Get Comfortable Feeling Fear

You will either step forward into growth, or you will step backward into safety.
– Abraham Maslow

Do you feel anxious quite often? Are you weighed down by your endless list of “To Do’s”? Do you wonder what will happen to you or your family if X,Y or Z does not happen and do you feel that sometimes your anxiety is so overwhelming that the only way to deal with it is to switch off and watch 3 or 4 hours of Netflix?

What do you do to numb yourself?

I was in a highly toxic and abusive marriage for 9 years and lived with a narcissistic husband who regularly used covert manipulation tactics to undermine and control me; while I attributed his “childish” behavior to just a lack of maturity and responsibility, and told myself that he was actually a very caring partner and that I was lucky to have him, I found myself feeling a lot of fear and anxiety.

This fear would be further exacerbated by things he failed to follow through on, things he said he would do, but would end up not doing and as a result cause more problems for the both of us. I was traumatized by his failure to launch – his consistent pattern of failure to follow through on concrete and practical things like filing taxes, packing for house-moves, and drawing good boundaries with his family in spite of repeated promises made to me.

Ours was a marriage marked by one failed promise after the next and an endless sequence of fire-fighting to deal with practical problems that never should have existed in the first place if he had taken his marital responsibilities seriously – I felt exhausted from dealing with these problems.

Peace and security was a moving target with him because there was no congruence between the things he said he would do and his actions.

The way that he dealt with my anxiety about his irresponsibility was to make it seem like I was too uptight and that I just needed to “relax.”

This made me feel even worse. But over time his narrative about the reason for my anxiety became internalized – I accepted his “truth” as my reality.

My anxiety turned into full-blown depression very early on in the relationship, and it never went away for the entirety of my marriage.

But instead of trying to understand the root cause of my fear, I assumed that my fear was due to my inability to sleep, which had in the past led to mental breaks. I had confided in my ex-husband early on about my history of depression in my early twenties – he used this against me to spin the reality that I was unhinged and unstable even though I had been free from anti-depressants for 10 years until I met him.

I believed him because he wore his “good guy” mask so well.

Instead of pondering the issues that came up when I could not sleep, I would push them aside and pop a sleeping pill because I was so afraid of breaking down due to a lack of sleep.

I tried to “manage” my anxiety through mindfulness exercises, getting things on my “To Do” list done, exercising, baking, doing nice things for other people, or any number of other things to distract me, and give me an artificial sense of external security and control.

When things got particularly bad, I watched entire seasons of TV shows.

For example in July of last year when I got laid off, and Esteban was putting more pressure on me to start a family with him, I started watching “Homeland.”

I finished all eight seasons of “Homeland” in 3 weeks. One season has 12 episodes, so that’s about 100 hours worth of TV in three weeks. No mean feat by any standard.

In the process, I developed a massive crush on Peter Quinn, the one man that stood by Carrie unconditionally, from when he first knew her to his untimely but heroic death.

Perhaps a deep part of me was longing to be loved in that way, seeing as how on a deep visceral level, I knew unconsciously that what I was experiencing in my relationship with Esteban was not love, but control.

It never occurred to me that the reason why I could not sleep was because there were things that were troubling me, issues that I needed to work out or face up to.

What I failed to realize was that:

1) I did not feel emotionally, psychologically and physically safe with my husband

2) I could not give to him what he wanted from me without completely obliterating my personhood

I grew up in a home environment where love was very conditional and closely associated with pain and proving your worth, so I assumed that all of the problems I faced with my husband were normal. In fact, I believed I was lucky to be married to such a man who would “accept” me as I was.

I have been following Psychologist Dr Raimani Durvasula, the leading voice on Narcissism. On one of Dr Raimani videos, an individual left a quote on one of her videos that cuts to the core of what was ailing me:

“When you are not fed love on a silver spoon, you learn to lick it off knives” – Laura Eden

While I thought that we had a strong emotional bond, I did not realize that we were basically trauma bonded. Trauma bonds are the bonds that are formed from a recurring, cyclical pattern of abuse perpetuated by intermittent reinforcement through rewards and punishments. A trauma bond usually involves a victim and a perpetrator in a uni-directional relationship wherein the victim forms an emotional bond with the perpetrator. Two main factors are involved in the establishment of a trauma bond: 1) a power imbalance and 2) intermittent reinforcement of good and bad treatment, or reward and punishment. (Dutton, Painter, 8)

Trauma bonds are based on terror, domination, and unpredictability. As a trauma bond between an abuser and a victim strengthens and deepens, it leads to conflicting feelings of alarm, numbness, and grief, that show up in a cyclical pattern. More often than not, victims in trauma bonds do not have agency and autonomy, and do not have an individual sense of self either. Their self-image is a derivative and an internalization of the abuser’s conceptualization of them. (Sanderson, 84)

I really started to believe I was a troubled and difficult person who created unnecessary drama where ever she went.

This idea was reinforced by narratives of hurt and neglect and rejection that I had come to believe about myself because of how I was treated in my childhood and youth. I always found it difficult to fit in because people did not “get me.”

Deep conversation and empathy was not high on the priority list of most teenagers in Singapore in the 90s.

As a result, I found it hard to find a suitable peer group.

This idea of my being a troubled and difficult person was also further reinforced by a sense of alienation from my family. My relationships with my brother and sister started to deteriorate very quickly once I started dating him.

He was always my sounding board for what was going on in all of my family drama, and he regularly told me that my brother and sister were bad for me, and then guilted me for being upset with them later on. One of the things he said about my sister is “Can you blame her for being this way? Can you imagine how lonely she is?” I mean, I was angry with her for being abusive towards me, but does that mean I cannot have empathy for her while being angry too? I don’t like how he twisted the scenario so that I couldn’t be angry with her but also have empathy for her at the same time.

A narcissistic abuser thrives on creating drama. I failed to see this reality as I trusted him fully and deeply. I saw him as my best friend and partner in life, someone who wanted the best for me. However, he would talk about my family in such condescending tones and rehash things they did over and over again to the point that it was not helpful for my sense of peace and security.

It was re-opening old wounds.

He would get upset about things they said or did and complain to me about them, so that even if I was not really upset initially, I would start to get influenced by his upset. For example, there was one time I had an argument with my brother on text, and Esteban asked me to write a particularly scathing comeback to my brother.

I personally felt using Esteban’s comeback was going over the line, but since it made logical sense, and also because I wanted to feel close to Esteban, I listened to him and did what he asked me to do.

Even up till now I do not feel good about the sarcastic tone of the note I had written to my brother.

I don’t have a problem with being sardonic, but sarcasm is not my style.

In any case, I got so alienated from my family and my own sense of reality that I really started to believe that I was incapable of living life without him. These were not thoughts I consciously thought, but feelings deep within that I had internalized.

Physical abuse is easy enough to get empathy for, but a pattern of emotional abuse which breaks-down your psyche overtime and indoctrinates you into believing that you are “not good enough” and makes you want to try all the more harder to win approval in toxic relationship is harder to find support for, because it is less obvious to yourself and those around you.

I did not understand what was happening to me, I just knew that it was my job to make sure everything was okay between us. I forgot about who I was and what I really wanted in life. I was on high-alert all the time.

The truth is, I wanted to live in his reality.

Dr Robin Stern who herself was once in a Gaslighting Relationship and who wrote the book, “The Gaslight Effect” describes this tendency for a Gaslightee to buy into the Gaslighter’s reality as “The Urge To Merge”

“No matter how strong, smart, or competent we are, we feel an urgent need to win the approval of the gaslighter whom we’ve idealized. Without that approval, we feel unable to see ourselves as the good, capable, and lovable people we so desperately want to be. Needing our gaslighters’ validation, we’re terrified to feel divided from them in any way. So it makes us nervous to see things differently from our loved ones, or to have preferences that are different from theirs”

As I wanted to continue to feel loved and acknowledged by Esteban, I acknowledged that I was wrong-minded and difficult, even if that meant denying my reality and going against my instincts.

But eventually, through my faith in Christ, and the constant renewing of my mind through reading the Bible, as well as reading well-researched books on communication, negotiation and self-understanding by specialists trained in their specific fields (see references below), I was able to grow out of this toxic way of relating to him and hold on to my own values and opinions and gain control over myself even when he was doing his very best to push my buttons.

I remember early on in our relationship he often said to me, “I feel like I’m taking crazy pills” when I told him some of my opinions and thought processes, or did things in a certain way.

Initially, when he made such comments, I was curious about his way of thinking, but eventually, I started to doubt my own thinking and eventually lost a grip on my own reality.

It is ironic that in the end, in the aftermath of the assault when we were having talks about the possibility of reconciliation with people in my small group in church, I was the one saying “I feel like I’m taking crazy pills.”

Take, for example, how he said in front of my small group leader, his wife and another friend, “You’re telling everyone that I beat you up, I did not beat you up, I just did enough to you so that you would divorce me”

I was aghast.

The complete and utter lack of true remorse and repentance, and the way he was justifying himself broke my heart to the core.

My bruises were still not healed up, there was still a bruise on my arm and a pale shadow around my left eye that was evident to others. Yet, no one said anything.

I looked around waiting for someone to say something in my defense. Not a peep.

When I told my childhood friend who lives in the UK about this incident, she breezily rattled off the tag line, “silence is violence”

Silence IS violence.

This phenomenon can also be attributed to “The Bystander effect” – the phenomenon in which the greater the number of people present, the less likely people are to help a person in distress. (Rowe, Wilcox, Gadlin, 54)

There were three other people there apart from Esteban and me, but no one called Esteban out on his idiocy and hurtfulness.

If others were not going to speak up for me, I decided that I would speak up for myself.

There are a few reasons why I took umbrage and was shocked to the core by the stupidity of what he had said to me:

1) If he did not beat me up then how come the medical report showed that I had contusions and multiple hematomas?

2) If he wanted a divorce why didn’t he just go ahead and handle the logistics of divorce instead of making me do it?

3) Why did he have to beat me up for a divorce?

I did punt the idea to some of my friends that that he had planned to beat me up because in Singapore you can’t get an immediate divorce in Singapore except for

1. Adultery

2. Unreasonable Behavior (e.g. domestic violence)

3. Desertion for a minimum of 2 years

4. Separation for at least 3 years

I posited that his assault on me would be his “get out of marriage immediately” card, especially because he had told me to my face, ”I wasn’t trying to hurt you, I just wanted to do enough to you so you would divorce me.” He was basically creating a situation where I was forced to divorce him for my own personal health and safety.

No one believed me though, they could not see past his big, harmless, goofball teddy bear persona to the Machiavellian Mastermind capable of such cold and calculating machinations. Deep down inside I do believe this is what had been going on at the back of his mind for a long time. It’s scary, but psychopaths do actually think this way. (Erickson, 19)

I turned to everyone else who had not said a word and said, “Hello? How come none of you are saying anything? I feel like I’m taking crazy pills, he just said, he wasn’t trying to hurt me, he was just trying to ‘do enough’ to me to make me divorce him”

Finally, Dan, the small group leader, a PhD holder, said, “Yes, in a sense that is true, you can’t really do something like that to someone without hurting them.” It took a PhD holder my prompting and all of 3 minutes to articulate this piddling concession to the insanity of what Esteban was saying.”

Can you imagine what it is like for the man on the street to wrap his mind around abuse dynamics?

Esteban then stubbornly said, “when you tase someone you’re not hurting them”

ESTEBAN, YOU DIDN’T TASE ME. You beat me up. And tasing is a method of control and domination.

Long and short, being an abuse victim sucks.

Regular people do not understand the mentality and core drive of Gaslighters and Narcissists, but in his article “6 Common Traits of Narcissists and Gaslighters” Dr Preston Ni states “many narcissists and gaslighters take pride in their destructive behaviors, as their machinations provide them with a hollow (and desperate) sense of superiority and privilege.”

As an abuse victim, you would never imagine the person you have allowed into your life in such an intimate way is driven by a sense of superiority, privilege and entitlement. All of your interactions with him have been based on good faith and honesty, not by a sense of power and control. It is shocking always to learn that his actions towards you have always been motivated by a desire of power and control over you, no matter how loving you may have thought he was.

In processing what had happened, my mind was in mental overdrive. “What was really going on?”

“Is Esteban okay?” “Did I deserve this?” “Did I make this happen?”

A childhood friend of mine, Rachel, who has what you might call “uncommon sense” kept trying to tell me it was not my fault, but I couldn’t help but feel it was my fault.

I couldn’t shake the feeling. At one point, Rachel said to me, “Deborah, it is time for you to move past the denial phase and get into the anger phase of your grief! It’s time for you to get angry!”

I couldn’t get angry. My anger was hidden under a cloud of shame and self-blame. It was only in reading Beverly Engel’s book “Escaping Emotionally Abusive Relationships” that I was able to unearth my anger that had turned inwards to myself.

One day, while working through one of the “get in touch with your anger” exercises in the book, I found myself punching a pillow and then retching in the bin afterwards because I felt so disgusted at the idea of what Esteban had done to me – he had beat me up.

How could he? How was it possible for me to have married someone who could stoop to something as disgusting and low and below the belt as beating up his wife who is so much smaller than him? SHAME ON YOU ESTEBAN.

The idea of it just boggled my mind and sickened me. “Was I dumb or something for marrying a low-life like that and spending 10 whole years of my life with him?”

It was only when I told my psychiatrist whom I had been going to for 2 years for antidepressants, Dr Raj, what had happened that he said, “Whom have you shared this with?”

When I told him that we were in talks with church leadership as well as small group members, he said straightened up and looked at me with an intensity I had never before seen in him, “I’m Christian too, and in Churches they will always push for reconciliation, but I have many clients in abusive relationships and they go back to them and get beaten up again and again and it does nothing for their self-esteem and their anxiety levels. If your husband is not repentant, are you strong enough to leave the relationship? I am looking at the medical report now and it is serious. You are lucky you got away without losing an eye. But you had a raccoon eye, and have had multiple hematomas in areas that people cannot see because he hit you on your head and back, places that are covered up. They always hit you in the areas that are hidden. But you could have gotten very seriously hurt and ended up in hospital. Who knows what will happen the next time?”

When he told me this I was stunned.

I had already begun the process of minimizing what had happened to me – something that abuse victims regularly do to cope with the abuse. It’s called the Stockholm Syndrome. (Celani, 10)

Dr Raj’s candor about his experience in his faith community and the unadulterated experience of so many of his other clients get from their husbands made the penny drop in my mind.

I sat up straight, looked directly at him and said, “Yes, I’m strong enough” and left soon after, still trying to digest the full import of what he had shared with me.

Being an abuse victim sucks.

Essentially, you have all the odds stacked against you. You live in a misogynistic world of victim-blamers. We are all schooled to hate and blame our mom’s from an early age and our moms are schooled to blame themselves. Therefore, is it any surprise when a “nice guy” flips out and beats up his wife, you immediately think about what the wife did to deserve it?

Be honest.

Aren’t you going to at least ask “What happened?” This sort of question implies that there is some fault on the woman’s part for his behavior. Perhaps there’s a part of you that wants to understand what she may have done something to incite him to such an act of violence.

As if anything she did could possibly justify such violence, especially from someone who far out powers her in raw physical strength.

If you don’t think this way, not even a little bit, consider yourself enlightened and free from toxic blame and shame.

However, for most of us who grew up in Singapore or who attended religious institutions most of which are wedded to very outdated ideas of the woman’s role in marriage, you are saddled with deep unconscious beliefs system that says a wife should be subservient towards her husband. I am aware that “subservient” is a strong word, and I will unpack this idea more in another blogpost, but for now, let us assume “subservient” just means that you are meant to tip-toe around your husband’s ego, and if his ego gets hurt, it’s your fault.

Entitlement is the bedrock from which abuse grows and proliferates. (Strickland, 78) As women, when we allow men to treat us poorly or allow our children to behave in entitled, selfish and inconsiderate ways, we are grooming abusive mentalities as well as potential victims. More often than not, the men end up becoming abusive and the women end up becoming victimized because of the power dynamics.

When you distill it down to the basics, we still live in an animal kingdom, and when the push comes to the shove, whoever is physically stronger wins.

Engels spells out the stark reality that “most men are bigger and stronger than most women and, for this very reason, women are often intimidated by men. We aren’t necessarily conscious of this on an everyday basis, but the fear is there, nevertheless. It is similar to how a small dog feels next to a large dog. The two dogs can coexist and even play and romp with each other, but make no mistake about it – the smaller dog knows her limits. She knows that if the larger dog wanted to, he could overpower her.” (Engels, 67)

However, when you are an abuse victim, it is often hard to find advocates, because the world of abuse is so hidden. Your cries for help are often misconstrued as your being abusive and unhinged by the general public, and especially in church circles where there is often an abject lack of training and understanding in abuse dynamics. You lose your voice, and soon enough, you lose your sense of self.

You will never understand what it feels like or the nuances of it unless you are trained in it or have personally experienced it yourself.

Don’t believe me?

Well, I will tell you that I for one never thought that I would ever be an abuse victim. I will draw out this irony abit further.

In 2011 a year after I moved to LA, a friend connected me with an NGO – “Heiwa” in Singapore that was trying to increase awareness of domestic violence. They asked me to write a song for a concert they were organizing titled “Love In” to increase awareness of and speak out against domestic violence.

So I wrote, produced, and recorded a song titled “The Amendment” for their concert to increase awareness of and speak out against domestic violence.

My friend Selin, who was in my Music Production Class at UCLA-Extension in 2011 collaborated with me and sang on it. I sang and rapped on the song too.

What to know who did backing vocals towards the end (and mixed and mastered the song?)

Esteban.

Yes, at that time we were dating and I never once dreamed that he would ever lay a finger on me, I never thought that I would stay on with him in a relationship if he dared to touch me disrespectfully.

I thought of myself as a strong person who could and would never get entangled in an abusive relationship.

Perhaps it is this self-concept that made me all the more susceptible.

Abuse is insidious and subtle. The “stronger” you think you are, the more likely you are to subject yourself to gaslighting and abuse, especially if you are someone who has natural empathy, kindness and curiosity towards others.

I am not alone in having this “strong” and “it will never happen to me” self-concept become a stumbling block in calling out abuse and protecting oneself from it. Oprah Winfrey talks about how seeing her aunt getting physically abused when she was a child affected her profoundly, and she swore to herself that she would never ever let herself be physically abused by her partner.

She saw herself a tough woman who could “take it,” and give it back to her partner when he was rude or dismissive towards her. However, one day, things escalated and she got physically hurt, in that moment she realized she was no different from all these other women she had previously judged as “weak” for staying on in abusive relationships.

I thought I was a strong woman, but now I realise that strength is sometimes admitting that you cannot handle things anymore – the problem cannot be fixed. Strength is in many ways, knowing when to let go and give up; it is knowing when to identify the sunk cost fallacy and cut your losses.

In some ways, it’s good to be weak and vulnerable, because then you know something is wrong.

When he grabbed me and threw me on the couch in December last year saying ” Is this what you want?” when I tried to talk to him about not eating up all my freshly baked cookies and showing me some consideration, I acted like his physical abuse was normal.

I kept calm and did not cry or get shaken up even in spite of the physical violence.

I just said matter of factly to him, “Maybe you’re trying to make a point, but you could have hurt me, so don’t do that again.”

My behavior totally normalized his act of aggression. And when I brought up this incident to our marriage counsellor, I said, “He pushed me” I didn’t say, “He grabbed me and flung me on the couch to intimidate me into shutting up.” Even at that point I was subconsciously trying to protect my husband from looking bad.

When I said, “He pushed me” the therapist did not even blink.

She never even said “He pushed you?” to find out more about what had happened. You may shake your head at this point and think, “why, that counsellor was so inept” but the reality is that many other marriage counsellors that we met in the nine years of our marriage were just as inept or even more so.

They missed all the signs.

Leslie Vernick, an expert on emotional abuse, talks about this phenomenon. By the time an abused partner seeks marriage counselling with her husband, she is already so traumatized and easily triggered that she does not present well at a counselling session.

Dr Raimani further unpacks this phenomenon by talking about the “baiting” tactics of narcissists. They push your buttons and often elicit an emotional response from you that gives them a smug sense of satisfaction. I lost my self-esteem each time I got angry and lost my temper. I dislike getting angry and hitting hard at others, but it gives you a false sense of power. Nowadays, I try to focus on doing healing things with my anger, like writing to share what I have been through and penning new songs that will go into my next singer-songwriter album.

Abuse is often subtle and you need people who are trained in it to spot the signs. If there is a pattern of abuse of any kind in a marriage, the worst thing you can do is to go for marriage counselling.

Marriage counsellors are not trained in abuse and will assume your husband’s behaviour is contingent on yours. The burden of change will be on you, and you are going to be likely come away from the sessions with negative self-talk and some measure of self-blame.

However, a pattern of abusive behaviour is never excusable, and it should never be assumed to be part of a “Marriage system” which marriage counsellors work with, because the assumption is that they are working with two reasonable adults who understand the concept of trust, respect, mutuality and responsibility in a relationship.

Abusers have an entitled mentality which imbues them with a sense of wounded pride making them prone to verbal entanglements that get you nowhere.

In his book, “Why Does He Do That? Inside The Minds of Angry and Controlling Men,” Lundy Bancroft talks about how it is impossible to negotiate with abusive men because his goal in a heated argument is “in essence to get you to stop thinking for yourself and to silence you, because to him your opinions and complaints are obstacles to the imposition of his will as well as an affront to his sense of entitlement. If you watch closely, you will begin to notice how many of his controlling behaviors are aimed ultimately at discrediting and silencing you – he makes sure to get his way, one way or another.”

Many marriage counsellors unwittingly end up being enablers for abusers because they are so easily fooled by his “good guy” mask. I can personally attest to a string of marriage counsellors we saw in the States who further enabled my husband and cemented his “poor, suffering husband at the hands of an unhinged wife” narrative.

My husband was a master manipulator. He was very good at maintaining a “good guy” mask which he exploited well in our social circles of church and even work.

The table below gives you a picture of some of the subtleties in the abuse dynamic and dispels some of the most common myths surrounding abuse.

(Compiled from Bancroft, Chapter 13, The Making of An Abusive Man)

So many of the behaviors and faulty ways of thinking about abuse are completely normalized in our society.

Today pornography is seen as a rite of passage for all boys into manhood, and this is a major contributor to toxic masculinity which dehumanizes and debases women and men.

Bancroft underlines the fact that pornography is a form of violence against women that gets seared into the minds of men (and women) that use it. The issue with porn is not the sex and gratuitous nudity, but the violence and objectification of women that becomes deeply internalized into our minds and hearts when we watch pornography and make it a part of our lifestyles and psyche.

There was so much cognitive dissonance in my relationship with Esteban because he would say the most hurtful things in such a calm way.

Lundy Bancroft in his book “Why Does He Do That? Inside The Minds of Angry and Controlling Men” talks about how the main narratives surrounding abuse are created and controlled by the abusers themselves. Often women have introjected these false narratives and add to the chorus of victim-blaming that makes it so hard for abuse victims to speak up and to be taken seriously.

Introjection, which is common among children and parents, occurs when a person internalizes the beliefs of other people without critically assessing whether or not it lines up with their own core belief and values. Freud characterized introjection as a mature defense mechanism that is commonly used by psychologically healthy people. (Dorpat, 10)

In a sense we all introject because it is quite exhausting to think critically about everything we experience and the thoughts, values and opinions that are transferred in our interactions. In a way, we adopt the values and opinions of others often subconsciously without realizing it. We readily adopt the values of those closest and most influential to us more. However, if you are in an abusive relationship, or if you are raised by narcissistic parents, or are married to a gaslighting spouse, introjection becomes detrimental to your personhood and your sense of self. You lose a sense of meaning and purpose as you become enmeshed in their agendas and world-views. (Dorpat, 28)

You cannot live true to your innermost calling and purpose.

I grew up in an abusive home, but at least when people said hurtful things, their body language matched it. There was open yelling, shouting, and faces scrunched in anger. My mother ran after my father once with a hammer. He locked himself up in the master bedroom. She ended up banging on the door with the hammer. It left deep round imprints of rage on the door. I was 5 years old when I witnessed this.

Someone led me away to the bedroom to shield me from witnessing more of this open display of wrath. I just remember jumping up and down on a mattress even while this horrible scene played out again and again in my mind.

Another time, my father got so infuriated with my mother he grabbed her and shoved her against the wall and shouted threateningly, “you’re not the only one that can get angry okay?”

He did this right next to a plaque on the wall that said,

“All things work for good to those who love God and who are called according to his purpose. Romans 8:28”

Something broke in me when I saw this.

At best it felt like a cruel God was playing a cosmic joke on my family, and, at worst, it felt like my family was cursed, and condemned.

I was 10 years old.

The most confusing and bewildering part of all the abuse is that my father was also really good at wearing his “nice guy” mask, he often acted like my my mother was just “difficult” and he liked to say that he was there to “soothe her ruffled feathers” but unbeknownst to most of us, he was having affairs with other women on a continual basis.

If that kind of gaslighting does not drive your wife crazy I don’t know what will.

Witnessing violence when you are a child does horrible things to your brain. It becomes downloaded deep into the recesses of your limbic brain and frozen in your memory. Unless you get therapeutic help or some form of trauma therapy, you are likely to repeat this pattern later on in life either as a victim or an abuser. (Van Der Kolk, 21)

Apart from the gaslighting and covert emotional abuse, my husband had physically assaulted me a few times early on in the marriage, and subsequently, when I brought this matter up to the Assistant Pastor in Westside Vineyard Church in Los Angeles in 2013, the Assistant Pastor taught my husband to deal with it by walking out on me whenever we had escalating conflicts.

While I agreed that we needed to give each other space and time to calm down and resolve issues in an amicable manner, I had not expected my husband to use walking out on me as another method of controlling and manipulating me. I tried talking to my husband about reassuring me to give me a timeframe by which he would come back and talk things out so I was not left hanging. But he rarely ever did this. The walking away was used as a tool of control – it re-traumatized me and cemented my fear of abandonment.

There were nights, more than once when everything seemed fine, and then he suddenly disappeared and did not show up until the next morning. One of those nights he showed up in the morning and then he declared that he wanted a divorce. He then said, “You can keep your Dad’s money” (this was in 2015) shortly after my father had passed away” as if he was being kind and generous to me to allow me to keep my late Father’s inheritance.

I was in such a bad place that I cried and told him that I would “change” and be “better.”

I sincerely believed that there was something wrong with me because I would lose my temper at him when he regularly failed to follow through on things he said he would do, even though I had already gone through so much trauma, first from the emotional and physical abuse early on in the marriage, then the sudden passing of my Father. (From the time I found out about his Stage 4 Pancreatic Cancer to the day of his passing, there was six weeks) Family circumstances surrounding his passing was very traumatic to say the least.

The wounding and trauma I received from Esteban’s sudden disappearances designed to control and intimidate me were very deep. I already suffered from disorganized attachment issues stemming from my childhood experiences, coupled with the physical and emotional abuse, the repetitive experiences of abandonment further broke me down, making me even more dependent, needy, and more easily controlled that I had been prior.

I never once suspected he was trying to gain control over me.

I had just assumed it was my fault and I deserved to be walked out on, as it was continually reinforced to me through my husband and the Pastor and another one of his enablers, his co-worker and close friend, as well as his own mother. One time when he had arbitrarily abandoned me in the middle of the night, sending me into an awful panic-attack which pushed me close to suicidal ideation, I ended calling his mother up and confiding in her about previous instances of physical assault, where he had grabbed me by the neck and threatened to choke me multiple times. One time he pushed me back into a chair and I hurt my lower back.

She merely said to me, ”Esteban is like that, he goes from 0 to 100, and everyone needs space.”

No one told me that I needed to start thinking about protecting myself and keeping myself safe, except for one friend in Singapore. She said, “Deborah, please take care, I don’t want to read about you in the newspaper and find out that you are dead.” The idea of my strangulated body being found by strangers and reported in the newspaper played in my mind like a reel, but I couldn’t find the good sense to break away from the relationship.

A friend of mine who works as a paramedic in Los Angeles said that they get calls in on domestic violence all the time. The battered women they encounter are provided with leaflets and other educational resources regarding domestic violence, as well as safe places to go to, but they invariably go back to their abuser. Recently, I read about a woman in Singapore who has been stuck in an abusive relationship with a man for 40 years. Social workers have intervened and told her that she could end up getting killed by her husband. You know what she said?

“So be it”

In some ways, I understand her. That was my thinking early on in the relationship. I just couldn’t see myself living life without him. One of the times he put his hand around my neck and threatened to strangle me if I did not shut my mouth, I just ended up laughing and saying ”go ahead.”

Bet you think I have a perverse sense of humor.

Maybe I do.

But I’ll tell you what was actually going on in my mind then – I just wanted to know who it was that I had really married. I couldn’t believe that he was capable of killing me. But if I had done so, and if I had really made such a mistake, I felt I deserved to die and wouldn’t have minded finding out this way.

Sad right?

Back then I was so stuck on being right, I failed to admit to myself I had made an AWFUL MISTAKE by marrying him. Safety was secondary to truth. I needed to find out the truth about him.

Since my Father walked out on us when I was a kid, there was always a voice in my mind telling me that if people treated me poorly it was because it was my fault, or my “perception” of it that was hurting me. Children from broken homes often have this mentality that is informed by shame and self-blame. I was still locked in that mindset when I met my husband.

This method of relating during conflict triggered the fear of abandonment in me and for someone who had a disorganized attachment style, it really affected me to the core. Subliminally, I felt an enormous pressure to be someone I was not, someone that was fearful, weak and lacking in confidence, someone who compensated for this lack of confidence by raising my voice when I felt triggered.

The first time he used grabbed me by the neck and pushed me back into a chair, he ran away. I kept calling him. The fear of abandonment totally overwhelmed me. When he picked up I cried and begged him to come back. He said to me, “Deborah, when you cry I can be strong for you, I feel close to you.” This sort of sick reasoning and rationale really fucked with my mind, and I became further weakened by it.

That was the person I became in order to survive the marriage. That was the person my husband felt that he could be “strong” for. Every single time I lost my cool, I would feel bad and apologize to him. I felt like “the bad guy” – really guilty, meanwhile, my apologies would further cement his self-concept and narrative of his being the “good guy.”

If you are frequently apologizing in your relationship, pay attention, because it could indicative of red flags in your relationship. Apologizing too often can really affect your sense of self-esteem and further cement the trauma bonds between you and your abuser. It means you are acting in a way that you do not feel good about.

In this scenario, the questions to ask are:

1) What’s going on?

2) Why am I acting this way; what is triggering me?

3) How can I attend to my own needs so I do not keep on repeating the same behavior?

My husband was essentially a Good-Guy Gaslighter: the worst of all the gaslighting types out there because it is so insidious and subtle. Dr Stern describes this type of Gaslighter as someone who presents a confusing picture:

“It looks like he’s being cooperative, pleasant, and helpful, but you still end up feeling confused and frustrated… the Good-Guy Gaslighter finds a way to make it look like he’s doing everything you want – without ever really giving you what you want. And he is invested in making sure that his version of events is the version you accept.” (Stern, 204)

His behavior is characterized by “disrespectful compliance.” So for example, we would usually spend Sundays with my mother. It got to a point where he expressed a desire to spend his Sundays doing other things, like hanging out with her beer-brewing buddies. I reminded him of our agreement before that Sundays were dedicated family days which he had committed to.

Instead of telling me up front that he had changed his mind about it and was no longer going to be able to join me on Sundays with my mother without feeling resentful, he went through the motions of agreeing while finding all sorts of little ways to show how unhappy and resentful he was.

Long and short, he was being passive aggressive.

My role in this charade was not admitting the obvious to myself.

I was so invested in

1) Maintaining the relationship
2) Winning his approval
3) Continuing to think well of him

that I did not admit to myself, “My husband is being dishonest about his feelings and pouting (or having a tantrum or guilt-tripping me or insulting me) when he doesn’t get his way – and I don’t like that!”

Instead, I said to myself, “He’s such a good guy – so cooperative, always does what I ask -what’s wrong with me that I don’t appreciate him more?”

I worried that I was crazy for thinking something was wrong.

My husband always had the right to decide not to join me in spending time with my mother on Sundays, he just did not want to openly exert that right because he was afraid it might look bad on him.

My mother has Stage 4 colon cancer and Merlinda, her full-time helper, takes Sundays off, so Sunday was the only day my mom would be left unsupervised. My brother and sister were missing in action for all Sundays, so it appeared that the responsibility of spending Sundays with my mother fell on me.

Esteban, my husband then, was to free to refuse to spend Sundays with my mom and me, but he did not refuse, instead he engaged in gaslighting, trying to make himself look like a good guy insisted of being clear about what he wanted and risk looking bad or pissing me off.

My involvement with a passive aggressive and manipulative partner who would not speak directly or plainly to me about what he wanted and needed left me confused to say the least.

I constantly felt insecure and little things would bother me, and so I turned to him again for reassurance and comfort, never knowing that he was the reason why I felt so weak and disempowered all the time. The messaging I got over and over again was that any and all of the problems in my marriage with him stemmed mainly from me.

He was “trying his best” but I was “giving him shit.”

There were emotional land mines that I had navigated in the past with him, arguments over his beliefs about conspiracy theories, his support for Trump, his belief that there was no such thing as a gender wage gap (and his trying to get me to believe it), or that the whole “me too” movement was largely bogus, arguments with him about his family and his lack of boundaries with them, arguments over housework, food and myriad minutiae surrounding the ins and outs of married life.

I learned how to avoid engaging in fruitless arguments with him about things that did not directly affect our married life e.g. his political beliefs and his particular persuasions regarding the existence of a gender wage gap, however, when it came to practical marriage matters, this was not something that I could negotiate no matter how many books on communication or negotiation I read:

It was his way or the highway, I soon came to realize, as I got worn down with his wordplay and incessant badgering and failure to negotiate in good faith.

Instead of responding emotionally to the way I was being treated and admitting to myself that his put-downs, freeze-outs and his passive aggression was not okay with me, I responded intellectually.

I asked myself, “why did he behave in such a difficult, demanding way? What was behind his need to insult me or treat me in a demeaning way”

If I had responded emotionally to my experience, I would have tired out of being treated with such little regard, however, I kept myself interested in the relationship by thinking about it. I had essentially fallen into a Stage 2 version of the Explanation Trap defined by Dr Robin Stern as “The Explanation Trap” where instead of finding the abusive aspects of Esteban’s behavior frustrating, painful or off-putting, I found it interesting, because it gave me so many opportunities to come up with explanations.

When we as women are involved with people who don’t treat us so well, our relationships preoccupy us a great deal. There’s always a lot to think about, talk about and analyze. With a nicer, more reliable person, the relationship doesn’t offer as much food for thought. We enjoy it, sure, but it doesn’t take up nearly so much of our time or focus.

As Dr Stern says, “When our romantic partner (or friend, or boss) is taking care of himself -coming forward with attention and affection; managing his own feelings; expressing his dissatisfactions in polite, appropriate ways – there simply isn’t as much for us to do.

“Trying to understand our Gaslighter makes us feel more in control. If we grew up in an unstable home environment, we often learn at an early age that life is unpredictable. One response to this unpredictability is the attempt to expand our control. The more we can control, the more we can be sure of – and the less we can be hurt by an unreliable parent, friend, or lover who fails or disappoints us.

Unfortunately, the very nature of relationships involves a loss of control. The other party in the relationship is free to love us or not to love us, to come through for us or fail us, to treat us well or badly. In the end, it is his decision, not ours, how he behaves towards us; all we can do is respond. Focusing on the Explanation Trap gives us the illusion of having more control than we do. It suggests that, if we only understood our Gaslighter, we could take the necessary steps to change his behavior. So the worse he treats us, the more interested we become, because he seems to offer so many opportunities for intervention.”

Dr Robin Stern talks about why Gaslightees bend ourselves out of shape to fit a Gaslighters’s vision:

1) Fear of the Emotional Apocalypse

2) The Urge to Merge

Fear of the Emotional Apocalypse:

“Most gaslighters seem to hold in reserve a secret weapon, an emotional explosion that flattens everything in its vicinity and poisons the atmosphere for weeks afterward. A person in a gaslighting relationship fears that if the gaslighter is pushed too far, he’ll invoke this Emotional Apocalypse, something even worse than the ongoing attrition of annoyed questions and cutting remarks. This apocalypse is such a painful experience that, eventually, she’ll do anything to avoid it.

Since 2013 after the first few physical assaults I went through, as well as the repeated emotional abuse I suffered, I knew on an unconscious, visceral level that I had to live in a way to avoid this “Emotional Apocalypse.” I felt fear, but I did not realize where this fear came from. It was like an icicle of pain in my heart that I carried all the time.

I took complete and utter responsibility for myself – to change, to improve, to learn how to handle my husband in a way that was aligned with my deepest values and sense of integrity. I failed many times, but my heart was utterly committed to loving him the best way I knew how to. I read books to learn how to handle myself better, “Emotional Agility,” “Non-Violent Communication,” “ I’d Like You More if You Were More Like Me” to understand myself and to learn how to live more peacefully with my husband who was undoubtedly, very different from me.

A Narcissistic Gaslighter is not built for peace however – he thrives on creating drama around him.

But I never stopped working on myself. And this led to the inevitable Emotional Apocalypse (Read: Physical Assault).

It was only after my husband assaulted me on the 25th of January this year with the expressed purpose of exiting our marriage that I was essentially confronted with two of my biggest fears while in that relationship – that of abandonment and betrayal. (Somehow I was always waiting for the other shoe to drop)

I was finally abandoned and completely betrayed by the one person that had become the most important human being in my life for 10 whole years. (Early on when we first started dating, and I was fascinated by our differences, he used to call me Human Being A, and himself Human Being B)

The final blatant betrayal is the much more painful piece of reality that I am finally coming to terms with, because his contempt and betrayal of me had always existed throughout the course of my relationship with him, not just in that final violent act of contempt.

I was just not very aware of it.

Leslie Vernick talks about covert abuse and lists the many ways a person can abuse you. She offers a core strength course for women in destructive marriages and has a module on covert abuse where she elucidates methods of manipulative abuse:

  1. Regularly questions or challenges your thinking and decision making. He treats you as if you’re not thinking correctly, wisely or biblically, or that you’re not making good choices.
  2. Outwardly agrees with you so that you think you are both on the same page. Then later, when you make a move assuming you are both in agreement, he denies that he ever agreed to it.
  3. Subtly undermining your authority or credibility
  4. Misrepresenting what you said to your kids or to other people
  5. Subtle “jokes” that hurt and are at your expense
  6. Privately maligning your character to others
  7. Shaming, guilt-tripping and minimizing what happened or how you feel
  8. Veiled threats
  9. Sabotaging things that are important to you
  10. Mind-reading “I know why you did that”
  11. Disrespectful non-verbal behavior
  12. Withholding e.g continuously looking at his phone while you are trying to talk with him
  13. Discounting and invalidating your feelings, thoughts, concerns, needs, values and plans.
  14. Diverting conversations so they go nowhere. Drives you crazy but you can’t seem to get it back on track or get to closure
  15. Judging, labeling, and criticizing “you’re never happy”, “you’re not thinking right”, “you’re a control freak”, “you can’t forgive”
  16. Playing the devoted servant, husband, pastor, parent card. If you should dare question him or assert yourself in wanting something different, you get a response like, “How dare you question/challenge/disagree with me, after all I do for you?”
  17. Triangulation with others, making you the odd man out “the pastor said”, “our counselor told me”

All these strategies are meant to make you question yourself, back down, or give-in so that your abuser gets his or her way or can dominate, control, win, or be right.

If you’re not careful, this will lead to feeling guilty or shamed for having a boundary. You will start to erase you “no,” because, you don’t want him to think you are mean, selfish, or unloving.

She went through a list of covert manipulation tactics that abusers use, she said to underline each type of method that was employed by my partner, and I ended up underlining all 17 of them.

Please note that all of us do things like that to each other unwittingly at times, however, if there is a clear and consistent pattern of this type of behavior, and if, when confronted with the behavior, we try to blame and deflect instead of honestly assessing our own hearts and intentions, then, and only then it is considered abuse.

It’s the little, consistent betrayals that add up over time which lead to a breakdown in relationship. In the Book Song of Solomon in the Bible refers to this as “The little foxes which are ruining the vineyards.” When we refuse to call out the lies that people tell us, this leads to the slow erosion of the integrity of the relationship.

Throughout the course of my marriage and even before I married him there was a consistent pattern of covert abuse and emotional manipulation. I just was never able to call it out because I was too busy trying to understand him and empathize with him, I found it hard to call him out on his behavior without taking responsibility for causing it. Dr Robin Stern defines this phenomenon as “The Explanation Trap: the effort to explain away behavior that disturbs us, including gaslighting. Instead of letting these early signs set off the warning bells they are meant to, we find seemingly rational explanations to prove to ourselves why these danger signals aren’t really dangerous”

All the above behaviors were quite common in my family of origin, except that when they behaved like that, they were overtly rude. Esteban was much more “polite” in his delivery. I made excuses over and over again for his heartless, manipulative behavior, always believing in him, always expecting the best of him, and always standing my ground in defending him. (Corinthians 13:6-7)

However, the person I believed him to be never existed. Love is supposed to protect and cherish, he did neither. The way he “loved” me was self-serving and ultimately designed to erode my personhood. He never treated me like an equal partner; the entire relationship was about control and manipulation – manipulating my reality and sense of self so that he could have me under this thumb.

In processing this relationship, a dear friend and spiritual mentor asked me to describe what it felt like when things were going well between us. I told him that it never felt like things were going well. I said to him, “there was always a Knight in shining armor, damsel in distress” dynamic to our relationship,” It was at this point that my spiritual mentor quietly said, “Deborah, you have been living in flight.”

As I pondered what he meant by that, I realize that he was saying that I had been living in fear throughout my marriage, without even realizing it. I had tried to suppress my fear, instead of facing up to the painful reality behind my fear and anxiety.

All of my fear culminated in the physical assault on the 25th of January 2020. My worst fears and suspicions were realized and it was in that moment that I was confronted with myself.

I spent a lot of time facing my feelings and evaluating my thoughts about them. In this period, I got reacquainted with my inner child and I really got to understand what it means to love and hold myself unconditionally.

This means essentially sitting in the “shit” and examining your thoughts, questioning the veracity of them, while tuning out external things you have gotten used to using to numb yourself.

During this post-traumatic period I felt a lot of fear, but interestingly, I also started to sleep more soundly as I was physically separated from my ex-husband.

Mark Manson talks about meaning: “This feeling of emptiness—or more accurately, this lack of meaning—is more commonly known as depression. Most people believe that depression is a deep sadness. This is mistaken. While depression and sadness often occur together, they are not the same thing.

Sadness occurs when something feels bad. Depression occurs when something feels meaningless. When something feels bad, at least it has meaning. In depression, everything becomes a big blank void. And the deeper the depression, the deeper the lack of meaning, the deeper the pointlessness of any action, to the point where a person will struggle to get up in the morning, to shower, to speak to other people, to eat food, etc.”

While I was married, I felt depressed.

My life was becoming drained of meaning as I was steadily robbed of my reality – the only person that sustained me through my marriage was Jesus Christ. I turned to Him again and again in the midst of all the pain and confusion. He was always there for me.

Now that I am single and grieving the marriage that lasted 9 years, I am sad. Not depressed.

My heart hurts very often as I grieve to let go of the fantasy person I thought I had married.

Patrick Weaver, an activist, Christian Pastor and one who regularly witnessed his father beat up his mother as a child is an advocate for women in abusive relationships. He astutely says “At some point, you have to accept the truth about them. No amount of believing, hoping or wishing will make the wrong person be the right person beloved. As soon as you release them from who you wanted them to be, and accept them for who they are, you can stop bleeding from the fantasy and start healing from reality. There is power in accepting the truth and giving up the lie beloved”

Indeed, there is great power in embracing the truth. Yes, the truth is the person I thought he was never existed, I was married to a concept, not a real person, and this hurts on multiple levels, not least on a cognitive and gut level.

But, I am filled with joy at the same time because I have found a renewed sense and purpose in living. I am now spending my time writing and composing new songs, which I plan to release in a new album next year. I update my blog regularly and feel good about it, and I am volunteering with AWARE to create a six week empowerment program for young women between the ages of 12-18. I am running my own baking business which allows me to innovate and explore new recipes and techniques as well as to look into the possibility of establishing a baking platform to provide therapy to trauma survivors. I have plans to be trained in becoming a Peer Support Specialist so that I can use my story of my struggles and with mental health issues to turn back and support others who are struggling with mental health concerns.

What can I say? Jesus has truly redeemed my life and given me new meaning and purpose as He has liberated me from the Egypt of my toxic marriage.

How do you come to finding meaning in life?

Well, it often means facing up to your fears. Which means getting rid of all the distractions and meaningless activities you fill your life with to run away from your fears. It means that you are honest with yourself.

Being honest with yourself is hard. It can arouse a lot of fear in you. Feeling fear often means that you are living in a state of heightened arousal. This can take quite a lot out of you emotionally. Most people do not enjoy living like this.

But being aware of this and making adequate time for rest and replenishment or taking breaks to stop your mind from spinning endlessly enables you to live in this state without breaking down mentally and emotionally.

In order to manage my heightened state of arousal, I limited my social engagements and levels of digital stimulation. Ironically, while for 9 years of my marriage I was dependent on antidepressants and sleeping pills, I got off of them. The anti-depressant were making it hard for me to feel calm, I was constantly in a state of heightened arousal, averaging 12/10 on the continuum of arousal levels.

In the end, I went back to what used to make me tick as a person – music and writing and reading and creating. I spent time writing songs and poems. I started doing things that I did not feel safe to allow myself to do while in relationship with Esteban. I had felt so much anxiety in the past and was so intent on managing my anxiety that I would have told myself “I don’t have time for that luxury – I need to get shit done”

Well, instead of getting shit done, I made time for the things I had stopped allowing myself to do while in relationship with my husband, e.g. daydream, pray for extended periods of time, doodle, make pumpkin soup on a whim, pump out 15 push-ups at a time when I was feeling particularly amped up, try out new recipes, explore, play and tinker around. I was able to do this because I was finally starting to regain a sense of safety.

I started to heal. What I did not realize was that through doing this, I was giving myself the berth to emotionally regulate and get in touch with my deepest self.

Consequently, the more I allowed myself to feel the fear that had been driving me all the time and the more I allowed myself to be curious about the thoughts in my mind that were driving my fear, the more I was able to attend to my inner child in a compassionate and self-soothing way.

It was in doing this, while also bringing my truest feelings and thoughts to God in prayer that I felt safer and much more loved and secure.

Whereas in the past I was not honest with myself and could not bring my true self to God, now I could finally bring all of myself to God – the good, the bad, the ugly.

In the book, “A Praying Life,” Miller talks about coming to God like a child and leaving our cynicism behind. He says that “Learned desperation is the heart of a praying life” – it is in allowing ourselves to feel our desperate need for God that we can start to pray. And in praying, there is surrender because we lay ourselves bare before our Creator and surrender to His will for our lives. There is great peace in doing this. It equips you with the knowledge that even if you had to walk through fire for His purposes, He will provide for you and sustain you. There is nothing more satisfying that feeling His eternal comfort in your heart.

Another thing I learned was that I could take my time to bring my true self to him. I did not have to rush or force myself into being “good” or “right-minded” before him, but could pour out the contents of my heart, wheat and chaff, knowing that like a true friend, He would keep what was worth keeping, and with a breath of kindness, gently blow away the rest.

I would also spend time thinking about the narratives in my mind about my identity, my purpose and what I had been through and how much of it was useful for my self-identity and self-concept.

All through my life, there was a constant tape that played. That tape said, “it’s your fault Deborah, if only you tried harder, were better, more disciplined and better, none of this would have happened.”

I had picked up this line of thinking from a self-help book that was really popular in the 90s, “The Road Less Travelled.” The author M. Scott Peck said that discipline is the fundamental tool we require to solve life’s problems. Without discipline we can solve nothing. With only some discipline we can solve only some problems. With total discipline we can solve all problems. (Peck, 23)

My father was a big fan of this book and he influenced me greatly in my thinking, values and approach towards life. So I took this mode of thinking on with a religious fervor. Unbeknownst to me, it became internalized into the mix of other abusive voices that I had introjected in my childhood and teenage years.

The only caveat in this model of discipline is that along with this essential skill involved in problem-solving, time is an added requirement. You need to be able to take the time to implement this discipline. (Peck, 42) When your brain is in a constant state of survival and flight for years, time appears to be a luxury you cannot afford – you are compelled to “take action” – every cell in your body is crying out for you to plunge into a frenzy of activity to stave off the intense fear.

It was only in challenging the reality and basis of my fears, that I was drawn into a deeper reality and understanding of my personhood and my deepest calling.

For example, it never occurred to me that I would be thriving without Esteban in my life.

While married, everything seemed stacked against me, my health, my mental and emotional state, my husband’s failure and refusal to plan and think ahead, the pressure to move back to SF to live because my husband wanted to go back and live close to his family. I felt afraid of the future so I doubled down and tried harder: I tried to fix the problems in my marriage, I worked on my boundaries, I worked on many things. However the fear never left me.

Why? Because all these other things were distractions.

I was not asking the right questions.

If I had sat down and considered the fact that my reservations about going back to The Bay Area was not an option up for discussion, and taken that thought all the way to its logical conclusion, it would have raised fundamental issues in our marriage:

What does it mean in a marriage when the decision about where you settle down is made solely by one person, and you were strong armed into agreeing with that decision? What does it mean in a marriage that you cannot agree or compromise on major plans in life?

There were other important issues too surrounding my physical body. I had expressed to him that I was not comfortable with the idea of breast-feeding and that given my propensity for insomnia and the fact that I was on anti-depressants, I wanted to bottle-feed. He came down hard on me for this and kept on pestering me and sending me articles on why bottle-feeding is “bad” for the child. He did not bother to empathize with me or consider the enormous amount of pressure he was putting on me.

What does it mean when your husband doesn’t leave the decision whether or not to breastfeed the child you plan to have with him but guilts and pressures you into agreeing to breastfeed, even though you have ample medical reasons not to?

What does it say about you partner’s view of you and how he values your thoughts, feelings, wants and desires?

I did not allow myself to explore those thoughts or my feelings about it back then because I could not face up to my fears of a divorce.

But reality always wins out in the end.

My ex-husband’s attitude toward me became very clear when in the midst of his “apology” to me after feeling some pressure from my church, in front of church witnesses in pastoral care and counselling he saw it fit to air that his overriding concern was that I would not want to have a child with him, after what he had done, and that I might not want to return to the States.

This was his main concern; not my health or well-being, or the fact that he had brutalized and traumatized me; after his perfunctory “sorry” and pat explanation that he had “punched” me because he was hurt by me and wanted “out.”

He was concerned mainly with whether or not I would bear a child for him, and whether or not I would stick to his plan and return to the States after my mother passed.

Well. Dodged a bullet there.

Our Internal Logic

Each of us has an internal logic that defies external norms and expectations. It is when we get vulnerable with ourselves, allowing ourselves to experience deep and overwhelming emotions that might threaten to annihilate our inner worlds, that we can come to a closer picture of reality.

It was very hard for me to accept this reality about Esteban’s heart. It took me 10 years to really see myself clearly, and to see him clearly, and as difficult as it is for me to believe that I managed to fall in love with someone who is so unkind, cruel, hard-hearted, self-interested and morally bankrupt, I realize I had to accept it and move on and trust God to “work all things out for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose. Romans 8:28”

C.S Lewis wrote “There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts, civilizations – these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub and exploit – immortal horrors or everlasting splendors. This does not mean that we are to be perpetually solemn. We must play. But our merriment must be of that kind (and it is, in fact, the merriest kind) which exists between people who have, from the outset, taken each other seriously – no flippancy, no superiority, no presumption.”

This “weight” of eternal glory may seem like an overwhelming load to bear if we do not also realize that nothing we do in life will shelter us from loss, grief and tragedy. No amount of discipline, hard-work and preparation can shield us from failure, pain and loss on this side of eternity.

There is no life that is unscathed by the ravages of time and reality. The reality most of us have trouble accepting is that we have no control over most things in life – we may not even have control over the darker impulses that lurk in our hearts. Think Bill Gates, Steve Jobs and yes, even Mother Teresa.

Yes, we can try as hard as we can to be good, or to be successful by worldly standards, but every single one of us will eventually hit a wall or face something that unmakes us.

If you have not experienced it yet, your time will come.

As much as I know I was a victim in an abusive relationship, I do believe I also hurt my abuser in myriad ways – albeit without any intention to really hurt him. I just wanted him to grow as a person and become more responsible, instead the reverse happened. This tends to happen with people with entitled and abusive mindsets, your efforts to give them constructive feedback usually backfires on you. And if you think it’s about a lack of tactfulness on my part in delivering feedback, you may be right. But try being tactful after the 20th time of someone screwing up over the same damn thing and acting like it was “just an accident” and then get back to me with your judgment.

In some ways, I still feel very responsible for what happened between us. If I had a better sense of self, I would never have dated him. There was no solid basis for our relationship – I did not have a good first impression of him – he was rude, thoughtless and inconsiderate of others in class. He kept on talking throughout class with a classmate, talking over the nicest, kindest teacher we ever had – Darryl Swann, and he never once felt bad about it.

In fact, he enjoyed giving the teacher a hard time, constantly undermining him in front of everyone trying to make Darryl look stupid while making himself feel superior.

If I were Darryl, I would have thrown them both out of my class. They were not only disrespecting me, but other students who wanted to learn.

Instead, Darryl said to them one day, ”Mr Proaño, Mr Dobson” I really need your help today. Please keep it down so we can have this class.”

I should have trusted my instincts, instead, I kept trying to give him the benefit of the doubt. One time, when he was going on with his usual banter and mocking Darryl, a more mature student in class – a black woman named Crystal turn to Esteban and said to him “Shut the fuck up and respect a brother.”

I silently rejoiced because someone needed to put Esteban in his place.

Later on when I talked to Darryl and said to him that it was a good thing that Crystal told Esteban off, Darryl said, “Did you notice that he has a condition?”

“What condition?” I asked.

“He’s got tics”

“What tics?” So, Esteban has Tourettes Syndrome. He regularly wheezed in class. I thought that it was due to asthma. I had never once suspected it was a condition.

In any case, I don’t care even if you have Tourettes, it does not give you the right to be inconsiderate, disrespectful, thoughtless and violent.

We all need to learn to live and grow past our original wounds and trauma. As my Spiritual Mentor and his wife said to me, ”We all have childhood wounds.”

Max Jeganatham, an international speaker and advocate for social justice said, “We are conditioned to believe that fighting injustice is about good (us) fighting evil (others), but that fight begins in every human heart. As Christians we are called to address the evil inside us and the evil outside us… and Jesus is the only answer to both

Through my relationship with Esteban, I have changed and evolved as a person. I have also come to see the reality of the darker parts of myself – parts I used to disown in the past. But Jesus recently said to me, “Deborah, unless you own your “I” you cannot come fully to me – in order to come wholly before Jesus I need to be honest with myself about my real needs and wants, instead of hiding them and pretending that they do not matter”

I want a life-partner who has empathy, who treats me with consideration, care, respect and who can be vulnerable and communicate openly, respectfully and honestly with me. I want to be with someone who is responsible and courageous, unafraid to admit and address his mistakes but who is also willing to speak up and call me out on mine too.

Someone who will never lay a finger on me, no matter how angry he may be.

Is that too much to ask for?

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It is in accepting the reality and inevitability of failure, and welcoming it, while also accepting that there is no prescribed recipe for “success” as defined by the world that we can become solid and whole. It is in fully embracing this objective reality that we can learn to steward our lives in accordance to our deepest selves.

This knowledge will make us more sober creatures who will not be satisfied with easy answers, superficial living and cheap words.

As Jodi Picoult said in her novel, Handle With Care:

I wondered about the explorers who’d sailed their ships to the end of the world. How terrified they must have been when they risked falling over the edge: how amazed to discover, instead, places they had seen only in their dreams.

It is only when we allow ourselves the time and space to travel into our internal universe that we develop the emotional strength and resilience we need to make hard decisions that line up with our deepest calling and purpose.

———————————————————————————————————————————————

How Much?

You know how much
I loved him
How much
My soul twisted
And bent into him
Just to feel

Close.

Connected.

I lost myself
My home
My heart
My self-respect

To fly with him
To go the whole nine-yards
All the hoops
I somersaulted through

Changing my very being
Crushing my personhood

There was not

A step I would not take
A blow I was unwilling to feint

We went toe to toe
And I never gave up

But I wasn’t designed
For this

You didn’t build me
To give up on anyone

Not even the devil

Not even the murderer

Well then.

Help me not to give up

On myself

References

  1. Dutton DG, Painter S (1993). “Emotional attachments in abusive relationships: a test of traumatic bonding theory”. Violence and Victims.
  2. Dutton; Painter (1981). “Traumatic Bonding: The development of emotional attachments in battered women and other relationships of intermittent abuse”. Victimology: An International Journal
  3. Sanderson, Chrissie (2008). “Counselling Survivors of Domestic Abuse. Jessica Kingsley Publishers”
  4. Schwartz J (2015). “The Unacknowledged History of John Bowlby’s Attachment Theory: John Bowlby’s Attachment Theory.” British Journal of Psychotherapy.
  5. Van der Kolk, Bessel (2014). “The Body Keeps The Score: Brain, Mind and Body in the Healing of Trauma.” Penguin Random House, New York.
  6. Stern, Robin (2007, 2018). “The Gaslight Effect – How to Spot and Survive the Hidden Manipulation Others Use to Control Your Life” Penguin Random House, New York
  7. “What is Baiting?” YouTube, uploaded by DrRamani, 9th April 2020, https://youtu.be/5HNK07Khk9w
  8. Bancroft, Lundy (2003). “Why Does He Do That?: inside the Minds of Angry and Controlling Men.” Berkeley Books, New York.
  9. Strickland, Darby A.(2020). “Is it Abuse? A Biblical Guide to Identifying Domestic Abuse and Helping Victims.” P&R Publishing, New Jersey.
  10. Rowe, Mary; Wilcox, Linda; Gadlin, Howard (2009). “Dealing with—or Reporting—’Unacceptable’ Behavior—with additional thoughts about the ‘Bystander Effect'” (PDF). Journal of the International Ombudsman Association. 2 (1): 52–64.
  11. Celani, David (1995). “The Illusion of Love: Why the Battered Woman Returns to her Abuser.” New York: Columbia University Press. ISBN 978-0231-10037-3.
  12. Ni, Preston. “6 Common Traits of Narcissists and Gaslighters.” PsychologyToday, https://www.psychologytoday.com/sg/blog/communication-success/201707/6-common-traits-narcissists-and-gaslighters
  13. Peck, M S. (1978) “The Road Less Traveled: A New Psychology of Love, Traditional Values, and Spiritual Growth.” New York: Simon and Schuster.
  14. Lewis, C.S. (1949). “Weight of Glory” New York, Macmillan Co
  15. David, Susan (2016). “Emotional Agility: Get Unstuck, Embrace Change, and Thrive in Work and Life.” Penguin Random House, New York
  16. Ortberg, John (2017). “I’d Like You More If You Were More Like Me” Tyndale House Publisher, Illinois
  17. Miller, Paul (2009). “A Praying Life” NavPress, Colorado
  18.  Hinshelwood, R. D. (1995). “The Social Relocation of Personal Identity as Shown by Psychoanalytic Observations of Splitting, Projection, and Introjection”Philosophy, Psychiatry, & Psychology2 (3): 185–204
  19. Gonslaves, Kelly. ”What’s Your Attachment Style? Attachment Theory Explained” MBG Relationships, https://www.mindbodygreen.com/articles/attachment-theory-and-the-4-attachment-styles
  20. Vernick, Leslie. CONQUER COURSE NOTES ”Conquering Covert Abuse Part 2’
  21. Engel, Beverly. (2008) ”The Nice Girl Syndrome: Stop Being Manipulated and Abused —- and Start Standing Up For Yourself” John Wiley And Sons, New Jersey
  22. Engel, Beverly. (2021) ”Escaping Emotional Abuse – Healing from The Shame You Don’t Deserve” Kensington Publishing, New York.
  23. Picoult, Jodi (2009) “Handle With Care” Atria, New York
  24. Erickson, Thomas (2020) ”Surrounded By Psychopaths – Or, How to Stop Being Exploited by Others” Vermillion, London
  25. Dorpat, Theodore L. (1996). “Gaslighting, the Double Whammy, Interrogation, and Other Methods of Covert Control in Psychotherapy and Psychoanalysis.” Northvale, NJ: Jason Aronson.

Drive My Car

I went to The Projector on Tuesday this week for the 7:30pm screening of “Drive My Car” which won “Best Screenplay” in the 2021 Cannes Film Festival.

It is a movie adaptation of Haruki Murakami’s short story of the same title. (SPOILER ALERT: important plot points will be revealed, so please do not continue reading if you plan to watch the movie – it’s really worth watching)

The movie unfolded like a dreamscape – a meditation on intimacy and the distance between lonely souls. The title credits did not come in until 30 mins into the show when many plot points had already been established.

It really made me wonder for a long time what was going on.

It was such a departure from the usual narrative style of Hollywood Movies or even most other Asian movies influenced by that style. The surrealist style is pervasive even in the way the characters communicate. Most of what they say is so subtle and understated it is easy to miss.

A lot of the exchange is symbolic.

Words are kept to a minimum and every word means so much more than what is uttered.

The story revolves around Yasuke an actor and play director who, two years after losing his wife is still beset with grief.

The movie opens with a portrayal of Yasuke’s complicated relationship with his wife, Oto.

Yasuke and Oto live a harmonious life together – no dramas, no disasters, no fights. However, something is amiss. Yasuke and Oto seem to communicate through stories. Oto reveals herself to Yasuke through original stories which surface post-coitus.

She relates the plot-point and main character of this story and he takes what she relates and runs with it, expanding on the story, exploring with her ways the story can develop.

Their relationship is marked by grief and trauma from the death of their young daughter, who passed away almost 20 years ago. Their relationship, while seemingly intimate and creatively expressive, reveals itself to be somewhat delicate.

The protagonist and his wife aren’t able to break out of a comfortable but limited way of relating. They aren’t able to have real conversations, so they connect over sex and the stories that evolve from their sexual connection. She writes to work out the grief of losing their only child.

There is a fine balance in their relationship, but it requires them to hide aspects of themselves. This suppression of their real selves eats away at their sense of intimacy and they are both hidden from each other.

Unfulfilled, she seeks out deeper emotional connections through sexual encounters with the various actors she hires to act out the stories that she writes.

Her husband is well aware of this fact but fails to confront her.

One day he leaves for the airport only to have the flight cancelled due to a blizzard. He returns home to find her having sex in the living room with Koji, a young and handsome man – the latest actor in her long string of illicit sexual rendezvous.

Yasuke is visibly overcome, however, he quietly leaves the house and heads to a hotel near the airport.

I was mulling over how come Yasuke did not get mad and confront her when he caught her in the midst of copulation with Koji whom she’d brought on set.

He reveals later on that he was scared of losing her.

But this wasn’t even about self-respect…or his lack of it, it seems as if it is more about the fact that he really loved her. He accepted her fully as she was. He didn’t have the capacity to confront her because he felt that perhaps this was how she was coping with the grief.

He wanted to maintain the equilibrium.

I suppose people live like that – with compartmentalized hearts and lives. I was really surprised by how he talked to her over a video chat almost immediately after catching her and her illicit lover in a sex act and leaving the house.

You could see affection written all over his face even as he spoke to her. His wife had just betrayed and lied to him again, but he was just like his usual self, full of love and kindness. I just couldn’t believe it.

How?

He was an actor. Maybe that’s how.

He had leaned so deeply into that role that he essentially became that person. The person he was became indistinguishable from the role he played.

One day his wife expresses to him she’d like to talk to him when he gets back home later in the evening. She wants to have a real conversation with him, however, Yasuke is petrified – afraid that whatever “real” conversation they have will cause their relationship to breakdown. He spends hours driving aimlessly on the road, screwing up the courage to talk to her. When he finally gets home, he finds her collapsed on the floor, he runs to gather her into his arms, only to realize that she is dead.

The post-mortem reveals that she died from a brain aneurysm.
————————————————————————————————————————————————————————

Two years later, he is commissioned to direct a play by Anton Chekhov – “Uncle Vanya”. Koji, the last actor who’d slept with Oto unexpectedly shows up for the rehearsal for “Uncle Vanya”. Surprisingly, Yasuke does not turn him away and in facts gives him the lead role of Uncle Vanya himself.

Over the course of rehearsals, Koji seeks Yasuke out for drinks at a bar. Koji reveals that he is looking for “connection.” He feels drawn to Yasuke because he is the husband of the late Oto whom he deeply admired. It’s quite common for the people left behind by the departed to bond with each other because they share the common trauma of losing the same person. It can be a healing process where one can gain relational insight through connecting with the other loved ones of the departed.

Yasuke and Oto find out more about the late Koji through each other – more secrets are revealed and it is hinted to Koji that Yasuke knows about his affair with his late wife. However, there is no blame assigned, only acceptance and a deep love and respect for the late Koji – in spite of her excesses.

There was a mute girl on the set who inhabits Sonia’s character in “Uncle Vanya” played by Korean actress Park Yoo Rim. She took my breath away with her acting. If there is anything that confirms that our vocal chords are not necessary for communication, her acting definitely does that. The way she emotes with her hands and her body language is so solid, like it comes from a place that is deep within her. You know she is whole, you know she has integrity, you know she means what she says and says what she means, all without articulating a word.

That is something else.

It was also very interesting how on stage these actors speak in their native languages. The Taiwanese actress character, playing Elena in “Uncle Vanya”, is fluent in English and Mandarin, but cannot speak Japanese, so she reads out her lines in Mandarin. The cast is multi-lingual, but the dialogue flows as if they speak the same language.

To me this only goes to show how much is communicated without words. How was Koji able to play his role so seamlessly across from the Taiwanese actress role as Elena at the rehearsal for “Uncle Vanya” when they couldn’t understand each other verbally? They knew their lines, but they intuited the communication from each other’s body language.

I have left the best character for the last – Misaki – A 23 year old driver who is appointed to be Yasuke’s chauffeur for the duration of his stay in Hiroshima as he directs the play.

I really love how Yasuke’s relationship with Misaki unfolds: at first he balks at even having a driver – he was really guarded – this defensive, almost aggressive part of him did not surface until he encountered the person of Misaki. The car is where he practices his acting lines to a tape recording of the play. He deeply resents the idea of having a driver intrude on his private practice space. Due to health and safety regulations under company policy, however, he cannot refuse a chauffeur.

Misaki is introverted and very restrained. She remains unfazed despite Yasuke’s cold reception to her; yet, she caters well to Yasuke and intuits his needs even though she does not say much to him. Over time their relationship evolves and as they become more familiar with each other, they share raw pieces of their history in a way that brings deep healing to both of their stories.

It is revealed during one of their quiet rides together that Misaki had a mother who would hit her whenever she drove the car jerkily. However, she seems to have internalized the abuse she received and tells Yasuke that if it were not for her mother, she would not be able to drive as well and as smoothly as she currently does.

When the play is almost fully formed, Koji unexpectedly gets into legal trouble and has to abandon his role as Vanya. Yasuke is compelled to take over the role of Uncle Vanya, a role that he has tried to evade because “it forces the real [him] out.” In taking over the role of Uncle Vanya, a neurotic and difficult character, Yasuke is forced to confront his internal contradictions which he has long buried, along with his late wife.

Upon realizing that he has to take over the role of Uncle Vanya, he reaches a near emotional meltdown which he circumvents by asking Misaki to take take him back to her hometown, to the home where her mother was buried by a freak landslide – the site of Misaki’s own grief.

Misaki carries enormous amounts of guilt for having “killed” her mother. As she surveys her collapsed home that is buried in the snow, she relates how after brutally beating her up, Misaki’s mother would regress into another personality, a young girl 6 years old or so, who wouldn’t be able to walk, and who loved puzzles.

The phenomenon of taking on an alternate personality is called “splitting” – it is a dissociative symptom experienced by those who suffer from severe abuse in childhood. Your personality is split off into two or more parts. Exiled parts yourself (mainly the child-like parts of yourself) stay hidden and do not come out until something triggers the shutdown of the broken adult part of you. After beating Misaki up, her mother’s abusive personality would “shutdown,” and her exiled vulnerable inner child would come out instead.

Misaki reveals to Yasuke that she bonded with this young girl, took care of her and eventually came to see her as “her only friend.”

Yasuke, in turn, shares about how he wishes that he could see his late wife, Oto – if he had the chance to speak to her, he’d tell her how angry he felt with her, he’d scold her, but he’d also tell her how much he loved her. He cries while pouring his heart out to Yasuke telling her that they will always think of the ones who have died.

In that moment I teared up.

It’s been 6 years since my Father passed on from Pancreatic cancer. I am still grieving him. In addition to him, I think about other loved ones who have passed on: Anthony Yeo – the father of Counselling in Singapore, who, in my early twenties, when I was going through suicidal depression, counseled me twice a week. If it wasn’t for him, and the safe space he provided for me, I wouldn’t be alive today.

They say that when people die, a part of you dies along with them. Anthony Yeo shared with me though that you can talk to those who have passed on. When he was still alive, he would talk to his own dearly departed too.

I talk to my Dad – sometimes I tell him how sad and disappointed I feel about some of the things he did. One time I shouted at him and blamed him for abandoning us when we were kids. He came back though, and tried to be present in our lives in the limited way he could. Other times I tell him “thanks” for all the ways he’s been there for me. In rare moments, I find myself sharing a private joke with him.

“Drive My Car” really drove home the point to me that there’s a vanishing point in our suffering. If we were to paint a picture of our life and our struggles, there is a vanishing point in the picture which ties all the disparate pieces of our broken lives together. In that quiet place, everything slows downs, and as we lean into our suffering instead of trying to run away from it, the skein of our unprocessed grief is woven into the larger fabric of our lives.

Grief is strange – it comes back at odd moments, hitting hard like bullet holes to the heart.

However, when you take the time to listen to how you really feel and attend to your deepest needs, the pain lands, and you realize you are safe, despite, and maybe even because of the pain that you have finally chosen to stop running away from.