over the course of my life when I was waiting for someone to notice me, to notice what was happening to me.
I had a cliché of a terrible boyfriend later in high school, who used our time together, more often than not, to play video games with his friends while I watched, waiting for his attention. Who begged and cajoled and promised marriage to me in order to get into my virgin pants (naturally, all promises were retracted after the pants had come off). That was how I could get his attention, he taught me implicitly: with sex. How sure I was that I could never love anyone as much. The thought of losing him was unbearable. He never threatened to end our relationship over it, but it seemed pretty clear that’s what would have happened. I went to a left-leaning feminist stronghold of an all-girls high school, yet he was still able to pull this on me. Looking back on it in shock and self-disgust, I think it was partly because I wanted sex too, despite having been indoctrinated to save it for marriage, but also in part because of how desperate I was to keep him, to keep this source of intermittent attention and affection.
Later, when I met the man I actually did marry, he turned off video games when I walked in the door, and apologised for playing them. He showered me with attention. He created a bubble for the two of us. He invited me along when he spent time with his friends. He didn’t understand when I wanted to spend time with my friends without him, because he wanted to be with me all the time, and so I must not love him as much as he loved me if I didn’t want to include him. I managed to stand firm and carve out some time with my friends over the long term, because some part of me knew that wasn’t right, but so much of how he treated me did feel right that I wasn’t able to recognise this for the planet-sized red flag it was.
I don’t really know how I got from there to the day when I banged my head against the drywall because my physical self needed to match how my emotional self felt while trying to talk to him. I suppose that I was the frog being gently, caressingly lowered into room temperature water in a pot on the stove.
I read recently that one of the most important things about gaslighting (the emotional abuse technique of denying the victim’s perception of reality) is that it’s not always deliberate; that your abuser may simply believe things about you, and so twists reality to convince themselves and you that you are lazy, or selfish, or that you lack empathy. And I’m not sure that he isolated me intentionally either. I wanted to be with him. I wanted to please him. My family never really said a word against him, and I didn’t listen when they did try. We’re not very good at hard emotional conversations. But the outcome was that he was able to create a bubble in which his version of me was the only one that was shown to me, and I wasn’t confident enough in myself to reject it. He would enumerate the ways in which I had failed to be a good partner, and I would cry and apologise while he held me comfortingly. “Why do you love me then, if I’m so awful?” I would sob, trying desperately to understand this version of myself that no one else had ever told me about. “Because you’re pretty!” he would say jokingly, wiping away my tears kindly. He never gave me a serious answer.
I don’t, even now, think that he is an evil person or that he set out consciously to break me down in this way. He just has an innate belief in his own correctness at all times, and therefore, reality must be moulded to fit that “fact”. If something is wrong in his life, since he cannot possibly be at fault, it must be someone else, and I let him make me that someone else.
The version of yourself an emotional abuser presents to you is reinforced constantly. They tell you “You did that because you’re lazy.” and when you respond that no, you did it for reason X, they argue that no, you did it because you’re lazy and we both know it. This is how they establish the idea of your faults as a known fact. You know why you did or didn’t do something, but every time, your abuser attributes it to this supposedly known trait of yours, which allows it to become “an issue” they have constantly brought up with you and conveniently ignoring the fact that they had no basis to bring it up. My abuser actually said to me “Oh you always have a reasonable excuse!” when I attempted to correct his version of my motivations and actions. A reasonable excuse is a reason. It is true that motivations don’t count for a lot if the outcome of your actions is bad, but if you have someone constantly, wilfully misinterpreting your motivations instead of working with you honestly and trustingly towards different outcomes, nothing is going to change for the better.
When I was pregnant, I asked him: “Please, don’t talk down to me the way you do in front of our children when they are born.”
He responded “Then don’t be someone I have to talk down to.”
When I think back on that conversation now, I wonder how things could have gotten so bad that I thought that was an acceptable conversation to have to initiate, that I didn’t see that the view he had of me that allowed him to talk down to me was the unacceptable poison in the veins of our marriage, that the actual talking down was just a symptom.
Later in my pregnancy, there was another incident of serious emotional abuse. I won’t go into it except to say that I was hospitalised shortly thereafter for three days, due to the extreme stress my body was under, having been worked too hard so late in a high-risk pregnancy, but it was the moment I knew that nothing was ever going to get better, and also the moment that I thought I was trapped with him forever.
Parenthood blew the cracks in our relationship wide open. We were both exhausted and under a lot of stress. He ramped up the emotional abuse, and my ability to swallow it withered and died. I became like a wild animal trapped in a corner, biting and scratching, desperate to free myself, yet certain there was no way out. Normal mother-guilt combined with post-natal depression and the feeling that I was trapped with my abuser for life because we now had children together, and it nearly did me in. At that time, I was glad that at least our children were safe, at least I couldn’t imagine him ever treating our children with the open contempt he did me. I didn’t consider then that abusing me in such insidious ways in front of them was in fact a form of abuse.
One weeknight I was out with a freelance client and friend at a function I was working for her. My then-husband, my abuser, was at home with the children. We had been arguing earlier that day, and he texted me at 10pm to tell me that he didn’t think I should come home that night. He had never done this before, and I was too ashamed to tell my friend what had happened. I ended up sneaking into the house through the back door and lying on the floor in the back room, unable to actually sleep, then leaving at about 4am before the children woke up so I could go to work. It was the middle of winter and absolutely freezing. Sometimes I think something froze in my heart that night and never really thawed.
I didn’t tell anyone about the incident that triggered my hospitalisation until years later, when I had all but resigned myself to this hell of a life. I truly believe that shame at what you have allowed your abuser to do to you is an extremely powerful weapon in their arsenal; if no one knows what is being done to you, no one can help you see that you don’t deserve it, and no one can offer to help you escape.
When I had resigned myself to bearing this unbearable life, I decided that I wanted to let go of my anger about the hospitalisation incident, so I posted about it in a comment thread here on The Toast. The response I got from the community, many of whom I already considered to be dear friends, was that this incident was utterly unacceptable and horrifying. This response was so immediate, so unanimous and so truly loving in a way I had somehow not expected, that it started me on my journey to free myself and my children from my abuser. When Toasties asked me if this incident was out of character, a one-off in an otherwise extremely loving and mutually respectful relationship, I was forced to concede that although it was more extreme than anything previous, it actually fit extremely well with his pattern of past behaviour, something that I had not been willing to admit to anyone but my deepest self.
My mother came to visit us at some point around this time. After two days of witnessing the way my husband treated me, she waited until we were alone and she asked me if he hit me. He had never hit me. I cynically said that he would never do anything to me that would leave proof. And I was still only dimly cognisant of how sick and soul-destroying it was to stay with someone about whom who you believed such things.
I was still not ready to leave; to actually change my life. Then one night we had a particularly vicious argument that ended, not unusually, with me sobbing on the floor, begging him to stop berating me. I told my sister via email, and I told my Toasties via a social media account he didn’t know I had, that he was emotionally abusing me. This was the first time I had named the abuse.
And everyone believed me.
Everyone believed me. Not a single one asked if it really happened that way, or said maybe he didn’t really mean it, or suggested that maybe I was also to blame.
I can’t tell you the immense power that simply hearing “I believe you” had for me. Even now I can’t think of that moment without crying. If this is happening to you, I can’t urge you strongly enough to try to work through your shame and tell someone. You don’t have to leave that day. But I want you to get someone else’s view of you, to make sure that you aren’t being fed a lie, and I want you to experience that power of being believed. Being believed was what finally gave me the strength I needed to walk out the door. Depending on your situation, it may not be physically safe for you to “just walk out that door,” and if that’s the case, I encourage you to seek out the resources of your community.
To bring it back to waiting to be noticed, I sometimes wonder if part of my reluctance to reach out and tell someone that I was being abused was that I wanted someone to notice, and reach out to me first. But I realise now, looking back, that people did make attempts to reach out to me, and I was too ashamed and too afraid of change to grab the ropes that were thrown. I had to be ready to take that action myself. I had to be ready to rescue myself for it to be successful.
I left him.
At this moment in time, there is still a hard road ahead of me, but I am surrounded by family and friends, and I feel good and positive about my future and that of my children.
I can’t allow my children to grow up thinking that what we had was love, that what we had was how a marriage should be. I can’t be broken, because I need to be whole for them. I can’t be disassociated, because I need to be present for them. Less importantly, I can’t allow myself to be tied to my abuser any more than I have to be because we have children together. It does make everything harder and more complicated. How I wish I never had to see his face or hear his voice again, how I wish I could simply cut off all contact with him and live as though he had never existed. But he is the father of my children, and so that will never happen. And that is why I urge everyone, if you are being treated this way, to be stronger than I was, to demand more than I did, to walk out that door before you are tied to him forever.