You’ve seen the title, so I’ll clear the air: No, I’ve never been in an abusive relationship.
Well, not exactly. I thought I might have been in one once, but it turns out he just talked to me like I talked to myself.
“You like attention too much." “You’re not that special.” “You’re an alcoholic.”
On second thought, maybe he never said any of those things. Maybe it's simply that, when he was around, those thoughts were top of mind.
Until last night, I didn't think I was the type of person to find herself in an abusive relationship. I know, I know - this is wrong thinking. It isn’t a “type of person” at all. Anyone is susceptible.
In physically abusive relationships, the survivor’s safety - and that of her kids, if she has any - could be threatened if she tries to leave. The right answer, at least for now, is often to stay. She doesn’t have to buy into the abuser’s carefully crafted reality in order to see there are genuine risks in escaping it.
But then, there are other types of abuse. More often than not, no physical contact is made. (Or when it is, it is conciliatory, even affectionate.) This is the type of abuse in which the person being abused is “all in.” For better or worse, she buys it. Quite conveniently, in this alternative universe, the abuser makes him or herself necessary to the happiness - hell, the very existence - of the abused.
I’m the one who protects you. I see the real you. Other people might find you charming, but they don’t know the half of it. You’ve fooled them. Don’t you want to be seen? Valued? Known? They don’t get it, not like I do. Without me, you’ll have no one. You’ll be no one.
Until last night, I thought I was simply too skeptical for that. I’ve never bought the same person’s reality for more than a few months. I easily see flaws, even when it involves just totally making them up. The other day, a friend told me she sees me as “always searching.” (Which is a nice way of saying “Never satisfied.”) When reality shows me what is, I say “Uh huh. What else?”
Last night, I was met with a rather uncomfortable realization: My eating disorder functions in precisely the same way as an abusive partner. She has created quite an elaborate reality - one in which I have an unforgivably large stomach and she alone has the tools to help me overcome it. A version of reality in which, when my stomach fails to shrink, it’s because I didn’t try hard enough. A version in which, when it does shrink, that still isn’t enough. “That’s great,” she says. “Now keep going.”
When others say, “You look great,” my eating disorder tells me, “They’re just being nice.” Or, “They have low standards.”
When others say, “Have breakfast with me,” my eating disorder says, “Better make it coffee.”
When I eat something, particularly something that the eating disorder has forbidden, she chastises me. “Anna! That wasn’t safe.”
And when I try to pull away from her, she desperately begins to compromise:
“No, please! You can eat a little more, as long as you count calories.”
“You can gain weight, but not too much.”
“I promise, you will hate yourself without me.”
“I just want you to be safe.”
“Please. Don’t. Leave.”
Last night, I went to the store to find new pants. I’ve gained six pounds so far in recovery, and my clothes are already uncomfortable. I tried on 15 pairs. Each pair was either too big, too small, too tight, too loose, too pants. I hate pants. It was demoralizing.
I had put in a noble effort. Back at home, my eating disorder sensed an opening. She was like an ex-partner texting me late at night.
“You up? I just want to talk.”
She absolutely did not just want to talk. She wanted me back. And here’s the hope: While I didn’t quite block her number, I firmly ignored her text. It was miraculous - like the first time you roll your eyes at the person who broke your heart.