I’ve been reading through my journal from the first year of the relationship with my abusive ex-husband. I’ve been reflecting on how I was gaslighted and how, in a way, I gaslighted myself. I used the same coping techniques I did when I was abused at age 15. I found myself in another abusive relationship and I immediately began self harming, restricting food, and thinking about suicide. As a distraction it worked, just as it had when I was a child. I did what I needed to do to survive. I turned to creative (if self destructive) coping techniques that got me through very difficult situations. But my inner self, my younger self did know something was wrong. There was a part of me, healthy me, which was separate from “the voice” or “Ana.” That part of me knew that my new relationship was deeply and integrally connected to my relapse and worsening psychiatric symptoms. My wise younger inner self knew that I was in trouble, but she asked for help in ways that distracted and confused other people, even her own healthy self.
This is a concept that is often very difficult for those who have not survived abuse to understand. It can be challenging to understand that the survivor will do whatever it takes to survive, even if those coping techniques may look like self destructive behaviours from the outside. The survivor may feel she has limited or no options. For various reasons she has been conditioned not to scream, tell, ask for help, run away, fight back etc…or maybe she tried those things and they didn’t work. So instead she turned to disassociation, self harm and eating disorders as a way to modulate and live with the abuse and all the symptoms of PTSD.
I was conditioned, maybe almost from birth, not to make a fuss. I was conditioned, maybe almost from birth, to be a “good girl.” I internalized this in a way that led me to blame myself for the abusive behaviours of others. If I was being hurt it was because I wasn’t a “good girl” and if I wasn’t a “good girl,” then I must be a bad girl, maybe a very bad, shameful, dirty and disgusting girl. Thus, Ana/”the voice” was born. There was a part of me that split off and became self abusive and self critical. A younger self, a part that never ages or matures. A 15 year old frozen in time.
This is how I described “the voice” when I was 20 years old (ironically the description came right after mentioning intimacy with my ex):
February 21, 2001
“My body feels too big and uncomfortable right now. I know it’s because I’ve been eating more normally and feeling hungry. The sensation of hunger is not an easy one for me. It is frightening. Like I feel afraid of losing control of myself. And yet I know that the E.D is out of control. It is a part of me that often deceives and betrays me. I know that in the end, though it feels comfortable, it cannot be trusted. The voice which tells me not to eat, tells me to cut my skin, to smash my head against a wall, to step out in front of traffic all sorts of dangerous hurtful things. It speaks to me in persuasive ways. It is a part of me and yet foreign. My ally and my enemy, my strength and my destruction. But after so many years it is the way I know. A method of ridding myself of unwanted feelings”
When I was 20 I was able to recognize some of the signs of abusive behaviour in my ex. I was able to identify that I felt afraid. But I didn’t draw the right conclusions from there. I blamed myself, I thought I needed to work on my depression, my recovery, get better at coping with anger etc. My younger self tried to problem solve by changing herself, just as she had at age 15. Just as she had for her entire life.
March 12, 2001 [written after being asked to swing dance with and dancing with a friend, a man I’d briefly dated]
“So the evening was going well until one crucial moment…asked me to dance. I figured one dance wouldn’t hurt and I didn’t think [he] would mind…but [he] did get upset and left the room. I followed after the song was over. [He] got angry at me saying that I couldn’t stand up for myself and say NO. He totally misunderstood and overreacted. I got terribly upset and started crying totally uncontrollably…I was so disappointed that my night was ruined. I felt so much like hurting I became filled with intense suicidal thoughts. I hate feeling my independence threatened by a relationship. I want the freedom to choose who is in my life. When [he] gets angry it just terrifies me and makes me want to hurt, with him is when I feel the strongest feelings”
My younger self clearly articulated that she felt uncomfortable with being controlled and with the jealous behaviour. She clearly made a link between the angry jealous behaviour of her boyfriend and the suicidal and self harm impulses. My younger self was wise on a deeper level, and yet she stayed with that man for 13 years. It’s difficult to make sense of. My adult self wants to travel back in time to that night, to go back to the dance with my friends, to tell him in no uncertain terms to F*#K OFF and leave me alone. My adult self wants to protect that younger me, give her the strength to listen to her instincts and fight back rather than turning to a downward spiral of self destruction that would lead to 4 years in and out of psychiatric hospitals.
The next day, March 12, 2001 I was admitted to the hospital. I wrote in my journal again, but made no link between the previous evening and my suicidal obsessive thoughts. The self destruction worked as a distraction from his controlling behaviour. The hospital was a place to get away from him. The routine and the process of hospitalization was an escape. I would feel safer in the hospital for a few hours or a few days, then I’d realize that the hospital wasn’t a solution and I’d want to be home.
I think what I really wanted was to be safe. What I needed to be safe was to exit the abusive relationship in those early stages, when I still had the chance.
Because within a few short weeks I was already beginning to convince myself it was my depression and PTSD causing the issues in our relationship:
March 26, 2001
“The things that I thought were stable and unchanging have become uncomfortable. I can’t tell if it’s my depression pushing [him] away or actually me. It’s so hard to face that possibility. I want things between us to be simple again. I miss how easy we used to be together. Now I feel distant from our relationship”
April 4, 2001
“I don’t feel as easy around [him] lately. Mind you I haven’t felt easy around anyone lately. I feel withdrawn, like I have built up the walls around me for protection from the storm. But this is so ineffective because my storm is coming mainly from within. I don’t know how to protect myself from myself. I really am my own worst enemy”
Maybe I was never my own worst enemy.
Maybe the storm was never “mainly” from within. Maybe I was confused and living with emotional abuse and gaslighting. Maybe I bought into blaming myself as a coping technique, as a way to survive, and as a way to feel more in control of a scary situation. I blamed myself and my mental illness rather than facing the reality that I was in an abusive relationship. It was “easier” to seek help through psychiatry than it was to leave the relationship.
Looking back it all seems clear. But my 20 year old self had less wisdom, less experience, less resources and less knowledge. My 20 year old self did the best she could. She did try to express herself, she just didn’t have the skills to listen to herself or to ask for the type of help she truly needed. And those around her weren’t able to interpret her self destructive behaviours as, not a cry for attention or a manipulation, but a message. A red flag waving, signalling that all was not well. Help was needed, but psychiatry wasn’t the correct tool for the task.
Unfortunately, my younger self wouldn’t cross the threshold of a rape crisis centre for another 12 years.