Emotional Abuse and Sleep Deprivation as Tools of Coercion – Part Two

Written and adapted by: Amy, BTSADV Volunteer

In part one of this series, I discussed the basic progression of verbal and emotional abuse and how it can affect us. I also made references to another frequently applied but barely spoken of method of abuse in the abuser’s arsenal against their victim: forced sleep deprivation. If you have ever had a night a two of little to no sleep, you know the frustration of being exhausted and having difficulties thinking and functioning as well as you usually would.  

Our biology was not made to work efficiently in this manner. Sleep is a restorative process that does more than clear the ‘junk’ that builds up in our brains every day. It also allows the brain to hard-wire new, crucial connections that may have been formed during the day. When we go without sleep, we can have issues focusing and processing even the simplest of tasks, and our ability to retain important information is compromised. Why? Because we are not machines. We are living beings who require rest to remain focused, healthy, and vital.

Use of forced sleep deprivation is more common in the context of intimate partner violence than many of us realize because it is so frequently used with more overt methods of abuse. Many of us have been subjected to this unknowingly because we are often simultaneously subjected to verbal, emotional, physical, and sexual abuse. It is for this reason that it is imperative that we start to include this method in our dialogue on domestic violence.

According to an article on Psychology Today, there are primary effects and dangers posed by lack of sleep that we all suffer from time to time separate from the context of abuse. (The list progresses from the initial impact of losing sleep and progresses through chronic to severe and fatal impacts):

  1. Fatigue, irritability, inability to focus
  2. Impaired ability to read, speak, and make logical choices, in addition to decreased body temperature and increased appetite
  3. Disorientation, hallucinations, lethargy/exhaustion, and isolation from others
  4. Prolonged sleep deprivation can lead to severe mental and physical consequences:
    • increased appetite can lead to weight gain if chronically persistent
    • compromised immune system
    • decreased metabolism
    • memory loss
    • increase in risky behaviors and aggression (especially putting others at risk by default – driving, operating machinery, nursing) and becoming increasingly prone to accidents
    • the body becomes unable to repair damage, purge toxic chemicals, and strengthen cognitive abilities
    • increased risk for obesity, diabetes, heart disease, heart failure, stroke, high blood pressure, and other illnesses
    • depression and other mental health issues, up to and including the risk of self-harm and suicide
  5. If sleep deprivation continues long enough, it has the potential to cause “widespread physiological failure” – ending in death (an example of this is “karoshi” stories in Japan)
  6. It should be noted that you cannot make up sleep debt once you’ve accumulated too much. Making up sleep debt can only occur in isolated instances, not when it has chronically compounded over time.

The information presented in the article referenced above focuses on the use of sleep deprivation in cases of sanctioned torture, but I highly suggest you read it. While sleep deprivation may not be a method for extracting accurate, reliable information in the circumstances presented in the article (the article explains why), it is, however, a very effective way to cause a physiological break and force compliance or punish the victim in cases of intimate partner violence.

In order to illustrate how this is applicable to intimate partner violence, I will be using my own experiences.

My abuser noted early on that when I have been asleep for short periods – generally 30 to 45 minutes, or so – and I have awakened abruptly, my brain struggles to return to a fully alert state. I would be dazed and confused, and although able to function minimally, I would be pretty much incoherent.

It did not take him long to exploit this as a method of abuse. In the fall of 2008, after the physical abuse had already begun, I learned that the mother of his children who he always referred to as his ex – even a few years earlier when we became friends – was, in fact, not an ex at all. They were not even officially separated.

He had several relationships before where the women he became involved with (and later abused) did so with full knowledge of his marital status. The woman he had attempted to trap immediately before me knew the truth as well, and she initially tried to ignore it. Later, however, her conscience got the better of her, and she cut ties with him.

My abuser is skilled in troubleshooting and adapting behavior when things do not work out as planned. He steps back and analyzes where the pain point is and alters it so he can move forward. Most often, he does this in the context of manipulating and controlling others. Because the woman before me was the first one that chose to walk away before he had ample opportunity to condition and entrap her, he adapted his approach.

Unfortunately for me, I was next in line. From the time that we met until a few years later when he escalated to physical abuse, he always – unfailingly – referred to her as his ex, and his sisters and friends would later as well.

When I found out, I was horrified, and I told him that I was not comfortable being with him knowing he was married. At first, he mocked my feelings, and he became enraged when he realized that it was affecting my behavior (more than my fear of him already had). It was at that point the sexual abuse started. When he learned through trial and error that physical assaults and highly charged arguments were not enough to force me into giving him his way, he quickly adapted and introduced a new form of abuse into the relationship: forced sleep deprivation.

He would allow me to fall asleep and sleep undisturbed for about a half-hour before waking me up by punching me in the back of the head with a closed fist. While I was still trying to recover from being jolted awake suddenly and the throbbing pain in the back of my head, he would ambush me by screaming and yelling at me. The stress did not make it any easier for me to focus.

By the time I was lucid enough to respond, he had already begun chasing me around the apartment before he caught up to me or grabbed ahold of me – and usually a weapon – and proceeded to assault me. After the initial assault would come his interrogation followed by a short-lived “quiet” where he stopped long enough to let me think I would be able to go back to sleep – but not long enough to let the tension to subside. For the rest of the night, we would be trapped in a cycle of yelling, assault, interrogation, and uncomfortable silence.

When morning came, he would lay down to sleep, and I was expected to stay up. If any messes were made the night before, I was forced to clean it up. When I was not working, I was to stay up and clean, do laundry, or anything else he demanded of me. If he caught me sitting on the couch asleep, he would wake me up by screaming in my face or hitting my head and interrogate me as to why I was so tired. I would be given things to do that required me to stay up all day, and once I was able to lay down at night, it would start again. Sleep for a half hour. Fist to the back of the head. Argument. Assault. Interrogation. Tense silence. Repeat.

When we are young, many of us can go a few nights without sleep and recover fairly quickly. When you get older, it is no longer as easy to recover. Initially, when my ex started using sleep deprivation, he would try for a few days, increasing the length of time as time went by. Three nights turned into five. Five nights turned into nine, nine into fourteen, and sometimes more.

For those who have not lost more than a night of sleep here or there, there is no way for me to fully explain how being subjected to this impacts a person. After several days of being deprived of sleep, it was tough to focus and make logical decisions. My memory would fog up. I hallucinated, became easily confused, and started to lose time. This served as more fuel for his interrogations and worsening physical violence. I became unable to distinguish one day from another or remember things in the correct chronological order, and he began to accuse me of anything he could dream up.

Beyond incoherent at this point, I would now be a danger to myself. All of us can remember something ridiculous we did from being too tired, like putting milk in the cupboard or throwing a load of dirty clothes in the dryer. It is easy to do these things when you are distracted or tired from a long day. However, while I could have been putting the milk in a cupboard, I would be simultaneously putting the box of cereal on the burner of the stove after turning it on as though I were putting on a pot. 

It was not uncommon for me to be standing in front of the sink or the stove falling asleep and falling against the burner, dumping oil, or dropping small electrical appliances in the dishwater. I would fall asleep walking down the stairs. Thankfully, I was not driving at this point, because far worse could have happened – not just to me but to innocent people as well.

Perhaps the worst part of it for me was losing control of my ability to function or think and act coherently. I reached a point where if I was even able to move or speak, I could not object to anything, speak in clear sentences, or defend myself against the attacks. He would use this as an opportunity to force me to admit to things that I could not remember if they happened the way he claimed. I had a hard time distinguishing reality from implanted facts or memories, and I constantly second-guessed everything. It became easier for me to either admit I was wrong and deserved to be punished (without knowing what I did) or to give in just to get him to stop.

And then there were the nightmares, phobias, and other health issues that arose: migraines, palpitations, shortness of breath, stabbing pain in my chest, and dizziness. The chronic sleep deprivation also eventually led me to become a conditioned insomniac who can only sleep for short periods and nets at most 2 – 4 interrupted hours (on a good night) of sleep.

In the third and final installment of this series, we will explore how the verbal and emotional abuse compounds with the physical abuse and sleep deprivation to create a dangerous cocktail of coerced compliance.

*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.

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