I recently offered counsel to someone in an abusive friendship that was taking an extreme toll on her life. We were discussing what I have come to recognize as pattern behavior: lashing out, violent words of betrayal and personal attack, followed by a recovery and apology, and then another episode of name calling and shaming. In telling my friend “this is abusive behavior masquerading as concern for you”, I was once again reminded of how difficult it can be to call abuse what it is. When there is no violence, when there are no bruises to mark the shame that the abused can feel, it can be very difficult to speak its name.
Shame has been such an intense part of the abusive relationships that I have found myself in, and perhaps is the most common theme woven between them. I have felt ashamed of not speaking up and being more firm about ‘no’, ashamed at feeling guilty for pursuing things in my life that enrich me and which I love passionately, and ashamed of failing partners for not living up to their expectations. I have felt ashamed of ‘letting this happen to me’ again. The thing is though, abuse changes. It does not wear the same face every time, and you cannot blame yourself for not always seeing it.
When I was a freshman in college I got drunk with a friend who I was not interested in having a relationship or sex with. We were out with a group, and both left early to head back to our dorm. We started making out in my room- which was fine. I’ve never really attached much weight to making out personally. It sure feels nice, and I enjoyed it. He wanted to go further than that and I said no. He pushed the issue. I continued to say no. He put his hands places I told him they should not go. I insisted he leave. He insisted on touching me.
Later it was I who apologized for making things ‘weird’, and I who said I wanted to preserve our relationship. I never called it abuse.
At a family gathering one year an opportunistic and deeply trusted guest took advantage of a situation in which we were alone, and in which I could not run (I was driving) to place his hands somewhere they did not belong and tell me how sexy I was.
I have told very few people in the world about this incident. When I did, it was with red cheeks, wondering if I was justified in feeling violated and nervous. I never called it abuse.
At 22 I dated a person who claimed to be teaching me about polyamorous relationships and unlearning co-dependency. This person used the rules of polyamory to manipulate so many aspects of my life. They isolated me from my closest relationships, they had ever shifting goal-posts and I was unable to meet their changing expectations. I was told not to have feelings about a rape they committed, and claimed they wanted to be accountable about (on the weekend I was taking them home to meet my family).
I didn’t call it abuse until a friend sat me down and said she was worried.
I don’t speak about these parts of my life as a way to condemn the other people in them, but as a step in my own healing. I am not interested in seeking any kind of retribution for the pain I suffered through, and I do not feel broken by these experiences. Like many people who have confronted relationships that are verbally and emotionally abusive, I continue to look for a way to move forward with the reality of my experiences. I heal with the knowledge that I am in fact, one of the lucky ones. The statistics on Intimate Partner Violence are staggering, and the wounds that violence leaves on the world are deep. Not every relationship is abusive, and not every interaction with someone who has abused me is negative. In some cases there has been an extraordinary effort to move forward in healing and reconciliation, while in others interactions are kept at a bare minimum for the sake of family interaction. It’s a long road, and everyone chooses to handle it differently.
I have learned that the best way to heal from abuse is not to turn away from it, but to face it, to shine a light on it. Not to deny it or ignore that it happened to me. I struggled for a long time about feeling worthless, of feeling as if something was wrong with me because I somehow allowed people to abuse me. In the end though, the problem lies with the way these people handled their relationship with me. I have found that being able to relate my experiences, to have the courage to say “this happened to me, this is part of my truth; a part of who I am…”has been one of the most powerful ways to combat the trauma of the abuse I have suffered.
Shame researcher Brene Brown has conducted research to back up the importance of speaking shame, noting that it “cannot survive being spoken…and being met with empathy”. Not only does speaking about the things that make us feel small and vulnerable help us relate to one another, help us understand that we are not alone in our journey, it also takes away the power of dark internal voices that serve to isolate us from one another, and from moving forward as our full selves.
When I talk about my full self, I mean the parts of me that are ugly. I mean the parts that are still afraid of the things about which they were once made to feel less worthy. These parts of me are delicate, and vulnerable, but their web stretches across all of the bolder, more obvious bits. I want to realize the things I dislike as much as the things I do: my tendency to be impulsive and confident is as important as my fear of abandonment, my ability to ask for what I want is as important as my hesitance to be assertive about boundaries in my family relationships, and my consent is as powerful as all of the things I have learned about myself in being worried about saying ‘no’.
If you or someone you know is in a situation that seems verbally or emotionally abusive, I implore to find a place you feel safe to speak about it. This may be with a close friend or family member, a professional counselor, or in an online forum or self-help group. The power of having other people acknowledge and empathize with your feelings of vulnerability and shame is an enormous first step in the road to healing. Every voice that rises to name shame and abuse is another in a beautiful chorus of strong souls moving forward.
If you are in a situation where you are in immediate danger, call 911. If you have no one you can call on to confide in, or fear for your safety if you do, call the National Domestic Abuse Hotline.