Surviving abuse can be one of the most lonely experiences there is.
That’s because in most people’s eyes, you can’t claim your abuse without naming your abuser. The suffering is real, but unless you have a bona fide monster to pin it on, it gets argued away (see just world bias).
When you say you were abused, people generally assume that you’re making a mountain out of a molehill. If it’s your parent, they assume that you’re conflating the normal healthy boundaries set in parenting with mistreatment. If it’s an ex, they assume that you’re bitter, exaggerating to malign your ex because of an element of social rejection.
And sometimes people even presume that when you open up this way to them that you’re simply hopping on the newest fad in self-diagnosis, wearing the status of survivor like a fashionable affliction. A kind of ennobling but unaccredited badge of honor. To them, you’re saying something easy, extending your hand, and expecting them to place a cookie in your palm.
In reality, for those of us who have endured physical or sexual violence, insults, gas-lighting, invalidation, and an overall war against our autonomy, there can be no scarier words to speak to another person than “I was abused.”
Because the next words we hear are usually not “I’m so sorry that happened to you” or something else compassionate or accepting. Instead, people want to know what happened. Sometimes their motivation is to understand, but many times they’re asking so that they can refute it — either aloud or in their own minds. And this is especially true if they know the abuser and have had at least one positive interaction with them.
I know this conversation so well, having had it happen to me so many times. The conversation that quickly turns into a referendum on the abuser’s value, the abuser’s worth. When I’m once again called to expend labor to consider and weigh the abuser’s identity, emotions, and internal motivations against my own.
And meanwhile, I sit there half-gutted from the experience of having to mentally relive what happened to me vividly enough to adequately convey it to another person.
It’s nasty. Disappointing. It’s a kind of heartache that I couldn’t bear.
So what I learned to do instead was to keep the negative experiences that shaped me to myself and consequently to feel like people never knew the real me. It was lonely but easier that way.
And Then I Met More Caring People
But along the way, something changed. I started to meet more caring people. People who understood that human beings can be multifaceted — that there are no monsters, no saints. That my purpose in telling them was not to paint myself as a blameless victim or declare absolution over the rest of my janky life — but to prepare them for the mistakes that I would inevitably make. A disclaimer I wrote in an earlier piece:
“Would you be okay with dating someone who was abused?”
“Of course,” most people answer without hesitation. “I’m not going to hold that against them. Why would I?”
Except it’s not about stigma. It’s not about the fact that somehow something bad that happened to a person may have ostensibly “tainted” them, bruised them like the peach at the grocery store you pass over when you see its underside.
In most cases, it’s not Movie of the Week level struggles.
Instead, it’s a pattern of small things that they do. The negative way they talk to themselves. The way they constantly seek validation. Bring the conversation around to the same miserable topics again and again, perseverating until they burst.
“You don’t love me, do you?” “You’re going to leave me, aren’t you?” “You’re probably going to hate me for saying this, but…” “I know you deserve someone better than me.” “I’m not special.” “I’ll never be good enough.”
And it’s freaking obnoxious. Because it happens multiple times a day every day, and even if they’re working on it, it usually takes YEARS to reshape old patterns, rewrite old relationship scripts. Furthermore, it doesn’t help one bit that working on it looks nearly identical to not working on it.
It’s a kind of slow water torture. I don’t know how anybody deals with it without falling out of love with the person, trudging through a mess that other people made, taxing your reserves of persistence and faith.
I say this because I’m the abused person, and I hate being a royal pain in the ass.
When People Don’t Ask for Details
I’ve come a long way since I wrote that disclaimer. The past handful of years have been very good to me. I’ve had compassionate people who listened to me without judgement. Who didn’t feel like sharing my story with them meant that I was asking them to make a choice between me and any abusers.
The ones who understood that I opened up to them not to malign others but to explain myself, my own emotions, and my own likely future.
I’ve learned to prize the people who don’t ask for details. Who don’t need to know who did it or exactly what happened. Ones who will listen to me if I offer up those things but who are largely more focused on me, what I need, and how to help me move forward.