Emotional Abuse and Sleep Deprivation as Tools of Coercion – Part Three
Written and adapted by: Amy, BTSADV Volunteer
This post will detail what happens when the forces of verbal and emotional abuse discussed in part one collide with forced sleep deprivation discussed in part two. As the second post covered the more technical side of sleep deprivation, this post will focus on how combining methods of abuse with sleep deprivation affected me through personal narrative.
(Trigger Warning): Please note that there may be brief descriptions of physical violence, as I experienced all of these methods together with the forced sleep deprivation.
I awoke late one night, blinded by the ceiling light in the bedroom and my ex straddled over me in a panic as he ripped the covers off. He desperately jerked at my limbs, picking them up and moving me around as though he was checking for something. I was in a fog for a few minutes as this happened and was barely able to recognize that he repeatedly yelled my name and asked if I was okay. The light was painfully bright, and my brain battled fiercely to pull itself out of the sleep-induced haze. This angered him.
“Amy, are you okay?”
When I finally was coherent enough to understand what was going on, I was annoyed. He kept asking me if I was bleeding anywhere, and I snapped back that I was okay.
“It must have been a dream.”
He went on to tell me that, in a nightmare, something had been furiously chasing him “around in circles” through the apartment. And then he said it.
“I had a dream that I cut you up into pieces, and there was blood everywhere. I thought I killed you.”
Within a few short months, this would be one of his favorite threats: to cut me up and throw me in the basement of the apartment house or dump me in the woods. His speech was unsteady, as though he was desperate at the thought of what he had just said. I was never entirely sure if his desperation was concern for me, but I always suspected that he was more afraid of the consequences of the act than having remorse that he thought he had done such a detestable thing to begin with. He was never – and I suspect that whatever he is doing now to his next victim that he still is not – fond of consequences. Part of his belief system includes the thought that he is above consequences, guilt, and blame, and too many around him enable it to stay that way.
I quickly learned that the only thing that motivates him is getting what he wants and getting away with it. After he was assured that he dreamed the entire thing, his tone quickly changed.
“I’m sick of that s***! Why does it always take your stupid a** so long to wake up? No one does that! Just you and your weird s*** like always.”
Those of you who have been abused are not shocked that by this point, the physical abuse had already become a regular occurrence. Dependable. Reliable. You would understand why I would not run away screaming. You know the amount of conditioning I endured to bring me to the point where I sit on the edge of that bed and “allow” myself to be trapped in the free fall into darkness.
I remained perched on the edge of the bed, shackled in invisible chains, weighed down with all-consuming shame, and vulnerable – even defenseless – to his attack. He told me how he noticed this pattern that occurs when I get woken up after about “only a half-hour after falling asleep.” He told me how ridiculous it was because he could be woken up and become immediately alert. But this? It was just me and my “weird a** s*** like always.”
“I ain’t never seen no s*** like this before. Your a** ain’t the only woman I’ve been with.”
You may think that this was not a big deal, but it is indicative of his ability to pick out patterns, troubleshoot them, and tailor his response. Every. Single. Time. It is a problem because unlike the average person who uses this ability for something good, he leverages it to gain total dominance. He uses it to manipulate, control, and exact compliance – with no regard to the cost incurred by anyone else – as long he gets his way.
It seems so obvious to me now that I have a full view of how life with my abuser unfolded that he would add this to his arsenal of brutality against me. At the time, it was just one more unreasonable thing he said to demonstrate how wrong I always was, even when I was not awake to be aware of it.
When I found out that he was still married, I was filled with guilt and tried to cut that part of the relationship off. By this point, I was terrified of him and wanted him nowhere near me. The two combined caused me to want to be as distant as possible. This was when he began using the forced sleep deprivation in combination with the verbal, emotional, and physical abuse that had already become a regular part of the dynamic in the household.
It would simmer in his mind as he played it over and over, counting all the reasons I needed to be punished for my lack of submitting to his will, for refusing to do “my duty.” I could tell when something was about to happen, even if I could not predict how it would explode into violence. I learned to read his mannerisms, changes in speech, and facial expressions. The tension would be suffocating, but still, he would let me remove my hearing aid and fall asleep, and he would wait just long enough that he could be sure the fog was setting in before attacking me from behind.
The first three nights would generally be prolonged arguing, threats, and physical violence. I would awaken to a furious slam and thunderous pain at the back of my head. He would not wait for me to recover from the blow to the back of my head and sit up to acknowledge him; he would just begin screaming at me as he paced back and forth, sometimes with an object is his hand down to his side and out of my line of sight.
“When’s the last time you…”
Regardless of how I replied, I was always wrong or accused of lying. This, of course, made him angrier. He would make me promise him that I would change all my flaws and glaring worthlessness.
When he pretended to be calming down, we would go through a lengthy discussion regarding the fact that once I took out my hearing aid, I could not hear him. Each time I reminded him that if he wanted to discuss anything, I could not take it out. If I did and he was talking to me, and I did not respond because I was unable to hear him, he would become enraged.
We would lay down in silence, and I would try to have my head turned just enough that I could see where he was out of the corner of my eye. There would be nothing for several minutes, and then it would resume, usually by being elbowed in the side. Sometimes, he would jerk me onto my back and punch me in the stomach. Other times, he would kick me off the bed and start screaming at me as I struggled to get my hearing aid back in.
“B****, get your stupid a** off the f***** floor! You know I’m talking to you!”
Sometimes, he would wait for me to put my hearing aid then dump water over my head.
If I did not move fast enough, he would pick me up by my hair, and the cycle of arguing, physical attack, and prolonged, tense silence would continue for the rest of the night. I was expected to stay awake the entire day following the incident. If he caught me falling asleep on the couch, he would ambush me again.
“What the f*** you so tired for? You been busy?” (read: cheating on him)
Each night I would lay down, and he would let me sleep for a half-hour. Then it would begin again: jarring pain to the back of the head. Brain fog. Disorientation. Ambush.
By night four, I was having difficulty thinking clearly. There was no logic, just desperation to keep moving in an impossible drive to not upset him. At this point, it would be normal for me to be standing at the stove with a burner on high and an empty pot on the burner unable to remember what I was doing in the first place. I would put bleach in the fridge or metal dishes or foil in the microwave. To this day, I am still not sure how I managed to avoid burning any of the apartments down.
My abuser was hyper-observant, and he always was able to determine the appropriate time to escalate by adding gaslighting and other forms of emotional abuse. He knew once I reached the point where I was in the grips of brain fog, he could freely manipulate and torture me, and I would be too exhausted and too scattered to respond to him.
I would become trapped in conversations about how horribly I treated him compared to those I dated before him, and I’m not even sure how he arrived at that conclusion. I did not discuss previous relationships with him, because he would get intensely jealous and accuse me of still seeing them. Any coldness he claimed that I displayed was a direct result of the terror I felt around him.
But he would wear me down with conversations about his previous girlfriends, how they acted with him, comparing everything about them to me, and explaining to me in graphic, malicious detail why they were all so much better, why I was so worthless, and why he needed to talk to other women. Even after I managed to lose the rest of the extra weight I had, he began making jokes about my weight and telling me he should start chaining the refrigerator shut. He would take food off my plate as he told me that I did not need to eat it.
I was weighed down with viscous shame. Self-hatred permeated every last cell in my body.
Why couldn’t I do anything right? Why did I always have to be so selfish? Why were all those others so much better than me, and what was wrong with me that I could not wake up and figure it out? If I really was so insensitive, so selfish, and so oblivious, maybe I did not deserve sleep until I figured it all out. Maybe if I figured out what I was doing wrong and prove to him that I would never do it again, all this would stop. I could sleep. I could think. I could act the way I was supposed to, and he would not hate me anymore.
Once the sleep deprivation reached the fourth day, I would reach the point where I would be hallucinating, struggled to discern reality, and would have sold my soul to sleep. If I was too out of it to cook, he would start threatening me about the cat, whom, according to him, I loved more. When he said that I trained the cat to hate him, I told him he was horrible to the cat; I was directed to be silent.
“You know, you seem to like my cooking a lot. You love that cat more than me. One day I’m going to boil him up and make you eat it.”
His twisted smirk was met with silence and nausea.
“You would never know, would you? I’d watch you eat it, and the cat would be missing the entire time.”
The first night he did this, he did not tell me that the cat got out of the apartment. Inside, I flew into hysterics. I could not eat that night, and I refused to eat anything that I did not cook unless I watched him prepare food.
And again, each night I would lay down, and he would let me sleep for a half-hour. Then it would begin again: jarring pain to the back of the head. Brain fog. Disorientation. Ambush.
“You stupid cow. Your family don’t want you! I ain’t never seen anything like this! They don’t call you; they don’t answer the phone, they don’t return messages… they don’t even come see you. Know why? They know how worthless you are. They were glad to drop your a**!”
One time during an argument over all the things I was failing to do, I turned around to see a fist coming at my forehead. With a blinding flash, I dropped to the floor, trying to steady myself until the room stopped spinning. He leaned over me, screaming.
Silence. Then he would hiss at me.
I forced down vomit.
“Amy, get the f*** up! I didn’t hurt you.”
He pulled me up by my hair and continued to scold me. My weakness had angered him.
“I’m going to keep doing this until you learn.”
In the middle of the day, he would lie down to sleep, exhausted from all the activity the night before. I was expected to clean, cook, and do laundry by hand in the kitchen sink (sometimes until my hands bled) – anything but sleep. He would randomly sneak up behind me to check on me and make sure I was complying.
It was always my fault, and somehow, I would always be sorry, begging for forgiveness, apologizing profusely, and making promises when I could not even figure out why I was sorry and what I promised him to do. If I was coherent enough to repeat anything back to him, he would use my being hard-of-hearing against me, insisting I either misheard him or did not hear him at all. At some point, I became too tired to care. I just wanted it to stop. By the end of the cycle, I would be so exhausted, and in so much pain, I could barely move, and all I could think about was sleeping.
Since I had found out that he was not single as he had told me, I became unwilling to initiate or participate in anything intimate with him. In the beginning, this is usually what started the imposition of forced sleep deprivation. At the end of two weeks, I would become so desperate for relief from the cycle that I would give in to him to get it to stop. I could not see past the exhaustion and the pain to remember what would inevitably come after. I would forget that he would often hit me after for my refusal to comply and obey or for thinking I had a right to attempt to assert my will in the interest of my own needs. I would forget the humiliation, shame, and guilt I felt afterward. At the moment, I just desperately wanted peace, and I compromised myself to get it.
At other times, he would use sleep deprivation against me to get his way. For instance, initially, when I started a Bible study, he acted as though he supported it. Eventually, he would begin to try to dissuade me from going.
“You’re tired. You should stay home. Are you sure you want to go?”
What he was really saying was: “I don’t feel like letting you out of the house. I expect you to stay, and if you continue to choose to do otherwise, there will be consequences.”
Those consequences would come in the form of his usual sleep deprivation tactics, but he would also assault me before I left. When that failed to earn my compliance, he would begin doing so after I came home. Once it became severe enough to keep me from leaving the house, I would still do my study on the phone. But he adapted as I did, engaging in a warped battle of wills. He would take my books away, so I responded by hiding multiple copies all over the apartment: behind bookcases, along closet walls, even stashed in out of the way areas under the carpeting.
When he started confiscating the house phone, I moved to the mobile. Then he would take off with them, and I would be able to send emails when the internet was still working just to let the person know I had no phone. Once the cable was shut off, I was trapped in silence. All the while, the ambushes, sleep deprivation, and physical attacks continued.
His disdain for me studying was not the fact that I was doing it. The group I studied with expected one thing, and he expected another. When my behavior started changing, he reacted. I became trapped between a group that wanted me to behave, think, and speak one way, and him, a power-hungry tyrant who wanted absolute control over my entire life. At times, I felt like a rag doll being torn apart, because neither side wanted to let go.
Here is why emotional abuse and sleep deprivation are efficient tools to force compliance:
- Sleep deprivation slowly erodes your ability to think clearly, and it impairs your short-term memory. This makes you far more susceptible to gaslighting. Did s/he really say what you “thought” you heard? Was that the way it really happened? Did it even happen at all? Are you sure you did not misinterpret it? When combined with gaslighting, being deprived of sleep amplifies the abuser’s ability to manipulate you. When you cannot be sure of reality, how can you guard yourself against being attacked? Once the seed of doubt is planted in this state, you are at the abuser’s mercy. You will agree you are wrong, even if you were right. You will assume blame even though it is not yours. The abuser will be able to alter your memory of what happened and implant others in their place. They will also be able to “convince” you to do things you would not agree to in a clear state of mind.
- Sleep deprivation makes you do illogical or dangerous things. Being sleep deprived can cause an increase in risky behavior – including situations where others could be harmed (driving, etc). When the abuser sees you doing dangerous or odd things, they will use this to their advantage in more ways than one. They may share this with others to defame you and turn others against you or convince others around them/you that you are dangerous and could be trying to harm them.
- The exhaustion from sleep deprivation can make you desperate for sleep. If you do not sleep, your body will eventually shut itself down. Abusers engaging in this form of maltreatment will combine this with other methods of abuse to heighten your distress. Your brain will not be able to tell you that this is wrong, that you should not do something, or that you need to consider the consequences of compliance. It will drive you – compel you – to obey to get the relief you need. You will do things that would generally go against your values and better judgment. You will agree to do the abuser’s will because you want the torture to stop. Emotional abuse and the chronic effects of sleep deprivation will destroy your ability to resist. In effect, you will be absent, because your stress, exhaustion, and inability to interpret reality will break you.
- It inevitably increases the burden of guilt and shame you carry, and when you are finally able to get a brief rest from the cycle, the fact that it is eating away at you internally will be inescapable. This shame, in turn, pushes you further into the abyss and darkness of silence and increases your risk of escalation to other forms of abuse. It always contributes to the risk of severe physical injury and death at the hands of your abuser. It also increases the risk of addiction, self-harm, depression, and suicide.
*This series has been adapted by the author from a series that appeared originally on her personal blog.
If you or someone you know is in an abusive relationship, there is help. You can visit the Break the Silence website at www.breakthesilencedv.org or chat with one of our helpline advocates at 855-287-1777.