Last week, as I was wading through my beloved Google Reader, I happened upon this post over at Feministe. With a title like “When Feminists Face Abuse,” I couldn’t put off reading it, despite the triggering feelings the very name conjured. The author tells a story of being in an abusive relationship with a man who doesn’t fit into any of our preconceived, meida-drivern notions of what an abuser looks like. It’s true that a good many abusers are in fact like those guys you see in Lifetime movies or read about in true crime books, the overtly controlling, domineering macho guy. But some are not. It’s the same problem that we have our soicetal notions of who rapes. Rather than the dark, shady dude in a ski mask we’re conditioned to think of, it’s usually someone you already know. And we do that with abusers. We think, like the author, that, “Hey, this guy’s a feminist! He’s cool! He’d never hurt me!” And it’s that type of thinking that lulls us into a sense of security, one that can prove to be very damaging.
That article struck a very large, very painful chord with me. Every single time I read something that addresses this, it’s like a sack of bricks landing directly onto my stomach. Waves of memories and guilt come flooding over me. I become sad and angry. I start to lose my breath and fear that this time I won’t be able to fight off the panic attacks that always seem to come for me. I was an abused feminist, and it isn’t something that I’ve been able to fully deal with. My abuser was also supposedly a feminist ally. I feel guilty although I know that I’m not any less of a feminist or a bad feminist for failinng to practice what I preach. I feel angry with myself for not stopping it sooner, even though I know how powerful defense mechanisms can be and how they’re masters of obfuscation.
Unlike the author of the other post, I was not physically abused. I suppose that’s where my mind had drawn the line, at the physical abuse. I knew that the day I got hit would be the day I left. What never registered with me was the other sort of abuse, the emotional/manipulative abuse that is so very insidious. I’m not sure that it failed to register, even; I knew, and I was in denial. I had been emotionally and verbally abused as a child, and in truth, I entered this relationship as a child. I was 16 when I began dating my former partner, and I was with him for five years before I told him that we were done, a process which took several weeks and nearly resulted in a phone call to the police. I think that because I was so young when we started out and still enduring emotional abuse at home, I glossed over my new abusive relationship with a protective coating of denial. I told myself it wasn’t the same thing. I told myself that it was my fault for being too selfish or too demanding. I told myself the controlling, jealous actions of my ex were just him watching out for me or being protective, all the while criticizing the hell out of Twilight for romanticizing creepy, controlling guys. I was disturbed by how he, at one point, ripped up my homecoming picture (several years after homecoming) because I had gone with another (gay!) guy he didn’t like me hanging out with, and again when he convinced me, usually after a huge fight, not to hang out with certain friends because he “didn’t know them well enough” and “didn’t trust them.
And again, I told myself that he was just being charmingly jealous when he told me how if I ever cheated on him, that he would kill the other person. If that person happened to be a woman, he would kill every lesbian or queer woman he could find. I heard that several times, especially over the course of our last year together, and each time it sickened me. I tried to push it out of my mind, and it usually worked, keeping me from facing what was going on. When that didn’t work, I denied that he really meant it. But when I did leave him for someone else, he made me truly terrified for that person’s life. He gaslighted me repeatedly, playing on my myriad existing mental illnesses to make me think I was delusional or irrational. What’s worse is that he thought it was all hilarious, because I apparently, “Look cute when I’m scared.” He blamed my feminism, which only grew stronger over the course of our dating, for our relationship problems. These are only a few of the things that happened, and only a few of the things that I’m comfortable talking about. I even fear I may have repressed some of what happened, and if I have, I don’t ever want to uncover it.
Staying with this person for five years was a mistake. But I am not less of a feminist for making it, and I refuse to let anyone tell me otherwise. My moment of realization came late in the game, after I finally saw for myself a way out. But the realization still came, and I am so glad it did. I often think that my feminist research, all that reading and writing and waxing philosophic, gave me the tools for my own denial. I knew so well the specifics of abuse and the language surrounding it that I was able to twist it so that I could cope with what was happening to me. In the most twisted example of confirmation bias I’ve experienced, I steered myself away from any information that might let in what I already knew, that I was in an abusive relationship. I instead sought out exceptions and specifics, and separated myself from the real definition of abuse with amazing mental gymnastics.
Coping with having been in an abusive relationship is a hard battle for anyone, but it feels so much harder when you carry the guilt of being an abused feminist. I feel that even by saying this here, where I feel safe, that I will lose credibility. I fear that by coming out about my experiences I will be seen as a phony, as someone who can judge not. We tell ourselves it will never happen to us. We tell ourselves that because we know, because we’re on the lookout, that we will never be taken advantage of. For many of us, that is true. But for some of us, it’s that kind of invincible thinking that helps the cycle move along. I vowed after that relationship to turn my analytical eye to all of my relationships, to not let it happen again. No matter how much it hurts to admit that you’re in a bad place, it hurts so much worse to stay there.
I’m happy to say that I was able to end that relationship. Throughout the three week course of the breakup, I endured verbal and emotional abuse that even now is triggering. I sat in a chair for two hours while my ex screamed and cried at me, calling me names all the while pleading with me to let him stay and threatening to kill himself or someone else if I didn’t. It was a painful breakup, but the next day all I felt was relief and freedom. Not sorrow, not regret. After two days, I did not feel guilty. I felt free. I entered a new relationship, and it is nothing short of wonderful, equal, and harmonious. I may have lost some of my feminist cred, at least in my mind, but I like to think I got some of it back. I’m working on that guilt now. Hell, I’m still working on learning to not apologize for every single thing I do in an effort of self-preservation. I would never think anybody else to be less of a feminist for doing exactly what I did, so why do I think it of myself? I know I’m hard on myself, but I also know I don’t deserve this. I’m in an honestly feminist, healthy relationship, and I love myself and what I am today.
If you are currently in an abusive relationship, I urge you to get help immediately. Talk to a friend, family member, or trusted party, or call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-SAFE. You can also visit their website here. Please feel free to PM me if you want a friendly ear.