Within the last ten years, the news covered several stories about young girls kidnapped and held in horrific physical captivity who eventually escaped. We heard about Elizabeth Smart, Jaycee Dugard, Michelle Knight, Amanda Berry, and Gina DeJesus and their kidnappings and the ensuing ordeals of being imprisoned, chained, starved, raped, beaten, and isolated from the world for years. Each of these women decided to involve us in their recovery through inspiring yet painful memoirs.
These brave survivors processed the shame of abuse by placing it completely upon their brutal psychopathic abusers. Their physical captivity and very young ages left us with no doubt that they deserved no shame for the abuse they suffered.
So, why do some of us who have left abusive relationships still bear the shame of abuse for years? If my captivity was enforced by mental abuse instead of chains and locked doors, may I also place the shame solely on the abuser? Was I complicit in my captivity? How can I define myself as strong when I failed to defend myself? Isn’t contributing to my own harm shameful? These questions plagued me long after leaving the abuser.
If I was feeling shame for not fighting for myself, imagine how men trapped in an abusive relationship might feel when their abuser is likely to be smaller in stature and physically weaker. It’s no wonder men are reluctant to discuss their experience with abuse.
Mental captivity is difficult to spot. Even though I held a full-time job, had a small side business and functioned fairly well within my small community, I was the abuser’s captive. On the surface, nothing seemed unusual about my home life, but only because I closely guarded the mechanisms of my captivity.
Little did anyone know that each morning I was required to prepare a schedule for the day and present it to the abuser for approval before I could leave the house. The schedule needed to outline where I would be throughout the day, with no deviations allowed. For example, I was expected to arrive home precisely 20 minutes after leaving work, the amount of time it took to drive the speed limit between work and home.
One afternoon as I was leaving work I remembered that we we’d run out of his favorite soda. Stocking the kitchen was my responsibility, so running out of his favorite supplies was grounds for punishment. This particular afternoon, I hadn’t listed a stop at the grocery store on my day’s schedule, but I gambled that I if I was quick enough, I could grab the soda and return home in time. The line behind the clerk stalled, and I tried to make up time by speeding down the road, but I pulled up to the house ten minutes late. He grilled me about where I’d been. When I admitted that I’d deviated from the schedule for the soda, he was enraged. He pushed me aside and retrieved the soda still in the car. He poured it down the sink and listed the choices for my punishment – I would either spend the evening completing a report for his work due the next morning or I would receive a beating. I chose to finish the report, staying up most of the night to complete it. Episodes like this taught me that departures from the schedule would not be tolerated, no matter the reason.
When I was out of his presence, he required me to call him on a regular basis. If I was at work, he expected me to answer the telephone on the first or second ring. Failures to comply were punished. With the advent of cell phones, the rule remained that I answer within the first or second ring.
When I once was scheduled to meet with an attorney about a joint client, I informed the abuser about the meeting, explaining it would be unprofessional of me to take calls during the meeting. I thought he agreed to a waiver from the two-ring rule if I called him before and immediately after the meeting. When the phone rang about five minutes into the meeting, I assumed someone else was calling and continued with the meeting after muting the phone. I ignored the phone’s continued vibrating until the meeting was done and then called him. He was livid, claiming I misunderstood our agreement and that I should have answered the phone within the first two rings. He accused me of having an affair with the attorney. When I got home, he raged at me for hours for violating the accountability rules.
Now free of the abuse, I see my attempts to comply with his rules as almost comical. But at the time, my mind was held captive. I saw no other choices than those he outlined. I’d lost touch with my own volition through sleep deprivation and his relentless belittling. Every error I made, task I forgot, and facts I confused were turned into earth-shattering events from which no redemption was possible. I came to believe that everything I attempted was destined to fail. Correction or feedback from others corroborated that I was a complete failure. If I succeeded at anything, he quickly dismissed it as sheer luck, or he criticized me as weak for enjoying approval from others. I’d lost my identity and assumed the one he assigned me.
So, I gradually became complicit in my own captivity. I worked hard to keep the rules that further cemented my prison. So, does that mean I also bear the shame of abuse?
Here’s how I look at it now. I believe shame has two parts: anticipating shame from others and self-shaming. Shaming from others is irrelevant because no one else has walked in my shoes. The context of the events I survived is lost on anyone who hasn’t experienced the push and pull of abuse. Their opinion of my story is meaningless. So, the only shame I need to process is self-shame.
My shame for my self dissolves when I remind myself that I did break free of the abuse, it just took me 30 years. Those years were valuable as I learned volumes about human nature and how to interact with others. When at age 19 I met him, I was naïve and vulnerable, which made me a good target for him to quickly draw under his influence. Now at age 54, it’s unfair to judge my 19-year-old self by the standards of another 35 years of experience.
I did what I could with what I knew at the time. Just because I didn’t grow and mature in an abusive relationship doesn’t mean I didn’t grow and mature in other areas of my life. I was stunted in one relationship, and once I left the abuse, this stunted portion of my life quickly caught up with the rest of me.
Maybe some people learned these lessons more quickly than I, but some took longer, and some died before they learned. It took me 30 years because I was strong. I worked hard within the rules he defined. What led me to freedom was to stop being strong and to consider doing things differently.
Even though my captivity was secured only through mental chains, it was real to me. Others may feel that I own the shame, but their opinions are irrelevant. I’ve felt self-shame for my lengthy extraction process. But, my discomfort with shame motivated my search for learning and recovery.
So, to those brave women who told us their stories of captivity and release from shame, I hear you!