I could barely lift my head. I managed, holding myself up against the washbasin and stared deep into my own, dismal eyes. I felt wretched. Weak. There was a part of me that hated this, a dark voice within that mocked this physical tragedy, the echo of her laughs at the sight of my swollen neck, my skinny arms shaking as they tried to hold me up, my shrunken breasts as she drummed ha ha ha at what was left of this person. If you could call me that. I was dying. No. I was killing myself.
There has never been a quote that parallels this moment in my life better then Nietzsche: “He who fights with monsters should be careful lest he thereby become a monster. And if thou gaze long into an abyss, the abyss will also gaze into thee.“
This is perhaps the most difficult post for me for a number of a reasons. I can happily say that it is a bildungsroman but one that stripped years of my life. It is about my experience being bullied, my eventual decline, and my transformation. It is very personal. No matter how often I speak of my past, each moment is uncomfortable, sometimes even unbearable, but I know that it must be done. It must be done for twofold reasons; because I mentor young girls and I want to inspire them to do the same, and I want to inspire them because I know it has the power to heal past wounds. Sometimes our experiences are shattered into a number of pieces, time no longer linear and all that is left is a mess of thoughts and confused emotions. We need to create an arrow of time, some temporal order. A timeline. A timeline of our experiences, articulate it into a story from beginning to end in order to understand the experience, and to understand ourselves in that experience.
I never knew myself until I encountered this man. He was a very bad man. The damage that he wreaked was born purely out of ignorance, the violence of his words challenged my emotions, my psychology. He frightened me. Threatened me. And above all, I loved him. Not the love you think, not the romantic love.
Giving love should flow unconditionally. One cannot select who they give love to whether it is a person or an object, while at the same time fail to give love to all others. That is not love, as Erich Fromm states, that is just an enlarged egotism. Love is moral consciousness, it is our response to the world, a choice that permeates and transcends the determined landscape and given to all people and all things by choice. Even bad people. Giving love is something that you give. This is different from accepting love into your personal life and indeed there are conditions that you need to set to avoid becoming Nietzsche’ monster.
The experience of seeing this man daily over a period of seven months made me confirm that such proximity to one so toxic is dangerous as much as it would be being near any type of poison. He was lost. He knew nothing of himself and the instability of his moods reflected the chaos of his personal afflictions. I believed that I knew how to help him, despite his forceful reactions and impulses that blurred any possibility of being reasonable, least of all his conscience, if indeed he even had one. Yet, within such an extreme personality lied a terribly fragile child, insecure to such a degree that he copied others, sometimes almost pathologically. The wrong others.
It could not be put more perfectly than this:
[I]f you have high testosterone levels and a deviant peer group you may become conduct disordered – yet if you have that same high testosterone and circulate in a non-deviant peer group you are instead led to become a leader.
I believed that my moral obligation was unconditional towards him, that I truly believe he could improve, that my knowledge and understanding of Borderline Personality Disorder could eventually help him.
I was wrong.
Meeting Him: The Bully
I was working for a large marketing services business that assisted business clients with customer service support through call centre facilities that they managed. I initially worked in a customer service contract. It was great fun working there and I made some really close friends that I have even till today. I primarily answered emails and performed other administrative requests until a new project started with a different company and I moved up to become a quality assurance analyst. That is where I met him. He, along with another woman and me would work closely together as a team.
My initial impression of him was very negative. His introduction involved constant and coercive indifference that bordered contempt, becoming even clearer when he attempted to ostracise me by talking about me to our colleague, which she later admitted to and apologised particularly for believing him. He seemed attracted to her and while she was married also appeared to have an interest back, although it came to my attention from staff who knew her that she had a history of enjoying the attention she received from men without ever taking it further. I believe her apology to me came only after he realised she was married and so she became resentful of his dismissal.
When I became aware that he had slandered me, I felt an anxious discomfort but also a deep embarrassment for encountering a grown man who was audacious enough to behave in such a manner. I was nevertheless resolved on improving the environment. I ignored what happened and continued to build on encouraging better relations between both of them. I baked for them on their birthday and attempted to get to know them a little better by trying to have and make the time to converse with them. The conversations with him, however, were often uncomfortable. He would talk about selling drugs and smoking marijuana. He would explain how he was part of a neo-Nazi group when he was younger, how there were underground fighting ‘fight club’ spaces in secret pockets in the town where he grew up, that he decided to take steroids to bulk up for his fitness career. He was a brutish man, twice my size and height with fierce eyes and a fierce presence.
My interest in his psychology, however, was sparked not long into our working relationship. We were sitting and having a conversation while doing some tedious paperwork and to pass the time we discussed nutrition and health. He spoke of the benefits of zinc and other minerals and I spoke of metabolism and how I can eat large portions of food to compensate for the highly active lifestyle that I had. It was at this point during our conversation that something drastically changed in his behaviour. I said, “I end up losing weight really fast if I do not eat large portions of food,” before his eyes widened as though he were dreaming and as he stared out in front of him, he rocked back and forth on the chair he was sitting on. I was confused at his sudden change of demeanour and while I observed his intense eyes, he blatantly snapped “why don’t you?” (stop eating and lose weight).
It was not the fact that he insulted me that made me feel uncomfortable, but it was as though he temporarily disappeared. His abrupt irritability and detachment from his surroundings as a way to manage the feelings he was experiencing astonished and disturbed me at the same time. He missed the rational steps that could lead one to prevent such eruptions, leaping past any cognition that determined his behaviour as he appeared only to rely on his irrational emotions that further perpetuated his anxiety because the emotions were negative and not understood, enveloping him to further distress. He could not rationalise that he was unhappy being there and doing menial tasks – as I could – and that the conversation was terrible but necessary to avoid an awkward silence. He skipped that. He wanted it to end, but he was not cognisant of this, could not articulate this to himself and so responded to the negative feelings without concern for how his response affected those around him.
This continued time and time again. One time, I briefly talked about the cow’s lick that I had on the side of my hair and he snuffed, “because you are going bald.” The constant insults about my appearance, my mind, my person was hurting me despite being capable to rationalise each time why he would say that or respond that way. For instance, he had mentioned the emotional effect his significant hair loss had caused him after he ingested a product that he was not aware would cause baldness. One after the other, it was like each insult was a small cut made by a sharp tongue, until finally his behaviour stabbed me deep when he said ‘women deserve to get bashed.’
The more I attempted to build a professional relationship with him, my attempt to overcome the initial difficulties by strengthening a positive working culture, the worse things became. It was becoming apparent at this time that he was forming some attachment to me. One time, he informed me that our manager had asked him to do some additional work and was required to come in earlier than our standard start time, asking me if I could accompany him so that I could assist him with the accuracy of the spreadsheet he was required to work on. I initially thought it was a simple request where he wanted the company of someone who was good at her work and so I agreed, but at the end of the day on my way out, I bumped into my manager at the elevator and informed him of the situation, which he clarified that he knew nothing about. It became evident that he was luring me to come in early so we could be alone.
I came in an hour later than we had agreed and at a time I knew we would not be alone for very long and when I came in he immediately began to compliment me. “Are you wearing foundation?” he asked, before he continued following my response with, “you look beautiful!” It was clearly rehearsed, a very nervous announcement of my appearance. This raised my alarm bells and I smiled and said that I am going to make breakfast, taking a very long time to do so until I heard another person had come in. Another time he said to me, “I am going to the park. I am not feeling really well,” as he looked at me with a mild, almost sad expression. I am a very warm person and it was as though he expected me to further enquire. He wanted me to go with him. “Ok,” I responded, rather uneasily and intentionally did not enquire, my heart at this point racing knowing he was again trying to lure me.
The question that continuously came to mind at this point was what did he want? Did he like me? Did he want to get close to me? Or did he want to lure me? Potentially hurt me? With his constant insults that were beginning to cause me sleepless nights, it felt likely he wanted to hurt me.
The latter became more and more potent as time progressed as did his strange behaviour. During working hours, he spoke of how he had witnessed earlier in the morning a cat walking upright like a person, his eyes wide that displayed the paranoia of someone who had taken drugs and incapable of distinguishing reality. His failure to speak openly about what he wanted may have left him feeling humiliated and his inability to rationally understand his experiences resorted in his ‘explosive’ or harsh reactions. I came into the office one day and unawares that I did not acknowledge him as I was preoccupied, he exploded with yet another indirect comment that women deserved to get bashed, yet this time with a very serious and aggressive tone. I left home early that day and several staff members who witnessed his outburst implored that I go to human resources to make a complaint, particularly since my distress was very visible as I could not stop shaking and crying. He soon after declared that he had built a bunker that no one knew about in his rural town, a place where he could do what he wanted and no one would ever know. He boasted about the film Streetcar Named Desire as he attempted to convey his resemblance to Marlon Brando and no doubt my resemblance to Vivienne Leigh, who was raped. This fear was almost solidified when he said that I should watch the movie Irreversible, a French film about a woman being brutally raped and beaten. He said to me that he was interested in making gunpowder and when I asked why he would want to make gunpowder, he smiled and remained silent.
I started to feel real fear. He was psychologically tormenting me with constant and indirect threats, continuously insulting my appearance that made me feel really ugly, and he manipulated the situation by consistently boasting about his partner to others as though this would afford him the protection that he actually had no interest in me and that he was a good man. I would not be surprised if he continued this slander about me even to his partner so as to extend this immunity from any guilt in his actions. He made it out that it was all me. If his behaviour was indirect and if he pretended to a wonderful life elsewhere, a life where a woman – who clearly knew nothing about him – would speak highly of him, how could anyone think he was this monster? And yet, he was audacious enough to exclaim to me that he leads a double life. What was going on in his head?
I could no longer sleep. No longer eat properly. I had severe anxiety and several times had anxiety attacks. My attempt to appeal to his conscience by disclosing my troubled childhood did not work, on the contrary it almost made him laugh. I was afraid that his indirect threats that he will rape me, kill me or attack me would manifest. In all this, I did not go to HR. I did not follow through with the advice given by colleagues who told me to pretend I had a boyfriend. In all this, I still believed in him. I believed that there was a way to help him that would in turn help me. I told myself that he was similar to me – by that I meant that he had a good heart – and that being so he had a chance to redeem himself. So I attempted to help him progress professionally, hoping through that he may mature. My manager would often ask me to do things as he wanted to train me to move into management, but I would replay that offer to him with the intention that it may both help him, preoccupy him, and even impress him enough to like me and stop the constant onslaught of hurt. I wanted to be his friend and I wanted him to be mine.
By the end of this, I could no longer contain the anxiety that I was feeling and I started to explicitly show my distress. I reached that final point the last few weeks before I had a major car accident.
I was lying in hospital and all I could think about was making him think that I am fine. I could not make him think I was weak, vulnerable, that was just how distressed I was. Despite the fact that I was injured and that I had no family or next of kin, I sent a picture of myself pretending that I was fine to a colleague at work who I explicitly asked to send out to others. I was injured, alone, frightened and irrational. I was no longer working, at home attempting to recover both physically and mentally having lost so much. I continuously ruminated how alone I was, a wound that was very deep and very old. I shut everyone out, while people wanted to help and be there with me, I cocooned myself inside as the anxiety worsened my already deteriorating health. I cried almost every day and had regular anxiety attacks, sometimes so disabling that it would last well over an hour as I lay helpless on the floor attempting to breathe through the pain.
I cannot be absolutely sure given the circumstances, but this harrowing behaviour continued online. My Facebook page at the time had a continuous flow of random people attempting to befriend me and who I consistently rejected and blocked; while this can occur, the timing it suddenly started and even now upon reflection when it stopped and never occurred again as it did, along with the similarities of those created people (they all had no friends or a very small number of friends and had no posts) made it clear that it was one person creating multiple accounts. I had disclosed that I am a regular on a philosophy forum a long while earlier and a person who clearly presented the same ideas, behaviours, even the way he articulated himself suddenly made private contact with me that left me in no doubt at the time that it was him. Only now he was protected by virtual reality, fabricating archetypes that once again made him immune from scrutiny.
I was in a constant mental battle at that time between the need to get rid of him, or the attempt to help him understand how to use his conscience, to have empathy. It was like his hatred of me made me feel so empty, so worthless and so it was only him that could change that and make me feel better about myself. He took away that feeling of self-worth and sense of empowerment and I was desperate for its return, so thus formed that desperation to have him repent and apologise that would in turn confirm that I am not as horrible as he made me feel. So I would try and say things that I hoped would stop his harassment while at the same time attempted to help him better understand himself. I told myself that he had absolutely no idea just how much he was hurting me, on his side or from his perspective I felt confident that he thought it was a game to be played, hiding and protecting himself from the reality that on the other end of the computer there was a girl who was dying because of his behaviour. I became very sick and lost an extreme amount of weight. I was giving up on my life, my state of mind heavy and my outlook darkened by an irrational mind and an injured body.
Whatever I said, stories I told, methods I used to try and appeal to his conscience, he misunderstood, ignored, tossed aside and it was back to square one. On the contrary, he actually believed that he was there because he was helping me. I cannot describe the emotional sensation I felt at that moment when I realised this, but it evoked a feeling a person would have if someone had raped them before helping them put their clothes back on. It was until Christmas day, alone and at home so terribly unwell, he made his final monstrous comment that I knew he had no chance of improving. My love was worthless. I made it clear as such that he was stuck and will never under any circumstances become a good man, that whatever it was in his life that made him become such a monster has poisoned him beyond repair, and that I have come to the realisation that I have wasted my time on such a worthless endeavour. He laughed at my comments.
I tried to rescue a drowning man only to be drowned by him. I deleted my account on the forum and that evening went to bed with the greatest chest pain I had ever had, a feeling of paralysis across my neck and face as I wheezed in a breathless pain. I closed my eyes as though I knew that would be the end.
As said in the English Patient:
“If you take in someone else’s poison – thinking you can cure them by sharing it – you will instead store it within you.”
I am thankful to say that the very next day, I woke up and have never again experienced such anxiety. No chest pain, nothing, it was as though it miraculously disappeared. I was still profoundly sad, but I was protected by a peace from the anxiety that enabled me to slowly heal. It took several years from that day to achieve this and these steps I can now reflect on as being very important for anyone. The first and primary being the removal of all such toxic people from my life and although I was alone and it was incredibly difficult, this loneliness allowed me to form a clean slate without being tempted to concede to living or associating with the wrong kind of people. Authenticity, moral consciousness and love is an expression, something we give and we should only welcome those into our personal space who are capable of understanding and appreciating this, despite giving this love universally. Some conditions need to be set to protect yourself.
The healing powers of creativity is yet another essential, as a previous holiday to Italy because of a chance opportunity given to me through TAC (Transport Accident Commission) following my car accident reawakened my love for art and classical music that I began to find ways to heal through writing, books and food, something that I had lost over the course of this experience. Writing or drawing your experiences, piece by piece, enables you to form a timeline and articulate who you are through a story and why storytelling, parables and metaphors are so important. As Hannah Arendt said so perfectly:
Storytelling reveals meaning without committing the error of defining it.
We find meaning in the work that we do and whether it is creative pursuits or professional ones, it is necessary for us to give back in some way and so when I was given the opportunity to work for an NGO as a youth worker, I found my ambition and my motivation. I met young girls who had experienced some terrible things and found healing within me by helping them. I also worked with some of the most beautiful and kind women who knew that I was incredibly fragile at the time and helped me feel protected and secure when I still felt so unsafe. They compelled me to believe that love still existed and that enabled me to articulate my experiences during childhood with my family, my siblings who had also mistreated me and healing from my past through forgiveness.
The greatest experience, however, was seeing him again. I had began a new role and while working on a charitable project saw him by chance at the local shop. He intentionally ignored me, but it was clear he saw that I was there. I came to realise my feelings over the years had solidified into an imagined notion of him being something more than what he was, no doubt because I was so afraid and irrational at the time that I imagined him to be good person, someone with the chance of being wonderful despite his chronic and pathological behaviour. I imagined him capable of apologising, capable of being my friend, of caring enough about me to stop hurting me so much, but the sight of him pretending like that, I realised that this incredible possibility was all in my imagination. I cared for him at the same time as wanting to protect myself from the pain that he was inflicting, but that maybe it was more the latter, maybe it was selfish of me. I sometimes oscillate between this disdain towards him and this love for him, but that day when I saw him, all I felt was pity.
A friend asked me about my future plans for adoption and how I would like to raise a son. He remembered that I said I would like to raise a feminist. I guess there is a part of me that always believes that people can improve because I have, that love will always reign supreme as it does with me, but I have increasingly become aware that self-respect and self-love projects outward. It is the foundation for our capacity to give love. I want him to see the strength in being vulnerable, and to be wholeheartedly dedicated to honesty and to loving-kindness. Without the right disposition, the right lifestyle or the right mind, it would be impossible for me to give love. I would like to raise a son who will form such self-respect and self-love so that he can learn to give the same to all people, men and women, the elderly, children, animals, the environment. And I will do that by loving him with all my heart and that I may inspire him to do the same to others.
It was not that I was weak that he was able to take away so many years from me while at the same time remain oblivious to the hurt he has done. It was not because I was vulnerable that I almost died from all his psychological threats that made me confused and irrational as to how I should respond to his violence. It is not my fault that he played deceitful games with others to save himself from the guilt of his behaviour – the more people he had believing in him, the more right he became despite the fact that even he knew it was lies – and I am not to blame.
He was just a bad man. Whether it is those in close proximity to him that have made him such a bad person or whether he has no conscience or empathy no longer matters, he chose that life he is living and the people that he associates with. I think David Hume perfects how I view him now: “The richest genius, like the most fertile soil, when uncultivated, shoots up into the rankest weeds.”