Earlier this year I wrote an essay on abuse and mental illness for The Mighty. In light of the recent scandals coming out about the many people who have been abused by those in power, I feel led to re-post this:
What My History of Abuse Taught Me About My Mental Illness
Many years ago, I was sitting in my therapist’s office telling him the story of my life – childhood and teens and early adulthood. By the end of the session, I was exhausted and said, “I just wish I was able to do more.” He looked surprised and replied, “I think you’re doing pretty damn well considering your history of abuse and current circumstances.”
I left thinking about those words. First, I felt validated for doing the best I could and that my life was not easy. Life wasn’t easy, despite the many people who have reminded me on a daily basis how other people have it so much worse. But the word that stood out the most was “abuse.” I, like so many others, am a victim of abuse. For many years nobody validated this. I think abuse among men is often downplayed and minimized. We are supposed to be the “tough ones.”
As a child, I was emotionally abused and neglected by people who were supposed to love me. I was verbally abused by teachers at school. I was manipulated by a therapist who wanted to have a personal relationship with me instead of doing his job and establishing trust. Later in my adult life, I got involved in friendships and romantic relationships that were hostile, demeaning, toxic and unhealthy. They were abusive.
People who have been abused often grow up to live lives riddled with anxiety, depression and a whole bunch of other mental and physical illnesses. This left me wondering which comes first? Abuse or illness? Was my mental illness the result of abuse? I think so, yes. I think for some of us, we are predisposed — and the abuse makes it worse. For others, the abuse is the direct cause of the mental illness and they can spend decades trying to heal. I lived life thinking abuse was normal. I know that might seem weird to say, but having been abused as a kid, being abused as an adult seemed like nothing new. It seemed like no big deal. I could handle it. Maybe it wasn’t that I thought the abuse was normal, I just thought it was part of life.
At one point in time, I was involved in what I will call a “relational situation” with another man. Calling it a romantic relationship definitely wasn’t the case, as there was no romance. Only the nagging feeling that something was terribly wrong. I knew the treatment I was receiving wasn’t normal. It got pretty bad. The twisted relationship began to chip away at me and I became increasingly depressed, anxious and was making very unhealthy choices. I stayed because I thought it would change. It didn’t. Things only got worse. By then it was hard to leave.
People stay in abusive situations for all kinds of reasons. A few of them that I relate to are the shame, embarrassment and fear – not fear in the sense of only fearing for your physical safety, but fear of losing relationships, fear of what the abuser will do to assassinate your character and reputation. Abusers tend to manipulate and turn people against you. They threaten to tell your secrets. To embarrass you. And yes, there is also the fear of physical abuse – hitting, punching, smacking, spitting or throwing objects at you or near you. These are abusive actions. So is punching walls or objects in an attempt to be intimidating.
The biggest thing abusers do is make you think you’re “crazy.” It’s called gaslighting. You start to question everything to the point you actually feel like you’re losing your mind. This was the breaking point that sent me to therapy. I was no longer able to cope, to make sense of the world around me, to understand the people who were hurting me. And then it was confirmed. I was most certainly being abused. Not just by one person, but by a history of people. Through therapy I was able to construct a laundry list of relationships. But when looked at closely, they were a series of manipulations, lies, deceit and pain.
Abuse can be devastating to the point where it can impact your life for many years. Sometimes, pieces of your mind are still not completely healed. You wonder if you somehow deserved it, even if you could have stopped it. You assume responsibility for the abuser in your mind. Maybe if I just didn’t say or do that, they wouldn’t have hurt me.
Actually, they still would have hurt you. This is what abusers do – they hurt people and blame everyone but themselves. They most likely are also victims of abuse (although most people who are victims of abuse usually don’t grow up to be abusers, but some do) and are doing to you what was done to them.
After attending some support groups, I realized almost every person seemed to have some story of abuse. To be clear, I am not saying that all mental illness is caused by abuse. I am saying there certainly can be a connection between the two.
In any case, if you have been the victim of abuse, know it is not your fault. Like my therapist said, “You are doing pretty damn well considering the abuse you have been through.” If someone chops off your leg, you don’t blame yourself for not being able to walk fast enough. All you can do is practice self-compassion and focus on your healing.
If you are a witness of abuse and stand by and do nothing, you are participating indirectly in that abuse. You allow it to continue. Speak up. Report it. You can remain anonymous if you choose, but do something.
If you or a loved one is affected by domestic violence and need help, call The National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-7233.