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first person

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Illustration by Rachel Wada

There is a growing recognition that emotional abuse can be as destructive as physical abuse. This offers hope to women like me, victims of years of being told we are fat, stupid and lazy, that everything is our fault, that we are unworthy of love and happiness for so long that we come to believe it.

I wonder, though, how this will work. Men who physically abuse women are sometimes arrested and convicted. How will this work with emotional abusers?

There are no bruises, no blood or broken bones. Do I speak to a police officer, saying, “Arrest this man because most days I tiptoe around, never knowing when something I say or do will set him off and he will scream at me?” Can I tell a judge that he must convict my husband because he has such derision in his voice when he tells me that everything I do is wrong? That he complains about me to our children, telling them everything he dislikes about me? Can I then ask for a jail sentence, because he makes me write down every penny I spend and yells at me when there isn’t enough money to pay a bill, while he spends what he wants on whatever he wishes to buy, without consulting me?

As if.

The scars may be invisible, but that doesn’t mean they are not there. A man can abuse a woman from the inside out, instead of on the outside where it can be seen. I was with a man for 30 years and he destroyed me, bit by bit. How do you live your life, take on new challenges, grow as a person, when you know that you are always wrong, that everything is your fault? I know these things are true because he told me, over and over again.

People often look down on women like me, wondering why we stay in such an awful relationship. I am university educated and worked in a professional field until he decided he didn’t want me to work outside of the home. Unlike many abused women, I wasn’t afraid he would kill me or severely injure me if I left. Here is the thing, though. We don’t leave because we have learned the lesson that we are less than dirt, unable to survive without this man to control every aspect of our lives. It’s insidious; it grows so slowly you don’t notice it. Everything this man tells you about how deficient you are becomes your truth.

Society has offered no help. Friends heard how he spoke to me and no one said anything to me that this was wrong. Some of those friends were activists, working to help people around the world who were suffering. I admired them for what they did, and it never occurred to me that perhaps I, too, needed help. It didn’t occur to them, either. I saw two therapists and while they worked with me to help build some self-confidence, they never suggested that the reason I was in such bad shape was the way my husband treated me. This fed into my belief that everything was my own fault.

Why is it okay for men to belittle the women they supposedly love? This growing recognition that emotional abuse is a problem offers a glimmer of hope but defining what constitutes this as a crime is difficult.

I would like to think that things will get better, but as I write this my breath is coming in short gasps and my stomach clenches. I’m going to be brave and use my own name as a sign to other women that they can stand up for themselves, that what is happening to them is wrong. I’m terrified, though, still, after more than a decade of not seeing him, not having to listen and agree with everything he knows is deficient in me. He dumped me for a younger woman, and this is the only reason I am free today. I am stronger than I was, but I’m not free, not really. Not while the fear and self-loathing are so close to my surface.

But why am I so ashamed? One of the most difficult issues to deal with after he left was to come to terms with the fact that I let him do this to me.

Blaming emotionally abused women does not help. We need to find compassion, just as I had to for my younger self. I had to find the understanding necessary to comprehend how I ended up in that situation, and hug that person, telling her it wasn’t her fault. It was his fault. He made a choice to treat me badly. I kept hoping that he genuinely wanted to be a better person, that he would change, but he had no desire to be any different.

I wish there was a clear indication that society recognizes emotional abuse is wrong, that its victims don’t need to be ashamed to seek help. But yelling at someone, insulting them, making them feel bad about themselves, is not viewed as a crime.

Over the years since he left, I’ve tried to be kinder to myself and to others. I try to understand that beneath the outer person there might be internal bruises, and I hope that others might afford me the same consideration. Only by doing this can I muster the strength to heal.

And find the courage to tell people about emotional abuse.

Judy Berlyne McCrosky lives in Saskatoon.

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