I started this post as the introduction to You Lured Me In. What Changed?, but when I realized that the introduction was becoming longer than the poem, I decided to make a separate post for it.
The poem came out of the aftermath of a relationship that went from mutually beneficial to abusive in a short span of time. A common misconception about abuse is that it only occurs in romantic relationships or between family members. This was not a typical abusive relationship. It was in no way romantic, and neither my friend nor I wanted it to be, but she and I had known each other since kindergarten, and there was a lot of history between us. I lived with her for most of a year in 2014-2015, and near the end of that time I decided that I couldn’t live with her anymore. At that time, things were still fairly good between us, but she had started smoking (again), which I have had a strong aversion to my whole life, and she was planning to relocate when the lease was up. She wanted me to move with her, but the new location would be very inconvenient for me and though I considered moving with her, in the end I decided not to.
I’m not entirely sure how we went from me letting her know that my needs and hers were no longer compatible to the madness that followed, but it turned very ugly very fast, and she got verbally abusive in a way that started out subtle and became quite blatant over the course of a months-long email battle. Her final email to me was several pages long, but could be summarized as ‘You are a horrible person and you destroy everything you touch. I still love you even though I wish you would change everything about yourself, but no one else would want to love you.’ Fortunately, there are other people in my life who genuinely love me and who could tell me that I wasn’t any of the things she claimed.
The scariest part of this whole ordeal for me was what I saw in hindsight, which I suspect is the case for most victims of abuse. In retrospect, the fact that she had somehow forgotten how much I despise smoking, had forgotten how I had railed against it and went out of my way to avoid even walking past people who were smoking, and had forgotten how I had questioned her about her smoking before I moved in was a sign that she didn’t value my needs. Her choice to smoke was her own, but her disbelief when I reminded her that I wasn’t okay with living with a smoker was a bad sign. In retrospect, the fact that she didn’t come home for days at a time after I told her I couldn’t live with her anymore, and was angry about something every time she did come home was a bad sign. The fact that she gave me the brush off every time I tried to ask if she was okay or if there was a problem was a bad sign. But even adding all those things together, we hadn’t gotten to the point where it was recognizably abuse. The worst abuse came in the emails.
I don’t know if it was the medium of writing, or if it was the time and distance that put her in that space, but I believe wholeheartedly that she didn’t set out to abuse me. I don’t think she realizes that she did, though how she could have said the things she did and not recognized what she was doing is difficult to understand. I think that is the saddest and scariest part of abuse, that abusers are people too, and despite how calculating their actions seem, sometimes there is no grand master plan, no cold calculation of how to hurt their victims most. They do incredible damage, but a lot of abusers are victims of abuse, and probably thought at some point “I will never be like that.”
I used to feel that way about abusive relationships. I thought, “I would never be in an abusive relationship. I would see it and I would get out fast. I’m a good judge of character, I would never fall for their lines.” I have met several people who turned out to be abusers, and not seen through their facades, although I didn’t know any of them well. Then a few years ago, I heard a talk that scared me badly. The topic of the talk was empaths, which I identify as. According to the speaker, empaths are the favorite targets of abusers, especially narcissists. I don’t particularly care if you believe in empaths, but in this case I would say we are the people who can’t help crying when someone else is suffering, who always want to help, and who try to take responsibility for other people’s problems. We like to fix things, and there are just some things we can’t fix, including the self-perpetuating victim. A lot of the things I read about abuse in the process of writing this piece mention that abusers often play the victim. Playing the victim has a lot of benefits, not least of which is that you don’t have to take responsibility for anything. There is always somewhere else to place the blame when you play the victim, whether that is another person or a set of circumstances. Empaths can easily be sucked into a pattern of trying to help self-perpetuating victims, who then become their abusers, and the empaths just keep trying to help them, sympathizing when the abusers complain about all the things they can’t control, and keep taking responsibility when the abusers get angry or point out a problem. When I heard that talk about empaths, I realized I couldn’t be sure that I wouldn’t get sucked into that kind of situation. I still don’t know if it would have been different with a stranger, but having known my friend for years and having so much shared history, I didn’t see it coming.
In one of her first emails to me after we moved out of the apartment, she told me it was insensitive of me to use word “violated” to describe how I felt about something when she was a victim of rape, and I had “never experienced what it means to be truly violated.” This is one of the best ways to identify a self-perpetuating victim. The self-perpetuating victim claims a monopoly on pain. They are the only one to have suffered, and no one else can understand their suffering. Often a self-perpetuating victim has suffered real trauma, so dismissing that pain is neither realistic nor useful. You might be tempted to offer solutions, but the self-perpetuating victim always has a reason why your solutions won’t work, why your help is insufficient, or why you need to take more responsibility for their pain. Unfortunately, I didn’t see her patterns for what they were until the final email, and by then it was blatant verbal abuse.
I don’t hate her. In fact, I still want to help her, but I realized that she would not accept my help at this point. She claims to be the victim in this situation, and though it is a lesson I have been struggling to learn for years, I do know that I cannot help the self-perpetuating victim. No matter what help I offer, she will always have a problem I can’t fix, her situation will never be her fault, and there will always be something else she needs from me or some way she needs me to change myself to suit her needs.
In the end, I chose to end all contact, which was easier said than done, since we have several mutual friends. Since that last awful email she sent me, after which I decided to cease contact, I have seen her twice, both times with other people around. Each time I braced myself for ranting, blaming, or anything like what she wrote in her emails. I felt panicky, shaky and sick to my stomach before I even saw her. She acted like we were still friends, which was somehow worse than anything I was expecting, and made me feel like I had walked into a parallel universe. That more than anything confirmed for me that what was going on was abuse, especially when I read other accounts of abuse and saw that the “Did that really happen? Am I going crazy?” thoughts are a common effect of abuse.
Abuse is a creature of darkness. It doesn’t work when it’s openly acknowledged. It’s also incredibly uncomfortable to confront, so most people find it easier to blame the victim of abuse, wondering why the victim doesn’t just leave the situation. I’ve heard it compared to the story about frogs. Supposedly, if you put a frog in hot water, it jumps out, but if you put it in cold water and heat it slowly, the frog stays in until it dies. Abuse grows slowly, and most victims of abuse don’t have much power or many alternatives to their situation by the time they can see the abuse for what it is. I am so incredibly lucky to have gotten out of the situation as easily as I did, and to have dealt with the abuse I received for such a short time. I want to help people who aren’t so lucky.
The more people who become aware of abuse, how it works and how to recognize it, the better chance we have of stopping it. I encourage everyone to face down your discomfort with the topic and check out some of the links below. You never know. Maybe someday having read up on abuse will save your life, or someone else’s.
Please comment, especially if you have other resources or stories you’d like to share.
Links to other resources, stories and thoughts on abuse:
Brené Brown is an amazing author who studies shame and its effects. Abuse is a symptom of shame, so finding healthy ways to deal with shame is essential. I was taking her online class and reading her book Daring Greatly during the last part of the email battle, and it made a huge difference in how I handled it. My first impulse was to bury myself under my duvet, eat junk food and hide what was going on until I figured out how much of what my friend said in her emails was true. Instead, I forwarded the email to another friend who I knew would be honest with me and asked what she thought the situation was. It was such a relief to talk to someone outside the situation, because when I let her see the inner workings of the relationship, she could clearly see the abuse for what it was, and helped me realize that I wasn’t going crazy.
How to Set Healthy Boundaries by MakeItUltra™ is short and simple, but has great information. Abuse always involves some type of crossing of boundaries, whether physical, mental or emotional. I also appreciate the positive outlook of the posts on his blog. So much of the information out there has a doom-and-gloom feel, and it’s nice to read useful information that’s also uplifting.
What is Emotional Abuse? and Emotional Abuse are very simple lists of characteristics of abuse. I think it’s important to have a reference, because often things change slowly. I didn’t recognize a lot of the changes, even though my relationship changed much faster than most. Also, it is easy to forgive one or two of these when they appear to be separate things. There are some things that I didn’t recognize as characteristics of abuse until I saw them on the list, and seeing the list helps identify patterns in a person’s behavior.
Breathing Underwater, by Alex Flinn is one of the most difficult things I have ever read, and I am so very glad I read it. It’s told from the point of view of an abuser. There’s also a sequel told from the point of view of his girlfriend/victim. Reading Breathing Underwater, I often felt nauseated and like I couldn’t breathe, but I also felt like I could… not sympathize with the main character exactly, but understand how he got to where he was going, and that he wasn’t an evil sociopath. Having read this made it a lot easier to choose to end the email battle with my friend rather than continue trying to figure out how I could mend the relationship, and to let go of my own heartbreak over what happened. I could identify that she was engaging in abusive behavior without feeling like I was labeling her as a monster.
This post about glamorizing suicide and abuse is a very interesting commentary. The culture around abuse makes it difficult to talk about it openly and honestly, and I agree that often it gets glamorized or romanticized. In my opinion, even Disney’s Beauty and the Beast is a romanticization of an abusive relationship, and I know I’m not the only one who thinks so.
How Narcissistic Abusers Convince Friends and Family that the Victim is to Blame and Narcissistic abuse: who is the real victim? tell stories of women who suffered abuse, and have great information on recognizing abusive relationships. Difficult to read, but well worth it. I am so thankful to these women for sharing their stories and reminding other victims that they are not alone.