Talking out the toxicity

Photo: Getty Images
Photo: Getty Images
A toxic relationship is like paraquat: it gets into the waterways of your life and mutates all the happy little fish, writes Lisa Scott.

Lisa Scott
Lisa Scott
I have a friend, let’s call her Tricia because that’s not her name. Tricia was in an abusive relationship which ended a couple of years ago. When it was over and the dust had settled, she thought she was done with all the drama and feeling stink about herself, but it seems a residue of the toxicity remains, traces of fallout, a blight on her crops - and it’s affecting her new romance with a nice, normal guy. I guess a toxic relationship is like paraquat: it gets into the waterways of your life and mutates all the happy little fish.

Tricia is gorgeous, but she doesn’t think so. Tricia’s head is down more than up most days, even though nobody is constantly criticising her anymore. Pay her a compliment, and she’ll bat it away; her tattered self-esteem means she brushes off any praise or affection as utter bullshit.

She wants to but secretly doesn’t believe a word her new boyfriend says. If he says, "I love you", her reaction is, "Hmmm" - which must be deflating. Abusive relationships can result in PTSD, or post-traumatic stress disorder, and this is quite possibly what Tricia is suffering, but she’s the won’t-ask-for-help type, like one of those old ladies who lies in the bathroom with a broken hip for three days because she doesn’t want to be a bother.

One of the symptoms of PTSD is a lack of trust. Where formerly Tricia went through life like Bambi before his mum died, or a raver on E with nothing but love in her heart, now she severely doubts her ability to read people or trust herself to trust anyone again. She sees gaslighting everywhere, doubts intentions and expects bad things to happen all over again. This is because, after a trauma such as an abusive relationship, your brain misses the unhealthy stimulation of being mistreated and inserts rumours of it for you.

It’s very tiring. Tricia is beyond tired of it and we, her friends, despite our boundless sympathy, are tired too. The whole thing has been like a years-long battle against the forces of Darkness. Enough already, time to step into the light.

Most worrying, Tricia is currently going through a phase we are calling Tick Tick Boom, which threatens to scupper any chance of future happiness. The more serious and long-term-looking her new relationship gets, the more she reaches for a grenade to blow it up, her subconscious being of the opinion that she doesn’t deserve a better kind of love.

Just when everything seems to be trucking along, a situation or phrase will trigger a fight, flight or freeze reaction. Tricia consequently arms herself to repeal the threat of lasting love and contentment, and her new lover is forced to step into the role of bomb disposal: put on a padded suit, get behind a barricade and send in one of those creaky robots on tank treads. I wouldn’t be surprised if he hasn’t considered bailing. Deploying the ejector seat would be perfectly understandable, especially when someone is trying so hard to push you away. But that would mean letting a past toxic relationship eat into the metal of Tricia’s life, and fark that.

Like a chorus of caring but bossy parrots we have at various junctures squawked: "Would you consider some kind of counselling?", "Hey, what about counselling?" and "I think you really need to talk to someone." Brushing the clipped coloured wires of the latest foiled detonation off his shirt, her new love warily concurs. Because if you were left with a bad back after abuse, you’d see a chiropractor, wouldn’t you? You can’t just keep holding a bucket for the rain, hoping the sun will come out tomorrow and ignoring the hole in your roof.

After a prolonged period of velvet bullying, Tricia finally made a call this week and booked an appointment. And just like signing up for a gym membership, she immediately felt better. Obviously, she was now completely fine and could give it a miss. Hahaha. Don’t worry, she’s totally going.


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