After The Escape: The Long Lasting Effects of an Abusive Relationship
WARNING: VERY FOUL AND VERY OFFENSIVE LANGUAGE, POSSIBLE TRIGGERS.
I woke up this morning and rushed down the stairs and into the bathroom to shower for the day. The night before I had spent the day deep cleaning the entire kitchen and finished off the night by spraying some hardcore oven cleaner into the oven, so I wanted to get that cleaned up before I started anything else.
When I was just about done with my shower, I heard the creaking of the floorboards upstairs letting me know my boyfriend was awake. I slowly turned the water off and took a breath. I listened. Maybe he just rolled over and wasn’t actually up yet.
I hustled out of the shower to dry off, get my hair up and makeup on. It felt like a thousand bricks piling up into my stomach when I heard that he actually was out of bed and starting down the stairs. My heart started to race and I could just tell by the way he descended the stairs and started ripping open cabinets that today was not going to be a good day. I tried to get my makeup done as quickly and quietly as possible, as if the sound of my makeup moving around in the bathroom was going to change what was about to ensue.
That’s when I heard it. The open and slam of the oven door. The oven I hadn’t yet cleaned out.
He came barreling over to the bathroom door and tried ripping it open. It was locked.
“DUDE,” he screamed from behind the door. “OPEN THE FUCKING DOOR.”
I tried to choke down the bile rising in my throat as my shaky hand unlocked it.
“It’s unlocked,” my voice squeaked.
“I’M SICK AND TIRED OF ALWAYS BEING THE ONE TO CLEAN THIS FUCKING PLACE UP. THE GOD DAMN OVEN IS DISGUSTING. DO YOU KNOW HOW MUCH WORK I HAVE TO DO TODAY? I DON’T HAVE TIME FOR THIS SHIT! YOU’RE FUCKING USELESS!” he screamed in my face.
I couldn’t help the tears that flooded into my eyes as his dark, angry ones stared down at me.
“I was just showering! I was going to do it!”
“YEAH FUCKING RIGHT. IT’S ALWAYS ME. WHO THE FUCK TOOK THE GARBAGE OUT LAST NIGHT? DO YOU EVER EVEN TAKE OUT THE GARBAGE?”
“What are you even talking about?”
“AND I GUESS I’LL DO THE LAUNDRY … AGAIN! DO YOU EVEN PAY FOR THE LAUNDRY DETERGENT IN THIS HOUSE? FUCKING PRINCESS. SITS ON HER FUCKING THRONE AND GETS WHATEVER THE FUCK SHE WANTS. JESUS CHRIST AND YOU THINK I’LL MARRY SOMEONE LIKE YOU? YOU’RE FUCKING INSANE!”
His arguments and lash outs always came out of left field, never knowing where they were coming from or what fueled them to begin with, but I grabbed my basket of toiletries and put them in their place before running into the kitchen and to the oven to start working on it.
He continued to berate me as I wept, struggling to catch a breath behind my tears, running nose and the fumes from the oven cleaner. I scrubbed and I scrubbed and I scrubbed hoping that the movements would tune out the validations he screamed at me. That I sucked. That I wasn’t worth loving or marrying. That I couldn’t even clean fast enough to make a man happy. That nothing I did ever would or could make him happy.
“NO WONDER YOUR EX CHEATED ON YOU, YOU FUCKING SUCK.”
The first time I realized I struggled from PTSD after living in that relationship for four years was only just last year – four years after that relationship.
I was once again in the bathroom. This time in California, at the home of my current boyfriend. I had just gotten out of the shower and was listening to music on my phone while I got ready for our day. When I recognized that the banging I was hearing was not coming from the effects within my music, but from outside the bathroom, I quickly pushed pause. My heart started to hammer. Was that an angry banging? Was my boyfriend pissed and hitting something? What was happening? Then I heard, “BRITT!” And wanted to throw up. I stared at the handle on the door and waited for it to start to jingle as he tried to get in and scream at me for playing my music too loud or not picking up my glass of water from the coffee table.
I tiptoed over to the door and whispered, “yeah?” I waited, petrified.
“I just wanted to let you know I’m jumping on a video call for work quickly. Just so you didn’t come out in a towel.” He laughed. “Do you need anything?”
I couldn’t formulate words for a moment as I brought myself back to that present moment. I wasn’t at my ex’s old house. I wasn’t being abused or mistreated. I was with my current boyfriend. In California. Safe.
“Oh okay!” I said as happily as I could. “I’m all set, thanks!”
When I heard him walk away, I sat down on the floor and I cried. What had just happened?
It happened again only a few short weeks later.
We were planning a trip to Washington to visit with some friends. My friend texted me and asked what time we would be arriving as we’d be traveling by car from one of my boyfriends friends and we had no definitive time schedule. Normally that text would come off as entirely normal, nothing to get worked up about. But for me, it sent me into a tailspin.
That meant I had to message my boyfriend, the person I was dating, and ask him what time he thinks we would be arriving. And that was a no-no. At least it used to be.
I wasn’t allowed to ask my ex for information on plans, let alone try to make them. Because whenever I did I was screamed at.
“THE WEEKEND IS MY TIME TO RELAX. I WORK 40 HOURS A WEEK AT A STRESSFUL JOB. CAN’T YOU SEE THAT? YOU DON’T GET IT. I NEED TO BE ABLE TO RELAX, NOT TAKE YOU OUT LIKE SOME PRINCESS ALL THE TIME.”
In fact, whenever my friends asked me what my boyfriend and I were doing that weekend (or whenever) I got so accustom to coming up with lies and excuses about having things to do, that making plans became foreign to me. The irony of it all is that my ex often would either ask me “what my problem is” and why we never did anything on the weekend once it would come, or he would go out with his friends and drink until 2 in the morning. My nights and weekends, however, were spent alone, crying, in a dark living room and fantasizing about a day that I was no longer living in fear. Fear of staying and fear of going. I just wanted happiness.
(Flashback to when I did go out with a friend for happy hour, I’d often come home to him saying things like, “YOU NEVER WANT TO GO OUT WITH ME! Did you have a good time dyking it out with your friend? You fucking cunt, probably eating each other out the whole time. I mean you must be because you never have SEX WITH ME!” An hour later … “You’re so beautiful. I missed you so much. I love you so much. I wish we hung out more. Let’s go have a drink. Just you and me. I love you, honey.”)
You see, what my ex is a master of is called Gaslighting (Find out more about it here: https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/here-there-and-everywhere/201701/11-warning-signs-gaslighting). It is a term recently coined in the world of psychology as a form of manipulation and mental/emotional abuse in relationships. And it is dangerous.
You see, those who gaslight us do things to keep us under their thumb. They tell us things we want to hear in one sentence, and in another they confuse and weaken us. They tell us we are crazy and make us think that we actually are insane – that the things they have done to us and said to us aren’t real, that they never happened. We’re imagining things. They take all of the things wrong with themselves and make us feel as if we have those problems.
To make things even more exciting, my ex is a narcissist. He could do no wrong. He was God’s gift. And everyone owed him something. The moment his ego felt the slightest bit deflated, he would lash out, smash things, including much of my personal belongings. It was not uncommon for us to be driving in his car, while he went ape shit on me, and smashed his rearview mirror right off of the car. Of course, it was my fault, for causing him to get so angry. Everything was my fault. “I was supposed to make his life better, and I do nothing but ruin it. Why do you do this to me? WHY? I DO NOTHING BUT TREAT YOU LIKE A QUEEN!” he’d exclaim while guzzling down another beer.
I remember one night we fought all night because I was sick and had been lying on the couch all day. I could barely get up. This was a problem because it meant I wasn’t able to cook or clean. It meant I was lazy. I slept on the couch, he went out with friends. That morning I woke up and crawled to the bathroom – literally crawled. I was curled around the toilet, lying on the floor. The dreaded sound of him waking up alerted me and sent my heart rate sky high, but I couldn’t do much about it being so sick. He opened the bathroom door, stood over me, and pissed. He did not say hello. He did not ask me if I was okay. I don’t even think he looked at me while he dribbled piss onto my body and then walked out.
People who know the truth about what happened now (because I kept it a secret through the relationship. I couldn’t bring myself to admit the truth) why on earth I’d ever stay. That’s a loaded question. And one that isn’t really fair to ask someone who is the victim of abuse. As I said, gaslighting is dangerous. It keeps the victim right where they want them. Within their control. You’re no good, so you might as well stay. No one else will love you, and no one else will treat you the way I did. This is royalty. So unless you want worse, then you’ll endure it.
They’re so good at what they do – that no matter how smart you are, how strong you are, how much of a bitch you are, you still believe it. Until that fateful day that you don’t. And you escape it.
You’d think that escaping it meant you were done forever.
I did, too.
Until four years later, four years of self-love and so much work on myself and getting myself into the happiest place I have ever, ever imagined being, I was sitting in that bathroom and couldn’t tell the difference between my amazing boyfriend and the ex who showed me hell.
It took me awhile to be able to write this because I thought for some reason that by admitting all of this I was giving him power. I was letting him know that he still ruled my life, even though he doesn’t. My ego stopped me from wanting to speak out. But now, I’m writing this because I need you to know that even a self-aware therapist who devotes her life to healing others and herself can still struggle with the effects of an abusive relationship.
I’m writing this because you need to know that you’re healing from this is critical. That you can’t endure it alone and you also do not have to.
There are steps you can take.
And the first is to talk about it.
You need to talk about what you went through. You need to listen to yourself say the words, to express what happened, and to recognize that what you went through was not your fault and that it was your ex’s intention to make you believe that what he or she did was okay.
Learn your triggers.
Talk even more about it.
Know that no matter how much you distance yourself from them, no matter how much time goes by, it doesn’t make you weak or mean you’re backtracking on all of your growth to feel those effects still.
And one of the most important reasons I’m writing this is because if you do intend to date again, be sure that this is something you discuss with your partner.
The other day my boyfriend sent me a text message. The way I read it, I read it in the voice of my ex. I felt my heart in my throat. I felt shame. I felt scared. I felt angry. The only thing I could respond at the time was, “ew, dick!”
I didn’t say anything to him all day. And we usually talk throughout the day.
He didn’t say anything either. Just like my ex would do to me.
As the hours ticked away until the time I left work to go home, my anxiety increased. I cried in the car, petrified to go home and listen to him scream at me. Nervous that he wouldn’t actually be there and that he went out drinking to meet other girls and lie about it, despite the proof I’d have.
I pulled in and saw his car, now even more frightened because I had to face him. I slowly opened the door and he said, “HI TOOTS HOW WAS YOUR DAY?!” Just like he always does. He wasn’t angry. He wasn’t ready to attack me. He wasn’t anything but himself. He wasn’t my ex.
I couldn’t talk to him for about 20 minutes. I stood in the kitchen trying not to cry.
I couldn’t look at him.
I finally went into the living room and sat down. He asked me what was wrong and I just started to cry.
I didn’t want to tell him what I was going through because what if he takes it as he’s not allowed to get angry or mad or snarky with me because I have issues? But I realized that thought process was also my own belief.
So I told him what my experience that day was like. And like the empathetic, kind person he was, he apologized that I was going through that. I told him it wasn’t fair that he had to be subject to my trigger responses if it some points I felt like he was my ex. He said it wasn’t fair that I had to go through what I did.
And just like that, I felt normal again. I didn’t feel like I was back in that dark place, trapped with a person whom I always had to fear whether or not they were in a good mood or a bad mood that day or what would set them off.
My point is – if you plan to be in a relationship after an abusive one, you need to tell your partner. Tell them so they know what your triggers are. Tell them so they know what you’ve ben through. Tell them so you can talk about it and they can reassure you that they are not your ex.
You see, at this point you’ve been conditioned to believe that what they put you through was normal. That that was how people acted. And you learned coping mechanisms. Those coping mechanisms become automatic after dealing with it for a period of time. Now you need to re-condition; unlearn that normal and learn a new normal. Recognize that those coping mechanisms and automatic responses are no longer necessary because (hopefully) you don’t have to worry about your new significant other hauling off and smashing something, including you, or worry about asking them what they want to do for the holidays. (Last year was the first year I didn’t get overwhelming anxiety as the holidays approached because I knew I didn’t have to worry about being yelled at because the holidays were exhausting and he didn’t want to go to my families house).
Emotional and mental abuse is a very real thing that anyone can be going through. In fact 35% of women have experienced emotional and mental abuse (Springtide Resources, 2000). It can have life long psychological effects on you and is just as daunting and horrifying as physical abuse. It is something that needs to be taken VERY seriously by friends, family, and most importantly, the victim. The presence of emotional and mental abuse is the highest risk indicator of physical abuse, as well.
If you are someone who is experiencing or has experienced abuse in your relationship, please reach out to me, or another individual who can help you. I cannot repeat enough you are not alone in this. Again, you are not alone in this. Even if you just fear that someone could be gaslighting you or showing signs of being abusive, it doesn’t hurt to reach out.
I wanted to share my story because I don’t feel like enough women realize how many people go through this, but also how many continue to be effected by it, long after it’s over. Many times, there can still be healing that needs to occur. Additionally, your future relationships shouldn't have to struggle because of the past. I'm glad I felt myself shutting down around my boyfriend in certain situations because it showed me that I had more work to do, and thankfully, am able to do it with him as a support system.
I’ll be offering a support group for women who have been in and/or are just getting out of abusive relationships, so if you’re interested, please reach out to me as the more interest for this I have, the sooner I can get it up and running and the sooner we can get help for those of you who need it.
I’m here for you.
Springtide Resources. (2000). Emotional abuse of women by male partners. Retrieved from http://www.springtideresources.org/resource/emotional-abuse-women-male-partners-facts