Insider – Talking to an ex-mental abuser

In this interview, we talk to Cathy, whose name has been changed to keep her anonymity. Cathy is 22 years old and has recently started her Bachelor’s degree. Until she was 17, she was intentionally and unintentionally abusive to those around her.

We asked her to share her experiences as a former abuser with us.

What was your relationship to your victim/victims?

There were many victims throughout my life. The one thing I didn’t have any victims in was work, I was always in a close relationship with my victims. So it was friends, one particular relationship and my mum. Those were my main victims.

How many victims were there?

The main victims are three people. But there was abusive behavior in many situations in life, so I can’t give an actual number overall.

What relationship did you have to the three main victims?

One of them is a close friend, one of them was my boyfriend at the time and another one is my mother.

Who was the first person you were mentally abusive to?

From the top of my head, that would be a friend in elementary school. I noticed patterns starting for sure in elementary school and even in kindergarten where I was very abusive towards others or would make others feel small. I was always deemed a troublemaker, and in retrospect that was just me being abusive and acting out. Of course, with children, you dismiss it more easily, but it was still my starting point. So I can’t name one person, but it’s been there all my life.

Would you mind talking a bit about your manipulative ways and patterns?

One of my main things was certainly guilt-tripping. I would make everything the other person’s fault and pretend to be a victim in a situation where it wasn’t my place to even remotely be the victim. I also used threats to my advantage. I would threaten ending my life or not contacting the person again, and follow up by telling them they would be at fault for that. That was my main pattern, making it the other person’s fault.

Any small patterns you started noticing?

Yes, actually. It was power and control. I always had to be the one in power. Making decisions, being the leader in small groups, I would always have to be the center of attention. I would manipulate people in a way. I would also ask for favors, play the victim and make them feel bad for me. I would really try to get them to feel sorry for me so they helped me out. That was one of the smaller things I used to do a lot.

Why do you think you had this need for control?

I think the reason was not being in control in any other part of my life. I grew up as the youngest in a family of five with quite the age gap. So my parents are relatively old and my siblings are 10+ years older than me. So, I was always belittled and treated like the tiny one, the little one and the baby. I think that’s what triggered a lot of it. I was so sick and tired of feeling small that I completely switched it around in a very unhealthy way, to the point where I had to be in control. Because that was what I was lacking in my childhood.

Did the abuse get worse over time? When do you think was the worst time?

It did get worse over time. After the divorce of my parents, when I was 13 or 14 I was the worst. I was going through a hard time in my life and projected it onto other people. People often say that bullies are just unhappy with their life but that was actually the case for me. I was so unhappy in my life and had no control over anything, life was falling apart in front of my eyes. So I took every bit of control I could get, no matter the repercussions.

You've talked about your mother that was abusive towards you. Which part did that play in that need to be in control?

It played a huge part. When you’re abused you’re made smaller. And in retrospect I see that I also made other people feel smaller. I felt so belittled and small and felt like everything I did was wrong. I think that played a huge part in then turning around and doing the same thing to other people. Because then I could be in control and could be the one talking down to someone.

Was your mother the first person you abused out of your major victims?

I think so. It was a little earlier than my friend but the overlap of course makes things a little blurry and hazy.

Did you see other, healthy behavior in your family?

Yes I did. My saving grace were my father and brother who never interacted with me that way. I grew up when my sister was going through a hard time, she was going through puberty and naturally you’re going to act up but my brother and father always tried to make me feel like I’m worthy and a good person. But my brother of course also had his issues and was going through puberty and my father worked a lot so he wasn’t home that much.

When they were there it was healthier communication but my mom was my main guardian and role model, so of course my mother influenced me a lot. And when my siblings moved out and my parents eventually divorced, I was forced to go live with my mother in fear she would hurt herself if I didn’t. My mother had full control over me so of course that also worsened her behavior. Which in turn caused me to abuse my mother even more.

Was there ever any overlap?

Yes. The relationship was much later and was a bit of a relapse, I was already on my way of recovery and changing my ways but I slid back into my old behavioral patterns. But my mum and my friend definitely overlapped as they were the two most important and present people in my life. I didn’t have a lot of friends and I had a bad relationship with my father at the time because my mother had me convinced he was a bad person. So naturally, the two of them were my targets.

Was there ever a point where you realized what you were doing and you used it to your advantage nonetheless?

Certainly. That did happen. It was mainly towards my mother more than towards my friend, because with my mother there was a guarantee it would work since she felt so bad about ripping my father away from me. She was in a bad place herself at the time which made it even easier to get whatever I wanted if I manipulated her into it. That was something I was aware of and did on purpose.

How did it make you feel?

It was never a good feeling. It satisfied me for a short amount of time but the regret that came with it was much worse. I had a sense of shame and guilt, but the more you do it that sense of shame and guilt gets weaker and weaker because you get used to it. So over time that faded away and then it was a sense of fulfilling something I was lacking, filling some sort of hole.

Who would you say is the person with whom you realized what you were doing?

My close friend. They confronted me about my behavior, which had never been done before. I realized that my behavior was very abusive which I wasn’t aware of. I grew up in a very complicated household. I had an abuser for a parent, my mum and I were mutually abusive. I did not know any better, that people don’t interact that way.

So you grew up thinking that's the way of caring?

Yes. I grew up thinking that the way people form any type of relationship in toxic, abusive and manipulative ways.

You said that friend made you realize what you were doing, in which ways did they do that?

It was a very specific situation. I was in a really rough situation at the time, I was living with my dad for a few weeks, although I had a really bad relationship with him. I was really down myself and struggled with mental health. I remember having an argument with the friend, which is normal, people argue all the time. I think the argument escalated over something really small, I don’t even remember the cause of the argument, I just remember it escalating.

It got to a point where I told my friend if I killed myself now it was their fault. After that sentence, contact broke off and the friend blocked me everywhere. I wrote a very disgusting letter directed at her on a fan fiction platform, which worsened the situation a lot. They then wrote me a physical letter back, as they had my address, and they told me how I made them feel, that what I did wasn’t okay and that I crossed their boundaries.

It was the first moment where I sat down, and I vividly remember crying at that letter. I remember breaking down and realizing that I had been acting this way all my life. It was really a moment where I was thinking, “What have I done?” That turned into a complete mental breakdown and meltdown. I knew then that I had to change my ways, but knowing that and actually doing it are two very different things, that took me a while.

What did that process look like?

It was a lot of trying to be aware of my faults and my actions. I had to get old patterns out of my head, and I started with small patterns like stubbornly refusing to apologize. That is something I always had, I had difficulty apologizing. But I started going all out and taking a step towards the person. I apologized in situations, even if I thought I wasn’t at fault. But the other person’s feelings were hurt, which is valid, so it is my responsibility to apologize even if I never meant to hurt them. So I started doing a lot of small steps. My friend helped me through it, which I respect and appreciate a lot. Staying and going through all of that change with me certainly wasn’t easy, but I tried to change my ways and change my behavior. And for me, having had that eye-opening moment made me realize that I grew up with a lot of abusive behavior and I recognized that my mother was also abusive towards me. I decided that I don’t react to abuse with more abuse anymore. Even if my mum was being abusive towards me, I would not let that influence me. That was a hard process, because of course you feel angry and small and sad, but not to lash out and mirror their behavior is a hard thing to do.

How long did it take you to change?

I don’t think that process ever ends. Even today, after six years, I sometimes have to take a minute to realize what I’m doing isn’t right. But the first notable process took me about a year. Then that relationship happened and I took a fallback. After that, I had to start from scratch. I think it took me a little less that time, about half a year, to make the big changes. And then it took me three years to really get to a point where I knew how to healthily communicate with the people in my life and to get all the bad abusive ways out of my system. It’s a lot of little problems you work with, and it takes a lot of work.

What do you think is the hardest about changing your ways?

I think the biggest challenge is how dependent you become on abuse. It becomes a sort of addiction, I was addicted to having control and using other people. I needed to be in control so badly, and I knew it would get me further in life because sometimes that’s how life works. You can work your way up to the top with abusive behavior and manipulation. It was so hard to actively fight these urges and go against your first instinct, which is relying on the behavior you know and internalize. It was hard to always control the way I speak. And when I entered a relationship with another abuser, I once again fell into my patterns. I relapsed, so to say.

What did that relapse look like?

I used that metaphor of abuse as an addiction, and with any addiction you’re going to relapse. Relapsing or sliding back into your old habits is something that can happen. It’s normal, even if you’ve put in the work. You meet new people and abuse is so subjective to the relationship you’re in, so naturally it can happen again. Especially if someone is abusive towards you, it is common to then still respond with more abuse. That was the case for me. My ex-boyfriend, who was 19, and I was 17, was really abusive towards me, and it would really bring out the worst in me. Even if you go back to these old ways of yours and forget everything you have learned, it is so important to then strive to get out of this again. Realizing what you’re doing and being aware of the way you’re acting really is what then steers you back onto the right path.

Sometimes it’s hard for the abuser to change their ways, it is. Be kind and try to offer the help they need. Try to stick with them even if they relapse, and tell them that they’re behaving the way they used to again. Be open, communicate with them. Tell them that they’re hurting you and be there to help them change their ways. That is really important.

When someone is a victim and realizes what is happening but thinks they can fix their abuser, what do you think is the best way to approach that?

Don’t blurt out that their behavior is horrible or that you’re just trying to help at the moment. As weird as that may sound, that probably won’t help. When an abuser sees red and is in their pattern, they won’t process what you mean. You’re just going to be met with more abuse. Take a quiet moment when they have calmed down, take them aside and tell them how it makes you feel. That’s exactly what the person often lacks, an understanding of how their behavior affects others. Some people will make the change, and that takes time. But there comes a point where if they haven’t made the effort and make empty promises about how they’re going to change, you have to tell them that you’re not seeing the work. If it hurts you too much to help someone change, it is completely valid for you to cut off contact. It’s not your responsibility to fix them, that’s not what you’re there for. That is a battle they have to fight on their own, even if you offer help, the main effort has to come from them. Don’t think that you can fix every abuser. I am very lucky to have had the realization that what I’m doing is wrong and have had the wish to change, but many people do not. They never realize, or they are simply not willing to change because it’s comfortable and an easy way through life for them. And it does work for some people. It can be a very successful and effective way to get to the top. But a person that wants to change will try to put in the effort. I think that’s something to keep in mind. You can’t fix everybody, but if they’re willing to put in the effort, stick with them.

Do you think your behavior hurt you, too?

I think it hurt me a lot, actually. Even if you don’t feel the guilt or shame anymore, it’s always there and becomes an underlying thing. You start projecting it onto other aspects. I started growing really self-conscious about myself. I always thought I’m not a good person. And it’s easy to embrace that, to become the villain in your story. But at the end of the day, you go home and feel horrible about yourself. I think that was a really bad feeling and damaged the way I feel about myself. That never really left, I still sometimes feel like I’m a bad person. Even if all my abusive behavior ended, I used to be a horrible person, why would I deserve anything good? Now and again these thoughts still creep in, but you learn to live with it. Once you understand where these thoughts come from, you gain a self-awareness and realize you’re not that person anymore and that you’ve grown. And it’s okay now that I used to be that person because I put in the effort to apologize and make changes.

In what ways do you think abusive behavior is dangerous for the abuser when he's still using it?

It’s very dangerous because it isolates you. It ruins relationships and the way you interact with people, and that can damage a lot for you. I’ve lost a lot of good people in my life where I can now understand why they left, because I caused them so much pain. Especially when the abuse really affects your victim, and you ruin a part or potentially their whole life, that does something to you. My worst fear is finding out that someone I had abused hurt themselves or ended their lives because of me. That is the worst thing that can happen, but it is a possibility. You have to be aware that your actions have consequences and can influence another person’s life, so gravely they will never be the same.

What do you think about the way mental abuse is viewed in our society today?

I think mental abuse is still hugely disregarded and brushed off as being mean or not being nice or even bullying. I think mental abuse is often disregarded as not being real abuse, but I completely disagree with that. You’ve potentially damaged a person’s whole life. The effects are what determines the gravity of abuse, and mental abuse has detrimental effects. So I don’t think it can be disregarded. Trauma is something that stems from abuse, no matter what kind. I think trauma is something very real and should not be disregarded.

You are an abuser but you've also been abused. What exactly does that do to a person?

I think it changes the way you interact with others completely. It changes the way you communicate because your trust is broken to a point where you refuse to let another person in. I think opening up to others is the key to healthy communication, but if you’ve already built up your walls and refuse to let anyone in, you’re much more likely to take towards the other extreme form of social interaction and use your own security system to your advantage. You let others open up to you, but you never open up to them and instead use their trust to manipulate them. That is something former abuse victims do, and a lot of times that happens because of how small you feel and having that urge to be the complete opposite of small. You strive to be the biggest and push your ego to the top by putting yourself over others. And often it is that urge that turns people into abusers themselves.

Do you think everybody who's been abused has that urge to abuse?

Not everybody has that urge, but it is a very common occurrence. If you have that urge, there is a choice to be made of whether you’re gonna let that urge control your life or actively fight against it. That requires a lot of self-control and willpower, which you have to learn on your way out of abusive behaviors. It’s hard to fight your own instincts, and it takes a lot of work to change. A lot of work is a good way to summarize the journey.

What would you say to someone who's been abused or is being abused?

First and foremost, it is not your fault. It’s never the fault of the victim. Even in mutually abusive relationships, there are deeper issues. Abuse always comes from the abuser, never the abused. I think it’s very important for a victim to not blame themselves and to not let that experience influence their life to a point where it’s all they think about. I think what had me spiraling down into the cycle of abuse was my life consisting of nothing but abuse. I constantly thought about and absorbed the abuse to a point where it became part of my subconscious. Also, listen to your feelings and gut. Think before you speak and confront people in a calm manner if something hurts you.

What would you say to an abuser?

It’s okay to reach out for help. Admitting to yourself that you are not a good person right now and wanting to be better is a huge step into the right direction. Also try to be more aware of the way you speak to others as speech is such a powerful tool. It will take so much energy and strength to unlearn all these behaviors, but it will be worth it in the end. The way there, no matter how hard, is worth the goal. All the effort is worth it if you can be a good person and also be perceived as one.

What would you like to tell society?

Stop romanticizing and downplaying abuse. It’s such a huge problem that overprotectiveness and jealousy are still seen as cute. Thinking the villain in fiction is the attractive one is valid, and I do understand it, but it is not that way in real life. Abuse is not something to be normalized. Abuse is not normal. It’s behavior that has been learned and can be changed. I think that’s something society likes to forget.