By Danielle Howe
CN: Abuse, hospitalisation, weight, PTSD
‘Last year I abstained, this year I devour without guilt, which is also an art’
— Margaret Atwood
I do not know how to write this without being overcome, my words swallowed by a grief that is pure and unadulterated. I can feel the words; they reside with my sorrow, in my bones. I can feel them pulsating from my heart to my fingertips, burning my veins, struggling past the arteries that have been my foundation of safety for so long, that have been my barrier for silence. I am the words, in a sense. This is me. This is my grief. And I am deciding to deconstruct the void.
Sometimes, I think I attract abuse. Or maybe I am attracted to it. The issue with having experienced or witnessed toxic relationships during childhood is that, whilst I strongly believed that I would never allow myself to be subjected to that again, sometimes your subconscious mind is, frankly, a little bitch and has other ideas. It is familiarity, my psychotherapist told me.
When you experience a ‘love at first sight’ type feeling, it is probably because your brain is recognising the warning signs and, instead of deterring you, welcomes the familiarity. You have learnt to associate this with love, with home, with the domestic. I was not sure if that was a death sentence or a chance to forge myself a new path. A fault in my hardwiring or a chance to reboot, so to speak. Sadly, self-awareness does not always come with the tools needed to deconstruct the long-standing, deep-rooted beliefs and behaviours that form out of childhood.
My mother was the same. Such a cliché, I know. A young girl who grows up witnessing her mother navigating unhappy, often toxic and sometimes abusive, relationships, vowing that would never be her — now that little girl is me, nineteen, lying in an acute psychiatric ward because she fell into exactly the same trap.
Perhaps the hole I tumbled down was deeper, not quite the Alice fairytale one may hope for, or perhaps she was simply stronger. She always saved her smiles for me. Most days I cannot even smile for myself. I am still trying to unlearn this. I am terrified that I never will.
We define love the way we experience it.
This is not to say that I have not experienced ‘good’ love, or pure love, or healthy relationships. I have been lucky enough to have formed, in the past few years, the most incredible and long-lasting friendships, based purely on adoration and support and kindness. I grew up extremely close to my mother and grandparents, a fact that shaped me intensely and that I will forever be grateful for. But as is often the case, our toxic experiences have a tendency to make a more vivid, acute impression on our lives. The love I felt sustained me, kept me above water, is right at this very moment pushing me through recovery — but the trauma is the reason I am here, the ‘bad’ love what consumed me, what caused me to reject all that was honest and pure and healthy.
Surviving after childhood trauma is harrowing. Every experience, every hurt, radiates throughout your whole body. Something relatively small happens and it breaks you. And everyone is looking at you like you are fucking crazy.
“I was asked recently if I had ever been in love. I think yes, I think I have. But I also believe that everyone’s version of love is different. Mine has been one founded upon control and abuse”
But when you experience something so profoundly haunting at an age in which you soak everything in, like a sponge, in which you are still learning what boundaries are and what different relationships should be like and in which you still blindly trust the adults who are meant to protect you…it later informs every single aspect of your life. It writes and determines your entire hardwiring, the code that makes you you, that governs every response, action, emotion. It rocks your entire foundations and everything else falls away.
Every interaction you henceforth have is influenced by that information, by that experience. Consciously, I trusted no one, feared everyone, was so determined to never have to feel, or be, that vulnerable again. Unconsciously, it rebuilt the very foundations it destroyed and replaced it with one destined to crumble, full of fatal cracks and shoddy craftsmanship. Danger feels familiar. Fear feels safe. Manipulation feels like love. It set me up to fail.
I was asked recently if I had ever been in love. I think yes, I think I have. But I also believe that everyone’s version of love is different. Mine has been one founded upon control and abuse. I am working to redefine this, to create a new definition of love for myself. It does not make my past experiences invalid. It just makes them bad.
The reason why I differentiate between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ love is the simple fact that it, often, is still love. People make the mistake of assuming that all love is well-intentioned, that love will always prevail, that anything which deviates from what you see in the movies is therefore not love. But if it is not love, then what is it?
One of the most important things I learnt to accept was that not all love is good. Love on its own is not enough. Love without action — without care and good intentions and hard work and faithfulness, is not enough. Parents can love their children and neglect them. Partners can love their significant other and control them. Saying ‘this is not love’ is not always progressive: I say, this is not the love you deserve.
Last year I abstained. I spent thirteen months in a relationship that ended in police sanctions, countless emergency room visits, a court order, and eventually a psychiatric inpatient stay. I abstained from my own life, withdrawn; my sense of self had been engulfed by us. We were one, we were her, and I was nothing. I abstained from sociality: “Why would you need anyone else when you have me?”
I studied, I visited her, she visited me me, and we spoke on the phone daily for upwards of five hours. Perhaps I went out twice; both induced all-consuming anxiety that, just by being there without her, I was being unfaithful, unloving, unkind, neglectful. If I didn’t post pictures of us on social media, I didn’t love her; but if I did, I was using our relationship for attention. There was more guilt than fear at the beginning, guilt that I was doing something wrong, that I wasn’t giving enough of my time, love, attention, devotion. I had so much of myself to give — but I gave it all and found myself at a loss. How do you proceed when everything you are doesn’t suffice? How do you proceed, isolated, with no sense of self, let alone self worth? It had been deconstructed, chipped away.
“If I didn’t post pictures of us on social media, I didn’t love her; but if I did, I was using our relationship for attention”
My weight was often a target, always a sore point for me. Comments such as disbelief when I would mention clothing sizes: “that’s not right — I’m that size. Let me see, try it on, it must be far too small for you”. Similarly, asking me to weigh myself in front of her, knowing that my unhealthy history with food and body image had only gotten worse since the start of our relationship. When I didn’t eat well, she’d threaten to starve herself. When I did, comments about my looks were abounded. Then comments about myself as a person, as a being, my intelligence and kindness.
I was too kind, too eager for friends, which was annoying and why I struggled socially. Implications that I didn’t deserve my place at a prestigious university, or outright insults of stupidity — or, on the other end of the spectrum, about my arrogance; so smart that I apparently felt above her and belittled her, when honestly, I saw the entire world in her. And she was my world, she had become it — seeped her way into every single tiny crack and destroyed what she could not own herself. And she blew hot and cold so often, so much of what she said was a direct contradiction, that I could never make sense of our relationship, could never piece together the individual instances of abuse and see it as a systematic whole.
Then fear came, as I realised that I would never be enough. That, whether it was my fault or a result of her unachievable demands, I could not stay. Abusive relationships work in vicious cycles, however: the victim begins to doubt the relationship, tries to work up the courage to take action; the abuser realises and panics, suddenly switching to the perfect, loving, supportive partner — the honeymoon period. If any concerns are raised by the victim, they are gaslighted, made to feel it’s all in their head, backing this up with their recent actions of kindness; the victim decides to stay, but once the abuser feels safe again, toxic behaviours seep back into the relationship.
And repeat. But a bunch of flowers does not a good partner make, and a week of emotional support does not negate systematic, sustained abuse. Stuck in this circle, I vividly remember my darkest night, on the phone to the one friend who had the courage to tell me outright that I needed to leave her, I sobbed ‘I won’t make it out of this relationship alive’. I repeated a similar sentiment today after leaving group therapy in tears: ‘she won’t stop until I am dead’.
You see — the abuse didn’t stop when I left. Instead, it went public. After the breakup, everyone claimed to have ‘known all along’ that something ‘wasn’t right’. What good did that do me, whilst I believed I was living in a labyrinth of fictional abuse my mind had created as a result of childhood trauma?
This was not necessarily often a violent relationship, but it didn’t need to be; manipulation on this level yields traps so intricate that to unwind it all, to understand your own relationship, to understand why it is unhealthy, feels impossible. To believe that you can come out of a relationship such as that and immediately move on, deal with what has happened alone, repress it, and pop it into your Pandora’s box of previous traumas, is idealistic at best; life-threateningly destructive at worst.
“After the breakup, everyone claimed to have ‘known all along’ that something ‘wasn’t right’”
Which is how I ended up here — an acute psychiatric ward, rather than my university dormitory, preparing for the upcoming exams I may not even be allowed to sit.
This year I devour. I did make it out alive. Unexpectedly. Well — I guess I am still in the process. It turns out that leaving does not guarantee safety or comfort or happiness — but I’m getting there. I am beginning to unpick the lies she managed to weave into my stream of thoughts, trying to deal with anger and grief and fear whilst also a sense of overwhelming relief and freedom. I am devouring everything that comes my way. I fought for the help that I knew needed, for the downward spirals of drinking and self harm I fell into post break-up, for the PTSD that left me with flashbacks and night terrors and panic attacks daily.
I am continuing, and flourishing in, my university course from my hospital bed. I just had to move wards and I had to have three members of staff aid me in carrying the stacks of books that I’ve had brought to me from the library, and I am sure my supervisors are tired of my endless emails asking for yet more work, another project or assignment or essay, to keep my mind occupied outside of individual and group therapy sessions.
I am delving into my family life, learning to be honest with them about my mental health, spending time with my little sister who just turned one and is blossoming into the most beautiful tiny human, who has so much potential and joy and love that I return in abundance. I plan to write more, to travel — which will first, of course, have to wait for my recovery and discharge from hospital. But that is okay.
“I am continuing, and flourishing in, my university course from my hospital bed”
I am grieving for a year of my life that I spent in pain, and I’m grieving for the scars it has left behind, and the parts of me I’ve lost along the way. The parts I’ve gained, however — the strength and the beauty and the independence, and the not only the excitement for a fuller life but the belief that I deserve such a life — that is my art.
Upon moving rooms I found some graffiti on the bottom of the bedside table drawer. It reads ‘hang in there’, ‘you can do it’, ‘dawn will come’, and ‘good luck’.
I hope my addition will give the next lost person who ends up here a little extra bit of hope, and the knowledge that they are not the first, nor the last, to need and deserve help on the way to making a more fulfilling life.
All images by Danielle Howe
A 19 year old Anthropology student at the University of Cambridge, Danielle finished her first year despite spending exam term in hospital, and has now returned for her second year. In her spare time, she enjoys getting involved in student welfare campaigns.