There's a phrase I use quite a bit - I've even used it in this blog, over the years - and today, I want to explain a bit more about what it means. That phrase is "abuse hangover."
Emotional abuse is in the spotlight at the moment, thanks to the current storyline in BBC Radio 4's The Archers. If you're unfamiliar with The Archers, or don't know what storyline I'm talking about, you can read about it here.
I've talked frequently and openly about my own experience of an emotionally abusive relationship, right here on this very blog. Emotional abuse and me was one of my first big pieces about what I went through, but I've spoken about it in various other posts and I've even written a semi-autobiographical novel about emotional and psychological abuse (which has had 5* reviews, so please do check it out).
What not many people talk about, however, is what happens months and even years after you leave an abusive relationship and you piece your life back together. Does what you experienced just disappear over time, leaving no trace? Do you pop right back to being the person you were before you were abused, or are you changed forever? Obviously, the experience will be different for everyone. In the years since I left my abuser, I've spoken to many other survivors and everyone's case is unique. So, the reason I'm writing this isn't to provide a sweeping reference that covers absolutely every person who has experienced abuse. It's just not possible to do that. The reason I'm writing this is to talk about my own "abuse hangover" - what it means for me and what it could mean for other people.
Probably not what you think, Mr Schneebly.
For me, "abuse hangover" is the catch-all term for the little ways in which I'm permanently changed, as a result of what I experienced. Because no, I'm not the same person I was before I met my ex. But no, that's not necessarily a bad thing. First and foremost, let me just say that whilst we generally accept that having a hangover is a negative situation, when I use the word in this context, I'm meaning something less like feeling sick and wishing your brain would stop threatening to explode, and more like "leftovers." But "abuse leftovers" sounds like the worst dinner in the freaking world, so "abuse hangover" it is...
Like I said, my "hangover" won't necessarily be the same as someone else's. But by sharing mine, I hope that people will realise that sometimes, a person's past really does affect their present - and future - in strange little ways that you might never have guessed. It's not an excuse, should that person start behaving in a lousy way, but it can stand as an explanation for some of the things a person does that previously seemed baffling.
So, what weird things make up my "hangover?"
1. I AM OBSESSED WITH THE IDEA THAT MY FEET ARE CONSTANTLY SMELLY AND DISGUSTING.
You'll be hard pressed to find a more wonderful gif, today.
Okay, Trigger warning time. I'm about to tell you guys a true story and it's not a nice one, so if you're likely to be upset by reading about an abusive dude being pretty appallingly horrible to me, please skip ahead. I'll write the story in red, so you can see where it ends and it's safe to start reading again:
So, towards the end of my relationship with my abuser, he kind of stopped trying to hide his vile streak and almost revelled in what he could get away with. One particular day, in the height of Summer, I arrived at his house, wearing sandals and a skirt. We went up to his room and I kicked off my shoes and sat on his bed. He stared at me with the kind of look I had long realised wasn't going to lead to anything good, then said: "Your feet smell disgusting." Now, like I said, it was a very hot day and I'd driven for an hour to get to him, so you know what? They probably did. So, I apologised and put my feet on the floor. That wasn't enough for him, though. He proceeded to go into a full-on rant about how utterly revolting my feet were, asking me over and over whether I had even bothered to wash, that morning. No matter how many times I told him that of course I had, he just kept telling me that I was dirty and disgusting. Then, something in his tone changed. He looked me straight in the eye and told me to go and wash my feet. I laughed - probably out of shock and embarrasment - and he raised his voice just enough to be mildly threatening and repeated the order. Now, usually I did whatever he said, because I'd long since learned that arguing with him got me nowhere. But I was upset and angry that he was making such a big deal about something I couldn't really help (and they didn't smell anywhere near as bad as he was making out), so I refused. He grabbed me by the arm, marched me down the corridor to the bathroom, turned the shower on and then stood with his back to the door, blocking my escape. "Wash. Your. Feet." I did what I was told, all the while feeling utterly humiliated, whilst he watched and laughed. Only when he was satisfied that I was "clean," was I allowed out of the bathroom and back into his room, again.
I left my abuser five years ago, this Summer. But, to this day, I am completely and utterly paranoid about my feet. I will apologise in advance, if I take my shoes off in any situation, even though 99% of the time, my feet don't smell (or if they do, they're no worse than anyone else's). I live in genuine fear of hot weather making them stinky and I'm constantly scared that someone will comment on it and I'll be humiliated all over again. I've been known to visit friends in the Summer and I'll say I'm going to the toilet, but will actually scrub my feet with soap, in the desperate hope that nobody will be disgusted by them. I am genuinely convinced that a small part of my intense love for Irregular Choice shoes, is actually down to the fact that I'm subconsciously convinced that if my feet look amazing, people are less likely to comment on what they smell like. Or perhaps I'm trying to reclaim my feet as things to be proud of, rather than ashamed of. Who knows. All I do know, is that this isn't something that hasn't really ever gone away. Nearly five years on and I'm still terrified of being barefoot around people, in case the same thing ever happens again.
2. I'M NOT ENTIRELY CONVINCED THAT ALL MALE-FEMALE FRIENDS AREN'T SECRETLY SLEEPING TOGETHER.
So, in case the above foot-washing story didn't let you know what kind of a charming, delightful fellow my ex was, let me fill you in a little further. He basically believed that every woman was, essentially, a "goal."
Thanks to the fact that he'd thoroughly manipulated and confused me with for more than a year and a half, by swinging from "we're just friends who happen to sleep together," to "I love you, I'll always be with you," by the time I left, I was utterly confused as to what the heck had happened. What had we even been to each other?! Consequently, for a long time, I joined that awful group of people who believe that men and women can't be friends without sex getting in the way. Now, I have male friends who I've literally never been sexually interested in and who have never been sexually interested in me, so I know that that argument is utter rubbish. But, thanks to having had it drummed into me so often that I was just my ex's "friend," I wasn't sure I could believe my own experience, anymore. Add to that the fact that my ex was also sleeping with several other "friends," during the course of our relationship, and it might become clear why seeing a guy and girl hanging out immediately made me think "THEY'RE DOING IT."
Now, several years after walking away, I'm back firmly in the "of course men and women can be 'just friends'" camp, but there's an irritating caveat: if I like a guy and he has female friends, my brain is going to torture me with the idea that he's sleeping with literally all of them.
Last year, I was head over heels for this guy who, briefly, I thought might have a mutual crush on me. One evening, we were out for drinks (not technically together, but both at the same place and chatting away by the bar), when a girl came over to say hi to him. She gave him a hug and kissed his cheek. And I swear to God, I nearly threw up. Because my brain immediately started needling me: "Why are you even bothering to talk to him? He's clearly sleeping with her, you moron!"
I'm not really a clingy person. I believe that having friends and interests outside of a relationship is healthy and right. When I'm eventually in a relationship again, if my boyfriend happens to have female friends that he hangs out with, I can say with my hand on my heart that I know that I won't badger him about it, or accuse him of doing anything, because I'm just not that sort of person. Trust is vital in a relationship and I wouldn't be with anyone I didn't trust. But whilst I'm single, I kind of get the feeling that any time I see a guy I like, chatting to a girl, I'm just going to assume that they're sleeping together and it's going to stop me from being brave enough to be flirty or from trying to make it obvious that I like him in any way. It's like my brain's way of reminding me that my ex was sleeping with pretty much every female friend he ever mentioned. Thanks for that, brain.
3. I HAVE AN OBSESSION WITH DEFENDING MYSELF AND OTHERS AND MAINTAINING SOME KIND OF MORAL JUSTICE.
Like some sort of caped crusader...
Basically, this isn't just an "abuse hangover." It's also a reaction to being bullied really badly (like... REALLY badly) at secondary school.
When you're bullied, you're often told to "ignore them and they'll get bored." The fact is, that doesn't work. At all. If you ignore a bully, all they learn from it is that you won't fight back, so you're a convenient target to continue picking on. I'm not advocating smacking a bully around the face with your school bag or anything, but sitting in silence and willing them to go away isn't going to do the trick, either.
Fast forward to my relationship with my abuser and he had me so manipulated that I was convinced that he "couldn't help" the way he was treating me. The poor thing had been abused as a child and didn't know any better. He was scared, because nobody had ever shown him love before and he just didn't know how to react to it. He needed me to put up, shut up and support him.
I'm using this gif a LOT lately, but that's because it's SO APPROPRIATE.
Cut to the day I finally snapped and walked away from him, and my ex said something that has haunted me ever since: "I know exactly how I've treated you and I don't feel guilty, because you let me do it."
Of course, what I took from that was that I had been to "blame" for what had happened to me. I let him abuse me. And all because I was trying to quietly support him, rather than judge him, which was the very thing he'd told me over and over again that he needed.
Counselling with an amazing abuse charity helped me to realise that I wasn't to blame and that the way he treated me was a choice he made, rather than something he couldn't help. But I've never quite been able to shake off the belief that my silence worsened the situation - both with my school bullies and my abusive ex.
And that's why these days, I will leap to my own defence in a heartbeat. I will leap to the defence of others in a heartbeat. I am physically unable to stop myself from responding to someone who has wronged me, or whose behaviour has hurt or upset me or another person. If you snap at me without reason, I will call you on it. If you say something about me that isn't true, I will demand that you listen to the facts before spouting rubbish. If you're picking on someone else, I am going to come to their defence.
In a way, this is the "hangover" I'm almost glad I have. Yes, in the first few years after I left my ex, it made me slightly too reactionary. I would defend myself too vocally, when it wasn't entirely necessary. I was desperate not to be taken advantage of, or be seen as "weak" (one of my ex's favourite words to sling at me). But, nowadays, I've learned to judge situations better. I know when to walk away from an argument and I know when I've simply taken something harmless the wrong way (and therefore don't need to say anything). These days, I'm not going to jump down your throat over nothing, but I'm also not going to meekly sit back, whilst you insult me, shout at someone I love, or treat another person badly. I'm going to stand up for myself. I'm going to stand up for my loved ones. I'm going to go to bat for someone I've never even met before, who's being trolled online. Why? Because I'm determined never to be mistreated ever again. I'm determined to stop anyone else ever being mistreated. If I was a superhero, I'd be Anti-Abuse Girl. Although that's a rubbish title, pretend I didn't say that...
Maybe I'll form a club.
I'm not trying to make out that I go around, starting arguments for the sake of proving a point. Nope, nope, big bag of nope. I actually don't like arguments; too often, they descend into downright nastiness. So, where there's a person trying to start one, you'll find me ending it.
That's not to say that I'm big and brave about it. Most of the time, if I'm standing up to someone mean, I'm like a swan - on the surface, I'm gliding to victory, but underneath, my legs are thrashing wildly.
Or, to put it another way, I'm Rachel from Friends:
My words are strong, but my hands are all shaky.
Still, I have a kind of "feel the fear and do it anyway," attitude when it comes to vocally sticking up for what's right.
Recently, I was told by someone: "Nobody ever needs to come to your defence, because you do such an incredible of job of politely but firmly defending yourself, when necessary." For a girl who spent her entire adolescence silently pretending that she couldn't hear the vile things bullies were yelling at her, and who rarely ever defended herself when the man she loved took it upon himself to verbally abuse her, I took that as a pretty damn good compliment.
Basically, I am "very sweet" (another recent compliment, this time from my best friend), kind and thoughtful. But I'm a terrier. Pet me and I'll roll over and show you my tummy. But you try to start on me - or anyone I love - and I'll bite you in the most polite, grammatically correct manner you've ever been bitten.
4. I RECOGNISE ABUSE AND I WILL CALL IT OUT WHEN I SEE IT.
And I'm totally a nun, too, did I mention that?
Not all "hangovers" are bad and this is a classic example of a good one (as is the one above, really - defending yourself and the people you love is hardly a bad thing, after all). In fact, last month, I wrote about this particular "hangover" and called it my "super power." So, I won't go into loads of detail again, because regular readers know what I'm going to say, already. Suffice to say that if you're capable of recognising when someone is being manipulative, controlling or trying to gaslight you, it becomes much easier to cut ties, or to begin to distance yourself from them. At the very least, if you recognise that someone is displaying abusive behaviour, you can consider yourself forewarned and can work out a way of dealing with that person, if they're someone you can't avoid. Knowing what the red flags of abuse are is genuinely life-saving knowledge, so having it is something to be proud of and to hold onto.
5. I WILL NOT TOLERATE MANIPULATIVE PEOPLE.
Again, this is largely a positive hangover, although it makes me super duper sensitive to this stuff. Basically, it goes hand-in-hand with the point above. If you so much as try to manipulate me, I can see it coming a mile off. And it will make me want to smack you in the face with a wet fish.
There were many ways in which my ex abused me, but the key throughout the entire thing was manipulation. It's why I am utterly disgusted by manipulative people now, because I know the enormous damage that their behaviour can cause.
The trouble with manipulation is that it's - usually - subtle. The whole point of it is that it messes with a person's mind, so that they make choices that they otherwise wouldn't make, or they start thinking about things that had never entered their head, before. So, whilst I can see manipulative people as though they have a big, flashing sign above them, with "MANIPULATOR" written on it, other people might not be able to. And that means that sometimes, I will take an instant dislike to someone, for reasons that others can't understand.
There are people in my life - not close, thank God, but in my life, just the same - who are vile, manipulative pieces of poo. And there are other people in my life who think that those poo-folk are the best thing since sliced bread. Unfortunately, that can lead to arguments, or accusations that I'm being oversensitive. I've lost friends in the past, because I've been able to see through someone and they haven't. And hey, interesting fact: I've been proved right, long after the friendship was dead in the water.
Please, just trust me on this. I know manipulation when I see it. If I tell you that someone is deliberately trying to wind you (or me) up, or seeking to cause trouble, give me the benefit of the doubt.
And even if you don't want to believe that someone you like and trust might actually be a manipulative swine, accept that I see them as such and don't try to force me to make nice with them. If I see even the slightest similarity between your friend and my ex, you can bet your ass that I'd rather stick my face in a wasp nest than spend any more time with that person than I absolutely have to.
And I'm terrified of wasps.
6. I'M EVEN MORE SENSITIVE THAN I USED TO BE...
You and me both, Chan-Chan Man.
Look, I'm going to level with you: I'm going to be sensitive. I'm going to bristle at odd things, worry about trivial matters and brood over stuff. Not always. Not even on a daily basis, but every now and then. Because, once in a while, something will trigger a memory and I'll react to what you think is nothing in a way that you think is flipping weird.
Just please talk to me, when I do that. Ask me what's up. Because - as strange as this sounds - I might not even realise why I've reacted oddly, until I'm forced to think about it and I remember something from my relationship that I've buried nice and deep in my subconscious. Something which has been nudged awake by a seemingly trivial word or action.
I'm 99.9% over what I went through (I don't really think you're ever 100% over something like that; I think you carry a small part of it with you forever, because as I said earlier, abuse is fairly life-changing). But that doesn't mean that I won't sometimes want to talk about something that I went through. And when I do that, I might cry. That's okay. If you're there, just listen and give me a cuddle. Reassure me that I'm doing really well. Because I am. Almost five years after walking away from abuse, I know how it's changed me. I know what most of my biggest triggers are. I know how to look after myself. But that doesn't mean that I don't need a hug and some reassurance, now and then.
And if you can organise me a cuddle from this guy, PLEASE DO.
If you know someone who has experienced abuse, their "hangover" might be completely different to mine. But they probably have one, even if they've never stopped to work out what it is. The best advice I could give anyone reading this, who knows or loves someone who lived through abuse in their past, is to never expect them not to be coloured by their experience. Let them talk about it when they need to, but don't push them to, if they're not ready. Let them figure out how their experience changed them, in their own time and be there to support them when they do.
Oh, and let them have a nice long lie in. It is a hangover, after all.