I thought I rested in your palms like a music box, when I hung in your grip like an invalid. "I don't have words," I slurred, absolutely stoned and oceaned with devotion, and, fluttering, frustrated your questions into silence. You only saw my broadest sweeps, the dashes and dots, some of the inevitabilites and a wound or two. You never could focus.
i have hit the cold floor again. my lovers are sleeping soundly, dreaming that i am still between them while i grip the kitchen sink, taking sandpaper to my frontal lobe, feeling the solitary sage capsule rattle in my ribcage. i have cut my hair and practiced violin and thrown out my scissors and i have been a man and not, but at least i have a perfect sense of direction.
There is no such thing as mutual abuse.
There is no such thing as mutual abuse.
Abuse is a non-consensual power imbalance. The Domestic Violence Hotline defines domestic violence thus: “a pattern of behaviors used to gain or maintain power and control.” This pattern of behaviors (which may include coercion, threats, intimidation, and isolation, among other tactics) is not exclusive to any one gender, though abusive dynamics often mirror social privilege norms (which I will address in a forthcoming post).
There is, however, DEFINITELY such a thing as mutual toxicity. Often in relationships where one person has power over the other, neither are perfect. Either person may have been or currently be toxic in their other relationships, and engage in many unhealthy behaviors.
Two people cannot abuse each other, however, because abuse is about having power over another person in a way that they did not consent to.
This may seem like a matter of semantics, but often abusers will say things like “You’re abusing me too!” after survivors push back on the control being exerted on them.
When I was first looking into the matter of abusive relationships, it was to support a close friend who had just left one. She had me read Lundy Bancroft’s Why Does He Do That? and I was rendered very uncomfortable. Many of the behaviors were things that I had done— that one time I slapped my partner when he was transphobic to me? Telling someone honestly that I thought I might kill myself if they left me?
It was only after quite a bit of introspection (and support from aforementioned friend) that I realized that I was the one being abused. Besides the individual behaviors that one or each of us engaged in, the overall dynamic of the relationship leaned heavily in his favor. He got what he wanted, and I didn’t.
Years later, I found out this was a pattern, and that he had been doing all of it on purpose. The moment of clarity was crystal clear and razor sharp– I had barely avoided serious bodily harm in the four years we were together. After that revelation, I never doubted that all along I was just an unhealthy person trying my damnedest to be heard.
If you are in an unhealthy dynamic, please remember this. No one can tell from outside a relationship who is abusive and who isn’t, but there is ALWAYS hope to leave and/or to change.
The Three Types of Abuse
Abuse survivors and the professionals that work with them split up abusive behavior into emotional, physical, and sexual abuse. Emotional abuse is generally regarded, though not necessarily consciously, as the least harmful, and physical abuse is usually seen as the worst. Many survivors, when seeking to downplay their trauma to cope, will say to themselves and others, “At least he didn’t hit me.” But does it matter? These three types of abuse overlap much more than people tend to understand or appreciate, and that has important ramifications for recovery and self-awareness.
Here’s an example. (Skip to the next paragraph if you don’t want to read a detailed description of abusive behavior.) My abusive ex used to hold me down despite my many, very specific verbal protests, and pluck out any body hairs I had that he didn’t like. (He was grossed out by the hair growing out of a small mole on my arm or the occasional dark chin hair.) It happened in public at least once, in the midst of friends, and made me cry in shame. What type of abuse was this? It was emotional abuse because it undermined my self-esteem and sense of autonomy. It was sexual abuse because it focused on his control of my sexual appeal and the expression of my gender identity. It was physical abuse because he was holding me down and rendering me powerless. Through this example, we can see that the lines are not so clear as we may have thought.
What about all the times I was coerced into sex? (I don’t have a specific example here, because it happened so often and in so many subtly different ways.) What kind of abuse was that? It was sexual in nature, of course, and emotionally damaging, but I would argue that since it involved bodily violation, it was physical abuse too.
Sexual abuse is not given its due as a type of physical abuse. Sexual assault is experienced as physical violence, even if it’s a result of emotional coercion. It’s a danger experienced viscerally by the body and the nervous system. It is a literal, physical violation. Physical abuse is not just raising fists with the intent to harm– it’s also about damaging someone’s sense of autonomy and agency. Sexual assault, whether the survivor is overpowered or coerced, teaches someone through intimidation that their body is not under their own control, and that’s one of the scariest experiences a human can have.
It seems to me that bruises and broken bones are easier for the public to digest as traumatizing experiences. When people hear about sexual assault, they often think, “What’s the big deal?” Sex is generally fun and harmless, right? They don’t necessarily realize that sex, which is inescapably intimate and vulnerable, can leave our bodies feeling the exact same way as other types of physical abuse.
Review: Still Life With Tornado by A.S. King
“I tell the truth slowly. I think that’s how the truth shows up sometimes.”
For much of this book, we don’t know what’s wrong with the main character Sarah. That’s because Sarah can’t even bear to think about it herself. After all, she tells the truth slowly, but she gets there. This is the main source of tension and intrigue for the reader. Not a lot happens in this book except for the character’s internal shifts and the artistry in how they are conveyed to the reader. If that sounds boring, then this is not the book for you. If you can appreciate introspection in your fiction, however, this is a masterpiece of YA.
I connected wholeheartedly with this book, and found exceptional catharsis in it, despite how different the facts of 16-year-old Sarah’s life are from mine. For one thing, she is an artist and I am a writer. She is cisgender and I am transgender. She doesn’t go to school for weeks at a time and my high school attendance was exemplary. However, the overall atmosphere of the book conveyed the exact feelings I had as a teenager with a dissociative disorder, previously known as multiple personalities. In Still Life With Tornado, her dissociation has a magical but poignant twist in that other people can see her other selves as separate, very real, people. When she first meets her other selves (at ages 10, 23, and 40) she is startled and confused, but gradually she and the people around her come to see them as allies. This is the exact trajectory of healing from trauma with a dissociative disorder, and A.S. King has portrayed her version with immense empathy and care. What may have initially seemed to be an unconventional literary device leaves readers stinging with the truth.
Note: Big TW for physical and emotional abuse.
How To Use the Grey Rock Method in Your Bad Relationships
TW: Anti-NPD ableism.
All the resources for the this are astoundingly ableist, so I wanted to make a post about something I’ve found very helpful when dealing with shitty people: the Grey Rock Method.
The term, originally coined in anti-NPD circles, describes a method of dealing with shitty and/or abusive people. The Grey Rock Method, or Grey Rocking, is called that because you act like a wall of plain boring rock. The idea is to be so unreactive that the shitty person gets nothing out of interacting with you.
Of course, the best option for dealing with people who are incurably shitty and/or abusive is to cut them out of your life, but what if that’s not possible for legal or financial reasons? That’s when Grey Rocking comes in.
The original idea revolves around ideas of “narcissistic supply,” which is the vampiric emotional “diet” of a “narcissist,” since they supposedly feel like they need attention to survive. However, it can also be helpful outside of that ableist model, since victims/survivors can reduce the amount of “ammunition” they give shitty people/abusers by reacting to them less.
I discovered Grey Rocking myself by accident a few years ago, after I noticed that every single time I brought up an emotional subject, my parents found a way to make me feel like shit about it— so I stopped talking about ANY emotion, and stuck to “safe” topics and surface-level conversation. It worked! They have no ammunition to use against me, yet our relationship remains civil.
Here are the rules for Grey Rocking:
- Be as boring as possible. If asked how your life is going, say something like “Nothing exciting is going on. I’ve just been working.” They may say, “How is work going?” “Fine, just busy like usual.”
- Offer no extra information. Do not pique their interest. Remain polite, but if asked about work, stick to answering the question and don’t offer up conversation about your coworker’s jokes. Are you still wearing masks at work? “Yup.” If it feels like the conversation is lagging, you’re doing it right.
- Steer clear of topics you have ANY emotions about, positive or negative. Do NOT talk about how stressed you are at work, or a shitty person will make a shitty comparison about how that’s NOTHING compared to their job. Do NOT talk about getting a raise and how proud you are of yourself, because they will tear you down.
- Don’t interact more than you have to. For example, you might answer a text, but don’t text first. Don’t start a conversation. If there’s some silence, good.
- Do not cave and do not respond to goading. They might try to get a rise out of you, in which case you need to try to remain as expressionless as possible and say something nonreactive. Do NOT break the rules once you decide to start doing the Grey Rock Method.
- Hint: saying “mmm” as acknowledgement, but nothing more, will help you a lot.
My own personal addition: Try to interact only when there are witnesses or proof of what the shitty/abusive person said (as in text messages). Many abusers will act better for an audience. However, this is not a sure thing, so definitely continue to keep interaction to a minimum.
Final note: This can be REALLY EXHAUSTING and take a major toll on you. After dealing with your shitty/abusive person, take some time to recharge with people that you can be yourself with. Do not lose sight of your unique, individual spark— just hide it from those who don’t deserve to see it!
My abusers wanted me dead.
(TW: abuse, suicide, sexual assault.)
Maybe they didn’t know it, but my abusers wanted me dead.
They might not have understood it themselves (or maybe some of them did) but they wanted me gone — to extinguish any part of me that made me ME. They wanted all of my compliance, skills, and entertainment value, with none of needs, inconsistencies, mess, or candor.
They only wanted a walking blow-up doll. They only wanted an unpaid secretary. They only wanted grandchildren. What they didn’t want was my humanity.
And I took that to heart. I tried to kill myself multiple times because I keenly felt that I took up too much room. I genuinely believed I was an abuser for the rare times I stuck up for myself. When I would get motion sick on car trips, I learned to hold it in so I wouldn’t create a problem. There are now parts of ME that want me dead.
This is not a unique situation. Everyone who abuses someone and violates their self-hood is complicit in that person’s disappearance.
I am still digging through my psyche and using what I find to build up a Self that I can live with. I spend all day in bed thinking about the ways they tried to kill me and how I survived. I didn’t survive, in a way. There’s no part of me that wasn’t touched by their stabbing fingers.
I am still learning to breathe.