Abuse is hard to define when it’s not physical. When you’re 21 with a flourishing drinking habit, you might not know what constitutes a healthy relationship. You probably also don’t have the highest self esteem in the world (if any) and master manipulators can pick you out like a splinter. And when you surround yourself with others who are cut from the same proverbial cloth, it’s difficult to identify when relationships go from plain ol’ bad to abusive.
By the time I got to grad school I had been in one of these relationships for over a year. As abusers do, he pushed for a house beyond my meager grad school earnings, several miles from school (isolating us from the rest of the department and also making me financially dependent on him). Also typical of abusers, he yelled or made me feel guilty for talking about our problems with friends and family, cutting off any external emotional support. The final nail in the coffin was the development of his outside persona. In public he was cool, calm, and collected. Meaning that any time I tried to talk to anyone about what happened at home, I was met with disbelief. I must be making this up. I’m the loud, obnoxious one. He’s the laid back one. He’s a saint for putting up with my antics, I should be grateful I found such an awesome guy.
But that wasn’t how it felt. At home I couldn’t do anything correct. Dishes, laundry, cooking, driving, my own research – literally everything I did was met with criticism and condescension. If I tried to talk about how those comments made me feel I was called vicious names, mocked, or laughed at (usually some combination of the three). I was told nobody would believe me if I talked – and it was true. So I lived on an ever-building pile of egg shells. Everything must be perfect or I risked having my worth reduced to zero. Except when that perfection led to accolades at work or school – then it became a game of downplaying my accomplishments to not trigger his resentment towards me and everyone around him (A good example of this is when I found out I was going to get to do a short course in Austria, fully funded by my advisor and the University Graduate School to which he responded “Why do you get all this cool stuff? I wish my advisor would have done that for me.”)
After a few years of this I realized that I had started keeping a steady bank of topics in my brain at all times specifically meant to initiate an angry rant from him because I knew, if he was mad about something else, the pressure was off of me. So I would hurl things at him after work day after day, just to get the heat off of myself. Even those were only temporary solutions as it eventually came back to my mistakes, deficiencies, and general worthlessness.
Grad school, or rather the people I met during, saved me from that hell. All of a sudden I was surrounded by intelligent, compassionate people who were mostly in healthy relationships. I thought to myself “these people all seem so in love…..they seem to genuinely care about each other….is it possible that this isn’t what a relationship is supposed to look like?” They respected each other. They fought – but they did it with kindness (and they certainly didn’t do it everyday). They didn’t resent each other, in fact, they thrived off of each other’s greatness and worked to build the other up day in and day out.
I remember the night the switch flipped. We had gotten in a fight about who knows what. I tried to leave to go to a friend’s house for the night because the fight was getting way out of hand. At this point he threw vile insults at me and then threatened to hurt himself if I left. I frantically called his mom, thinking “who is the one person in the world who could take control of this situation?” and you know what her response was? “Sometimes you just have to take the bad with the good, sweetie.” I’m sorry, wut? Your son is physically threatening himself while calling me every name in the book and this is classified as “taking the bad”? I thought ‘taking the bad’ was letting it go when they put the tp on the roll the wrong way (yes there is a wrong way). That was the indication that this is what’s considered normal in that family and I had to get out.
I did stay with my grad school friend that night. She was also my reporting authority the night I broke it off for good – someone to hold me accountable for following through. I had tried so many times before to end it and always ended up completely broken, crying on the bathroom floor. Another grad school friend opened up his and his wife’s home to me (and meals) to stay with them for a month while I looked for an apartment, without ever asking anything in return. Another half a dozen grad school friends helped me move my things (the most efficient, pain free moving experience I’ve ever had in my life btw). To this day I don’t think any of them even know what they were saving me from – and that makes it even sweeter . These were not my undergrad friends – who were mostly around for the party and didn’t show up when things got serious. These people genuinely care about me and my happiness. They made me feel like I was worth more than name calling and gaslighting.
Fast forward to today and I go to a therapist who is helping me process the PTSD I suffered from this 5+ year long war. I still rely on my grad school friends for support (although now they’re almost all “professional” friends). I feel lucky to have gotten to an environment that allowed me to see that I didn’t have to live that way. A lot of people joke that grad school will/has/might destroy them – for me it was the opposite.