On Confronting the Ghosts of Past Emotional Abuse

Things like gas lighting, stonewalling, and any other attempts to invalidate someone’s emotions and make them feel less than is abuse, flat out.
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Publish date:
March 8, 2015
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mental illness, therapy, race, abuse, weekend, emotional abuse, Unhealthy Relationship

Saying I felt brave, strong, courageous or triumphant almost four months ago as I sat in the waiting room for my first therapy session to begin would be a inaccurate. My teeth chattered although the air in the room was nowhere close to frigid. My hands were clenched tightly in two fists as if I was waiting to defend myself in a battle of aggression. My left knee bobbed up and down as I nervously shook it, only pausing mere seconds to glance down at the time on my watch.

Despite my fear and trepidation of what this huge step meant, what saying I went to therapy bi-monthly would mean once I said it out loud, I stayed, for my body was frozen to the chair I was sitting in. And I knew with a sinking certainty I needed to be there because the depression which had become apparent to everyone in my life couldn’t be ignored.

Through those preliminary sessions with the first therapist and the subsequent sessions with a new therapist who turned out to be a better fit for me, I’ve discovered depression wasn’t just something that manifested out of nowhere. Instead it is something I can identify in marked periods of my life. Meaning, it is something I’ve struggled with on and off throughout my entire life.

One of the wondrous things about therapy and making a decision to work through past wounds and trauma, with a helping hand, is how deeply exhausting and exposed doing that work can be. It’s working through vulnerabilities, daring to push yourself to move through things you’ve repressed to cope, to survive. All these things have to be unearthed, shoved into the light of day and dealt with, talked through, processed, analyzed, accepted, and left. They have to be let go in order to move on.

And, well, it’s became immediately apparent to me how rampant emotional abuse has been within my childhood, early romantic relationships, relationship with bosses and numerous other people — including my ex-boyfriend. But I dared not talk about my ex-boyfriend for the longest time or face the trauma he caused.

I still see the beauty in that man although he dragged me through the dirt and became a monster unrecognizable to my naked eye. I loved him — deeply, inexplicably, without reservation, stupidly, filled with naïveté, and desperation. I so desperately wanted to be loved, wanted to be with him that I overlooked glaring red signs before we were even officially a couple.

The darts he carelessly aimed at me came almost immediately. First, they were innocent and seemed to be encouraging: His obsession with telling me how I needed to be better and needed to improve. His blatant refusal to let me point out how he needed to do the same. These microaggressions grew to the extent of him never having anything positive to say to me, with an insistence on looking out for me, caring for me, and daring to tell me what no one else would. It included him never remembering when he said or did something cruel, and then insisting that I had made it up or just not been listening well. It included telling me I took things too personally, and I was being needlessly sensitive. It included being extremely dismissive and condescending to me.

And I let him. I trusted that he knew better than I did. I trusted him completely, to a great fault. He shattered me. And it was as if I gave him the hammer to strike each blow.

Then came the stonewalling: His refusal to talk to me if I dared to assert myself in any way. His refusal to pick up the phone for days and weeks at a time just to be cruel. His breaking up with me three times within eight months because I was too much too handle. I demanded too much. I made him feel less than and brought him to a low place. He didn't need anymore of that in his life, he told me.

I’ll never forget our last drawn-out argument, the last time we spoke nearly four years ago. He told me I was fat. He told me I couldn’t dress, and I always looked a mess. He told me I smelled, was a smelly person, and he always knew that but he had made an exception because he liked me back then. He blamed me for our sex fumbles, citing that the attraction wasn’t there. It was my fault. All of it.

Even now, I struggle with being handed the responsibility of why things went awry and why our relationship crumbled and was doomed from the beginning. I know a huge part of it was not seeing my inherent value and thinking I was good enough, but I let him mistreat me. I let him shrivel and squeeze any goodness, vitality, and my cheery disposition out of me until I was an empty vessel. I let him. I was careless with myself. I didn’t love myself enough, and he treated me the same way I treated myself.

Because I repressed so much of this tumultuous relationship, it took being sprawled out on a couch in front of someone I trusted to see the connections to how I behave in my dating life (and in so many other areas as well) today. It meant painstakingly facing the truth — that I have been wounded, that I have been hurt, that I have been mistreated — and working to try to forgive both him and myself. More than anything, this is about me. It is about extending grace to myself for not being wiser, for being clumsy, for not advocating for me in the way only I can.

It also explains how my chest tightens and my breathing becomes heavy and erratic whenever I call someone I’m dating or even in a relationship with and they don’t answer and don’t call me back right away. It explains how I’m super sensitive to any kind of criticism from anyone I’m enamored with. It explains how I’m hesitant to speak my truth for fear it’ll be held above my head, only to be taken out on me later. It explains why whenever I meet someone new I’m holding my breath, waiting for the shoe to drop, waiting for them to see me as unworthy and unloveable. To make excuses about why I’m not good enough. To leave. The triggers are everywhere and I now understand their origin.

Emotional abuse, the insidious verbal and mental manipulation which leaves deep scars, is sadly quite common. Things like gas lighting, stonewalling, and any other attempts to invalidate someone’s emotions and make them feel less than is abuse, flat out. It’s nothing to shrug off, discount as not being a big deal and rationalized. It is dysfunction, it is unhealthy, and it should be avoided at all costs.

What makes my admittance of dealing with emotional abuse and its connection to mental health even more difficult is knowing the stigma I faced. As a Black and African woman, mental illness is often a taboo subject, one of shame leading many of those who struggle with it to suffer in silence. The same could be said of abuse victims, especially in terms of emotional and verbal abuse. There were many friends I told about my struggles with my ex who shunned and judged me. They told me to just leave but they failed to understand that untangling yourself from the emotional ties and deceit isn’t as easy. If it were easy, I would’ve left long before the damage was done.

It is only recently I have realized how revolutionary it is to insist upon being treated fairly, lovingly, and gently. My journey to healing, to being made whole, to returning to the core and essence of myself without blemish, is long and winding and has just begun. But I get it. I get that the first time I sat idly in that lobby waiting to be seen, that courageous, brave, strong or triumphant weren't inaccurate. They were the God's honest truth, because I can finally start to see it all within myself.