A Shakti Youth member discusses her experiences of being in an emotionally abusive relationship and the importance for everyone to recognise the impact.
In an alternate universe where every victim is safe from their abuser, not questioned and able to receive support from their network. I would be confident to stand up and speak about my experiences, but unfortunately, this has not been the case and I have to remain anonymous. In a white-dominated society like New Zealand, where women of colour already face a number of barriers, it’s difficult to be heard and even more difficult to be taken seriously. Documented below is an account of what happened when I was only 19, it’s been 3 years now and I’d like to share this with you.
Since I was a teenager my mother would warn me, “be careful of boys, you never know when they’ll take advantage of you”. I always took in her words with a grain of salt. I was young and thought I was alert enough to know if something bad were to happen. Years later I was proven wrong. You never realise how being young makes you susceptible and vulnerable to a lot of things. They taught us in year 10 health classes that “abuse” was always defined by physical actions, it meant bruises on your body and to call an 0800 helpline when you felt unsafe. It seemed straightforward, always something you could pinpoint with the human eye. But they never addressed a less visible side of intimate partner violence: emotional abuse.
I was only 14 when I first met him, he was in a long term relationship at the time with another girl. We ended up going to different high schools but met again through mutual friends at a music festival, I was 19 at the time. We started messaging and arranged to have coffee. It seemed like we had a lot in common: art, music, film, politics, feminism, we were both from Chinese migrant families too and bonded over our personal conflicts with conservative Chinese culture. Honestly, Auckland is such a small community it seemed like a miracle at the time to have found someone with similar interests and was from the same diasporic background. Little did I know it would be my worst mistake to date. You know what they say, when you start dating someone everything is perfect, it’s only up till you’ve know them for longer and all the true colours come out.
It didn’t take long before the first red flag came up, it was a rainy day when he came to visit me after class. He was well known within the East Asian community at my university, we bumped into his friends who invited us to a birthday party later that night, I said I didn’t mind going. But I was confused at the words that later escaped his mouth. He pulled me aside and told me I was too socially awkward and unable to interact with people, that it was better he went alone. Sure, I was upset but I overlooked it. At that very moment I even contemplated if there was something wrong with me. This didn’t happen once but continuously through our relationship. I didn’t realise I was actively being put down, my mental health was at one of its lowest points to date. He used that against me too, he treated my anxiety like a daily conversational topic asking if he could translate my experiences into an art project he was creating.
The mind games continued, and he would make me feel guilty about not being a “good girlfriend” and helping him. I was working a minimum wage customer service job at the time, trying to support myself and save up for future plans of going overseas. Once he found out I had weekly income, he constantly asked me to buy him food, cigarettes and alcohol, promising to pay it back, but he never did, even when we broke up. He constantly complained about not having money for daily expenses, he told me he didn’t want a part time job as it was against his “anti-capitalist”, leftist beliefs. Which I’m now relieved that I can finally say, what a load of bullshit. When I refused to help him financially he would tell me I didn’t care about him. The abuse wasn’t just through financial control, he was studying at a well known media design school at the time, and would manipulate me into helping him design his art and ghost write his essays. Telling me it was my duty to help him, claiming I was selfish if I said I had my own work to do.
I was already involved in feminist and political activism during the relationship. I was halfway through my degree and specialised in women’s issues within the Asia region. He claimed that he was interested in what I was doing, and learning more about feminism. I believed him and explained the basics of feminist philosophy. Little did I know it was another strategy used to put me down and raise his ego. He would ask about my research or an opinion on a social issue, then debate with me until he’d put me down in every single way possible. He thrived off the pleasure of “winning” a debate, later I would find out that he told a close friend of mine that I was “mentally capped” and incapable of “higher levels” of thinking. He constantly questioned my abilities of being a feminist activist, making up his own theories on feminism as he believed there was not a need to place women’s experiences first. They say never trust any man who claims to be a “feminist”, now I can safely say I am never going down that path again. Throughout all of this, I was unaware that he was eroding away my sense of self worth and security, which in turn had a significant impact on my everyday life.
It wasn’t just my politics which came under attack. In the course of our relationship we spoke about our families and how we both wanted to be reconnected to Chinese heritage. He found out that my family carried out Taoist ancestor worship whenever we visited my grandparents’ graves back home, he was really interested in it so I told him and his friends about the process. He started asking for more and more information about Chinese spiritual beliefs and values, which he had no knowledge of at the time, and coincidentally all of it turned up in his final year art project. I was sick to my stomach when I found out that my personal beliefs were stolen and aestheticised.
Towards the end of the relationship I’d picked up social smoking, drinking habits, I went out till 2am on most weekdays. I was told by him and his friends that I was boring when I didn’t show up. But now it becomes clearer and clearer that I was manipulated into all of this. He never cared about me, the relationship was a game of power and control. He took advantage of my kindness and misused my trust. He started telling me that other women were attractive and how he had feelings towards them, including one of my closest friends at the time. I wanted to leave but kept being manipulated into staying. Through the duration of our relationship he had ingrained himself into my circle of friends, making it impossible for me to escape his presence. I became helpless. I thought it all came to an halt when he cheated on me, finding out on social media that he was seeing my friend. I finally had the courage to block him. Putting a stop to what I’d had enough of.
Little did I know, he’d continue to harass me, continuously asking mutual friends about me and contacting me on other forms of social media. He’d joined the feminist group at my university for people of colour and integrated into the circle, I felt unsafe to set foot on campus knowing that a space I once felt comfortable in was taken up by my former abuser. I had no one to reach out to and no one to help hold him accountable. Friends around me never understood the seriousness and damage inflicted by this relationship, I wish they did. He reached out to me again a few months later, apologising for his mistakes, this would be the first of many. He said he still cared about me and had the audacity to ask for a second chance, but through an open relationship. At that point I’d distanced myself from everything and was lost in direction, I didn't give him a response, only to find out he’d told people he was pitying me because I was so “obsessed” him. I wasn’t. I was uncomfortable, afraid and I needed people to see that I was reaching out for help.
I tried extremely hard to move on, I found a supportive partner and was finally in a good, stable relationship. For the longest time he still tried to contact me, using my mental health and social circle as ways to manipulate and blackmail me. I would see him at parties after he had a few drinks and he would become really physical, trying to hold my hand or wrap his arm around me. At first he hid the truth, telling everyone that we just “didn’t work out” or that it was “complicated”. He even told one person he “loved me” while all of this took place. It was these types of lies which he used to build his image within the community, later using it to portray me as unreliable and even malicious. Later he started telling everyone the relationship was a two-way street, that I was somehow to blame for his abusive actions. For the longest time he made me feel like I had something to hide about my past, but in reality I knew I had nothing to be ashamed of.
It’s been two years since all of this has happened, and it still makes me anxious to bump into him at gigs or catch him with people I used to consider friends. In all honesty, I’m still trying to find closure. It was difficult to recall these events and write about them. But as time passes by it has become easier for me to speak about it. I’m grateful to have a group like Shakti Youth who have supported me through this. I can’t stress the importance for everyone out there, especially young women, to learn about the symptoms of emotional abuse and the mental trauma it can cause. It sickens me to imagine how people I may never meet will continue to buy into his philosophy. And it sickens me more that his social media continues to reflect the same superiority complex he used to police my actions. This relationship has yet again reminded me that just like white men, men of colour are equally as capable of inflicting physical and emotional harm which continues to affect women in society. I would later find out how he had inflicted similar abusive patterns towards other women of colour in the community.
Although this past relationship has showed me the difficulty of holding an abuser accountable on a communal level, for those of you having a difficult time out there, do remember there is always someone willing to believe you, give you love, security and support. If someone ever approaches you to warn you about an abuser in the community, don’t turn a blind eye. It’s not a trivial matter, it’s not gossip, nor is it a green light for you to contact the abuser to confirm what has happened. Please be mindful that you could put another person’s safety at risk. There’s consequences, and it’s not as easy as you think for someone to have the courage to open up about their experiences.
And finally to all the women reading this, please always remember that you deserve plenty. You deserve someone willing to respect you when you speak, someone willing to respect your intellect and someone that doesn’t tread on you like you’re worthless. Speak up and don’t ever let anyone tell you otherwise!