I’ve had a few lightbulb moments over the past couple of years; single thoughts and realisations that took my breath away. Sometimes they’ve been things I’d said out loud in some form or other but had never really accepted their truth. Sometimes they’ve been random thoughts and feelings pulled together suddenly into a coherent whole.
I’ve given up all hope of ever being happy.
The first was when I decided to leave my marriage. After years of feeling miserable, isolated and inadequate, I had the single clear thought that I’d given up all hope of ever being happy. By making the daily choice to stay in a toxic, dysfunctional marriage, I was choosing a future where I could never be myself or believe that I could be content or happy.
That thought was the first step towards my decision to leave. If it had just been that thought in isolation, I still might have stayed. I’ve been conditioned to believe my happiness is insignificant, so I probably would have accepted that and continued on. But that first clear thought was followed by the realisation that I was teaching my daughter that this was what she could expect from life too – that as long as her partner and children were happy, then her happiness was irrelevant. And I was teaching my sons that their happiness was the only relevant factor. I probably could have resigned myself to an unhappy life, but I couldn’t do it to them and their future partners.
I am a victim.
After I left my marriage, I had several people direct me to support services for victims of domestic violence and abuse. Not church friends, of course, they all told me that I simply needed to pray more, read my Bible more, focus on being a better wife, and uphold the sanctity of my wedding vows. Friends from outside of the church, Centrelink staff, my new GP, a psychologist – they used the word victim. They said it with confidence. I shrank away from the reality of what that word meant for the longest time.
Then one day, I had the clear thought “I am a victim”. The behaviour of others, outside my control, had negatively impacted my life and was continuing to negatively impact my life and cause me harm. I accepted that the word applied to me. It was strangely heartbreaking and liberating at the same time. It allowed me to stop blaming myself for so many things, but it created new pathways for blame and guilt and shame. It’s been a challenging thing to process.
I have PTSD.
I’d been attending specialised trauma and PTSD counselling for months before this thought truly settled in my mind. I was walking through a shopping centre after a therapy session vaguely reflecting on what we’d discussed, particularly the mechanism of response attached to physical, emotional and mental triggers. Even though I’d used cPTSD (complex PTSD) to describe my reactions in discussions with others and even though it was something I had read about, discussed and thought about in relation to myself, I’d never really accepted that it belonged to me. I think I was somehow holding on to the belief that this was some passing phase of the recovery process with PTSD-ike reactions that I’d get over any day now.
I have PTSD. I could have sat down in the middle of that shopping centre and wept when the thought appeared in my mind. I almost did.
The actions of others, their choices and the priorities they’ve imposed on me – my ex, my parents, my church – have rewired my brain and created response pathways that continue to impact my life even though I’m created boundaries to protect myself from them. Other people have used emotional abuse to force me to be the person they wanted me to be, and it has caused me harm in a way that continues to echo through my life.
Narcissitic abuse is intentional.
Last night, a random meme from a Facebook page for survivors of abuse that I follow popped up in my timeline. It appeared again this morning. It gave examples of behaviours as proof that narcissistic abusers know exactly what they’re doing, including the fact that they’re able to switch their abusive behaviours on and off depending on their audience, their abuse is victim and situation specific, and their tendency to gaslight the victim to convince them that the abuse never happened.
I’ve acknowledged my ex was and is abusive. I can describe behaviours that have clearly been emotionally and mentally manipulative and harmful. I have pages of examples of harmful behaviour towards myself and the children since the separation, and could write dozens of more pages about things that happened during our marriage. I can now clearly see how abusive the relationship was in a way that I never could when I was with him.
But despite that, despite all that he’s done and all the ways he’s blamed me for the consequences of his decisions, all the times he’s denied things that the children and I have observed to be true, all the ways he’s chosen to inflict pain and attempt to control me, some small part of my brain resisted believing that it was intentional. He’s emotionally immature, self-absorbed, socially awkward, thoughtless – all these things could result in similar behaviours, couldn’t they?
Narcissistic abuse is intentional. He chose the time and place for his abuse and it was never in front of others (although they may have thought he was a little awkward or weird). He never accepted responsibility for anything, ever. In 22 years of marriage, he never apologised for anything. Not once. My feelings were ignored or, worse, I was told I was feeling the wrong things and should adjust my responses. He treated me with no respect – emotionally or physically – while attending men’s Bible studies and support groups that focused on respecting women and rejecting inappropriate sexualisation of women. I baked for those damn meetings, so that he could look like someone with a wonderful relationship. I facilitated the image he wanted others to have of him, while in the privacy of our home he undermined my image of myself until I believed I was completely inadequate.
My ex-husband chose to treat me badly. He chose to behave in a way that damaged me in order to build up the image of himself he wanted others to believe (and that he already believed was true). He was abusive by choice. He gaslighted me constantly – it was always my fault, I always misunderstood, I was always being unreasonable. Forgotten birthdays? Never once reading anything I wrote including books I had published? Unwanted physical contact? Never using my name, ever, even though I said I hated the nickname he used for me constantly. The fact that those things and so many more upset me were my fault. Always. Now be a good girl and pull yourself together so we can go and play happy families at church and everyone can see how good our life is.
That’s been the lightbulb moment of the past 24 hours and I still feel sick at the thought of it. How does someone do that to someone else? To someone they profess to love? How can someone put so much effort into creating a fake image for others only to erode the foundation of that image in the privacy of their home, on purpose not by accident. How did I ever think his abuse was unintentional? Why do I still buy in to his distorted view of who I was. And who I am.
As awful as this latest lightbulb moment is, I’m hoping that like the previous realisations it indicates a step towards healing and away from the trauma of the past. But for the moment, it hurts and I feel betrayed and angry and weak and devastated that my story includes decades of prioritising the happiness of someone who not only never prioritised my happiness, but actively discouraged it.
The trouble with lightbulb moments is that they make you aware of just how dark things were before the light came on.