Don’t think “it’s not that bad,” because science proves it is.
If you were to meet me at any point in my life, you’d be surprised to learn I have lived with so much abuse. I come across so assured. I’ve been told many times throughout the years that I am intimidatingly confident, but it’s just a well-wrought projection.
As a child, I was gregarious and outspoken. I shined at school. None of my middle school teachers would have guessed that when I was coming to school in April and May, when the southern temperatures were already in the 80s and 90s, wearing long sleeves, it was to cover bruises that ran from my elbows to my wrists.
When I was married to my ex-husband, associates often told me in complimentary tones that I was “bitchy,” “a ball-buster,” but no one knew what went on behind closed doors. Very few people did. The husband of one couple, who saw my ex snap at me at a Ruby’s Tuesday, said, “I never thought I’d ever see you…crumple like that.”
I remember that moment. I had just come back from the salad bar. I never know what to get at one because what I want to get never goes well together. My plate was filled with lettuce, some kind of deli meat, black olives, mandarin oranges, apples, grapes, mushrooms, cranberries, and edamame, topped with honey mustard dressing. I was looking at my plate, knowing this configuration would taste terrible and wishing I hadn’t gone with so much fruit, when my ex-husband said something shitty to me.
He often said shitty things to me that would register more in my body than in my mind. I could rarely recall exact things he’d say to me. I do remember though what happened in my body, what the husband of the couple called “crumpling:” my shoulders, which had been keeping my back in proper posture, slumped and my whole body caved inward, like I was trying to move into the fetal position, like I was trying to protect myself.
My ex-husband never punched me or kicked me or smacked me. He broke things in front of me. He threw things. He punched walls, once above our daughter’s crib immediately after setting her in it. He once refused to let me leave, blocking exits and entrances, shoving doors open I was trying to close. He once pushed me out of a chair. He once threw something at my stomach where I carried our child hard enough to feel like I’d been punched.
Verbal abuse, which I dealt with far more than anything physical, was annihilating. It was so easily justified or rationalized away since he wasn’t hitting me. “He only called me a bitch because I’d forgotten to turn the alarm off.” “He’s so angry because he’s been so stressed out at work. It’ll get better when things are less stressful.”
It was easy for me to believe that the verbal abuse I was receiving was because something was wrong with me, NOT the other person.
What else could explain why, over and over again, someone who said they loved me was treating me so poorly?
If I’d just phrased my request differently, been less needy, played a different song, wanted to engage with him less, not wanted to have sex…the reasons were endless, and all held me responsible for his behavior.
Despite all of my reasoning that verbal abuse, emotional pain affects the brain in the same way that physical pain does.
In a study conducted by Naomi L. Eisenberger and others, neuroimaging showed that the same circuitry associated with the affective (relating to moods and feelings) component of physical pain was activated when participants felt the emotional pain of social exclusion.
Another study by Ethan Kross and others went further. They tested whether they could involve the parts of the brain that are involved with both the affective and sensory components of physical pain. While MRI scanning, they found that participants’ brains lit up in the same ways when they recalled a hurtful breakup as it did when physical pain was administered.
The conclusion for both studies?
The response in the brain to emotional and physical pain is the same.
The fact that verbal abuse is conducted in the brain the same way as physical pain explains why I “crumpled” when I was verbally attacked. I curled inward like I was protecting my internal organs from a punch.
In a study conducted by Akemi Tomodo and others, they showed a correlation between verbal abuse and changes to the gray matter of the brain in children affected by verbal abuse. They concluded this to be related to a heightened risk of mood and anxiety disorders and the development of language processing disorders.
Beyond processing in the brain exactly like physical pain, verbal abuse can also have a lasting impact on the brain.
Having been raised with verbal abuse and then exposed to it often throughout my nine-year-long relationship with my ex-husband, I’m still recovering from the effects. He never punched me or kicked me or smacked me, but it felt like he did every time he was verbally abusive.
I am still healing and probably will for some time. At least now I know that it really was as bad as it felt. Healing from the Trauma of Previous Relationships