“You made me do it.”
It’s an idea that you get used to. Your wrongness will always be measured by the degree of the response. There’s no definition in actions or words, nor any great amassing of evidence. Just a number of bruises to count, each one showing the world how utterly wrong you are.
After the blows there will be silence. Then follows sadness and shame at what you drove a good person to do. There will be sighing, and those who stood to one side, wringing their hands, will tell you not to do “anything else to provoke him” (they mean to be helpful). There will be a few days – I can’t remember how many it used to be – when the good person won’t acknowledge you at all. You will feel hard done to (a little), but soon you see there is no point in having such feelings. People will not pity you when you are merely the cause of their shame.
You will resolve not to cause the bruises again but you forget what started it. You remember the tipping point, when you realised “this will happen and I can’t stop it, no matter what I say or do” (pursed lips are always the giveaway; the lower lip recedes and it is the point of no return). If only you knew how you got there you would stop it , every time, but you don’t so you can’t. Obviously, you know this already, it will happen again.
“You made me do it.”
This phrase will stay with you for decades, telling you that whatever seems to be, is not. You will be frightened of people and things. You won’t trust your perceptions. You will apologise too much, then apologise for apologising. People will think you weak, but you will have an aggression that only comes out when you are drunk. You will lash out and then afterwards you will tell yourself “they made me do it” (only you will know that they did not).
Occasionally, when you are very close to someone (which is rare), you will tell them about your past. Then they will say something like “ah yes, I always thought there’d be something like that with you”. You will not think this a flattering comment. You are relieved to be believed but also dismayed to find that the scars are so obvious. You had hoped you were better than that.
When I write about abuse, either physical or mental, I do not do so lightly. I don’t think that it is a game, nor a judicial dispute in which one person will be proven absolutely, unquestionably right. It is neither a debate nor a competition. It is as a process of harm, harm that comes from harm, endlessly multiplying, until you can’t find where it begins. You might try to carve up the layers, sculpting the harm into something that makes sense, but you will not achieve it. The message will still be nothing more than “you made me do it”.
Some people might tell you that abuse is a language. You have to learn it and once you understand you will not be hurt. Or that your abuse serves a purpose, absorbing the pain of those worse off than you. Or they might tell you that what you consider abuse is not abuse; on the contrary, it is your very presence that does the most harm. You will think it polite to bear all this in mind. It feels reassuringly familiar. But ultimately this is because it comes back to the same idea: “you made me do it.” Some small part of you might suspect that this isn’t true, but that would be arrogant, wouldn’t it?
Perhaps. Or it might be a step towards personhood and kindness. Perhaps there is some space in which self-assertion is not a process of de-personalising the abuser. There is a need for the recognition of harm, online as much as in “real” life. There is a need for anger, too, but it can be hard not to misdirect it. We find ourselves yelling at each other in an echo chamber, then blaming one another for our own raised voices.
It’s taken me a long time to reach a point where I will not return to “you made me do it”. I am tired of long silences in which I doubt my reality and then hit out. I am not willing to engage in tangled dialogues which pull me back to a place I don’t want to be. I am not the measure of what other people do to me, and nor are you the measure of the harm done to you. Even so, an alternative reality – one which involves assessing human worth by things other than bruises – isn’t always as easy to find as you’d think.