Fraudulent feelings of fraudulence – gaslighting and the Cycle of Violence

One of the things I have struggled with the most throughout my process is being able to admit to myself that what I went through was, indeed, abuse. There are those who have gone through MUCH worse than myself, and some who never even made it out the other side. According to Our Watch, one woman a week is killed by a partner or ex-partner in Australia. That’s some seriously heavy data. I’m not dead, so how bad could my experience have really been? I never had a broken bone or a bruised face. But how close did I come to that? The scary answer is: I don’t know.

I don’t know if Malvolio ever thought of hurting me in such a way that I would physically never recover. I don’t even know if his attacks were premeditated, spontaneous or some combination of the two. I just don’t know. Now that my lovely son, Macduff, is in the picture, I fear physical violence more than ever before, but I take an enormous amount of solace in the fact that he lives very far away from us and doesn’t know exactly where we are.

Amidst the haze of my abuse, I never took the threat of violence particularly seriously. I knew it could happen but I had become a virtual ghost with a sort of numb detachment from life. Sometimes I kind of wished it would happen, and in a big way, so that I would have something to show for it. Not to show to others, but to show to myself.  It’s hard to explain but I know there are those who will completely get this. You keep telling yourself that if it just reaches this arbitrary level of escalation then you’ll be convinced that what you are going through is the same as what you hear about in the horror stories and get the hell out of dodge! Sadly, it just doesn’t work this way.

This is how it works, I’ve learned. When another person systematically breaks down your sense of self and directly attacks your ability to trust your own intuition, you flail. I didn’t know which way was up, nor which of my own thoughts I could trust, nor whose voice was the voice of reason. And worst of all, I couldn’t see my future anymore. I didn’t know where I was heading. It felt like I was going nowhere. I knew the relationship had to end. I WANTED it to end. God damn, did I want that shit show to have had its final run. But, paradoxically, I was terrified of it ending. I still can’t quite put my finger on the mechanism at work in me responsible for this, but from all the reading I’ve done since beginning my recovery, it seems that this is a common experience among victims of psychological and emotional abuse.

What I do accept as fact now is that Malvolio worked with this mechanism of fear in me. He exploited it. Hell, I’d even go so far as to suggest he created it in the first place, but I can’t know that for sure. What I do know is that he used it in pursuit of coercive control.

Now seems like an appropriate time to discuss the Cycle of Violence/Cycle of Abuse. This model was introduced in the second meeting of a short course I participated in which was geared towards women who had experienced, or were still experiencing, family violence. Before the facilitators showed us the diagram, they had us write down and share our impressions of our own cycles. Upon comparing what we’d written I was surprised – even relieved – to see that our cycles were, overall, fairly uniform. What validation! Some of the stories shared by the other women were so horrendous, so deeply disturbing, that I began to feel like I would be exposed as the fraud that I surely must be at any given moment!

There are a few variations of the model but, broadly speaking, the cycle has three phases: honeymoon, tension building, explosion. And round and round we go, losing a little more of our footing with each turn of the wheel.

My cycle looked like this:

Honeymoon – In my opinion, the period during which the most egregious acts were committed; the deceptions. This is when I thought I was seeing the ‘real’ Malvolio. This is who I was attracted to. This is how it began and this is how I was kept on the hook. He could be an absolute angel when it suited him, and I ate it up – this mummer’s farce. I began to live for it. All of my desires became centred around getting back to this, waiting, hoping, wishing that it could last this time. He would tell me sweet things, do me little favours, offer to help with things – you know, all that ‘normal’ stuff. He once told me that he had previously been a lonely person and that I had ‘saved’ him from that life. It seemed an honest and very raw admission. How could I doubt such a thing? Well, I do now, that’s for damn sure.

Each time we would return to this phase I would be awash with relief and gratitude. Yes, gratitude! Fancy that! Gratitude for behaviour that could reasonably be expected in any healthy relationship. This was always the time that I felt I could breathe again. Everything would be okay. He’s a misunderstood man with a good heart, and his heart belongs to me, I would tell myself.

HA!

Tension building – This is the part of the cycle that I would consider the ‘norm’, or most long-lasting, in our relationship. It felt like this was the default. This was when my anxiety would peak and then plateau – a state of consistent terseness –  as this was when he would become hurtful and cruel, and snap easily. He would be excessively critical and punishing of me for my behaviour, my personality, my appearance, my tastes, my political views, my spiritual beliefs…  Anything and everything, at one point or another. This is when my self-esteem took the most blows. He was totally dismissive and treated me like I was an annoyance, and I began to internalise the things that I kept hearing about myself. I listened to him. I started to believe him. There was a counter force, don’t get me wrong – inner Beatrice wasn’t going to give up on me that easily, and nor were my friends who could see what he was doing to me – but the lines became blurred. Confusion, despair and hopelessness were characteristic of my experience in these periods. Also the time that I consider the most sexual abuse to have occurred, which I will detail in a later post *vomits in mouth at thought of sharing sex stuff*.

I specifically recall a day that I had tried to discuss my feelings of hurt about a recent incident of nastiness. When he rejected my sentiment and turned the incident back around on me I cried a little because I realised that there really was no hope, but felt like I was trapped by my love for him. I didn’t say this out loud, I simply wept a little. He looked at me with distaste and said, ‘I think there’s something mentally wrong with you right now that’s making you cry all the time’. Funny that. This was the first time I’d cried in this particular way. Gaslighting? Yup. I now believe that he presumed that I must be crying when he wasn’t around (because of him, duh) and sought to inject even those private moments of despair with insidious self-doubt.

Explosion – The big one. The big ONES. Time and time again, he would blow up over something seemingly-innocuous. He would rage, and I mean RAGE, like a wounded bull. Rage as though I had caused the greatest insult in history. How could that be possible though? Hadn’t I already done that during the last explosion? Wouldn’t I do it again the next time? Geez, I must be one hell of a basketcase if I’m able to induce such fury without having any idea how I’m doing it. What a shit superpower.

I still know almost nothing about the aspects of my behaviour that he deemed so objectionable. He was so rarely able to be specific. Mostly he would attack me as a whole. Take exception to me as a person. That hurt. That hurt so very deeply. How could I have become so… HORRIBLE? I began to grow smaller and quieter, never knowing which parts of myself I should be ‘turning down’ so as to avoid offending his sensibilites, eventually resorting to turning them all down and just hoping for the best.

In our cycle, the explosion would be followed by a period of, say, a week or two of radio silence. No breakup, no nothing like that, he’d just avoid me. He would ignore my calls, ignore my texts; treat me as though I had literally stopped existing. On occasion he might respond to a text (usually one in which I expressed concern for his wellbeing) explaining that because we had (imaginarily) ‘broken up’, he didn’t feel like talking to me. Sometimes the ‘breakup’ would follow an outburst of abuse directed at someone other than me – a stranger or friend, for instance – and would have nothing to do with me other than the fact that I was there. I’ll discuss some of those later.

These periods were my darkest days.

The cycle is the trap. The cycle is what we need to be educated about. The details will vary in each person’s unique experience, but to recognise the pattern is to recognise the abuse. Name the demon and destroy its power.

Writing this post has been a taxing, yet empowering, exercise. I hope that it will find its way to someone who needs it.

B x

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