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It's Time We Truly Recognize Emotional and Mental Abuse as Trauma

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Broken is broken. People look for different ways to repair the broken pieces of our lives. Some might aim for a quick bandaid fix, such as accepting an unrepentant apology, while others might look to numb the brokenness using alcohol or online shopping. There are also people who devote years to pulling out all of the broken shards and finding ways to let them go, whether that be through therapy or extremely hard self-reflection and boundaries. Regardless of how we each treat brokenness, it doesn’t change that the damage and harm was done. Something that has been broken was treated in a way that resulted in it being broken. The world needs to realize that mental and emotional abuse is just as painful and results in just as many breaks as physical or sexual abuse.

I didn’t ask to be broken; I simply waltzed into what seemed the perfect marriage while the birds sang and people around us clapped. Yet on our honeymoon, he lost his temper and shamed me for something that wasn’t my fault or doing. I took the shame and held it, believing it to be my fault. We went to marriage counseling within the first year of being married, trying to work out the issues as they grew larger and larger. But coming from an abusive childhood home, I never stopped to question if the issues really were entirely my fault as he was claiming or if it was a lie. The pastor we went to for marital counseling suggested I leave my husband, but we had a baby together and I was devoted to just trying harder and to be better.

It went on, for more years than I want to admit. According to him, every problem that happened was my fault, no questions asked. If the kids were crying, I was told I was a horrible mother because I couldn’t get them to be quiet. If the balance at the grocery store was too much I was yelled at for over spending and putting us at the risk of bankruptcy while if it was too low, I was yelled at for not buying enough food and not properly planning to care for our family. There were so many times in public where he would lose his temper and yell at me or give someone else a death stare while flexing his muscles that I would have to tell the people around us that his blood sugar was either too high or too low to excuse his behavior.

When our 2-year-old tripped walking across a parking lot and hit her head on our car bumper, resulting in a gash needing stitches, he didn’t check on her or offer to help in any way. Instead, he got in my face screaming and yelling at me as an audience grew because I let her carry a sip cup in her hand while she was walking. The cut was my fault because I let her carry a cup. He threw the cup across the parking lot and got in the passenger seat while I loaded up the kids and tried to stop the bleeding.

As the kids grew, it just got worse. He would shove me out of a room, slamming the door in my face so he could talk to them without me present. Slowly those actions burrowed into my soul, backing up every other word he ever said that alluded to the fact that I was a bad parent. He could buy them whatever brand-name clothes he wanted them to have, but I would be yelled at for overspending if I spent $20 on them at Walmart. He could go to dinner or the movies whenever he wanted, but I couldn’t go anywhere without all the kids and would be at home to take them wherever they needed. When he was out of town for work and I tore my Achille’s tendon on the same day my daughter had an abscessed tooth, he refused to come home to help. He let me know it was my fault, so I had to buck up and deal with it.

When I got kidney stones, he yelled at me all the way to the hospital about how much I was going to cost him. When I dislocated my knee again because of Ehlers-Danlos syndrome, he would bring me the crutches and get upset because now he had to take care of the kids for the night. After one night though, he would call someone else to come take care of the kids or just tell me good luck as he left.

If he wasn’t verbally telling me I was worthless, he was showing me through his actions that I was worthless and meaningless to him. He was a master at switching disagreements around and changing the topic again and again to the things that I felt the weakest about. He knew where he had mentally beat me down so low he could easily be victorious and that’s where he led every single disagreement.

My husband yelled at me to answer him and no matter my answer, he would yell at me that I was lying. While he was in my face with his eyes bugging from his head in anger and the veins on his arms popping out, he would scream and yell that all I do is lie and if I’m not going to tell the truth then I should just shut up. It came to a point where talking wasn’t worth it, so I didn’t.

I became more and more compliant while the church told me that he was the head of the household and I needed to just obey. I wanted to be that great Christian wife and mom, so I became even more submissive and gave even more of myself away.

It took years, but I became a silent nobody. My life was his life. I made meals from scratch using only ingredients that had his seal of approval. My days revolved around taking care of our lives, doing every single thing for the kids and our home while he worked and then spent 40 extra hours a week playing video games, undisturbed. We all knew not to bother him or do anything to possibly make him mess up or we would be screamed at and things thrown across the room. He lived the life he wanted, while I lived the life he demanded.

And then I started therapy and almost fell out of the chair the first time a therapist said, “oh that’s just your self loathing.” I thought I was a devoted wife and a follower of Christ. I didn’t think I was so beat down that I hated myself, but that was what I had become.

Because I have been told for so many years that I will overspend and I’m going to bankrupt us, I’m a 40-year-old woman who is terrified of money. Because he would scream at me for speaking, there were weeks in therapy would all I could do is shake my head no as the fear of speaking overwhelmed me. Because he would tell me I was being dramatic, I had to learn that feeling sad or mad is OK and it matters. Because he would make fun of me when I was hurt or sick, it took a breakdown the last time I was hurt for me to be able to tell safe people around me that I was hurt and needed help.

But the problem isn’t all the proof that shows he ripped my soul to shreds and used it for his own fun and games, the proof is that until I tell people about the ways he’s physically treated me, they brush it off and tell me to give him another chance.

Until I say the words, “he punched the dashboard so hard it left a physical dent while he was screaming at me,” or “he ripped the van’s sliding door off the metal track while the kids were in the car because he was mad that it beeped at him,” no one will listen.

It takes the words, “he threw the TV across the room,” or “he kicked a hole through the dry wall,” for people to stop convincing me to give him another chance and actually listen to the hurt that he has caused.

The church’s response is that I should do everything I can to repair my marriage, as if I’m the one that broke it.

My friends’ responses are to tell me to stand up to him, without understanding the fear for my life that he has inflicted with words.

Yesterday someone told me that I need to learn how to bend my will so my marriage can come together in unity.

I hate to tell them but I lost my will many years ago. I don’t know who I am anymore or what I want, because what I want hasn’t been an option. I stopped knowing who I was many years ago because it was better for me to be quiet. In order to survive, I had to become a nobody.

Physical abuse is severe. I lost a good friend to physical abuse many years ago and I think about her all the time. There are days that her two sons pop into my head and I wonder if they’ve graduated high school or find myself wondering how they are doing since their mom is gone and their dad is in jail. Sexual abuse is also extremely serious; I know as a child sexual abuse survivor.

But there’s a time that we have to stand up and say that emotional, mental and financial abuse is just as destructive to a person’s being. Manipulation and gaslighting make people question their choices and their sanity. After 17 years of an extremely abusive marriage, I no longer think I can take care of myself or make financial and mentally healthy choices. I can and I will figure out how to do it, but I am having to relearn it all. I’m having to find ways to cope and function while also standing up for myself and try to move forward. I came through the complex trauma from childhood abuse and walked into the complex trauma of domestic abuse, and yet I don’t qualify for help or programs to escape this abuse because I haven’t been physically or sexually abused.

Mental, emotional and/or financial abuse is trauma. Period. It’s abuse and it destroys people. People in physical or sexual abuse situations need help to escape and protect themselves, as do people in any abusive situation. Broken is broken and abuse is abuse. If someone tells you they are being abused, do all that you can to support them and make sure they are safe.

If you are in one of these situations, I hope you know that your story and your feelings are valid. The fight you’re going through or will go through to come out of it matters, and you are brave and strong for persevering.

Priscilla Du Preez on Unsplash

Originally published: September 15, 2021
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