The Subtlety of Verbal Abuse

Verbal abusers are sly…

I was once in a relationship with a man who suffered from misophonia (also called selective sound sensitivity syndrome). I lightly apply the term “suffered” to his personal experience with the disorder. Although the condition undoubtedly caused him distress, it was the people around him who truly suffered. As an individual who had never learned the value of self-control in any aspect of his life, his misophonia was simply one more excuse for him to demonstrate uncontrolled and abusive behavior.

That comment may seem harsh, but is supported by countless events I experienced in his company, of which examples abound. Passengers in his car quickly learned that to gasp at a near-miss with another auto was reason for him bellow, not at the other driver, but at his fellow traveler. The give-and-take of normal conversation would send him stomping off to sulk in some quiet corner, demanding that the other person cease speaking. Those unfortunate enough to sneeze in his presence learned that the result was not “Bless you!”, but invective hurled at the miscreant.

I finally divined the hard truth that lurked behind his diagnosis of misophonia: he used the condition, applying it as a way to rage other people, and most often at women. Natural noise, I came to understand, even the most irritating dissonance, had very little effect upon Mr. Misophonia. The racket of annual cicadas, for instance, did not faze him. Disagreeable mechanical sounds, scraping or clattering, never bothered him. The voice of any male person he admired did not annoy him, yet he reviled women’s voices, and the sound of children’s laughter made him visibly quiver with distaste. Yet the crash of items that he threw in anger did not discommode him.

After three years in his presence I came to understand that much of his claim to suffering misophonia was no more than a method for exerting power over the people in his life. The disorder provided him an easy escape from either exercising control over his own behavior or apologizing for inappropriate conduct. Misophonia simply compounded his unremitting attacks of verbal abuse.

That it took me three years to reach this conclusion isn’t really surprising. Countless scholarly articles discuss the subtlety of emotional/verbal abuse; how it snakes, constrictor-like, about its victims, gradually divesting them of all sense of self-worth or even the will to defend themselves. It’s my belief that most of us who have, as adults, found ourselves enmeshed in a relationship with an emotional abuser also have a background containing some form of trauma, often from a very early age when we had few resources with which to defend ourselves. Our sense of dignity has already been deeply wounded.

Verbal abusers play upon that victimhood. They are sly. They have an uncanny ability to determine, using non-verbal clues, those among their acquaintance who feel that their very existence is taking up too much space in the room. With that knowledge in hand, it’s a quick leap to deep, penetrating conversations: discussions which falsely indicate a sense of interest in the other person, but which unveil someone’s personal triggers and touch buttons. Then begins the cunning work of further undermining that individual’s already-shaky sense of self-worth. Verbal abusers easily breach someone’s defenses, breaking down barriers that would have been firmly placed in a healthier, normal ego. Verbal abusers are both shrewd and skilled in their malevolence.

And often, like Mr. Misophonia, they exploit actual problems or illness to further manipulate their victims: “Pity poor me, I have this disease, this difficulty, this impediment, and I cannot help or amend the behavior that accompanies it. Because of this, I bear no responsibility for my conduct. YOU are the problem, for you lack empathy and understanding. YOU must work harder to support me in my struggles.”

Looking back from the distance of years, I’m a bit amazed that I was somehow able to wrest myself from this destructive relationship and re-establish myself as a whole person. Perhaps some spark of soul, some deeply-rooted hint of self-esteem finally rose up in me, rejecting his attempts to paralyze me into a vision of worthlessness. More likely, though, my enlightenment began when, helpfully educating myself about misophonia in an attempt to be supportive, I realized that there were sufferers who spent nearly their every waking moment exerting enormous self-discipline to control their painful reactions to sound triggers, trying to prevent outbursts that would distress the people around them.

My abuser, I realized, had never done that. Rather, he gloried in the effect his flaring temper had to quell and subdue the people in his orbit. He was less a misophonic, I came to understand, than a manipulator. A subtle, malicious manipulator. With that knowledge came the ability to remove myself at last from that terribly unhealthy relationship.

There are genuine misophonics who suffer dreadfully from a poorly-understood medical condition. But my abuser was not one of them.

If this essay appealed to you, you might also enjoy “The Day the Vacuum Cleaner Rose Up to Smite Me”, from October 27, 2017. Scroll down to the Archives link to locate it.

Princess Diana Saved My Life

Princess Diana saved my life.

However fanciful that statement may sound, it is also, to some degree, true.

In the years when the royal marriage was crumbling, and Diana’s popularity with the masses was at its lowest ebb, the articles being written by a rabid press were a thousand times more critical and far less fawning than they would be after her passing (although undoubtedly no more factual). More than one intrusive publication at the time explored the notion that perhaps the unpredictable and complex princess suffered from Borderline Personality Disorder.

At the time, I’d never heard of that psychological affliction. In one of my first internet searches ever, I researched the term. Leapfrogging from one page to another, I stumbled across a review of a book written for family and friends of those with Borderline Personality Disorder. A questionnaire from the book was included in the review; a quiz to determine if one was trapped in a relationship with a person suffering the disorder.

I took the quiz with an eye to unraveling my tortured relationship with my mother.

I answered “yes” to every question.

At last, at last, I had an explanation for the enigma who was my mother, and for the anguish and abuse that had comprised my childhood.

Knowledge is power, the saying goes. Like many proverbs, it carries a germ of truth. Armed at last with real understanding of the mental disorder that had, in all probability, troubled my mother, I began the long, excruciatingly painful but eventually rewarding struggle to excavate myself from the ruins of my childhood.

Decades later, it is a struggle that still continues. My healing is always tenuous. But without the famous and sometimes infamous Princess, and, more importantly, the insensitive and intrusive media speculation about her behavior—without those things, the healing that I have experienced might never even have begun.

Like the multifaceted person who was Diana, Princess of Wales, my mother was saint to some, demon to others, and both, sometimes at the same moment, to me. The life she wove about me, my brothers, and my father, was often a glimpse into the nether regions of hell. But we (and this is something I must constantly remember) escaped. She never could. My mother lived in that hell always. She was her own hell. We dwelt only on the fringes of her insanity, and at last, with physical distance, growing understanding and therapy, and finally with her death, we were freed.

I doubt anyone will ever genuinely know if the beleaguered Princess actually suffered from some, any, psychological disorder, or if, much more likely, that was merely the fabrication of a bitterly unkind and hostile press. And continued speculation on the matter would be both inappropriate and cruel, for the truth is, none of it matters a bit except to the family and friends who loved her. For the rest of us, that aspect of her life never was and still is none of our business. But I will forever be grateful to the famous woman who endured such unending public abuse, for without what I learned, encountering cruel conjecture and malicious speculation and rumor about her, I might never have begun the tortuous ascent from my own personal hell. I say that Princess Diana saved my life, but it was really I who saved myself. I took her story and let it lead me to knowledge. I took that knowledge and wove it into a net – an escape net, to which I clung for my very life. My very life: the life that I now have. The whole and healthy life that I created, like a phoenix, rising from the ashes of intense misery.

And while I may not live happily ever after, I will never forget the story of a princess with which that new life began.