by Ashton Warhurst
By the Government’s own definition, the people of Britain have been trapped in an abusive relationship with its own Government for almost a year, and the only end in sight is the vague suggestion of a maybe.
I think I am in an abusive relationship, and I don’t know how to escape. My abuser is too powerful and is intent on turning everyone I know against me, relentlessly trying to convince me that it’s all my fault, that somehow I’m to blame. It seems they’re the ‘good guy’ and I’m just a naïve nobody who doesn’t understand what’s best for me.
The realisation that I might be in an abusive relationship dawned on me when I read the Government’s statutory guidance framework for Controlling or Coercive Behaviour in an Intimate or Family Relationship. This framework, introduced in 2015, presents a list of control behaviours that help lawmakers recognise when a person, such as myself, is in an abusive relationship.
As I read through the list, it’s obvious that my own abuser ticks a disquietingly large majority of these boxes. Perhaps I shouldn’t be surprised. After all, it is my own abuser who wrote the framework.
- Isolating a person from their friends and family
- For almost a year now, my abuser has kept me away from my friends or family, ordering me to stay home, insisting it’s for my own good, as well as everyone else’s. I’m not even allowed to meet them in the park without my abuser’s permission. Birthdays, anniversaries, weddings, even celebrating the birth of the new child in the family have all had to be cancelled, often last minute after I’ve sent out invites, made preparations, bought things in.
- Sometimes my abuser appears to relent from my cruel isolation. Take Christmas, for example. My abuser teased me with a glimmer of hope, that I’d actually get to see the people I care most deeply about. True, there would be certain conditions, such as how long I was able to see them for, but I could make it work. Then, at the very last minute, my abuser changed their mind. I had to cancel my plans altogether, or at least severely curtail them. It always seems that on the rare occasion I do get to see a friend or family member, my abuser then uses this ‘act of selfishness’ against me! “See what you’ve made me do?” my abuser tells me. “Because of your going on about wanting to see your family, everything’s now gone wrong!” Yes, it’s my fault tragedy has struck. It’s my fault that people are in hospital! That brief flash of freedom is always used as an excuse to keep me locked away for even longer. I then must wait for my abuser’s next promise, hoping this time it will be different.
- By taking me away from my own support structures, my abuser gets to define my experience of reality. It is my abuser’s words I hear daily; it is my abuser’s reports of the outside world that shape my hopes and fears; it is my abuser’s face in front of me that determines my future. I am completely and utterly dependent on them for my place in this world. That sense of who I am as an independent person has been absorbed into how they want me to see the world: a cold, cruel one where no-one is ever really safe and I am as much a threat to others as they are to me. The warmth of the people who love me, who know me best, who believe in me, are a distant memory. I can’t remember when they last hugged me and told me everything’s going to be okay.
- Even harder, though, is this gnawing feeling of guilt because I’m not there for the people I care about. I know they’re struggling, they have a lot on their plates, and I’m letting them down at a time when they need me most. Each day I don’t see them is a day I will never get back with them. I’m terrified that one day I’ll get a phone call that tells me it’s too late.
- Depriving them of their basic needs
- Ever since I began living under this strange relationship with my abuser, my own life has been put on hold. Everything I do now is because my abuser allows it. Is freedom a basic need? I no longer know. Maybe I’m complaining for nothing. Why do I need my hair cut anyway? I look a mess. So what. I know that’s just vanity. Why do I need to meet up with friends? Why do I need a day out of the house? Why do I need to go on holiday? Why do I need a new shirt? Why do I need to go to my exercise class or pottery class, to feel I’m making progress? Why do I need to go out for the evening and be told I look great, that it’s nice to see me? There comes a point where you feel that you’re no longer living, you’re just existing. My abuser even has a word for this so-called existence of mine: lockdown. But isn’t that the word they use in prisons? Does my abuser really have the shamelessness to tell me I’m a prisoner?
- I keep wondering whether I’ll ever get my life back. When I ask this question, my abuser uses it as an excuse to coerce me into doing things I don’t want to do. Of course I do these things; who wouldn’t want to get back to normal? But then my abuser keeps shifting the goalposts. First my abuser wanted me to dress differently, to cover my face in public. I did that; nothing changed. Then my abuser wanted me to have some experimental medical intervention — the trials hadn’t even been completed yet! Naturally I was nervous about the idea; it all seemed so… sudden. But when I tried to express these concerns, my abuser started turning nasty, telling me I was selfish, that things would never go back to normal unless I did as I was told, that I was letting everyone else down. Do I even want to see my friends and family, my abuser asked? First my abuser takes away my normal life, then my abuser tells me I can get it back only if I do exactly as I’m told. Does that sound right to you? Will the goalpost keep moving?
- Monitoring their time
- Can you believe I’m only allowed to leave my house once a day, for exercise or, what my abuser calls, “essential”? Even then I have to come straight back home. I cannot even sit on my own, in my car and have a coffee. Apparently that’s now a crime. A crime! You think I’m exaggerating? On the rare occasions my abuser has allowed me to go out to a restaurant or pub — oh, how generous my abuser can be — I was told I must be home by a set time. “And no alcohol!” I feel like I’m a child again.
- Monitoring a person via online communication tools or using spyware
- There’s this app my abuser told me to download onto my phone. Every time I go somewhere, I’m supposed to use this app to check myself in when I arrive. It’s like my abuser needs to know exactly where I am at all times. But there’s something even more disturbing going on. From time to time the app gives me instructions, telling me to “quarantine” myself. Quarantine! That’s what my abuser calls it, but it basically means up to two weeks of solitary confinement (that reminder of prison again). When these instructions come through I’m supposed to drop everything and go right back home, no detours, no passing go. The app seems to not only be tracking my movements but also able to detect when I have come into contact with certain people — and for how long — even if I don’t personally know who these people are. Doesn’t that sound creepy? My abuser just tells me it’s for my own good. What if I don’t have my phone with me? Then I have to report in to the place I’m visiting, handing over my name and address, as well as who I’m with, in case my abuser decides to check up on me later.
- I’m terrified this monitoring is going to get even more intrusive. Remember when I told you about that experimental medical intervention my abuser tells me I’ve got to have? When I started asking questions about it, I started getting threatened with the possibility that I won’t be able to go places or do things unless I can prove that I’ve had this “jab”, as my abuser likes to call it. I’m not sure yet how I’m supposed to prove I’ve had this jab, but knowing my abuser it will have something to do with an app. I’ve even heard that some of my abuser’s friends are using just such an app to prevent people purchasing basic needs from grocery stores unless they’ve had the jab, even if they’re fit and healthy people and no risk to anyone. If that isn’t coercion and control, I don’t know what is. And don’t get me started on the idea of “no jab no job”. When did having a job become an optional extra or a reward for my compliance?
- Taking control over aspects of their everyday life, such as where they can go, who they can see, what to wear and when they can sleep
- My abuser has banned me from going to the gym, having my hair cut, playing tennis or golf, leaving my local area for exercise, going to the cinema or theatre, watching my team play, attending a live gig; I could go on. I’ve already mentioned how my abuser controls what I wear by making me cover my face when out in public. Do you know, my abuser has even had the effrontery to tell me who I can have sex with and how I can have it? I feel like I’m trapped in one of those cults you hear about.
- Depriving them of access to support services, such as specialist support or medical services
- This never-ending lack of social interaction, this constant shifting of the goalposts, this escalation of every aspect of my life being dictated by my abuser, this removal of things to look forward to has really been taking its toll on my mental health. I need some outside help. But good old fashioned face-to-face counselling has been hard to come by. It’s either by Zoom (do you know how much time I already spend online at the moment?) or else my counsellor and I both have to wear masks — a constant reminder of my problems and oppression. So I find myself drinking more to help me relax, to ease my growing sense of anxiety. I’m eating more to stave off the boredom or as comfort food. I know this isn’t good for me as a long-term solution, and I know I’m probably making matters worse, but I need something! I even considered religion at one point, but then I find my abuser has even restricted their activities, so that most of what’s going on is now online, either as a Zoom meeting or as a YouTube video. Very high tech, I know, and most of the time I’m not even thinking about whether or not my abuser is monitoring my online activity. But Zoom means you’re just one of many faces; if you don’t speak up or you’re not given the opportunity to do so, you’re a nobody. You might as well not be there, and at the moment I feel so rotten I need to know I count. And as for YouTube, well I don’t think I could take watching yet another video. I need people! I need real, live three-dimensional people. People who see me.
- It’s not just my mental health that’s taken a hit, it’s my physical health too. My abuser has been preventing me from getting some types of medical treatments, including screening for cancer and removal of skin lesions at my GP surgery. The monitoring of my suspected circulatory condition has also been put-off more times than I care to remember and most of my routine healthcare check-ups have fallen by the wayside. It makes me wonder how many time-bombs are quietly ticking away in the background.
- Even when I’m technically allowed to visit, my abuser’s relentless psychological manipulation and reminders that “freedom bad, lockdown good” leaves me either terrified of attending an appointment in case I come to harm or else worried I might be putting another person in danger by this selfish focus on my own health. My abuser keeps showing me pictures of people in hospital, struggling on breathing apparatus, or doctors and nurses worn down by how many people they’re having to deal with. “You see this?” my abuser demands. “This is your fault!” So I think to myself, “I mustn’t be selfish. I don’t deserve their help; I probably don’t need it anyway. This pain in my chest is probably nothing.”
- Repeatedly putting them down such as telling them they are worthless
- My abuser keeps reminding me that even though I have no symptoms of any disease, even though I’m generally in good health, that apparently makes me more of a threat to others. My abuser’s argument goes like this: at least if I had symptoms, everyone would know to stay away from me. But because I don’t have any symptoms, I’m deceiving everyone into getting close to me so I can spread a killer virus to them that I didn’t even know I had. My abuser convinces me that I am not healthy; I’m ‘asymptomatic’. For a while I thought maybe I was a victim of gaslighting, but then my abuser managed to convince everyone around me that I was toxic and needed to stay away from me. Nobody trusts me. If I smile at them, they see it as a threat because I’m not wearing a mask! My abuser tells me that my scepticism is evidence of my stupidity and selfishness. Every time I ask a question, or point out some inconsistency in my abuser’s logic, I’m told I have “blood on my hands”, and that my words will kill others because they might believe my “misinformation”. Worse, I’m told, I’m going to kill my family and friends if I hug them or try to visit them. Oh, it’s never said directly; it doesn’t need to be. So I have no option but to see myself as a worthless human being who cares for nobody but myself. And I’m no longer seeing anyone who might convince me otherwise.
- Enforcing rules and activity which humiliate, degrade or dehumanise the victim
- So much has happened in such a short space of time that I no longer know what I would have considered unacceptable before all this happened. It seems we humans have a huge capacity to adapt; learned helplessness, I believe they call it. Had you told me before all this began that if I coughed I would have to stick a swab up my nose and down my throat, I would have looked at you with horror. Had you told me that every time I entered a shop, I would have to cover my face, I would have asked you if there was something wrong with the way I looked. Had you told me that if I bought a coffee 30 minutes’ walk away from my home the police would question me as a suspected criminal, I would have laughed at the foolishness of your imagination. Had you told me that I would be made to regularly break promises to friends and family because I’d have to cancel plans with them last minute, or ring up companies and tell them that I could no longer pay them, I would have questioned whether you really knew me. Had you told me that I would be calling in sick to my employer for two weeks at a time, even though I felt absolutely fine, with the excuse that my partner had picked up a virus but had no symptoms, I would think you were accusing me of dishonesty. Had you told me that one of my abuser’s friends would even be recommending that I have an anal swab to prove that I am healthy… well, I’m not sure you can get any more dehumanising than that. Before all this happened I would have laughed at such an idea of anal swabs to prove you are healthy. But wasn’t this the same ‘friend’ who not only suggested my imprisonment in the first place but also convinced my abuser that I was sick, even though I was healthy? It seems my abuser listens to this friend.
- Preventing a person from having access to transport or from working
- My abuser has stopped me from travelling abroad or even visiting the next city. Every trip I make I have to justify as if I’m some hardened criminal who cannot be trusted. Did you know that my abuser has even sent out drones to spy on me and set up police checkpoints at the places I like to visit to make sure I don’t get any ideas?
- My abuser has told me I’m not allowed to go out to work. Instead I’m made to stay at home wondering if I’ll still have a job to go back to if and when my abuser finally changes their mind. Does my abuser not see that working plays an integral role in my self-identity, giving me a sense of self-worth and purpose that contributes to my overall mental health and wellbeing? Work gives me this feeling that I’m useful to society, that all my efforts along the way are contributing towards something meaningful, and that those efforts and my competence have a value to others. But it turns out I’m not really needed. Apparently I’m ‘non-essential’; society can do without me, it would seem. I am surplus to requirements.
- Financial abuse including control of finances, such as only allowing a person a punitive allowance
- If I’m not working, how am I making ends meet, I hear you ask. Well, believe it or not, my abuser is paying me to do nothing. True, it’s only just enough to make ends meet so I can’t actually save anything. I’ve also had to give up some of the nicer things in life that make me feel like an independent human being with control over their own destiny. I have become totally and utterly dependent on my abuser, and when I question this, I’m made to feel ungrateful for their ‘generosity’.
- Threats to reveal or publish private information (e.g. threatening to ‘out’ someone)
- It seems my abuser belongs to a club of other abusers. They share ideas and stories about their so-called successes and failures. Sometimes I fantasise they’re playing some elaborate game I don’t fully understand, competing with one another to see how far they can take things without getting stopped. So I’ve started listening to what my abuser’s friends are up to because I’ve got this hare-brained idea into my head that it will help me predict what’s coming my way. Sure, my own abuser will deny this, but I’ve caught my abuser in so many lies now that I think I may be onto something. When one abuser introduces lockdown or masks or passports, my own abuser will begin by persuading me they would never do such a thing — it’s against their principles — and I’m reassured my abuser is looking out for me. Then my abuser subtly shifts to saying they’ll do everything they can to stop that thing from happening. But finally my abuser does exactly what they said they wouldn’t. How can I trust what they say anymore?
- So when I hear my abuser’s friends talking about publicly shaming those who don’t get the jab, what am I to think? How long will it before my own abuser succeeds in completely turning the whole world against me? How long before there’s no one left to help me escape?
I’ve read a lot about abusive relationships. They usually start off fine, and there’s always something about our abusers that we find attractive. They charm us with their promises and confidence about the future; it becomes very hard to resist. And let’s be fair, maybe my own abuser never intended to go down this path. We all know that circumstances change, the best laid plans and all that. So perhaps my abuser really did have the best intentions, but then things started to go wrong for them. Perhaps by controlling me they felt they were regaining control, I don’t know. It could just be that my own abuser is afraid of the future and this is their way of giving themselves some certainty. After all, my abuser is only human.
But isn’t that what victims of abuse do? Justify their abuser’s behaviour?
It’s part of the reason we stay trapped.