As children, we’re frequently taught the rhyme “sticks and stones will break my bones but names will never hurt me” by our parents and teachers.
Which, as many of us can confirm, is total bullshit. Anyone who survived high school can tell you that names really do hurt. However, while we learn at a young age that this rhyme is meaningless, we still (largely) do not apply this philosophy to domestic violence.
I was nineteen when I first met my abusive ex. In the beginning, I was so attracted to the fact that he never got angry and he seemed to be totally, completely, possessively in love with me (nineteen year old me had a naive romantic notion that ‘jealous’ and ‘possessive’ meant ‘seriously in love’). He also made me feel beautiful – a feeling seldom few had made me feel before.
I’m not sure exactly when, in our relationship, I became afraid of him. Looking back, there were certainly warning signs – like the jealous and possessive behaviour I previously mentioned, among others – but like I said, they seemed attractive at the time. And, more importantly, they weren’t triggering any alarm bells (yet).
I guess the first real instance of ‘fear’ I felt was when I lost my virginity to him; he tried to go further than I wanted to, and when I tried to stop him, he pushed me and said I had to let him ‘do what he wanted’ (and I did). If we’re being technical, it had also become about fear of losing him – I’d wanted to wait, as I hadn’t really had a serious boyfriend before, and he kept overloading me with stories of how his friends had broken up with girlfriends because they’d been made to wait too long.
Regardless of when it happened, one day I realised with absolute certainty that I was afraid of him. I was afraid because he read my emails, my texts, everything on Facebook and while I never even came close to cheating, simply having conversations with men I’d known my whole life resulted in accusations, fights, clothes thrown out of my wardrobe and into the street and my messages and Facebook friends being deleted – or him sending messages to these people saying horrible things under the pretence of being me.
I soon became aware that I was afraid of saying or doing the wrong thing because he would lose control and he could do so quickly, and easily, that it was hard to know when or why it might happen. I was fat, and ugly.
I was a slut and too frigid. A nobody and a terrible person. I was someone who no one else would ever, could ever, love, and if I left him, I’d be alone forever.
I was a bitch and a whore because I needed to stop in a phone store because my phone wasn’t working and I needed to stop in the store; a slut-bitch-selfish-whore because I spent too long in the bathroom and he only had five minutes to get ready – despite the fact that he’d spent the last half hour playing games with his brother, time when I wasn’t in the bathroom, but sitting right next to him.
So many horrible things happened throughout our relationship, but when he told me I was overreacting and being too sensitive and this was all in my mind, I believed him.
I could say that it was because I was afraid he was right – that I was unlovable and no one else would want me (which was true).
I could say it was because I was afraid of him, and afraid of what might happen to me if I tried to stand up for myself or leave.
Which was also true.
I could say it was because I thought that maybe I was overreacting, being some kind of drama queen.
Which, again, was true – and one of the reasons why I didn’t confide in my friends or family at the time about what was happening.
But mainly, it was because mostly, domestic violence is described as physical, not verbal, abuse. When I was taught about domestic violence in high school, I learnt that if someone hits you, you leave. I didn’t learn an awful lot about emotional or verbal abuse, nor did I learn how that can be just as destructive as physical abuse.
I didn’t consider, for one moment, that all the lies, the manipulations, the fear and the constant verbal attacks was abuse.
I just thought he was angry sometimes.
And when I did leave, many people who spent a lot of time and effort explaining how and why and what was happening was wrong and that it was indeed abuse. However, soon after I accepted this frightening realisation – and my ex’s behaviour escalated to stalking and breaking and entering – several people became dismissive of me. Things could have been “worse” and I should move on, quickly and easily as his behaviour had only been minor compared to what could have been.
Which is true – in many ways, compared to many women, I am lucky. However, I cannot express how detrimental that attitude is to millions of women around the world. After all, most physical abuse starts after verbal attacks – if we teach people to recognise there’s very little difference between the two, perhaps fewer people will be as dismissive of their dysfunctional relationship as I was.
And, most importantly, we should all remember how badly words hurt and realise that they can be incredibly destructive. Every experience is different and comparing whose abuse is worse is a game that will serve no one.
It’s been almost seven years since I moved far enough away that my ex could no longer find me. It’s been less than that since I started trusting again and stopped looking over my shoulder. Whether the threat is real or imaginary now, I can’t help but feel dread at the thought of maybe someday seeing him again (even though it’s an incredibly unlikely scenario).
But please, if there’s one thing I can live you with: sticks and stones may break bones, but names can break someone’s spirit. Please remember that before you judge how badly you think someone’s been abused.
And, if you or someone you know is in an abusive relationship, please seek help.
You never know whose life you may save.