I’ve come to know a lot about fear, after having lived a largely fear-less life for about 35.5 years of it. I’m thankful my encounters with fear came to me late in life, as I was relatively stable and balanced and so was, perhaps, more equipped and so more able to deal with it. I was weakened, towards the end, however, from years of abuse: emotional abuse – the most insidious kind – and, later, psychological, financial and physical. The abuse had, I now recognise, weakened me to such a point that I didn’t really have the strength to find me any more and so, without my me, my essence, my internal compass to guide me, it was easy for him to manipulate me, to play with me, puppet-like, whilst he implanted, enacted, his devilish Machiavellian plans. Had I not been thus weakened, I would never have succumbed.
As it was, I did. I became a shadow of my former self, protecting him from any accusations of abuse, because, I thought – through my fog – he loved me, loved us, was simply stressed and, as such, needed my help more than ever. I, the dutiful – devoted – wife played along, a deadly dance, the praying mantis at my side actually ready to eat me whenever he felt it would be necessary. I feel nauseous as I think of all the evils committed against us. I spent months, this last year, trying to find an explanation, trying to understand but, you know, there’s no understanding to be had when you’re dealing with someone who’s mentally ill, who has a psychiatric condition that means he has been shaped to act this way.
Shaped. There’s a word. I remember a friend telling me a while ago how Shakespeare wrote “She unshaped me”…as I read her words, I realised that’s what he used to do to me: unshape me. He’d got me so low, so uncertain, so unsure of myself that I had become unravelled, unshaped, uncertain of even my own mind, my own desires, feelings and my own sense of self-preservation. It’s frightening, looking back, how it happened. I can see how it happened, now, but when I was in the middle of it, I wasn’t able to see. They liken abuse to a frog in a pot of water that’s slowly heated: the water starts off at a manageable temperature but as it’s slowly heated, the frog doesn’t feel the gradual change…by the time the water is getting too hot, there’s no way out….the frog is trapped, unable to move because it’s lethargic, dumbed down by the slowly increasing temperature…
That’s what abuse is like. I can vouch for it. You know its wrong, of course, that he shouts, belittles you, makes fun of you, acts inappropriately at intimate moments, doesn’t let you see friends or speak to your family, but you’re so good, you make excuses, assume he’ll change….the thing is, he won’t, he doesn’t. Instead, it gets worse. But, by then, your confidence is shot to pieces and you’re like the poor frog: you can’t see a way out because he’s worn you down to such a degree that you can’t think straight, you can’t act normally, you can’t behave as you would normally.
Aside from this, there’s the fear. The fear he’s instilled in you. The fear that he’ll seriously harm you (not ‘just’ bruises in places people can’t see) or that he’ll carry out his threats and take the children or enact any number of other threats that he makes against you. When you’re not thinking straight because you can’t think straight these threats feel so real they strike fear in your heart and make you submit constantly to this evil game, because if you can’t leave, there’s only one way through: submission. Submission for survival. Locked in to an evil dance, one side fearful, the other side feared. A fear-based power struggle known through the ages.
It’s said that woman exposed to domestic violence don’t report the violence until an average of 68 incidents have occurred. Why? I can’t speak for everyone, only for myself. And I, myself, say that my case is one that bumps the average up: I experienced probably more than a couple of hundred incidents (that are classed as crimes) before I reported the abuse. Why did I wait so long? I passed through many stages: hoping he’d change (“He’s just stressed, he’s never been like this before”); denial (“It really wasn’t that bad and, anyway, he’s not like this so it must just have been an isolated incident”); self-reproach (“Did I do something that provoked that reaction?”); initial fear stages (“OMG, this is happening and its not getting any better….but where do I go? Who do I tell? I don’t want to break up the family”); deeper fear stages (“OK. He’s an abusive man. He’s threatened me physically, many times and now he’s enacting the threats…how do I leave? Where do I go? What about the children?); sheer terror (“He’s likely to kill me – or harm the children – if I leave, so I can’t leave”); blind-terror provokes action (“He did something so bad, I have to get help. It’s the only responsible thing to do for the children)…..
These stages, all of them, really, are lived in a blanket – a fog – of fear. And the confidence/acuity/sense of preservation that was taken from me by the abuse was further eroded by the fear he created. It’s a paralysing fear. A fear that takes away any last shred of common sense and knowledge of what you should do. Because, when you’re that low, that terrified, you don’t – can’t – think straight. Your options are not clear. And when you perhaps only have one chance to get out and to report what’s happening, that chance is analysed, re-analysed and then analysed some more, all possible ways it can go wrong being picked over, all possible problems identified and possible solutions thought through….the whole process of trying to report it is fraught with anxiety-creating worries, with problems…and those problems generate their own fears….so your mind (which is usually strong) feels like a battlefield…with no safe place….your confusion confounds you and you find yourself stuck. Paralysed. Unable to move. Unable to make a decision. Unable to go anywhere. However unbelievable this may sound, your reality in the face of that at that point seems more bearable than the unknown because in the unknown, you can’t count on anything. At least where you are, things have a regular pattern, take regular turns…you know it and you can deal. In contrast, when it’s reported, you don’t know what will happen. You don’t know what reaction he will have, how much support you’ll get (whether you will get support), you just don’t know….
There’s fear all round when you live with abuse. It’s worse than the slowly-boiling frog, actually, it’s a Chinese water torture with boiling water, the fear penetrating your very essence, driving you crazy…the lack of options enducing pure panic, an emotion you can’t deal with, as that would be the start of some sloppy slidey crazy making. For your children, you accept the fear you know (because it’s only the too many unknowns surrounding your children if you report it that stops you reporting it) and you buckle in to withstand the abuse. You know it’s not OK for your children – obviously you know that – but you’ve seen him work his evil magic, his sinister manipulations, and you fear what would happen if you go to a custody battle. He’s capable of charming his way out of anything, however grave (you’ve witnessed that with your own two eyes, many times). And – bottom line – you can’t accept any move that would increase the risk of your children being left alone with him. Because you fear what would happen if they were.
See? Fear. It’s everywhere when you’re an abused Mama. My Gran always used to say, “Better the devil you know”. I lived with that for many years. Out of fear. The darkest years of my life. Stolen from me by the fears he’d instilled in me. I remember a film I watched when I was a teenager – “Strictly Ballroom” – there’s a line in it that stood out at me, at the time, one I remember often nowadays, now I’m almost free of him. The main character says to the girl he’s falling in love with, “A life lived in fear is a life half lived”. It rings around my head, often….I wasn’t living even half a life during all those years of fear. It was, simply, not a life. It was me existing not living. Barely existing.
That’s a sad thing indeed. Sad for anyone but it makes me so, so sad for me, because I have so much to offer but, also, for my children…they shouldn’t have had to see their Mama (their beloved Mama) living in abject fear. We’re working on recovery, all of us together. We’re resilient. We love, we laugh, we see the bright side (only the bright side). We’ll make it. And, slowly, as hope replaces fear, we’re forgetting. Memories, from traumas deep, resurface often, but they’re popping up less often now, for all of us. Time is, as they say, a great healer.
[Rather a heavy post in the midst of all the Christmas posts, but I feel, in my heart, it’s the right thing for me to be doing, baring my soul here, telling my story of abuse…because abuse happens everywhere to too many many women….perhaps more of us telling our stories about abuse – and the un-shaping – and fear – it causes – will break taboos and make it easier – somehow – for women to feel they can reach out for help. Because it’s not OK, in any way, shape or form, for women to live their lives in fear. It’s not OK that women have to live their lives in fear because systems are still not in place that enable women to feel that they have a clear and safe path out, a pathway that would protect them, and their children, from the moment they leave until the moment their abuser is charged].
[Image from here]