Content warning: This essay discusses emotional abuse, depression and anxiety. There are mentions of self-harm, negative body image, physical assault and sexual assault.
I’m not very good at processing events that happen to me, or the emotions that come with it. Instead I just binge watch TV series and project myself and my emotions onto the characters, and deal with my trauma through that. It’s probably why I hate Dean in Gilmore Girls so much. I’ve been rewatching Grey’s Anatomy recently and there’s a scene where a few months after one of the character’s husband dies, she goes to a grief group. The leader tells her that at some point during the day, she needs to take the time to say to herself “I’m a widow”; something about accepting the label being an important part of processing the grief. The character laughs at it, but cut to a scene after a patient loses his wife unexpectedly later in the episode and she’s crying in front of the mirror. “I’m a widow”.
I am not a widow. I am an abuse survivor. It has been three years since that relationship ended, yet I am not always comfortable with that term. I’m wary of claiming that I survived abuse, even though I know I did. My ex never sexually assaulted me, nor did he ever hit me – although he nearly did once. I don’t doubt that had I stayed, the abuse would have escalated. However, the abuse was entirely emotional, and in my head I feel like that doesn’t qualify. To a lot of people, that also means I don’t qualify either.
I was in a really bad place when I met him. I had been diagnosed with anxiety and depression six months previously; four weeks prior to meeting him my first serious relationship broke down. We had loved each other, but both of us were going through mental health problems and couldn’t be there for each other in the ways that we needed. Naturally, I internalised this – if only I hadn’t been mentally ill, I could have been a better girlfriend, I could have supported my partner more, the break up was my fault. I was absolutely full of self-loathing. I was still new to being mentally ill and didn’t know how to manage my illnesses; I was even newer to being alone. I met him – H – on Tinder of all places. I recognised his face from Instagram; I swiped right. The most modern of romances. A week later we went for our first date, closely followed by a second and a third.
Initially, everything was wonderful. H seemed funny, interesting, kind, charming and sweet. What’s more, he seemed to really care about me. He went above and beyond to show it to me; he would always make sure to buy my favourite food in for breakfast and make me breakfast in bed whenever I stayed over. We would go into town and he would make a habit of noticing the things I was looking at and buying them for me. Depression meant that I struggled to get up in the mornings; he memorised my timetable and would ring me on mornings when I had early lectures to make sure I made them. He saved as many cute animal photos to his phone as the memory would allow, ready to send them whenever I mentioned I was having a bad day.
There were a few warning signs; like when he slipped into conversation that his favourite term of endearment for women was “bitch”. Or that on our first date I turned up in a pair of Converse and one of his first comments was “Who the hell even wears Converse these days anyway?”. Or that when we talked about exes, he called all of his ‘psychos’ and laughed that one of them had to break up with him six times before he got the message. Had my mental health not been what it was, I like to think I would have recognised these for what they were. Instead, it was easy to turn a blind eye and to laugh them off as little quirks. I threw myself into the relationship. It was much easier to lose myself in somebody else than it was to attempt to confront my own mental health problems. At a point in my life where I was struggling to take care of myself, here was somebody who seemed willing to put so much effort into taking care of me. I lapped it up.
Little quirks soon turned into huge, glaring arguments. The first one that I can truly remember is where we were talking on the phone one evening and I was telling him that I had cut my hair that day. He asked me why the hell I would do that, snapping at me that I “wouldn’t look like the kind of girl he wanted to be with”. I was taken aback and hung up the phone. He called constantly; I asked for space. He turned up at my door in tears the next morning and told me what an awful person he was and that he was sorry, that he didn’t deserve me and would do whatever it took to make things right. This became a familiar pattern; he did something hurtful and would make a grand gesture of apology that ended with me having to comfort him, despite him being the one to have hurt me. I didn’t see it for that at the time; I saw it as him showing how much he cared about me. I believed that we only argued because he loved me so much, and I was secretly thrilled that somebody could seemingly care so deeply about me.
For a long time, I believed that he wasn’t doing it intentionally. I look back now and realise that every time I confided in him about my insecurities, he would go on to purposefully use them against me. This was no accident on his part. My mind, twisted through mental illness and his manipulation, believed he deserved somebody better. Somebody better looking, somebody thinner, somebody cooler, somebody smarter, somebody less mentally ill. Somebody less me. We would walk through town and he would point out girls that looked nothing like me, and comment “That’s the kind of person I can see myself settling down with”. My appearance became a point of contention – tattoos were a huge part of reconciling my body image issues, but he wouldn’t speak to me if I got a new one without his explicit permission. If I was buying new clothes, I had to send him photos before I was allowed to buy them. One time, I bought myself a new pair of jeans, already embarrassed that I had had to size up. He put the jeans on himself, and took pleasure in pointing out how big they were on him. I was nervous about collecting my final year results – I had a panic attack in one of my exams, and hadn’t even answered one of the main essay questions. I scored 55 in this. Despite having done better than expected in every other exam and averaging a 2:1 overall, the first thing he said to me was “55? That’s shit – I’d be mortified if I had got 55% in an exam!”. We had a blazing row in front of all of the people on my course. He said maybe I would be better off without him; in anger I agreed. He couldn’t believe I would say such a thing; I spent the rest of the day comforting his hurt and ignoring mine. I was offered a scholarship for a masters and a PhD. The masters was in Business – way out of my comfort zone - and I told him that I was worried I wouldn’t be able to pass it, but I was determined to work hard. He told me that he had taken GCSE Business, so knew that I wouldn’t be any good at it. I was lazy, and I wasn’t ‘business minded’. I believed it. I talked about my previous relationship with him, and told him that my ex had once said to me that as a result of my mental illness, I was no longer the girl he fell in love with. I told H how much this had hurt me. A few weeks later, during an argument, those exact words flew out of his mouth. I believed them. Another time we argued and he made me feel so terrible about myself that for the only time in my life, I self-harmed. His response to this was to punch the wall right next to my head. He spoke about my self-harm to his friend, and took delight in repeating back to me that his friend thought I was completely crazy, I deserved to be locked up, that H deserved better and he was such a good partner just for staying with me – nobody else would. I believed it.
Of course, I wasn’t attractive enough. Of course, I was too fat. Of course, I wasn’t smart enough. Of course, I was too mentally ill. Of course, I wasn’t a good enough girlfriend. These were all things I believed about myself anyway - he just gave external validation to them. He wasn’t mentally ill, whereas I was ‘crazy’ - obviously, I would give more weight to his perspective to my own. The rare times I would speak up for myself and voice any of my problems with the relationship, he would convincingly twist it back round to why these problems were all my fault. His constant gaslighting had meant that I didn’t trust my own perception of reality nor of the relationship, and his was so convincing that I accepted it without further question. I remembered how good everything had seemed in the beginning, and attributed all of the problems since to being my fault. I vowed to work harder; if I could just make myself better, make myself smaller, make myself quieter, we could be happy again. After every argument we would have a honeymoon period where things would be good and I would be on a complete high. I was reminded of why we were together, why shrinking myself down to becoming his ideal girlfriend was worth it. It never lasted. He began to lose his temper with me more frequently and for more trivial reasons. I stopped having opinions. I did everything he said and tried to become everything he wanted; every argument we had added to the list of things that it was easier for me stop doing than to deal with the consequences.
It was a relatively benign thing that made me realise I needed to end the relationship. I had just moved into a new flat, and I purchased some green plates. H saw them and flew off the handle – green wouldn’t match the white plates he already owned. He couldn’t believe how inconsiderate I was to not to take him and his OCD into account when deciding what plates to buy. He couldn’t believe I had been so selfish – he told me that I was always at the centre of any and every decision he made, but I never thought about him. We didn’t even live together, and he didn’t have OCD. My choice in plates would have no influence on his life. It’s almost funny to look back on, as are half of the inconsequential things he would lose his temper over. It’s also terrifying that somebody could react so strongly to such minor things. It was like a light had started to flicker on in my head. I realised that we weren’t arguing about plates. We were arguing because he had to be in control of my behaviour at all times. I realised I could never win. The goalposts would keep changing. I would never be able to shrink myself enough.
It wasn’t immediate, but it was like slowly regaining consciousness. Two weeks later I wrote down a list of every reason why we needed to break up – I knew that when I eventually tried to break up with him, he would try to manipulate me into staying. The big apologies, the grand gestures, the gaslighting. I needed a script to stick to. I phoned him and ended the relationship. It wasn’t an easy break; I expected relief, but none came. My entire existence had been centred on moulding myself to fit another person; all I felt was guilt, fear, doubt and sadness. He poured his heart out on social media, telling the world how heartbroken he was, how he wished he could do differently, how all this was a mistake. He manipulated the narrative of our relationship once more. I read through comment after comment from his followers about how I wasn’t worth it, how I had never been good enough for him anyway, how I was a bitch for what I had done. I wondered if this was true. He would call or text me at every available opportunity – we were good for each other, he would do better, he loved me, this was what love was meant to be like. I nearly got sucked back in; I understood why his ‘psycho’ ex had to break up with him so many times. Soon his messages turned more spiteful. Guised under the pretence of friendship, he would tell me about the girls he was hanging out with - how they had better hair than me, how their cats were cuter than mine. He tracked down my private blog and took very specific screenshots to show to these girls, to turn them against me even though I had never said a bad word about them, only him. My inbox filled with messages from his newest victims; to them, I was the crazy ex-girlfriend. I lost my temper and sent him a long text detailing exactly how emotionally abusive he had been, how he had preyed on me when I was vulnerable and used my mental illness as a way to control and manipulate me. I never received a reply.
I don’t know how to end this story. I want to be able to say that I am doing better than ever, and that I am carrying out my revenge by living well. In some ways, this is true. I got a distinction on the masters he didn’t think I would be any good at and finished in the top 5% of my class. I have successfully completed two years of my PhD, and if all goes to plan this time next year I will be a Dr. I wear outfits he would have scolded me for with pride. I am covered in tattoos he would hate. My cupboards are filled with green plates. My social circle is exclusively filled with people who only encourage and support me. I have a better relationship with my body image than I ever have done. I have in no way recovered from my mental illnesses, but I am better at managing them and attempting to have an existence that isn’t entirely controlled by them. I shout about the relationship as loudly as possible to anybody who will listen because I refuse to let him silence me anymore than he already did. I have been in two relationships since him, and while they have not worked out, their ending was not my fault. Many people tell me that I am strong.
I do not feel strong. I feel fragile and like I might break at any moment. I am still learning how to process and deal with the trauma that comes with an emotionally abusive relationship. Much like with mental illnesses, the recovery from an emotionally abusive relationship is not a linear process. I can go stretches of time relatively unaffected, other times it’s as real as it was the day he punched the wall. I hear the word ‘bitch’ in passing and suddenly I am stood in his shower with a razor blade again. I see a picture of him and I can not breathe. Most days I am simply exhausted by the effort it takes to convince myself that my perception of reality is true. That I am not any of the things he so convincingly made me believe I was. For the first year after the relationship ended, I was so heartbreakingly sad that somebody who was meant to love me could treat me like that. Sadness has merged into anger. The further I have got out of that relationship the more I realise how abusive it was and the more angry I am at the way I was treated.
I am angry that he still gets to exist in this world unscathed while I have had to claw some semblance of a life and a personality back together from nothing. I’m angry that my overwhelming memory of relationships is of being constantly afraid of my own partner and their reactions; of having a panic attack every time my phone rang and his name flashed up. I am angry that I am still a complete pushover in all of my interpersonal relationships, because I am so desperately terrified of conflict. I’m angry that he will never have to be held accountable for his actions, and that if I stop talking about what he put me through then there is no evidence it ever happened. I’m angry that what he did to me impacts every single relationship I have had since - be it platonic or romantic. I am angry that I can’t trust other people. I’m angry that if I hear a man raise his voice near me, I burst into tears because I have seen how this can end. I am angry that I can’t trust my own feelings or perceptions of reality. I am angry that because of this, I still find myself questioning whether it all ever even happened in the first place. I am angry that because of him, my initial reaction to anything is fear and distrust. I am angry that he took so much from me while giving so little in return. I am angry that he is allowed to carry on abusing women. I am angry that people can – and do – choose not to believe me. I am angry that people choose to turn a blind eye and continue to interact with him. I am angry that to this day he will not believe he did anything wrong. I am angry that to him I am another one of the ‘psycho’ exes he will laugh about with his next girlfriend, and I am angry that he is so convincingly able to play the victim. I am angry that I am still angry with him and that I can’t simply continue my life in peace. I am exhausted by my anger, but also proud of it. He never allowed me to be angry.
There’s another Greys scene, where Cristina is talking about her relationship with Burke. “He took something from me. He took little pieces of me, little pieces over time, so small I didn't even notice, you know? He wanted me to be something I wasn't, and I made myself into what he wanted.” I am still learning how to put those pieces back together. I am still learning how to make myself into what I want. I am an abuse survivor.