Anxiety and emotional abuse
I´ve decided to do a little experiment. I´m having an anxiety attack right now. On the surface, it is a typical emetophobia thing, but I believe this phobia just covers up the real issue, the real fear. It is just somatized emotions. So I will try to write about stuff that scared me a lot in my life. What I talk about might not be what caused the phobia, or the core of my fear. I´ll just bring to the surface whatever I can access at this time.
I´ve talked before about the failed relationship that prompted me to consult Dr. Stoneface. I ought to look back at it extensively, like I did with my destructive therapy. But seriously, my stomach goes into knots as soon as I think about it. Which, given the nature of my phobia, is a good indication that I should talk about it.
I will just roughly sketch out what happened in that relationship. I was about 16. There was a girl I was best friends with, I´ll call her Athena. Over the next year, we developed a relationship that went sort of beyond friendship, but we were never officially a couple. We never even kissed. Shortly before my 17th birthday, though, something happened that changed everything.
We had decided that she should spend the night at my place. I was very down in the evening, though, having a slight nervous breakdown. I´m sorry I´m talking about this so hastily, it probably sounds clumsy and irrelevant and I don´t know what. It shows how much I don´t want to talk about it, really. I´d say I should just not do it if I can´t do it properly, but I think it might be most important right now to get the plain facts out there on the table. I can always come back to the details later.
She stayed with me, comforted me, and in the end I returned to normal. I could see she was extremely relieved. In the morning, however, I had a row with my parents. I´d have to go into details I barely remember in order to explain it, but on the surface my behavior must have looked very irrational. After that row I was sitting in my room, angrily muttering to myself – and suddenly I realized Athena had left.
I completely went into shock.
I don´t understand that reaction. I might as well have sulked because she hadn´t even said goodbye.
What I did was run after her. Onto the street, without shoes. I grabbed her, tried to hold her back. She stared at me with something like pity, and I understood that she was unable to say anything. She touched my arm, then left.
I felt like all the oxygen had been sucked out of the air. Like I wouldn´t survive this. I staggered back to my room and sat down onto the bed. I didn´t feel like somebody had just left me (whether temporarily or in the form of a break-up), but as if somebody had died. Like she didn´t exist anymore. And as much as I liked her, I don´t believe this was all about her.
We had only been best friends for a year. You survive the break-up of a one-year-relationship. Besides, I didn´t even know if this was forever or not. All she had done was leave my house.
My panicky reaction shows that there is more to this. I feared that she would just evaporate, that I would never be able to talk to her again – LITERALLY! I was feeling completely helpless. I knew I couldn´t make her stay – not stay in a relationship with me, but stay in the same room with me until I´d even said goodbye.
I felt like a person who has been bereaved. Like a person whose most intimate significant other has – on a seemingly normal, harmless morning – suddenly died. No warning, no time to say goodbye.
I went over to her place, trying to talk to her. I was crying, trying to hold her. She moved away from me and said coldly: “Why are being such a drama queen?” Then she went inside, and when I tried to follow her, her stepfather kicked me out. I tumbled outside and just broke down crying.
I tried again in the evening, and this time she was seemingly back to normal. From then on, though, I was split into two parts. One part of me clinged on to any sign of normalcy and told itself everything would be just like it had been before. The other part of me was drowning in chaos. I felt lost, helpless and scared – as if I was falling apart inside. I had felt similar after my hospital stay during the “relationship” with the 21-year-old I talked about earlier in this blog. This time, though, it was a whole lot worse. I felt like I needed to be with Athena, like only she could give me back my inner stability. For several reasons, though, we couldn´t meet for more than a month after the incident, and I was deeply scared that she was leaving me. So I spent that month in quite a limbo.
When we met again, at first it was incredibly awkward. I felt disconnected from her, which made me panicky in itself. In retrospect I realize I was scared of her. I felt like she could leave me any time again, so I had to walk on eggshells. Not do anything that could bring out her other side. That cold, icy, disdainful voice in which she had talked to me. That evening, we managed to rekindle things, but soon afterwards we had an argument.
It was only the first in a series of arguments. And those arguments were always about our friendship. If we were really close, if we really trusted each other. If we really fulfilled our (or her) ideals of friendship. Over all, this period would last almost a year.
Those arguments terrified me. The worst part was that they typically took place over the phone. She could easily have left me at any time just by hanging up. Especially towards the end, there would be lengthy periods of silence on her part, while I would try to say just something that would generate an answer. Silence started to scare me even when we weren´t arguing. I feared it might mean I had done something wrong and she was just waiting for me to notice.
It was so easy to say or do something wrong. Most of the time I didn´t even realize it, and suddenly we were in a deep crisis and I had to figure out how we had gotten there. I could make it worse by trying to figure it out the wrong way. If I asked “Are you mad at me?”, she would snap: “Am I the evil one again?” If I asked “Did I hurt you somehow?”, she would reply: “Saying that I´m hurt would just make it sound like I´m stupid and hypersensitive. Is that what you think?” Replies like that left me stuck somewhere between anger and helpless fear. I felt like I had to be extremely stupid because I just couldn´t get it right, no matter what I said. It also terrified me because apparently I was a horrible person who had to be extremely grateful that Athena even tolerated her. I started to scrutinize myself. Did I love her properly? Was I really being 100% honest? Did I really have only good intentions and feelings towards her, no envy, no competitiveness? During every argument, I feared it might come to the light that I did not love her properly, that I was not honest. Once she was convinced that I was hiding some evil feeling from her, I would sometimes admit to it without being convinced of it, just in order to evoke the impression of honesty and determination to change. That, however, made me feel even more like a liar, and the thought what would happen to me if she found out was unthinkable. I was dead scared of her while telling myself that I loved her.
Being scared of her, of course, was in itself a crime against our friendship. It was irreconcilable with the idea of unconditional trust.
Very soon a routine established. When I realized that, despite my hypervigilance, I had said or done something wrong, I felt my entrails turn into ice. I felt that moment of shock, the physical effects of intense fear, often I got belly cramps. I felt helpless, desperate, like I was never going to be the friend I was supposed to be. I felt devastated, knowing that by the end of the argument I would feel even more like a horrible person than I already did. Being emotionally dissected like this sometimes hurt physically; there was a pain in my chest. Part of me, though, also switched off, hoped it would just be over soon, no matter how. That part held a certain disdain for Athena, thinking: “Yeah, well, let her talk, it doesn´t matter, just nod, don´t try to defend yourself, it would just prolong the argument.” In a way, that is my mother´s voice. That second part of me made the other part of me feel very guilty for not taking this seriously. It seemed like further evidence of how much of a rotten person I was. I was extremely scared that Athena might find out about this little voice, and when I forced myself to tell her about it, all in the name of honesty, she told me she´d forgive me if only I truly I had the will to fight that attitude. When I hesitated – I wanted to be honest, after all, and that voice ridiculed her demand as well – she got impatient and immediately I promised I had the will. Now I was scared that she might find out my will was not as strong and non-ambivalent as she wished.
I saw myself as a very bad person who was being forgiven again and again because she truly regretted her wrong-doings, saw how wrong they were and was determined to become a better person. So what I was scared of was that Athena might find that I did not truly regret or regretted for the wrong reasons (her being pissed off with me), that I didn´t really understand what I had done wrong, that my will was not quite so strong – and that, for one or all of these reasons, she would be unable to forgive me. That would not just imply that she´d leave me. Her leaving me would come as close to spiritual death as an atheist can get. See why I said I would have needed a sect specialist after the break-up?
I doubt it was her intention, but when she left on that morning, she broke me. From that moment on, there was a bizarre power imbalance in our relationship, and I was essentially scared of her. And dependent on her. As all the power shifted to her side, she was trying to fix all of our problems by demanding that I fix myself. As a result, I was trying to live a double-bind. Be absolutely honest with her, but don´t have any negative feelings about her, or any other impulses, needs and ambitions that might threaten our friendship.
I have thought about this relationship for many years, so I have figured out much of the double-bind part. In fact, I decided to study philosophy in order to free myself of this double-bind, even though I couldn´t fully articulate it back then.
What I haven´t figured out is why her leaving affected me the way it did. Why the power shift happened. Where this inner chaos and disorientation was coming from.
Nobody has ever helped me figure it out. I was in therapy for more than two years, but we never really talked about this relationship. A relationship in which I regularly froze up with fear. It is madness to think this hasn´t changed me; that just because I entered another relationship everything is like it was before I met Athena. That I´m still the same. It is all still inside of me, that entire fear. The fear of abandonment, the fear of ultimate psychological destruction. Of course I get anxiety attacks. This relationship was abusive, and, ultimately, it constitutes a trauma. If I´m really surprised that I´m not doing well, then I´m obviously still caught up in some kind of denial. After eight years.