24 May An Apology to Myself
I have known Diana for many years, I knew her when she was in her abusive relationship. I knew that she had problems with her relationship, and was not happy. I’d even heard her (then) husband referred to as an “asshole.” As a relationship therapist, I am very aware of people’s tendencies to identify with a friend or family member who is in pain, and to demonize the person who is causing the pain. I know that in most cases, there is not a devil and an angel, there is an interaction, a relationship, and that is what is making the loved one unhappy. I never knew Diana to have any physical signs of abuse. Sure her husband might be an asshole, but at least she was not being abused. But what I didn’t know, is that she was being abused, mentally and emotionally tormented. Like so many women, she was living a nightmare and was a prisoner to this nightmare.
I hope her story is an inspiration to all women, and especially to anyone who is living in this kind of relationship and doesn’t know how to get out. I hope it helps all people in relationships to understand that emotional abuse IS abuse. It can destroy who you are and who you once believed that you were. Diana tells the story of a woman who was strong enough to break free of a relationship that was killing her soul and made her loose herself.
If you, or anyone you know, is in an abusive relationship, please get help immediately. Find a therapist in your area that specializes in relationships, abuse, or trauma. If you are in the San Diego area, we have several therapists that would be happy to help you (coastalcounselinggroup.com). If you are outside of the San Diego area and would like to receive treatment via tele-therapy, please visit the Coast To Coast website (coast2coastcounseling.com).
If you are in immediate danger or feel like you need more intensive assistance, please call the Domestic Violence Hotline at (1-800-799-7233), your local crisis line, or 911. You can also find a woman’s shelter in your area, by going to domesticshelters.org.
Dr. Jennifer Semmes, Psy.D., LCSW
Owner, Coastal Counseling.
Some days I am strong. Some days I can laugh at the absurdity of it all. Some days, I break down into tears, and feel better.
I am the victim of abuse. I was in an emotionally abusive relationship for 4 years that turned into a 14 year emotionally abusive marriage. 18 years, that can’t be right? I have done the math so many times, just to be sure, yet I still don’t believe it. Just did it again.
We appeared to be a great couple, set up in college by our best friends who were dating each other. Mine said to me, “I met the male version of you last night, you have to meet him!” I should have known then- who wants to date themselves? And then I should have known a few nights later, the night we were supposed to meet for the first time, when he stood me up for some reason or another. But I didn’t, and I gave him another chance (always another chance). Oh, when I did meet him- he was tall, dark, and handsome. He was friends with everyone there, laughed out loud, talked with me for hours on the couch as if it were just us, not a room full of people. I know, this sounds like a cheesy 80’s movie. To me though, it was my own plot, it felt so perfect that I ignored more of those early signs. I explained away arguments with a “We are so comfortable together that we can fight with each other”. He pulled me closer the first morning we woke up together and said, “Stay here, they don’t do anything important the first day”. And I did. Yes, I missed the first day of my senior year of college. Maybe they didn’t do much important that day, but the professor, my advisor and the Head of the English department, of which was my minor, certainly noticed that I was absent from the first day of her class. So it progressed, before I knew it I was spending the majority of my time at his house. I was there so often, constantly leaving it up to my roommate to care for my dog. I have no idea how she felt about that, but it was the first sign of giving myself up for him.
At graduation, my sweet father had one piece of advice for me. “I know you really like this guy, whatever you do, just don’t move in with him right away. Give yourself some time, go explore, if he loves you, he will be there when you get back”. Well I showed him, I moved right in with him, justifying it any way I could- too expensive to have 2 places, we are together all the time… I don’t really want to move to some small town and write for the local paper (only a 5 year dream and plan)… There are more opportunities in Denver… Our friends are here… this is our home city now… So we moved in together. A few years later, we bought a house. I remember sitting on the back deck a few days before closing on it and looking at the wood siding. There were some pockmarks in it and I asked “Is this a good idea? I mean, is this siding going to last?” His response, “What, are you going to look at me in a few years and ask if I’m a good idea, if we’re going to last?” Hmmm….
So we lived together, we bought that house, we got engaged at The Pierre in New York City, married on the farm where I grew up, honeymooned throughout Napa wine country- I was having so much fun that I ignored the signs. “You shouldn’t eat that, you’ll get fat… Sometimes when you talk, you sound so stupid … I think your mom is an alcoholic, and you’re just like her… That friend of yours, she’s bad news, I don’t think you should be spending time with her… Stop being so sensitive, I’m just trying to help… Those pants look awful on you”…and on an on and on.
It is done in such a way, so manipulatively perfect, that you don’t see yourself getting lost in it all. You don’t see that your confidence is being chipped away. You don’t notice the fear of falling apart without him that he is instilling. It’s in the simple things- undermining the tiniest thing- I was told that I was terrible at picking out apples. Even writing that sounds so ridiculous that I could let it affect me. But I heard it, and countless other examples of my incompetence- every single day. It’s part of the wearing down process. Part of the dehumanizing process. You begin to believe that if you can’t even remember to turn off a simple light switch, how could you possibly believe you could manage to get through the day without his help? So I kept right on trying to fix my “mistakes” and hope, each and every day, that I did it well on this day. That’s what they do- they beat you down so much that you are just hoping and praying for the tiniest little bit of praise and appreciation in ANY area. I mowed the lawn, did the laundry, walked the dogs, picked up the dog poop, planted the gardens, planned the trips, scheduled the doctors appointments, did the grocery shopping and ALL the cooking, entertained the friends, not because it was what I loved to do, but because I wanted to hear that I did something, anything, well enough to illicit a positive response.
Emotional abuse is a disease for the abused as much as it is for the abuser. As you get deeper into it, you feel like you just have to make them love you, appreciate you, see you for what you must be worth. You don’t think you are actually worth much, but this person is with you, so you must be worth something to them. It’s like chasing a drug, trying to be the recipient of the rare compliment. When you do, it’s typically followed with a “but,…” which you immediately disregard, because for that short, nano second of a high, you feel great. Of course, you then zero in and focus on the “but,…” part, so that you can get mad and angry at yourself, and tell yourself that you have got to do better next time. Next time, get the compliment without the “but…” And the cycle starts again. Your abuser also uses that rare compliment to squash you more. They’ll say “I do compliment you, you just never hear it. You just focus on the bad stuff.” Ah, here’s the back handed challenge, which you gladly accept. “They’re right, I DO just focus on the bad stuff, I must make an effort to find the good in this person I love. After all, they just said they love me, so I must find the way they do love me.” And the crazy merry go round starts again.
Who knows how it ends, what triggers the abused brain to just snap out of it? I asked myself so many times “what is it going to take, why don’t I just leave?” I knew it was a horrible, unhealthy, unhappy marriage, but I couldn’t leave. I tried so many times, and always came back. I talked to friends about leaving, a few lawyers, my family, citing my unhappiness, but I always came back, and hoped this time, it would be different. I actually wished he would hit me, because then, I felt, I would have a “real” reason. He almost did once. I stood up to him, actually dared him to, and he backed down. So what did I do? Encouraged therapy to “help” him through his anger.
As a society, we have been conditioned to believe that abuse isn’t really abuse unless the scars are visible, that you aren’t a real victim unless you barely escape with your life. Emotional abuse leaves the scars that only the survivor knows about, and ones that hurt for years afterwards. A part of me did die during my marriage, and in leaving I did gain a part of me that I may not have otherwise. But the part I will never get back, the one that hurts the most, is the actual life lost in the abuse.
I should have 3 kids, but with just his words, without ever laying a hand on me, he ended my third pregnancy.
I was dumbstruck, but he never changed his mind that “It isn’t the right time”, and I… well, I obeyed. I obeyed because I didn’t believe I had another choice.
Not all scars are visible. Not all pain is visible. It does not mean that it is not real. It does not mean it is not abuse.
Years progressed, and I continued to ask myself, “What will it take?”
A friend who had just left her own abusive marriage gave the simplest answer. “One day, you’ll just wake up, and you’ll know. It will be that day, and that will be the right day.” She was spot on. A few months later, I woke up on the last day of a vacation, and just thought “Yup, I’m done. I can do this.”
And. I. Did.
We flew home on a Friday, he tried non stop through the weekend to convince me to stay, and that Monday morning I walked out. 18 years after it started.
I have never looked back, and oddly, I don’t regret taking so long. Some of the parts, yes, but I have to find the positive in the hell. I learned about myself, I will never ask myself “did I do enough, try for long enough?” I know I did. Maybe too long, but had I left earlier, I would not have had my kids, would not have gotten to where I am now, physically, geographically or emotionally. I now accept my faults and weaknesses and understand that they are part of human nature, they are normal and the same ones most other people have. I know I have an enormous amount of strength. The strength to get through my abuse, the strength to leave my abuser. I don’t need the world to know what I went through, I don’t need an apology from my abuser, I need an apology from myself, to myself.
So here it is- I am sorry I let you think of yourself as weak, insecure, stupid and worthless. I will always believe in you. I will always believe in your strength, your confidence, your brains and your worth. I will always look up to myself, I will always cherish and love myself, trust in myself, admire myself, and appreciate myself. I will always know what I have been through, how far I have come to get to where I am, and that will always be enough for me. I love you, you me.