I jolt awake when I hear my subconscious say, "He's a narcissist." It's been nine months since I've acknowledged that I'm being abused. But I believe he cannot help it.
It's not that I haven't found the transactional way he deals with life strange or how he hijacks every conversation to center around himself. He even laughs about it, and tells me stories about why he is the way he is. I know they're traits of narcissism, but my heart goes out to him. So I think that because I understand where he comes from, it's not his fault.
Of course, I love him, too. Throw in the roller-coaster ride of emotional ups and downs, sex, memories of good times, and promises of better things to come—and it's one confusing cocktail that intoxicates me.
To sum it up, I'm in my own brand of denial—where I choose to acknowledge the good stuff and the piecemeal ephemeral changes. That doesn't mean I can't see what he does to me, or I don't voice the pain. I simply choose to explain it away.
And before you tell me—and every other person who's been abused—how stupid I am, let me tell you what kept that "stupidity" going. It's so much more powerful than hope; it's fueled by my sense of possibility.
I first knew him when I was young and running away from the repressive hold of religious dogma. We spoke about life, philosophy, and spirituality. He told me all about his spiritual practices, his journey, and how his friends abandoned him because of that. That framed how I saw him—a fundamentally good man who's had some bad luck.
If this sounds ridiculous to you, think about the last time someone you love hurt you. Because you believe they're innately good, you explain it away. Then, think about someone you dislike. No matter what that person does, it'll never be enough to make you like them. You explain their kindness as a transient fluke.
Our preconceived notions about people largely determine the evidence that we either discount or keep, in order to align with that worldview.
So the first time he accuses me of being unfaithful, I choose to see it as "poor man, he's been burned before." When he points a knife at my throat, I chose to believe it's because he was altered by alcohol. And when he drags me out of bed and confiscates my belongings, I choose to believe he's having a psychotic break.
Every time I flee from my house because I'm in danger, I tell our friends, "Fundamentally, he's a good person. He's had a lot of shitty things happen to him."
Thus, even though he abuses me, I don't call it abuse. And when I start to face the fact that he's being abusive, I don't call him an abuser.
And this is why those preconceived notions are dangerous—I believe it's not his fault, and I blame myself for triggering him to take these actions. Perhaps I did something that led him to binge drink. Maybe I wasn't careful enough, so he believes I'm unfaithful—I should know better to be sensitive because he gets paranoid. Then I'm filled with shame because I haven't been understanding enough, and I don't know who to talk to.
But that dream makes me flip the script and ask myself, "What if he's a bad man. What if he's a narcissist?" Then everything changes.
Even though I've had clinical training on narcissistic personality disorder, I realize how little I actually understand. So I read up on thousands of victim accounts and delve into specialized research. And one night, I lie next to him, finally opening Women Who Love Psychopaths on my Kindle. My blood runs cold as I read the book.
I realize what's keeping me stuck. It's my preconceived idea of who this man is.
But my metaphorical glasses have shattered. The Emerald City isn't a resplendent shade of green—it's a mucky, smelly brown. Everything takes on a new cast, and I stop explaining things away.
Our interaction evolves. He taunts me, saying that his friends hate me. I ask him, "Do they even know what you've done to me?" And he sniggers, "Nobody will believe you. I've given work to them. And I work for charity." His mask crumbles further.
I seek help, make plans to leave, and eventually walk away.
When I speak to other people who've been abused but return to their abuser, the one commonality I recognize is that they hold on to the illusion that their partner is fundamentally a good person. Even if they choked, beat, or raped the abused party.
But when they imagine that person is a stranger who's committed the same atrocities against their sibling/child/friend, they unanimously speak out about standing up for themselves—about justice and freedom.
So, if you or someone you know has been abused, reframing how you see your abuser is your first and foremost step.
After I leave, I ignore most of my partner's communications. They're aimed at absolving blame. They tell me it's all my fault. They tell me he loves me unconditionally. Leaving doesn't mean my heart is completely hardened. That 5 percent of me that says, "What if it's just the substances and he can't help it?" is powerful. I know what it's like to feel that pull to your narcissistic abuser, because I felt it.
Here are some other things you can do to stay strong in the face of that pull to go back to an abusive relationship:
1. Write a list of everything bad your abuser has ever done to you.
It's 11 p.m. on my birthday. I've had a wonderful time with my friends, toasting the glorious fact that I'm alive. A text pops in from him. Narcissists will contact you on birthdays and special occasions—anything to soften you. Regardless of my foreknowledge, at that moment, logic is hurled out the window. I start to crave his touch and his smell. I find myself wanting to believe he's a good person.
It takes every iota of strength I have to head back to my friend's couch. I turn on my laptop and read my 5,000-word recounting of all the nasty things he's done.
Think your memory's patchy? I found old diary entries and his apologetic emails. And I referenced my bookings at my favorite spa, the morning after he abused me—the one where my masseuses ask me, "Did something bad happen? Your body, I've never seen anything as bad as that." And I mumble, "I have a stressful job."
I scrolled through my photo diary.
That safari trip? The day before, he'd forced me to come see him at his friend's house—all because I'd not answered my phone. Then he accused me of checking up on him and called me a slut. I stumbled home in fright and threw up.
That series of Christmas photos? The next morning, he threw his iPad at me. He said that my going back to work meant I was cheating on him.
Whether it was before or after the event, I always paid the price. You'll find your reminders. It's therapeutic to write it out. And it's a useful reminder during the times that you feel weak. Send it to yourself as an email. Keep reading it.
2. Recognize the reasons you may be holding on to those preconceived notions.
It's not just sentimentality. For me, Jeff Brown says it best:
"I saw glimpses of someone's potential, their beautiful soul, their loving heart, and told myself that this was who they truly were, ignoring all the rest. But the rest was what destroyed. The rest is where they lived most of the time...I held the belief in my own potential, as a way of overcoming the shame I carried. But I made the mistake [of believing] that everyone else was just as eager to find their light."
Every time I log into Facebook and see the happy families, I can't help but feel like an anomaly. I know I've changed my life, but truth be told, believing in his potential helps me believe in mine. And I'm hoodwinked by his promises.
Maybe you buy into your abuser's potential because you want to buy into yours. But a narcissist is a narcissist, and the glimpses he shows you of goodness are false trails. Only what you've done for yourself is real.
3. Tell the people who will hold you accountable if you cave.
For years, I never told my parents or my closest friends the truth—only snippets of his paranoia and drunkenness. I was afraid that they'd tell me to leave him. That's what I would've told them.
So, it's the day I'm supposed to fly home for my mother's 60th birthday. I've finally had all I can take from him. I call my parents and say I've had to forfeit my ticket because I've got loose ends to tie up—meaning, I'm finally leaving. I assure them I'm safe and tell the censored version of the things he did.
My heart pounds—I'm half-worried they'll tell me not to give up on him. But they don't. I know they'll keep me accountable and help me to never go back to my abuser.
Then I reach out to tell my closest friends the truth. I'm terrified they'll tell me to press on.
But they've got my back—every single one of them.
4. Find out the truth about him.
Over the years, my doubts accumulated.
I remember his old friend commenting during a holiday, and saying, "I'm surprised that he can hold down a relationship. He has no respect for people." I'm stunned. But my abuser has warned me about all the people in his circle—one likes to foist drugs on him, another is a gossip—and he doesn't really want to see them apart for sentimental reasons. I had no reason to doubt him back then.
As I receive more threatening emails from my abuser, I take a deep breath and contact his friend, eager to put the mystery to bed.
I learn that every sob story he's told to make me believe he's a good person is a lie. Every tale he's told about someone hurting, cheating, or abandoning him, he actually did to them.
By the end of that call, I'm shaking.
Every last shred of doubt I have about leaving him is exorcised for good.
His hold on me is severed.
I am free—finally shame- and guilt-free.
So, do your own investigative work. The friends he warns you against, the people from his past he maligns—they can tell you the truth. And the truth might finally set you free.