“There’a a phrase, “the elephant in the living room”, which purports to describe what it’s like to live with a drug addict, an alcoholic, an abuser. People outside such relationships will sometimes ask, “How could you let such a business go on for so many years? Didn’t you see the elephant in the living room?” And it’s so hard for anyone living in a more normal situation to understand the answer that comes closest to the truth; “I’m sorry, but it was there when I moved in. I didn’t know it was an elephant; I thought it was part of the furniture.” There comes an aha-moment for some folks – the lucky ones – when they suddenly recognize the difference.”
I was a victim of emotional abuse.
*takes a deep breath*
Let me elaborate.
I’ve always had an interesting relationship with self esteem. There are some ways in which I’ll cop to being downright arrogant. There are also ways in which I find myself thinking I’m completely worthless. These feelings tend to exist on a spectrum, as most things do. My real struggles with my self esteem started just around the time my issues with my gender identity came to the fore. There seemed a direct line between these two things, so I didn’t question it very hard at first. At that point, I was embarking on a journey into the unknown, finally able to explore a side of myself I’d always hidden before. It seemed only natural to me to ask questions about my self worth. It made perfect sense to me to question whether or not I was even capable (read: good enough) of pulling off this coming out and transitioning thing. Every failure seemed justified because I didn’t think I was smart enough, or good enough, or capable enough, or that I was worthy of having the happiness and joy I’d seen this transition bring to others.
It seemed odd to me then, that as I settled into life after coming out, those feelings didn’t go away. I felt very sure of who I was. I’d spent more time than I care to recall exploring my identity and figuring out who I was. This wasn’t just some run of the mill self doubt. I’d successfully made it through my social transition, had my legal transition well under way, and was working toward getting things in order with work so I could transition there. I’d accomplished so much and came so far. Why was I doubting myself so hard? Why did my failures all make perfect sense to me when I was shocked and bewildered by my successes? Why did I find it so incredibly hard to believe it when anything said something nice about me?
It was not too long into this process, I read an article that set me on the path to figuring out all of these questions. I searched over and over again trying to find this article again to no avail. The title was something akin to “How I became an abuser and didn’t realize it.” The story was of a woman who’d become emotionally abusive to her husband, then recognized what she’d done, worked to make it right, and shared her experiences with others as a caution for them not to do the same. She gave an example that hit me square in the chest. She was the one who did most of the cooking in the house. One night she wasn’t feeling well and sent her husband out to get some ground beef. Her husband came back with the wrong kind, and she found herself berating him for it. She would say things like “why can’t I ever trust you to do simple things?” “Why can’t you ever remember what I tell you?” “What’s wrong with you?” and the like.
I immediately saw myself in the husband. These were all questions I’d been asked by my ex time after time. If I didn’t put just the right amount of food in the dog bowls, if I gave them the wrong number of treats, if I drove the car in the wrong lane, if I missed an exit or took the route she didn’t like me to take, I would be asked these questions time and time again. I didn’t realize this as it was happening, but I really did start to internalize those ideas. I asked myself constantly “My god, what IS wrong with me?” “Why I can’t I even remember to do these simple things?” “I’m just a horrible partner, I guess.” I believed these things about myself. It was more or less a coincidence that the downfall of my relationship to this person happened as I began to struggle more and more with my gender identity, which made it easy for me to pin these things on my gender identity instead of my abusive relationship.
It was easy not to recognize, as is often the case, when I was in the situation. I really did make mistakes, and plenty of them. I was even thoughtless and careless sometimes in a way that justified anger on the part of my ex. I’m no saint, nor have I ever been. But there are no mistakes that justify robbing someone of their self worth.
Once I figured this out, it all became so clear. I believed that I was clumsy, unintelligent, and forgetful, to the point where my worth and usefulness as a person was suspect. I would get nervous about performing every day tasks for fear of the verbal shellacking I was to receive if I didn’t perform exactly to specifications. The joy was sucked out of every day things. When time came close for her to get home from work, I’d walk the house making sure everything was in it’s place, scroll through text messages to make sure I didn’t forget anything, and the hair on the back of my head would stand up when I heard that car pull into the driveway, absolutely dreading to hear my name called from the next room in a frustrated and exasperated voice.
Abuse, like any other human experience, resides on a spectrum. One of the most unhealthy things a person can do is to compare their experiences to others in an effort to undermine their own feelings about what they’ve been through. As a society, we tend to treat all the various forms of abuse based on their perceived severity. We tend to think of things in terms of what’s worse to us instead of asking how the abuse effects the person who is being abused. That’s a view we’d do best to leave behind.
Because people experience abuse differently, it only makes sense to deal with abuse on the level to which it has consequences for the abused. There are some people whose experiences have very few lasting consequences for their day to day lives, and there are some for whom their experience was debilitating. There are often scenarios where someone was deeply and irreversibly harmed by something that may seem rather benign to the outside. There are those who’ve gone through what we might consider the worst experience one could possibly have and come out on the other side relatively unscathed. There is an entire spectrum of experience between these extremes, and we, as a society, need to come to terms with that.
For my part, if we’re discussing the consequences, I’d have to say the lasting effects fall at a 3 or a 4 out of 10, if 10 is the worst kind of debilitating fallout. I’m not interested in taking up space meant for survivors of trauma, because I wouldn’t use the word “trauma” to describe what I’ve been through. It certainly does, though, have lasting consequences for my self worth, my self esteem, and my confidence. My relationship with my current girlfriend hasn’t escaped these consequences either. We have, by all measures, an extremely healthy relationship. I’m fixated so hard on how healthy our relationship is, I borderline obsess over the fact I may lose it somehow. I’m working through that.
I think my story is an important illustration of the fact that sometimes abuse isn’t overt. Not all abusers are monstrous caricatures. I’m positive the person who did these things to me didn’t intend the consequences of their actions. None of that changes the affect it’s had on me though. If you’re hurting because something like this happened to you, please don’t think that you weren’t hurt enough to be effected. Please don’t wonder if your experience is worth talking about. Please know your experiences and feelings are valid, and most of all, know that you’re cared for and loved.
If you’re in an abusive situation and need help, please reach out to The National Center on Domestic and Sexual Violence at http://www.ncdsv.org/.