Insider – Talking to a victim of mental abuse

In this interview, we talk with Hazel, whose name has been changed to keep her anonymity and protect her from potential backlash from her abuser or others. Hazel is now 20 years old and in the middle of getting her Bachelor’s degree.

Today, she tells us about her experience with her abusive ex-boyfriend. 

How old were you and what was your relationship to the abuser?

I was 17 at the time, though I met him when I was 16. I met him at my best friend’s 16th birthday party and I was 17 when we got together. So, I was in a relationship with him. 

When did the abuse first start?

Before we even got together. I wouldn’t call it abuse at that point but it was just very disgusting behavior that should have been a red flag before we got together. We were mostly texting on Instagram back then about topics like common shared interests and he was already saying pretty gnarly stuff about things that are important to me and putting down my opinions or stuff that I like. So, it already started bad and just got worse when we were in a relationship.

How did it evolve over time?

It got more personal because in the beginning when we weren’t in a relationship yet it was just about music or artists that I like and he would comment negative stuff about it. But of course, as you get to know each other more deeply it gets worse and it’s more personal topics. It would be my hopes for the future like my career wishes and he would just shut and put everything down. The topics got more personal so obviously it hurt more. That was the main factor most of the time. 

Are there any especially memorable moments that you would be comfortable sharing with us? Are there any certain words he used or certain situations he would use against you?

The most interesting thing that I always bring up when I talk about it because it really shows how weird the whole thing was when before we started dating. He started to make negative comments, one of the big topics at one point was the band “Imagine Dragons.”

He sent me a meme tweet about how their music sucks. He sent it to me to show me how much they suck and I told him they are one of my favorite bands. He told me he knew and then started to interview me about it. He was trying to get justification for liking them from me. He was saying their songwriting was really bad and they had bad lyrics and then he sent me one of their songs, I think it was “Warriors.” and sent me screenshots of the lyrics. I asked him what that was supposed to mean and he told me to look at how bad the song is.

A few months into our relationship when we were sitting at his place, he brought up the topic of Imagine Dragons again. And I was confused as to why we are doing this because I had it saved in my brain that he doesn’t like them and thought okay, we don’t need to listen to them together, fine. And then he started talking about the band suddenly and how he discovered and started liking them because they wrote a song for a gaming championship. And I told him okay, you said you hated Imagine Dragons and he said that he never said that. He then showed me the song that they did for the gaming championship and it was “Warriors.” It was the song that he sent to me as an example of why their songwriting was so shitty and then months later, he shows me the song and tells me he loves this song, it was how he discovered them because they did it for this championship that he watches every year. And I was sitting there so baffled because that isn’t something you understand.

I did not understand what was going on. And that was another level of gaslighting, it was a 180 turn of events. Also, him telling me that no, he never said that he dislikes them, that makes no sense because he likes Imagine Dragons and that song and that he doesn’t remember that ever happening. That was the first time where I really clearly thought something is weird here, this is weird, what is going on? That’s always the first story I tell, the first thing that comes to mind because it was also the first realization that something is very wrong. Because it was very clearly strange and a complete 180.

Do you remember any other occasions where the gaslighting was that extreme or even minor aggressions in that sense?

Actually, that was a pretty regular occurrence. It wasn’t always as clear as in that case but the general pattern was that after about half a year into our relationship, I would bring up similar stuff like that, things he had said about stuff I like if we got back on the topic. I would bring up how in the beginning of the relationship or when we started talking, he said this and that and he would always deny it. If he couldn’t deny it, he would tell me how that was during a tough time in his life and he knows he was weird back then but he’s different now and he doesn’t do stuff like that anymore or say stuff like that for no reason anymore.

It was pretty much always the same pattern. I would tell him what he said a few months ago and he would try to beat around the bush and not admitting to it.

But I don’t remember any particular examples because it was usually small things like comments about things I like and telling me he doesn’t like that only to like it a few months later. 

So, it was a lot of belittling you and the things you take interest in?

Yeah. And then later on going “No I always liked that.” 

You said that was one of the first occasions that you realized that something was wrong. Do you remember the follow ups where you started to see the pattern?

Yeah. That was when he started going for my friends and talking negatively about my friends which I should have seen coming cause he talked very negatively about his own friends too. I felt like none of his friends were really that important to him because he never had anything nice to say about them. He would only talk about their red flags and I would of course believe him. I would think damn, your friends are kinda weird and now I’m in a relationship with one of those friends so it all turned out fine. 

He started talking negatively about my friends and started demanding that the two of us wouldn’t hang out with them. He would tell me he’d rather not do anything together with me and my friends cause some of them drained his energy and he didn’t like being around them as it was straining for his mental health. I agreed, I mean, my friends are loud sometimes and they can get annoying, I guess.

But then he would start to demand that I rather hang out with him instead of with my friends and he started shutting me off from my friends until I did not spend that much time with them anymore outside of school. That was when I started realizing that there’s a pattern here and he’s trying to do something. But I didn’t really take action against it because I wanted to spend time with him, he’s my boyfriend and if he doesn’t like my friends and they’re too straining on him I guess that’s okay. I am just gonna spend time with him alone instead.

During those encounters when he would gaslight you, what feeling or thought process did that trigger in you?

I would get very angry, actually. He was giving me the feeling it was irrational anger so back then I blamed it on my anger management issues but it was justified anger, I know that now. That was the dominating feeling because I very well knew that what he was saying was a lie and I kept on knowing that but he still managed to twist it in a way where I just let it slide.

So, I was very angry and I was vocal about my anger but then he would make me feel bad about raising my voice or things like that. He would basically turn it around on me to me being the bad guy in the situation because I would get loud and angry whilst he was just trying to have a conversation with me and explain his side of things. He would also very regularly say that I was making it about myself and I would believe that because that’s a very easy thing to tell people, that they’re talking too much about themselves. I would usually be very angry and then he would make me feel guilty about being angry, which was easy to do because I was in therapy for anger management issues. So if I would get angry about something he would tell me that I’m being angry, that’s not good, I don’t like you being angry. 

And he knew that you were in therapy for anger management?

Yes, of course he knew that.

What would happen if you confronted him about his behavior?

The way he said things is very important. That’s another thing he would do, if I had something to say and felt something was not going right in the relationship, he would often just tell me I was wrong. But other times he would actively tell me he would work on it and can do that for me but in a very strange way. One of my main problems was the isolation, I usually was with him at the weekends still I was still in high school and had weekends off and I was at his place every weekend. We would just be at home and do things there, which I enjoy in a relationship but I am also a very social person and I like being outside, doing stuff, being active and I like doing stiff with friends, with my friend or my partner’s friends or with his family. We would very rarely do anything like that and I would often tell him I wished we would do more stuff, I wish we would just be outside more often, even if we don’t do anything just take a walk or go to the city and grab a coffee. I wished we would do that more often.

When someone say that in a relationship, they don’t want you to agree, that’s not what I mean, I would just like them to take initiative from time to time and make us do stuff because he would never do anything out of his house. When I brought that up he told me he would totally be ready to do that even if he doesn’t like that stuff, he would always rather be at home but he would rather be outside and doing something he doesn’t like with me than be at home on his own. He would say he’d rather do stuff he hates with me, which is such a backhanded thing to say, like he told me he was ready to do that and wanted to do that for me but in such a weirdly worded way that of course I felt bad for suggesting we leave the house. He emphasized he hated that but he would do it for me because he loves me and it would have me not wanting to do it. 

How long were you in a relationship?

One year and five months.

When do you think you started realizing that something was going on and you were still upholding the peace or trying to fix something?

I knew something was going on from the beginning. What ended the relationship was me being unhappy, which started at around 10 months so almost a year in. It was actually him who broke up with me because I was too depressed. Which of course was because of him.

Did you realize it was because of the abuse?

And he actually tried to or successfully made me believe it was because of school, because of the graduation stress and I actually was very close to not graduating and dropping out because he had me convinced that school was too big of a strain on my mental health. And school was like my only social outlet it was the only place where I could actually be myself. At that point I didn’t have a lot of people in school, I had very few friends there, but I did have friends there. I had my best friend there and it was the only place where I was myself and I hung out with other people. School sucked, of course, I didn’t like being in school but it was a safe space back then and it was a place that made me happy for many reasons. But he still had me convinced that the few thing that were wrong with school at that time was what was causing my mental health to be so bad.

Did the effects of the abuse change or evolve after the breakup?

Definitely. My depression got way better after the relationship ended but it also took quite some time for me to realize what was happening. Because when he broke up with me I was totally broken down, I was very sad about it and it took me some time to realize what exactly was going on in that relationship and how everything about it was wrong and how lucky I was that it ended. I know now that the reason I held on so long was because I desperately wanted to be in a relationship. I wanted to have someone and that didn’t change. I felt very lonely in that part of life after it ended and that got even worse. It was summer and I went on dating apps very quickly and tried to meet someone again. I thought that getting out of a bad relationship I was ready for a new, good relationship. But being that quick was very harmful and made me spiral even more. But I felt better because I was back with my friends and felt quite good about myself but in terms of romantic and sexual things I was messed up for a very long time, until very recently even. And the break-up was two years ago so for two years after that everything was very bad when it came to romance.

Do you think he was aware of what he was doing to you?

Yes. That’s a good question because of course I want to believe he did do it on purpose but it’s also just the factor of abused people abusing others. I knew that his childhood was rough and his past relationships were really toxic, although by now I’ve heard a lot of things that make me believe those stories were made up or exaggerated. But I know he has a lot of childhood trauma and people with mental health problems often just subconsciously start these patterns. Still, I think most of it was intentional, especially because now I’m hearing from other exes of his that there were a lot of other girls and very similar stories and there’s a huge pattern at hand. So, I don’t have any reason to believe he didn’t do it on purpose.

Do you think it matters whether he did it on purpose or not?

Not for the effect it has on me as a single person. No matter the reason, I’d still be damaged in the same way. But it makes it easier to deal with the emotions afterwards. It sounds horrible, but it’s easier to completely hate the person. If I can say he’s a bad person who did it on purpose and still does it to a lot of people on purpose, that’s easier to deal with than assuming he didn’t know what he was doing and I wish someone would help him and he will get better in the future. Those are very conflicting things to feel and I am pretty grateful I don’t have to feel that way because I’m sure he was doing it on purpose. But that also means he will do it again and he will keep doing it and I don’t have any means to stop him or protecting the people after me. So it does make a difference for sure.

Where there any specific triggers you had?

For the last two years it was anything sexual really, because it was not just emotional it was also sexual abuse, so that was the worst part. But it would also just be all the topics that used to be critical between us. If I met someone and they liked the same bands I couldn’t build a relationship with them. It’s not a red flag but it was a red flag to me because that guy liked it and so I couldn’t talk to them. So totally innocent things would become red flags to me as they reminded me of what happened related to them.

With abuse it's often sounds or words that are triggers. Is there anything like that for you?

Yeah actually. The deodorant he used. It’s a very common one you can get in any supermarket and I would smell that on random men on the street and would panic. But then I bought it for myself and have been using it for two years. So now it smells like me because it’s my deodorant. I thought if reclaiming words and slurs works, why not reclaim a smell. So, I tried it and it was very uncomfortable for a few weeks but now I used it enough so that it’s my deodorant now. But of course, it’s not just perfume, every person has their own smell. And a coworker of mine, who’s a girl and I absolutely adore her, she’s really nice and we get along great at work, she smells a lot like my ex. And that was very bad. She doesn’t work with me anymore but that didn’t quite go away. I couldn’t connect the smell to her cause I didn’t see her everyday but that was really bad. Every time she would hug me or stand next to me it would trigger me. That was a surprise, something I didn’t quite expect. To smell something and have a negative reaction to that, even if the smell comes from a person you really like. But interestingly I have no words or terms that are triggers.

Did you tell anyone when you started to realize that something was wrong even when you were still in the relationship? Or did you try to figure it out for yourself?

I told little details that stuck out to me to my two girl best friends but it was always in the context of small problems in the relationship. It would come up in “girl-talk”, when gossiping about out boyfriends and I didn’t present it as a big problem. So they didn’t realize how big of a problem it was because I would package it as small relationship problems and fuzzing with my boyfriend.

Did any of your friends ever reach out to you about it during that time?

No, actually. But after the relationship ended almost all of them told me that they sensed that something was wrong and that they hated that guy, but because especially in the beginning of the relationship I was very vocal about defending him and justifying some of the smaller things that happened they were scared that I would be angry with them or break off contact with them if they got very direct about it so they didn’t vocalize anything. 

One of my best friends actually also had abusive experiences with the same guy and he was very worried in the beginning and he actually tried to warn me but I didn’t quite understand what he was saying because I misinterpreted it. He later told me that he was hoping that his experience was just a singular experience, that it wasn’t regular abuse and he was blaming himself and thought that it would be better with another person and it was just a one-time experience, so he also wasn’t very vocal about it and gave up on warning me. They pretty much knew that something was wrong but they were too scared to say anything.

What do you think was his reason for abusing you?

There are multiple reasons. I think his childhood trauma was a huge factor. Both his parents and his brother were very dominant and the whole family was really competitive, so I think during all his childhood he would have to compete with everyone and as the youngest he easily got dismissed. So, there was a lot of trauma about never being in control and I think he wanted to have that in other parts of life. So, he compensated and tried to be right and in control over someone. That’s the main factor.

Did you blame yourself at first?

Yeah. He was really good at making me look like the villain because of past abuse and past relationships. He was good at blaming it on the mistakes I have made in the past and my anger management. I have a very deep fear of being the villain so of course I would quickly believe that I’m the aggressor and I’m doing wrong. I would however also blame myself for being an easy victim, especially when I first came out of the relationship. I would be very angry at myself for letting it happen and for being so desperate to have someone that I would accept everything and clinging to a relationship for almost one and a half years.

What do you think about that type of thinking now?

I was very rough on myself but in the end, it wasn’t my fault. I was so desperate to be in a relationship because of past trauma. I was just a very fragile person and desperate for acceptance and connections. A lot of trauma just piled up and I really wanted to be loved. I don’t think that’s a bad thing, but it definitely made me an easy victim. I became a victim pretty quickly and he had an easy game with me but that’s not my fault, that was just the result of a lot of factors. It’s something I can work on and have been working on but it’s definitely not my fault.

If you had to try to explain the whole feeling and the weight of your experience in three words, which words would you choose?

Pressuring. It’s very pressuring, it’s a lot of pressure. Like everything around you and the air around you are squeezing in. It feels like physical pressure, really. 

Lonely. It makes you feel really alone, like it’s a lonely feeling. 

Desperate. Because obviously you always try to bargain but it never gets through because they don’t accept it. So, it’s very desperate. 

Do you think how society still views mental abuse has a factor in it?

That’s a good question. I do think so, because it’s hard to talk about. You can only tell people about your experience but many people want you to provide physical evidence to believe you. People are always very critical when there’s only a story to tell about a person. And the fact that mental abuse is still seen as weaker abuse is very harmful. People always tell you you’re lucky because it wasn’t anything worse and it never got physical. But that would not have been worse, it would have just been a different kind of bad. I often feel like mental abuse is not bad enough to be valid, which has certainly led to some of my friendships breaking apart because they stayed friends with my abuser. I lost my best friend of many years because he is still friends with my abuser. I can only guess why but I’ll never understand why, it just makes me think what my abuser did to me was not bad enough for my friends to break off contact with him. Apparently, the abuse wasn’t bad enough because he never hit me.

Also, people don’t talk about how sexualized attributes like possessiveness and overprotectiveness are. Of course, that can be fun if you’re into that, but that can change once it affects you outside of the bedroom. You don’t think possessiveness and other abusive behaviors are as bad in real life cause your brain connects it so much to sex and you consider it attractive. Jealousy, which is romanticized a lot, also causes this codependency within relationships. You always spend time with your partner not because you want to necessarily, but because you know they will get jealous and you avoid escalations. It takes away any sense of trust in the partner, which really should be at the base of a relationship. Also, that people romanticize jealousy to the point where your partner forbids you from seeing other people or is ready to get violent if someone is hitting on you. In my relationship jealousy wasn’t even that present, but he got super jealous when men would give me compliments like that was my fault. Or if I would platonically peck my friends on the lips, which was something I would just do, he would completely freak out. Back then that seemed so normal, but nowadays I realize that was so strange and is something that gets romanticized by the media as well.

What would you tell someone who is currently being mentally abused or has recently been abused?

That it’s not their fault. That’s the most important thing someone has to be told, that it really isn’t your fault. Because that’s the last thing that’s persevering after such a relationship. It’s easy to denounce all the negative comments and telling yourself that they were lies that you don’t have to believe anymore. But blaming yourself is something that really lasts. It’s one thing to denounce aggression compared to denouncing the reason. 

Another huge thing to realize is that they’re not making anything up. The long lasting-effects of gaslighting cause you to downplay things, but yes, it actually was that bad. That’s what they need to be told and their feelings are valid. You’re not overexaggerating or making things up and it’s okay for you to feel that it was bad. If you feel it was bad, it was bad. It doesn’t matter what people objectively think or say about that or how you want to compare it to other experiences.

What would you say to an abuser?

I think it’s important to make a distinction between people who do it on purpose or people that do it subconsciously because of severe mental health issues or past abuse. But generally, someone who abuses people has some issues with themselves so I would say work on yourself and look at your behavior. Listen to the people around you and think about the way people talk about how you treated them. And go to therapy. Listen to people. Actually listen.