you get to tell your own story

For the past two weeks, I've hesitated writing an end-of-year post that wraps up everything that 2013 put me through. Part of that hesitation centered around not wanting to write, whether it was because of my persistent belief that my writing is never good enough or just because I'm too lazy. The rest of the hesitation has to do with the 34+ years of training I've had in avoiding my own instincts and not making myself a priority, though I'm sure that there are some people out there who would suggest that manners or a solid sense of propriety is what keeps me so...contained.

The reality is that I constantly struggle with my ability to, and comfort with, tell[ing] my own story. Or, in plainer English, telling my truth. It's the direct consequence of growing up in the world, I reckon. I don't know how I could've avoided it. I grew up in an upper middle class suburb of the most/least diplomatic city in the country, if not the world, the product of a working-class-turned-pink-collar mother and solidly middle class midwestern father. There are ways a young woman of this breeding should behave, things she should say, and ways she should interact with the world that are okay, and then decidedly not okay. There is no gray area, there is no malleability. When I graduated high school, I knew certain things to be true: men, specifically those in my peer group, would never respect me; women, specifically those in my peer group, would always be in competition with me; sculpting the truth would always outweigh telling it outright if you wanted to get something (or out of something), specifically from people older than you; and that being demonstratively heterosexual was the only appropriate way of concealing the fact that I was the dyke the football players knew me to be. Great lessons, right?

In therapy, over the past nine months, I've been more candid and truthful about who I am, what I believe, what I want, and what I've been through than I have ever in my whole life. This has been liberating and subsequently one of the most challenging things I've ever done. It wasn't until recently, though, that I genuinely felt like it was all worth it. That is due to, in no small part, the perception of people in my life who have told me how much I've changed/grown/come into my own. Not only that, but there have been people who have thanked me for telling my story so fearlessly and unapologetically, which is strange to hear because I don't feel like I've ever done that before, and I've felt guilty for the past nine months about doing it so publicly. But, I attribute all of this change, external and internal, to the fact that I have learned that I get to tell my own story.

Telling the entire internet that was in an emotionally abusive relationship isn't easy, and it's not something I did (if you can believe it) out of malice toward anyone, including my ex. I'm very cognizant of the fact that people can figure out who I am, and who I was married to, by reading this blog. There is little anonymity in what I'm doing here, and I'm glad for it. What I realized pretty early on in my "public" processing, though, is that I had absolutely no idea what emotional abuse looked like, and that felt weird. As a 34 year-old woman who reads compulsively and consumes information like it's oxygen, I should know these things, but I didn't. When people, including my therapist, would tell me what I was explaining to them was emotional abuse, I was baffled. Like most public school kids, I sat through hours worth of sex education classes (unless I opted out of them). Learning how to put a condom on a banana is an important skill; safer sex is best! But I think it would've benefited the young people of my generation (and all generations) to understand the complex and nuanced insidiousness of emotional abuse. It's not that complicated and completely complicated, all at the same time. 

I think that if I were to set out teaching young people what emotional abuse looks like, I would still struggle. For a lot of kids, myself included, emotional abuse just looks like "life after puberty". I was harassed daily for my weight, my looks, my clothing, my sexuality, the way I felt my feelings, my commitment to justice, and quite indifference to my peers who were in positions of social power. This kind of harassment is, more or less, a fledgling form of emotional abuse, and the lack of intervention from anyone in a position of administrative power allows these perpetrators to grow up into people who don't exactly know how to treat anyone well, including their loved ones. There is a fine line between honesty and cruelty, and it was often crossed around me...and plenty of kids just like me, too. No one ever told me that what I was experiencing wasn't my fault, that I didn't deserve it, and no one punished (formally or informally) the abuser. I learned how to ignore it and muscle through it; I learned how to become numb. As a teen, I found solace and comfort in my friends, but as the world continued to press down upon me (through the process of coming out, especially), I felt more and more disinclined to reach out to people because nothing ever seemed to make things better. I feared being perceived as a whiner, a complainer, someone who wasn't good at her life. I didn't know how to ask for help; I only knew how to make sure that the people who were hurting me continued to live undisrupted lives. 

I still hesitate talking about my most recent relationship with my closest friends, and even acquaintances and strangers, because sometimes I don't feel like I'm much different than I was when I was in the throes of the worst part of my relationship. Sometimes I fully believe the "you're just making this shit up" script that I've mostly tucked away in the back of my mind (which incidentally comes out of a cartoonish version of my ex's face attached to the body of a jack-in-the-box). The invisibility of my experience made it seem like I was trudging along through life just fine when I wasn't. The only certain way I can open myself up to people is to be completely, and sometimes explicitly, honest. This makes people uncomfortable. This makes ME uncomfortable. But, I decided that I needed to tell my closest friends what my relationship looked like, the evolution of my process, my pain, and the ways in which I have moved through healing. I had a choice -- feel pain, feel SHAME, and keep these things buried within - or - say something. So I said something, and I will continue to say things for as long as I need to in order to feel safe in my own life and in my own body. I'm okay with being an outspoken queer femme who was literally kicked out of her emotionally abusive relationship if it helps one person look at their own relationships and question whether they're meeting their needs.**

This isn't the first time I considered not telling my story in order to protect someone who didn't deserve to be protected. It's a habit of mine; a vicious cycle which generally renders me numb and inaccessible after a while. My other big-but-not-quite-marriage relationship ended in a similarly complicated way; I felt bullied by my ex's needs (and her friends) and thus went into a self-protective mode of robotic indifference. I think that any mental health professional would call this codependence. There's a cultural understanding of codependence that indicates it is something that the codepenDENT needs to grow out of, but what I think is often overlooked is the ability of the victim of emotional abuse to see that they are engaging those behaviors at all. Codependence in the last years of my relationship was a means for [emotional] survival; my physical self was preserved and safe, the rest was manageable if I knew what to say and how to say it. Between the blaming, gaslighting, manipulation, projecting, and responsibility placed upon me as a caretaker of someone with an inconsistently-managed mental health issue, I was depleted. Somehow my ex managed to grow into a person who was objectively nice on the surface, but someone without a clear sense of how to interact with other people in a truly kind and compassionate way. Every single exchange was a transaction, and I was always in the red. I have compassion for the reasons why this is the case for them, but I also never distanced myself from the reality that they turned into an unhealthy adult without a consistently functioning moral or emotional compass. Past trauma became a justification for present-day manipulation; I often felt guilty for what they went through and made it MY responsibility to make it better. What I've learned in therapy is that living like that is absolutely unfair and unhealthy. And, in the context of sharing my story, there is absolutely no reason why I should protect the people who hurt me, including preserving their anonymity or coding things in conversations and on social media so as not to make mutual friends feel awkward if they chose to maintain a relationship with my ex/an abusive person. It's tough to accept the fact that a person you know and love is also treating someone you know and love like shit, but that's what happened.

That was a tough conclusion to reach, though, because we live in a culture that attempts to silence victims at every turn, placing the culpability in their hands for guarding their own experiences so as not to make anyone else uncomfortable. It's the curse of the kid who always wanted to be cool, never accepting the fact that her version of cool was so much more interesting and authentic. It's the curse of the young woman who never believed she was pretty enough for the people she wanted, letting them guide her sense of self [worth] rather than developing a hearty one of her own. There is no one to convince you otherwise once you've been touched by that kind of judgment and cruelty, and the process of climbing out of it is complex and painful. Among my closest friends, I have a reputation for being a chronic, and sometimes unsolicited, dispenser of honest opinion, yet I never practiced turning that mirror toward myself and accepting the ways in which I was too harsh on myself, or sabotaging myself, or not trusting myself to love myself the best of all. I don't blame myself for staying wrapped up in a completely unhealthy relationship; I did it for the noblest reason of But I do have a truth and I simply cannot let myself ignore it. It's true: I settled. And it's true: I deserve the best.

What has helped me greatly in sharing my story has been constructing a mental list of things I need from my friends and family to navigate this grieving and recovery process. I keep these in mind when I'm having conversations, or when I want to have conversations, with people about my relationship. It's not only helped me keep some healthy boundaries, but it's helped me weed through people who might be less than supportive in the end. This might be a useful checklist for other folks interested in supporting their friends through traumatic emotional abuse in their own lives, too.

1) Believe me. It's not your responsibility to judge or reinterpret my pain or experiences.
2) Take sides, because it's probably reasonable to do so. Neutrality is insulting to victims, and it perpetuates the invisibility of emotional abuse. If you don't believe me and acknowledge what I've been through as something I didn't deserve, then I don't need you in my life.
3) Listen, as often as you need to, as often as you can. Unpacking the experience of being emotionally abused while grieving is a long, meandering, and painful road. It helps to know you'll be there for me.
4) Take care of yourself and give me some space. Take some time to do an assessment of your own relationships and make sure you aren't experiencing similar issues.
5) Don't make it about you. Sure, there were probably warning signs, but emotional abuse is deeply complex and also hard to see. There are no visible bruises, and it was essential for me, the person who was abused, to keep up appearances, even if I didn't realize I was doing it. So don't get wrapped up in the "I should've seen the signs!" stuff. Start from the moment I open up and move forward, learning with me.

2013 didn't seem to be an easy year for most people, and I'm quite content seeing it go. I have a much more grounded and patient optimism for what 2014 will bring, and I have a clearer sense of direction and self than I've ever had before. My world, instead of shrinking and suffocating me in my relationship and after it ended, is only getting bigger. While I'm still careful to accept the perceptions of people around me as an indication that I'm whole, fixed, all better, or on the right path, I am opening up more and more as my grieving process continues. I feel safer. Stronger. More content. More certain that I can handle this big bad world on my own if I want to, which is probably the most enormous revelation from the past few months. The goal for 2014 is to keep things moving in this direction.

** Just like I was okay being the outspoken queer femme who wasn't going to legalize her marriage for the sake of appeasing anyone, and the outspoken queer femme who doesn't understand why people don't wear slips anymore.


  1. Thanks so much for your honesty. Your post arrived in my inbox at the perfect time. A friend is going through a similar experience although she is choosing to protect her abuser, I am reminded of how I can help. It is her story, her life, not mine and I don't get a say. It's been a very difficult process to watch. I'm glad you were able to work through your story and share it. You are one brave, beautiful person and a true inspiration.

  2. I read this back when you posted it, and I'm sorry I haven't commented sooner. First of all, don't ever doubt that you have the skills to write about something, particularly something this honest and nuanced. I think you're very good at it, actually.

    Secondly, I think that parsing a life event like this requires some of the surgical thinking that you've done here. Not everything in life will make sense (this agonizes me sometimes!), but I've found that it helps immensely shine a light on everything, to turn it over and examine it so you know what it looks like. You might not ever know what it all means in the grander scheme, but with the help of family, friends and time, you'll figure out what it means to you.

    Also, I agree 1 billionty percent with #2 in your checklist up there. I've felt insulted by family and friends in that way, and it felt like sabotage.

    Onward and upward! Or is it the other way around?


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All content © Meaghan O'Malley, 2009-2012. Header image by Rebekka Seale.