Trigger Warning: This discusses abuse, why someone would stay in an abusive situation, self-blame, loss of friends. It's part of a series about losing an abusive relationship:
Stage 1: Denial
Stage 2: Anger
Stage 3: Bargaining
Stage 4: Grief
It took me months to write this final piece, and I'm kind of freaking out putting it out there. But I finally feel ready. Scared... but ready. Here goes.
I took a deep breath, looking at my therapist, my heart in my chest. "I don't see another option, really," I told her, my eyes dropping to the floor, my voice shaking a little. "I have to do this."
She just looked at me. Gently, she said "you know... it's ok for you to have boundaries. It's ok for you to say no to things that make you feel unsafe and prevent you from healing. This is going to be painful. But I think you can get through it."
I thought I was going to start crying right there. But no, that came later, at home, when I drafted the email and started the process of extracting people who were mutual friends of my ex fiance and I on Facebook. Yeah, I know, right, Facebook. Why such a big deal over an internet gathering place?
Let me set more of a scene for you...
In October he broke up with me. We had been breaking up with each other for months, so it wasn't a surprise, per se, but it was still incredibly painful. I had spent our entire relationship silent about what our relationship was like behind closed doors- partially because of a shame that as a feminist who taught about consent, I shouldn't be in an abusive situation, I should know better... partially because sometimes, when he pushed me, I pushed him back, and I felt guilty for that... partially because as a sex worker being in an abusive relationship was so cliche and would just give anti-sex work activists fuel to tell me my work was the reason I was in the situation I was in (when really, the work helped me survive it)... partially because I was terrified that my friends would not be up to the challenge of listening to a real life Lifetime movie and helping me, and that I would be abandoned, blown off, told my issues were just "drama" and I should keep them to myself. And, of course, massively because coming out about what happened would make things with him unbearable.
I had been trying to get him to seek therapeutic help throughout our relationship, and he had resisted at every step. I struggled to put my foot down and have strong boundaries, because I loved him and wanted to see him get better- when he wasn't angry and lashing out, he was depressed, and I tried to fix that depressed, scared little boy. I reassured myself that I could take him in a fight, so that when he tried to block me from leaving rooms during arguments, or ripped clothing/jewelry off my body during a fight, or tried to push me down stairs, or grab the phone from my hands so I couldn't call the police... I just told myself that the reason I didn't really hurt him back was out of self control. There was a line, and found I would use physical force back if he crossed it- at that point I insisted we do couples therapy because I was scared of how far things might go. He wasn't, though- he told the therapist "why would I be worried she'd hurt me? She's a girl".
It was then I think I started to realize that maybe things were worse than I thought. But he put up this facade of being such a good feminist, such a queer ally, that I thought maybe I was wrong, maybe it was a slip of the tongue. Maybe the fact he treated his mother equally poorly was a sign of his mum being overcontrolling, not his personal issues (he threw a vacuum cleaner at her, mind, and I stood in front of her to prevent him from attacking her. On Mother's Day). We fought in public and someone asked if the cops should be called and I told them no, even though I was scared and wanted to say yes, because I knew he had a record and was afraid of causing him to go to jail or the mental hospital. I didn't feel prepared to make that call on someone I loved. He would cry after these situations about how he didn't want to be "that guy" and I would comfort him, because I didn't want him to be "that guy" either.
It sickens me now.
If he ever took ownership for these behaviours, things would be different. If he had ever approached me and said "hey, I've been doing some soul-searching and god, I am so sorry for __________ and I wanted to give you space to process" I would feel very different. But instead he's been busily befriending friends of friends of mine here in San Francisco, and spent months telling mutual acquaintances I'm a liar, that none of this happened (though I have records and proof), while posing as a feminist and an ally (pretty common, actually- this book talks a lot about that, and potential solutions for how to weed it out). I can't imagine how he's going to react to this blog post. It's beautiful gaslighting and intimidation/control even after the relationship is dead. I feel bad for him, and some worry for his new group of friends who have little idea how quickly he can switch from Depressed Male Protagonist to throwing things and physical intimidation. I can't save them, though.
But this isn't really about all of that. This is about picking up the pieces in the aftermath.
I tried to commit suicide, several times in a short period, and didn't succeed. During that time, I lost my apartment, my sex worker community, and many of my friends, in action if not in name. I started spending a lot more time online, isolated from real life interaction, social anxiety increasing to make it harder to motivate to get out more often. I wrote occasionally about what I was experiencing, but found myself feeling resentful that people I considered close to me "didn't want to get involved". It was so similar to when I tried to report being raped in the kinky community and I was accused of stirring up drama, told to keep quiet and just move on. They didn't seem to understand that they *were* already involved, and that their silence read, to me and quite probably to him, as complacency and acceptance that what happened was ok, and that my talking about it was not. I felt unspeakable rage, anger at myself, anger at "community", and such incredible loneliness. I still feel such incredible loneliness.
I began to realize that Consent Culture was in many ways a cry for help in the midst of a horrible situation. I needed to build a better, safer community to come out into. I thought that maybe I had, and I think that maybe I did.
I talked to my therapist and read a lot of Captain Awkward and came to the conclusion I needed to do something that terrified me more than many other things.
I needed to ask people to choose.
"But so often, “creating drama” is a phrase that people use when they want someone who has been a victim of something to shut up. It allows them to blame the victim for bringing the problem to their attention and making them feel bad while glossing over the fact that the drama was really created by the victimizER back when they did bad things. The friend group gets all caught up in issues of “fairness” and “logic” and “It was so long ago, why are you dredging it all up now?” and treating the victim’s feelings (or, again, quite rational & reasonable request to not have to sit next to one’s (abuser) at dinner) as illogical and unreasonable.
Someone who accuses you of “creating drama” in this case is basically saying that abusing one’s partner might be bad, but making people feel weird about it at parties is worse.
It’s not fair that you should lose out on something you value because of that dude. It fills me with rage to see abuse victims retreat time and time again from social spaces while charismatic predators are allowed to remain. But I also think that maybe it’s bad for you to keep exposing yourself to Suckface and to people who chose “We prefer not to know.”
So I say, before you retreat entirely, stop going to things where he will be and let people know exactly why. You worked so hard to be “cool” and to not make people choose, but if this is still hurting you it’s okay if you ask people to choose. It’s okay if you want them to choose you. It’s okay to ask that some events be off-limits to him so that you can enjoy yourself. You don’t have to be the bigger person to people who stayed friends with your (abuser)."
I was sleeping restlessly, having flashbacks, unable to move on. I was haunted by this situation, less by my ex, and more by my friends who remained friendly to a man who was physically and emotionally abusive to me. Yeah, it's just the internet, but I'm a geek- if anything my online space is more precious to me, never mind I expected to be in the same city as him later this year and didn't want him to have any idea where I was. I had asked politely for people to remove him from their networks, but had for the most part been ignored. So I created a plan of action, and began to explain to people I cared about what happened, why I needed them to make a choice, that I understood it was a hard thing I was asking, but that it was non-negotiable. I needed this boundary, because I had spent years having my boundaries ignored, and in order to reclaim some self-respect, this was important to me and my healing. I sent out these emails with tears in my eyes. I figured I was going to lose a lot of people.
And I did, honestly. I lost people I was really looking forward to seeing when I visited in the summer, people I've chatted with for years. I lost people who felt that they saw him socially and it would be too uncomfortable to deal with explaining. I lost people who couldn't be bothered to respond to my heartfelt email. And fair enough- I had steeled myself for people to dismiss it as "drama", and I don't want those people in my lives. I'm just sad to find how many of them there were.
The most interesting group I lost were people who didn't want to be told to make a choice... interestingly, all of them would admit they were much closer to me, and didn't think of FB as a big deal, but being asked to unfriend my abuser was too big of an ask. "I don't understand why you don't just ignore it", some said, or "why is it such a big deal to you? It's just Facebook". By invalidating and belittling my boundaries, they were echoing many of the same sorts of things my ex said- "no, I won't respect your boundary, because I don't think it's valid or important". It certainly emphasized why I stayed silent about what was going on for so long- I wouldn't have gotten much sympathy from these people. Most of those people would consider themselves social justice activists, which leads me to question why a few people from that particular demographic would value an online friendship with an abuser over the emotional well-being of someone they consider a friend. I'm sure there's a critique about activism and feminism and how alternative communities deal with abuse in there, but I'm too tired to do it.
But there's a happy ending. Most of the people I contacted supported my boundary. They understood how scary it was to ask, and if they needed to talk to me about why I needed it, they opened dialogue and we chatted about it. It felt really good to get validation from many people I didn't necessarily expect it from, people who I would not consider as close to me, along with people who I consider dear and was terrified to lose. It made me feel safer around those people as people who would be more likely to support me in real life if situations of abuse happened. It's not "just the internet". It's how we interact, interconnect. The way you respond online reflects a possibility of how you'll respond in real life. It's so much more than just Facebook friends, this, for me, was about ethics, about consent culture, about putting your money where your mouth is. And I'm glad to find that there's more spaces where I can go and feel safe than I initially expected. In the end, painful as it was, vulnerability paid off.
I'm continuing to seek help for myself and sort out my head. My social anxiety is still pretty bad, and I still feel very isolated much of the time. I'm doing what I can, though. This was the first step of reaching out, and for the most part, it went well. I imagine I'll end up writing a piece about the experience running n anti-abuse project when in an abusive relationship at some point as well. I'm nervous about how my ex will respond to all this- my hope is that it might be the catalyst for him to take it seriously enough to seek out help before he gets arrested and/or hurts another woman. I know that seeking help is the only way I've begun to actually get better and grow from all this rather than avoid it.
And now, I ask you for help. If you know me, and you're available/local- reach out to me, please. Not immediately, but over the next month or two. Ask me to something you're doing. Send me a text. Call me. I'll call you back. I don't want to feel this isolated anymore- I think I'm ready to start working on this social anxiety thing. If you have the spoons, let's use them for tea.