When I think back on my time living with alcoholics, one of the hardest things to be honest about is why I did so little to change my situation. I wasn’t happy for a long time and I stayed. Why?
When I met my ex there were a lot of early signs that he did not have his life or mental health together. He told me heartbreaking stories about his life prior to our getting together that he used to justify his choices, his mood, his behaviour.. a lot of things. I later found out that many of these stories were likely falsehoods, or at least severe exaggerations of actual events. I suspect, by that time, he had forgotten they were lies because they were so essential to the self-abuse he perpetuated in his own life. I also suspect I wasn’t the primary target for his deception: he was.
He told me that he was looking forward and made me feel as though I was helping him.
Truthfully I did not have great self esteem. I was recovering from my own life setbacks and was habitually hard on myself when things weren’t going well for me, or people I cared about, whether or not I actually had any real power over the outcome. The way he made me feel in those early days appealed to my ego. It made me feel empowered and useful. It gave me value that I was desperately looking for externally because I sincerely thought that’s where it could be found.
And so it started, the unfortunate attachment of my self-worth to his.
As time went on and he could not continue to sell his lack of progress with his prior excuses, the emotional abuse started. The interesting thing about emotional abuse is that it can be very subtle and hard to identify. It was only after I had some distance that I understood that my relationship was not normal, that most people don’t feel the way I did.
The most common type of emotional abuse in my life has been a form that I later learned is coined “gas lighting”. In gas lighting, the gas lighter undermines the gas lightee by denying facts, the environment or their feelings – essentially convincing them that their feelings or perception of events are wrong. For example, the lightee tells the lighter they are shirking their household responsibilities and the lighter refuses to acknowledge that’s happening despite all proof and logic to the contrary. I don’t think this is that uncommon and likely we’ve all done it to another in blind denial or self-preservation at some point in our lives when fact was inconvenient.. but this wasn’t an intermittent or occasional issue. Over time, this became most of our interactions with each other.
Truthfully, this had been a theme in my childhood as well. I came from a household where it was not okay to be upset and it was not unusual for me to be accused of being “too sensitive” or “too dramatic” when expressing my feelings. When I was a toddler, the dog next door bit me on the face and my recollection of that event is that my caregiver was more concerned about how the dog owner felt about the incident than my well-being. I thought it was my fault, that somehow my existence had warranted the attack. I didn’t realize, as I had more experiences like that one, that I began to distrust my perception of the world. I often feel guilty or self-conscious for having feelings, even when they are legitimate. I’m the kind of person that would gladly accept that I somehow asked to be punched in the face, rather than make someone else feel bad for their own lapse in judgement.
By the time I met my alcoholic partner I was well primed to hand over my self-respect and take the blame for the challenges in our relationship. So, as painful and embarrassing as it is to admit, I felt like I deserved it. I deserved to be unhappy. I deserved to be trying to pick up the pieces of a broken relationship without any help. I deserved to be suffering… so why would I empower myself to try for anything different?
I couldn’t leave without taking an impossible blow to my ego, and I didn’t have much ego to spare since it was my fault and I deserved it.
The worst part about all this for me is that I feel that the easiest way to frame these events is as a reflection of my personal weakness, validating my lack of worth.
But I’ve come to realize that the easiest way isn’t always the best way to live with something. I understand now why domestic abuse victims are now commonly referred to as survivors. While it may not make sense to most why I made the choices I did, I know that what I did was the best I could do with the tools I had at the time. I know that I’ve made it through things that other people would not, and that my past is not a reflection of my weakness but as a pillar to my strength of perseverance.