I'm taking a little break from the Q&A to talk about something very important to me. Something I've been afraid to talk about for a long time because it's in no way fun or even nice. It's also very personal, but I've decided that I should put myself out there if it helps raise awareness about this issue. If you want definitions, I found this page helpful.
I've been in exactly 2 serious relationships. One turned out amazingly well—Nick, my husband, is the most wonderful man on the planet. He is good and caring and so supportive of me and my crazy dreams. I love him forever for letting me be myself.
The other relationship wasn't so great. Even now, I feel shame over saying it out loud, even though I know it's wrong to feel that way. I was in an emotionally abusive relationship. Me—yes, me. I pride myself on being strong and independent, but somehow that guy tore me to pieces.
People often overlook emotional abuse—no one is getting hit or raped. But I can assure you that emotional abuse is just as damaging. I still haven't fully recovered, though it's been 6 years. It took me almost a year to realize that it wasn't my fault, that leaving him wasn't my own weakness or me abandoning him, but the right thing to do. And there are still things I can't do without getting serious panic attacks, like learning to drive a manual car.
Below is a short story I wrote about that experience. I hope it gives you a feel for what emotional abuse is, because it is a subtle, clever thing. My abuser would have never hit me—he knew I'd leave if he did that. So he used my own caring nature against me, hinting just enough at bad things to keep me afraid and trapped. Thankfully, a few good friends convinced me to get out before I married him. I hate thinking how it would have degenerated if I did.
by Natalie Whipple
He’s glaring. His glare is never a good thing, but today it’s laced with something new. Something scarier. I look down, my stomach twists so tight it’s a miracle I don’t throw up. I used to think that was butterflies, but now I know it’s terror.
“You’re going to learn. Right. Now.” His voice is as commanding as his gaze.
I bite my lip, praying he can’t see how much I’m shaking. It’ll hurt his feelings if notices how much he terrifies me, and I have no idea what he’ll do then. He’s told me stories—punching his hand through a wall, throwing someone into a window, an attempted suicide—and I don’t want to be added to the list.
“Natalie, switch seats with me. Now.”
“I-I don’t want to.” I sound so small, helpless. I vaguely remember a time when people said I was the most independent, fiery girl they knew. She’s gone. I don’t know if she was ever there to begin with.
“I don’t care. We’re not leaving until you learn. You don’t have a choice.”
My hand clenches the car door handle. No choice? That can’t be. I muster all my courage—how dare he say I can’t choose. “I’ll just walk home.”
I start to pull the handle, and he grabs my arm. It doesn’t hurt, but it’s tight enough to tell me that he’s angry now. I stare at him. My heart beats up my throat. I can’t form words. He hasn’t let go.
“You are not walking home. I would never let you walk that far alone—it’s not safe.” The glare is now a scowl, the commanding voice now saturated with possession. My eyes water. “You are driving this car. Do you understand?”
I gulp down my protests. Why, oh why, did I have to tell him I didn’t know how to drive stick? I look out at the abandoned parking lot, the abandoned fields around it, the abandoned road. We’re alone. Not too far from home, but utterly alone. No one would hear me scream. Cell phones don’t seem so evil anymore; too bad I don’t have one.
“Fine.” I whisper, forcing the tears to stay put.
He releases my arm. “Don’t you dare think about running.”
I nod because I can’t outrun him. Why in the world did I think he’d let me walk home in the first place? He’s right; it’s not exactly safe. But neither is this.
We switch seats. This is my first time behind the wheel of a manual car, and suddenly I pray it’ll be my last. His tone is patronizing as he explains how everything works. It bothers me, but I don’t dare point it out. “Okay, turn on the car.”
I sit there, frozen. I don’t want to do this. I don’t want to. Idon’twantto. Am I crying? Crap. I can’t be crying over this stupid car. But suddenly it feels like a battle of wills, and I’ve never been on the losing end before. “I don’t want to.”
He bangs the dashboard; I jump. “Stop being such a baby. It’s just driving. Don’t make such a big deal out of it.”
But it's not just driving, not anymore. It’s everything about our relationship stuffed into one little micromoment. As stuck as I am in that parking lot, I’m even more trapped by him. I don’t know how this happened. All I know is that I’m terrified and I can’t get out.
So I start the car, and he smiles that smile I first fell for.
To my utter disappointment, I easily shift the gear to first. Maybe under other circumstances I’d be proud, but now I’ve only proved his point. His smile turns smug, and he kisses my cheek. “Now was that so hard?”
I shake my head, even though it was the hardest thing I’d ever done in my life.