Bipolar 2 From Inside and Out

Posts tagged ‘emotional abuse’

Boundaries and Cookies

What are boundaries and why is it important to have them?

Boundaries are limits in a relationship that your friends, partners (and relatives) need to observe. They can be simple or complicated. They can address different aspects of a relationship – social, emotional, or physical, for example. And there can be different levels of boundaries that you set.

In the kink community, boundaries are set before a consensual relationship starts. The different levels are “hard no,” “yes,” and “maybe.” It’s easy to understand what hard no and yes mean – that the person simply will not perform certain acts or gives voluntary consent to them. The maybe category is a bit trickier. These are acts that the person is willing to consider or try, but hasn’t definitely either agreed to or ruled out. That’s why partners have “safe words” or other signals that indicate when a maybe isn’t working for them and they need to slow down or stop.

Boundaries are useful in nonsexual relationships too, and again have categories like hard no, maybe, and yes. For example, in romantic relationships I have a hard no against physical abuse, and I communicate that to all my partners. If one of them hits, slaps, or otherwise gets physically violent with me, that’s the end of the relationship. No explanations, no excuses, no second chances. I’m out of there. I’ve made my husband aware of this boundary and he respects it. He’s never crossed that boundary.

Unfortunately, at the time I established that boundary about physical abuse, I didn’t know about the concepts of verbal abuse and emotional abuse. In one significant relationship, I put up with these for quite some time. Verbal abuse and emotional abuse are two of the tactics of gaslighting. I put up with those for far too long before I was able to say, “I’m out of here.”

Dan once described boundaries to me using the metaphor of cookies. Suppose someone offers you a cookie and says, “Here’s a delicious chocolate chip cookie I made just for you. Yum, yum. Try it.” Only when you do try it do you discover that the cookie isn’t a chocolate chip cookie at all. Instead, it’s a shit cookie – something you definitely don’t want to eat. You set up a boundary about shit cookies. Just because someone offers you a shit cookie, you don’t have to eat it. And you really don’t have to say, “Yum, yum. This is delicious!”

What kinds of shit cookies are you likely to encounter? They can be insults. You don’t have to believe them. They can be other kinds of distressing – talking about you behind your back, for instance. You don’t have to respond or explain. Or they can be actions such as the aforementioned gaslighting, sandbagging, or saying one thing and then undercutting it with actions. You don’t have to put up with those. Refuse to eat the shit cookies. They are all bad for your mental health.

There are less drastic boundaries that you may have to set as well. If you have a friend who always calls you and vents at length about their problems but never listens to your problems or your advice regarding their problems, you might set a boundary: “You can call me with problems, just not after 9:00 p.m.” or you could set an unspoken limit that you will only listen to the friend for half an hour at a time. After that, you end the conversation and get off the phone. Perhaps you establish a signal that you have reached your limit: “My eyes just glazed over.” Your friend may even pick up on the signal: “Your eyes just glazed over, didn’t they?”

Or you might have a partner that has unreasonable expectations. Such a limit might be that you will be involved in disciplining the children, but you won’t do it all yourself. It could even be a seemingly silly one. I refused to iron my husband’s shirts because I felt resentful when he treated me like a laundress. He came to understand what I meant. And we worked out a solution: wash-and-wear shirts. Those I would gladly purchase. Problem solved.

Sometimes, however, there are people in your life who go beyond simple boundary breaking. They refuse to acknowledge any boundaries that you may have. People who hurt another family member, for instance, or who expect you to solve all their problems – not just asks for help, but insists on it and gets offended when you try to establish that boundary. It’s best to cut toxic people out of your life entirely.

But what if it’s a member of your own family who’s toxic? That makes the situation more difficult. You might cut off contact with the person, but have to see them at family reunions or holiday occasions. The toxic person might go behind your back and tell their side of the story to the rest of the family.

The only thing you can do in those circumstances is not to eat the shit cookies. Establish your boundaries and remain firm with them.

You’ll get a lot of pushback from other family members and even your friends. “But they’re family!” they’ll cry. “Family comes first, before everything else.” But that’s a trap. Family may be very important to you, but at some point you have to establish that ultimate boundary in order to protect yourself and your mental and emotional health.

Toxicity can eat away at your soul. It can destroy whatever good or even tolerable relationship you had with that person. It’s not worth it to try to understand a toxic person or to give them fourth and fifth and fifteenth and fiftieth chances to change. At some point, you have to draw the line and recognize that nothing you say or do will ever change that person. It’s not reasonable to expect you to change your feelings or your actions to accommodate them.

Setting boundaries and sticking to them – sometimes it’s the only way you can live with others or, more importantly, with yourself, at least in terms of your mental health. It takes practice and determination. But in the end, you’ll be mentally healthier. And you won’t experience the lingering taste of shit cookies.

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Psychological Tactics of Abusers, Gaslighters, and Cults

Image by Vadim Gushva via

Once upon a time, I lived with a man who, I later realized, was a gaslighter. (This was in the time before gaslighting became trendy and well-known.) For a while after I left, I had no notion that I had any harsh feelings towards him. It was only later, after I had been away for a while, that I realized what my buried feelings were and what damage he had done. The experience was responsible for parts of who I am today, including my strength and resilience.

For a time, though, right after my deeper feelings began surfacing, I realized that I had been psychologically controlled. I began to read up on the phenomenon. Some of the subjects I devoured were accounts of and theory of domestic physical and psychological abuse, mind control, and cults. They fascinated me – how the human mind and spirit could be so affected by another person or persons that they acted in irrational ways, defended their abusers, changed their personalities, and gave up their lives, either figuratively or literally. I don’t mean to compare my experience to the suffering that the people I read about have gone through, or to the suffering that still exists. All that I knew was that I had been manipulated, and was desperate to find out how, if not why.

I started with the easiest subject to find information about – domestic abuse. I will say that my gaslighter never harmed me physically and only once said something that could be taken as a violent thought towards me. But I learned, particularly, about intermittent reinforcement. This happens when the abuser switches between telling the victim that he loves her and she is wonderful, and that she is stupid or ugly or otherwise worthy of abuse. These mixed signals keep the victim coming back, on the theory that sometimes the person is so nice and loving. “It must be that I make him mad without meaning to,” she thinks.  Thus, she is hooked and less likely to leave.

My gaslighter also used intermittent reinforcement and mixed signals to keep me hooked. I stayed much longer than was good for my mental health.

Learning about mind control – “brainwashing,” kidnapping, and so forth, gave me little insight into my own situation, except that some of the principles were to isolate the person being controlled, to control the environment such as when the person slept or ate, and to be that person’s only source of information or reality. I had been relatively isolated physically, had little control over schedules, and, while TV news was available, it was always filtered through the gaslighter’s sensibilities and opinions. Again, I am not comparing my suffering to that of other people. I don’t believe, really, that suffering can or should be compared.

Learning about cults took me even farther from my own experience, but I was fascinated by it nonetheless. I soaked up information about Jim Jones and Jonestown, Heaven’s Gate, Scientology, and others. Especially interesting to me were stories of people who had escaped from cults. (One of my Facebook friends escaped from a religious cult, which took advantage of her PTSD and bipolar disorder to ensnare her. She supports others who have been victimized by cults and spreads information on cults and the tactics they use.) All I can say is that leaders of cults are usually charismatic, often reject societal sexual norms, and mentally coerce their followers to isolate from family and to finance the cult leader’s lifestyle.

Gaslighting, which I have written about many times (,,, most resembles domestic abuse, though usually without the physical violence. It uses the tactics of intermittent reinforcement, isolation, verbal abuse, cults, and mixed signals to convince the victim that her perceptions of reality are invalid – in extreme cases, that she is going insane.

All of these forms of abuse do harm to their victims, in varying degrees. I was lucky to be able to leave my gaslighter when and how I did, and I will forever be grateful to the people who have helped me heal from the experience.

If you are in any of these situations – domestic violence, emotional abuse such as gaslighting, or being victimized by a cult, the best advice is: Get out now. Leave while you still can, before something worse happens. And get help, both from your friends and family, if possible, and from a professional counselor who has experience with these issues. It could save your happiness, your sanity, or even your life.



National Domestic Abuse Hotline

Does Emotional Abuse Cause Bipolar Disorder?

I belong to a fair number of bipolar support groups on Facebook and I often read posts or comments from people who attribute the cause or the severity of their bipolar disorder and/or PTSD to emotional abuse, particularly in childhood and particularly from family members.

I can’t really comment on PTSD since I don’t have it (though one therapist mistakenly diagnosed me with it), but I do have some experience with emotional abuse.

First, let me say that what I experienced was never physical abuse, unless you count deserved childhood spankings, which I know some people do. No sexual abuse, either – no “funny uncles” or neighborhood predators. (There was one older man that all the kids warned one another to stay away from, but I did, so I don’t know if the rumors were true.)

My childhood was pretty idyllic, if you get right down to it. My parents never divorced. We lived in a neat suburb of starter homes with excellent schools, where I got good grades and praise. We frequently visited our extended family in the next state, with plenty of aunts and uncles and cousins, farms and chickens and horses, along with occasional trips to local state and national parks. We went to the nearest local church, which did not emphasize hellfire and brimstone. If there was any mental illness in my family, I never knew about it.

And yet, sometime during that childhood, bipolar disorder began to manifest.

My life, of course, was not perfect. I was smart and loved school, and was very different from my parents, who weren’t big readers and didn’t know what to do with me, especially in the area of developing social skills and guiding my education. I fought with my sister, but not any more than other siblings I knew.

But then there was the bullying at school – the first emotional abuse I can remember. I’ve written about that before. At one point I noted:

There was the boy who chased me around the playground, threatening me with what he claimed was a hypodermic needle.

There were the kids at the bus stop who threw rocks at me while I tried to pretend it was a game of dodge-rock. Never being good at sports, I came out of that episode with three stitches in my forehead. I don’t know which upset me more, but by the end of it all, I was hysterical. And not the good, funny kind.

And there was my best friend and the birthday party. The party was for her younger sister and all the attendees were about that same age. My BFF and I were supposed to be supervising, I guess. But while I was blindfolded, demonstrating Pin the Tail on the Donkey, she kicked me in the ass. Literally. In front of all those younger kids.

It seemed a bit extreme.

I have also read about bullying and its relation to emotional abuse, and written about that:

“Our results showed those who were bullied were more likely to suffer from mental health problems than those who were maltreated,” says Professor Dieter Wolke of the University of Warwick in the article. “Being both bullied and maltreated also increased the risk of overall mental health problems, anxiety and depression.”

He adds, “It is important for schools, health services and other agencies to work together to reduce bullying and the adverse effects related to it.”

So. Emotional abuse in my childhood, in the form of bullying. Did it cause my bipolar disorder?

Probably not. But it sure didn’t help.

I was already at the least depressed and most likely bipolar by the time all that happened, and was certainly bipolar by the time I encountered undeniable emotional abuse in young adulthood.

But I firmly believe that the roots of my bipolar disorder were located squarely in my brain, between the synapses, due to the lack or overabundance of neurotransmitters or other brain chemicals. That’s the current thinking, and it makes sense to me. (Of course there’s the possibility that in the next decades genes or gut bacteria or some other factor will prove to be involved, but given present science, I’ll stick with the brain chemistry theory.)

I don’t think that the emotional abuse caused my bipolar disorder. But I sure as hell know that it exacerbated the illness, which has made it all the harder for me to make progress in finding peace and healing over the decades.

But I can only speak for myself. Your mileage may vary.

The Myth of Closure

For some reason, it’s called “closure.” But for some wounds there is no such thing. And for some of us – those with emotional and mental disorders – there is no way to achieve closure.

Take, for example, the invisible injuries I experienced while living with Rex (a pseudonym), for a year in college. He was a master of intermittent reinforcement, the trap that keeps abused women (and men sometimes) from getting themselves out of the situation to someplace safe. He was never physically abusive, which I have vowed never to put up with (and to this day haven’t), but verbally and emotionally, he was, well, a veritable artist of psychological bullying.

Here are just a few examples.

When he was unhappy with me for some reason, he would sigh and glare. I swear he could sigh and glare even over the telephone. And when I would freeze up and not be able to think of any word that would make things better, he said my silence made him want to kick me.

I slept in the car on the streets of Buffalo if there was a late-night party he wanted to go to. It was out of the way to take me back to where we were staying.

When I was responsible for feeding guests, and botched it, he said I had tarnished his honor.

He took the decision to tell my parents about our relationship out of my hands, ripping apart the face-saving fiction that I was renting a room in his large house. After I left, I even sent him money to pay the supposed rent.

When I asked him to go to couples counseling with me, he said, “Are you sure? The therapist and I could have you declared a danger to yourself and have you put away.” At the session, he tenderly held my hand and asserted that he just wanted to get help for me.

So what does this all have to do with mental health? I certainly wasn’t mentally healthy when I met him, and was a basket case by the time I left. When I was immobilized, I was not embracing his projects with “alacrity.” When I was insomniac, only his cat comforted me. When I was in the Pit of Despair, everything was All My Fault.

So what do people tell you in cases like this?

Look how much you learned from the experience. And I always reply that the lesson wasn’t worth the price I paid. All that I want to keep from that time are a few dear friends.

Forgive and forget. I can’t do either. The memories have faded over time and seldom give me flashbacks anymore. (The dreams still come.) As for forgiving? He’s never asked for it and never would. I’m sure he doesn’t think he did anything that needed forgiving. If that makes me a hard-hearted bitch or a bad Christian, so be it.

That emotional abuse happened, and I can’t forget it. It was my first serious relationship and I left chunks of my soul and most of my barely existent self-esteem in that house on the hilltop. I had failed – at the relationship, at meeting my parents’ expectations, at so many things. I felt I was the one who needed forgiveness and spent much of the following years repeating incessantly, “I’m sorry.”

Let go of anger; it will only hurt you. When I first left, I didn’t feel anger toward Rex. I felt a lot of other things, mostly directed at myself. But I didn’t recognize or own my anger until much later, after lots of therapy and the good kind of love. Now that I realize I was (and am) angry, it feels wrong to think of him without feeling that. The things he did were wrong, and it is not irrational of me to still believe that. I earned that anger. It is part of me now. I can lay it aside to the extent that I don’t have revenge fantasies, but that’s about all.

So, closure? Not a chance. Saying as Oscar Wilde did, “Living well is the best revenge”? That’s more like it. Even learning to live well has been an uphill battle. I’m still struggling with the definition.

The wound may scab over, or it may continue to trickle blood at times. Some of it may even form scars. But take my word for it, the wounds are still there. They never really close.

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