A friend of mine told me a little something recently about tumbleweeds. Apparently, even having been all dried up, shrivelled and blowing around the desert for an untold amount of time, when they land in the right conditions and are fed and watered the right way, they burst back to life.
It then occurred to me that my own life very much mirrors that of a tumbleweed. I was lost for a very long time and most certainly not thriving, then I changed my conditions and low and behold, I burst back into life.
A lot of people who didn’t know the tumbleweed me might find it hard to reconcile that I was once living a very different life to the one I share with you all today. Just as we can all burst into life in the right conditions, we can go the other way also.
There is a very personal part of my story that I recently realised I haven’t really talked in much detail about: how I found myself in an abusive codependent relationship for 12 years.
I am only sitting here writing this because I was inspired by the love and determination of others, so I felt it was time for me to share some of that story in the hope that it might offer someone else the same. I share this as a message of hope.
What I hadn’t expected was the challenge I faced in writing it. The last draft I wrote turned into some kind of white paper on domestic abuse where I academically removed myself from the story. Trouble is; I can’t remove myself from this story. I can’t make it academic. I just have to make it real. So here it is.
My name is Ruth Penfold and I was in a codependent abusive relationship for 12 years.
I met my ex husband when I was just 19. I was living in Bristol, having grown up there, and was struck by this guy that seemed so worldly (he’d just moved back from London). I was infatuated. He was five years older than me. When I look back, within the first week of meeting him, my alarm bells should have been ringing. There was so much about him that made me feel anxious, but those feelings could well have been ‘love’ for all I knew, so I dove in deeper.
He very quickly learnt my operating model and what was likely to worry me the most, and then used that data to begin to take control of my world. Who I saw, where I went, what I wore. This was where I gradually lost myself. After about six months of dating I moved to London to start university. It provided the perfect foundation for him to encourage me to let go of any of the friendships that I had created during my teenage years.
From the deep understanding he gleaned early on of my blueprint, he was also able to show me just enough care to boost me enough to stay. Like a child starved of affection, those well timed little gestures felt like the most magnificent thing of all. A ruffle of my hair and my heart felt full, even if just for that moment. Those tiny little sporadic scraps of love sustained me for 12 years.
Very quickly we established a relationship that existed entirely on his terms. He would constantly break promises and was controlling and jealous. At the time my 19 year old self put that down to infatuation or ‘love’. It’s nice to feel wanted right…? My life with him became an island, and any relationships I sustained at that time were purely superficial, even with my family. I kept the world at arm’s length.
People who met me during that time would have found me cheery enough, when the truth is, I was living in a constant state of hyper anxiety, never quite knowing what he was going to do next.
I wasn’t passive this whole time by the way. I actually called him out on his behaviour often. The sass you see today was still there somewhere. Each time I did, he managed to fire it back in my direction with such force that I would either just be afraid of what he might do, or I’d end up feeling like I’d done something wrong. The fear hit me on a multitude of levels actually; fear of his reaction in the moment, fear of what he might do later but also the fear that he might just leave and not come back. Crazy right?
When you are in this kind of relationship, on some level you know what’s happening, but you just become paralysed in it. You are terrified of what they might do when they are there, but you are even more terrified of them leaving you. You are on the island that you have co-created and you don’t know how to get off. You lose your grip on reality and allow yourself to be tossed around by your partner and their myriad of emotions, you fall down a rabbit hole of codependence and you can’t find your footing to scramble back out.
I read somewhere recently that it takes you seven times longer to leave an abusive relationship. That makes sense to me. People often ask me that question; ‘Why didn’t you just leave?’. The truth is, I was in so deep it didn’t even occur to me. Until near the very end, it didn’t even cross my mind.
My path to freedom
In 2007, nine months before I got married, I met my now best friend Emily. She jumped into my world and forced a friendship in a way that others hadn’t been able to. She saw a light within me that had all but been extinguished and found a way to penetrate my exterior and find a way in. She gently managed to inspire me to dare to consider a different kind of life by encouraging tiny loving steps and changes in the way I was living and importantly, the way I regarded myself. Even though she only got to see a fraction of the life I was actually living, it was enough for her to see even at a glance that I was in a very dangerous place indeed.
I am thankful for her friendship and her unapologetic determination each and every day.
Over the next three years I continued to be inspired by the people I came into contact with until finally I’d grown big enough within myself to be brave enough to even consider leaving. In that time I’d lost 3.5 stone in weight, and the view I’d held on myself had begun to shift. The voices within grew louder and stronger, but it took coaching to help me respond to them.
In November 2010, though still terrified by doing so and what the repercussions might be, I finally left.
I’ve spent the last decade rebuilding myself from the inside out and learning to make better choices, blessed by the love and support of my family and closest people. It has taken a lot of work to learn new thought patterns and behaviours. Though my work here is far from done, I have managed to build a whole new life for myself: one with love at the very heart of everything. My tumbleweed is flourishing and alive once more.
Some thoughts on codependency
In a codependent partnership, there is typically someone who adopts the taking role, and someone who adopts the giving role. The taker is often the abuser and the giver is often the abused. Both parties are operating from a place of deep personal pain, but the taker directs that pain towards others, often cruelly, whereas the giver holds that pain deep inside as an emptiness to be filled, no matter the cost.
All beings are born with the same default setting of love and goodness, things can just go a little wonky from there, when our childhood experiences form our ability to relate to the world around us. Both parties therefore learn their operating model from a place of fear, and it’s that fear that gives rise to the dysfunction between two people.
To completely avoid these kinds of scenarios, we need to get better at supporting our children to grow with a more complete sense of self. To grow without the feeling of emptiness that so many of us arrive in adulthood trying to fill, to operate from a place of security over fear.
As long as the more holistic cure eludes us, for those of us that are already at adulthood, it’s important that we become aware of the early warning signs of abuse so we can treat the symptoms in the interim and move away from the stranglehold of codependency.
So whether you are experiencing this first hand or whether you notice a shift in the behaviour of a friend, here are some of the things I would look out for:
Sign 1: Manipulation and fear
Just like in my case, the taker is super wily and will quickly learn the blueprint of how you operate and what matters most to you. They learn quickly what hurts you the most and how to use it to maximum effect. They find your monsters, learn what feeds them and use that knowledge as a means of control. You might notice changes in the way your friend behaves or what they start saying yes and no to.
Sign 2: Isolation and control
To really start to gain control of someone, they have to remove you from the world that they found you in. Whether they know it consciously or not, their desire is to truly possess you. That can start small at first, it did with me. It started with comments and judgements of the friends I had, with a campaign against them and their suitability as friends. Does this resonate for you? Are you aware of someone who dived into a relationship and you hardly saw them again?
Sign 3: Becoming a shadow of your former self
He would bark at any man who looked my way, even by accident. Gradually I learnt to make myself invisible. I put on weight, wore no make up and dressed in shades of beige and brown until I’d all but disappeared. I just found myself glibly choosing the path of a quiet life and stopped wearing things that might ‘gain attention’. This is one of the most obvious signs; the physical manifestation of deep unhappiness.
If you are experiencing domestic abuse or have someone close to you whom you are worried about, there are a myriad of wonderful support groups who can offer more practical support like Refuge, who have a 24 hour helpline on 0808 2000 247.
Place yourself in the wrong conditions and it’s very easy to find yourself in the middle of a relationship that doesn’t serve you. It can happen to anyone, but I also want to remind you that this doesn’t have to be your life forever. Change is always possible and however painful it might seem, I’m pretty sure it’s nothing compared to what you are living right now.
Instead use this as your catalyst to start creating a new set of conditions for yourself and see if you can find a way to allow your tumbleweed to flourish once more.