Then comes the underlying implication that you must have been extremely gullible – stupid even – not to notice the signs. “If what you’re telling me is true, then they must surely have been so obvious – how could you possibly not have known? Surely you must have realized something was wrong?” And so it goes on… It’s exhausting, and each time becomes a public tar and feathering, as you are forced over and over again to explain exactly how you were so stupid to let somebody else put you in this position.
This is why, I believe, there is an unspoken code of silence among the vast majority of people who have suffered through any kind of abusive relationship. Whether through a partner, parents, siblings, friends, bosses, colleagues – the list is endless, as are the stories and perceived seriousness of the abusers’ misdemeanors. Different accounts, different histories, different responses. But the pervasively malignant feelings of disgust and self-hatred that become lodged deep within the victims seem to be the same. A universal sense of shame that permeates to the core, no matter the circumstances.
Not long after I made my discovery, I re-connected with an old friend I hadn’t seen for many years – to protect her privacy I’ll call her Beatrix. Our children had grown up together. We shared similar professional interests. We shared a healthy caring friendship. It also turns out that we shared another bond that only came to light as we continued talking. She had also been married to a charming sociopath – in her case it had been for 20 years, double my own sentence.
Our husbands had got to know each other while we still lived in the UK and they had done their level best to break our strong bond of friendship. For a few years it seemed they had succeeded, but now we are closer than ever. Ironically it is that same destructive behaviors of our respective husbands that have made it possible. Because since we found each other again we have been able to share our stories. Compare our experiences. Help each other through the dark days. Encourage each other to notice some of the deeply ingrained responses we sometimes fall back in to as a habit following years of deliberate conditioning. We know what it’s like. We understand the pain and indignity. We can identify on levels that people who haven’t been through such an experience could never possibly understand. Because we share the common bond of survivors of abuse – and at first, we thought that very few people would ever be able to empathize. We were wrong – and I’d like to explain what I mean.
Towards the end of 2009 I read a powerful book called The Bigamist, written by best-selling author Mary Turner Thomson. Taken aback by the punch of her story about her marriage to a sociopath, together with the striking similarities in our backgrounds, I decided to introduce myself by email. She called me on my home phone less than three days later, and straight away we chatted with the ease of old friends, as though we’d known each other for years. Right from that very moment I felt the unspoken connection of recognition with her – she knew what it was like. She’d been there. I didn’t have to explain. She instinctively knew, and though we didn’t say it at the time, there was an instant bond created between us.
A highly intelligent, sassy, accomplished, strong woman and certainly nobody’s fool, Mary and I have since become firm friends . We call ourselves ‘soul sisters’ because we know what it’s like to be deliberately targeted, deceived, manipulated and controlled. Soul sisters who know how it feels to realize that what you thought was true and lasting love was nothing more than a sham. Soul sisters who understand the shame and indignity of having to face the truth – as well as the on-going difficulty in convincing well-meaning friends and family that you haven’t lost the plot.
Beatrix and I talk about this regularly – as do Mary and I, together with the many other survivors I’ve met over the past couple of years, men as well as women. As a result I’m convinced that there IS a code of silence. And along with the silence is the instinctive yet unspoken point of recognition whenever one survivor meets another. After just a few words, the nod of acknowledgement passes between us – sometimes without the need for any further discussion or admittance. We just know. And judging by the number of survivors I’ve met in my daily life since I became free, there must be millions of people who walk around in silent pain, people who are still bound by chains of humiliation and self-loathing.
Control and manipulation tactics are common strategies employed by abusers. Basic yet exceptionally powerful, this form of power play isolates people from the people who support them and undermines their confidence to the point where they can no longer think or act effectively. Believing they are the under-dog, the target is then no longer in control of their own life. The tactics used by abusers will vary depending on their experiences, their level of skill, their targets, and their focus.
A corporate sociopath, for example, will typically be exceptionally well-versed in smooth language, subtle body gestures, and impeccable manners. A street thug is much more likely to use physical violence. Encounters with the latter will almost certainly leave you with bruises and perhaps broken bones. Encounters with either of them will leave you with a broken spirit and emotional scars that may never heal again.
When I was working as a Louise L Hay trainer in 1997/1998 I was always deeply touched by the intensity of guilt and shame regularly expressed by workshop members as they bravely shared their stories of mistreatment. Stories that, in some cases, had been kept secret and buried for decades. Having the opportunity to finally tell the truth of what had happened to them was a huge relief. As it turns out, it was also the easy bit – the hard bit was gently helping them to accept and forgive themselves for what had happened. Yes, you read right – the most difficult part would be helping them to find a way to forgive themselves. Not the other person or people, or even the situation – but themselves. To rid themselves of the shame and self-loathing for allowing such a thing to happen to them in the first place.
From my own experience, my first feelings of shame were when my sister and I were thrown out from our guardians’ home when I was 18 and she was just 13. Our uncle’s treatment of us was absolutely appalling – but I felt that I’d somehow failed. That it was MY fault. To make matters worse, because my guardian was a well-respected, charming, highly intelligent and very successful professional man (and yes, I now consider him to be a sociopath) nobody wanted to believe my account of events during the 22 months we lived there. It didn’t matter that my sister and I had done nothing wrong – far from it in fact. But, as with so many ‘victims’ I turned the anger and hatred in on myself. It took me many years to come to terms with what had happened and to finally forgive myself.
This experience, ironically, has proved to be one of the most useful lessons I could ever have learned. Not only has it helped me to move others through their own destructive patterns in my professional career, it also helped me explore my deepest held personal beliefs and thereby to heal fast and fully following the discovery of my ex’s betrayals.
Back to my friend Beatrix for a moment. She is now reclaiming her life – but it’s a long road. Last year was her first Christmas of freedom from a man who, to the outside world appeared charming, charismatic and witty – the life and soul of the party. A familiar story? Since escaping, Beatrix has forfeited a number of her friends who simply refused to believe that this charming man could possibly be guilty of the monstrous things she has accused him of doing. Abusers, as we know, can be very skilled. Although there may not always visible external injuries (in some cases, of course, the physical wounds speak volumes) the non-visible damage to self-esteem and self-belief can be severe… even life threatening – or worse in some cases. Beatrix told me what an important time Christmas has always been for her. How for more than 20 years she’d religiously do everything within her power to make the most of the festive season – and how, every year, her husband would equally religiously take great delight in destroying her. He’d criticize her for spending too much or too little. Complain about the tree being too big or too small. Whine about the fact that there were too many or too few parties and house visits organized that year. Consistent, deliberate verbal abuse… the psychological blows always accompanied by a Judas kiss or squeeze on the shoulder together with the assurance “But you know I love you!”
Abuse of any kind is a killer. The resulting silence is perhaps even more of a killer. It strangles people. This is why I’m so passionate about speaking out. Self-loathing eats away at confidence. It is malignant, oppressive and relentless – and in some cases it claims lives. That’s why I believe this site is such an incredibly helpful resource for all of us who’ve “been there, seen it and got the tee-shirt” – and that’s what I am referring to in the title of this article.
My own decision to break the silence was a massive step up in my own healing. The frustration I experienced when trying to explain what had happened to well meaning friends was always surprisingly difficult and at times frustrating to the extreme. I found myself once again thrown in to the old humiliating pattern of seeking approval and acceptance – a ridiculous state of affairs since I had done nothing wrong. And neither, by the way, had they. It was just that they couldn’t understand – exactly like Beatrix’s friends who decided she must be insane.
Breaking the silence is a powerful step to take. For me, I decided to write about my journey in a very public way when I started my blog. Fed up with trying to make myself heard by friends, I gradually found the confidence to express my inner thoughts and feelings to a growing audience of like-minded people. A process I found to be extremely cathartic. And my stories seemed to help others as well.
Don’t get me wrong – I’m not asking people to speak out or share their stories in such a public arena as the manner I chose. I’m simply inviting any of the silent people who have been there too – or who are still there in some cases – to know that you are not alone. I’m inviting you to reach out to the constantly rising number of people who understand. I realize, of course, that some may still choose to stay silent. And that’s ok. As I said earlier, the code of recognition is often a silent one – but at the very least it IS recognition, and that’s all it takes. It’s the relief of knowing that at least one other person understands and is on your side. And if you’ve kept things hidden away, known only to yourself until that point, well surely by finding just one like-minded person you’ll have doubled your team in one fell swoop.
As I write this, I am reminded of a comment made on this site by one of our members, who kindly shared the Latin roots of the word “person”. The word literally translates as “through sound” which denotes “can be heard” (thank you to libelle – much appreciated!). So I got to thinking – all of us here are human beings, people who can and should be heard. A person, by definition can be heard. We are all people who have something to say. We are the people who can break this unspoken code of silence.
One small step, that’s all it takes. One by one we’ll find each other. One by one we can join hands until we reach around the world – maybe further. Together we can stand strong, and put an end to this destructive cycle of abuse and shame.
I, for one, am determined to keep banging my drum and inviting others to join the crusade – because I know that together we can speak out. We can link our different stories and our unique voices together to create a harmonious choir. And together we can produce the sweetest sounds as our voices sing out around the world – warning new targets of the dangers, and inspiring deeper healing for those who already know.