Me, back in early 2010. That's a hood, it's honestly not my hair...
In March 2012, something life-changing happened to me. That's not hyperbole. It genuinely was a moment that changed my life and changed me forever.
I'd been having counselling for three or four months, following the end of a relationship. A relationship in which I'd convinced myself I was a bad person. A weak, sad, pathetic, desperate, clingy, needy woman, whom nobody could ever really love. I'd been with someone who'd given me a sob story about how messed up he was and how he didn't really know how to behave in a relationship. He'd told me he couldn't help his behaviour; he was scared by how close I'd gotten to him, so he reacted by pushing me away. And I stuck around, wanting to help him, so surely I was sort of to blame for whatever he did to me after he'd warned me off? As he himself put it, the last time I ever spoke to him face to face: "You knew what you were getting into. I'm not to blame for any of this. You are."
After I finally found the strength to walk away from him - nearly two years after we first met - I was convinced I'd "abandoned" him. He used the word often enough to describe people no longer in his life, so I suppose it was drummed into my brain.
I blamed myself. I hated myself. I found myself drinking a glass of wine most nights "just to take the edge off" the pain I was feeling. I'd cry myself to sleep and hope I never woke up. Every morning, when I did wake up, I'd find myself with a head full of dark questions: "Why am I so useless?" "Why doesn't everyone just ditch me? I'm not worth knowing." "Why wasn't I strong enough to help him?" "Why am I such a failure?"
When it all got too much, I eventually sought counselling. I spent my sessions putting myself down, acting as prosecution, judge and jury at my own trial. I found myself guilty. My counsellor sat, listened, asked questions and made notes. Then, in my penultimate session, my counsellor leaned forwards, with a pamphlet in her hands. She spoke in a very soft, calm voice. She said simply: "What you've been describing is abuse. I think you need to call this number and speak to someone about what happened to you."
It was like a bucket of cold water to the face. I sat and shivered in my seat. I said just five words:
"But he never hit me."
So many of us, when we hear the word "abuse," think of two things: Physical violence and rape. I'm quite ashamed to say that even as a childcare practitioner of 14 years' experience, trained in abuse and how to spot it, I didn't really realise that emotional abuse was something that happened between two adults.
I went home with the abuse pamphlet in my trembling hands. My counsellor had to be wrong. I wasn't abused! I was to blame; I had brought this all on myself. Still, I knew my last counselling session would take place a fortnight later and I'd be expected to have rung the abuse charity whose pamphlet I'd been given. My stomach churned at the thought. How could I phone a helpline used by women who'd been beaten and raped?! I checked the times of operation and decided to ring after the helpline was closed. That way, I could tell my counsellor I'd tried to get in touch with the charity, without actually having to do it. If they had an answerphone service, I'd leave a message and they'd probably listen to it, scoff at my time-wasting and never call me back. Either way, I had a convenient excuse for not having to actually speak to someone who'd call me out on my stupidity. I left a message that began with the words "I'm sorry, I'm wasting your time..."
A day or two later, the phone rang. A very nice, very kind lady with a soft voice explained that she was calling from the abuse charity - did I have time to talk? I thought I was going to be sick. They were surely about to tell me off for attempting to waste their valuable services! I don't think my voice has ever trembled so much in all my life.
And yet shockingly - to me, at least - the lady on the end of the phone didn't tell me off. She never said I was wasting her time. Instead, she explained what emotional and psychological abuse was and how difficult it is to spot when you're in it. She told me - more than once in that first phone call - that it wasn't my fault and that it was okay to let go of the blame I'd been holding on to. The blame that had been poisoning every aspect of my life. I'd found myself guilty. She said I was innocent.
Three months (and several phone calls) later, I began weekly sessions with a support worker. Ten months after that, I was a completely changed person.
I was going through the night, dead to the world, without crying myself to sleep first.
I had no need whatsoever to "take the edge off" the pain. The pain was gone.
I didn't hate myself. I didn't blame myself. I saw myself having a bright, positive future. I saw myself as having survived.
Most importantly of all, I was able to use the word "abuse." I finally realised that my counsellor had been right, on that Earth-shattering day. The use of my ex's tragic past to explain his behaviour had been manipulation. The suggestion that if I left, I'd be abandoning him, was coercion to make me stay. The insistence that the relationship had to be on his terms, labelled as he saw fit, was control. The digs about my weight... The comments about me being "desperate and clingy" when all I wanted was to be shown some affection... The demands for sex as soon as I'd arrived to see him, yet the accusation of me being a "pathetic slut" if I tried to initiate it on my terms... The times he'd throw something across the room and say I made him "violent..." The time he forced me into the shower, blocking the bathroom door, making me scrub my feet so I was less "fucking disgusting..." The time he told me that if I was pregnant, he'd give me "the coat-hanger treatment..." The times he compared me unfavourably to other women - ones he'd been with before me and ones he slept with whilst we were together... The times he'd get what he wanted sexually, then roll over and warn me in no uncertain terms not to touch him, leaving me feeling alone and confused... The times he'd deliberately wind me up and then leave me sexually frustrated... The times he'd deliberately make me angry or upset, so he could criticise my reaction and use it as justification for refusing to commit to a relationship with me...The insistence that none of it was his fault; the world was cruel and out to get him and he was just trying to deal with his issues the only way he knew how... It was abuse. All of it.
And once I saw that, I was angry. Not just with him, but with myself. How had I not seen it?! Why did I put up with it all?!
But of course, I was being manipulated. I fell for his tragic sob story. The whole "I was abused as a child; I only push you away because I'm scared... I don't know any other way to behave" shebang. And I wanted to fix him. I - as crazy as it might sound, given the above list of atrocious things he said and did - loved him. And when he told me he loved me too, I believed him. I was going to see it through, however hard it was. I was going to help him let go of his awful past and move forwards into a happy, loving future.
Eventually, my amazing support worker helped me to let go of the anger I felt at my own perceived weakness and made me realise that I wasn't weak at all. I was so, so strong. I had put him first, even when it hurt me to do so, because I loved him and believed I was helping him. And maybe, if he had wanted to grow and change as a person, I would have been. But he didn't want that. He wanted to use me. He wanted an excuse to treat me - and others - however he saw fit. He chose to abuse.
Abuse is always, always a choice. Abusers don't go around controlling, manipulating or otherwise abusing people every minute of every day. They often have jobs, hobbies and social circles, in which they behave as anyone else would. They can be charming and even affectionate (otherwise, you'd spot the abuse more easily and leave far sooner). In the moments when a person chooses to abuse, whatever form that abuse takes, they do it through choice. Not because they had a terrible past and don't know any better. Not because you've done something to cause them to have no choice but to abuse you.
Once I stepped out from the shadow of my experience, I was able to see it clearly for what it was. And now, three and a half years after leaving, I can understand why I didn't recognise it at the time. I heard his "explanations" and I accepted them. I thought I could help him. I focused on the times we sat up all night, snuggled together, pouring our hearts out to one another. I held on to the times he'd make me laugh, or hold me when I cried. I saw the relationship I wanted us to have, whilst he manipulated me into being blind to what we really had. Which, of course, was nothing.
I want to go back in time and tell this girl "I know you like him, but just RUN."
Now, more than five years after I first met my ex, I co-run a campaign called Fifty Shades Is Domestic Abuse. Not because I'm a prude, who hates the thought of BDSM. Not because I want to censor anyone's reading or viewing habits. But because when I read the trilogy, I was stunned to realise I was reading something that may as well have been about my ex, give or take a few billion in the bank and a pair of handcuffs. The manipulation, the coercion, the control... It was all there.
Fans of the book often tell me there's no abuse in Fifty Shades. The author tells survivors the same on a pretty much daily basis, often in a hugely offensive, borderline abusive manner (she even sent a rape survivor triggered by her books a gif of a woman throwing a book at someone's head, with the hashtag "#ignorant"). But just as I didn't recognise my own abuse at the time, it doesn't mean it wasn't there. The abuse in Fifty Shades is very much there. But when you point it out, the two myths I clung onto get trotted out by fans: "But he doesn't know any better; he's messed up!" And: "She sticks around and she cures him with her love."
I know it's a fantasy and the whole point of fantasy is that it doesn't have to have its roots in reality. But considering emotional/psychological abuse is so insidious that it often goes unrecognised even by the people living with it, I don't think we need fantasy that romanticises it and perpetuates the idea that sticking with an abusive person will cause them to change in the end so that you live happily ever after.
All of which brings me to what caused me to write this piece in the first place. In the past 48 hours, three separate Fifty Shades fans have contacted me to tell me that emotional abuse "doesn't exist." One, a survivor of physical violence, even made the shocking decision to send me a photo of herself covered in bruises, with the tag: "THIS IS ABUSE, YOU FUCKING IDIOT. THERE IS NO OTHER FORM!"
Except there is. Of course there is. Emotional & psychological abuse are recognised by all major abuse charities and by the government of this country. It may not cause bruises, but it causes scars that run deep, even if they cannot be seen by the naked eye. The fact that there are people out there - and I believe there are far more than just three - who refuse to believe that such a thing exists proves that we need far greater awareness of what constitutes abuse and where to get help.
Five years after I met my ex, I spend some of my time writing on abuse and campaigning against it. I'm not "weak" or "pathetic," like he said I was. I've grown and become stronger than I ever thought I could be. I have a voice and I'm proud to make it heard.
So when you next hear someone say they've experienced emotional abuse, don't tell them that such a thing doesn't exist. Don't ignore them or dismiss them. Listen.