This post will detail what happens when the forces of verbal and emotional abuse discussed in part one collide with forced sleep deprivation discussed in part two. (Trigger Warning): Please note that there may be brief descriptions of physical violence, as I experienced all of these methods together with the forced sleep deprivation. I will try to keep it to a minimum. It is hard for me to leave out the physical abuse as it was always a part of these “shock and awe” campaigns. As the second post covered the more technical “what happens when” side of sleep deprivation, this post will focus on how combining methods of abuse with sleep deprivation affected me through personal narrative. Because sleep deprivation is not widely included in the conversation of domestic violence, and because our experiences will vary, I invite any of you reading this short series of posts to comment (if you feel comfortable) with how you experienced sleep deprivation at the hands of your abuser. If you weren’t aware of it before, what experiences or situations in what you read here struck you as familiar to your situation? How did it impact you?
I awoke late one night, blinded by the ceiling light in the bedroom and my ex straddled over me in a panic as he ripped the covers off. He desperately jerked at my limbs, picking them up and moving me around as though he was checking for something. I was in a fog for a few minutes as this happened and was barely able to recognize that he repeatedly yelled my name and asked if I was okay. The light was painfully bright, and my brain battled fiercely to pull itself out of the sleep-induced haze. This angered him.
“Amy, are you okay?”
When I finally was coherent enough to understand what was going on, I was annoyed. He kept asking me if I was bleeding anywhere, and I snapped back that I was fine.
“It must have been a dream.”
He went on to tell me that something had been furiously chasing him “around in circles” in the apartment, and I was still noticeably frustrated when he said something about demons in the apartment. And then he said it.
“I had a dream that I cut you up into pieces and there was blood everywhere. I thought I killed you.”
Within a few short months, this would be one of his favorite threats: to cut me up and throw me in the basement of the apartment house and leave me there for my mother to find. His speech was unsteady, as though he was desperate at the thought of what he had just said. I was never entirely sure if his desperation was tinged with any concern, but I always suspected that he was more afraid of the consequences of the act than having remorse that he thought he had done such a detestable thing to begin with. He was never – and I suspect that whatever he is doing now to his next victim that he still is not – fond of consequences. Part of his belief system includes the thought that he is above consequences, guilt, and blame, and too many around him enable it to stay that way.
I quickly learned that the only thing that motivates him is getting what he wants and getting away with it. After he was assured that he dreamed the entire thing, his tone quickly changed.
“I’m sick of that s***! Why does it always take your stupid a** so long to wake up? No one does that! Just you and your weird s*** like always.”
Those of you who have been abused are not shocked that by this point, the physical abuse had already become a regular occurrence. Dependable. Reliable. Furiously bubbling like a cauldron on an open fire. You would understand why I wouldn’t run away screaming. You would know – and I wouldn’t have to explain – the amount of conditioning I endured to bring me to the point where I sit on the edge of that bed and “allow” (in quotes because I allowed nothing; it was done by force against my will) myself to be trapped in the free fall into darkness. Those of you who haven’t been abused, I don’t owe it to you explain how or why. The fact of the matter is that I choose to, because if you are ever going to react with compassion, if you are ever going to frame the conversation on domestic violence correctly, you must have your preconceived notions and trite, erroneous assumptions blotted out and erased from your pattern of logic. For you to understand this, you need to read the first post in this series.
So, on the edge of that bed I remained perched, shackled in invisible iron fetters, weighed down with all-consuming shame, and vulnerable – even defenseless – to his attack. He told me how he noticed this pattern that occurs when I get woken up after about “only a half hour after falling asleep.” He told me how ridiculous it was, because he could be woken up and become immediately alert. But this? It was just me and my “weird a** s*** like always.”
“I ain’t never seen no s*** like this before. Your a** ain’t the only woman I’ve been with.”
You may think that his noticing this pattern was not a big deal, but it’s indicative of his ability to pick out patterns, troubleshoot them, and tailor his response. Every. Single. Time. It’s a problem, because unlike the average person who uses this ability to perform better at work or maybe get better at a skill or talent they have, he leverages it in a way that can only be called evil. He uses it to manipulate, control, and exact compliance – with no regard to the cost incurred by anyone else – as long he gets his way.
It seems so obvious to me now that I have a full view of how life with my abuser unfolded that he would add this to his ever-increasing arsenal of brutality against me. At the time, it was just one more unreasonable thing he said to demonstrate how wrong I always was, even when I wasn’t awake to be aware of it.
We started out as friends when I met him, because I was seeing someone else and wasn’t even considering him as a possibility. During that time (almost two years) I never once saw anything in his behavior that would have alerted me something was wrong. After the other relationship ended, I was emotionally compromised, and he used the opportunity to swoop in and play rescuer. (So easy to recognize in hindsight.) What those of you who haven’t been abused need to understand is that our abusers don’t reach across the table on the first or second date and slam their closed fist into our face. We can only see what we are allowed to see, and it serves them no purpose to show who they really are at first. They wouldn’t be able to get us to fall for them and trust them with our vulnerability. They can only do that by putting on false airs, by seducing us, and manipulating us into believing that they are a good partner.
There is a honeymoon period where the abuser is on their absolute best behavior and bending over backwards to show us how much they care about us and how “genuinely” they want to get to know us. The abuser seems like a normal person, they act with compassion, kindness, concern, and feign “genuine interest” in who we are so well that they should earn an award for their acting. They go out of their way to help us, support us in everything we do, and back us up unfailingly. They are romantic and openly show what is mistaken as love by us – and everyone around us. (Infrequently when someone says after the relationship ends that they “never liked him anyway” is it not denial. And I quite frankly remember how those in my circle acted in the beginning.)
SIDE NOTE: You know what? It’s okay to admit that you were misled by someone who maliciously hid their true character from you. It’s not a reflection on you. It doesn’t mean you were oblivious, blind, naive, or gullible. It just means they deliberately led you to believe they were something they are not. Too often, outsiders assign blame on others or we accept blame ourselves for being “oblivious” to their true nature as though we were somehow supposed to see through the smoke and mirrors when we weren’t equipped to translate what we were being shown. The fault unequivocally lies with the abuser, because they choose the machinations with the intent of setting the perfect trap. So when you tell me in indignant scorn that I should have known better, I can and most assuredly will correct you. Abusers cannot immediately plunge into abusing their partner because they know that we would not stay. They also cannot reveal the entire beast all at once. It is done slowly over time in a manner that allows us to become desensitized to the negativity and emotional abuse.
By the time we started dating, he had built up a long history of all the reasons he could be trusted. What I didn’t know at the time was that the mother of his children was not his ex as he had always stated. When I found out that they were in fact still married, I was filled with guilt and tried to cut that part of the relationship off. Truth be told, by this point I was terrified of him and wanted him nowhere near me. The two combined really led me to want to be as distant as possible. This is when he began using the forced sleep deprivation in combination with the verbal, emotional, and physical abuse that had already become part of the dynamic in the household.
He would let it fester in his mind, playing it over and over as he counted all the reasons I needed to be punished for my lack of submitting to his will, for refusing to do “my duty.” I could tell when something was about to happen, even if I could not predict how it would explode into violence. Much like Sir Patrick Stewart revealed here in a 2009 speech for Amnesty International regarding his experience of watching his father abuse his mother, I learned to “gage the tension like a thermometer.” It [tension] would be suffocating, but still he would let me fall asleep and wait just long enough that he could be sure the fog was setting in prior to waking me up by attacking me from behind. (It doesn’t take much to ambush a person who is sleeping when they are also hard-of-hearing and had their hearing aid out.)
The first three nights would generally be prolonged arguing, threats, and various instances of physical violence. I would awaken to a furious slam and thunderous pain at the back of my head. He would not even wait for me to recover from the blow to the back of my head and sit up to acknowledge him; he would just begin screaming at me as he paced back and forth, sometimes with an object is his hand down to his side and out of my line of sight.
“When’s the last time you…”
“Didn’t we have this conversation before? How many times do I have to say this to you?”
Regardless of how I replied, I was always wrong or accused of lying. This, of course, made him angrier. He would make me promise him that I would change all my flaws and glaring worthlessness.
When he pretended to be calming down, we would go through a long discussion (to be interpreted: argument) regarding the fact that once I take out my hearing aid, I can’t hear him. Each time I provided several reminders stating that if he wanted to discuss anything, I couldn’t take it out. If I did and he was talking to me and I did not respond because I was unable to hear him, he would become enraged. We would lay down in silence, and I would try to have my head turned just enough that I could see where he was out of the corner of my eye. There would be no sound for several minutes, and it would resume, usually by being elbowed in the side. Sometimes, he would jerk me onto my back and punch me in the stomach. Other times, he would kick me off the bed and start screaming at me as I struggled to get my hearing aid back in.
“B****, get your stupid a** off the f***** floor! You know I’m talking to you!”
Sometimes, he would wait for me to put my hearing aid then dump water over my head.
If I didn’t move fast enough, he’d pick me up by my hair, and the cycle of arguing, physical attack, and prolonged, tense silence would continue for the rest of the night. I was expected to stay awake the entire day following the incident. If he caught me falling asleep on the couch, he would ambush me again.
“What the f*** you so tired for? You been busy?! (Busy was code for cheating on him. Yep for days on end when we were locked up in the apartment together.)
Each night I would lay down, and he would let me sleep for a half hour. Then it would begin again: jarring pain to the back of the head. Brain fog. Disorientation. Ambush.
By night four, I was having difficulty thinking clearly. Okay, to be honest, I wasn’t able to think. There was no logic, no clear thought pattern, just desperation to keep moving and not move too slow in an impossible drive to not upset him. At this point, it would be a normal occurrence for me to be standing at the stove with a burner on high and an empty pot on the burner unable to remember what I was doing in the first place. I would put bleach in the fridge, metal dishes or foil in the microwave. To this day, I’m still not sure how I managed to avoid burning any of the apartments down.
My abuser was generally hyper-observant, and he always was able to determine the appropriate time to escalate it be beginning to add gas lighting and other forms of emotional abuse. He knew once I reached the point where I was in the grips of brain fog, he could freely manipulate and torture me, and I would be too exhausted and too scattered to respond to him. I would become trapped in conversations about how horribly I treated him compared to those I dated before him, and I’m not even sure how he arrived at that conclusion. I didn’t discuss previous relationships with him, because he would accuse me of still seeing “Jamaica 1” and “Jamaica 2” behind his back (although I’m pretty sure that Barbados and Trinidad and Tabago are not Jamaica). Any coldness he claimed that I displayed was a direct result of the terror I felt around him.
But he would wear me down with conversations about his previous girlfriends, how they acted with him, comparing everything about them to me, and explaining to me in graphic, malicious detail why they were all so much better, why I was so worthless, and why he needed to talk to other women because I was monstrously hideous. Even after I managed to lose the rest of the extra weight I had and was what is for me thin (14/16 – a girl’s got hips, not sorry) he began making jokes about my weight and telling me he should start chaining the door on the refrigerator shut. He would take food off my plate as he told me that I didn’t need to eat everything up.
I was weighed down with viscous shame. Self-hatred permeated every last cell in my body.
Why couldn’t I do anything right? Why did I always have to be so selfish? Why were all those others so much better than me, and what the hell was wrong with me that I couldn’t wake up and figure it out? If I really was so insensitive, so selfish, and so oblivious, maybe I didn’t deserve sleep until I figured it all out. Maybe if I figured out what I was doing wrong and prove to him that I would never do it again, all this would stop. I could sleep. I could think. I could act the way I was supposed to and he wouldn’t hate me anymore.
The days after the fourth or fifth days are blurs, with the exception that it was pure hell. I would reach the point where I would be hallucinating and could not tell if something was actually happening or not.
If I was too out of it to cook, he would start threatening me about the cat, who, according to him, I loved more than him. (I can’t lie and say that isn’t true.) He implied that I trained the cat to hate him, and I told him he was horrible to the cat; I was directed to be silent.
“You know, you seem to like my cooking a lot.”
I worked, cleaned, and did all the laundry. Why shouldn’t he cook? Liking cooking had nothing to do with; I just wanted him to get off his behind and do something that didn’t involve catering to himself.
“You love that cat more than me. One day I’m going to boil him up and make you eat it.”
Silence. And nausea, tainted with anger.
“You would never know, would you? I’d watch you eat it, and the cat would be missing.”
The first night he did this, he did not tell me that the cat started escaping the apartment. We were eating what was purported to be “chicken.” Inside, I flew into hysterics. Some of you reading this may doubt that he would actually go through with it. I know he would have. I couldn’t eat that night. And I refused to eat anything that I did not cook unless I watched him open a sealed package.
And again, each night I would lay down, and he would let me sleep for a half hour. Then it would begin again: jarring pain to the back of the head. Brain fog. Disorientation. Ambush.
“You stupid cow. Your family don’t want you! I ain’t never seen anything like this! They don’t call you, they don’t answer the phone, they don’t return messages…. they don’t even come see you. Know why? They know how worthless you are. They were glad to drop your a**!”
One time during an argument over all the things I was failing to do, I turned around to see a fist coming at my forehead. With a blinding flash, I dropped to the floor trying to steady myself until the room stopped spinning. He leaned over me, screaming.
Silence. Then he would hiss at me
I forced down vomit.
“Amy, get the f*** up! I didn’t hurt you.”
He pulled me up by my hair and continued to hiss at me. My weakness had angered him.
“I’m going to keep doing this until you learn.”
In the middle of the day, he would lie down to sleep, exhausted from all the activity the night before. I was expected to clean, cook, and do laundry (by hand washing everything in the kitchen sink and hanging it dry, because I was allowed no money for trips to the laundromat). Anything but sleep. He was a light sleeper, and he would randomly sneak up behind me to check on me and make sure I was adding to my exhaustion.
It was always my fault, and somehow I’d always be sorry, begging for forgiveness, apologizing profusely, and making promises when I couldn’t even figure out why I was sorry and what I promised him to do. If I was coherent enough to repeat anything back to him, he would use my being hard-of-hearing against me, insisting I either misheard him or didn’t hear him at all. At some point, to be honest, I really became too tired to care. I just wanted it to stop. By the end of the ten, twelve, or fourteen day run of this cycle, I would be so exhausted and in so much pain, I could barely move, and all I could think about was sleeping.
Since I had found out that he was not single as he had told me, I became unwilling to initiate or participate in anything intimate with him. In the beginning, this is usually what started the imposition of forced sleep deprivation into the dynamic. At the end of two weeks, I would be become desperate for relief from the cycle, and I would give in to him to get it to stop. I couldn’t see past the exhaustion and the pain to remember what would inevitably come after. I would forget that he would often hit me after for my refusal to comply and obey or for thinking I had a right to attempt to assert my will in interest of my own needs. I would forget the humiliation, shame, and guilt I felt afterwards. In the moment, I just wanted peace, and I compromised myself to get it.
Other times, he would use sleep deprivation against me to get his way. For instance, initially when I started Bible study, he acted as though he supported it. Eventually, he would begin to verbally try to dissuade me from going.
“You’re tired. You should stay home. Are you sure you want to go?”
What he was really saying was: “I don’t feel like letting you out of the house. I expect you stay, and if you continue to choose to do otherwise, there will be consequences.”
Those consequences would come in the form of his usual sleep deprivation tactics, but he would also begin using physical abuse before I left. When that failed to earn my compliance, he would begin doing do after I came home. And once it became severe enough to keep me from leaving the house, I would still do my study on the phone. But he adapted as I did, engaging in a warped quid pro quo. He would take my books away not considering the fact that once he started this, I began hiding multiple copies all over the apartment: behind bookcases, along closet walls, even stashed in out of the way areas under the carpeting. When he started confiscating the house phone, I moved to the mobile. Then he would take off with them, and I would be able to send emails when the internet was still working just to let the person know I had no phone. Once the cable was shut off, I was trapped in silence. All the while, the ambushes, sleep deprivation, and physical attacks continued.
Here is why emotional abuse and sleep deprivation are efficient tools to force compliance:
- Sleep deprivation slowly erodes at your ability to think clearly, and it impedes (and eventually ruins) your short-term memory. This makes you far more susceptible to gas lighting. Did s/he really say what you “thought” you heard? Was that the way it really happened? Did it even happen at all? Are you sure you didn’t misinterpret it? Maybe you “dreamed” it…. Gas lighting is already effective on its own, but being deprived of sleep amplifies the abuser’s ability to manipulate you. When you can’t be sure of reality, how can you guard yourself against being attacked on sides? Once the seed of doubt is planted in this state, you are pretty much at the abuser’s mercy. You will agree you are wrong, even if you were right. You will assume blame even though it isn’t yours. The abuser will be able to alter your memory of what happened and implant others in their place.
- Sleep deprivation makes you do illogical things. When the abuser sees you burning an empty put on the stove, pouring bleach from fridge that you thought was milk, or anything else that seems impossible, they will use this to their advantage. This is problematic in more ways that one, but it is likely they will share this with others to defame you and turn others against you. If they have threatened to “have you committed for being crazy,” they can provide these occurrences to others and in extreme cases actually succeed. They will also use this convince others around them/you that you are dangerous and could possibly be trying to harm them.
- The exhaustion from sleep deprivation can make you desperate for sleep. Your body will shut itself down when you reach a certain point. Abusers engaging in this form of maltreatment will combine this with other methods of abuse to heighten your distress. Your brain won’t be able to tell you that this is wrong, that your shouldn’t do this, or that you need to consider the consequences of compliance. It will drive you – compel you – to obey to get the relief you need. You will do things that would normally go against your values and better judgment. You will agree to do the abuser’s will, because you want the torture to stop. Emotional abuse and the chronic effects of sleep deprivation will destroy your ability to resist. In effect, you will be absent, because your stress, exhaustion, and inability to interpret reality will break you.
- It inevitably increases the burden of guilt and shame you carry, and when you are finally able to get a brief rest from the cycle, the fact that it is eating away at you internally will be inescapable. This shame in turn pushes you further into the abyss and darkness of silence and increases your risk of escalation to other forms of abuse. It always contributes to risk of serious physical injury and death at the hands of your abuser. It also increases risk of self-harm, depression, and suicide.
Did you experience sleep deprivation as a form of abuse? How did your abuser use it as a tool against you to force compliance? How did it affect you?