Last updated on January 16, 2021
What happens to a person when society must deny that they exist?
“I MATTER! I MATTER, I MATTER, I MATTER!” the words screamed through my skull on that sunny late afternoon just two Augusts ago.
Just minutes before, I was standing in our kitchen, arguing with my wife, my covert narcissist abuser of over 30 years. I didn’t know it at the time, but her capacity to manipulate and exploit me had recently grown to new and devastating heights.
What we were arguing about, I can’t honestly remember. What I remember most vividly, though, was the point when I asked, I pleaded, for her to stop ramping up emotionally.
My C-PTSD was fully known to her by then, but rather than protecting me as a good spouse should, she kept ramping. Even though I hadn’t yelled or screamed at her, there she was, my beloved, screaming at me.
And that’s all it took. She succeeded. She exploited me. She triggered me. In that moment, my menu of options collapsed down to fight, flee, or freeze.
Because I was (and remain) committed to not returning injury for injury, and because this was not the first time that month that she had exploited me like this, I chose the safest option of all: I ran.
Without another word, I speed-walked through the living room and out the door, and I tore off for the park across the street.
Being fifty years old and 75 pounds overweight, I’m sure I was quite a sight, terribly distraught, fiercely striving to get away from the source of my emotional pain, but moving as slowly as I was.
I was so out of shape that I only made it to the other end of the park, about two-tenths of a mile. But that’s all I needed to regain control of my emotions.
Sucking wind, starting to feel like a human being again, a single thought violently surfaced, one that had begun last year to play more frequently in my mind than at any other time since my childhood.
This thought screamed at me precisely what I needed to hear most:
And so I whispered it, and I spoke it, and I shouted it as loudly as I could until I believed it again.
The summer of 1981 was likely the last time I had heard these words ring in my mind quite so loudly as they had on that day.
My family was extremely dysfunctional: Dad was filled with anger and resentment, Mom was insecure, shaming, and narcissistic, I was the golden child, and my younger brother was the black sheep. We couldn’t begin to relate to one another.
But every summer, we did our very best to deny the reality (as other dysfunctional families did): we packed up and went somewhere. Two weeks away. It really didn’t matter where. And sometimes, it was kind of nice.
This particular summer, we were heading for a real wonder: the Grand Canyon.
Weeks before, Mom had told us we’d be going down into the canyon, ride a donkey on the trails there, the whole bit. I had seen on TV the vacation adventure of the Brady Bunch, down there in the canyon, donkeys and all. So naturally, I was filled with excitement and anticipation for all that we’d experience together.
Until we got there, that is.
We arrived at the first overlook. Great cottony clouds dotted the sky, and I remember that I couldn’t wait to take a first look.
“You should know. We aren’t going down into the canyon. And we won’t be riding any donkeys.”
I was numb. I looked at Dad, who was getting out of the car as naturally as he would on any other day. I watched as Mom and my brother piled out, and walked out of view toward the overlook behind us.
I was so angry and confused that my legs wouldn’t move. I couldn’t have known it at the time, but I’d been triggered. I was completely frozen.
After – how long? seconds? minutes? it felt like hours – Dad opened the door. Looking at the ground, he said, “We’ve come all this way. Don’t you want to at least take a look?”
Now I wasn’t a very assertive boy, not since everything in my life went south after 2nd grade. But I asserted myself on that day. Righteous anger required it of me.
I remember opening the door, getting out, and walking like I had dynamos for leg muscles toward the overpass.
When I reached the railing, I shot a glance at the canyon, and pronounced through my teeth as loudly as I could:
“IT’S A BIG HOLE IN THE GROUND!”
Then the dynamos in my legs took me back to the car. I got in, and slammed the door with all my might. I sat there, shaking, until the hard feelings had passed.
And that was it. We never spoke of it again.
Because my feelings didn’t matter. Because I didn’t matter.
About a month after I left my wife, I realized that I was still very much in crisis. I was taking the bait in emails, I was in a state of learned helplessness, able to care for my sons and me physically, but not able to really rise above that.
In short, I knew I needed help.
The researcher in me began looking for local resources in our city. While I was glad to find all sorts of resources for women in crisis, I found absolutely nothing for the man who has been the victim of emotional abuse.
In a Midwestern city of over 100,000 people, I found nothing. No, that’s not quite accurate. I found less than nothing.
When I first visited website of a very well-known organization whose goal is to “support the enhance the dignity and quality of life for individuals and families in our community,” I had some measure of hope that I might find assistance there. After all, they had done this kind of work for several decades.
What I found there only added insult to my injury.
All of their various services for victims are for women. And all of their services to help abusers stop abusing? Only for men.
The only thing they offer to men that did not paint them in such a stereotypically negative light is a program to help unemployed men learn how to better parent.
Desperate, I emailed the program director there, asking if they had any services for someone in my situation. She informed me curtly that they did not.
I told her in a brief reply (and I paraphrase): It’s like I don’t exist to you and your organization.
The absence of any reply back seemed to prove it.
And yet, I matter.
Recently, I completed a 100-day coffee fast.
I had begun to worry about finances and the custody of my children, to the point where I was losing sleep. I’d been here before.
But rather than muscle through on my own, I committed to prayer and fasting, hoping I would learn to better learn to rely on God through this difficult time.
And I did. Because God.
On Day 3, I came to realize that my wife is not my enemy, even though she continues to do battle against me.
On Day 22, I asked myself: “Just how strong am I?”
On Day 26, God was using simple things like sunlight to cleanse me of my own pretenses.
On Day 40, I wrote this note in my journal:
“While my fast is not the fast of Jesus, it is yet a major accomplishment for me.
“What a pleasure it is to be well enough take part in this experience, unimpeded, and to do what’s right according to my mind, body, and soul as a person ought.
“Thank you, Papa. You have given me strength and peace for these days. Please continue to grant me what I need for the days and weeks and months and years to come.”
On Day 100, I read during my devotional time the story of David and Saul and the cave. Boy, did that story come alive for me like never before that morning. So long as she is as Saul toward me, I vowed, I must be as David toward her.
And then that evening, it hit me:
I’m a unicorn.
I have been injured as some women have been injured. I have felt the emotional pain of narcissist abuse as women have felt it.
But society still holds to the notion that men can only be emotional abusers, and that they can never be emotionally abused, especially not by a woman.
That lie, dear reader, is as black as night, as dark as any other lie ever concocted, for it actually perpetuates the emotional injury and related trauma for the male abuse victim.
I’m not a unicorn. I’m a man, worthy of dignity and respect by virtue of nothing more than the fact that I’m your fellow human being made in God’s image.
And my experience really happened as it did. I won’t deny it. I cannot. In fact, because my experience is of no less value in this discussion than that of any woman who has experienced the same, I dare not.
Denying the reality of my own experience because of the sacred cows in our culture would be willfully participating in the very type of dehumanization I’ve written about here.
So what can be done? What needs to be done so that male abuse victims in crisis or transition get the help they need? How can this cultural stigma begin to be addressed?
One person can’t right the wrongs of an entire culture.
If you agree that hurting men are being denied the help they require to break free of their emotional bondage, to begin to recover, and to begin to live as the free human beings they were made to be, then please share this.
I already have a few allies in this, and we’ve started plans to build something to provide genuine help.
Every abused person is worth fighting for, even the men, but for things to change, it takes you. It takes me.
It takes us.
It’s a first step. And I thank you for it.