When I was 15, I met someone who changed my life. Out of respect for his privacy, I’m going to refer to him as Charlie. He has his story too, but this is mine.
Charlie and I connected immediately and it couldn’t have been more than a month or two before we were referring to each other as boyfriend/girlfriend. It was an intense and passionate bond, he was profoundly charming and everything came naturally. It was probably after around 5-8 months together that he was first unfaithful (I don’t remember exactly what the timings were but I will do my best to make the story as accurate as I can remember). We would argue about something small and then not speak for a day or so and in that time he had been intimate with someone else. I would be angry, but also fear that the only way to prevent him from doing it again was to be with him. It became a hideous cycle and happened in total about 7 or so times, and each time the discretion would be bigger and more hurtful than the last. Eventually, after perhaps a year, I had the sense to say enough is enough, and I ended things with him. It was heart wrenching to know that the person I completely loved was out there hooking up with various girls and I couldn’t understand why he just didn’t care about how I felt.
I can imagine that you might be thinking at this point, ‘ your feelings for him clearly weren’t reciprocated, why not get rid sooner?’, and the answer is that he had convinced me that they were. He put me on a pedestal, showering me with compliments. He told me I was beautiful all the time and described how intensely he loved me, and even that he wanted to have a family with me one day. When we argued or broke up, he would send messages saying that he would do anything to get me back. He said the same things to our friends and he even sat outside my house in the middle of the night to ‘feel closer’ to me (I know that sounds creepy but it’s the kind of thing that would go down well in a Nicholas Sparks film). But he was still seeing other girls. It didn’t make sense.
After some time apart he convinced me that he was going to change and we officially got back together (I know, I know). It was the same old story and eventually it ended again. Our relationship wasn’t completely over until about 3-4 years after we had met. Throughout those years he was abusing me, and I was completely unaware. It was a form of emotional abuse similar to a technique called ‘gaslighting’ which is sometimes even used as psychological warfare in interrogations. It involves re-writing the victim’s sense of reality to the point where they turn on themselves, and then they become a blank slate and can easily be moulded into the personality that the abuser would like them to be. I would like to say now that I do not believe Charlie was aware that he was being abusive and I think he did it because he didn’t understand himself, not because his intentions were bad.
He would make me believe that I was responsible for things that I wasn’t. He convinced me that I was over sensitive, over protective and irrational, when really I was just expressing myself. His unfaithful behaviour was the result of me being angry during arguments and my emotional withdrawal and distrust after being hurt. He told me that I was a slut, a bitch, unkind, a psychopath who suffered from multiple personality disorder, and that no one else would want me. He often accused me of being unfaithful when of course I hadn’t been and it was impossible to convince him otherwise. I believe he was projecting his own behaviour onto me. Someone who is dishonest and hurtful often suspects others of the same.
He convinced me that my friends thought I was a pathological liar and that they spoke about me behind my back, so I probably shouldn’t see them. He has told his friends and family that I am a skilled manipulator, and understandably, many of them therefore believe that I behave with spiteful and selfish intent. An excellent way to silence someone is to tell the people around them that they are a liar. That way, even if they do speak, they can’t be heard. Charlie made me believe that he was the only person who had my back, yet he was the person who was causing my suffering. Being the receiver of such verbal abuse on a weekly or even daily basis for years, my mind eventually broke down and I had an identity crisis. Charlie stripped me of everything I once thought was true about myself; he made me doubt my morals, sanity and ability to have healthy relationships. He made me doubt whether everything I once loved myself for even existed in the first place. I became empty. I lost all feeling, even pain. When he said these things to me, it got to a point where I was so numb that all I wanted was for him to stop saying horrible words, and I happily accepted them to be true as a result.
I fell into a severe depression and after leaving school as it would have been a risk to my health to continue with my studies, I ended up in hospital. My parents were told to keep all medication hidden from me and to keep an eye on sharp objects in the house. I think it should be known that I had already suffered some traumas which were unrelated to Charlie and I was also struggling with the stress of a-levels. Depression runs in my family and I believe that all of these factors also contributed to my mental deterioration. I was unwell for the period of about a year. Some days were tolerable and some days just weren’t.
I found a notebook in my room last year in which I had written when I was ill and not only was my handwriting almost unrecognisable, I barely even remembered writing in it. It was essentially a suicide note and a lot of it was addressing Charlie. I wrote about how he broke me down time and time again until I couldn’t take any more, yet I was also literally begging for him to love me. He made me think that I was impossible to love. If I couldn’t be loved then I didn’t want to live. I wrote that the only thing stopping me from ending my life was that I didn’t want my family to feel as sad as I did. Although it was hard to read, it was uplifting to see how far I’d come since then.
Over the last 3 years I have had to get to know myself again. I have taken all the pieces of me that I didn’t understand and put them together to make one whole person, and learned to feel confident and safe in my own mind. I will always reflect on the whole experience as a positive one because it has moulded who I am now and has equipped me with profound emotional strength. Healing is agony, but it is worth every second for the person who emerges once it’s over. I also learned things about how we should treat others and of course, ourselves:
Every emotion you feel is real and should be nurtured. No one should make you feel ashamed of experiencing pain. Similar to a physical injury, you will heal when you look after your wound and the people surrounding you should understand this and not invalidate how your feel.
If someone tells people false things about your character and they are believed, it really doesn’t matter. Your honesty and kindness does not need credibility, so long as it exists.
If someone hurts you, it is often a genuine mistake and when their apology is real, there’s nothing wrong with keeping them in your life. It’s when their apology isn’t sincere or they continue to hurt you that it’s okay to value yourself and cut ties. You can remove someone from your world and still have them know that you care about them. Look after you.
To create happiness from an already stable place can be difficult enough, but to climb from the absolute rock bottom and reach that happiness is a tribute to your strength, and is actually pretty extraordinary. It is a superpower that not everyone has. If you have taken that journey before, reflect on how utterly incredible you are.
Charlie recently reached out to me and told me he had been feeling low and although cautious, I was prepared to offer support. I was strong enough in my own mind to know that if he resorted to his old ways, I would be able to cut him off without being too invested, which is what happened. Being around him again, now that I have a clear frame of mind, was strange yet powerful. It felt like the chains I had previously been imprisoned by were too small for my wrists, like I had become taller than the walls he had built to contain me. Knowing that you are stronger than the most powerful force you have ever faced is like taking the deepest, freshest breath you could ever imagine.
He had a girlfriend at the time and had been treating her badly. He expressed a desire to improve himself and as long as it didn’t compromise my own feelings, I was happy to help. I eventually came into contact with his then-girlfriend after their relationship had ended and we had some good conversations. The thing that had caused me the most damage was thinking that I was crazy, and completely alone. I felt that if she knew that she wasn’t either of those things, it might prevent her from falling to the dark place I did. He had behaved in a similar way towards her and she said that it made her feel better to talk to me about it. Despite being hurt, her strength was refreshing and it inspired me. She is open-hearted, intelligent and wonderful.
I really want to help him to improve but I know that he is not my responsibility. I know that we cannot change someone else, but I desperately want him to find the joy I have found. This may never happen and I may never get a sincere apology, and although a genuine apology would be incredibly valuable to me, I have happily accepted that I do not need it. Forgiving people even when they are not sorry is liberating and powerful.
My first relationship after Charlie and I split up was not good. Jack, as I will refer to him as, was patient and I treated him badly. I started arguments for no obvious reason, I accused him of being interested in other girls and I spoke to him disrespectfully. Jack stayed by my side and did so much to help me. I am so grateful for that. I was somewhat abusive towards him because I didn’t understand what a relationship should be like. I recently apologised to him and for a long time I couldn’t forgive myself for my putting him through it.
I forgive Charlie. He wants to be a good person, and he is. I believe he behaves the way he does because of personal conflicts that haven’t been dealt with. That makes him the same as me. He has love to give and fun to have and I hope that he can work towards achieving that. He is talented and I look forward to hearing about his successes. I hope he is filled with so much love that it heals every part of him.
I hope that in telling my story, more people can recognise when they are in a potentially dangerous situation. Emotional abuse is difficult to identify and therefore all too often goes unnoticed. People commonly report that the scars of psychological abuse take much longer to heal than the effects of physical abuse – and what if their lack of self-esteem and depression escalates so much that they make an attempt on their life? And what if that attempt is successful? I couldn’t understand what was so bad about how I was being treated so I couldn’t ask for help, and it nearly killed me.
If you think someone you know is in an abusive relationship, whether it’s a friendship, with a family member or a romantic relationship, simply telling them that they are not alone could save their life. I don’t like to refer to myself as a victim because I survived, and not everyone does.
According to SafeVoices, 62% of Tweens (aged 11-14) say they know friends who have been verbally abused by a boyfriend/girlfriend, and only half of all Tweens claim to know the warning signs of a hurtful relationship. How can we expect people to be protected when they don’t even know what they are protecting themselves against? Emotional abuse in a relationship is domestic violence so let’s talk about it.
I am not sharing my story to punish or shame Charlie; it just simply isn’t about him anymore. It’s about me and all the thousands of men and women all over the world who suffer every day. If telling my story can benefit even just one person’s life, then I have achieved everything I wanted to achieve in sharing it.