Abuse in general is rather misunderstood by society. Even with things like physical and sexual abuse, which tend to leave tangible, visible evidence behind, there remain misconceptions about the conditions that led to the abuse. Why didn’t she just leave him? Why was she wearing that short skirt?
If physical damage is still not enough to convince people that an abuse victim is indeed a victim, imagine how much more difficult it is to explain “invisible” abuses to people!
I happen to be a survivor of physical, emotional and psychological abuse. Though every victim has the right to “rank” their abuse in order from least damaging to most damaging, I personally don’t feel that any one of the abuses I’ve endured was any more bearable than the others. They were each damaging in unique ways, not in “better” or “worse” ways. My friend Roman, though, was very adamant that his experience of psychological abuse by his mother was worse than any physical damage done to him by his father.
It can be difficult for a non-survivor to imagine how anyone would feel more damaged from words than from a bad touch. But I’ll do my best to explain what I think he would have said. More on that later.
Oh, and before I get into it: Thus far, I have avoided detailing certain methods of psychological abuse, out of fear that some sicko out there will find my writing “inspirational,” then go ahead and try these methods on their victim. This is always a possibility when writing about abuse of any sort. But I guess I can’t stop those types of creeps by not writing about psychological abuse. Might as well speak the truth, and hope that the number of people who learn something makes the risk worth it.
So here goes:
Choose One to Kill:
A baby cow or your pet bunny
I had a friend in college. Let’s call her Dee. Dee was an ethical vegan, and hadn’t eaten any animal products for 9 years by the time the following incident happened:
One day I was walking through the halls and saw her sitting in the skywalk, staring into space. She, looked, pale. Our mutual friend (let’s call him Victor) was sitting next to her, apparently trying to calm her down. I ran up and asked what was wrong. She said she had diarrhea and was dehydrated. I asked what had made her sick, and she said, “Milk.”
The story unfolded from there. The night before, her mother had placed a glass of milk on the kitchen counter and told her, “If you don’t drink this entire glass of milk, I’m going to kill your bunny.” But Dee was opposed to drinking milk, because the process of milk production requires the torture and untimely death of baby cows (see: veal).
Dee tried to explain this to her mother, who took great joy in forcing her daughter to choose between killing a cow and killing a bunny. Then Dee tried to tell her mom she would drink it later, hoping that by stalling she could find a way out of it. But her mother demanded that she drink the entire glass, right then and there, in front of her. With every passing moment, her mother became more angry and threatening.
So Dee, terrified for her bunny (whom she loved dearly), drank the glass of milk.
That’s when her mother blind-sided her with another threat: Even though Dee had drunk the milk as ordered, she might still come home the next day to find her bunny gone.
Now here we were, Victor and I, trying to make our friend feel better. Surely her mother wouldn’t actually kill her bunny, right? But Dee wasn’t easily convinced. Even if her mother wasn’t murderous, she might still be cruel enough to give the bunny away to someone, or let it loose in the streets.
We tried to understand her choices. Couldn’t she have stayed home to keep an eye on her bunny?
No, Dee said. Her mother had once hired a private eye to keep tabs on her, so if Dee ever skipped school, her mother would find out.
Well, we suggested, couldn’t she call the cops on her mother for threatening violence and stalking her?
No, Dee said, because without any proof, the cops wouldn’t necessarily be able to intervene — and getting them involved, she feared, would only make her mother more conniving.
Now, as Dee sat there looking pale and helpless, it slowly became clear to us what a twisted situation this was. Her mother didn’t physically assault her, but all the same, the damage was done. Now Dee was miserably ill, and every minute that tick-tocked by was another minute that could mean the death of her beloved animal companion. If she got home and found her bunny dead or gone, she would never forgive herself for going to school that day. But if she got home and her bunny was okay, she still had to go to school the next day, and the next, and the next… she couldn’t just stay home and guard her bunny forever. Her mother knew this, and was counting on Dee to eventually let her guard down.
That day, there was nothing we could do. In the months after that, we came to witness more horrifying examples of Dee’s mother being psychologically abusive. Finally one night, I found myself in a position to “kidnap” Dee to my place, to keep her safe from her parents until she could figure out her next move. She stayed up all night, gripped by panic and unable to sleep. Every time I woke up and looked across the room, she was checking her phone obsessively and staring out of my window, convinced that her parents would somehow find out where I lived and come to take her back.
The next day, she temporarily moved in with another friend, even further from her parents than where I lived. Eventually, she made an appeal to our college’s housing office. They determined that her situation was dire and gave her one of the emergency dorm rooms. With distance and time, she was eventually able to develop enough self-esteem and courage to set boundaries against her parents. Their attempts to control and terrorize her became progressively less severe. Thankfully, to the best of my knowledge, she — and her bunny — have been safe ever since.
Sadly, some cases of psychological abuse are not as obvious, and because of their subtlety, such emergency aid is not available to the victims. Take Roman, for example…
Hunger is a sin
Roman was raised by a fundamentalist Christian mother who twisted Bible verses to torment her children. Of all the fucked-up ideas she planted in their heads, the worst by far was this: hunger is a sin.
Somehow, she was able to take Bible verses out of context and conclude that craving food was actually a sign that one was demon-possessed. Only sinful people (read: people unlovable-by-God) became demon-possessed. The only way to rid oneself of these hunger-demons was to forego food in favor of worshiping God. In other words: associate starvation with God’s love.
And starve them she did. Roman once showed me a picture of himself and his siblings from back then. They were frighteningly thin. But because they were pre-pubescent, it was easy for their mother to convince concerned onlookers that her children were “just picky eaters” or “hadn’t filled out yet.” Due to malnutrition in his developmental years, Roman retained a child-like body even into his adulthood, which his mother used as “proof” that her children were just “naturally small” rather than malnourished.
Predictably, Roman’s childhood conditioning resulted in a life-long battle with eating disorders. I never saw him well. He was trapped in a revolving door of treatment programs. I watched him stumble from therapist to therapist, doctor to doctor, never finding one that could cure him. It was a multi-layered problem: a chronic eating disorder, and the underlying belief which had caused the eating disorder. So not only did Roman have to deal with ignorant doctors who believed eating disorders were a “diet” or a “choice,” but he also had to deal with people accusing him of lying about the abuse. Of all the doctors he visited in his life — and there were many — he never found even one who believed him about the abuse. Mothers don’t do that to their children, they’d say. For this reason, all the doctors could do was fatten him up. They couldn’t make him un-afraid of eating, of Hell, of God. More accurately, they never bothered to try.
Had Roman simply been physically abused (starved) without the accompanying psychological abuse (being taught that hunger is a sin), he may have healed as soon as he got away from his mother. He might have been eager to eat food and gain weight, with no one around to control him anymore. However, by infiltrating his psyche with self-policing terror, his mother caused insurmountable damage. With the terror still directing his thoughts, the agency of living independently meant nothing.
Now do you see why someone like Roman would say that psychological abuse can be worse than physical abuse?
The above examples were rather extreme, as my friends Dee and Roman were physically damaged as an added layer to their psychological abuse. But for me, no experience of psychological abuse ever crossed into physical territory.
I’ve already written about how I was forced to sing for money as a child. In order to keep me under their control, my church groomed me to believe I was The Chosen One, and they even went as far as to orchestrate fake spiritual experiences in order to get more money out of me. While that may sound cool and movie-like, it wasn’t. At all. Please read the full story. Similar to Roman, the adults in my life implanted twisted Bible verses in my head that continue to affect my thoughts and actions to this day. That’s one way psychological abuse can happen.
But then there’s what Arachne did.
Quick recap: I was in a one-on-one cult at age 17. My guru was my best friend’s cousin, Arachne. She played countless mind games over the course of a year; by the end of it, I was convinced that she had the supernatural abilities to monitor my thoughts, watch my every move, and kill me just by thinking of killing me. It took years to un-brainwash myself enough to stop living in total fear of her.
How did she make me believe all that bullshit? By playing countless mind games, simultaneously. She was relentless, skilled, and inexhaustible. Not a moment went by in our conversations when she wasn’t toying with my head in one way or another. Even when I could see through her bullshit, her refusal to let me end the conversation weakened my mental boundaries. Most of the time, she got me to agree with her just by tiring me out, not by making any sense.
I’ll describe one of her games:
Your voice sounds different
Arachne spent a few months of our relationship trying to convince me that I had multiple personalities. And she almost succeeded. Of all her mind games, it was the only one that didn’t completely work — which, if course, made her furious. Here’s how she would do it:
When talking on the phone with her, she would interrupt me to ask, “Did you notice that?” “Notice what?” “Your voice just changed.” “What do you mean?” “You sounded like an entirely different person just now.” “I did?” “Yes, you did. I heard you.” “Oh. That’s weird.” “No, it’s not just weird, it’s really bad.” “How is it bad?” “It’s a sign that your consciousness is splitting.” “No it’s not.” “Yes it is. You didn’t even notice that your voice changed. You went into a different consciousness, that’s why you can’t remember.” “Are you sure you aren’t just hearing things?” “No, it’s definitely you. I’ve noticed it a few times before, but I was waiting for you to do it again so I could point it out.”
She would use anything and everything as “evidence” that I had multiple personalities. If I forgot something she’d said, it was ‘because I’d been splitting’ and ‘couldn’t access those memories now’. If a friend had a dream about me, it was a sign that ‘pieces of my consciousness were developing minds of their own and pretending to be me in the astral planes’. Even the fact that I write under a pen name, or let people call me by a nickname, earned me hours and hours of criticism for ‘being inauthentic’ and ‘splitting myself into separate people’.
It was fucking insane, you guys.
Even though I never fully accepted that I had split personalities, there were many moments where I started to wonder if she was right. I questioned my sanity, big-time. Was I forgetting things? Was I talking in different voices? If I was, were people noticing? Did I look crazy? Would my friends tell me if I was acting like different people? Could I trust them??? (And on, and on, and on…)
(Side note: If you ever wondered why I hate the misuse of the word “gaslighting” — well, this is why. You haven’t been gaslighted until you’ve had someone persistently, and calculatingly, plant false memories in your mind.)
And remember: the example I described above was only a single cog in Arachne’s complex mind-grinding machine. Every individual mind game was part of a larger crusade to dislodge my perception and install hers in its place. I was a hopeless, traumatized, easily frightened, dissociative, paranoid mess by the time she was through with me. Even long after she cut me off, I still felt her watching me, listening to my thoughts, warning me not to be too alive. And she did it all without laying a finger on me.
Now, back to the original question:
What is psychological abuse?
If you’ll notice, I haven’t defined it yet. Instead, I gave you three examples of it. Have you noticed any patterns?
Psychological abuse …. is a form of abuse, characterized by a person subjecting, or exposing, another person to behavior that may result in psychological trauma, including anxiety, chronic depression, or post-traumatic stress disorder.
Dee, Roman and I were irreparably damaged by our respective experiences of psychological abuse. Dee and I are functioning now, though residual trauma still impacts our everyday lives. But Roman, sadly, did not survive what was done to him. For his abuser, the object was to infiltrate him with an idea that would ultimately eat him alive from the inside out. And it worked.
So to anyone out there who still thinks non-physical abuse isn’t real or valid, please: reconsider your stance. People do, in fact, die from it. I know I always say “Roman took his own life,” but honestly? Sometimes I think it would be more accurate to say that his mother took it from him.
Also, on a closing note:
Most resources on the matter use “psychological abuse” and “emotional abuse” interchangeably, but I personally think they should be distinguished from each other. I say this because, as a cult survivor, the words “emotional abuse” do not describe even .001% of what Arachne did to my brain — and I’m sure Roman and Dee would agree that the term is unfit to describe our experiences. Sure, my emotions and self-esteem were harmed too, vicariously. But Arachne’s ultimate goal was much more sick and twisted than that. She wasn’t simply trying to hurt my self-esteem — she was trying to annihilate my consciousness. And in Dee’s and Roman’s cases, I’d even say that their abuse bordered on torture.
But that’s a rant for another day, I suppose.
Thanks for reading, lovelings.