Friday 26 June 2020

What It Feels Like To Be Emotionally Abused

I don’t normally watch the TV ‘soapies’, but a storyline on one of them caught my eye recently. It’s about an older woman who’s been emotionally and verbally abused by her husband to the point where she breaks and lashes out at him with a wine bottle. At the point of writing this, she’s in jail, awaiting trial for attempted murder – and viewing herself as a ‘bad’ person who deserves punishment. The other characters on the soapie have mostly turned against her, as even before the wine bottle incident, he had quite expertly cast himself as the ‘victim’, and her as various bad things. Even the police don’t pick up on the clues.

As a survivor of emotional abuse myself, I find it too painful to watch, though of course I’m hoping the truth will eventually emerge. But I don’t have much hope of it, as it can be really hard for anyone who hasn’t been through this to understand what it’s like. While my situation never got as far as wine bottles, it nonetheless nearly destroyed me. So I want to explain something of what it feels like to be the recipient of emotional and verbal abuse.

The first thing that needs to be understood is that it’s essentially a betrayal. I’m not talking about sexual betrayal here, but a betrayal of the very trust that should exist between partners. When you enter into a relationship, there’s a basic assumption that they will deal with you fairly and honestly, that they truly care for you and that anything they tell you is the truth. So when they start telling you that you’re this or that Bad Thing, that you’re no good at this or that, you believe them. They must be telling you this For Your Own Good, right? Or at least that’s what they tell you, and they love you, so it must be true, right? Overwhelmed by this flood of new ‘information’ about yourself, you lose all sense of who you were before in the struggle to correct your ‘faults’, to become what they’re telling you that you ‘should’ be.

It's especially easy for them if you already have low self-esteem and are inclined to believe the worst about yourself. (Abusers hone in on such vulnerable people, of course.) Add in being autistic (as in my case), even if you don’t know it at the time, but do know that you have trouble ‘reading between the lines’ and making good judgements about yourself and others, and you’re primed to believe that they are seeing something you can’t, even if it doesn’t ‘feel right’. Under a relentless barrage of criticism, you cave. They must be right, you must be bad, bad, bad. Having been reduced to a state of helpless abasement, you don’t find much to admire in yourself anyway.

Their attitude that they’re positively saintly for putting up with you, that nobody else would, means that over time, you come to believe that others must have seen these faults too, but been too polite to tell you. You become ashamed, not wanting to inflict your flawed self on anyone else, and will probably seem withdrawn and anti-social to others. Thus it’s easy for your partner to cast your actions or words in the worst light to others in turn, subtly running you down, and further isolating you. With no other opinions to compare your partner’s to, your judgement becomes skewed, and you continue to believe the worst. I eventually came to see myself as worthless, as a partner, as a mother, as a friend, and quite possibly even as a human being.

Many people seem to think that verbal and emotional abuse is ‘not as bad’ as physical abuse. “It’s just words.” Even the victim/survivor may think this, or be reluctant to reveal it, or even to see it as abuse. Those harsh words can actually often go hand-in-hand with physical violence, but even without a blow struck, they can be devastating. Without wanting to minimise the hurt from physical abuse at all, damage from a broken limb can heal faster than damage from a broken heart. Because that’s what abusers do to you. They break you. They shatter your heart, your psyche, your very sense of self, your will. I would say they reshape you to their liking – but you’re never to their liking. They’re never satisfied, there’s always more criticism. Nothing about you is sacred.

Even after you scrape up enough shreds of self-esteem to get out of the relationship, it can take a long, long, long time to realise what’s happened to you, and what you’ve lost. To give just one small example, my partner had me convinced that I was hopeless as a ‘home handywoman’. If I even started to do a job around the house, she’d sigh impatiently, and snatch the tool off me with a contemptuous “oh, give it here!” Afterwards, it took me more than two years to remember that before her, I’d actually been moderately competent at doing stuff. Not as expert as her maybe, but I’d known what to do with a screwdriver or hammer, I’d rewired electric plugs, swapped a faulty cord on an iron, and even done up old furniture. But under the onslaught of her contempt, I’d forgotten all that. I’d forgotten the very idea of being competent – at anything.

And it can be an even longer time healing. Even now, more than twenty years later, I still find myself squirreling out damaged parts of my psyche. For instance, I still have to remind myself that if I do something that’s not ‘how others (deep down, I mean ‘her’) would do it’, it’s okay. No-one’s watching me, about to pounce and tear me apart for it, I don’t have to constantly defend my actions or words anymore. But despite my best attempts to dismantle it, the kneejerk fear-reaction is still entrenched in me, not to mention the belief that the way I do things is ‘wrong’, even if it feels right to me. That’s how deep the damage can go. This is a battle I’m still fighting. Even writing this has stirred up old, painful memories.

My wish is that people will come to understand that emotional and verbal abuse is just as devastating, just as emotionally destructive, as physical abuse. That it can wreck people, wreck their lives, wreck their relationships with others, even wreck their physical health, and leave them feeling, afterwards, like a piece of wreckage washed up on a beach, no good to themselves or anyone else.

Never underestimate the power of ‘mere words’.


Like a lot of people, I’ve been watching the Black Lives Matter protests. What strikes me every time I see the clip of that cop kneeling on George Floyd’s neck, is how little he’s worried about being on camera. He’s watching the bystanders, sure, but only, it seems to me, to judge whether they’re a further threat. Being videoed kneeling on someone’s neck till he dies? Nope, not a worry.

Why? Because cops like him have done this, and worse, to many black or brown people in the past, and gotten away with it. And I bet that he’s not even that worried now, because even in the rare cases where charges are laid, cops usually get acquitted, or a minor punishment. He’ll be expecting the same. It’s not over yet, not by a long shot.

Because pretty much everything done ‘in the line of duty’ has been excused or overlooked by complicit police administrations, passive civil authorities, and a judicial system reluctant to believe any wrongdoing on the part of police, even when confronted with glaring evidence of it. And so they  assume they can get away with practically anything.

The signs are there, for anyone to read. There’s some kind of corruption of spirit – there’s no other way to describe it –  at the very heart of policing. They see themselves as ‘heroes’ fighting against ‘wrongdoers’, who can be pretty much anyone else. (But especially black and brown people, I believe.) The result, of course, is that police themselves have now become an enemy to many.

This ethos is so pervasive, it’s even in fiction. Watch any cop TV show or movie, read any detective novel, a cop will lie or beat up someone at some point. Or the heroes-against-the-world thing will pop up. ‘It’s hard being a cop, no-one else understands’. Etc, etc, etc. And bear in mind that these shows are usually sympathetic to the police. Yet even there, the corruption has become the almost-unremarked-upon norm. (And before anyone says it, yes, I can tell fiction from fact. My point is that it’s so widespread in fact, it’s permeated into fiction.)

A note here – I went on my fair share of protests and demonstrations, back in the day. I’ve seen cops insult or verbally abuse people, threaten violence, commit it, do various dirty tricks, and even lie in court. There was a time in my life when if I saw a cop in the street I’d want to vomit and run away. So even though I’m whiter-than-white, I’m not surprised at all the videos that have emerged in recent years, though I am angry. I back BLM two hundred percent.

However – though I’m not wanting to divert the spotlight away from the Black Lives Matter movement at all – that is NOT my intention here – it’s worth noting that there is a deeper problem, an underlying pattern, which is not limited to the interaction of cops with black and brown people.

I was reminded of this recently when watching a documentary on Harvey Weinstein, and how he preyed on women for years. And he’s only one of the many, many authority figures – religious leaders, politicians, sports coaches, psychotherapists, entertainment top-dogs, etc, etc, who have long targeted the young and vulnerable of both sexes. And then there’s the abuse or even murder of autistics and disabled, by those who are supposed to be caring for them. Or the (mis)treatment of psychiatric patients, or the homeless… the list goes on. Practically anyone ‘different’ or ‘powerless’ can be, and frequently has been, a target.

In all these cases, those doing this harm do it because they can.

Because they’ve gotten away with it over and over again, for years, decades, even centuries.

Because they were in a position of unquestioned, unassailable, and unchallenged authority.

Because their victims were perceived as ‘lesser than’, ‘defective’, and/or just plain unimportant, not even worthy of life in some cases.

Because those who could have stopped them did nothing, in fact chances were they’d done it themselves, and thus it was ‘business as usual’.

Because even if their transgressions came to light, and complaints were made, the word of the powerful was always taken over the complainants.

Because even if a complaint was upheld, the transgressions were seen as minor/unimportant, or their actions were ‘justifiable use of power’.  

Because their victims were silenced in various ways – through threats, coercion, money, or just being ignored or ridiculed.

So it was okay for cops to beat up or kill black people, or for them to harass or beat up homeless people and destroy or take their belongings (and heaven help those who are black and homeless), for entertainment moguls to put aspiring actresses through the ‘casting couch’ ordeal, for priests to molest children and then simply be moved on to another parish, for professionals to put autistics through various torturous processes to make them ‘normal’. And so on, and so on.

Because the victims weren’t, and often still aren’t, considered important. They’re ‘the other’, the ‘different’, the ‘lesser than’, not worthy of the same rights as ‘normal people’, and thus it doesn’t matter what happens to them. And in the case of some groups, such as black people and autistics (once again, heaven help those who are both these things), even a ‘threat’ of some kind which has to be obliterated. So that others of their ilk can be kept in line. Subservient. Uncomplaining. Knuckling under to the Powers That Be.


This is an important point to remember. Because they can, and have, gotten away with it for a long, long, long time. This corruption isn’t only in the police, but at the core of every imbalance of power. It’s a sickness at the heart of a world where those with power simply assume they have the right to not only define ‘the other’, but to shape and control their very lives. Up to and including whether they even get to live or not.

But at a certain point, the oppressed have had enough. They see that nothing but their rebellion will stop it. And so they say ‘no more!’ Black Lives Matter says no more. The ‘Me Too’ movement says no more. Autistic Rights says no more. Social movements since the 50s and 60s – civil rights, feminism, gay liberation – say no more.

And that’s the whole point of these protests – that black people, along with their allies, have had more than enough. They’re saying that it’s way beyond time to make the oppressors get their foot, or their knee, off black necks. Literally and metaphorically. To end this sickness, and root out this corruption.

If you still don’t understand this, if you’re still into ‘all lives matter’, or going ‘well they shouldn’t riot’, then you have missed the point entirely, and you’re going to end up on the wrong side of history.