Using writing, and meditation, and ice cream, and reading, and dreams,

and a whole lot of other tools to rediscover who I am,

after six years living with a man with OCPD.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Worse than a Slap in the Face

We're starting to pay more attention to bullying in school, which is important, but many young bullies learn their behavior from somebody in their family.  That's the way their father treats their mother, after all, or their mother treats the elderly grandparent in the home...

Everyone would agree that physical abuse is terrible, and never to be tolerated.  Yet words, tones, body language... the harm inflicted by long-term emotional and verbal abuse can be just as painful, so much so that many victims express a wish for visible bruises, so that at least then people could understand how very much it hurts.
Sometimes, because it's too hard to face the reality that somebody who's supposed to love us is treating us so terribly, we discount our own pain, "Oh, it's not that bad.  If it was really bad, if he hit me or the children, of course I'd leave."  Or we excuse it, "Well, after all, I know he's mentally ill," or, "It's just because she's going through a really rough time."  We blame ourselves, hoping that if we just learn to express ourselves better, that if we model a good example of kindness and patience with our own behavior, if we just keep working to communicate better, we'll break through.  We'll get to a point where s/he finally understands.

Here's why that doesn't work: the problem isn't poor communication in the first place.  There's a saying that you can't get a man to understand something, if his job depends on him not understanding it.

We think there's a mutual goal; to reach an understanding, to find common ground, to agree on something, or to share thoughts or emotions.  The abuser is looking for Power Over, for control of every situation.  True compromise (where both parties feel satisfied) is impossible when each party has a different goal.  What happens is one party (usually the abusee) will eventually give up in exhaustion.

Or the abuse goes on so long, in so many different forms, we may not even notice it anymore.  We're picking our battles, and the latest snipe is just another pinprick in a life full of being stabbed with pins and needles and the occasional icepick or switchblade.  A friend recently pointed out to me that a few years ago, my ex b-f called me fat and stupid in front of her and another guest, which she found appalling (and I do, too, in retrospect), and I didn't even notice at the time.  I was so used to him calling me fat and stupid several times a day it didn't register anymore.

Being OCPD or NPD or BPD or a member of the LAPD is no justification for using your fists or your words to attack and degrade another human being.   Having a mental disorder, or being drunk, or having any other addiction or illness, does not excuse anyone from the responsibility to treat others with kindness, dignity and respect.

What is verbal abuse, and what ways can someone be abusive?  They include:
  • Withholding - not sharing one's thoughts and emotions, not listening, the silent treatment...
  • Countering - whatever one says, or begins to say, the abuser jumps in to say it isn't so.  Being told that your reality is wrong.
  • Discounting - one may be told one is too sensitive, overreacting, taking things too seriously...
  • Verbal abuse disguised as jokes - one can be the butt of a really nasty attack, and when one objects, then be accused of not having a sense of humor.
  • Blocking and diverting - you may ask for information, and the abuser withholds it and changes the subject.  "Do you have any plans for Friday night?"  you ask cheerfully.  The response: "Why are you asking?  You've got plans, haven't you?  You're always making plans without consulting me..."  (see the video clip, below, for a great illustration of this in action.)
  • Accusing and blaming - one is blamed for the abuser's bad mood, for 'trying to pick a fight'
  • Judging and criticizing - "Do you have any idea how fat/old/slutty you look in that dress?" "You're so stupid, you can't keep anything straight..."
  • Trivializing - conveying that whatever you have done or said is insignificant.  Turning up the TV or walking out of the room when you're mid-sentence.
  • Undermining - squelching any enthusiasm or opinion one might dare to voice, sabotaging exercise or outside interests, friendships.
  • Threatening - "Do what I want or I'll..."
  • Name calling - my b-f decided to dub me "Lumpy" as a pet name.  Nice, huh?
  • Forgetting - either immediately forgetting something abusive that has just occurred, or forgetting a promise made to attend an event - "You never told me we had Back-to-School Night tonight."
  • Ordering - as if the partner or child is a slave.  "Get in here and ..."
  • Denial - "I never said that, You're making it up, You must be crazy..."
  • Abusive anger - there is no right way to be/speak to avert anger, when a partner wants to be angry.  When an abuser who uses anger as his "go-to" emotion is feeling powerless and anxious, he WILL vent by blasting his partner (and then usually blame him/her.) As I've blogged before, anger can become addictive and it has a double pay-off. There's a release of tension, a flow of mood-boosting body chemicals after a blow-up, and the abuser usually cows the victim into doing his/her will.
I could have written this script. Awfulness knows I rehearsed it enough, in endless variations!

This experience - of being disregarded as a valued, thinking, separate human being happened to me all the time with OCPD ex-b-f.  He couldn't understand the concept that I did not think exactly the way he did about everything, that I did not know what he was thinking.  That he did not have outposts in my head.  Wasn't I merely an extension of himself?

And after a few years, he did have outposts in my head.  I helped build them, trying soooo hard to conform to what he expected of me.  Trying not to piss him off by asking the wrong question - or perhaps, the right question in the wrong way.  Ending up jumpy and nervous all the time, walking on eggshells, because I foolishly asked at the wrong time about going for a weekend hike, or brought home the wrong cut of meat, or came home ten minutes late from work and I knew he wouldn't believe it was traffic.  Waiting for the explosion, or perhaps, just the Silent-But-Stomping routine, or the sulks, the disgusted looks...

While some abusers never strike, push, or physically batter their victims, all physical abuse is preceded by verbal abuse in some form.  And many displays of temper, while they technically don't harm us physically, are clearly meant to scare and intimidate us.  They do affect us, not only emotionally, but physically.  We cannot (and do not) feel truly safe if she "only" throws knickknacks at the wall near us, if he "only" hurls his plate on the ground and stomps out of the house right past us.  If s/he makes threatening remarks about guns, or about throwing us out on the street.  Verbal abuse throws us off balance, raises our adrenalin and cortisol levels, causes us to wonder if we are, in fact, going a little bit crazy.  (Actually, we may well be suffering Complex Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.)  We may become physically ill, because repeated abuse impacts our immune systems.

Even if your abuser never raises his/her voice, even if s/he never throws so much as a hanky or stomps even once, don't kid yourself that you're not being abused, if you are being belittled, put down, or depersonalized in any way.  If s/he always insists on "helping" you, (whether you've asked for help or not,) because you're so helpless/incompetent.  If s/he insists on making all the financial decisions because you're "not even capable of balancing a checkbook!"  If s/he acts like s/he knows what's going on in your head better than you do.  That sounds ridiculous, in black and white like that, but that is how some abusers act.  It's all the more insidious, when emotional abuse is covert.

Financial Abuse - Another Form of Emotional Abuse

Financial abuse is not a couple deciding together, "Okay, Partner A is better at handling the bills, so if she'll take over that job most of the time, Partner B will do the heavy yard work."  It's about one person using money as an emotional club over a partner's head, not sharing information, not disclosing assets, not allowing for mutual decision making.  It can be a husband who buys tailored suits and makes his wife shop for her clothing at Goodwill, or a wife who gets weekly pedicures and massages while her husband is told they can't afford for him to see a dentist.  It's about a spouse who refuses outright to look for a job, or who will pay lip service to a job-search, but wants to wait for the perfect job to come along, even though the family is in financial crisis.
from Wisegeek:  Financial abuse is a form of mistreatment in which an abuser forcibly controls a victim’s economic means. It can involve stealing money, not allowing a victim to take part in any financial decisions, or preventing a victim from having a job. This form of abuse tends to occur most often in domestic relationships, such as between a husband and wife or an elderly parent and adult child. It can be difficult to recognize because an abuser may purposely select a victim who is vulnerable and unlikely to realize the abuse is taking place or who simply will be too ashamed to report it.
 Signs of Financial Abuse (from Suite 101)
  • Controlling the finances.
  • Withholding money or credit cards.
  • Receiving an allowance.
  • Being held accountable for every penny spent.
  • Money being taken against the will.
  • Using the spouse's assets for personal benefit.
  • Withholding basic necessities.
  • Preventing a partner from working or choosing a career.
  • Sabotaging place of employment. (Forcing the partner to miss work or repeated calling to the place of employment, etc.)

Many who financially abuse their partners or elderly parents never raise their voices.  Others engage in rages, blocking and diverting, or other verbal abuse techniques to maintain control.  Receiving an allowance, as above - is not abuse if both partners agree, "Okay, we should each have XX amount for pocket money each week, and not go over that, because we're saving to put a down payment on a house."  It's abuse when a (non-working) wife says to her husband (who earns a healthy salary), "You can have $10 per week for pocket money, and you'd better be able to produce receipts and show me exactly how you've spent it."  As noted, the elderly are also frequent victims of financial abuse by their children.

More sites on Financial Abuse:

So how do we get into this situation, anyway?

For one thing, we all have these silly preconceptions of what "crazy" or "abusive" looks like.  It couldn't be that grandmotherly-looking woman with the sweet smile.  Or the clean-cut business exec with warm brown eyes who coaches his son's Little League team.  Abusers and rapists and "crazy people" are supposed to be seven feet tall, covered with rank, unwashed hair, pushing a shopping cart down the street and talking to themselves.  (True, a large percentage of homeless people probably are mentally ill.  But we're on guard near them, expecting them to be unpredictable.) 

We're probably not wary of the trim soccer mom who lives two doors down with the incredibly neat front yard, the one who runs the PTA and twelve other volunteer organizations.  Yet every night behind closed doors she may scream at her husband and children that they are useless, worthless slobs, making her life miserable...  Abusers come from both genders, from every social and economic level, every religion, every profession: pillars of the church, lawyers, doctors, mechanics, hairdressers, busboys... we can't tell abusers by what they look like out in public, on their best behavior.

Unfortunately, some of us are born into being abused.  Those who abuse us may be our parents, and we can't get away, for many years.  Then later, we feel obligated to go back, because they are elderly and need a caregiver, and the verbal abuse keeps raining down on us.  We may have an abusive sibling, who we care for, or who may care for us, because one of us is physically or mentally ill.

In other cases we end up with an abusive boss or co-worker, and if it's a down economy or we don't have in-demand skills, we may feel trapped, and unable to tell him/her to "Take this Job and Shove It!"

For others, we date, marry, or move-in with our abusers.  We choose them.  We might blame ourselves now, wondering how we could have been so blind, but abusers can be good at camouflage.  If they'd come out swinging on the first date, called us a fat stupid bitch, then, we probably would have run in the other direction. 

Usually they were sweet and loving, and may have seemed almost Too Perfect (in the case of OCPD,) so organized, so protective, so disciplined, that we felt lucky to win their love.  If we sensed something a little... off, we told ourselves it was us overreacting.  Or perhaps, having ourselves grown up in a home where there was verbal abuse, physical abuse, alcoholism, or other dysfunctions, we didn't recognize that something was wrong.  We might have even been more comfortable on a subconscious level, because something about our partner's behavior felt...  familiar. 

Or possibly, we grew up in such a normal home that we didn't see it coming because we didn't know people could be like that. 

Used by permission of
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We were the legendary frog in the pot of gradually heating water, starting out very happy, and totally clueless as to how much worse the abuse was heating up, until we suddenly realized we were being boiled to death.  Those of us chronically abused may become dispirited, depressed, unable to stand up for ourselves, confused, unable to concentrate... but we didn't start out that way.  Often we were bright, vibrant smart people, who had the life sucked out of us by these Emotional Vampires.

The good news is, if you are reading this, you are aware that you don't have to be a victim.  You can take back your life, you can reclaim your power, your happiness, your right to be in charge of your own head.  Yep, talk about crazy thoughts!

You are aware, now, that what is happening to you is abuse.  This is not something you signed up for, and no, you do not deserve it.  Second step - keep educating yourself - the links in this post, especially to, as well as the permanent links on the right hand side of this page are to invaluable resources.  If you yourself aren't abused, but know someone who is, read the link about Stockholm Syndrome to find tips for how you can best help an abused person.  Hint: it isn't pressuring him/her to leave.

Finally, devise a plan of action, which might not include leaving, yet.  Only you know if/when that decision is right for you.  Your plan might be to stay, and try XYZ technique first, and that's okay, unless you sense you are in imminent physical danger.  If you do decide to leave the situation, plan it out if you can, so you have important papers, prescription medicines, etc.  If you leave before you are emotionally (not just logically) ready, before you feel you have tried everything, you may well end going back, and it may be harder to leave then next time.  If you can't leave, because you are in a caregiver situation, get professional help to deal with the stress.

Carry out your plan, whatever it is.  You can do it.  You're not dumb, you're not powerless.  You might feel ashamed, like you're the only one who's ever gotten into such a mess.  You're not.  You might feel angry at yourself, because you're too smart to fall into this, because you've warned other people about similar situations, and so how could you have let this happen to you?! 

It's okay.  You're part of a great big sister-and-brotherhood who all wonder how the heck this happened to us.

And the good news: I got myself out, and so can you.


I always ask for (and welcome) comments.  This time, I'd like to ask, if you agree this is an important subject, to help spread awareness.  Chances are that even if you are not in an emotionally abusive situation yourself, that people you know and love are secretly enduring the pain of emotional abuse, blaming themselves for feeling hurt, because "words will never hurt you."  Because they have been told so many times they are only abused when they "deserve it," they have begun to believe the lie.  Because they "should be strong enough to take it."

Put a link to this post on your FaceBook page; on your blog; e-mail a link to your friends.  You don't have to say it's about you (it's not, after all, it's about me.)  You could say: "I'm doing this for a friend, to help spread awareness about emotional and verbal abuse.  Pass it on." 

As always, thanks for your love, support and encouragement.