*Names have been changed to protect the privacy of individuals.
From 2016-2018, I was in a psychologically and sexually abusive relationship. I became depressed, and eventually suicidal, and have been struggling with my mental health ever since.
Regardless, this is not a sob story. I just wish I’d had something like this to read at the time I was going through everything; maybe I would have understood what was happening to me quicker, and I would have left sooner. It is my strong hope that this account will reach at least one person who needs it, and that it might give them the courage to do something about their own situation.
No one ever enters into a relationship with an abuser knowing that it is the intent of their partner to abuse and manipulate them later down the line, once the abuser has gained your trust. I was no different. When I first met my boyfriend at the time, I was – even, on reflection, by 16-year-old standards – very hopelessly naive. I was the product of a very privileged and loving family, and also of an all-girls’ grammar school, where it had been drilled into all of us, from the age of 11, that we were the ‘leaders of tomorrow’: it was down to us to be the change that we wanted to see in the world. This message was one I found endlessly inspiring and, as such, I took it upon myself to become a (hilariously unqualified) ‘fixer’ of all my friends and acquaintances who I knew hadn’t been blessed with as much light as I had in their lives.
Amongst those friends and acquaintances I wanted to ‘fix’ was John*. I’d met John through a mutual friend at a party, and the more we spoke, the more obvious it became how impressively intelligent he was, and how much potential he had; it also became clear how wounded he was, and how much he liked me. We had met in the summer, and I was soon to be moving to his school for the sixth form. Our future was clear: John and I would be together.
Of course, red flags had already begun to arise by this point. John’s behaviour was at times unpredictable and erratic. He spoke to me about the ways in which he would hurt himself when drunk to prove his own invincibility: he joked about drinking petrol and carving initials into his skin. He was already turning me away from a couple of my closest friends who he claimed didn’t really care for me; meanwhile, it was with these people that he made the biggest effort to get closer to. The journey to my total isolation was well underway a mere few weeks into our partnership. Yet, without the benefit of a lot of prior experience with boys (platonically or romantically), and with the rose-tinted glasses of a girl falling in love for the first time, all these red flags I saw still only looked like flags.
Over the next two years, John’s treatment of me worsened dramatically. Although, at times, he showered me with so much affection it felt as if I might drown, this was very heavily interspersed between periods of intense stonewalling. Oftentimes there would be no obvious reason behind this, and I would be left second-guessing what I’d said or done to make him freeze me out; other times, it would be my ‘punishment’ for spending time with male friends who John believed only wanted to sleep with me, or for spending time with female friends who he’d decided were no good for me. To go against his ‘advice’ was a sign of disrespect and distrust, and the consequences for this were severe. At times, John would purposefully induce my panic attacks when in public spaces via physical restrainment, inciting in me a feeling of entrapment and total alone-ness; this only contributed further to my growing sense of helplessness when no stranger would come to my aid. It solidified the notion that I was the ‘crazy’ one; I had no right to complain about my situation, because my situation was ‘normal’. Even in my home environment I felt trapped: John had convinced me that my parents didn’t truly care about me, and that they were demonising him and his family. It was decided that, after school, I would estrange myself from them, and become a mother and perhaps a primary school teacher: these were the only two roles John said I was capable of fulfilling.
Sex became a part of the ongoing punishment process. John would often touch me sexually and non-consensually in front of his friends when we were at school; again, no one ever said or did anything to help me. (Granted, this may have been a result of their own immense discomfort.) He would frequently taunt me unprovoked regarding sex he planned to have with female friends (who I was aware he’d already slept with in the past). He would then belittle me if I got upset: this was, in his eyes, further evidence of my distrust and lack of love for him. When I was sexually assaulted while I pretended to sleep in the bed of my good male friend, John refused to help me after I texted him, begging him to call my parents and ask them to come and pick me up. After the assault happened, he claimed it to be my fault, and that I’d betrayed his trust by allowing it to happen. On a handful of occasions, I was sexually assaulted by John himself via forcible sodomy: he only stopped after – on the last of these occasions – I physically retaliated. The shock was so great for him that he got a nosebleed, bled on me, laughed at the bloody scene, and took photos. (This was not the only instance wherein he took photos of my naked body without my consent: I discovered this when walking with his friend, who referenced an explicit image of me that John had sent to him one time.)
I’d like to emphasise at this point that this was all treatment I believed I deserved at the time; I was certainly miserable, but I genuinely believed that I was being treated well. It’s all too easy to ask: “Why doesn’t he/she leave him/her?” when you’re not the person at the centre of the abuse. When you’re in the eye of the hurricane, it feels quiet. As far as I was concerned at the time, John loved me more than anything in the world, and I loved him: why would the person who loves you the most ever want to hurt you?
It’s a very long and confusing process recognising abuse for what it is. For me, it took months after the relationship ended to realise that it had been abusive at all. I just thought I was unhappy. When you start to see abuse for what it is, it’s very natural to turn the blame towards yourself at first: Why did this happen to me? What did I do to deserve this? What is it about me that means that there’s an invisible target tattooed onto MY back? The thing is, abuse of this nature is so rarely a reflection of your character: it’s a reflection of your abuser’s.
I wasn’t wrong when I met John: he really is as fiercely intelligent as he is wounded. Significantly, just as I am now partially a product of the heavily interspersed love and neglect he showed me for two years, John was (and remains) a product of the blind indulgence of his mum and severe emotional neglect from his dad. Oftentimes when children are overvalued by a parent without limit, praised for their intelligence and achievements rather than their ability or character, and simultaneously receive inadequate validation from a parent, this can lead to the development of a Narcissistic Personality Disorder. In these cases, these children often find it easier to block out feelings of inadequacy caused by parental neglect; instead, they become overly reliant on the perceptions of the overly indulgent parent to create their sense of identity. In John’s case, this led him to believe himself to be, almost literally, a god. In fact, I completely lose track of the number of times I heard the words: “Imogen, I am a God.”, or “Did you know I have an IQ of 162?”. I would argue that it was this Narcissism that drove John’s need to manipulate, gaslight, and isolate me; it was the only conceivable way that he could ensure the indulgent love he experienced from his mum during childhood could continue into his adult life.
All this to say: none of the abuse that I experienced at the hands of John was ever my fault. With unwillingness and inability to recognise the needs or identities of those separate from oneself being such core traits of Narcissism, how could my abuse ever have been perceived – even by John – as my fault, considering he didn’t even perceive me as being an autonomous individual, capable of my own independent thought? I used to believe that there was something wrong with me to make me the target of John’s attention. I now recognise that my past susceptibility to psychological abuse stemmed largely from my former uncritical eye and my over-eagerness to expend energy on individuals whose capacity for goodness and warmth I was not yet sure of.
Although I’ve come a long way in terms of recognising the abusive nature of my past situation, sadly for me, the resulting trauma does still signicantly permeate my life: perhaps most prominently via my symptoms of Complex Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. I’m hypervigilant and largely untrusting in my relationships: when with friends and when meeting new people especially, I’m constantly analysing ways in which they could possibly be trying to psychologically hurt me. I struggle periodically with feelings of emptiness and monitoring my emotions, and enormously with feeling permanently damaged – as if no one will ever truly be able to understand me or what I’ve been through. I fear that I may never be able to function in a way that makes people feel comfortable again. During my first semester of university, I spent most of it in states of dissociation and derealisation; nothing felt real, and I would frequently break down and call my boyfriend Jamie* at the time out of fear of arising suicidal thoughts. As a result, I lost a significant amount of weight, and eventually also that relationship in attempts at self-flagellation: I didn’t believe I was worthy of the nutrition, nurture and love I was getting. I obsess over faults and mistakes I make: it’s as though a John-like presence follows me through my interactions and undertakings of projects, awaiting the chance to invalidate any and all of my efforts, if and when I fail to attain perfection.
Even so, it really isn’t all doom and gloom: since 2018, I already feel unrecognisable to the girl I once was. I’ve managed to create – essentially from scratch – a whole new sense of ‘self’, identity, and purpose; I’ve also made huge steps in terms of rebuilding my relationship with my family, forming new beautiful friendships, and having a much wider circle of friendly acquaintances. I’m a lot more in tune with my wants and desires, and it’s exceedingly rare that I’ll place any person or situation above my own mental health. Because I’ve had to re-learn how to talk to myself and be my own best friend, my communication skills have improved immeasurably – such to the extent that, against all odds, I’m still able to enjoy a healthy and mutually satisfying friendship with Jamie, even post-breakup. Beyond this, I’ve become a lot more curious as an individual, and learned how to be – perhaps annoyingly so in the eyes of some – critical of society and the world around me. From this, I’ve become a lot more well-versed in social issues, and my levels of empathy for people placed in horrific situations for reasons beyond their control have also increased dramatically. I don’t even hate John. I hate what he did and I’ll never allow him back in my life in any serious way, but ultimately, he was an exceedingly damaged boy, struggling to make sense of the world himself – just as we are all victims and products of our circumstances. I now appreciate far better the preciousness of time, and using it wisely to work towards being the best and happiest version of yourself that you can be. I cannot ever claim to be a perfect person, but I know I’m improving every day, bit by bit.
The road to recovery may feel slow, and progress is almost never linear. But if you feel stuck in a situation that resembles mine in any way, just know that it does get better. Support is only a touch or a phone call away. Links are below regarding identifying what abuse is, steps that you can take concerning how to escape your abuser, and ways in which you can handle any resulting mental health issues.