A Buddhist master once said that the longest journey we can take is from the head to the heart.
Yesterday, I was struggling with the journey between the bed and the couch.
It’s very rare for me to feel like I need to spend all day in bed.
Not getting out of bed, getting up late and sleeping for hours in the afternoon were all things that I did while my mental health was getting worse, before I ended up in hospital.
Since then, I’ve made a real effort to get out of bed early(ish) and to only have naps in the afternoon if I feel really overwhelmed.
It works most of the time. Even if the alternative to being in bed is binge-watching series on Netflix on my couch, I often feel that this is a better option to sleeping.
But yesterday was different. Yesterday everything felt too difficult and too heavy for me to get up. So I stayed in bed, for hours and hours.
I know why it happened.
As I start to get more and more positivity in my life, by going out and meeting new people (something I have been trying to do, once a week, for this month), the contrast between how people in my life now treat me and how I have been treated in the past feels more and more jarring.
In short, I (only) have people in my life now who are nice to me. Who really listen when I talk. Who remember the things I tell them. Who show interest in what I’m up to or how I’m feeling.
Don’t get me wrong – I want that. I have done a lot of work on myself to get to the point where I can say that I deserve to be surrounded by people who genuinely care about me.
But the difference between people who really care about you and make an effort to make sure you’re comfortable, and abusive people who say they care about you and then hurt you, is huge. And experiencing better things now brings up the contrast of the past.
It’s something I still find difficult to make sense of. That my boyfriend in Argentina, who took me to restaurants and told me how intelligent I was, would end up hurting me as intentionally as he did. Just like I find it hard to get my head around the fact that the same man who bought me the Harry Potter books on tape and always wanted to play cards was the person who manipulated his way into my childhood bedroom.
To outsiders, people who have healthy expectations of how they are treated that don’t include violence and manipulation, abusive situations are black and white. Abusers are abusers. They see what is more difficult to see when you are very close to an abuser: just how bad they are.
And abusers and their actions are terrible. This isn’t a defense of them, not at all. This is a defense of victims and how difficult it can be to see clearly in abusive situations. To see through the lies we are told and the lies we tell ourselves. The “It didn’t start out that way” and the “But they said/did this really nice thing too”.
Some people say that every nice thing an abuser ever does is a manipulated effort in their desire to control people. Other people say that abusers are damaged, misunderstood or unloved.
I think that maybe both are somewhat true, but that neither really matter. I think the most important thing to get through to victims who are still in this type of dangerous relationship is for them to focus on how they feel, to understand that that terrible feeling of being scared and confused and unable to speak about it, that that feeling is a message to leave, to get out, to talk to someone, to get help.
No matter what the complex picture of nice and bad things that someone close to you does, if someone makes you feel scared, or trapped, or reinforces how scared and trapped you already feel, then you need to get away from that person. Whatever they’ve been through or you imagine they’ve been through. Whether you suspect that their actions are manipulative or whether they seem completely genuine. It doesn’t matter. Only feeling scared or trapped or inexplicably uncomfortable when you are around that person matters.
Even before my relationship with my boyfriend in Argentina got bad, there was something about him that made my skin crawl. I couldn’t put my finger on it. He hadn’t said anything nasty. He looked like a regular guy. But when I was close to him, there was a part of me that wanted to run away from him as fast as I could.
I didn’t listen to it.
It didn’t make sense to me because he hadn’t done anything wrong (yet) and he seemed nice and I felt like I needed someone to take care of me, because I was living abroad, and yet with him I felt so much more trapped than I felt safe.
If there’s one thing that victims can get very good at, it’s denial. I listened to a story of a woman who had survived domestic abuse, who had been beaten daily for over a decade but had never thought of herself as being in an abusive relationship. When she eventually called the help line, it wasn’t to talk about how bad it was – it was to ask about the logistics of divorce, because her husband had promised she could never divorce him. She just wanted to know if that was true.
Victims stay in abusive relationships for many reasons, and of course age is a factor as well. Pedophiles threaten, bribe and manipulate children not to speak out, and use the fact that they are so young and unaware of boundaries to their advantage.
I truly believed that the man who abused me when I was little really cared about me. I felt sorry for him, because there was something sad and angry about him.
But I also hated him. I didn’t know why but I did. One night, when I was 10, I kept repeating to my mum how much I hated her friend. She didn’t understand why. She thought I was being silly or rude. And then I told her.
There is always a part of us that knows when somethings feels innately terrible to us, no matter how “nice” a person in our lives may seem to be. It’s been, and still is, very difficult for me to be able to trust and enjoy people who are caring and show interest in me, because of experiences where people who seemed nice turned out to be so, so different.
Either way, if I could go back to myself when I was in Argentina, unsure about whether to trust my head that was telling me it was fine and I needed him, or the more physical part of me that was frightened and uncomfortable, then I know which part I’d tell myself to listen to.
Sometimes, it doesn’t have to make logical sense. As victims, our sense of logic and normal boundaries and safety is scrambled anyway. Sometimes, it’s about the part of you that just wants to leave, without knowing why.
“Because wanting to leave is enough” – Cheryl Strayed, Tiny Beautiful Things