Harlotry: When The Emotional Abuse Became Physical

Christopher Saunders, White Noise no. 7

Christopher Saunders, White Noise no. 1

Cathryn Berarovich is something of a renaissance sex worker; she is currently employed as a pro-domme but has held numerous interesting jobs in the industry. She usually shares her stories each Monday in Harlotry–however, for the next five weeks, she’ll be writing specifically about her experience with domestic abuse and sexual assault. Part I is here.

In the time leading up to my relationship with Stanley, I’d been cramming a lot of growing up into a very short time. While I’d been living mostly on my own since I was seventeen, I was by no means independent. When I was eighteen, I was suddenly trying to go from being a whiny, bitchy, misanthropic child who placed unrealistic demands on her mother to… a grown-up. I was financially self-sufficient and while my money-management skills left much to be desired, I was very comfortable financially and working on becoming comfortable emotionally and psychologically.

Stanley undid all my hard work. He found the holes and unpicked me, the way one would fiddle with a ladder in a pair of tights. It was easy for him, I had so many holes, and I wasn’t the only one. Our relationship was not built to last. It had been thrown together hastily, accidentally, and without care.

Stanley came to Chicago to live with me in May; by June I was seriously wondering if we’d make it to the one year mark. In July we had a disagreement–I don’t even remember what it was about. He told me he was breaking up with me. I was downtown, though I can’t for the life of me remember why, and he sent me a text message informing me not only that I wanted to end things, ostensibly because I didn’t listen to him frequently enough, but that he was perfectly fine with the idea too. The world fell out from under me. I was sure I was going to die; if I didn’t die I would certainly at least have to kill myself.

I rushed home in tears. Usually I’m far too proud to cry on the train, but this was a special occasion, and not in the joyous sense. I was still crying when I got home to find Stanley lying on the couch. I sat at his feet for an hour like a stupid, beaten dog, and bawled, full-on, ugly, red-faced, sweaty crying. Eventually, Stanley decided I had learned my lesson. He pulled me onto the couch with him, put his arms around me and told me I would be okay. I blew my nose on his shirt. He decided, in his great largess, to take me back. If I hadn’t been his before, it was settled now, my will was gone.

In retrospect I ought to have noticed that something was amiss just off the fact that we had only been together for about seven months–Stanley had already made me cry more times than all of my exes combined. However, as I’ve said before, my brain was missing. “If it doesn’t hurt,” I told myself, “it isn’t really love.”

(Image via Christopher Saunders)

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    • anna

      god, this hit home. my relationship never really escalated to physical abuse, but the jealousy, the rages, the insanity. I stayed because I was hoping and praying he would go back to normal, suddenly be cured of being bi polar and a drug addict. it was harder to leave because I knew he could be kind and loving and normal.

      • Cate

        That’s how it is, right? You think you can cure them, that one day they’ll be kind, loving, and normal forever. Except, no. I’m really glad this spoke to you, I was worried about what the reaction would be, but oh my god, people like you have been so great. I hope you got out okay.

      • anna

        I did, thank you. I was much like you, I consider myself to be an intelligent and strong woman. I had a wonderful, intensely loving, almost perfect relationship for 2 years. But my fiancee of pretty much changed over night. I knew he was bi polar but I had only seen mild depressive streaks. Suddenly, he was manic and wild and nothing resembling the man i loved. I stayed with him for another year, and finally left him. Hardest thing I’ve done, but I am so stable and healthier now. I forgot what it was like not to be eaten alive by mis-guided guilt and self hatred.
        I’m so glad you got out as well. It took me along time to realize it was abuse. I feel like a survior for making it out in one piece, and I’m so glad you got to the place to recognize that

    • Tami

      This is chillingly similar to what my friend is going through. I’m so glad you got out. I need advice, though: my friend and her “ex” are no longer living together (he left to “punish” her), although they talk frequently, still hook up, and she still seems very much under his influence/worried about his reactions to anything she does. Should I encourage her to cut off all contact, or just be relieved they’re no longer living together and hope she’ll come back to herself? I played Bad Cop once before and talked her through leaving, but two hours later she went back to him and didn’t speak to me for months.

      • Cate

        Dear lord, that sounds so familiar, both the living separately but still being under the dark thrall of a douchecanoe and also seeing a friend put herself into a bad situation time and time again. I hate, hate, hate to say it, but there’s really nothing you can do at all. I mean, I know exactly how much it hurts to see a dear friend put him- or her- self into a toxic situation or stay in a toxic situation, or anything like that but really all you can do is hope for the best.
        I hope things get better for her. sometimes physical distance is all that’s needed, but not always.

      • Tami

        Thanks so much for the reply. I guess that’s what I was thinking, too–I can’t make her change. Your story gives me hope that she’ll make it out. I’m so glad things are going better for you!

    • Molly

      Thank you for sharing your story. This is so familiar. I was in a relationship like this when i was 17-19 and i am still so ashamed and worried that it might happen again, even though i’m in a great relationship with a very loving and caring man (who, unlike my former abusive boyfriend, has no personality disorder).

      • Cate

        Oh, yes, the shame, right?
        When the whole thing was over and I was finally able to admit that yeah, this shit was actual abuse, I felt so very, very devalued. I mean there is this pervasive cultural stereotype that the women who stay with abusers are somehow less. Less intelligent, weaker, less independent, less self-aware, less confident, just generally train wrecks, and so for me at least, I ended up questioning my whole self-perception for a while. I mean, no-one talks about the fact that abuse happens to all kinds of women, even smart, confident, capable, strong ladies and that’s exactly why it’s so dangerous.
        I also worry about whether it will happen again. I’m so paranoid now, I’d say you have no idea, but I mean, you probably do. I feel bad, because I, too, am in a great relationship with a very loving and caring man, and it seems so unfair that he has to deal with all the baggage I got from some dickwad who came before him.

    • YarghMatey

      While I did not lose myself so completely, given that I was 16 and still living with my Mom, my first serious relationship twisted me in similar ways. The apologizing, always the apologizing, and the inability to confront the abuser on their obvious lies or borderline insanity.

      My boyfriend claimed to have cut himself on many occasions, but there were never any marks. He conjured up catastrophes such as the deaths of grandparents when I tried to break up with him. Anything to keep me sorry.

      I was so lucky that the friends I’d pushed aside to accommodate his jealousy were still there for me when I had to end it. I still loved him, but I realized I was on very bad path. They swooped in and escorted me to and from classes, because I was so afraid that if I ever talked to him, I’d be sucked back in.

      I was left with a lot of trust issues. I mean, the one person I’d let in used everything he knew about me to manipulate me. I dated a lot, had a kid and was married and then divorced, but it was years before I’d let anyone in for real. In fact, I’d say it took over 10 years before I allowed myself to really fall hard for another person. Luckily, I finally have figured out what I want and need (and what my daughter needs) and it’s working out very well.

      I do feel lucky that there was no physical abuse, as this same guy went on to hit his next girlfriend. Though, I think the only reason he didn’t try that with me was that we were in martial arts classes together. While he was a belt ahead of me, I always won our sparring matches. Of course, I’d have to apologize for that later, and for doing better in school. Because it made him feel bad, you know.

      This essay was a painful read, but thank you so much for writing it. I still have such a hard time understanding the mindset of someone who stays with an abusive partner, despite having some first hand experience. It’s amazing how much you can come to doubt your own mind in the face of a master manipulator.

    • I.N.

      I just had a revelation. I am currently studying the neurobiology of mental conditions. And one thing hit me as I was reading your account: the state of ongoing anxiety, the state of constant unpredictable threat you were living in. I don’t think it gets emphasized in narratives of abuse very much, but I strongly suspect it is common to all of them. Effectively, abusive relationship may also be creating a state of an anxiety disorder in its survivor. And that means your emotional processing is sensitized, amygdala (the part of the brain responsible for threat processing and much of emotions) is on continuous hyper alert.

      And if there is one thing neurobiologists know about anxiety disorders, that show up repeatedly in multiple studies: it is that a sensitized and hyperactive amygdala is extremely good at shutting down your thinking parts of the brain, the prefrontal cortex. So all that stuff about shame, and guilt, and how can an intelligent person not see this – well, that just may be how! Your very capacity to think may be diminished by this constant anxiety – and that would happen to anyone who has been placed into that state.

      I have never seen such a description before, I will go search the literature to see if such a mechanism has been described and applied to abusive relationship. But the reason I am sharing it, is that I think it may be a powerful in providing an potential explanation for this mind-boggling state of affairs, and might lift off that blame that both the survivors and the society often throw around.

      • I.N.

        *may be powerful in providing a potential explanation* – sorry, I was in a hurry when changing that sentence and didn’t re-read it before posting…

    • Been there

      I really identify with your story as there are shades of my first real love in it. I’ve been married 10 years now, a mother, and still I think of him and miss him from time to time although I truly thank my angels that I got out alive. Did he drink at all? Alcohol was a major ficture in my ex’s behavior. Usually people who act like that have a substance they abuse (so says my psychologist).

    • Fran

      I am incredibly thankful to have found your articles. It’s been over 10 years ago that I got out of a mentally and physically abusive relationship and I still cannot describe what happened with me, to me back than. Although English is not my first language, you hit the spot with every word. I consider myself smart and even thought so back then, which is why the fact I let someone manipulate me in so many ways is still a burden and a shame for me. So thank you for writing so openly, so cruelly honest and for helping me understand a few things about my past.

    • Ruby

      My last relationship was just like this, but he never got truly physical. It took forever to get rid of him, and it was so hard because he always knew how to get me back. I was (am) really young too. It was just the worst because when it was good it was the best, we had great times, but when it was bad…the fighting lasted for days. I’m glad you got rid of that toxicity and you’re moving on!