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Why I No Longer Judge Survivors of Emotional Abuse

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Editor's Note

If you have experienced emotional abuse, struggle with self-harm or experience suicidal thoughts, the following post could be potentially triggering. You can contact the Crisis Text Line by texting “START” to 741741. For a list of ways to cope with self-harm urges, visit this resource.

If you live with an eating disorder, the following post could be potentially triggering. You can contact the Crisis Text Line by texting “NEDA” to 741741.

I used to judge victims of emotional abuse.

I was confused. How could I feel sympathy for anyone who would return to their abuser?

Just stay away. Stay gone. Why are you allowing them to hurt you?

I’ve learned a lot since then. Now, I know how slowly it happens. They’re the same in most ways, but they start to show another side of themselves in the little things they do. A few snide comments here and there. A negative observation. Eventually, the comments would debilitate me. I could spend the entire day thinking about what you said and how I could fix it. How I could fix us. It had to be my fault; I was the instigator. I provoked you. You’d never hurt me. We’re happy. I’m fine.

You start to isolate me. I had read about this, seen it on television shows. This, too, happens slowly. Eventually, family and friends aren’t a priority. To them, we’re happy, so they assume plans are canceled because we are busy. They offer excuses for no-shows. “We’ll schedule something soon. We can come to you,” they say. Occasionally that would happen, and everything seems fine in their eyes. We are smiling.

I get dressed to go out, but you tell me I need to change. I try another outfit but you barely even look before you shake your head, side to side. Not good enough. I try again and again. Eventually, we have to leave, and you settle on whatever I last put on. “It will have to do,” you tell me.

Your cruel words become harsher and occur more frequently. In the times I think I can forget, you’re quick to remind me. When I smile, you say to stop. When we are around others, you whisper so no one can hear it. Ugly, worthless, fat.

I know you’ve thought about physically harming me; I’ve seen it in your eyes. You want to leave marks on me, but they might see. They might know. It’s OK. We’re fine. I’m fine.

I wash my hair and strands stay in my hands. It happens sometimes. It’s just stress, I tell myself. I’m happy. We’re happy. We’re fine. It will get better. If I repeat it enough, it will become true. More sleep. More vitamins. More water.

Work is an escape. I can breathe easier. I’m safe. I’m busy. I can focus. I’m fine.

Public places make me nervous. If anyone looks at me, they’ll know. Somehow, they’ll see it. They’ll see right through me. They’ll see it in my face.

“Do you really want to eat that?” You say to me at dinnertime. No, I don’t. I can eat tomorrow. I smile at the kids. We play I Spy, and I put my dinner back quickly as they look around the room to identify the object. I know what this means. Tomorrow morning I will binge like I always do. I might be able to handle the feeling of being full, but it’s not likely. I’ll stare into the mirror while I wash my hands, and then I’ll fix my running mascara. I’ll wait until my eyes seem less bloodshot and then push away from the sink. It’s OK. I’m fine.

I walk downstairs and our daughter comes into view. She smiles, and I smile back. She doesn’t know; she’ll never, ever know.

We are going on a short trip tomorrow and the kids are so excited. We’re excited. We’re happy. We’re fine. I’m fine.

I smile through the day but flinch whenever you look at me. You tell me I look ridiculous. You tell me everyone can see it. You tell me we aren’t going on trips like this anymore; I ruin it every time.

I used to respond, used to counter your comments. My knees didn’t use to buckle like this. I smiled more and I cried less. I don’t like to cry, so when I do, I feel angry and cry some more. I’ve found the most concealed spots in the house; I’ve found the places no one can hear me cry. I’ve found the places to pull myself together so they kids won’t know. They will never, ever know.

My friends are starting to notice; they’ve asked me what’s wrong. They call and text. The sarcasm and the jokes have halted and I just listen most of the time. I tell them I’m great. We’re happy. We’re fine.

Therapy used to be good for us. We looked forward to it, the time to connect. We talk and say exactly how we feel. We felt a lot back then. I wish I could say it feels numb, but it’s the tingly, sharp feeling when the numbness starts to go away. It’s starting to feel real; too real. Now we stare at the floor and the corners of the room. We don’t have anything to say and we don’t want to tell her what we know. What you’ve done. What you continue to do to me. I think she knows, but every session I do my best to distract her from knowing who you really are.

I go home and lie on the bed for a while. The kids are asleep. I stare into the monitor and think of how much I miss them. They’re right here but feel so far away. They’re beautiful. Who was I before them? I don’t know her anymore and I probably couldn’t recognize her.

I hear him coming upstairs and I blink my heavy eyelid over dry, red eyes. I miss him, too. He comes into our room and asks if I need to talk. I need to, yes, but I just don’t want to. I’m OK. We’re happy. We’re fine. He tells me he loves me and how I’m going to be OK. I want to believe him. He wants me to believe him, too.

He knows I’m “we.” He knows “we” is me. He’s heard the words I say to myself and he’s seen me change my outfits. He’s seen me suck in my stomach and wear black as often as I can. He sees me avoid mirrors and he’s seen the strands of hair in the drain. He knows I put on a show for the kids, and he knows I smile for him as often as I can. He knows how much I sleep and how it’s hard to get out of bed. He knows about the makeup and clothes I buy to hide myself and about the plans I’ve canceled with my friends. He sees me leave a party to sit alone for a while. He sits with me and holds my hand, he tucks my hair behind my ear. He doesn’t understand, but he doesn’t have to. He watches me bite my nails and take my medication. He still sees me for me, and not for who I’ve become.

I tell him I love him, and I’ll be OK. We’re OK. I’ll be downstairs in a few minutes. A big sigh and stretch. I change into pajamas that used to fit, but now feel way too tight. I take off my makeup and stare at my face that looks older, so much more tired and wary of the changes happening.

I close my eyes as tight as I can and push the worst part of me away. It’s time to be OK. It’s time to be fine.

I used to judge victims of abuse … before I started to abuse myself.

Photo by Quinten de Graaf on Unsplash

Originally published: March 11, 2020
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