Weakening the Weakness

I read the articles about FKA twigs’ lawsuit against her former boyfriend, Shia LaBeouf, read her recounting of the ways he abused her and I want to feel something. I want to cry, or get angry, or remember. Instead, I find myself numb. I see myself in her story and my eyes glaze over – I know the story so intimately, even though the details are not the same – and I am forced to skim the pages. I cannot bring myself to read every word. Why would I need to? I lived this.

Not with Shia LaBeouf, obviously, but with my own version: an attractive, charismatic, successful man hellbent on breaking women. A tortured soul – god knows how long I’ve spent, dissecting what neurosis might be to blame for His actions: psychopathy, sociopathy, good-old-fashioned narcissism, a dash of all of that? – who caged me in control and terror for years.

For a long time, I thought that He had chosen me because I was an easy target – someone who lacked confidence and could be controlled. This was a point of contention between me and Cindy, the therapist with whom I was doing Cognitive Processing Therapy (CPT) – a specific type of therapy for people suffering from PTSD. One of my stuck points (a central tool of CPT) was the belief that “I am weak” – that there was something wrong with me that He had sniffed out. He had seen flaws in me, had known I was someone who could be easily preyed on. Layered on top of the oh-so-common “I am not good enough” that seemed to permeate every cell of my being, this weakness made me a lame duck. I was someone with so little confidence or belief in myself that it would take no effort to destroy me. I blamed myself for what He did. 

“What makes you believe that?” Cindy would ask, looking like she sincerely believed that I was good enough. That I was strong. That it actually puzzled her why this was a sticking point for me.

My brain knew the answer: this was what every talking head on Dateline told me, what I’d read in all those books I’d devoured to try to diagnose Him: predators looked for easy targets. Vulnerable women who could be preyed upon with minimal effort. To Cindy, I just shrugged my shoulders, spoke in sweeping generalizations. “I don’t know,” I avoided her eyes. “I just do. That’s what you always hear.” 

I did twelve sessions of this specialized therapy. Clinically, my PTSD resolved, my scores improving dramatically (there is no real “test” for PTSD, Cindy explained. She had me fill out a questionnaire to determine which symptoms I might be experiencing, what was triggering me. My initial score was 53. A score above 33 was considered to be experiencing PTSD. By my last session, my score was under 10). I felt better. However, inside I still carried around this belief: that the abuse I suffered was somehow my fault, because I had not been good enough, hadn’t been enough. That I was weak and I brought it upon myself.

I also grappled with wondering if what had happened to me was even really abuse. He never hit me. So, it shouldn’t count right? I stuffed the coercion – financial and sexual – down and pretended they didn’t exist. Pretended I wasn’t being tracked on my phone, told who to talk to or not talk to, like I had choices.

Did I even have PTSD? Certainly, according to Cindy and her diagnostic tools, yes, I very clearly did. But, as I told her – and my regular therapist – and my best friend, who was a therapist, and had been the one to tell me she thought I needed to do some CPT in the first place: I wasn’t a war veteran. I hadn’t been in combat. I felt like a poser claiming I had PTSD. 

But, I guess you might ask the friend I texted during a panic attack – feeling like I was going crazy and not able to catch my breath. Or the friend who had to break the news to me that He was in a relationship – who told me it was “scary” the kind of control He had over me, how I stayed in the bathroom for hours while He screamed at me – like it was somehow my fault He’d cheated on His girlfriend, lied to both of us – while she sat in my kitchen, listening to it all. Ask the friend who watched me shake while I opened an invitation to a wedding being held near His mountain cabin: declaring I wouldn’t be able to go. Ask my aunt who told me as I walked in the door – “Wow, you’re skinny, a little too skinny!” –because I weighed in under 100lbs for the first time since middle school. Ask them. They might not tell you I had PTSD but they’d tell you something was wrong.

So I did the CPT, and I felt better. Moved forward, mostly.

And then FKA twigs shared what happened to her. A famous, beautiful woman sharing about her experience with psychological and emotional abuse. She didn’t seem weak or vulnerable. In fact, she seemed pretty bad ass. I wondered what the talking heads on Dateline would say about her.

A few weeks after the story broke, I was listening to one of my favorite podcasts, Natch Beaut. The host, Jackie Johnson, started discussing the allegations against Shia LaBeouf – someone she’d joked about having a crush on for years. Jackie shared that she is a survivor of abuse, and she shared her support for other survivors and thanked women like FKA twigs for coming forward to share their stories. I’d been walking my dog, but kept listening when I got home. Now, listening in my kitchen, with my earphones still in, I hunched over my kitchen sink as I heard Jackie say this: “[abusers] get more satisfaction out of dimming the shine of someone extra bright.” As her own voice started to tremble, I broke down crying, sobbing. I had to hold onto the counter to steady myself. I fell to the floor in tears. Even now, as I write this, I have to take off my glasses and squint through the flood of emotion. 

I won’t lie and say hearing that little nugget of wisdom magically made that stuck point of “I am weak” unstuck. It didn’t. I still have moments, some longer than others, when I wonder how I could have let this happen, why I didn’t leave, how I fell for all the bullshit. I see myself as I imagine others must: weak, pathetic, so desperate for love and attention that I will put up with being manipulated and lied, cheated on, used, degraded. I feel humiliated by my choices. I let myself drown in victimhood, shirk the label of “survivor” – I want to both dismiss what has happened to me (“He never hit me! I mustn’t make this a ‘thing’”) and also wallow in it (“this was not right. I deserve to be acknowledged for my pain.”), knowing I can’t have it both ways, knowing holding it will only hurt me more. 

I am glad that men like Shia LaBeouf – those in the spotlight, with power and influence – are being called out, named and I hope they will in some way be held accountable for their actions. I know that there are far too many more – especially those not in the spotlight, with power and influence over their partners – who will never be called out, or named or held accountable. I wish I were brave enough to type the name of the man I am writing about here. But I’m not. Among the veiled threats I learned to decode – the bits of information he fed to me over our time together – was how litigious he is, and I know, even if I did write his name, the consequences he would inflict upon me are greater than any he is likely to suffer. And I’m done dealing with his wrath.

I spoke to my therapist today, told her most of this. How I’d felt weak, even when Cindy told me I wasn’t. Told her I was still holding on, even when I knew I shouldn’t. I talked about FKA twigs and Shia and the Podcast. She nodded. I should start to think about being weak with a bit more flexibility, she said. She explained that I did have a vulnerability – I wanted love and affection not because I was weak – but because I was human. That He – consciously or unconsciously – exploited that, and wanted to dull someone’s shine because He saw it as superior. 

We looked at each other, through the computer screen, and I sighed. I’ve been wallowing in my victimhood for five years, waiting for something. Maybe it was this: understanding I could be vulnerable and also not at fault, all at once.