How I Learned I Was Lovable Again After An Abusive Relationship

Photographed by Flora Maclean
Photo for illustrative purposes only, the person featured is a model.
I don’t know when I first knew I was unlovable. It’s like trying to remember the first time I knew the difference between right and wrong or the days of the week. All I know is that I don’t remember ever feeling the need to question it until a moment, a few decades into my life, when the seams of my inner world burst open, throwing thoughts and beliefs I’d held for years under the sharp focus of a magnifying glass. 
On the other side of the lens was a therapist. We were attempting to understand together why on a cold, wet winter morning, I’d walked out of my flat coatless, with soap suds still in my hair, closing the door firmly behind me on a relationship which I had previously thought — or hoped — would last forever. But how do you make sense of the incomprehensible? Why had I just spent two years lying to everyone in my life? 
I left when it became clear that either I would survive or the relationship would. I’d exhausted all other possibilities. It wasn’t so much a decision as an instinct. I am convinced that if I had stayed even a day longer, I’d never have found my way back. 
People often ask why I stayed so long in an environment that was clearly so abusive. The truth is, I didn’t know it was. When you embark on a relationship believing you’re unlovable, you tend to think you deserve whatever comes your way. The abuse becomes normal to you. Why would I be treated with respect or kindness when I so clearly didn’t deserve it? When I was clearly so hard to love? I guess you could call it a form of imposter syndrome — I’d fooled someone into loving me and was terrified of being found out. This made leaving feel like a choice between being alone forever or being mentally unwell. "You’ll never find anyone else who will love you," were the final words my ex sneered as I closed the door. "You’re destined to be alone." 
At least some of what he said turned out to be true: I was destined to be alone, at least for a few years. I needed every single second of that time to work through what had happened, to understand the part I played in it and — hopefully — be able to work towards a more positive future. According to Ammanda Major, a relationship counsellor, sex therapist and head of clinical practice at Relate, there is no fixed time for healing from abuse and recovery looks different for everyone. "For some people, going into a new relationship can be part of the healing process," she explains. "For others, taking the time to self-heal is important."

I would fall hard for undeserving people, trying to shortcut the difficult work of loving myself by using another's desire or admiration as a proxy. It never worked.

The first year, I took dating right off the table. How would I ever be able to trust anyone again? "What we have to understand is that the fault always lies with the abuser," explains Ammanda, "but it can take time for a survivor to accept this." There’s a warped logic that tends to exist within an abusive partnership, where the victim is blamed for everything that goes wrong — by both themselves and the abuser. In my case, the idea of dating someone new in those early days felt futile. Look what I’d done to my last relationship. Surely it would just happen again? 
When I did dip my toe back into the world of dating, I felt like I was missing a layer of skin. Everything felt more intense: the ups, the downs, the pulls and the pushes. I would fall hard for undeserving people, trying to shortcut the difficult work of loving myself by using another’s desire or admiration as a proxy. It never worked. And when things inevitably went wrong, I’d retreat back into my shell, swearing off dating forever.
Looking back, it was all part of the process of coming to terms with how I’d been treated. It took a long time for me to accept that I had been abused — partly, I think, because I found it so difficult to relate to the notion of victimhood. It took hundreds of hours of therapy and anxious late-night phone calls with my (very patient) friends and family before I was even willing to accept that my feelings of responsibility were as much a part of the abuse as the more direct attacks on my person and the attempts to isolate me from those in my life who really did care.
Shortly after, I fell deep into an internet hole, researching abuse and testimonies of victims and survivors. It started with a few articles here and there, until I had read five books and every link on the first 100 pages of Google. I was a walking library of abuse terminology and soon started seeing it everywhere. Suddenly, everyone was gaslighting each other. Everyone was love-bombing. No one was enforcing healthy boundaries. "Unravelling the process by which abusive partners operate can help victims make sense of it," says Ammanda, "but it can also make you feel hypervigilant to threats and scared of trusting people — these are all normal responses." Eventually I became stuck, unable to move forwards from the need to protect myself from oncoming threats, and was diagnosed with post-traumatic OCD. The diagnosis helped me to be more compassionate and patient with my healing process.

Trusting that something could be different can be an enormous milestone. It can be a turning point for many.

Ammanda Major, Relate
Over the years after I left my ex, I swung wildly between optimism and fear, one pushing me forwards and the other pulling me back. When I did start dating I often found myself in intense flings which burned out quickly. I think it was a form of self-defence: I picked people who were emotionally unavailable so I would never have to show them my vulnerabilities or else I’d push them away subconsciously with erratic and intense behaviour. There were a few bright spots and one person in particular who I opened up to and was incredibly caring but just wasn’t ready for anything serious. We stayed in touch.
Years afterwards, locked at home alone during the first wave of the pandemic, I had a moment of realisation where all the hours of therapy, self-care and healing tessellated. I had just been treated badly by yet another man who in many ways resembled my ex and I suddenly thought, What am I doing? I don’t deserve this. I blocked the guy and vowed to change the record. It wasn’t my fault that I was abused. I wasn’t unlovable; I’m not now and never was. Believing this – really, deeply believing this – helped me to set new boundaries and expectations, and I even started to feel hopeful again. "Trusting that something could be different can be an enormous milestone," Ammanda tells me. "It can be a turning point for many."
Shortly after, I met my now partner. From day one, things were different — I was different. Confident that I was lovable and now unafraid of being alone, I was able to let go of my fear and trust my own boundaries, knowing that whatever happened, I would be okay. 
"There’s no prescription for recovery," explains Ammanda. "What works for one person doesn’t work for another but a combination of professional support and the support of people around you, and time and space to understand the impact on you emotionally, sexually, physically and (sometimes) financially is crucial."
"For some people, starting a new, healthier relationship can be really healing," she explains, which is where I find myself now. It hasn’t been without issue. I’ve found it hard to accept my boyfriend’s care, compassion and kindness at times without fear of the inevitable repercussions or the need to 'repay' him. From the start we’ve spoken clearly and openly about what happened to me and we make a point of checking in once a month to see how things are going. He makes me feel easy to love every single day. It isn’t a substitute for my own self-esteem but it certainly helps to be reminded.  
Not that I would credit my partner for my recovery — that was all me (with the support of some incredible people). But I do still pinch myself every single day that, for the first time in my life, I’m completely and utterly in love and not one inch of me feels afraid. Because I now know that whatever happens, I’ll always be on my own side. I won’t abandon myself again. As my mum always says, everything else is just icing: not necessary, but nice all the same.
If you or someone you know is experiencing an abusive relationship please visit Women's Aid for more information and resources. They also have a live chat function and a list of helplines to call if you need help now.

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