I expect gaslighting and emotional abuse from people, usually members of majority demographics, who grow defensive in conversations about social justice. They want to preserve the idea that their hard-earned success was due entirely to their work ethic, their merit–and it’s somewhat true. After all, you can’t win a race if you don’t run; but the race isn’t exactly fair if everyone has a different starting point.
For reasons I can’t fathom, it seems tragically common to react like conversations about privilege are deep, personal attacks. Somehow I can access black power resources without frothing at the mouth, I can read about disability without entering the comments with a snide “but actually!”, I can watch Quebecois separatists advocate for their culture without feeling like mine is under siege. But not everyone has this skill. I eventually improved my mental health a great deal when I decided that the types of people to get defensive on the topic of privilege were the types of people I would never convince, and so I accepted that some members of any majority demographic, regardless if they be minorities in other ways, are going to throw me under the bus to preserve their image.
So I expected, when starting a social justice blog, one that I’ll freely admit can get rabid at times, that strangers would get defensive, that they’d unknowingly engage in victim blaming and gaslighting and every form of emotional abuse under the sun to convince me I’m wrong, that my accusations are baseless, that I really am crazy. My therapists can attest to how much effort I spend trying to reject rather than internalize those ideas.
Knowing that my family members, my friends, my previous lovers and probably more of my future lovers are all probably going to be members of at least one majority demographic means I should grasp, on a rational level, that they might engage in this defensive behaviour.
But to actually have an ex-lover do it… I wasn’t prepared. Not emotionally. My brain could tell me I was ready all it wanted, it was wrong. As is wont to happen with an information system that likes to compartmentalize.
So I’ve got two problems coming to a head all at once: I’m out of work, so I have no money to pay for a therapist (although I do live in a socialized medicine system, it does not cover psychologists); and my latest ex is a narcissist, like full on Narcissistic Personality Disorder, and I can’t tell if they’re playing mind games with me or if I’m imagining it–which is exactly what a narcissist would want, because it means their manipulation is working.
One of the reasons it must be working is that I have a very low bar for strangers. I see a cis white man and I’m like “you’re going to say something stupid in a few minutes.” And then I wait for 15 minutes and go, “yep, there it is.” So I’m seldom disappointed when a stranger turns out to be one of the knee-jerk defensive types, because that’s pretty much my expectation for practically everyone I meet. But for me to accept someone as a lover, I have to see something in them. Compassion. A general concern with Not Being An Asshole. Some kind of brain activity that is concerned about the human condition and how fucked we are as a global society and how we don’t have to lay down and accept that.
Prior to this latest break-up, my judgement has been pretty good. Although the relationships still ended, they were for disappointing if perfectly understandable reasons: the chemistry changed or it’s not there; they’re pursuing a career that takes them far away; they need to work on some mental wounds before they’re ready to get serious again. These were all things that left me a little bummed, but weren’t anything I couldn’t grok. And I bump into them again months or years later and sure enough I find them advocating for gay rights or donating sizeable portions of their income to homeless shelters or housing an estranged kid in the family who was kicked out for being x or adopting orphans. Disappointing though things were, my judgement was still correct. They were good people.
So to find out I trusted someone on a very deep level, who turned out to be one of the people I normally dismiss in 15 minutes as clueless, has left me feeling dizzy. Unseated. Like I suddenly can’t trust my own judgement, which is ridiculous, because we should all have permission to make mistakes.
See what I mean? I’ve taken enough CBT to know, at least on a rational level, when I’m being unfair to myself. Of course I trusted a narcissist. That’s their main talent. They win people over with a surgically precise charm. My ex even went so far as to brag about her ability to gain acceptance in any social context. She had a name for it: her “chameleon skin.” She literally bragged about her ability to manipulate people, so why should I feel bad about being one of them?
Yet I do. It seems I’ve spent so much time spotting ignorance that I forgot to look for anything else. She told me, directly, to my fucking face: I’m a manipulator. And for some reason, I didn’t go “wow, that sounds profoundly unhealthy.” That little voice that tells me to survive was buried under something. It was shouting, in the moment she confessed about her chameleon skin. There was a tiny voice telling me to run, pounding against the walls of whatever concrete cell I built around it. I didn’t listen to it. And that wasn’t the first or only time, either.
I don’t want to reduce my ex to being malicious–it doesn’t seem intuitively to be a healthy means of recovery–yet every resource I can find on narcissists tells me to set boundaries, hard boundaries, and make no apologies for it, because it is a fundamental aspect of her nature to consume and destroy. I’m positive that when I find a job, and thus a therapist, that the focus will be tearing down the walls I’ve built around my little survival voice and turn it into a survival megaphone. But as long as I keep my ex around, she’ll be doing everything she can to keep the walls up, because that’s what keeps me where she wants me.
The solution seems obvious: No Contact. But doing so means giving up my entire local BDSM community. The only other BDSM “chapter” is the one that shielded my rapist; I had already written them off. This other group? The one I share with my ex? It’s got some great people in it. I don’t want to give up my friends, my mentors, my play partners. I’m worried about them, too, because my ex has perfected strategies for dismantling defenses, that they too will be duped, trapped, and then devoured. Again, rationally, I know they can form their own judgements. I just don’t want them to be hurt the way I was hurt.
But I know I can’t even start recovering until I remove her from my life.
So I don’t know what to do. Seek therapy, obviously, but I need a job first, and in the mean time, I can still see the shadow of her hands above me, plucking away at the strings that lead to my mind. Is that paranoia? Or a reasonable thing to expect from a person who views people as little more than sources of nourishment for a bottomless ego?