I suppose I shouldn’t say you’ll never see it. There may be people who saw the signs well in advance and still chose to dive in, but more often, the story seems to go thusly:
Everything seemed normal, and right, and correct, until one day…it wasn’t. There was blatant manipulation and destruction of property or even physical attacks. There was a moment where the abused stopped to ask: “How did we get here?” And then, in retrospect, it was clear.
And now, don’t we all feel so stupid?
Growing up, I remember school, TV shows, and books that talked about how to identify abusers. I remember most of those sources pointing out that there will be detractors who ask ‘why didn’t she leave.’ It was always ‘she’ in the examples, of course. They would make sure to remind us that it’s not that easy. Abusers don’t only cause direct harm, they will build a trap around their victim.
Of course, these sources usually focused on significant other abuse, be he boyfriend or husband. I should hope by now we’d understand that anyone of any gender has the capability of abusing anyone else of any gender, but that wasn’t discussed when I was a kid. Those lessons were that I, as a girl, needed to be on the lookout for evil boys, particularly in romance.
The examples were always of obvious abuse, too. Hitting, name-calling, hurting the children (if children were in the example), being a criminal outside of the home, that sort of thing. They’re characters who have chosen to live lives that are giant red flags that you can see from miles away. If they were Sims, they’d be following the criminal career track and they’d like it that way.
It is extremely important to address abuse in dating and marriage. It happens far too often in this world. But it isn’t the only place where abuse happens, and the abuser often begins setting the scene before dating even happens, assuming their victim isn’t someone they met on a first date. Yet that is where a lot of education and discussion on abuse begins and ends.
There were a few lessons that mentioned abusive fathers and step-fathers, but abuse that starts within the home you grow up in is a bit of a different topic. With an abusive family, you don’t get the chance to assess your situation before getting into it, the situation is thrust upon you. People still don’t treat survivors of abusive families as they should, but I am not equipped to write on these situations because my family, despite having at times gotten testy with each other and certainly having disagreements that caused some divides, was not an abusive family.
I learned along the way that abuse isn’t just limited to those spheres, but learning and accepting that for other people isn’t the same as accepting that for yourself. After all, things like abusive friendships and abusive roommates seem significantly more avoidable. Have a bad friend? Stop being friends. Have a bad roommate? Move.
I have had both. The first I was able to get a break from after I grew out of my teenage woe-is-me angst phase, and I have no ill will towards my younger self for not seeing the abuse sooner. I had no self-esteem and no self-respect. Once I developed both of those things, I stopped the friendship. I have some regrets that I wasted years of my life being friends with such a toxic person, but I’m significantly more proud of myself for growing. The abusive roommate, on the other hand, significantly more difficult on every level.
I even realized fairly early on in our lease that things weren’t healthy, but early on was already too late. I was already trapped in a lease…and convinced that I couldn’t afford to go it alone.
Turns out, I absolutely could afford to go it alone, but that’s something I learned after I had to. Of course, hindsight doesn’t help me feel any better, either. I’m fine on my own. Which means all the suffering was unnecessary.
Which led to several months of emotional spiraling. I was angry, disappointed, and frustrated with myself. Worse, I was ashamed — I’d been through much of this before, yet here I was again. I ‘let’ myself fall for another abuser’s tricks. I had the tools, I had the education. I saw the signs. I’d made a long-term plan, too, because I was sure I’d need time. After all, looking at my bills, I was convinced that there was no way I was ready to afford all my living costs on my own. I just needed to build up some savings. I couldn’t even afford moving costs then. I just needed a little time.
I didn’t get time. Roommate bailed suddenly a few months into the re-up of the lease (which, at the time of re-upping, seemed like the smart thing to do — ” just one more year, then I’ll have the savings,” I told myself). And it turned out that I didn’t need that extra time. I was fine on my own. Better than fine! I have a downpayment for a house saved now. I went from living almost paycheck to paycheck with a roommate that was supposed to help me save money due to splitting housing costs to being more than fine living on my own! The roommate was costing me that much.
How did I get there? Or, to put it in meme terms, how could this happen to me?
Seriously though — how did I get there?
Abuse can come from more places than we like to talk about — family, friends, roommates, classmates, teachers, coworkers, bosses, and any relationship where someone can put themselves in a position of power over you. It also takes innumerable forms, since the ultimate goal of abuse is to hold power over another person and any actions that can give the abuser that power they crave will do the job just fine.
(And just to pre-empt any ‘but!’s, someone being in charge of someone else isn’t automatically abuse. Parents, teachers, and bosses are not all abusers. It’s when people use their position to cause physical, emotional, mental, financial, or other kinds of harm in order to control the actions of the person under them that it becomes abuse.)
One of the most common forms is the switch. The trick. The person who starts out being pretty cool, someone you get along with, share interests with, and even share goals with.
Then, once you are stuck, things change, usually rather slowly. They test the waters. A little rude comment here, a little unreasonable demand there. Over time, they build on the foundations they found that worked. For them, I mean. When it comes to you, they’re hammering into the cracks they found in your foundation.
Say, for example, they noticed that you don’t ‘understand’ their jokes (which are just insults that they say are jokes when you get mad). Instead of respecting that you don’t find that kind of ‘humor’ funny, they triple down. They start saying you’re just too sensitive, it’s unfair of you to expect them to change something so insignificant, why do you have to be so sensitive? Everyone else gets the joke. Why are you so dumb? You must have mental health issues — anxiety, depression, bi-polar, because of course the abuser is absolutely a psychologist who is skilled in making those diagnoses. That’d explain why you don’t get it. Stop being so sensitive.
And it’s not just that one thing, either. It’s many little things, and, with time, at least a few big things.
I reached a point where my roommate had taken my access to my car away from me, and I didn’t recognize the problem. Well, until I suddenly did.
I wanted to go to an event — a painting thing to meet other geeky girls in the area. To have some fun. And my roommate had a meltdown because they decided they had to go get groceries that same day. They couldn’t do it the days before (this wasn’t a last-minute decision) and they couldn’t do it the day after, for some reason. They had to do it the exact same day as the event I wanted to attend. And, since at the time we were splitting the car costs (because we both used the car to get to work and get groceries and stuff), they threatened to stop paying anything for the car if they didn’t get to go get their groceries on that exact day.
Long before that point, I’d realized that my roommate was a pretty awful person. But I thought I was doing things well — despite their words, and even most of their actions, I thought I was staying strong. I’d missed that they had caught on to my financial fears. I wasn’t doing as well as I thought I’d been.
Abuse is a trickster — It blinds you into focusing on the short term. You have to get through the now, the long term will come later.
Hindsight is 20/20
After I realized that, I started setting firm boundaries. Those only made things worse. The verbal abuse became more direct and pointed. At one point they just took off with my car for a week. Sure, they gave me $50 a day for Ubers to get to work, but that was just because they knew I could call the cops on them and get them for car theft if they left me completely stranded.
They also jumped hard into Tinder and other such apps to find dates. That vanishing act with my car was for a visit with the date they finally settled on as their next victim.
Earlier on, though, they matched with one person who really liked Disney, and they said that they love love loved Disney too! And so that person asked for their favorite Disney movie…and the roommate asked me if The Lion King was a Disney movie.
I told them to Google it and locked my bedroom door. They’d been making plans to go on a Disney vacation with me and two other friends for weeks before that.
Hindsight is 20/20. You can see the lies plain as day once you’ve been able to gather all the facts, but you have to remember you didn’t have those facts at the start. What you had at the start was someone who was hiding themselves to try to slip into a new space to find new victims to leech off of.
So what happens next?
I already mentioned that I spent months spiraling, furious with myself.
But now it’s been a while. I’ve started to make peace with myself. I know more about my weaknesses, and I’m far less afraid of being called ‘mean’ for not letting someone push my boundaries. It’s not mean to not let someone hurt you, and sometimes you have to accept that not all people are going to get along.
I’ve also spent a fair amount of time in fear of my weaknesses. Those are going to be harder to address. You can’t exactly train for it, not even by posting your opinions online and letting the trolls have their way. My political, economic, and social beliefs aren’t built on flimsy shifting sands, unlike my belief in myself.
I don’t know if I’ll be ok for the rest of my life. I don’t know that I’ll be strong enough to not let another person break me down. But I’m certainly not going to let anyone keep me down.