On the Pain Scale

Since starting this blog, I have had a lot of women reach out to me with their own struggles, and I have noticed a troubling pattern in those correspondences. Many of these women have begun their letters with the line, “I know my situation is not as bad as yours.” I wasn’t really aware of this, until a friend who divorced recently, and who I have been corresponding with fairly regularly, wrote me a message that included that line. She then proceeded to describe a horrific pattern of emotional abuse from her partner that continues to this day, even after the divorce has been finalized.
I remember thinking that my situation wasn’t as bad as hers. Mine, at least, is over. I don’t live in the same town as my ex-husband, and my ex doesn’t want to go to jail, lose his job, or lose the amount of child custody that he has. That gives him a lot of incentive to leave me alone, which he generally does, although there are occasional flare-ups and threats.
But comparing my situation to my friend’s does no good. These comparisons, themselves, are destructive. On a pain scale of 1-10, if the pain is a 10, it’s a 10. It doesn’t matter if the pain is a 10 because of physical abuse, or emotional abuse, or a combination of the two. At some point, the pain reaches a critical mass.
When I left my husband, I had a friend who had been volunteering at a domestic violence shelter. We were talking about the abuse, and she pointed out to me that the emotional abuse was more damaging than the physical, but I didn’t really believe her. At this point, I was still very aware of the consequences of the physical abuse. It had been over a month since I had left my husband, and I hadn’t quite healed from my injury. I had vivid memories of the pain of abuse, and the physical abuse had made me aware of my body in uncomfortable ways. I was conscious of the way I carried myself. My body surrounded me—soft, vulnerable, and exposed. When he hit me, I felt that he was trying to get at something deeper, something that couldn’t be reached. He was trying to punch through to what someone in my blog’s comments referred to as my “soul’s pilot light.”
There was a moment in our marriage when, during an argument, he unscrewed one of the bed knobs from our iron bed and threw it at me. It hit the wall and broke through the plaster. I shook uncontrollably. I was just beginning to exhibit the symptoms of PTSD. A month earlier, he had thrown a heavy coffee mug at me. It hit my leg, and the pain almost made me black out. Then, he picked the mug back up and held it up to throw at me again. I begged him not to, but he paused for a moment, then smiled a mean, ugly smile and threw it at me again. It shattered against my elbow. My elbow swelled up like a black grapefruit, and a knot formed on my forearm. That knot has never fully gone away.
As he stood over me with that heavy bed knob, I remembered him with that mug in his hand. I realized that begging was useless. If he was going to hurt me, then he was going to hurt me. He smiled the same mean, ugly smile and threw the other bed knob. He missed, but I couldn’t stop shaking and crying. Then, he mocked me. He made fun of me for my shaking. He told me that I was acting like a baby. He pantomimed crying like a baby.
After I left him, when I moved back into the house we owned together, those holes were still in the wall. I had to go to bed alone underneath them. I tried not to look at them, but sometimes, I couldn’t stop myself. The shaking commenced again, and I was taken back to that moment. He hadn’t even touched me that time, but that is still one of my most traumatic memories, in part, because of the way he mocked me. I was ashamed. I had felt like a child because of my response. I had felt weak.
During my marriage, I spent a lot of time comparing myself to others, and for a long time, I convinced myself that I wasn’t really in an abusive marriage. Our situation wasn’t like the abusive marriages that I had seen on the Lifetime Movie Network. My ex-husband was usually very kind to me, and only had those explosions occasionally. We were middle-class. We were educated. We were not like thosepeople.
The day that I left him was not the day he was arrested. I stayed for two days after that. I thought the arrest might be the impetus for him to change, but his anger was worse, and I was very scared. My mom texted me in secret and made me promise that I would go to the Domestic Violence Shelter. I lied and told him that I was going to go grade papers, then I went to see a counselor at the Domestic Violence Shelter. She showed me the cycle of abuse—tension building, battering incident, reconciliation, calm. It was so familiar. She explained to me that, as the abuse escalated, we would spend less and less time in the calm stage, and more in the tension building stage. She explained to me that the inevitable end to the cycle was death. My death.
It was all so familiar, but I still downplayed my situation because I felt I didn’t have the right to be taking up her time. “I’m sorry,” I said. “You probably see women who are so much worse off. I realize that my situation isn’t as bad as those other women’s.”
She looked at me in surprise, then said “No, your situation is bad. It’s really bad.” 
And she was right.

My comparison between myself and some other woman who I thought had it worse than me meant that I had been willing to accept things that weren’t acceptable, and that’s what I see people doing all the time. Now that I’m well out of my relationship, I’m able to recognize that the emotional abuse truly is more damaging than the physical abuse. My memories of the pain of his fists are not as vivid, but I still hear his voice in my head. I still hear the horrible things he said to me. My husband emotionally abused me before he started physically abusing me, and maybe that’s why I stayed for so long after the abuse got physical, because by the time he started physically abusing me, I was already at a 10 on the pain scale. There was no higher for me to go. That’s why I’ll never look at another person and tell myself that they don’t have it as bad as I had it. It doesn’t work that way. Suffering is suffering. Comparisons are useless.

4 thoughts on “On the Pain Scale

  1. Anonymous

    Comparisons are useful so we know who our attackers are, what they look like, what they are capable of. The names, locations and intensity may be different but these men are from the same pool of weak people who feel stronger by tormenting others. Comparisons remind us of the full gamut these weaklings are likely to use to control and subjugate us. Many of these tactics are sly, twisted, underhanded and look like nothing to anyone else not having them used against them. We need to bring all these tactics out into the open, share and compare all the tools used against us to help in our healing, to defuse their power, to help others who are fighting for their lives. Big or small, let's get this out into the open where the winds can sweep it clean instead of letting it fester in the dark.

    Suffering is suffering. No one should have to live with an abuser of any kind. We have all suffered until we finally said enough.

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  2. That's all very true. Comparisons in that way are useful. I guess I was thinking more in terms of diminishing our own pain by saying that someone else has it worse than us. But I completely agree that comparisons have the potential to bring all of those tools out into the open.

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  3. As you know, my father has always been insanely emotionally abusive. I cringe when I'm at work because I hear my male coworkers talking about how they don't allow their male children to cry. My coworker's son saw a kid get hit by a car and killed right in front of him, yet he still didn't cry because he has been conditioned not to. (I don't have kids, but I know damn well that if I did, I would never tell them they weren't allowed to cry, and I'd probably murder anyone who did).

    This is a generational abuse pattern perpetuating itself. Their sons will grow up to treat their own children this way, and quite possibly their domestic partners, whether emotional abuse or physical abuse.

    It sounds naive, but I've often wondered if an emotional abuse awareness campaign might be of some value, because perpetrators don't believe that what they're doing is abuse if they aren't hitting. And victims don't believe what they're experiencing is abuse if they aren't getting hit–in fact, they don't necessarily even know that something is wrong with their situation.

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