I recently watched a You Tube video of a leopard sneaking up on a baboon. She was an expert huntress. She took her time, crept silently through the brush while the baboon played, happy and oblivious. She struck. Fought hard. The baboon put up a pretty good fight, but the leopard was bigger, stronger, had sharper teeth and was just more programmed for attack. Once the screams stopped and the baboon lay dead at her feet the leopard discovered a baby baboon hiding in its murdered mother’s pelt. The huntress was replaced by a more maternal guise – the leopard quickly forgot her kill and assumed position of mother to this newborn babe. She licked it and cuddled it, did her best to keep it warm – to make up for leaving it orphaned, vulnerable, exposed. But no matter how many kisses the leopard gave it, no matter how deep she tucked it under her spotted bib, the baboon died. The cold was just too much. And if the cold hadn’t gotten it, then hunger eventually would have.
The abuser sneaks up on its prey much like the leopard does. Silently. And then strikes with no warning, claws outstretched and fangs barred. The abused is caught off guard. Where are these fangs coming from? Am I imagining them?
The abused tries several different tactics to try to calm the abuser down. Sometimes we beg. Sometimes we cry. Often we try to appeal to their rational side (this never works because their rational side has up and vanished). Other times we fight back, but our claws aren’t sharp enough and we just can’t win. And once we are reduced to baby baboon status… cold, terrified, defenseless… the leopard switches masks and becomes loving. Holds us close to lick our wounds, keep us safe, let us know she loves us and she’s sorry. This switch is confusing and meant to disarm us. Keep us on our toes. Make us feel like maybe we’re the ones who are crazy. But we succumb because, after such a strong show of hate, the love feels so, so good. So, so necessary.
And the abuser doesn’t show run-of-the-mill love. Oh no. The abuser’s love is fire and passion. A Harlequin romance gone wild. Ever wonder why women…smart women… stay with a man who abuses them, either physically or emotionally? Because as horrifically as they abuse is as magnificently as they love….or so it seems. Their “love” is addictive, and burns brighter than any love the abused will ever know…before or after. But this crazy love isn’t enough on its own. Not if the abused has any real sense of self. Eventually we can’t ignore that all our light is gone, all our energy drained, and our love is so damaged that we cannot survive. We die cold and starved for intimacy. Or at least our love does.
Emotional abuse starts off small—mini-earthquakes that make you think adventure rather than mayhem.
A simple scenario: One morning, while brushing my teeth in the bathroom, I hear Nightingale making adorable stretching noises in my bedroom. So when I crawl back into bed I playfully tease, “Is there a monster in my bed?” I tickle his chest. “Who’s the Gremlin making noises?”
This does not go over well. A light, loverly mood instantly morphs into disaster. Apparently his OCD reads my playfulness as a polemic.
“You think I’m a monster?”
“No, Babe,” I laugh, thinking he must be playing along. “I was just teasing because you were making such adorable noises.”
“But you called me a monster. That means you think I’m a monster.”
This “conversation” lasts about half an hour. We go 20 more rounds of the same dialogue. Him upset that I think he is a monster, and me talking him down, explaining how much I love him and that I was only kidding around.
The words mimic a comical conversation between a confused 5-year-old boy and his mother. What is not comical is that it’s between a 40-year-old man and his girlfriend. And what is downright terrifying is the shadow that comes over him. The darkness in his eyes. The look that reads, “I hate you. I know you’re out to get me. Get the hell away from me.” And the malice in his tone…it frightens any comedy out of the situation. And my stomach doesn’t untwist for a good couple of hours later.
Still, I could handle these misunderstandings. After all, he is only showing his vulnerability. He isn’t attacking me per se, is he? And he takes responsibility for it all: He apologizes, holds me tightly, resumes his manhood, and assures me that it is his OCD, not me, and that this happens with everyone…all his ex-girlfriends.
Eventually the 4.1 earthquakes turn into 7s and 8s with the vault-line right underneath you. You tread carefully, not wanting to cause a rumbling. The therapist will assure you that it doesn’t matter what you do or say, your lover will find a way to twist it. And while validation is comforting, it is only temporarily so, especially when you know you cannot carry on like this for much longer. You are exhausted from dancing with Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. The crazy-making has spun out of control and into delusion.
A holiday that should be filled with love and peace turns into a surreal journey into the Twilight Zone. You wake, excited to spend Christmas with the man of your dreams, handsome in his red baseball cap and sweats. Proud to introduce him to your family, show them the man with whom you are building a new life.
“Babe, maybe I should get in the shower before we Skype your parents,” Nightingale says, a slight frown lining his brow. “I probably shouldn’t meet them wearing a hat.”
Not wanting him to feel self-conscious, I give him a hug and kiss and say, “Honey, you look great in a hat.” Because he does.
“Really? Are you sure?”
“Yep. They won’t care if you’re wearing a hat. If you want to shower, that’s cool. But don’t feel you have to.”
“I don’t know. Are you sure the hat is okay?”
We’ve gone a couple of rounds, so I sense some EXTRA validation is necessary. “You look gorgeous, Babe! You’re at your best in a hat.”
And then the shadow creeps out from that small part of his mind, infiltrating the rest of his brain, his eyes, his lips, his heart, his fingertips to the tips of his toes. An anger so powerful he cannot stop it. His dark eyes glare at me and he accuses, “You don’t think I look good without a hat?”
My heart is racing. It is back, and with a vengeance. Not on Christmas, I silently pray. Please, not today. “No, Sweetheart, I think you look great without a hat too.”
“But you said I’m ‘at my best in a hat.’ Which means you don’t like the way I look without a hat. You don’t like my hair.”
“Honey. I love your hair. You have this thick, full set of sexy hair! I love how you look without a hat.”
His scowl dips one shade blacker. “Well, which is it? Do you like me better with a hat or without?”
In the midst of my mounting terror I realize that this is what men must feel when women ask, ‘Do these jeans make me look fat?’ and then get ridiculously upset no matter the man’s answer. Thankfully, I have never been one of these women.
“Who even says that?” he rails. “YOU’RE AT YOUR BEST IN A HAT? And this isn’t the OCD. Anyone would be upset with you for saying that!”
“I’m sorry. I wasn’t thinking when I said it,” I stammer. “I just…I just said it. I wanted you to feel comfortable meeting my parents.”
“You obviously meant it or you wouldn’t have said it. So, tell me,” he sneers. “Which do you like better?”
“But…I like them both…” and he keeps on until I say that if I have to pick I guess I prefer him without a hat. This must be the right answer, yes? And then I am accused of lying.
“I don’t even want to spend Christmas with you,” he says. “We should spend the day with other people.”
At this point I am on my knees, sobbing…begging. “Please. Let’s just calm down and talk this through.”
“See! Now you’re trying to control me,” he yells. “You’re always trying to control me.”
“I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.” The hardwood floor is digging into my knees and my eyes sting from mascara smears—and it registers…I’ve been in this position a lot lately.
“I’m not trying to control you. I was just trying to—“
“Control the conversation!” he finishes.
I sink back on my heels, defeated. “If you want to spend Christmas with someone else, I understand.”
“Don’t you? DON’T YOU WANT TO SPEND CHRISTMAS WITH SOMEONE ELSE?” he demands.
“No. No…I want to spend Christmas day with the man I love. I want to spend it with you.”
And then something in him shifts. Perhaps my defeat has registered and he no longer feels threatened, but Nightingale is back and at my side. Holding me and apologizing. Kissing away my tears.
Ten minutes later we are Skyping with my family. We carry my laptop around and show them our new place and I pretend everything is great. I sit on his lap and put on a brave smile, but my eyes beg them to see my hidden thoughts. Thoughts I am not yet ready to admit, even to myself.
“Save me…” I think. “Please save me. My Nightingale may be crazy.”