“Stacy you are one of the most self-aware people I’ve ever met.”
This compliment was paid to me a couple of years ago by my boss– a young man whom I considered to be the king of PC-ness; a real whiz at change management. That year I received my first “extraordinary results” score as a role model of company leadership values in what has since become a trend for me. I had indeed, as the say, “come a long way baby.” In fact, I think I am finally getting close to becoming the person I was intended to be all along. At 53, I guess you could say I’m a late bloomer.
So why the delay? What took me so long?
Well, as I see it, my troubles began when I was four. Living out in the country my parents were concerned that I was not getting enough socialization so they sent me to school a year early. While this seems like a fine idea, it did not work so well as I really struggled to fit in.
“Wrong personality type to be the youngest in the class.” wrote my teacher Ms. Meyers at the end of my first year. Then came the accident.
On a spring day in 1968 I was hit head on by a car that veered off the road and struck me as I straddled my bike waiting for it to pass. The result of this was one less eye, a hole in my throat and broken face. This of course exacerbated my social troubles as I was told by many that I was extraordinarily ugly.
But I wasn’t alone in my school day woe. There were other outcasts and we gravitated to the same lunch table as there was safety in numbers. As a small tribe we could pass by the popular boys and not know exactly who among us they were harassing. Maybe you were one of these kids– maybe you were well-liked or somewhere in between. I really don’t think my situation at the time was all that bad. Young life is challenging like this, and navigating the social minefield of middle and high school prepares us to become thoughtful adults. The kids who once teased tend to stop and their targets become stronger for their painful experience. As for me, I never had the chance to blossom. Instead, a fateful turn would cause a long regression. Here’s how it happened.
It was 1980 and I was sitting in Japan’s Narita airport waiting for a flight home to Michigan when I met a seemingly caring stranger. I was sixteen and had just completed a summer cultural exchange paid for with my accident money. The world seemed incredibly large to me in that moment and I imagined a great future in diplomacy or international relations.
The stranger’s name was “Right Man”– a translation of the characters that formed his moniker. He was a 22-year old Japanese college student on his way to study English and physics in the US, and from the moment we met I could tell he was keen on me. We exchanged addresses and after a few short months he cleverly wormed his way into my life by telling me he would teach me all about his culture and protect me from “bad guys” who only wanted me for play. Little did I know he would end up to be the worst person I would ever encounter. He took my virginity at seventeen and my mind soon after. In allowing him into my life my destiny was forever changed.
And how on earth did this happen? I now realize it was through emotional abuse plain and simple. Little by little any bit of confidence I had salvaged from my childhood was berated out of me and I became terribly co-dependent. While anyone in their right mind would have ran from this man, I instead transferred his painful disapproval into believing everything was wrong with me. If only I could become the “good girl” he wanted. After all he wasn’t beating me.
Looking back I think it would almost have been better if he had actually caused visible scars because then I might have believed it was him and not me. What I have since learned is that emotional abuse can be far more harmful that bruises and broken bones. According to an article in Psychology Today by Steven Stosney, PH.D.:
“In many ways, emotional abuse is more psychologically harmful than physical abuse. There are a couple of reasons for this. Even in the most violent families, the incidents tend to be cyclical. Early in the abuse cycle, a violent outburst is followed by a honeymoon period of remorse, attention, affection, and generosity, but not genuine compassion…(while) emotional abuse, on the other hand, tends to happen every day. The effects are more harmful because they’re so frequent.
The other factor that makes emotional abuse so devastating is the greater likelihood that victims will blame themselves. If someone hits you, it’s easier to see that he or she is the problem, but if the abuse is subtle – saying or implying that you’re ugly, a bad parent, stupid, incompetent, not worth attention, or that no one could love you – you are more likely to think it’s your problem. Emotional abuse seems more personal than physical abuse, more about you as a person, more about your spirit. It makes love hurt.
The most insidious aspect of living with an angry or abusive partner is not the obvious nervous reactions to shouting, name-calling, criticism or other demeaning behavior. It’s the adaptations you make to try to prevent those painful episodes. You walk on eggshells to keep the peace or a semblance of connection. Women are especially vulnerable to the negative effects of walking on eggshells due to their greater vulnerability to anxiety. Many brave women engage in constant self-editing and self-criticism to keep from ‘pushing his buttons.’ Emotionally abused women can second guess themselves so much that they feel as though they have lost themselves in a deep hole.”
In the middle of Dr. Stosney’s article there was a link to the “Walking on Eggshells Quiz” which is used to self-diagnose whether one is in an emotionally abusive relationship and to what degree. Thinking back to my days with Right Man I went though the checklist of clues and marked way more than the eleven required to qualify my situation as “extreme.” Here’s the diagnosis.
“You probably have a vague feeling, at least now and then, that you’re losing yourself. Your perceptions of reality and your sense of self are changing for the worse…”
I believe this was my condition the entire time I was with my abuser, but it was significantly worse as I went on to have two children and needed to protect them from all that was going on and be strong for them day to day. I had to be “in the present” with them, but underneath my skin something was crawling. On top of everything, I knew well that my husband preferred the appearance of young girls (very common in Japan) and I was getting far too old for his liking. This increased his scrutiny of me.
From the website healthyplace.com here are a list of short-term effects of emotional abuse. I have bolded those that stand out for me personally.
- Surprise and confusion
- Questioning of one’s own memory, “did that really happen?”
- Anxiety or fear; hypervigilence
- Shame or guilt
- Aggression (as a defense to the abuse)
- Becoming overly passive or compliant
- Frequent crying
- Avoidance of eye contact
- Feeling powerless and defeated as nothing you do ever seems to be right (learned helplessness)
- Feeling like you’re “walking on eggshells”
- Feeling manipulated, used and controlled
- Feeling undesirable
One not listed that I distinctly recall is the tendency toward self harm. I used to attempt cutting and hit my head as self-punishment for my stupidity.
The website also listed potential long-term effects which are:
- Low self-esteem and self-worth
- Emotional instability
- Sleep disturbances
- Physical pain without cause
- Suicidal ideation, thoughts or attempts
- Extreme dependence on the abuser
- Inability to trust
- Feeling trapped and alone
- Substance abuse
While I’ve worked through many of these over the past several years with the support of a loving husband and God, a few still plague me– sleep issues being the most prominent.
Google is a great tool. I wish I had it long ago when I was living with the monster. It might have caused me to seek help or at least confirm my condition. But then again, even if I had a been more informed I’m not sure I would I would have left. What complicated the situation for me, was my strong desire to assimilate to my abuser’s culture which gave him more power as he attempted to teach me his version of the Japanese way. Also, it was hard for me to discern what was outlandish behavior on his part as Japanese people communicate and behave quite differently from Westerners.
In fact recently I found a study published online that indicated many of Right Man’s tactics to control, violent actions such as overturning the dining table, breaking objects and throwing liquid to insult are typically Japanese. All of these things were done to me and I had witnessed Right Man doing the same to his mother as well. The report also went on to say that “passive coping” was common among Asian women with minimal psychological effects, but when the same coping mechanism was used by a Caucasian woman (my case), it was “associated with a worse psychological outcome.” The bottom line when it comes to emotional abuse and culture is that just because a group accepts certain hurtful behavior doesn’t mean it is ok and occurs without damage.
Just what has me doing all of this soul searching with regard to my past relationship? I was recently asked by a professional who had heard a few details of my past whether I might have borderline personality disorder. At a time in my life when my destructive behavior was well behind me this bold assertion from someone who had just met me was so out of left field that I decided to do some research.
Here are the symptoms of BPD as listed by the Mayo Clinic website:
- An intense fear of abandonment, even going to extreme measures to avoid real or imagined separation or rejection
- A pattern of unstable intense relationships, such as idealizing someone one moment and then suddenly believing the person doesn’t care enough or is cruel
- Rapid changes in self-identity and self-image that include shifting goals and values, and seeing yourself as bad or as if you don’t exist at all
- Periods of stress-related paranoia and loss of contact with reality, lasting from a few minutes to a few hours
- Impulsive and risky behavior, such as gambling, reckless driving, unsafe sex, spending sprees, binge eating or drug abuse, or sabotaging success by suddenly quitting a good job or ending a positive relationship
- Suicidal threats or behavior or self-injury, often in response to fear of separation or rejection
- Wide mood swings lasting from a few hours to a few days, which can include intense happiness, irritability, shame or anxiety
- Ongoing feelings of emptiness
- Inappropriate, intense anger, such as frequently losing your temper, being sarcastic or bitter, or having physical fights
Another site which I cannot at this moment recall, listed “disassociation” (feeling out of one’s body) as well. This one was a big one for me both during my days with my abuser and in the aftermath my departure.
Upon reading this list, I readily admit that during the first two years after leaving Right Man I had most of the BPD symptoms, but none of these ring true for me today. I suspect the woman who insinuated I was potentially BPD was projecting the past onto my current as the condition is quite hard to kick without professional help.
While I may be cured of BPD (I’ll let the professionals decide) I am not without issues– the biggest being feelings of guilt associated with my kids. For this I am seeking therapy. In fact my new therapist said this week, “Despite everything that has happened you have a right to be happy you know.” Technically I know this is what God wants for all of His children (as any parent does) but I also believe in the saying that a mother is only as happy as her saddest child. That’s the hard part.
On a happy note, a former classmate of mine, someone I barely remember, recently contacted me via social media and wrote of me, “We had Mr. Pennington’s bookkeeping class together. You had such great energy and always made me laugh!” I was surprised to read these kind words and happy I had made an impression. In fact, I do recall being that girl and despite everything that has occurred, that is the human being I’ve been striving to be.
If you or someone you know is in an emotionally abusive relationship, realize that it is a very dangerous situation detrimental to emotional health.