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Sick in love: The heavy chains of emotional abuse and relationship addiction

Is it possible to be unhappy in a relationship and not even realize so? In this story of one woman's journey through a gridlock of strange medical and psychological symptoms, Amelia reveals how mysterious illnesses can sometimes be screaming indications of emotional abuse. Resources for breaking free are also named.
The only man worth a woman's tears is the one who would never make her cry.
— Author unknown

From the outside, she looked like the one who was crazy.

She could barely wake up in the morning. No matter how much sleep she got, she didn't have enough energy to complete the most basic of tasks without pain. She couldn't remember what it felt like to have the energy to live a a normal life; her supply had been drained from her longer ago than she could remember. Getting out of bed each morning was a grueling chore. It physically hurt. And worse than the physical pain was the psychological pain. She had lost her desire for everything. When she thought about the things she used to love, she felt detatched from them. Once in a while, she tried to perk herself up by returning to a formerly favorite pastime, but it never made her feel better. In fact, it made her feel worse. She didn't know why she felt so empty, so sad, so lost. She walked around in a darkness that everyone else could see, yet it had no impact on anyone except her. All around her, life went on.

As of late, she had also become very fearful. She knew her fears were irrational, but she couldn't stop them. To protect herself, she stayed away from everybody and everything that she feared could make her feel worse. When she had to be around people, she was usually guarded. She couldn't think of things to say—mainly because she was having trouble thinking at all anymore, but also because she had lost interest in just about everything. She smiled politely but halfheartedly. Once in a while, she laughed when it was appropriate to laugh, but her laughter wasn't genuine anymore; the corners of her eyes never wrinkled when she smiled. Other times, she turned to nervous laughter to try and ease her discomfort, but it didn't help; it only made her feel more self-conscious. Even when she wasn't afraid of people or situations, she was afraid of herself. She was afraid that she would break down and cry for no apparent reason, or that she would suddenly start feeling sick. Both were happening to her more frequently as time went by. They gave her one more reason to feel like she ought to stay away from everything and everyone as much as she could help it.

She bravely tried to hide her pain from the world. She succeeded, but only in part. No one knew what was causing the pain, but no matter how hard she tried, she couldn't hide her suffering.

Everyone said it was such a shame. She used to be so beautiful, but she had disintegrated into a sickly thin shadow of the person she used to be. She wore the same clothes she used to wear, but her body seemed to curl up inside of them. She wore the same makeup she used to wear, but her face no longer had any color of its own. Her eyes were blank. If she were lying still instead of walking around, she could have easily been mistaken for dead.

And certain death seemed to be where she was heading. She had grown sick over time, as one seemingly benign ailment blurred into the next. No one could remember the last time she looked healthy. She couldn't remember the last time she felt healthy. Her breathing was shallow all the time. Her heartbeat was faint. Her physical strength was barely existent anymore. The doctors could see all of this, but, one after another, their tests failed to account for what could have been the reason. She was slowly dying, but there didn't seem to be a reason why.

"She's really losing it," everyone whispered. "She must be depressed," they gossiped. And indeed, she was. She had lost her motivation, her interests, her will. The only thing she really felt like doing was sleeping, but her sleep never left her feeling rested. She barely ate anymore—not because she was trying to be thin, but because she had no appetite. She simply couldn't force the food down; when she did, it didn't always stay there. Her body was rejecting life itself. Her soul was beginning to reject it, too. She had thought about suicide more than once. She had always been taught that it was a sin, but she was living in such an earthly hell that the risk of an eternal one no longer scared her.

The days were touch-and-go. There were times that she felt like her body wasn't failing quickly enough; she just wanted to die so the pain would end. And there were other times, when she could almost see her life slipping away from her, that she felt a deep remorse for everything that had gone so wrong, even though she couldn't explain what that was, and she wished she could live long enough to fix it. Going back and forth between these two extremes made her feel even more crazy; what kind of a person couldn't decide between death and survival? At the same time, she felt like deciding wasn't her business. So her fate became, to her, a matter of waiting.

Really, her whole life had become a waiting game. She waited for a career twist that would elevate her from the mundane to the meaningful. She waited for friends who would understand and love her to replace the old ones who had only used her. She waited for injustice to turn into justice, hoping that the many people who had hurt her would come back and make things right. She waited, and waited, and waited, but her absurd patience and perseverance-in-idle never bore fruit. Her dreams never manifested. She never even saw hints of them.

Except for one.

Amid the darkness, the wreckage, she clung to the single ray of light that she saw. In her nearly dead soul, she still had the strength for one thing: to love someone. And her strength for that—for him—was boundless. Any zeal she seemed to have was for him. Everything she managed to do was for him. Every time she felt a surge of her will to continue fighting, to continue living, it was for him. He was everything to her. And although life with him had become just as painful as everything else, just to be able to look at him, to know he was there—that was enough for her. Having him in her life was enough to make the most excruciating pain less scary. Nothing she was going through, no amount of physical or psychological pain, would have been worse than the pain she would have felt if she didn't have him. And so, because she did have him, she was more than grateful.

But no one else in her life seemed to look at him the way she did. All anyone saw was a severely broken woman and the man who, piece by piece, was breaking her.

One mind game after another. Twisting her words. Twisting his own words. Switching sides in the middle of arguments. Psychological hits below the belt. Isolating her from the people who actually cared about her. Dismantling her fragile self-concept, her very identity, one manipulative blow at a time.

Most of it happened behind closed doors, but there was still plenty that doors couldn't hide. People knew. People talked. But she didn't listen to them. No—she listened; she just didn't hear. It didn't register. She didn't understand.

She knew he wasn't perfect. "But who is?" she would ask, consoling herself. She felt like she cried a lot when she was with him, but, then again, lately she had been spending most of her time crying. And it did seem like his moods went up and down, and when they were down he wasn't the nicest person in the world, but hadn't her perception of the whole world become skewed as of late? And yes, she had the impression, sometimes, that he didn't appreciate her—but who could honestly appreciate someone like her, anyway? It couldn't be easy for him to live with her.

If anybody was to blame for the problems in their relationship, she concluded, she was. Anytime she hinted at anything of the sort, he certainly nodded in agreement. He was also helpful enough to point out all the other things he found unacceptable about her. And when the tears fell from her eyes and the apologies followed methodically from her quivering lips, he was always dutiful to accept them. She felt blessed by his patience with her, his tolerance, and his unconditional willingness to put up with her, wreck that she had become.

It was true that she was quite the mess. But it was also true that he had turned her into it. It's not that she was perfect before she met him; no one is. But he found her weaknesses, her vulnerabilities, and he exploited them. He broke her down and stripped away her confidence, even her sanity, as a means of fulfilling his own pathological needs, whatever they might have been. But as often as he broke her down, he also needed to build her back up; after all, if she left him or died, she was of no use to him. He had become her lifeline, and she knew it.

* * *

This woman is not at all alone in her plight. Various studies estimate that as many as 40 percent of women have experienced psychological abuse from a husband or live-in boyfriend. As many as 43 percent also report having been psychologically abused during childhood, making them perhaps more susceptible to perpetuating the cycle of abuse as adults, or at least less likely to recognize psychological abuse as something "wrong." Moreover, because emotional abuse can sometimes be extremely difficult to recognize from the victim's perspective, its actual prevalence could be far higher than what studies estimate it to be.

"Perpetuating the cycle" doesn't mean that a victim is to blame for the abuse that he or she suffers. At the same time, though, a cycle of abuse can't continue if a victim chooses to break free.

Leaving is difficult, no doubt. It's not uncommon to be afraid to abandon an abusive partner. People who are being beaten and raped are sometimes terrified of what would happen to them if their attempts at escape were unsuccessful. For the person who is being psychologically battered, the fear of leaving can sometimes be even stronger. When a victim has been systematically manipulated into believing that she (or he) can't survive without the one doing the manipulating, the pain of trying to leave, and later, of being alone, seems far more unbearable than the pain of staying put. Even finding justification for walking away can be next to impossible. Thoughts of "people will think I'm crazy," or "maybe I really am crazy" fill the victim's head. The stronger that the abuser's current of manipulation is allowed to grow, the more incapable of leaving the victim begins to feel.

There's a good book on psychological abuse called The Gaslight Effect: How to Spot and Survive the Hidden Manipulation Others Use to Control Your Life. If you're being manipulated in one or more relationships (romantic, work, family, etc.), I highly recommend reading this. Its author, Dr. Robin Stern, is a psychotherapist with a Ph.D. in applied psychology. The charts and checklists in this book can assist you in determining whether certain types of emotional abuse are actually taking place. I don't agree with all of her suggestions on how to help yourself break free from a destructive relationship (namely, the practice meditation; as a Christian, I cannot and do not endorse this), but the book is an excellent diagnostic resource, and I know it will be helpful to anyone who feels like a victim to "mind games" or psychological manipulation.

There's another good book, one on relationship addiction, that can be helpful to readers who are already certain that their relationships are destructive in one way or another. While this is not to suggest that all victims of relationship abuse are "addicted" to their bad relationships, for those who find themselves in one bad relationship after another, it can be an excellent resource in terms of probing the underlying issues that could be locking that pattern into place. The book is called When You Love Too Much: Walking the Road to Healthy Intimacy. It's written by Stephen Arterburn, a Christian counselor and speaker. If you're in a bad relationship and don't know why you feel powerless to leave, this book might be extremely helpful.

As hard as it is to endure in an emotionally abusive relationship, breaking free from one can be even harder. With help, though, leaving is possible. Finding support is possible. Healing is possible. Even healthy, fulfilling relationships are possible. You are never obligated to remain in a relationship that causes pain and destruction. All relationships have difficulties, but a healthy and holy one will never lead a person to the brink of mental illness, the emergency room, or the cemetery.

The books above can help. Other resources on this web site can help. A good counselor, or even trusted friends and relatives, can help. Most of all, God can help. But only if you choose to take the first step.