Trigger warning: emotional abuse, link to/veiled references to sexual abuse
One of the hardest parts about moving on from an emotionally abusive relationship has been recognising the impact that it has had on aspects of my personality and my own behaviour. I am regularly taken by surprise by my reactions to seemingly inconsequential events because of expectations based on previous experience. I will often detach, feeling like I am watching both the situation unfold and my own emotions that follow, knowing that often my reaction is disproportionate to what has happened, but feeling completely powerless to do anything about it. As someone who considers themselves strong and independent and able to deal with an incredible amount of trials and tribulations (TW), this is physically painful to me and does nothing to ease the trauma.
Take for example this every day sort of incident: not long after Gaz and I started seeing each other, he was walking through the kitchen of his flat when stubbed his toe on a portable radiator he had against the back wall. He yelped in pain/surprise and I physically winced. Not in sympathy or acknowledgement of his pain, but because of a sudden overwhelming fear that enveloped my body. My eyes started to water, I felt adrenaline surging through my body as the fight or flight reaction took hold. My body, my reaction, completely out of tune with what should have been an “oooh, are you ok love?” response. It took hours for me to ‘come down’ from that, and it was only months later that I was able to fully explain to Gaz what I had experienced in that moment. He, of course, didn’t even remember stubbing his toe (why should he?)
I know now that this response is caused by conditioning: that over time I have experienced so much negativity following incidents like that, that even though logically I knew I was safe and Gaz would react like a normal / rational person, my brain thought I was ‘in for it’. That I should expect verbal abuse because it would be all my fault.
I’m getting better at dealing with those sorts of incidents. Gaz tripped up the stairs recently (I’m making him sound incredibly clumsy) and although I had a wibble, my immediate emotional response was concern rather than fear.
However, one thing I still struggle with particularly during periods of high anxiety (generally in the week or so when I’m off the pill, and when I’m overly stressed or very tired) and can’t seem to shake is a different sort of fear: fear of abandonment. If I feel that I’ve done anything ‘wrong’ or that I’m causing upset I start to panic. Trigger for this can vary from something as harmless as a sarcastic comment meant in humour to Gaz physically turning around/away from me (with completely innocent intent). When this happens I am again gripped by feelings I have no control over, and this usually results in one of two reactions: I cry, and act like a needy child wanting reassurance, or I start to use passive aggressive behaviour in a push away/pull you close cycle, making sarcastic comments or resurfacing tiny irrelevant incidents in my head from months past to use as ‘ammo’ in case I need to argue, to fight. This in itself is a form of emotional abuse and it kills me that I recognise the things in my behaviour that have been done to me.
I have yet to wrap my head around why, when I was in that harmful relationship, I completely failed to spot or identify with any of the feelings that I experience now. I had no idea that I felt actual physical fear when I knew I was likely to be used as the excuse or blame for an incident not of my causing. It was just normal. It was how it was. To know that I was so completely out of touch with my own mind that I could not recognise something as powerful as fear makes me really, really fucking angry. And ashamed that I could be so stupid.
As a result of spending a huge part of my life waiting for incidents and accidents I’ve developed a weird sort of hypervigilance. I have empathy up to the eyeballs which allows me to very quickly identify with other people’s range of moods and feel spectacular depths of happiness (which itself causes me so much fucking pain: try being that person in the playground who cries at the sight of their child at the end of the school day “just because”) and, conversely, sadness. Anyway, this hypervigilance was vital in dealing with someone who operated on a very small scale of ‘okay’ and meant that I could try and react appropriately to nip a problem in the bud before it developed into a full blown argument. Of course this meant using the one thing I felt like I had any control over to try and placate and please: my body. The irony of this isn’t lost on me… having to fuck your way out of an argument is not empowering and the person in control was clearly never me.
The hypervigilance remains, but not everyone operates on a such a small scale of black or white in their emotional range. “Normal” people experience a range of feelings, which confuse my little internal radar. When Gaz comes home from work after a shit day and I can see the tiredness in his eyes and the stress in his expression, the “deal with this” alarm kicks in. I backtrack in my head to what I could have done, what part of my day made his stress my fault. A tiny part of my brain reminds me again and again that this wasn’t me but the tiny voice is drowned out by the shouts of “WHAT HAVE YOU DONE?” and “FIX THIS SHIT”. Of course I can’t fix it, because it’s not my problem nor responsibility to fix anything, and so the despair and uselessness floods in and Miss Fear of Abandonment comes aknocking.
I am getting better. Sometimes, when I feel something affecting the stability of my mood, I can talk myself down or distract myself from it. Sometimes I can fix things with a long run. Sometimes I type out stupidly long blog entries (although I usually delete them). Sometimes I spend money unnecessarily (less ideal). Mostly I just lean on Gaz and remember that I am very lucky to have found someone who isn’t scared by the journey I have yet to take, and who hasn’t faltered when I’ve needed him so far.