It's late, and I've just put the phone down after chatting with one of my longest-standing friends. A wonderful lady I have known for years. Our children grew up together. We share similar professional interests. We also share a particular bond that came to light last year. She was also married to a charming sociopath - for 20 years, so double my own sentence. In fact our husbands got to know each other and did their level best to break our strong bond of friendship. They succeeded for a while, but now we are closer than ever. Ironically it is the behaviour of our respective husbands that have made it possible. Since last year 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 you see. We understand the pain and indignity. We can identify on levels that people who haven't been through such an experience couldn't possibly understand. We share this common bond of survivors of abuse - and at first, we thought that very few people would ever be able to empathise. We were wrong - and I'd like to explain what I mean. To respect her privacy, I'll call my friend Beatrix.
Towards the end of last year 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. Highly intelligent, sassy, accomplished, strong and certainly nobody's fool, Mary and I have since become firm friends - soul sisters who know what it's like to be deliberately targeted, deceived, manipulated and controlled. Soul sisters who knows how it feels to realise that what you thought was true and lasting love was nothing more than a sham. Soul sisters who understands the shame and indignity of having to face the truth - and convince friends and family that you haven't lost the plot.
Make no bones about it - escaping from a controlling or abusive relationship is difficult enough. Accepting the truth that you've been treated so badly is even harder. But having to explain what happened to other people is excruciatingly humiliating. Particularly when they will often need to question since, to all intent and purposes "he/she has always been such a lovely person! Surely there's some mistake!" Then there's the underlying implication that you must have been very 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 realised 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 there is an unspoken code of silence among the vast majority of people who have suffered through any kind of abusive relationship. Partners, parents, siblings, friends, bosses, colleagues - the list is endless, as are the stories and perceived seriousness of the abusers misdemeanors. But the pervasive feelings of disgust and self-hatred lodged deep within the victims is absolutely universal. Beatrix and I talk about this regularly - as do Mary and I, together with many other survivors I've met over the past twenty months. And it IS a code of silence. And along with the silence is the instinctive yet unspoken code 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 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 one may well 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 expressions of guilt and shame that people would demonstrate as they bravely shared their stories of mistreatment, usually at the hands of another. Stories that, in some cases, had been kept hidden and secret for decades. And yet, finally telling the truth of what had happened was 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 when I was 18 and she was just 13. His treatment of us was absolutely appalling - but I felt that I'd somehow failed. To make matters worse, because my guardian was a well-respected, charming, highly intelligent and very successful professional man, nobody wanted to believe my account of events during the 22 months we lived there. It didn't matter that we'd 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, as it turned out, 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 these destructive patterns, it also helped me to explore my own deepest held beliefs and to heal fast and fully following the discovery of my husband's betrayals.
Back to my friend Beatrix, where I started this post. She is now reclaiming her life - but it's a long road. This is 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. You get the picture? Since escaping, Beatrix has forfeited a number of her friends who simply refuse to believe that this charming man could possibly be guilty of the monstrous things she has accused him of doing. These abusers can be very skilled you see, and though there may be no visible external injuries, the damage to self-esteem and self-belief can be severe and even life threatening - or worse in some cases. She 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 religiously take great delight in destroying her. He'd criticise 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 organised that year. Constant verbal abuse, coupled with a Judas kiss or squeeze on the shoulder and the words"But you know I love you!"
This is why now, I'm so passionate about speaking out. Abuse of any kind is a killer. The silence is also a killer. It strangles people. Self-loathing eats away at confidence. It is malignant, oppressive and relentless - and in some cases it claims lives.
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 am choosing. I'm simply inviting those of you who have been there too - or who are still there - to know that you are not alone. You may be surprised by the number of people who are out here and who truly understand what you've been through. Like you, they may 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's a recognition. It's the knowledge and relief that at least one other person understands. And if you've kept it to yourself until then, well you'll have doubled your team in one fell swoop.
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 band - because I know that together we can make the sweetest soul music as our voices sing out around the world!