What is means to be scared

In the first days of abuse, I wasn’t scared. He was not, effectively, trying to scare me: narcissistic abuse comes with humiliation, verbal offence, the abuser’s utter and profound pleasure in making the abused feel belittled, bad and at the heart of it, fundamentally unlikeable. But in its early stages, it doesn’t come with threats. In my case, the heart of it was the volatility: I went – within seconds – from being his wonderful girlfriend to “ugly”, “poorly dressed”, “crazy” and “a prostitute” (that was his very favourite). It all happened within seconds, and – like I said before on these pages – here lied the heart of the problem: I believed him. Emotional dependency meant clinging every second on the moments he demonstrated his love, because I knew those moments, so frequent in the early days, would not last long. It was humiliation, pain, physical suffering all caused by the emotional dependency. But again, it wasn’t fear.

Fear came later, and god knows I am scared now. Threats started when I managed to break away – a little bit at least – and not answer the offensive texts anymore. Then it all happened very rapidly: his obsessive need to spot my “cheating”, the violation of my email, his access to my web message exchanges. That’s when they came. Threats – and they were loads – came then and it was horrible, but what is more horrible now more than one year later, is that I’ve realised yesterday how a just a little trigger of fear brings it all back again. I’m safe, I’m at home in a different country and then again, a minor trigger and it all crumbles down on my head. I understand now, all the times I was told not to go through the legal route as it will all come back, all the memories will came back to you. Well – know what – memories come back every day. The real problem is the fear. I wasn’t used to it anymore – it paralysed me, it’s an old feeling and yet one I can’t make peace with. All coping behaviours come back again. Ever wondered why so many women drop court cases against abusers, or never start them? I’ve always thought it was a mixture of bad memories and lack of trust in the judiciary. Had’t calculated the fear. So here I am.

Revert to post 1 in this blog, The Survival’s Responsibility. Harsh on myself as I might be, it means not to let fear own me – I am alive to tell and won’t be silenced, whatever it’s gonna bring. For a moment yesterday, home alone with the fear only, I thought I cannot do this. I think it’s the first time that thought took clear shape in my head. It is there, in a little corner, now that I know the fear it will probably always be. But while the triggers are powerful, and last night I’ve learned how bad it can really be, there is no way, no way fear will silence me or stop whatever I can do, every day, to save other women from falling into this. I think I say so because I’m not alone anymore, so that’s an easy win one could argue. But while being scared means paralysis, and terror that I won’t wish to any human being except for the ones that caused it, responsibility is bigger than terror. Whatever is gonna happen with me in this moment, responsibility stays and is gonna combat everything else. And win.

Normalisation

When living with emotional abuse, psychological violence is your life.

You’re in for trancheant statements today you will say. But that’s the way it is – in an abusive relationship, and consider than mine was long-distance too, violence migrates from a sporadic episode (and even that is obviously not ok ) to your everyday, your normal, the daily reality to which you wake up and live. Well, in my case it was really waking up with it – his abusive text messages were the first thing I saw every day. But in an abuse context, violence becomes the norm and non-violence the safe haven – the island of peace you crave and want, and that shows up so, so much more sporadically over time.

Normalisation means several things, and there are two that emerge over others. First, you justify it. With yourself, yes, that is for sure. But most visibly to the external world, you justify it with other people. For many months you hide it, because something inside you knows how wrong it is, and so you hide it, you just don’t say. Even he hides it initially. For me it was when he closed his bar for the night – me being in the bar still – the moment the door closed. That’s when he changed (into his real self, one could say). Then even he stopped hiding it, started doing it in front of friends. And me, normalising. Yeah, you know how he is. Yeah, it’s a bit weird but you know, he went through all those horrible things. He needs a platform to vent. So I’m that platform I guess. Yeah, then friend reads his texts and tells me no, no, there is no way this can be ok, this is dozens of insults within minutes, this is abuse and me no, not abuse no, you know he’s just being insecure. You know, it’s a moment. It will go. And then it comes a day you stop believing it.

Second, you internalise it. That belittled person, the one that is worth nothing as he tells you every day, the rightful object of humiliation and violence, it becomes you. You start thinking that after all, you deserve it. That you’re worth nothing more than that and in fact, you are lucky he’s still around – you cling. You cling because he subtly, consciously (strategically in the case of mine) builds it all against you, and then as a result of it all, you cling more. You start living, breathing, existing for those moments of love, those few instants in which he has some mercy. You’re addicted, it’s your norm – again, it’s your life and you have forgotten how it is to live without it. Then something saves you… I was saved by love, but then again different people are saved by different things of life. I didn’t save myself as many argue, often the same ones that call call me brave. But before that, it’s your normal, your life. And you struggle to imagine a different way for things to be.

Normalisation, an abused woman does not allow much mercy to herself.

Normalisation, an abused woman does not leave much space to the external world.

But it also is the case that deconstruction of normalisation – and transition from victimhood to survival – is the first step to rebuilding your life.

One year ago

Dear me from one year ago,

Today you are feeling more shocked and shattered than ever before. Though many times during the last months you have begged for this to end, though every day you’re scared to even just switch on your phone as you know, every morning, you will wake up to dozens of offensive messages on your whatsapp, your email, your social media accounts. Since a few weeks those offences have converted into open threats, and you’re still hoping that somehow, someway this is gonna end. But today, today you woke up to 86 texts and eleven long audio messages of insults, threats and everything else in it, and something inside you has clicked. And right from your bed today, you’ve called your lawyer and asked for help. Finally after all this time, today you’ve taken action to end this torture.

And now you’re terrified. Terrified because for absurd that they can be, those threats seem realistic to you, because again: you believe him. You believe everything he tells you. Only a few weeks ago you decided this was all wrong and moved towards your escape route, and then he found out. Since then your life is living hell. And terrified also because of the emotional dependency that got you, a 31-year-old successful professional as they may put it, to endure an abusive relationship for all this time. You believe you couldn’t run away completely. But today, when you picked up the phone and cried for your family and lawyer’s help, you did. 

Just, you have no idea of it as of right now. Because you, dear me from one year ago, at this time are shocked and terrified, and don’t know this is the moment that will mark your transition from victim to survivor, for sufferer of daily emotional abuse to educator with a mission to help survivors like you. I hear you in the words of the fellow survivors I talk to, I see you in their eyes. You don’t know what is gonna happen next, you lock yourself up at home and in your office and hide under the table if someone comes in (yes, you really did it). You are terrified and it shows, albeit you have the best support a human being can possibly have. You are terrified because you still don’t know the consequences of speaking up. You know the law will intervene, and are awaiting yoyr abuser’s threats to come true any time. You want time to stop. You want to be you from before all this, when you just could never imagine this might ever happen to you.

But let me tell you now, with that simple gesture of forwarding the screenshots and audio messages, with a click of your phone simply, you’ve changed your life. And maybe, just maybe, you have just prevented this from happening to many other women like you. You have called for help  and from today, in a way or another and for most of the time, you will be safe. You have just started the machine that will lead to the court case that I, the you of mid-2019, am awaiting in a few months, after celebrating academic tenure in big style one month ago. That is what is in your future: professional success, academic satisfaction, a slow but steady recovery from PTSD and soon, a case for justice. In one year you will turn from a terrified victim into an empowered survivor, and you will reclaim your life in a way that seems impossible as of now. You will never ever forget, and  no matter your empowerment, the nightmares will never go away completely. But you will reclaim your life, and dedicate a big part of it to help other survivors that, like you now, think there’s no end to abuse. Like yours, their abusers are making them think they deserve it. And you’ll have the mission, theresponsibility to help them out.

You have no idea now, and I wish I could hug you and tell you, well done. Today your survivors’ experience begins. And I’ll tell you, you’ll make it great.

Gaslighting

I didn’t know what gaslighting meant, and don’t recall ever hearing the word before it happened to me. Even this, just like the ‘how it all started’ story I told before, is a recurring pattern in fellow survivor experiences. Dictionary definitions indicate ‘gaslighting’ as psychological manipulation inducing someone into doubting their own mental health, and relate its etymology to an old play in which a husband manipulates elements of the environment to convince his wife that she is insane. My relationship taught me, however, that abusive partners can instill many more beliefs in a victim’s mind beyond mental insanity (yes, my abuser tried that one too). In his words I was ugly, stupid, ‘antisocial’, ’embarrassing in public’, ‘not good enough’ for him. And, of course, insane too, on top of everything else.

There are a few points on gaslighting, that I want to share on here as they are less obvious than one could think. First, an abusive partner takes control of a victim’s mind by choosing someone especially vulnerable – that is, someone who needs a lot of validation, especially from people they love. I had long discussions with my lawyer (specialised in abuse cases) and more recently with my counsellor, on the ‘why me’ topic – it is a question that we all end up asking ourselves. And yes, he had got that one very right. I was vulnerable, due to a personal history of need for external validation – its roots going back into my childhood as therapy sessions are now revealing. Even I had not realised how deep that need was, I perceived it as normal (don’t we all want to be liked after all?) and didn’t realise I was thirsty for validation, every time the nasty comments came. I didn’t realise how much power that gave him. Again, like I did all the time, I believed him.

Second, emotional abusers have a very specific technique. They do not insult you all the time – while they spend many words doing so, they alternate those with moments of praising, compliments, love and affection. All the beautiful things – those you want, those you need all the time. So in the same day I was alternatively his beautiful girlfriend, the ‘prodigy’ young academic which he boasted with his family, and the ‘ugly’, ‘loud’, ’embarrassing’ person that he was ashamed to hang around with in public. I was both, all the time – only at the very end, when realising I was breaking away for good, I ended up being just the latter. Beyond multiple violent threats, the last messages all related to me being physically ugly, just a few days after his last display of love for me, ‘his beautiful woman’ again. They alternate the two – one moment you’re awesome, one moment you’re the ’embarrassing’ individual that they are ashamed to be with. Combine this with point one on vulnerability, and you have the perfect power dynamics of emotional abuse. That was my relationship.

Third, there is a point on their strategic use of insults and accusations. Like I said, I am for a broad definition of gaslighting – one that includes manipulation of perception at large, not only of mental sanity – and as discussed with my counsellor earlier this week, my altered perception of the world is one of the deepest consequences of PTSD. There are many elements to it – fear, nightmares, panic attacks that luckily have diminished now – but in everyday life, alteration of perception is still the main problem. So I blame myself for things I’m not guilty of, doubt my physical appearance, apologise if I speak about something I don’t know enough about (that was one of his favourite accusations: ‘you keep talking about things you don’t know’, ‘you should shut your mouth’). Ok, I do it less now that almost one year has passed, but I still do so. Because gaslighting, beyond manipulation of perception of mental sanity, affects perception of yourself in everything you do.

Fourth, how they play the mental insanity card. Mine did it a lot, I know other abusers do too – again on top of being ‘ugly’, ‘stupid’, ’embarrassing’ etc, I was also ‘insane’. In fact later in the relationship, the ‘insane’ card became his favourite (along with the ‘ugly’ one) because it was strategic (although friends say, perhaps hard for him to use the ‘stupid’ card on someone who became university lecturer at 29). Again he was not exactly an intellectual, but I have to say he was strategically very good: by driving me insane with a daily life of abuses, he actually convinced me that I was. At a point I started seeking psychological help because of that – not because of the abuse, but because I thought something was effectively wrong with my mental health. And by playing the insanity card strategically, he won all the rounds. Till much later.

Fifth, the most important of all. The blame. Still to this day, I hear his voice blaming me for things and still to this day, as I know from common acquaintances, he blames me for what he did. A bit extreme to do it now, but I just can’t be surprised: the blame was on me all the time, whatever happened and whatever I or he did. I was guilty for ‘talking too much’, for wearing that crop top, for being ‘too friendly’ with other men. I was guilty for driving him insane (really). Later, I was guilty for telling everything to my parents (‘all my fault’ for telling them) and at the very end, I was guilty for telling the story to personal acquaintances, as he found out by getting into my email and reading my inbox. It was always, always me to blame. And that is the real essence of gaslighting, because all the time, I believed him. Only at the end, thanks to someone very special and to the many friends who realised what was going on, have I managed to recall my strength and run away. It took me 15 months to do so.

Gaslighting is manipulation beyond perceptions of mental sanity, it is a wider strategy where blame is a key tactic. Abusers know exactly what they are doing – do not, for a second, believe the ‘mentally challenged’ image of them that is promoted. They are skilled and great, exceptional strategists. All they do is to the final end of consolidating their power against you, and it is that cage of subordination that we break when finally running away.

How it all started

I figured it could be good to provide some context to my story, albeit this blog will be a collection of stories from my experience of abuse and post-traumatic stress rather than a chronology of the events. The fact is that the more I talk to fellow survivors about our experiences, the more I am amazed by the similarities among them. It is just a long, long series of striking similarities: the way our abusers behaved, the things they told us, the way they phrased their insults and threats. So similar that you can almost predict them, so patterned that it leaves me baffled.

My story started like so many others, in fact all our stories seem to begin in the same way. In April 2017 when it all began, I didn’t fall in love with an abusive man. I fell in love with a fun, attractive, entrepreneurial person, who already was a personal acquaintance and was caring, sensitive and sweet. We used to do things together, travel to see each other, talk till the early morning eating popcorn. We live in different countries and weekends meant the joy of being together, I eagerly waited the end of teaching to have time to spend with him. He was a loving person and I felt over the moon, like someone could completely understand me and dedicate so much to our love and happiness.

I know now, many months later, that all the signs of abuse were already there in those early days, only (like many other victims) I was unable to see them. They were all there for me to spot and, if I was trained to do so or aware of what was happening, I would at least been equipped to make an informed decision, and choose what to do with the situation that was developing around me. A concerned friend came to talk to me about how weird my new boyfriend had been in a previous relationship, but I dismissed that as abusive behaviour on the side of his ex partner, as my man had told me during our long conversations. I believed every single word he said, seeing no reason not to do so.

What were the early signs of abuse?

First an unnatural, aggressive jealousy. I put it down to insecurity and then quickly blamed it on myself, perhaps I wasn’t behaving appropriately when in public with him. Perhaps it was me being too friendly to other people? After all, there was no other explanation for being insulted every time someone showed attention towards me. When I confronted him about that, he cried and told me the fault was his ex partner’s, who made him so insecure of himself and his appeal on people. I believed him. I believed him all the time.

Second his controlling, monitoring behaviour. It was not ok to see my ex for lunch, it was not ok to wear a short top. Sometimes, more and more frequently as weeks passed and my emotional dependence increased, he told me about ‘wrong things’ I had done just after they happened: my top was too low-cut, I had been to friendly to that guy. He made sure he told me afterwards, so there was no way I could fix that. And he therefore had all the right to be angry, and drink more (see point 3). Of course like the above, I believed every word. And blamed myself all the time. That was his whole purpose.

Third, well. My ex partner is an alcoholic with a serious dependency. Unable to see things as I was, I managed not to realise – at first it was fun to go home with a bottle of whisky, we are all allowed some tiny transgression sometime. But the frequency of his drunken conditions should have raised at least a tiny bell, and no – it didn’t. It didn’t for many months, till I realised and asked other people for help. But then, it was too late for me to see.

Our stories, our abuse narratives all start in the same way. The loving, caring partner who then showed his real nature, when emotional dependency was already there and little could be done to save us. In my case, the unconscious phase – in which I believed everything was normal, and there was nothing to worry about – lasted about four months. August and September already presented episodes of clear abuse, which I will tell in a future post. The first months were just love and unawareness, finally I had found someone who really understood me.

Probably even if I knew it, even if I was trained to see the signs of abuse, I would have fallen for the guy and in the trouble that followed. But at least, I would have known. And this mission, that of educating people to recognise the early signs of abuse, is one that fellow survivors have committed to – the amazing Sophia Cooke is a great example of dedication in doing so. It is a mission to which I now seek to contribute with all the strength I have, because the moment awareness starts, is the moment recovery begins. As long a process as it may be.

The Survivor’s Responsibility

I was very young when my mother, a historian who wrote about the persecution of minority groups during WW2, first told me that witnesses have the responsibility of carrying the memory of history. Who listens to a witness, she said, becomes a witness too, and is invested with the responsibility of preserving the historic memory of atrocities by telling others. So that, in an ideal world, such atrocities are remembered and ideally, just ideally, they are prevented from happening again.

I was nine years old when mom told me so, on the way back from an afternoon spent listening to witnesses who survived the Holocaust in the 1940s. Little did I know that those words, that responsibility of witnesses and survivors, would acquire such poignant new meaning in my adult existence.

I have a normal life, a career, a job I love. I look like a successful 32-year-old and the scars I bear inside are hidden, they do not emerge in normal occasions. Unfortunately between mid-2017 and 2018, while in the second year of probation in my current academic post, I suffered an abusive relationship which has totally changed my perception of myself and the world around me. Normalisation of psychological violence, self-blaming, and more perverse dynamics have led the situation to drag for much longer than it would have for a normal individual, for someone who would not develop an emotional dependency on the abuser leading to protract a situation of violence and oppression for many painful months.

Dragging on since mid-2017, my situation got particularly serious in 2018, with a set of more and more serious violations leading to a final incident on 16 July. My story differs from that of many victims in that after that incident, I have been (mostly) safe. Thanks to the intervention of my family and lawyer, my abuser has ceased his actions and I have been able to start recovering, slowly but steadily.

I am aware survival is a privilege, and I have no intention to waste the gift of being still alive after what happened. Every year, thousands of women fall victim of femicide by abusive partners, and being alive – having managed to run away before his numerous threats became real – means the responsibility of telling the story, of telling other possibly vulnerable subjects what abuse looks like and how to spot its early signs. Inspired by fellow survivors, and aware of my limitations dictated by anonymity (no disclosure of real names can happen before the trial against my abuser) and by the pain that memory brings, I am opening this blog today as a space to recall, to tell the world the reality of emotional violence and the day-to-day life of a survivor struggling with serious post-traumatic stress. It is a responsibility rather than a choice, and I have the intention to pursue it to the fullest.

Recalling abuse is horrible, it means feeling it in your veins like the first day, like the first time he started yelling at you without a reason, like the first time he blamed you for being wrong. Like the first abusive text, the first sleepless night, the first violent threat after a stream of insults. But it is a a moral duty that I set to pursue for all the women who didn’t survive, and whose voices live in the voice of us survivors. And for all those potential victims that can still be saved. Because being a survivor, rather than a gift, is a huge responsibility for all of us.

Chrysalis, because after abuse you can fly again, live again. Because even if I forget it, every time post-traumatic stress strikes hard and the reasons for living are forgotten, the responsibility of survival kicks in as the main one.

Chrysalis, my blog from today. Not for me, but for all the fellow victims whose lost voice needs ours, and for those we can save.