If I hear one more reporter or talk show host ask a victim of partner abuse, “Why did you stay?” and not really listen to the answer or not try to understand the psychology of how emotional, psychological, financial, and/or physical abuse can rewire your brain and murder your soul, I will scream.
I want to scream because I don’t think the interviewer is really looking for an answer.
We Are Strong, They Were Weak
Instead, it’s as if the questioner is seeking to label the victim as “weak” and “not like us.” This creates a sense that the victim is different, and that perceived difference creates the comforting illusion that it could never happen to us or someone like us. After all:
- We are strong, they were weak,
- We are savvy, they were naÃ¯ve,
- We are smart, they were stupid,
- We are self-assured, they had no self-respect.
But this is wrong, false, naÃ¯ve, and downright irresponsible.
It can happen to almost anyone, and our only defense against it is accepting this inconvenient reality and being alert to the signs that someone with whom we are emotionally involved might be a sociopath—a sociopath who will blind us with love and the fulfillment of our dreams while leading us down the road toward self-destruction.
Sociopaths are real and frighteningly common. They will present themselves as Prince Charming, poison us slowly, transform into the devil, and then feed on our souls, all the while making us feel so emotionally weak and confused that we stay on the “What am I doing wrong?” treadmill, unknowingly sowing the seeds of our own destruction.
If you haven’t experienced the emotional and psychological erosion at the hands of a master puppeteer, it’s probably hard to comprehend how profoundly your life can be altered by living with such subtle but chronic toxicity. Your strength is sapped, your confidence in your ability to perceive, decide, or “be” is all but gone. You cannot will it back to life with overused clichÃ©s like:
- “Buck up,”
- “Get back on the horse,”
- “Get on with your life,”
- “Don’t give him power over you,” or
- “Just think—GIRL POWER.”
I Was No Longer “Me”
Your strength is not hidden in a box that you simply have to discover and reopen.
Even if you find the box and pull back the lid, it will be all but empty. Confidence and strength have to be remade, rebuilt, and coaxed back to life from all that is left—dust. There is no quick fix once you are so depleted. The road back is long and hard.
Over the years of consistent and discretely worded criticism that devalued my many roles (e.g., mother, wife, professional) and being gaslighted, I was no longer “me.”
How does one “just get over” that?
Drowning in Despair
To capture what it feels like to be so broken, so no longer “me,” so engulfed in despair, I wrote the following passage for an early draft of my book Husband, Liar, Sociopath: How He Lied, Why I Fell For It & The Painful Lessons Learned (available via Amazon.com). Although I didn’t include this passage in the book’s final version, it captures how I felt in an already depleted state, when my ex waged constant emotional, psychological and financial attacks, not to mention making veiled threats to my physical safety during our separation.
For all of us who’ve been told to “just reframe it,” “just be glad he’s out of your life now,” “just get over it,” “just be you again,” we all know you can’t just snap your fingers and make everything right when you feel like this”¦
The Tusnami Strikes
As I contemplated the total sham and betrayal of my past, “Paul’s” emotional assault that was my present, and the financial wasteland that might lie ahead, it was as if a rogue wave swelled above me.
I braced myself as it crashed down, pounding me into submission, almost smothering me with its force, and pulling me down, down, down into a dark lonely sea of despair. I wanted some other worldly force to rise up and stop the wave. Where is Poseidon when you need him?
Once triggered, the gigantic wave was unyielding, and Poseidon mere myth. Some days, the hopelessness knew no bounds, and I fought to breathe. I feared the despair would never end, leaving me trapped forever in a desolate sea of gloom and hopelessness.
A Spark Of Life
But, there was still a tiny part of my psyche and my soul that had not been obliterated by Paul.
That faint flicker of “me” wanted to live and held on with surprising ferocity. Still, the crushing wave of blackness visited frequently. I knew I could not stop it, so I found another solution. I learned to surrender to its power and to accept the searing emotional pain it brought.
I held onto the belief that if I did not panic, the despair would pass…eventually. Eventually I would break through the darkness. Eventually I would feel warmth and light. Perhaps one day I would even experience hope again. Who knows how many days, weeks, or months or even years that might take?
No matter how massive the wave of despair, no matter how long it held me under, I had only one job—not to drown.
Find Support From Those Who “Get It”
When the world as you know it has shattered, your confidence in yourself has evaporated, you realize all that you thought was true was a lie, and when your physical safety is precarious, how on earth do you just “get over it.” Moreover, being told to “just get over it,” made me feel even worse—as if everyone else in the world could do just that. Hence, I must be uniquely weak in my inability to do so.
No matter how well intentioned the advice was, it was not helpful—not at all. Seek support from those who truly understand, from those who have lived it, from those who will help you start healing by listening to your story and validating your experience.
(Identifying names, places, events and characteristics of “Paul” and others I discuss here and in my book have been altered to protect their and my identity.)