I’ve been meaning to write this for a while, it’s partly the reason I started the entire blog but it’s taken me some time to build up to it. As one of my favourite authors Ernest Hemingway once said “write hard and clear about what hurts” and with this post I’m certainly doing that.
By now it’s no secret that when it comes to my writing, I am extremely raw and brutally honest with what I say. At times I’ve made not-so-subtle hints about my past relationship (here, here and here) and have received some incredibly touching responses from readers. I know, with this post, comes a huge window of opportunity for people to judge me, but that’s a risk I’m willing to take, I am ok with that. I am what I am and this was what it was. I may seem delicate to outsiders, but I have more determination and steel inside me than most will ever know. I’m whisky in a teacup ☺️
Four years ago on a grey Sunday afternoon, I stood in front of the bathroom mirror clutching the sink with tears streaming down my face. My reflection seemed different, but I couldn’t quite put my finger on what it was. I still looked like me but the cheeky glint in my eye seemed dimmer than before. I finally saw what everyone else had witnessed. I had changed. I was no longer the authentic me. That was the wakeup call I needed. Everything suddenly just clicked and finally I admitted to myself that I was in an abusive relationship.
Typing that sentence, even now feels alien. I find it bizarre to think that strong, self-assured, bubbly me was ever in a destructively toxic relationship. I know now how stupid it is to believe that this type of thing doesn’t happen to girls like me; it can and does happen to anyone despite age, race, class, socio-economics etc. I naively thought abuse happened to “other people” not girls from good families with great friends. I guess it is because of those unsophisticated assumptions, that I find it hard to open up. I’m ok telling strangers, in fact I’m proud to say I got through it all, but I worry how I’ll be perceived by the people I really love. I am scared that by being vulnerable and telling those I care for about all of this, that I could get hurt because they may change their opinion of me, or worse still, this will hurt them. Those who know my core know how together I am, how I don’t put up with any nonsense and am confident in myself and my values, so this baffles them. I know those closest to me would feel sad that I felt so alone in this situation, so it’s easier to just say nothing and spare their pain and pity.
So, how did this all come about? Having read Jon Ronson’s book The Psychopath Test, I now realise that Dickwad is a classic narcissistic psychopath, and he manipulated me from the off. We met when I was 24 and fresh out of a 5-year relationship. I’d ended that previous relationship not because it was bad, but simply because a 7-year age gap suddenly became a bit much for mid-twenties me. It was just a case of me and my 31-year-old ex being at totally different stages in life – he wanted to get married and have kids, whereas I still felt like I was a kid. Our timing was off and I’m sad about that, even to this day. Anyway, newly single and enjoying the things youth and singledom bring, I met Dickwad on an evening out with friends.
I’m about to make Dickwad sound awful but the sad truth is that people like him – abusers – have to have some redeeming qualities in order to get away with their otherwise horrific behaviour. These things are their foils you see, they are what make men like him so very appealing yet utterly dangerous. He was so different to my ex and for a while I liked that as it felt exciting and helped mask the pain I felt from ending a good relationship. Dickwad was a larger than life character; he was eye catching, a real charmer and hugely popular. Even now I occasionally see photos of him in magazines and newspapers, falling out of some cool party with the latest celebrity grinning at him like he’s the star. Girls were always eyeing him up and I was flattered that he was so interested in paying attention to me.
He treated me like a rare diamond when we first met but looking back, I always knew he had a rough edge to him. I knew he was a bad boy, but like most girls, I found myself buying into our societies unhelpful culture of poor behaviour being some kind of romantic notion. All the cultural references I had (Bridget Jones and Carrie Bradshaw, basically) told me that it was perfectly ok to go out with men who treat women like dirt. This was just the way the world worked; it was simply something I had to endure, because doesn’t every girl want a bad boy?
I lost count of the number of times I heard the phrase “fake it till you make it” being bandied about by Dickwad and even now it makes my blood run cold when I hear it. Those words summed up his whole philosophy on life – pretend to be something you’re not until you get what you want. He was all about presenting a perfect image to the outside world whilst causing tremendous damage to those closest to him. He came across as cool, charismatic and humorous to outsiders, pretending to be someone he wasn’t in order to gain attention, admiration, favours and prestige. The truth was he was deeply troubled, exploitive, deceitful, violent and Machiavellian.
How did it all begin? Well, abusive relationships creep up on you slowly, they work by stealth. The beginning, like all relationships, was great, but unlike in other pairings where you seductively move past the honeymoon period and into a loving, almost boring stage, as things become more deep-seated and real, this instead became a living hell. I didn’t notice the red flags at first; how we’d speak only when it suited him, how much he liked to drink and party excessively, the fact I was always expected to pick up the bill, how flaky he could be. I was caught up in the merry-go-round of his dramatic world which was at polar opposites to my sheltered life.
Six months in I discovered that Dickwad had severe money issues when I suddenly found he was living in my flat (more about that here) and that he really wasn’t anything like the nice guy he’d originally portrayed. He was fundamentally lazy, morally corrupt and inherently grabbing. He pretty much gave up work once he had his feet under the table and became reliant on me for everything whilst he pretended to live the high life. Sometimes he’d steal cash I’d been saving to buy birthday / Christmas presents for my friends and family and use it to fund one of his many debauched nights out. When I’d get upset, he’d scream at me for being boring. He hated me spending money or time with other people. He packaged it as concern at first but later I realised it was about control and isolation. If I asked him why he acted like this, he’d scream that he was a grown man and could do whatever he liked. The irony of claiming to be a grown man whilst relying on his 24-year-old girlfriend to top up his Oyster card was lost on him.
He would regularly disappear for days on end partying and doing God-knows-what with God-knows-who. If I dared to ask any questions, he would fly into a rage, saying I was paranoid, untrusting and insecure. Of course I was none of those things. I’ve never been a clingy girl who needs to spend every moment with her boyfriend, who constantly bothers a man about who he’s with, what he’s doing etc it’s just not me. The fact that I wasn’t needy, that I liked my free time and doing my own thing drove him nuts. He’d shout it was because I didn’t love him and was constantly accusing me of cheating. That’s another classic trait with narcissists, they project their own character defects onto others by accusing them of the exact same actions they do themselves but deny. It’s only now I see that every negative thing he ever said about me was really how he viewed himself.
In front of others, he would regularly humiliate me. He’d provoke a reaction by whispering comments about other women, by “accidentally” spilling drinks or dropping food on me and constantly making jokes at my expense until I’d snap. When I got angry he would feign surprise and claim to others that I was passive-aggressive, volatile and overly sensitive. He would shame me for rightfully losing my patience, but for fear of his temper escalating, I would apologise and absorb the blame. He wouldn’t accept my apologies though and instead he’d give me the silent treatment for days or even weeks at a time.
Then there were the self-manufactured arguments. What about? Well, it didn’t really matter. Anything could set him off and naturally, it was always my fault. I deliberately hadn’t recorded Match of the Day. I calculatedly forgot to buy ibuprofen for his hangover. I intentionally made too much noise showering for work. I purposely put the shopping bags on top of the PS3 control which reset his game. The list was endless. I was stupid, inconsiderate and thoughtless. I didn’t care and I certainly didn’t care about him. These are the things I was told over and over again. He made me feel like the worst person in the universe. It was never him. It was always me. That’s the thing with psychopaths, they will always blame someone else. Nothing is ever their fault, they are always the ones that have been wronged. To Dickwad the problem was never his lying, cheating, stealing or bullying; the problem was me for acknowledging his wicked ways.
It wasn’t always big things of course, it was the tiny, insidious stuff that often had a greater effect. It was psychological rape. Missed dates (he never once acknowledged my birthday), little putdowns, denial of affection, chucking meals I’d cooked straight into the bin, days without so much as a conversation, cancelling plans with me because a better offer had come along. These things all hurt and knocked my self-worth. There are wounds which don’t show on the body, that can be more hurtful than anything that bleeds.
For yonks, I denied that there was any physical violence and even now it destroys me to admit there was. Dickwad may never have actually hit me himself, but it was close enough. One night we were celebrating his friend’s birthday and at the end of the evening he realised he’d lost his ticket for the club cloakroom so couldn’t get his jacket back. When I suggested returning to the table to look for the ticket, he smiled in front of the group and said not to worry and we left holding hands. Once home alone he flew into a rage at me for supposedly insinuating he’d not looked for the ticket properly. He punched the wall right next to my head and threw his brandy in my face. He painted the wall they next day to erase what had happened, then waltzed off with my bank card and bought a new coat. Another time he stumbled home at 4 am and put the television on at full volume. I got up to ask him to turn it down and the next thing I knew he had picked up the TV and thrown it at me. It broke my wrist as I shielded my head. When people saw my plaster cast and asked what had happened, he’d laugh and tell them the truth. Nobody thought he was serious of course, they assumed he was joking and laughed along with him, fooled by his act. Dickwad’s charm was like a jagged piece of metal in the sun, the reflection was blinding and distracting.
It took a long time for anyone to notice his abuse and I was the last one to realise that’s what it was. Dickwad had chipped away at my confidence so much he had skewed my sense of normality. That’s the nature of this type of abuse though, to cause doubt that it’s even happening. It permeates the silence, creating a feeling that somehow I’d caused or provoked it, that I was doing something wrong. It creates and then feeds off a myriad of insecurities. The textbook signs were all there – controlling, jealous, gas-lighting, degrading, mocking, lying – but each hallmark is almost invisible. This is the cruelest form of abuse, the blink-and-you’ll-miss-it abuse. The House of Lords have at last confirmed that the coercive-control offence (emotional abuse law), put forward by the Home Secretary Theresa May, will come into effect by the end of the year. Quite how they intend to police this, let alone prosecute anyone remains a bit of a mystery to me, but it’s a step forward. At last this invisible abuse, hidden behind the bravado of a charming man or woman, buried under layers of crushed self-esteem and a sense of failure is finally being recognised in the eyes of the law and there will be consequences.
You’re wondering now why I stayed with him aren’t you? Well it wasn’t all bad of course. Written here in black and white it looks intense, but what you need to remember, is there were good times among the bad. It was a constant mix of deep anxiety and rushes of adrenaline. When he opened his mouth I didn’t know if he was going to say, I love you or I hate you. There was also a lot of guilt, as not only had Dickwad placed a huge financial burden on me but he claimed his mental state was in my hands too. It’s easy for an outsider to question why people stay with abusers and even now I get annoyed that I didn’t leave sooner. Deep down I knew what he was doing was wrong but I kept excusing him because I felt responsible for his happiness.
For me, empathy is something that’s always come naturally; even as a child, each year I’d always win the “kindest person in the class” award. Everyone sees this as a positive quality in me, but somehow Dickwad twisted this trait into a negative. When he saw I was at breaking point, he would tell me horrific things about his childhood and make me feel guilty for wanting to abandon him like family members had in his past. He’d poetically tell me that hurt people, hurt other people, that’s how pain patterns get passed on and plead that he wanted to change but could only do so with my help. I wanted to believe there was some good in him, a glimmer of the man I’d met, so I’d agree to “one more chance”. He would of course, swiftly revert to type once he had me on side.
When I’d try to break up with him he’d threaten to end his life and there were occasions when I’d come home from work terrified of what I might find. He left a note once suggesting he was going to commit suicide and vanished. Out of my mind with worry I’d called the police along with every hospital in London repeatedly until he turned up five days later having been on a huge bender. I was, by this point, financially, emotionally and physically depleted by him. I came home once to find him sat naked in the dark with a knife and surrounded by empty pill packets to frighten me as to what might happen if I ever left. Weeks later I found he’d hidden the pills in a shoe box. He knew what he was doing; binding me with threats and drip-feeding me a diet of criticism and push-pull affection to keep me exactly at clutch-biting point.
So, where were my friends and family? Why didn’t they intervene? Truth is, they didn’t, and most still don’t, know the full extent of what happened. I was ashamed so I hid what was going on. Everyone had noticed a change in me. I was always fending off comments about looking tired, upset, about not being myself. Oddly even before any of the abuse started, not a single one of my close friends who met Dickwad liked him, despite his popularity with others. They all said I was different around him from day one – quiet, on edge, again not myself.
I’m incredibly close to my family and whilst back home one weekend, I confided in Mum about some of the more minor things Dickwad had said to me during a row. She instantly told my Dad who was furious that anyone would cripple my self-esteem like that. Dad was the first one to call it emotional abuse but I thought he was being dramatic. They begged me to get a grip of the situation and leave. I promised I would and I tried, but out came the sob stories and yet again I failed to walk away. My parents knew little of what was going on, but because I saw how much worry and upset the vague outline had caused them, it seemed easier to lie about the situation. I told them it was over and pretended I was single again. It became simpler to plaster on a fake smile than to explain why I was so sad. I ended up doing the same with my friends too.
At first I would vent to the girls and run through a list of all the horrible things Dickwad had done and the ways he’d hurt me day in, day out, yet at the end of my rant I would say “but he needs me” and ignore their pleas to leave. I kept running to them with the same issues and became embarrassed, so it became easier to avoid their despairing looks and say nothing. Silence I now realise was my loudest scream for help. In pushing the people who cared most about me away, Dickwad’s grip tightened and I was isolated.
Further down the line, even one of his own friends sat me down and told me I was being used and worth so much more. I couldn’t look this guy in the eye, I knew he had seen through the act and the shame burnt. He took my hand and squeezed it gently, letting me know he was on my side as the stories of deceit tumbled out. He told me that although Dickwad had some nice traits, like we all do, I had to stop seeing him for who I wanted him to be and start seeing him for exactly who he was. I even ignored him.
I felt like I on an Indiana Jones rickety rope bridge, high above a deep river and bed of rocks with Dickwad on one side, desperately trying to coax me back each time I left via guilt and manipulation and everyone else the other side, telling me to be brave, to walk away and not to give up on myself. I could have sat around for all the kumbaya moments in the world with these people telling me I deserved better but I needed to get to the point where I realised it myself.
I did get there – eventually. My heart just took a little bit of time to accept what my head already knew and to build up enough courage to accept the truth. It wasn’t his rages that made me leave, the silences or even the violence. In the end it came down to just looking in the mirror on that dull Sunday and recognising I had changed and I missed the old happy me. That was the moment I realised I needed to get a grip. I’m a firm believer in giving myself honest pep talks, as sometimes there is no room for the soft toned “don’t worry, everything will be ok” lines. Everything would not be ok if I remained in this living hell. I had to save myself. I had been running from my problems and pretending everything was ok for far too long, acting like I didn’t have a care in the world. I had to stop avoiding reality, accept that this was a dangerous relationship, and that no matter how hard it was I had to be brave and leave.
I formulated an escape plan and stuck to it. For four months I kept my head down, worked a second job and saved for a deposit on a short term rental. I paid out the contract on the flat I shared with Dickwad so he could remain there for a few months after I left. I know that sounds crazy, but I needed to remain true to the real me. I’m someone who has always met anger with empathy and contempt with compassion. Sure, some may accuse me of being weak for that way of thinking but actually it’s a great strength. Softness is not a weakness; it takes courage to remain kind in this cruel world.
I changed my phone number, packed my bags and left one Friday evening when he was out partying. I thought I’d have wobbles and maybe feel sad, but I didn’t at all, I didn’t even miss him. I felt nothing but relief. A few weeks later he started sending begging emails with false promises of change, but this time they were so easy to ignore. He hated that I was confident enough to resist his pleas and had taken back control of my life. Even now I still get random emails apologising for how much he messed up, though they are usually in the middle of the night when he’s clearly drunk. I ignore him now without feeling any guilt. It takes a lot to push me away, but once I’m gone, I’m truly gone. I went through a stretch of bitterness after him for sure, but there comes a point where you have to snap out of these things and stop being angry. Staying bitter would have meant he still had an element of control over me, it wouldn’t have done me any favours. I accept now that I was just collateral damage in a war against himself.
Do I regret going through all this? No I don’t. The only remorse I have is that stayed too long, but I don’t regret the rest as it made who I am today. As bad as it was, it could have been worse and I learnt so much through the experience. When I was younger I could be hot headed and a bit firey when things bothered me; now if something troubles me I take a step back and process things before voicing my issues. For me that’s been a real game changer, as I realise that with a little perspective it’s amazing how few things get to me and how much easier it is to solve problems when the heat is off. I have learnt not to judge so readily, as often the strongest people are not those who show strength in front of others but those who fight battles we know nothing about. I still look for the good in people and generally always see the best in them but my guard is a little higher than before and my naivety has gone. Now if people hurt me, drain me or bring me more hurt than happiness I walk away. I have a better gut instinct than anyone else I know and I trust that implicitly now. I’ve discovered that we really are only one decision away from a totally different life.
When it comes to future relationships, I know better than most, what I really want (more of that here) and I feel the experience of Dickwad has genuinely made me a better person which can only be a good thing for any future partner. I am done with the bad boys and will no longer buy into our societies encouragement to join a game of emotional dysfunction, allowing men to treat women badly (or vice versa) and get away with it. I know perfection doesn’t exist and all relationships have their problems as we all have our flaws, but never will I put up with someone who treats me badly. I want someone who I feel safe with, who is kind, who I can share common respect with, laughter and morals, a man who has my best interests at heart just as I’d have his. Good guys are my future.
Maybe when the time is right I will be able to tell those I love all about this and be as vulnerable with them as I have been in this post. I suppose I’ve put a barrier up about my past because I have moved on so much and I no longer recognise the girl I was back then. It feels like all that pain was a lifetime ago. My past relationships do not define me, I’m not what has happened to me, I am me because of how I overcame it. Now when I look in the mirror I see myself clearly again. I am authentic. My signature glint is back; my smile is real. I am happy and full of confidence as I know my worth and the true value of my friends and family. Now in my reflection, I see strength, lessons learned and pride in myself. I know that my mind is strong and my heart is good and that’s all that really matters.