I wish I was one of those people who displayed their lives beautifully on instagram.
You know the ones I’m talking about.
The girl who always looks beautiful, who always has great lighting, and somehow always seems to be doing something fun.
In my daydreams I see myself surrounded by friends on a bright sunny day, exploring some gorgeous national park and snapping the perfect photo of our perfect day. Or sitting in a cute corner cafe with one of those coffees that has a design in the froth. My makeup is on point, the lighting is just right, and I smile for the camera with ease, holding my fancy cup of coffee.
But the truth is, I never go on adventures in cool national parks. I don’t have any friends to be surrounded by. The days here in the Poconos are almost never bright and sunny, and the closest coffee shop to me is a Dunkin Donuts and I don’t think they do the neat design in the froth for you. Plus, I barely ever wear makeup because I don’t really leave my house except to go grocery shopping.
I’m a bit of a shut-in. And honestly, I think it’s been so long since I had a social life that I don’t really remember how to socialize at all. I feel stiff and out of practice. Even my smile feels strange and foreign to me. Not that I don’t smile… I think I must have different smiles for socializing than I do for when I’m alone. And the alone smile is the only one I’ve used consistently, so on the rare occasions I actually need to use my social smile, it feels rigid and unpracticed.
I’ve been a shut-in for quite a few years now.
It all started when I left an abusive relationship that I’d been stuck in for five years. I’d entered into it at 18 years old when I knew very little about the world. I’d lived a rather sheltered life until that point and my abuser showed me a beautiful world that I’d never known existed before. I learned so many things from him.
Of course at first I didn’t know he would abuse me. I didn’t see the red flags because I’d never been taught what signs to look for. And honestly, I don’t think he knew he would abuse me either. He was young too, and I don’t think he went into the relationship with the intention of becoming what he became.
The thing about this particular type of abusive relationship is that you really aren’t sure if you are being abused. It was difficult to see it for what it was when I was in the midst of it. Now that I look back I can see it plainly. I was most definitely being abused.
But when you’re in the middle of it, it’s foggy and confusing. I remember at one point I contacted a lady online who specialized in abuse and described my relationship to her and asked if I was being abused. She responded and told me that I was 100% in an abusive situation and that I should find a way out right away. But before I could see the email for myself, my abuser snooped through my inbox and found the email. He was livid. He confronted me about it and a horrific argument unfolded. By the end of the argument he had me convinced that this lady didn’t know what she was talking about. She didn’t understand our dynamic, and nobody on the outside ever would. Only we could understand our relationship dynamic, and what might appear abusive to the outside was actually just the way we communicated with each other.
I believed him. I know that sounds crazy, but he had never given me a black eye or anything like that, and I thought maybe we just had anger issues and fought a lot, and maybe “abuse” wasn’t what was really going on. Plus, despite everything, I was in love. I was very in love. So part of me wanted to believe him.
The relationship started as this huge romantic whirlwind. It was pure magic. I’d never been so sure of anything in my life: I had met my soulmate. I had met the one. He would do these big romantic gestures that just blew me away. They were always incredibly thoughtful and sweet. And we quickly became very close. I’d never experienced being that close to someone. I felt that I knew him just as well as I knew myself.
But I learned the hard way that being that close to someone like him had its downsides. I was too close to see what was happening.
He was isolating me.
There was strife between me and my parents when I started dating him. They could see that I was headed down a bad path, and they weren’t happy about my decisions. But from my perspective, I’d just met the guy of my dreams and all I wanted was for them to be as blissfully happy about it as I was. I couldn’t understand how they didn’t see what I saw in him.
He used that strife between me and my parents to isolate me from them. He slowly but surely began to plant seeds of doubt in my head, until eventually he had me fully convinced that my parents didn’t love me. He convinced me that they tolerated me, but I was more a burden than anything else. I ended up believing him.
Isolation is one of the first steps an abuser takes on the way to full-on abuse.
Once I was isolated, I was easier to control. He became wildly jealous and suspicious of my every move. It got to the point where I couldn’t visit my family alone. He had to come with me because he didn’t trust me. I couldn’t even drive five minutes to the gas station by myself without a frantic and angry call, accusing me of meeting someone in secret. He was very paranoid and convinced that I wanted to leave him. Which, at many points I did want to. I even tried quite a few times, but he always found a way to keep me there.
The abuse I experienced wasn’t the typical abuse you usually hear about. It was a lot of mental abuse mostly, and there were things when we fought (which was often) like grabbing my arm and leaving bruises, pulling my hair so hard that sometimes it ripped out, punching me in the stomach where nobody would see the bruise, spitting loogies in my face… a lot of times he would tower over me as I cried in the corner, and he’d shout awful things at me, calling me a “stupid little girl” or other worse things that I won’t say here. But he didn’t “beat me up” in the way I’d always imagined an abusive boyfriend might. When you hear about someone being abused, it’s usually a man beating a woman up, leaving her covered in bruises, black eyes, etc.
We would get in explosive arguments, and I would defend myself against him which he would use to convince me that I was abusing him. By the end of our arguments I would feel so foggy headed and confused that sometimes I would wonder if I was abusive. Sometimes I couldn’t even remember who had started the argument and if he told me that I did, I wouldn’t know if he was telling the truth or not. Looking back I can see what was really happening, but he had a way of twisting the situation and confusing me in the moment. What he was doing to me is called Gas Lighting. This is a term I’ve only recently learned.
The definition of Gas Lighting is, “to manipulate someone by psychological means into questioning their own sanity.”
He would often use my mental health against me, telling me that I caused him to lose his temper because I was Bipolar, telling me I was crazy, too crazy for anyone but him to handle, and that I was lucky that he could put up with me. He convinced me that nobody but him would ever be able to “deal with” me. I felt unhinged. I was terrified that he was right. It felt like he was right.
And after everything, when I finally found my way out of that situation, all I wanted to do was be alone. I’d had his voice in my ear, dictating my every move for so long. I just needed to be alone with myself: my own thoughts, and my own choices.
After the break up I stopped talking to all of my friends except one. I spent all day every day alone with myself, and sometimes I would go to a park with my one friend and spend time with her. But that was the majority of my social interaction.
I wasn’t doing it because I was depressed. I was actually very happy. I felt elated that I’d made it out. I felt invincible, like I had accomplished the impossible. I had felt so… stuck. I’d felt hopeless and helpless. I’d spent so much time thinking my life was over, that I was doomed to forever be under his thumb. I lost hope so many times after so many failed attempts to free myself. When it finally happened, when I actually did it, that feeling was indescribable.
I barely even noticed that I was isolating myself further. I was just enjoying the freedom to finally do whatever I wanted to do instead of my every move being carefully watched and questioned.
I met someone new. I made my intentions known from the start: I want to be my own person, and to make my own decisions. I want my individuality to be paramount, and I want to always be shown respect and kindness. Luckily he had the same intentions, and now five years into our relationship we are still honoring those intentions above all else.
He has graciously seen me through my healing process after the abuse. He stood by my side when the depression did finally hit. He was there all the times my abuser tried to come back and re-sabotage my peace of mind. He understood my need to spend time by myself and gave me as much space as I needed to do so. He witnessed and continues to witness the awful PTSD I live with because of the abuse. And he’s been my only constant companion as I’ve continued to habitually isolate myself from the world. He’s the only one I haven’t hidden myself away from. And I’m so grateful. Because without him, the loneliness would take me over.
I don’t know how to break the habit of isolating myself. I know that it’s a product of the abuse. I know that it’s part of the PTSD. I know all of that. But I don’t know how to fix it. I don’t know how to re-enter the world. I wish I’d known not to isolate myself. I wish I’d reached out to my friends after everything and developed deeper relationships with them. But I didn’t know to do that. All I knew was that I wanted to be alone with myself. I hadn’t been alone with myself for five years, and I desperately needed to check back in.
It took me a long time to realize that all my friends were gone. When I moved 12 hours from everyone I’ve ever known, I didn’t really care. I was still perfectly happy in my self-created isolation. I was still blissfully checking in with myself, and only myself. But now after living here for three years, knowing no one, watching my friends back home move on with their lives… I’ve realized that being by myself isn’t what I want anymore. And it’s definitely not what I need. I need other people in my life. I’m so glad that I at least have my boyfriend, and I have his family here too. I have that. But I miss my friends. I miss having history and inside jokes. I miss the laughter and the silliness. I miss the chats over coffee, walks in the park, and the group pictures. I miss all of that.
There are a lot of awful things that being in an abusive relationship left me with. But isolation has to be the worst of it.
I still love to spend time at home by myself, but I hope that I can learn how to re-enter the world again soon. Even if it’s just one friend. One friend to go get coffee with. One friend to walk in the park with.
One day I think I’ll look back on this isolation and I’ll be grateful for what it taught me. One day I will be surrounded by people I know and love, and I’ll think back to this time and I’ll smile. Not a stiff, unpracticed smile. It’ll be a full hearted, well used smile. And maybe someone will take a picture and put it on instagram…
I hope my story can help someone who is leaving an abusive relationship make a better decision than I did. I hope you won’t isolate yourself. Yes, spend time with yourself. That is important. But please don’t do what I did. Don’t isolate yourself fully. Hold on to your relationships with your friends and loved ones. Don’t shut them out. You will need them, even if you don’t feel like it yet.
Until Next Time,
Keep Calm and Grow On