Mental illness is a beast. It is a disease that pollutes your mind, leaves you vulnerable and affects every single aspect of your life. Any person who has any form of mental illness will tell you that there is no escaping it; there is simply acknowledging it, dealing with it and finding the strength to keep on living.
One would hope that simply having to work that much harder to have a normal life would be as bad as it gets, but life is never that simple or accommodating. The harsh reality is that people who suffer from mental illness are more susceptible to falling into abusive relationships. In an article on Medical News Today, Catharine Paddock states that “research from the UK finds that experience of domestic violence is more common among adults with all kinds of mental health disorders than in the general population.”
This might sound overly morbid and the idea of being a vulnerable target for an abuser when you’re already a victim of your own mind feels a lot like kicking someone when they’re down, but it doesn’t stop it from being the truth. If you think about it, it’s really quite obvious. If you live with a mental illness, suffering is generally a term that comes to mind, because that’s what you do – you suffer. Tanya Roland, a 24-year old woman, commented on her experience with depression, saying: “depression is like living a waking nightmare. You suffer a darkness inside of you that other people don’t have, you suffer emotional demons that relish in your pain, and when your mind turns on you and tells you how worthless you are – you listen.” Is it really then such a stretch of the imagination to consider how being in this mindset can leave you vulnerable to abuse?
When you constantly see the worst in yourself – whether real or imagined – and put yourself down you likely will not see it when your partner does it either. In fact, it’s almost expected. Gertruida Maartens, the founder of Hagar Home for abused women and children located in Durbanville, Cape Town, says that in her experience, an abusive situation always starts with emotional and mental abuse. The truth is that it’s easier to mentally break someone down who is already a victim of mental illness and Maartens agrees. She goes on to say, “they [the abusers] start off with small negative comments, maybe on your appearance – things that you already think of yourself – and it slowly escalates and becomes worse until the threats start. By that point, they’ve already convinced you that every negative thought you had about yourself is true and that you’re worthless so when the abuse turns physical you think you deserve it. This act of thinking you deserve abuse or bad treatment at the very least, is more common than people think.”
Rechel Roode, a young woman who suffers from mental illness, stated that for a long time her mental illness defined her self-worth and dictated how she allowed the people in her life to treat her. This seems to be a common practice for young people, especially when you consider the stigma attached to mental illness in society. Roland states “people look at you differently when you say the term mental illness, it’s as though they think you’re crazy and contagious. The stigma is very real and anyone who thinks that there isn’t a stigma attached has obviously never been on the receiving end of it.” When we consider this, is it any wonder that people who are emotionally and mentally abused don’t want to admit to it? It’s bad enough being thought of as the crazy person, would you really want to add abuse victim to that list?
From Victim to Victor – Rechel Roode’s Story
It has been established that there is a link and therefore a major risk in people with mental illness falling into abusive relationships, the big question is: what can we do? Maartens advises that the best thing you can do in that situation is, “acknowledge it! Most women will choose to ignore the signs because they don’t like being a victim, but that does far more damage and gives your abuser even more power over you;” and power is the ultimate goal. In an article for the Huffington Post,
Maartens adds, “if you’re ever in a situation with your partner where you feel even slightly uncomfortable – get out! You should never wait for it to get physical. Emotional and mental abuse is just as bad as someone lifting their hand to you.” For any person in an abusive situation, this is easier said than done, but the point is that it is still doable. Taking that first terrifying step might just be the step that keeps you from becoming another tragic statistic, so don’t hesitate.
The unfair reality is that despite having to battle your own mind, there is also a very real possibility of having to fight your way out of an abusive situation as well. This might paint a bleak image, but never forget that knowledge is power! Arm yourself with as much knowledge as possible regarding signs of emotionally abusive behaviour and understand that you are worthy of love and respect. Wake up every day and remind yourself of that, sing it in the shower or scream it into the wind – but do it until it sinks through the fog of mental illness and takes root. After all, knowing your self-worth is the first piece of your mental armour that may just save your life.