Being Believed Changes Everything

Trigger warning: abuse and survivors not being believed

I logged into Fetlife this morning for the first time in a few days, to find a message from someone I haven’t seen in years. I regarded this person as a friend and I think I even had a little crush on them! But I met them through a community I was brought into by my abusive ex. A community I left behind when I walked away from that relationship. I cut every tie I had with everyone who was connected with him, because I had to.

I won’t go into detail about what my friend said to me in their message, but there was an underlying theme that immediately leapt out at me. That theme was I believe you. Lots of us believe you. We see him for what he really is.

It made me cry, because being believed isn’t something survivors get to experience very often.

Being believed changes everything

This is actually, coincidentally, the second instance recently of someone reaching out to me with a message that amounts to “hey, I believe you”.

When you’re a survivor of any kind of abuse, being doubted and disbelieved is something that comes with the territory. You speak out, and people question you, interrogate your story, or outright accuse you of lying. It’s painful, and it sucks. Maybe you keep speaking out and harden yourself to the world’s hostility, or maybe you shut up, retreat, keep quiet, watch your abuser continuing to have power and influence.

Imagine how different the world would look if we believed survivors as a matter of course. Imagine how much more effectively we could tackle the problem of abuse if our first reaction to it wasn’t to brand survivors as crazy, as delusional, as liars, as attention seekers.

If you do one thing for a survivor, believe them

You can’t rescue them, nor should you try. Inserting yourself into the narrative as a saviour does more harm than good. You can’t push them towards a specific path, like pressing charges. You can’t make the pain or the trauma or the fucking heartwrenching, eviscerating reality of what they experienced go away.

But what you can do is believe them.

The times in the last few years that someone has reached out a literal or virtual hand to me and said, “I believe you”? Those meant everything. They broke through the fog of doubt and guilt, the occasional intrusive thoughts that still pop into my head, saying but what if it was you all along? What if you were just too crazy, too broken, not good enough for him to love you properly?

Because being believed changes the game.

This one is for my fellow survivors. I love you and I believe you.

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[Quote Quest] It’s Never All Bad

Only when we are brave enough to explore the darkness will we discover the infinite power of our light.
– Brene Brown

TW: abusive relationship, mention of suicidal ideation

I don’t understand why you didn’t leave.”

I’ve heard some variation of this question dozens of times, if not hundreds of times, since I left my abuser a little over five years ago.

It’s an understandable question. Anyone who has heard me talk about what living in that relationship was like could be forgiven for wondering the same thing. Hell, I’ve asked myself the same question countless times.

The truth is nuanced and complicated. The truth is partly that I was so young – still a teenager when I met him, and he was so much older. I had precious little power to begin with, and he robbed me of the rest.

But the piece that’s always been hard for me to face is this: it wasn’t all bad.

It would be easy to leave an abuser if they were all bad. Very few people would even enter into, let alone stay in, a relationship with someone who treated them like shit right from the beginning. Abusers show their true colours over time, once you’re already invested. Or they temper their explosive outburts with moments of behaving like the sweetest, most loving person in the world.

A couple of years ago, I wrote about how I sometimes wished he would hit me because then I would feel confident naming it as abuse and be able to leave. Would I actually have left if he had done that? I don’t know. I might still have justified it, excused it, run logical rings around us until I made it somehow my fault.

He wasn’t all bad.

I still remember the first time I saw him. A shock of long hair and a cheeky, charming grin, brown eyes that sparkled mischievously when they locked with mine. The first time we kissed, by still water on a chilly November night, when I thought my heart would stop. The first night we spent together, when we stayed up talking and fucking and talking until we fell asleep sometime past dawn.

Later, too, the lows that made me want to kill myself were interspersed with highs that felt like dancing on a cloud. He’d scream at me and throw things while I cowered away from him, wondering if this would be the time he’d lose control and throw a punch. But later, he’d shove me against a wall and kiss me and the incredible sexual chemistry we undeniably had would rush to the surface, and I would be powerless to say no.

One day he would tell me I was poison, a curse who destroyed his life the day he met me. The next, he’d tell me I was the most beautiful woman he’d ever known, a goddess who had him under a spell. From day to day, I never knew if I’d be an angel or a demon.

The man who reduced me to calling my best friend, sobbing and suicidal, in the middle of the night was the same man I waited for in airports at dawn, just to throw my arms around him when he came through the barrier.

Even when I was in the middle of it, I recognised the rollercoaster. I remember telling friends, “we never do things by halves. It’s either incredible or it’s terrible, there is no middle ground”. Every time a low was low enough that I almost left, a new high would suck me back in. It was like almost dying and then taking a gulp of oxygen. Over and over and over.

It wasn’t all bad. And I wish it had been. Because then I might have left much sooner… or never got involved in the first place.

If there’s one thing I want you to take away from this piece, it’s this: maybe don’t ask survivors why they didn’t leave earlier. Our reasons are personal, complex, nuanced, and our own. We don’t have to justify it to you or to anyone. For me? I stayed for so long because it wasn’t all bad. Until the day it was.

The Quote Quest badge, for a post about my abusive relationship and how it wasn't all bad

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Letting Go Is Not Forgiveness

“You have thrown it all away,
Stand back, watch it burn –
Just watch it all burn.”

(“First Burn” – Lin Manuel Miranda)

Close to a decade ago, two people I trusted hurt me very badly. The finer points of the story are unimportant; the Spark Notes version is that my partner and metamour (who was, I thought, a dear friend) deliberately lied to me and deliberately betrayed my trust in a deep and profound way that had lasting implications for my life.

First I was sad. Then I felt stupid, because how could I have let them take me in like that? Then I got angry. And then… well, then I kinda stayed angry. I raged to my other partner and my friends, and I was still angry. Then I yelled on the internet and I was still angry. I burned everything he gave me that I could put a match to, and I was still fucking angry.

Occasionally I still see them; once a year or so when I go to an event that I love and refuse to be pushed out of just because they’re going to be there. And every time I’ve seen them for so many years, I get this visceral sense of fuck you both.

Honestly, it felt kind of powerful for a while. Because if I was angry, if I was actively hating them, then I couldn’t feel like an idiot. I couldn’t question whether it was my fault – whether by letting my partner sleep with someone else (to whatever extent the notion of “allowing” another adult to do something is meaningful) I had tempted fate that eventually he’d like her more. Whether I’d trusted too easily and so allowed this to go on right under my nose, suspecting nothing. Or whether I’d just not been giving enough, pretty enough, sexy enough to keep him interested in me. Being angry gave me the illusion of having the upper hand. Of “you two might have ripped the rug of my life out from under me, but at least I still have the moral high ground.”

Sometimes I barely think about them for weeks or months. And then something will spark it all over again – a dream, a post on social media that has somehow bypassed my “block them and their partners on absolutely everything” measures, something I see on TV that reminds me of the situation – and there’s that flash of white-hot anger, powerful as ever.

But my therapist recently helped me to realise that being angry really isn’t serving me any more – and probably hasn’t been for a long time. At this point, all it serves to do is to take up space in my brain that those two really haven’t been entitled to for a very long time. All it does is cause me to mistrust everyone who gets close to me – to start from a point of assuming betrayal and harm is inevitable and making them work their way up from there, rather than the fairer position of starting from a place of neutral trust equity.

“I need to let it go, don’t I?” I said, close to the end of one session.

In that way characteristic of good therapists, she answered my plea that she tell me what to do with another question. “What have you got to gain if you do?”

I thought about it. “Space in my head, mainly,” was my answer. There were other things, too, of course. Things which would improve my relationships with others, my relationship with myself, and my ability to trust other people again.

“I can’t forgive them, though,” I told my therapist. “I draw the line there.”

“No-one is asking you to forgive them.”

That’s when I realised that it might be possible to let go of something in a way that doesn’t imply forgiveness. In a way that doesn’t, directly or indirectly, tell the person who hurt you that what they did was okay or doesn’t matter any more. Because it does fucking matter!

Forgiveness, despite what well-meaning people often tell me, is fundamentally about the person who did the hurting in my opinion. Forgiveness, in the context of an ongoing and loving relationship where someone has fucked up (even very badly) is a great virtue and can be what enables the relationship to continue. However, I believe that in order to be meaningful, the person who is being forgiven has to understand what they did wrong and take steps to never do it again. I don’t have that. They still don’t think I did anything wrong – I was just an obstacle they had to clear to get

Letting go, though? That’s for me. That’s all mine. My therapist taught me that letting something go is a gift to myself, not to them. It doesn’t involve them at all! Letting go says that they don’t deserve the space in my head it takes to think about them any more. Space which could be better used for writing, learning, making my current relationships awesome, or honestly even just watching hours of back-to-back cat videos on the internet.

Letting go says “your loss, I’m gonna go live my life now.”

I’m taking a deep breath, and I’m letting all this long-held anger go.

This post was written as part of Smutathon 2019. We’re writing intensively for 12 hours to raise money for the National Network of Abortion Funds. Please sponsor us if you can – we’d like to raise $5,000 to help ensure access to safe, legal abortion is available for anyone who needs it.

The Smutathon 2019 graphic

I Tried to Make Him Hit Me.

This was written as part of Smutathon 2018: #SmutForChoice edition. I’m sorry it’s not very sexy, but it’s sex-adjacent and it needed writing. If you’d like to support abortion access, please click below and donate – you can also win sex toys!

The one thing he never did was hit me.

He screamed at me, including in the middle of the night, including where my flatmates could hear, including when I had no idea what I’d done. He controlled so many facets of my life, and not in ways I’d consented to as part of a kinky dynamic. Guilting and ignoring your partner because they went for an innocent coffee with a friend who happens to be of a different gender is not fun D/s. He monitored my weight and shamed me if I gained a few pounds. I was pushed on to medication. He would even punch, kick and throw objects in front of me, just so I was in no doubt how scared he wanted me. It goes on.

I have a secret confession: I tried, a handful of times, to make him hit me. On these occasions, when he shouted at me, I didn’t cower – I sassed back, very occasionally even yelled back. I called him out on his bullshit. I even, on one particular occasion, told him “you’re abusive”. That was the time I most thought he was going to throw a punch at me.

See, I wanted permission to leave. I wanted something that would tell me unequivocally, this is bad and you can get out. The part of me that still loved him would, I thought, quiet down if he actually raised a hand to me. The part that was sure he was the best I’d ever do would snap out of the stupid trance he’d got me in. I realise now that it probably wouldn’t – I’d probably have justified it and convinced myself that I deserved it and stuck around anyway, the stupid subservient fucking lapdog that I was.

Just fucking hit me, I thought, and then I can leave and I won’t be the bad guy. Because if I left, I knew he’d demonise me. I couldn’t love him as he was. I couldn’t be good enough to make him happy. I’d be the girl who couldn’t handle it.

We teach women and girls that they should leave if a partner physically hurts them. But we don’t speak enough about emotional and mental and psychological abuse. Too often, the message women get is try harder, try harder, try harder! Love him into not abusing you! We romanticise control as being “protective”.  We play off screaming as “it’s only because he cares”. This starts in childhood, when we tell little girls he’s mean to you because he likes you, and it continues and continues and continues and the next thing you know you’re in your 20s and sobbing on some guy’s floor because he yelled at you again and you’re terrified of him but also you just love him so much you’re sure you’ll die if you leave. THEN they have the fucking nerve to say “at least he didn’t hit you.”

He never crossed that line, and in his eyes that made him not-abusive. In mine, it just meant I had to wait for the abuse to get bad enough before I was “allowed” to leave. That took a long fucking time. Learning earlier that physical violence wasn’t the only form of cruelty I should Not Tolerate might have made all the difference.

Parents, teachers, adults: we must teach our girls that they do not have to tolerate cruelty of any kind. That they don’t have to tolerate the mental torture until he finally snaps and hits them. Please let’s do better for the next generation of girls.