As an autistic woman myself, I know I’m not alone in seeking the security of a stable, dependable home life. I sucked badly at taking care of myself when I first lived away from home at university: I was intimidated by communal cooking and laundry areas.
The pattern repeated when I moved away for work: my awful, almost-non-existent organisational skills left me struggling with all manner of domestic tasks from my finances to making sure I had food and clean clothes. I was pretty much living off take-aways when I met someone.
In my first committed relationship we set up home together, had a daughter and got married so quickly that it’s a bit of a blur in my memories. With hindsight, we weren’t well-matched and the marriage didn’t last. I think we both had breakdowns after it imploded and we went our separate ways.
Within only a few months I found myself in another relationship. You might be thinking “rebound”. Looking back, I am thinking “rebound”. But at the time I blithely dismissed concerns that I was rushing headlong into things (again) and declared that it was true love.
The marriage (for that’s what we did in our second year together) appeared to start well. Despite my partner’s occasional displays of drunken aggression, sometimes in public, we got along pretty well. Or so I thought, but in reality I was adapting to minimise the friction.
Over time I let my spouse manage all the household finances, cook the meals, choose how the home was decorated. In return I got the illusion of security and stability. I say illusion because there was always the implicit threat of being thrown out, always some reason why I couldn’t become a joint tenant.
My ties to family and friends weakened as I gradually lost contact, being made to feel guilty for spending any time with them rather than my spouse. When we went out I’d often be left sat on my own while they went around socialising, while if I ever did the same I got accused of spending no time with them.
I became well-versed in my failings due to having them pointed out regularly: how I couldn’t cope on my own, and how I’d have ended up in an awful mess if it hadn’t been for my spouse. I actually felt grateful for it, for their control over my life, making order out of the chaos.
On a number of occasions they got drunkenly argumentative and locked me out, only to be extra nice the next day after allowing me back in. A couple of times I tried to leave, spent a day or two sofa-surfing at mutual friends’ places before giving in to the pleas for me to return, promising it would be different.
A couple of times I tried to kill myself, washing down handfuls of pills with whisky or other alcohol, but I always ended up vomiting them out and surviving.
By the end I was spending a lot of time in a little box room on my own. When I felt especially threatened I would wedge a chair under the door handle to prevent my spouse from getting in, and I’d cower in there while they hammered on the door and shouted threats.
All this and I still couldn’t leave. I no longer believed I was being cared for, but having any home seemed preferable to the unknown chaos of life on my own. There were just so many things I would have to do to get away that trying to think about it overwhelmed me.
I was in mental health crisis, on medication, unable to work and suffering frequent panic attacks. My counsellor helped by guiding me through the process of organising my thoughts into an exit plan. My daughter helped me find a place to live, and assisted with setting up home there.
Things aren’t perfect, even more than a year and a half later. The emotional abuse over those years has seriously damaged my mental health and I have complex PTSD, frequent suicidal thoughts, and a bunch of new scars from self-harm.
But I also have support, and perhaps more importantly I have belief in myself. I know now that I can survive life on my own. That’s not to say I don’t struggle, and keeping on top of bills and household chores will always be difficult.
It’s tempting to let others manage aspects of your life in the belief that they will care for you. But all too often this dependency forms the basis of control, of abuse, and that is far from healthy. It took me a long time to recognise the signs, and I let my judgement be swayed by the person who was abusing me because they claimed to be looking after me and had undermined my confidence in myself: I believed their words over the evidence of my own eyes.
We autistic people are particularly at risk from those who would take advantage of us, abuse the trust we place in them and end up harming us. We become dependent on carers. Look out for warning signs like these:
- If you find yourself making excuses for your partner or carer when others question the way they treat you.
- If they regularly act aggressively towards you, shout at you, or otherwise make you feel scared of them, make you afraid to challenge them.
- If they often tell you what you can or can’t do.
- If they alternate between being cruel or nasty towards you, and apologising and being extra nice for a while.
- If you frequently get criticised, teased or called hurtful names: if they keep finding fault with things you do or say.
- If they make you feel guilty for spending time with other people, or make you feel bad if you interact with others online: if they isolate you from people you used to have around you.
- If you aren’t allowed access to your own money, or don’t have a say in things you buy or do.