Over the years, I have found myself involved in many conversations about what type of abuse is worst or hardest to recover from. Since I have experienced all three, I am uniquely positioned to answer that question from personal experience. Even so, I often encounter people who don’t believe my answer and sometimes actively dispute it.
Mental abuse is the worst kind of abuse. I guess some people have a hard time understanding the impact of wounds they can’t see, but physical wounds heal fairly quickly while psychological wounds linger and some never close. Or maybe it’s because the damage from mental abuse takes more time to become apparent than the damage from, say, beating someone unconscious.
Sure, all kinds of abuse cause psychological damage, but mental abuse is specifically designed to cause as much psychological damage as possible. Physical abuse is probably the easiest to deal with. Maybe it’s because it lasted so long, or maybe it’s because worse things happened to me, but I can’t think a specific example of a psychological wound that came from my physical abuse. With the sexual abuse, there came a lot of guilt, a delay in the development of my sexual identity, and the fact that I basically had to be an adult by the time I was 12. But even through all that, I still a great deal of confidence and a strong self identity. It was the mental abuse that took it all away.
My confidence was undoubtedly weakened by what I’d been through in the time it took me to go from 5 to 14, but I still knew exactly who I was and what I wanted. That strength is what I choose to hold onto now. It’s become a strange point of pride for me that, at an age where most girls probably would have collapsed in about two months, I stayed standing through two years of mental abuse. I try not to think too much about the fact that I had virtually no self identity for a decade after I did collapse.
This is probably the reason I prefer psychological thrillers to any other kind of horror story. Physical violence is too easy to inflict, any physical wound that doesn’t immediately kill me is too easy to overcome, and death itself isn’t that scary. Shattering someone’s mind takes intelligence and deliberation and the wounds it causes often do not heal. A true monster turns others into monsters, and that is what terrifies me.
Strangely enough, what scares me when I’m awake is not the same thing that scares me when I’m asleep. When I have nightmares about abuse, it always takes the form of sex abuse that is actually worse than anything I experienced in the waking world. I get the feeling, when I have these dreams that my mind is trying to roll my entire experience into one terrible event. Physical abuse is too easy to be a good enough metaphor, but mental abuse is too subtle.
With mental abuse, if you watch abuser and victim interacting for a few minutes you might think the abuser is being a bit of an ass, but unless you know the history and the pattern you almost certainly won’t recognize it as abuse at all. So, even though mental abuse causes the most psychological damage, it isn’t fodder for nightmares; the nightmare there is the feeling of “I don’t matter,” that the victim lives with every day. Learning how to value myself again will probably remain on my list of the top ten hardest things I’ve ever done for the rest of my life.