When Abuse Pretends It Isn't

The Blurry Lines Between a Significant Other's Mental Illness and Abuse and How It Affected My Relationship

Ok, so this is going to be a touchy article, regardless of what experience you have with it. Talking about mental illness (especially when you don't suffer from anything too serious yourself) is usually considered a little off-base. I try to keep my opinions to myself regarding most precarious social issues because no matter what it seems to cause unnecessary upset feelings and judgement, even if nobody is willing to admit it. But hey, I feel like this is important, and I wish I could have read something like this a year ago when I was in the throes of an abusive relationship and battling a mental illness that wasn't my own. If you've ever felt trapped by guilt, you probably have a good idea where I'm coming from. It really makes you question your morality. I never saw myself as someone who would abandon a person battling a MI, I thought it would make me a bad person and some days I feel like it does. 

So here's the story. I was in a relationship with somebody I had known for about eight years previous to getting into a relationship with them. He opened up to me through 3 AM wine-fueled staring-at-the-wall-and-pouring-out-your-life type conversations that he had dealt with some shit. Like, A LOT of trauma. Parental abuse, sexual abuse, neglect, homelessness, abandonment, suicide attempts, suicidal thoughts and self-harm. The whole nine, really. He really appreciated talking to me and seemed to really, REALLY care about me in a way that not many people had up to that point. He really seemed like he needed me, and I fell for that I guess. Through the majority of our friendship I was supportive, he really seemed like a great guy who had just been given a shit hand and didn't have many people to talk to so I always kept my line open for him. Eventually, when I broke it off with my boyfriend at the time, we started seeing each other almost immediately. After drudging through a stale and lifeless six-year relationship it felt amazing to be with someone who seemed to appreciate and value me as much as he did. It was pretty wild in the beginning and a complete secret from everyone in our lives which made it even more provocative and thrilling. After only four months of dating we decided to move in together. His living situation wasn't ideal and I really wanted to give him a stable and comfortable living environment which is something he never had. That's where things started going sideways. 

I learned pretty quickly that he had issues with substance abuse (alcohol, cocaine and well pretty much whatever he could find), and severe anger issues, something he had hidden pretty well for most of our friendship and beginning of our relationship. I also found out that he had ADHD and borderline personality disorder (none of this was a deal breaker for me, all I knew was I had to be supportive and accepting). I never blamed him for his substance abuse because I understood why he did it. I mean, he had been through trauma, this was normal I guess? I was there, being supportive as hell and tried not to get upset when I would come home from work and he was so drunk he could barely talk or stand up. I would pay the bills that he was short on by myself while he would spend his money on vices and then apologize for putting me out. I would say it was fine, he was just working through some stuff and it would get better. He would agree with enthusiasm and tell me about all of the monumental changes he was going to make to his life to make things easier. I would support him. This continued for about a year. One day when I had gotten home and he was especially drunk on red wine I had gotten as a gift from my parents (and notably conversationally lubricated), he slipped up and admitted to cheating on me about eight months prior. It wasn't noble or honest, mind you, it was essentially just that, a complete slip-up in conversation that led to the downfall of a lie he had been telling me for eight months. The best part? For the eight months he had been lying to me he could have given me an STD as he hadn't gotten checked after it happened. I was absolutely gutted. He cried and told me he had blacked out and doesn't remember (a lie). I forgave him but everything was different. I played dumb and just started accepting the lies he was telling me because it was easier. He would go on to cheat on me physically three times that I was aware of and emotionally well over 30 times in the two years we were together. I was distant, he would become angrier every time I came to him with an insecurity or an issue. He would call me stupid for not understanding a point that was made in the heat of illogical anger, he would call me a cunt, he would threaten to hit me (but never did), he would break doors, walls, couches, TV's, anything. He told me he would throw me through a wall simply because he was having a bad morning and I didn't say the right thing. I would leave, he would call me crying and telling me that he was going to kill himself, I would come back. We would argue, he would hurt himself, I would feel guilty. At this point I was miserable, all I ever felt was trapped, guilty and anxious. I never knew what would set him off and I kept quiet. We stopped going out with friends because it always turned into a blowout, humiliating public argument about something arbitrary, but his booze-fueled anger wouldn't let it go. All of this was going on around me and I was still struggling to find the line between his mental illness and the abuse so I would know what to forgive him for and what to take to heart. 

He would always blame the things he said and what he did on his mental illnesses so I always felt guilted into forgiveness. I had to call the police on him twice, one time landing him in the hospital because he took a machete to his arm in the heat of an argument. I read every article I could, I joined support groups, started training on how to deal with a person in crisis. I spent over $1000 on therapy before I just gave up on it, he didn't want or care about it and nothing was changing. I actually came to a point where I wanted him to hit me so I could justify leaving with a clear-ish conscience but I knew it wasn't going to be that easy. There was always a voice in the back of my head telling me that I couldn't possibly abandon someone who was so broken and add to the cycle of trauma. I was wrestling with that in my head for what felt like an eternity. I knew what I was signing up for, so how could I be heartless enough to walk out? He had opened up to me about his issues with abandonment so how could I leave too and be able to live with myself? I was scared and miserable, but could I do more to change this? What could I do differently to make this better? The real answer was nothing, but I really REALLY wanted to find the light at the end of the tunnel and every time I saw the tiniest glimpse of it, it just got farther away. He would tell me that I need to remain calm and act differently when he was yelling and verbally abusing me so that he could calm down. I really tried but after a while it just felt like he was asking me to react better to his abuse. He said I should have listened to what he was saying in between the threats and insults and maybe this wouldn't have happened again. I needed to change. I needed to do better. I needed to be more sensitive and understanding. I needed to get the fuck out. 

Things did eventually come to an end. One night I came home from work around 10 PM and invited my friend over. He came home late telling me something about fighting a guy in a parking lot and how victorious he was. He said he felt great. I avoided talking about it too much but I locked the door just in case. He started getting angry with me for avoiding the conversation and being on my phone (I was uncomfortable and embarrassed and going on my phone is kind of a reflex). He took my phone and threw it down the stairs, grabbed my shirt and started screaming in my face. He shoved me down onto the couch that my friend was sitting on, still screaming. I went to the bathroom and he followed me and told me he wanted to have a civil conversation (to which I agreed for some reason). Everything that was said in that bathroom feels blurry and rushed in my memory but it really becomes defined when he spit in my face and threw my drink into my eyes. I was hysterical at this point and luckily my friend was able to drive me to my parents house that night. I called the police to make sure he wasn't attempting suicide. And that was the end.

I guess the point of this is to highlight conflict in the fragility and discretion required of me while dealing with his mental illness and when it was't okay anymore. The context of a person "struggling" or "dealing with" a MI was never characterized clearly enough for me to be able to differentiate between the MI and just plain old abusive behavior. I never felt justified in leaving, or even being angry because all I ever saw from my friends and coworkers and strangers on the internet was an outpouring of support and empathy for anyone struggling with a mental illness. It must have been that I wasn't being a good enough partner to a person who is struggling. I felt like I had so much culpability in his breakdowns. I'm still working on understanding that you can't force someone to change, help people who don't want to be helped, and you definitely can't take responsibility for another persons illness. I still occasionally feel these gut-wrenching pangs of guilt in my stomach, like I could have done more or acted differently and maybe this was my fault in some way, but objectively I know it wasn't (I really wish emotions didn't get in your head so much). 

It is not some kind of reprehensible crime to walk away from someone with a MI when they are abusing you. It was messy, difficult and emotional, but removing myself from that has been the world's biggest weight off of my shoulders and I would encourage anyone in my situation or one similar to do the same. The entire time I was trying to define his mental illness and how it affected my life; the bigger picture was right there, but it's easy to get lost in the little things that make up your life at that time. I still regret staying for as long as I did, it is very clear to me now that while the line between a MI related outburst and actual abuse was grey at the time, the definition of abuse was always the same.

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When Abuse Pretends It Isn't
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