When Care is Really Control

When Care is Really Control

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.

8 thoughts on “When Care is Really Control

  1. I remember how we all supported you in leaving. It was all so fast, but you did it, and it’s been wonderful watching you bloom and learn proper self-care.

    I was once in a relationship very similar to yours, and know all too well the feeling of being trapped. I’m really proud of you, as you ought to be of yourself 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

  2. I recognize all these signs — I left a very similar relationship three years ago. I’ve been in a wearying, drawn out legal battle since, but I have found a healthy relationship since, too.

    And I completely identify with your statement in a comment that for the longest time you questioned whether what was happening was really abuse. It’s amazing how some abusers have that ability. I’ve recently been working with my therapist through a lot of the older issues, and I keep having to ask, “Is it healthy to feel this way? Is this normal? Do other people think these things?” It’s amazing that I have trouble identifying both unhealthy AND healthy relationships as a result of the constant abuse I was under.

    I was abused through my childhood and left my childhood and entered a relationship with my ex that lasted nearly 13 years before I left, and because we have children, I will always have some kind of a relationship with him. It’s a very long road before I think I will be able to see myself for who I really am apart from all that I was told I am, and before I think I will be able to recognize healthy and unhealthy relationship patterns…

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you for sharing your experience. I know it can be difficult to speak about because it awakens memories of the trauma. I believe it’s important to tell our stories because others see they’re not alone, and increased awareness makes it harder for abusers to remain hidden from sight.

      Someone who is very close to me ended up in an abusive relationship after going through abuse in childhood. We talked about our experiences, helped each other realise that we were being abused by partners. We both have healthy relationships now.

      I agree, it does take time before we learn to tell the difference, before we can be open without the deep fear of getting hurt. I think it takes longer still before we see ourselves as worth loving. Wishing you success on your road.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I can relate to this. Been there a few times. I’m now single, but living at home again because I can’t afford my own place. Can’t manage a full time job, so seems like I’ll be stuck here forever. But I’m also not sure whether I’ll be able to be “successful” completely on my own. I suck at things like making sure I have clean clothes and even cooking for myself. Managing my own place seems both like something I long for, but also very scary.

    Liked by 1 person

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