Through some parts of my youth I kept diaries. Never entirely consistently, but consistently for periods of time, especially when I was in treatment or in hospital. I’ve been thinking back to this time of year in 2001. My first year with my abusive ex husband. My first year in psychiatric care. My first year engaging in severe self harm. My first psychiatric admissions (aside from eating disorder treatment). My first suicide attempts. It’s interesting how all these “firsts” coincided so neatly in time with my new relationship. At the time I thought it was because memories of the abuse I survived as a teenager were triggered and surfaced when I became sexually active. That was part of it. But there was more to it than that. There was subtle abuse in my relationship with my ex husband that started very early on. The seeds of gaslighting and emotional abuse were being planted.
It started with showering me with affection and attention. It started with making me feel special and loved, almost to the point of making me uncomfortable. It started with planning for the life we’d have together, the kids we’d have, the marriage…within months of meeting me (I was 19!). It started with gifts, cards, flowers, spending all our time together. It started with gradually isolating me from my other friends and social outlets.
Then some lies started. And the lies were repeated so often I believed them to be true.
These lies were focused around my mental health problems and their link to my feelings about his abusive behaviours. He would tell me that it was because of my PTSD that I was uncomfortable with something. He would tell me that a “normal woman” would be okay with it. He would make me feel guilty, tell me that he felt like there were three people in the relationship: me, him and X. He made me feel like I was CHOOSING to have flashbacks, like I was CHOOSING to think about X rather than him. Almost like X was someone I never quite got over, a lost lover, rather than an abuser who had traumatized me to the point I often had flashbacks during any type of intimacy. Over time, the lies were repeated to the point that I felt crazy. I felt like I was to blame for the problems with intimacy in our relationship. We even sought out support from a sex therapist to talk about this. I had blood tests and was checked to ensure my hormone levels were normal. I was completely manipulated into believing that the issues in the relationship were entirely my fault.
Today, in 2017, I realize I like some types of sex just fine. I just prefer consent to be a factor in that sex! In other words, I like sex, but I don’t like sexual abuse! It turns out, I’m not physically broken. I have PTSD. I have flashbacks, but with a safe, trusted and patient partner I can be okay. But because of the lasting impacts of gaslighting, I struggle with saying no. I struggle with blaming myself for anything that might go wrong. I struggle with identifying and communicating what I want or enjoy. And I still fall back into patterns of believing that I’m crazy.
When I left my ex husband, I mainly remembered and talked about the sexual abuse that happened in the last 5-6 years of our marriage. These were the incidents I felt most comfortable labeling “sexual assault” and “rape.” When asked, I couldn’t really describe when the sexual abuse started. I couldn’t really remember the first time. I couldn’t really say when things started to go wrong.
But reading back in my diary from 2001, the first year we were together, there are so many red flags. I can hear my 20 year old self trying to convince herself that things were okay. I can hear my 20 year old self trying to believe that she loved this man she barely knew. I can hear my 20 year old self trying to rationalize that things would be better with him when SHE was better, when SHE stopped cutting, when SHE stopping being so depressed. I can hear her trying to convince herself it was the right choice, and I feel deeply sad for her.
June 8, 2001
“The evening went well until the car ride home. Before getting in the car I was feeling panic starting. [He] tried to kiss me but I pulled away. He got offended. I tried to explain but he got angry and said he felt stifled like he couldn’t be spontaneous. He said I only make love to him out of duty. I got really upset and started crying and I couldn’t breathe. It was like a panic attack and I couldn’t stop hyperventilating. I just was so very scared. I’m terrified of being with [him], but I do love him too. It’s such a dilemma all the time. I feel like it would be easier for me to get better without the strong feelings of a relationship. But on the other hand [he] is my support. I don’t know. It’s so tough right now. I’m so scared of my life and everything in it”
Looking back on the things I wrote, I realize that I was barely more than a child myself. Just turned 20 years old. I had just disclosed the abuse from my childhood, just started counseling. I was talking about abuse I’d kept inside for 5 years. I was in full PTSD crisis mode, complete with flashbacks, hyper vigilance, anxiety and nightmares. I was on psychiatric medication cocktails for the first time. I was self harming almost daily and had recently attempted suicide.
It was perfectly normal that I didn’t always want to be intimate with someone.
Today, I choose to forgive my 20 year old self for not knowing this. I choose to forgive her for not knowing that she was having normal coping reactions to trauma and that she was not crazy. I choose to forgive her for being tricked into a situation where, instead of healing and support, she found gaslighting, confusion, entrapment and more sexual abuse.
I know I’ll wake up tomorrow, or the next day and feel confused again. I’ll wonder if the abuse was my fault. I’ll think that I’m exaggerating or that I’m making things up. I’ll start to feel the thoughts creep in that I’m not normal. I’ll start to wish that I had died all those years ago when I attempted suicide. I’ll start to believe his lies again, because a long term emotionally abusive relationship includes an element of near brainwashing which can take years of healing, therapy, patience, self love and self forgiveness to recover from.
But just for today, I want 20 year old me to know that her reactions were normal. That she was allowed to say no to that kiss for any reason. She was especially allowed to say no to that kiss when she was triggered. She had the right to say no without consequence, without anger, without bullying and blaming. She had the right to have needs and preferences and anxieties.
It wasn’t her fault that he didn’t understand consent.