Can emotional abuse be sexual abuse?

woman looking away

A black and white image of a woman covering her face with one hand and looking downcast. Her dark hair covers her shoulders and part of her face. Photo by Juan Pablo Arenas via Pexels

I got divorced last May, and in the midst of Justin Timberlake memes and shorts weather and anticipating my upcoming book launch, the anniversary of my divorce date looms near. And I am still mad at my abuser, which is frustrating because I thought I would have overcome all my trauma in a neat, tidy package by now.

The more I process out loud, in therapy and in online support groups and in conversations with my friends and in posts to my social media, the more the shadowy puzzle pieces of the seven years I spent with him click into place and are illuminated for what they really were.

It was not “irreconcilable differences.” It wasn’t “communication issues.” It wasn’t anything like that. He orchestrated our relationship, and my submission, from day one, and unpacking that level of abuse feels like a punch in the gut. It wasn’t love, it wasn’t happiness, it wasn’t anything I thought it was. I was preyed on, targeted, groomed, and controlled, and when I left, he was so angry about it that his entire facade fell apart.

I was scared of him for years, and went to therapy to figure out what about ME was wrong, was preventing me from trusting him, was causing these conflicts and doubts in my head about our relationship. I wish I could hold my former self and tell her that there was nothing wrong with her, and that the reason she didn’t trust him was because it wasn’t safe to.

When I first left him, I knew that he had been manipulative. I caught on to the cycles of treating me nicely, lots of sex and affection, lots of praise… followed by reminding me I was a lot of work, difficult to be with, and that he was the only one who would love me like that, whenever I expressed an interest in, say, sex without him watching porn the whole time.

When I was upset or doubtful about our relationship, he would say things like, “How can you think so little of me? There is a version of me in your head that you’re upset with that’s not the real me.” And I would go to therapy and ask what I could do to not be so anxious and distrustful. I wanted to be a good wife.

When mental abusers use sex to control

There are so many facets of our relationship that I’ve become more clear about since leaving. But the one that recently gobsmacked me is the sexual aspect of his control.

When I moved into his house, our sex life disappeared overnight. He always had a good reason. First he was upset about his divorce being final, then he was stressed at work, then he was not sleeping well, etc. And I was patient, and reassured him I loved him, and waited for him to feel better, for our drives to sync back up like they had when we had been dating.

According to him, me talking about our mismatched sex drives was pressuring him, me asking him to not fantasize about group sex or watch porn while we had sex was shaming his fantasies, and me suggesting we table the idea of getting pregnant while we worked on our issues was a slap in his face and the assertion that if I wasn’t sure NOW, we may as well never try.

He started Viagra to help things along, insisting that he had the mental desire for sex but just had some physical issues with the execution of it. He took 1/4 of a Viagra before bed, with the hopes that it would “be in his system” when he woke up and he could have sex with me in the morning. Spoilers: This is not how Viagra works.

Other reasons we did not have sex included:

  • He hadn’t slept well
  • He didn’t want to prevent me from my morning workout routine
  • He didn’t like evening sex, only morning sex (but see #1)
  • He felt I was punishing him by not providing (unreciprocated) oral sex

Finally, desperately, in an attempt to not totally screw up my life by having an affair to satisfy my carnal desires, I sat him down, told him I loved him, told him that I did not want to pressure him into sex, and asked if we could open our relationship.

He absolutely blew up in fury. He said things like:

  • If you get pregnant and it’s not mine, your options are abortion or divorce.
  • If you get pregnant in the next six months, even if we don’t open the relationship, I will demand a paternity test.
  • How could you risk our marriage by getting pregnant with another man’s baby?
  • How can I trust that you will use condoms?
  • For fuck’s sake, you should have had an affair.
  • You know this means I would be able to have another partner too.

He kept me awake past midnight, demanding to know why I had dared to ask him for this. I told him, “I can’t have this conversation right now, I am so tired and I need to sleep,” and he said, “You’d better wake the hell up then.” He wouldn’t let me end the conversation. Finally I said, “I guess I didn’t think it through,” and that was the only thing that made him relent and forgive me.

To my knowledge, he remains convinced that I was already seeing someone else when I left. The introspection it would take for him to realize that he pushed me to a breaking point with his sexual manipulation tactics is never going to happen.

After a year of distance from being in this day to day minefield of affection, I realize now that he had no issues having sex with me when he needed me to feel better about our relationship. When I was in my lowest lows, he managed to rise to the occasion. This was such a pattern that, when I finally told him I was leaving, one of his legitimate grasps at the straws of our relationship was, “Did our weekend of great sex confuse you?” To be clear, our “weekend of great sex” consisted of me setting a five minute timer for oral sex, asking him to continue after my five minutes was up, and then him telling me that I didn’t understand limits and boundaries, and this was another reason we couldn’t open the relationship. Because if I couldn’t be satisfied with five minutes of lukewarm cunnilingus, how could I be satisfied by protected sex with a new partner?

Realizing I was used

This part, the realizing that our sex life was never a fun and spicy time of physical affection and mutual desire, but rather a means to keep me on my short leash and happy about it… feels disgusting. I feel used, I feel dirty, I feel gross.

I struggle to call it sexual abuse. I don’t know if it qualifies.

But if I had known? If I had known that I was consenting to sex for the sole purpose of making my brain trauma-bond to the good times so the bad times seemed less painful? If I had known that sex was being used as a weapon to keep me in line, denied when I wasn’t performing my wifely duties of shutting up and looking pretty but freely given when I was at the end of my rope? I would have left him years earlier. And that feels awful.

You aren’t alone

In the year since I left my abuser, I’ve been sharing stories from survivors on my blog. Sometimes they’re mine. Sometimes they’re not. But I share them, and I continue to speak out loud about my experiences, because there is power in the story. For anyone reading this who has felt used, abused, and controlled… you aren’t alone. And you can be okay.

For help identifying or leaving an abusive relationship, please contact the Domestic Violence Hotline. 1-800-799-7233

 

 

 

 

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Emotional exhaustion is as real as physical exhaustion

abbie-bernet-329631-unsplash

Photo by Abbie Bernet on Unsplash

This week is full of anniversaries for me.

In 2012, my first divorce was finalized on March 19.

In 2018, I began the process of leaving my second marriage on March 17.

In 2018, my stepdad died just after 1:00am on March 22 and it was the first time I had seen or spoken to my mother in fourteen months.

In 2018, I last saw my mom on March 24.

In 2018, my ex-husband berated and harassed me via text message, Facebook messenger, and phone calls on March 20, March 26, and March 27.

In 2018, the last time I pet the five cats I left behind was March 27.

In 2018, I packed and moved all of my belongings in a matter of days, moving into a new apartment on my own on March 27.

At some point around this timeline last year, I also saw my dad for the last time in person. He came to visit me after I moved out but wanted me to explain the ways I was abused before he would believe me. I had no patience for this and stopped returning his calls.

I think my body remembers all this trauma, sadness, and honestly hard ass work.

I have been nothing short of exhausted all week. I even emailed my boss that I’d have to work in the evening on Tuesday so that I could take a nap during my normal work hours. (Props to me for not forcing myself to work when I seriously had no spoons).

When I say all this to my friends and ask why I am so tired, they remind me that emotional exhaustion is as hard on the body as physical exhaustion.

I’ve been focusing on rest for the past month and a half. I try to get nine hours of sleep each night. I take baths almost daily to relax my muscles so my legs don’t hurt. I eat what I crave and no longer restrict myself, which has really opened up a lot of space in my brain that used to be filled with arbitrary rules and self-loathing.

It’s all happening at once, so fast, and I am tired.

I am, without a doubt, healthier and happier than I was a year ago. But I was also running on fumes, and my body remembers. I wasn’t taking the time to process any of my emotions then, because I needed to haul ass and survive. And I have done more than survive.

I have been unapologetically running my mouth about my abuse, my experiences, my loss, and my grief. For a year. They are mine, they belong to me, and if the people who mistreated me are upset about their portrayal in my story, they should have thought of that before they hurt me. I own everything that happened to me, and it is my right to share it.

So I share it.

Another driving force behind my continued storytelling about abuse and the self love that grew from my own personal forest fire is the fact that countless people have let me know that my story has helped them realize they were in toxic relationships too. They have left abusers, they have done the impossible.

The more we talk about it, the more we help others see that they can do it too.

But damn, I am tired.

 

The Holiday Obligation Bill of Rights

christmas catIt’s that time of year again. It’s only the first week of December but the flames on your holiday stress fire have been getting hotter since mid November. I’m prone to seasonal affective disorder, which starts as soon as the time change happens and the clocks roll back an hour. Suddenly it’s pitch black when I’m driving home from work, everything is gray and overcast, and the deadlines are rushing at me like something out of a Final Destination movie.

Personally, I’ve got a book deadline, three blog commitments (I have a new website and I’ve started publishing on Medium, though I may adjust the frequency so I’m not tripling my workload with a weekly piece on each platform), and social plans all vying for my attention. Luckily, the whimsy of the season and the thrill of shopping for the perfect gifts for my loved ones gets me through the first couple months of fall/winter, but after the new year starts, it’s just three more months of slush and snow and darkness and existential angst.

As I’ve been working toward a lower impact life (both physically and mentally), I’ve found that I naturally have created guidelines for how to spend my time. Ever the minimalist at heart, it’s important for me to remember that minimalism isn’t just about physical stuff and clutter. It’s also about a healthy schedule and mental clutter so that I make time for the priorities.

Since the holiday season is usually stuffed to the brim like an overfilled stocking with social and family obligations, I want to remind everyone that boundaries and taking care of yourself are still important and valid, even when it feels like your time is more necessary elsewhere.

Here are ten rights you have this holiday season.

  1. You have the right to stay home. Seriously. Even if it’s Christmas at your mom’s house. Even if you haven’t seen your second cousins in fifteen years. Only accept plans you WANT to do and have the ABILITY to do.
  2. You have the right to limit your budget. While “gift giving” is one of the five major love languages, the price tag is not a defining characteristic. Don’t go broke (or into debt) in an attempt to show people how much you care. If you’re close to your budget limits and still want to give more, consider handmade gifts or writing heartfelt notes, especially if the recipient is a “words of affirmation” love language person.
  3. You have the right to leave early. If you’re at a holiday party or family gathering and you’re tired, uncomfortable, or otherwise just don’t want to be there, it’s okay to say your goodbyes and head home early.
  4. You have the right to eat what you want. Love your body, eat a cookie, don’t punish yourself.
  5. You have the right to ask for what you really want. Nobody has to give it to you, but you have the right to create a wish list and be clear about what you want. One year, my sister asked for cash to help fund an alternative break trip she was taking with a group in college, and family members deemed it inappropriate to ask for cash. Unless it hurts somebody, it’s okay to ask for what you want.
  6. You have the right to reschedule social plans. Some of my closest humans probably won’t be able to get together until after Yule and Christmas have actually passed. It’ll still be a great time. You can literally reschedule your holiday festivities to a later date, or celebrate early!
  7. You have the right to call it whatever you want. Celebrate Yule, Christmas, Hannukah, or any other of the myriad winter holidays happening within this timeframe? Rock on and celebrate it your way. Pay no attention to the grumps arguing about the war on Christmas. That’s not a thing.
  8. You have the right to not call people you don’t want to talk to. I am estranged from my parents, and the holidays are one of the toughest times to be estranged. I still feel a little tug that says I should call or reach out. Nope. I do not have to open myself up to emotional abuse, and neither do you.
  9. You have the right to return or re-gift. If you receive a gift that isn’t up your alley for any reason, you are under no obligation to keep it. Don’t stress out by finding a place for it or worrying about what Great Aunt Edna will think if she never sees that sweater in your selfies.
  10. You have the right to not hug people. Neither children nor adults are obligated to hug or otherwise show affection to anyone if they don’t want to. This is especially important to impart to children, who are learning about bodily autonomy. If a little kid doesn’t want to hug and kiss grandma, make it clear to everyone that it’s not okay to force it.
  11. BONUS: You have the right to decorate as much or as little as you want. I hung my favorite ornaments on a potted palm tree. You make the rules!

Breaking the silence of parental emotional abuse

Trigger Warning: Emotional abuse. Cancer. Loss. 

Breaking the silence

May is tough for me. It’s tough at work, because I have spent the last several years in marketing for a crib mattress company and a greenhouse. It’s tough on social media, because all the ads and posts are about how to honor the woman who gave you everything. It’s tough on my mental state, because I have to realize again and again that I was raised by an emotionally abusive mother.

This is not something I have talked about publicly, because protecting the secrets is deeply ingrained in people who have experienced emotional abuse and trauma. When a book-on-CD at the library caught my eye, “Will I Ever Be Good Enough? Healing the Daughters of Narcissistic Mothers,” I hid the case in my car so no one would see. I did the same with “Toxic Parents” later. No one could see me doubt my upbringing. No one could know.

Unpacking a traumatic childhood is a lot of work. I’ve realized I don’t have very many memories of my home life from roughly age 6-12, and the positive memories I do have are from school.

It’s hard to piece together enough evidence to convince myself and others that I was abused, because emotional abuse is like “death by a thousand cuts.” Any one example on its own can be brushed off as a rough patch or a bad day. There aren’t bruises or scars I can point to in order to show you where and how I was hurt. The behavioral responses from emotional trauma develop over time amidst issues like depression, anxiety, and complex PTSD.

I started seeing a therapist when I was 14 after I started writing in my diary about wanting to die. Mom thought the therapist was indulging me and that there was nothing actually wrong besides routine teenage angst. I went until age 28 before being diagnosed with not only anxiety but severe anxiety.

The messages I had ingrained into my head from puberty onward were things like:

“No one is going to want to date you if you eat like a pig.”

“I’m going to put a tape recorder in your pockets on dates so I can see if you eat so sloppy.”

“That isn’t flattering on you.”

“Your inhaler is a placebo, you just need to lose weight.”

The criticism of my appearance, coupled with forcing me to eat a restrictive diet from a young age, led to a very unhealthy relationship with food and my body. It has taken decades for me to love my body, even though it’s fat. I’ve also finally found my own sense of style and I dress for myself in a way that makes me feel good and happy. I wear form fitting clothing as a fat woman, much to the hisses of fat shamers on the internet (and probably mom). I have stopped hiding behind baggy clothing.

Other messages I internalized were about laziness and cleanliness:

“If you have time to lean, you have time to clean.”

“Lazy, worthless, good for nothing kids.” (Said while kicking dirty clothes on the floor).

If momma was cleaning, everybody was cleaning. Well, the girls were. My sister and I were treated differently by mom but both were expected to maintain a robust schedule of chores and housekeeping. Laziness was not an option, and my worth was tied up in what I looked like and how well I could keep a house clean.

Chronically low self-esteem led me to marry the first man I ever dated, because I didn’t expect anyone to ever love me, let alone want to have sex with me. The second time she met him, my mom told me that she knew I’d marry him. When we got engaged, she told me he wasn’t good enough for me. I married him anyway. And I divorced him.

I lived with my mother and stepdad (her live-in partner, they weren’t married, but I considered him a parent) for six months after the divorce. We got along pretty great. I paid my rent in chores and job applications and was able to move out into my own place quickly. She and I remained in close contact for several years, while I heavily identified with the “mother knows best” train of thought. After all — she knew my ex husband wasn’t right for me and I should have listened.

After living on my own for 18 months, I moved in with the man who would become my second husband. We hadn’t always planned on getting married. Both divorced once already, we were wary of marriage and thought we might just live together long-term and have a life without legal documentation. I told my mom this over lunch.

“So… S and I are thinking we might not get married.”

“Oh, good. You were settling.”

I explained that we were still planning on living a life together, just not marrying. We got through lunch and I continued a relationship with her. Then I started reading the books and realizing that she had a huge control over my psyche and mental well-being. Her voice was a broken record in my head, pointing out all my faults and failures. I started to pull back.

My husband and I were engaged in April 2016 and after Mother’s Day went by with just a “Happy Mother’s Day” text from me and no gift or visit, I was talking to mom on the phone one day on my way home from work. She told me that she had started a project and was writing each of her children a letter, and she started with my sister, the youngest, and would work backwards. She told me this supposedly to make sure I wouldn’t get jealous if my sister mentioned her letter to me. Then she told me she was upset with me because I didn’t do anything for Mother’s Day and because I wasn’t involving her in my wedding planning. I told her I had pulled back to work through a lot of my childhood issues and she pulled out her favorite refrain:

It’s in the past, I don’t understand why it still bothers you so much.”

At a loss for how to explain that trauma doesn’t just dissolve because it happened a long time ago, I made plans to go wedding shopping with her and things were relatively fine. Post-wedding, she confessed that my stepdad had to talk her into getting us a gift because she had wanted to just send a “Happy wedding” text, in response to my “Happy Mother’s Day” text.

I recall coming to their house one day and sitting down with my stepdad to explain that my issues were with my mother, not with him. And that I didn’t hate her, I just needed space. He listened, he understood. I felt better knowing I had told him a little piece of my truth.

After the wedding in August things were relatively calm, aside from the fact that really any time I spent with her, I’d come home and end up picking a fight with my husband over something. We came to the conclusion that my mom was getting into my head and I was bringing home doubts about him and our marriage.

I chose to stay home for Thanksgiving, partly out of not wanting to deal with the obligation and partly out of wanting to plan and create my own vegan meal and not just eat some sides and desserts I made myself while everyone else ate “normal things.” I also didn’t want to see my brother, whom I had cut contact with for various reasons.

“Yeah, that’s what I thought.”

Her snarky response aside, my husband and I had a nice quiet vegan Thanksgiving. Christmas was another story.

My sister came to town and we set off to mom’s for Christmas morning, knowing we’d have to see our brother and deal with the general unease of family gatherings. My husband actually stayed home, because he had hurt himself falling on some ice and wasn’t up for a day out and about. Mom mentioned to me that she had mailed a lot of my sister’s presents to her already, so I shouldn’t be worried if I had more presents than she did. We had roughly the same amount of presents. Also we were 28 and 24, and gift jealousy was about a decade too late to be a thing.

We got through Christmas and returned to our lives, and then on January 22, 2017 I finally had enough.

This story still seems to petty to me, but it was the moment I finally saw through everything and finally realized nothing would change and that her effect on my life had been there forever and was not something I could overcome in her presence. So I am being completely honest and telling the real story of what made me cease contact with my mother.

I asked what we were going to do for my birthday in April. Her response: “Well, what did you do for mine?”

In this moment, I realized every aspect of the love, affection, and validation I had ever gotten from my mother had been a transaction. What did I do to earn that love? What did I do to earn a treat, to earn a break, to earn a hug?

I stopped speaking to her the next day, without explanation, without ceremony, without premeditation. I simply decided I couldn’t keep her in my life.

This may not make sense to readers. I don’t write this to make sense. I write because it helps me and because breaking my silence helps me.

I went without contact until February 28, 2018.

Unbeknownst to my mother (at least, I think so), I had reached out to my stepdad a few times in 2017. I sent him a card addressed with my left hand from a PO box, so she wouldn’t know it was from me. I explained that I needed to not speak to her, but I didn’t want to lose him. I offered to buy him lunch.

He called me and said that he’d love to get lunch. I cried with relief. He said he’d call the next time he had a job out near where I worked.

We spoke a few more times, about once every few months. I sent a Father’s Day gift, he thanked me. I’d call him or text him if my car was acting funny, he’d give me advice. I called him when I hit a deer and totaled my car, he called back to check on me a few days later. I texted him when I started a new job. We were still trying to coordinate those lunch plans.

At the end of February, our furnace was acting weird and the house wasn’t heating. I called my stepdad and didn’t hear back. The next day I texted him and received a response from my mother instead.

“[Stepdad] is sick and can not help you at the present time. Unfortunately. He stopped working and is unable to drive”

“He says try turning off and back on”

“Okay thank you.”

“Is he okay?”

“He has lung cancer.”

“Getting chemo treatment. Is on oxygen 24/7.”

“How long has he been sick”

“December 2nd he was diagnosed at the ER”

Between my mom and stepdad, there are six adult children. Four of them knew about the cancer. My sister and I were not told. It became apparent as we spoke to the rest of the siblings that we were deliberately not told. For three months he had been dealing with cancer, and we were not told.

My sister called mom and was told that our stepdad specifically wanted me to not know, because if my mom wasn’t in my life, he couldn’t be either. My sister reported this to me gravely and sadly, and my response genuinely shocked her: “I don’t believe that, that is not true.” It hadn’t occurred to her that our mother would lie.

My sister came to visit him and she actually caught him on a good day. He was alert. She asked him if he wanted to see me and he said yes, he did. She told him what mom said, that he hadn’t wanted to see me. He looked surprised.

We expected him to be stable for a year or more, but complications arose and he ended up hospitalized with fluid in a lung. It looked bad. My sister told me when my mom left the hospital and I was able to go see him. He was sleeping. He woke up briefly and asked how I was doing before he drifted back to sleep. I stayed for a couple hours and went home again. He was able to leave ICU.

A couple days later, things were bad again. My sister got a call that he wasn’t expected to make it through the night. She told mom that I would be coming. Mom said that was fine. I was able to see him that night, though he wasn’t aware or alert. I held his hand. I whispered to him, joking that this was a pretty extreme way to get my mom and I back in a room together. I almost remember him smiling.

Eventually the decision was made to take him off the machines. It was time. We waited, surrounded by family, and eventually my sister and I had to leave. We could no longer bear to be there. And he passed moments after we left. I think he was waiting. I don’t think he wanted us to see.

We attended a family funeral at mom’s house that weekend. Things were flawlessly normal. We talked, joked, acted like always. It was very jarring to know that we hadn’t spoken in so long and could still put the masks back on. I did not feel comfortable.

After the funeral, I went right back to no contact. Every day I think about calling her to see if she’s okay. Every day I think about sending her a gift or a card. I think about stopping by the house. I think about reaching out, knowing she is in pain.

But she leveraged a human life in a grudge against me. She kept me from someone I loved, on purpose. I never got to see him in a way he deserved to be remembered. My last memories of him are sick and weak in a hospital bed.

I do not forgive her. And I do not have to.

The nature of healing

tree

Winter seemed to hold on for a long time this year, with snow in March and even a few cold days into late April. Now that it’s early May, it seems we’ve skipped right over springtime into 80+ degree days and the nostalgic smell of summer vacation on the breeze. I’ve been driving with the windows down (until the noise gets too annoying) and sunglasses on, jamming along to my newfound love of Kesha, and generally feeling upbeat about life.

The local nature reserve I drive through on my way to work every morning is home to my favorite tree, gorgeous views of the river, and families of deer happily munching away in the meadows. I’ve been running with my friend along the paths in this valley, through rain and snow, as we trained for a half marathon at the end of April. I mentioned that the trees all still looked dead and wintery, and she pointed out that you could see a bit of yellow fuzz as new buds started to grow.

After this exchange, I’d spend a few moments each time I ran along the path trying to unfocus my eyes a little bit to see the growing fuzz. Some trees had pink fuzz, others had yellowy green fuzz, but you could see the buds coming if you stopped looking so hard.

Then, this morning, on my drive through the valley, everything was lush and green. I just drove through it yesterday and it was not this green. But today, it was. It was like overnight everything suddenly came to full life in technicolor. I drove the fifteen minutes through the winding valley road with a smile on my face, overwhelmed by the excitement and beauty of nature. I may have shed a tear or two (but that may also have been Kesha).

Alone in my thoughts, it occurred to me that healing from emotional trauma is kind of like waiting for spring to come. If you keep looking for every little sign of growth, you may not see it. You may think the long winter is holding you back. But if you stop looking so hard, you can see new habits, new emotions, new strength, and new growth starting to take hold.

And one day, when nothing special in particular has happened at all, you may be completely surprised to find that things are going exactly according to plan, and your spirit is still intact, beautiful, and able to grow again.