Breaking The Wall - abuse from a cis male survivor perspective

So, I’m going to take the plunge and post some thoughts here. My main concern was about professional repercussions but, fuck it, I own my shit and I’m going to own it publicly. So here goes.

CW child abuse, suicide, and general toxic relationship bullshit.

I wanted to write this because not only is it timely given the Depp/Heard circus that people have latched on to (of which I refuse to express an opinion about), but it happens to be seven years ago today that my life changed forever.

I need to start with some background context because this is important. As many of you know, I had a hellish childhood. Set among the idyllic scene of Orewa, a beautiful if excessively bourgeois setting. My mum, undiagnosed BPD, was a nightmare of a parent. Cruel, manipulative, violent.

Growing up, we were punished for the most trivial of things. To this day, I fear even breathing loudly around other people because even that was met with punishment. I remember the first time I had a panic attack around my mother. It was such a scary and overwhelming thing. I picked up a drawing pin and started pricking my arm with it.

Mum screamed at me “don’t you dare start that shit or I’ll have you locked away like the freak you are!”. I gradually learned to suppress my shit outwardly and retreated to an inner world – and the solace of Doctor Who. That show saved my life.

Mum would also manipulate me whenever I did anything that upset her. “you’ll regret that when I’m dead”, she’d say. “You’ll stand at my grave and feel guilty for saying that”. It would be over something as basic as me saying I didn’t like the food she made for dinner, even if I ate it. Another thing to suppress – honesty.

Not to mention her sexual abuse. Which I shan’t detail here. But that further compounded my knowledge of how to relate and connect with others, and by extension, my understanding of boundaries.

As you can imagine, this resulted in me having major attachment issues. The closest attachment I ever had was with my Nana Taua, the most selfless and kind person I have ever known. Sadly, she died weeks after I had an argument with her. If I ever stood at a grave with guilt, it was at hers.

With these attachment issues meant I struggled with romantic attachments. Fluctuating between idealising and fearing abandonment, my relationships never lasted as my partners got, understandably, overwhelmed by the rollercoaster of emotions I experienced – despite all my attempts to suppress them – the only thing I knew to do.

That changed somewhat in late 2013 when I met Her. A fellow neurodivergent (even though she was unaware) our shared incomprehensibility of the world was our bond. It was wonderfully liberating, and we bonded intensely and rapidly. I moved in with her within a few months and things were amazing for a year.

Christmas 2014. Her ex contacted her in a suicidal state after breaking up with his wife. She fled to his side. They got close very quickly, which set my attachment anxiety off to the point that I was having panic attacks.

There were signs she was cheating; her phone was now locked, and she never opened it around me – opting to go to the toilet every hour or so with her phone instead. She started going out with him in the evenings, leaving me at home to have panic attacks. She told me that I was being hysterical and that if I truly loved her, that I would trust her.

Naturally as she had the level head and I’m losing my shit, I believed her. She started to loosen her secrecy and became more open about spending time with him. People around me were telling me that it wasn’t appropriate, but she assured me nothing was happening.

One day I caught out of the corner of my eye, her type the passcode to her phone. One morning when she was in the shower, I opened her phone and saw messages she sent to him the previous night, after spending several hours with him. They included things like “I loved what you did to me tonight, can we do that again?” and more sexually explicit messages.

I ran into the shower and screamed at her that we were over. She expressed genuine remorse but maintained that she was flirting and that nothing actually happened. She promised never to talk to him again. My anxiety was out of control.

But I trusted her – she again was the person with the calm and level head. I trusted that what she said was true. We stayed together. A few days later she said she missed him, and she didn’t think she could go without talking to him. She promised nothing happened and nothing will. I relented because I figured it was the only way to keep the relationship.

I was trapped – she earned a lot more money than I did, and I knew I couldn’t afford to move out. I needed an attachment, as we all do, and this was, to my mind, the only way to keep that basic human necessity.

By this time my mental health was so bad that I was being seen at the DHB, having been diagnosed with both ADHD and BPD – being treated for the latter in therapy by both private and public service psychologists – such was the intensity and risk at the time.

We even tried couples counselling. The counsellor said two things that meant we never went back; he told her to be more open to me seeing her phone messages. Her, being in the employ of the Police (admin), knew that this type of accountability was tantamount to abuse and refused to be placed on that ‘slippery slope’. The counsellor’s other advice, to me, was to just stop having panic attacks.

By this point everyone was telling me to get out of the relationship. My psychiatrist told me I had attachment issues and was blind to the abuse I was subjected to. But I couldn’t leave – I knew I literally could not afford to move out on the meagre income I had. I was financially and emotionally dependent on this toxic relationship.

Until one day she said to me she was going to a rugby game with him. I decided to dig my heels in and said it wasn’t appropriate. She disagreed. I said that everyone is now telling me that this relationship is toxic and needs to end. This was on a Thursday night just before I had to go to work in a call centre as sole charge on the overnight shift.

She said, ‘ok we’re over then’. This is when I learned I had gone too far, the one time I decide to impose some boundaries and it backfires. I drove to work in a state of shock. I remember little about that night, but I do remember answering the phone and not being able to speak. For 8 hours I picked up and hung up the phone without speaking.

This is a picture of me 7 years ago (photo removed for privacy reasons)– this is the state I was in. My worst fear – abandonment – had just occurred. I started to shut down. I was scared, I was ashamed, I was so full of uncertainty about what lay ahead, and I was definitely in no state to exist.

So, I started to shut down. I wanted out. The one shot I thought I had at a relationship was ruined. My therapist caught on to this and sent me to be assessed by the crisis team. Because I was so terrible at expressing emotions outwardly, my own psychiatrist had to ask me what I needed because I was so closed. I told her I needed death.

So, I was sent to the ward at Hillmorton as a suicide risk. I remember sitting in an armchair in the corner of my room staring at the floor for the first 48 hours, on 15-minute welfare checks. The nurses had to open my door to check on me because someone scratched out the peep hole in the door.

I was in there for two weeks. As I had nowhere to live, I was referred to Steppingstones Trust as they had a halfway house for homeless men. I was considered officially ‘of no fixed abode’. I remember that being on my prescriptions, of which I had to pick up every 3 days because I was an overdose risk – my preferred method of checking out.

I lived at Steppingstones for almost 4 months. I tried to go to work but lasted only a week or so. I got into trouble for not saying a script properly – even though the voice logger had recorded me doing it properly, so I snapped back at the admin person for not doing their job properly. My boss was on the phone to her boss in front of me saying things like ‘yes, he’s out of control, I know we need to rein him in’.

I started to have a panic attack and said I was going to go home for the rest of the day. My boss quickly phoned her boss and said ‘now he wants to go home! I know! Unbelievable!” then she gave me the phone ‘she wants to talk to you’.

I took the phone “hello?”, “why are you going home?”, “I’m not well.”, “well you were fine enough to come to work”, “and now I’m not”, “what’s wrong with you?”, I was getting shitty at this point. “I don’t need to justify myself to you”, “is that right?!”, “yes”.

There was a pause. I was livid. “YOU PATRONISING BITCH” I screamed before slamming the phone down. My boss looked at me “RIGHT THAT’S IT! GET OUT!!”. So, I did, slamming the door behind me. I worked there for four years and that’s how it ended.

Later, I went to my therapist. I told her about my experience at Hillmorton. How desperately alone I felt there and how cold it seemed. The place felt like purgatory – not quite heaven, not quite hell. Just a holding pen. I said the whole mental health system was a shitshow and someone needed to fix it.

“Why don’t you do it?” she said, warmly. I was taken aback, I failed everything at high school, I knew people thought I was smart, but I had no evidence to believe it personally. “I think you could do it.. You’re one of the most insightful people I’ve ever met, and I think you have something important to contribute. I truly think you have a gift”.

I was homeless, jobless, and in a state of utter hopelessness. I think I needed to hear this. Eventually I got a little flat near the university and promptly enrolled. I decided I was going to accept the challenge – I was going to become a clinical psychologist on a mission to make people feel heard, seen, and understood – to make sure that nobody felt that desperately painful sensation of loneliness and emptiness that I had experienced.

But it came at a cost. I weaved a cocoon around myself to make sure I wasn’t going to be upset by attachments ever again. I cut myself off from the world, paradoxically, so I could make a difference within it. That hasn’t changed. After seven years of being in this cocoon, however, I think I’m ready to leave it.

I’ve done very well at uni, but not having anyone to share my successes with has been devastating. I remember when I was accepted into the clinical psychology program, I cried because I had nobody to share the news with. I cried when I got my first scholarship because nobody was around. I’ve had four scholarships awarded since and am doing a PhD – so I know now, objectively, that I’m not the dim-witted simpleton I thought I was. Not only that, but my research is geared towards identifying and giving a voice to people like me. Nobody should have to suffer like this, not on my watch.

My attachment issues remain. The relationship imprints my parents have given me is one of utter toxicity devoid of boundaries. I’m approaching 40, so have 4 decades of shit to unlearn and it’s SO. FUCKING. HARD. Every romantic attachment I’ve had since, and there are very few of them, have been where I’ve been so focused on pleasing the other person. As a result, I’ve never felt what I imagine is the liberating sensation of being free to be yourself around them. It’s painful.

But everything I do, from becoming a psychologist to the very topic of all of my research, has been geared towards preventing people from feeling the numbing pain of going your whole life feeling alone, of feeling unseen, unheard, not understood. I want that to change, I need that to change. I’m ready for it to change.

I just don’t know how. I don’t know how to talk to people about myself. I have a terrible habit of turning conversations all about the other person. I don’t know how to reach out to others when I’m feeling like shit. I’ve never felt like I had been given the space to do that.

How do you undo all of this? How do you know who is good for you and what a healthy relationship is? How do you know that if you be yourself, you won’t be punished and rejected? It’s been a leap of faith I’ve never been able to take.

But when I look at how far I’ve come in the seven years, seven years ago today, I know it’s going to be okay. I’m lonely. I’m anxious. I’m tired. I’m shame personified. But I remain undefeated. Always and forever undefeated. Why? Because I never give up. I retreat, I weave a cocoon, but I always try again.

Best bang for buck, if we do say so ourselves.