Today, I’m going to write about abuse.
Where to start with a subject so broad and so justifiably inflammatory? With a few disclaimers.
First: I’m here to write what feels true to me. You may disagree with what I have to say; you may agree. On one level, abuse is entirely personal, even while it is disturbingly widespread and endemic to the social, cultural, and political spheres we live in.
Second: I am no white-coat-clad, clip-board-wielding expert in abuse. I’ve held no polls. I’ve read little about the studies into abuse.
I am, however, a veteran recipient of abuse: psychological, emotional, spiritual, sometimes physical. I know it well, and I understand it well. And I, too, have been abusive: I’ve lashed out; I’ve “kicked the cat.” It is a cycle of disaster that’s perpetuated by unconscious self-violence, and it’s hard to get to grips with unless we do the sobering, searching work of first moving inward, and then stepping back enough to see things clearly.
It took me a very long time to recognise that I was abused. I used to believe that if I hadn’t been repeatedly hit or molested that what I had experienced was not abuse. I was wrong. My adult life has been a steady process of admission that I was systematically abused from the time of my birth. I’m not going to get into specifics: the detail of it feels not as relevant as the forms, i.e. psychological, emotional, spiritual. The last was the most damaging for me, because it hacked at the very foundation of my existence: my right to be here; my right to live.
As an adult, I entered into relationships with abusive partners – particularly those whose (mostly) unconscious repertoires were composed of contempt, stonewalling, and a certain propensity for biting criticism that dovetailed perfectly with my ability to take that criticism and believe it was the truth. I chose men whose anger, mistrust, and hatred of women mirrored that of my parents – father and mother, both.
In those moments where the abuse was too obvious to ignore, I dissociated: it felt like it was happening to someone else, or in a parallel universe. I lived in a fog. It was the experience of being so close-in to something that I couldn’t discern what was there and what wasn’t. I found myself unable to move, to act, to escape.
Quite the opposite, in fact: as soon as I thought I’d escaped – had time to breathe a little – the fog sucked me right back in.
This is what I’ve learned about that “fog” – and it has a dual quality:
- It prevents insight. It stops us from being able to step back and look at what’s really going on.
- It signifies the acting out of an unconscious script. This script was written way-back-when in childhood – and probably before we were born.
So when we’re in that fog, we’re not in the present. We are in the past. There’s no insight because we are regressed, and when we’re regressed there is no capacity for insight: instead of “remembering”, we “do.”
In 2014, I travelled back to the country of my childhood with a partner-friend. I had wanted to show him the country I loved most of all. We had big plans: messaged about it for weeks beforehand; talked about how we’d lie under a full moon; shared our fears, and our hopes for a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
Well, we got that much: a once-in-a-lifetime experience it certainly was.
The shit hit the fan just before he arrived, and continued hitting, in increasing waves of intensity, over the four weeks we were together. There were mere moments of connection in a morass of slick-black hell. Thank God for the environment we were in. It was our saviour. The landscape literally pulled us out of the abyss on several occasions, to the point where we forgot ourselves and our battle.
In a moment of levity when we parted, he ruefully joked that at least we were both leaving alive. The fact that we had reached full-term without my calling it a day or driving him back to the airport and frankly dumping his ass there is testament to the “fog.” I disappeared into it. I lost myself. I wasn’t in the present. I was living out the past.
But here’s the thing: yes, I felt like I was in a battle for my life there. But so was he. So was he.
The truth is clear, and also hard to take: I was in the fog; and so was he. We were both way-back-when, reliving traumas that had shaped our lives, and acting them out in the ways we knew how.
I have learned this: the plain truth of the matter is that an abuser is nearly always an abuser because they, too, have been abused. I do not excuse their actions. I do not condone what they have done and continue to do. I take the best steps I can to protect myself. Because if they cannot do that, then they are in the fog, and the only way I can escape both it, and them, and the abuse, is to see this, know this, and take the only compassionate action available: I save myself.
Now. Let’s go back to that fog one final time here. It’s necessary. Because this fog has generated a story that I hear often – and I am contesting it, because what I have seen can no longer sustain this particular illusion.
This story sets a scene where there is a perpetrator who works to “the script” – a somewhat chronological list of behaviours and actions that they move through, and where they pull out all the moves knowingly and consciously. In other words, they have a strategy, and they plan and execute it carefully, and consciously, aware of every move, anticipating every counter-move from the significant other in the scene.
I don’t believe this to be true.
Most abusers are not standing there, like Mr. Burns in The Simpsons, rubbing their hands together in satisfaction because, yet again, they have prevailed.
No. Most abusers are in hell. As are those they abuse. But the abuser’s sense of ‘power over’ means that their version of hell is harder to acknowledge. As long as they feel they are physically (emotionally, psychologically, sexually, spiritually) in charge, then they get to feel like they’re boss. They’ll hang on to that version of hell that much longer than those who absolutely know that they’re in hell. And, as someone who has been abused, I know how long I managed to stay in hell and believe that I was somewhere else.
Instead of seeing the ‘script’ as an action plan, it can be approached more accurately as a cluster of symptoms. Unlike actors who rehearse their own particular scripts, abusers are beholden to theirs. It has become a ‘script’ because we are, sadly, wounded in entirely familiar ways. Our modes of attack, and our defence mechanisms – the ones we keep a secret even from ourselves – are predictable. In that moment when we’ve unleashed our deepest wounds, we are children. And children behave predictably: they don’t run far, and when they feel they’ve done something wrong, their hiding places are all-too-easily discovered.
Abusers and those who are abused both hide in plain sight. But unfortunately, there is seldom an adult part of either who is watching and able to step in to stop what’s happening.
This is where the blows are dealt – physical and non-physical. Here is the violence. This is where we blindly play out what we saw so many years before, with no equipment immediately available to put an end to the war. This is where two people (or more) feed their own pain, because there is no alternative that makes sense to them. This is where we come back for more, because “more” is the only thing that we have known, and it is the only thing that makes logical, conscious sense to us.
Here, now, if we have even a moment where we are able to observe ourselves, is where we have the opportunity to stop. Just stop. And in that pause we might eventually be able to choose something that runs counter to everything the myriad voices tell us is the truth.
We can look with a broader vision and see how that abuse has threads that not only link us to our partners, but to our families, our communities, our past, our ancestors – the repetitions that are enacted blindly through years and generations, and passed on to children, and their children, and their children, who grow up to become adults, who abuse and are abused.
There is no conscious script. We are all in the fog, every one of us, perpetrator and victim; victim and perpetrator. We cannot save or reason with anyone inside this fog when we see the fog for what it is. We can, however, in that moment, choose to walk away. Not just from the abuser, but from the nature of what it is to abuse. And then the work starts.
I am asking you to look at another aspect of abuse that is often silenced (frequently before it’s even uttered) and shelved in favour of an approach that steadfastly fixes on one side of those who are being abused. Even to tip one’s enquiring toe into the other side risks the kind of slap-down that puts it off-limits for scrutiny and discussion. But I’m going to argue that it is only by stepping off the well-worn path and indeed deciding to walk “this way,” i.e. looking at the other side of the story, that we stand a chance of healing – both those who are abused, and their perpetrators.
And if you don’t think that abusers deserve healing, ask those who have been abused whether they want their experiences to continue.
They fuck you up, your mum and dad.
They may not mean to, but they do.
They fill you with the faults they had
And add some extra, just for you.
But they were fucked up in their turn
By fools in old-style hats and coats,
Who half the time were soppy-stern
And half at one another’s throats.
Man hands on misery to man.
It deepens like a coastal shelf.
Get out as early as you can,
And don’t have any kids yourself.Philip Larkin, This Be The Verse