Trigger warning: subjects of sexual abuse, manipulation, and gaslighting
This blog isn’t about vengeance or anger. It’s not about sexual assault. It’s not even about consent. My emotions are too charged to touch those topics right now. This blog is about how gifted humans are at blaming ourselves for things that aren’t our fucking fault. Because, even though I’m a practicing therapist, and even though I’m a dating coach, and even though I have worked with and empowered survivors of sexual assault for seven years, I still blamed myself.
The truth does not change according to our ability to stomach it ~ Flannery O’Connor
On Christmas Day 2021, 2 months and 16 days ago, something bad happened to me.
Christmas is difficult for me because grief is a bitch. It was a pretty miserable day, so one of my closest friends encouraged me to take a nap because I was emotionally exhausted. He waited until I fell asleep, and then he did things he did not have consent to do. He didn’t rape me. He sexually violated me in a way that rocked me to my core. Worse, I was left wondering if he had done this to me before, what he intended to do to me in the future, and if he had done it to others.
After a long and painful conversation, he admitted that he had been doing this to me for quite some time. He refused to give specifics, but the closest I got out of him was “three to five times over the past few months”. I’ll never know the full extent of what he did to me but I do know this type of predatory behavior almost always escalates. What he would have eventually done haunts me as much as what he did.
Apparently, the risk of it waking me up was part of his fantasy. As I sit here writing about the destruction of our friendship, my sense of safety, my sense of self, and my mental health, I wonder if the thrill of getting caught lived up to his expectations.
He Who Shall Not Be Named
To avoid confusion, from this point forward I’m going to refer to him as A. Not because it’s the first letter of his name (it’s not). In my mind, it stands for AssCunt, which is the best adjective I can think of to describe how I feel about him on most days.
When I say that A was my best friend, I mean that he was my best friend. We shared a friend group. He had been my assistant for Advice by Chloe for 6 months. We grocery shopped together, we cooked meals together, we adopted kittens together, his presence was part of my daily routine. He was a supportive shoulder as I heavily grieved a breakup and he was an accountability partner when I made a commitment to become a better human. In fact, I mentioned him as one of the primary influences in my recovery from a breakup in my blog about heartache. Yeah, that guy.
The Long Descent into Madness
I didn’t tell our friends. I didn’t call the police. I didn’t block him from every communication method. Instead, I allowed him to minimize what he did. I allowed him to set the boundaries. I allowed myself to focus on how to help him address the sexually violating urges he has. I pushed him to tell his therapist. I encouraged him to tell someone in his life for accountability purposes.
I decided not to tell our shared friend group, because he’s already dealing with so much shame, you know? To be ostracized from his friends would’ve been too cruel. I didn’t tell my family because I knew they would never forgive him and I didn’t want him to be uncomfortable around them. Instead, I isolated myself from everyone who loved me. My only solace was the wisdom of Dumbledore as I reread my favorite childhood series. I owe Professor D. a lot, because for a long time, he was the only one who kept me sane.
I prioritized A at every turn. I so desperately needed to believe that I hadn’t been violated by my best friend that I treated it as a mental health crisis for him and threw myself into helping him however I could. The problem is, even though I wouldn’t allow myself to think about what A did to me, my body knew. My heart knew. I started having panic attacks. I couldn’t sleep. I jumped at noises. I searched my house for hidden cameras. I threw myself into hobbies to stay distracted. My body was responding to a trauma I wasn’t allowing myself to acknowledge.
The Temporal Lobe and the Blame Game
There are essentially three types of blaming behaviors: blaming others, blaming ourselves, or holding the responsible party accountable. The way we respond has a lot to do with the functioning of our temporal lobes but I won’t get into that here.
In terms of practicality, when something terrible happens some people will do mental gymnastics to avoid blame, some people will immediately assume it’s their fault, and some (healthy) people will address the situation without the need to assign blame or will hold the responsible party accountable. Most of us will assume all three roles at different points in our lives.
People who tend to place blame on others will often surround themselves with people who tend to blame themselves. It’s a toxic and often predatory relationship. A’s first instinct was to avoid blame and mine was to blame myself for an ‘overreaction’.
The stereotype that people who have experienced abuse tend to ‘attract’ abuse is a lie. The truth is, survivors of abuse don’t have some beacon that attracts abusive relationships. They just lack the healthy boundaries to remove them from their lives. Healthy people don’t tolerate abusive behaviors.
It’s a small, but important, difference. The stereotype implies it’s an inevitable phenomenon. The truth is that it’s completely within our control. We don’t attract toxic people to us, we just let them stay.
And so, I let him stay. For one month and 24 days after he violated me.
What changed? I finally got the courage to tell someone.
Listen. People start to heal the moment they feel heard ~ Cheryl Richardson
After a long sleepless night, I called a friend at 2am on a Tuesday. She arrived at my house 30 minutes later. The moment the words left my mouth I saw her eyes fill with tears, she hugged me tight, and we rocked together crying until I couldn’t cry anymore. After months of gaslighting, someone believed me. She didn’t try to convince me I was overreacting. She didn’t try to explain it away or launch into a plan to help him stop hurting me. She just listened. She told me it wasn’t my fault, and she asked me what I wanted to do. At this point, the only people who knew were A, A’s mother, and A’s therapist. None of which ever asked what I wanted to do.
She encouraged and supported my decision to tell my and his shared friends, and she sat with me as I searched for the right therapist. We called the police together and spoke with a very nice officer who talked to us about my options. In the end, I decided not to pursue anything legally unless I find out he’s done this to someone else. In that situation, I have his confession in writing. And he knows it.
It is important to note that I made the decision not to pursue charges based on what’s best for me, not for his benefit. I didn’t want to relive what happened. I didn’t want to go through the trauma of talking to lawyers and judges and everyone I know about the situation. Additionally, in the unlikely circumstance he would actually be convicted, the charge he would receive is so minor that it’s absolutely not worth the money it would cost and re-traumatization it would cause. It’s a very personal decision everyone has to make for themselves, and I’m comfortable with the decision I made. I’m keeping the evidence I have and I will use it to support anyone who may come forward under similar circumstances in the future. He is aware of this.
For the past two months I watched my mental health suffer, my business suffer, and my sense of self suffer because I allowed my abuser to set the boundaries. I took an impromptu vacation, laid on the beach for a bit, and then came home and cut the strings on everything that connected our lives- including walking away from a really amazing opportunity with NPR Marketplace we had been working on for five months. I’m not gonna lie, losing NPR was pretty devastating, but not as devastating as losing myself.
I needed to believe that my best friend would never take advantage of me. I needed it to be true so badly that I ignored all evidence that pointed to the contrary. The truth is, there were red flags before he sexually violated me. I just ignored them. I had lost people I loved deeply, and I was terrified of losing someone else. Ultimately, I chose him over me. I chose him when he refused to respect my boundaries. I even chose him after he violated me. Two weeks ago I decided to choose me.
When something bad, scratch that, someone bad happens to you, remember: The person who is hurting you cannot heal you. If you have told them how their behavior affects you, and they continue to do it, it’s because they value their desires above your wellbeing. They may never give you validation, an apology, or closure. Thankfully, you don’t need them for any of those things. Talk to a trusted friend, a family member, a therapist, or if you don’t know where to turn, call a hotline. Sanity checks are an incredibly powerful tool when you’re being gaslit. For me, it was watching the reaction of my friends that helped me to realize how deeply A had twisted my sense of reality.
Effective manipulators are incredibly talented at making you feel like you’re the one who’s crazy. Don’t let them. If you feel bad or unsafe, that is enough. Your feelings are enough. You don’t need an excuse to leave an unhealthy relationship. No one deserves to be in your life. They earn it by being a good partner. If you feel like you’re going crazy, tell someone safe.
The Reddest of Flags
- Do you often feel like you’re being manipulated into things you don’t want to do, but it’s difficult to put your finger on how it happened?
- Do you have to corner them for an apology?
- Do they profusely apologize for and then repeat behaviors?
- Do you often feel bad, anxious, or unsafe in their presence, even if you can’t place why?
- Do they refuse to respect boundaries, or move the goalpost in an attempt to push boundaries?
- Does it seem like they use anger, sadness, or anxiety to avoid discussion or dodge accountability?
If you can answer yes to any of these questions, you may be in an abusive relationship. Find someone safe to talk to. You are worthy of being treated with respect.
Repeat after me: the only people who get upset about you setting boundaries are the ones who were benefiting from you having none.
No matter how far wrong you’ve gone, you can always turn around ~ Bill Callahan
As a final note I want to talk about an unpopular opinion.
Most humans are redeemable. Most of us have made choices that have negatively impacted someone we love. For myself, I made a series of selfish choices that were detrimental to my favorite human being on the planet a few years ago because I was scared, because I wanted reality to be different than it was, because I made a million rationalizations to excuse my poor choices. I’ve worked really hard to become a better person. We’ve all probably done something that we’ll regret for the rest of our lives, it’s all a part of being human.
The possibility of earning redemption doesn’t excuse what A did to me. It doesn’t mean he shouldn’t have consequences for his actions. It doesn’t mean he isn’t dangerous… but I don’t think it means that he’s irredeemable.
To be clear, I’m not implying that we should protect abusive people from consequences or that illegal actions shouldn’t result in justice. I suppose my point is that I don’t want anyone who’s reading this to feel that they are the sum of the terrible decisions they’ve made. It is never too late. You can always take accountability. You can always push yourself to be better. You can always ask for help.
A manipulated and violated me, so he doesn’t get to be in my life anymore. That doesn’t mean I think he’s inherently evil. It means that he’s allowed his own selfish desires to turn him into someone who preys on the vulnerable. It’s up to him if that’s all he’ll ever be.
If he’s reading this, and I know he’s reading this, be better.