Back in 2012, I was in an emotionally abusive relationship.
It was short. It was intense. And when it ended, the residue remained for many months and years after.
It wasn’t until five years later that I was able to find the words to match how I was feeling.
After becoming increasingly frustrated about the way that the then-forthcoming Coercive Control Bill was being reported by (predominantly) male columnists, myself and five other female journalists drafted an open letter to condemn the language.
I guess you could have called me an activist.
Except I’m not.
And here is why…
At the start of 2018, I was approached by Scottish Woman’s Aid to support them as a case study who would and could speak to the media about their experience and how to recognise coercive control. I was in a relatively safe place to talk about this now.
With support, I told my story to the BBC (television, live radio and was on the front page of the BBC news page for 12 hours that day), STV, the Independent (front page case study), various local and regional radio news bulletin (recorded on WhatsApp in Costa coffee) and then was invited back to Scotland Tonight to appear live from their studio in Dundee. My first experience on live telly.
Until then, I had never been able to tell that story with any clarity and depth. I would blurt out parts of it, often unsolicited. Or burst into tears randomly, often caused by a random trigger or something happening. I gave myself no space to process what happened.
When I was convinced to tell this story, I felt like I wanted to, it was to give myself closure and an attempt to move on.
I also wanted to be able to tell it for the people out there that might have been in the same situation as me in the past — or were currently going through a similar situation at the time- could hear it and not feel alone.
Coercive control is designed to isolate a person so they do not trust themselves or others around them. My story was not just about me — but about the people that might also hear it.
And boy, there were people.
So many people got in touch privately, many to share their own story, many to confirm that I wasn’t going mad but I had actually been through something significant, damaging and potentially dangerous if I hadn’t managed to escape it when I did.
Before that, I never had anybody reflect back to me how that behaviour sounded when it was outside my own head. Of course, it wasn’t right — but until I got that reaction, I felt guilty for even speaking up about it.
When it was happening, when I was in the midst of it. I knew something was wrong, I didn’t believe I was capable or worthy of help. I also knew and felt that somebody was deliberately trying to control my own version of events. Little and often, the tiniest of things would cut away at me until I struggled to listen to my own voice, my own intuition. He would say things, push my buttons and I would try and stay quiet so to avoid any conflict.
Trying to ignore it in the hope it would pass. I had been holding onto those thoughts and that reality for over five years — and as cliched as it can sometimes sound, talking about it out loud really did help.
And telling your story does have power.
Personal journalism is popular.
People turn to personal journalism to affirm their own experiences. The person telling the story, cutting themselves open every time a new person finds, reads and shares their story.
But talking about it all the time, making it ‘my story’ — turning it into a piece of personal journalism… content — was making me feel uncomfortable.
This is why I am not an activist.
This is why when Scottish Women’s Aid asked me to do it again this year, I fumbled through the interviews and felt dirty for doing it. I felt like I was wheeling myself out as a case study for attention I didn’t need. There was no real emotion left in it. Nothing new. I was giving people what they needed to hear to make their job easier.
I became a ‘paint-by-numbers’ case study for a journalist because I do it myself — part of my day job is writing case studies and supporting voices into the media. What a gift.
I was that far away from the initial incident, I had been through counselling and been able to talk about it more informally with friends. I just wasn’t that person anymore.
And you know what?
That’s ok. In fact, it is better than ok.
You could say that I’m ‘recovered’ from that incident now. It is not my story anymore. It is not part of my public identity. I don’t need to, nor want to be the spokesperson for this. I now understand, there will always be a shelf life on a story.
There is a reason why I am writing about this now.
Life has taught me how to recognise the signs of coercive control. But the work that I have done since has taught me even more.
I’m not necessarily brave for sharing my story — or qualified to give professional advice about this.
Nor am I some influencer that has turned my story into something that I can build a community around and attempt to monetise it.
But I have lived through this, got out the other side — and I have spoken to many women and men about their own experiences through the process of unwrapping my own story over the past two years.
All that other stuff?
I was just somebody else’s ‘content’ for a bit.
We reward sharing titbits of our personal lives on social media. We strive for ‘authenticity’ — but really, everything about our lives can be mediated and manipulated to the inch of perfection.
We like, share and retweet — and those with the largest following counts, that can command the most attention, are seen to be the most influential. Regardless, nobody can verify if what they are saying is true nor if their actual behaviour matches if what they put and project onto social media.
Social media platforms will reward the outrageous over the boring, the content that will keep people clicking and scrolling, watching another video, flipping through another story, regardless if any of it is true. Just keep making and consuming content.
Ironic, given the quest for authenticity.
How can you compete with that?
This is why I am not an influencer.
And I don’t want to be.
So, again, why am I writing about this now?
How I use social media has shifted over the last three years. After a bad experience in the workplace, I made a decision to not talk about clients or employers as part of my personal social usage.
I use Instagram, privately.
In the last 5 months, I’ve had a Glasgow-based Instagram influencer circle around me. One that uses personal journalism and stories of mental health, feminism and empowerment as part of her brand.
In the beginning, less than a year ago, she’d made contact with me when I was speaking on a panel at the Women and Girlhood conference last year. She found my social media and made contact with me.
We never spoke at the conference, and it was to be months until we actually met. She ‘love bombed’ me for months— this is the language that you use when discussing coercive control — initially, she was replying to all my posts, lovely comments, hearts, and telling me that we had a lot in common.
So did my ex, for the first month, when he was pushing our relationship forward, trying to accelerate it. This is a common reality at the start of an abusive relationship.
Between the conference and January 2019, she sent me many messages, telling me I was great, she convinced me that we had a lot in common and that we should do something together.
Eventually, I invited her to my flat and we recorded a podcast together. We got on really well and we ended up organising a protest together that weekend. We did a lot of social media work together. People actually thought we were sisters because we had the same name. Within 2 weeks, she was living in the same community as me. I introduced her to my best friends and the people close to me.
We welcomed her in — but it was very intense, it was very quick, and we found ourselves having to help her with quite serious threats about mental health.
Mental health — another thing I have written about in the past, is something me and my friends take very seriously — so within weeks, we found ourselves opening up about our own struggles.
This person whirled into my life from a conference — and within weeks it was as if she had always lived there. She was hanging out with my friends separately — and fair play, I have great friends.
That’s a good thing right?
It is nice to try to help people when they are new to the area and I genuinely believed that she was a nice person who was just needing a bit of help.
But in the last 2 months, things got weird.
I started to notice strange posts on her Instagram, things that felt like digs — or it was passive-aggressive posts about other people. She started ignoring my messages, and I was getting told by others that she had been bitching about me — or making up things about me and some of my friends. These stories are not mine to tell. Things haven’t added up.
Her posts always seemed to be referring to somebody else, it was always somebody else’s fault. It was being presented as ‘advice’, but just felt like a rant.
It was making me feel really paranoid — but more importantly, really uncomfortable. My anxiety was becoming severe that I have been experiencing stomach pain, keeping me off work for days. T
The intensity changed, from messaging multiple times a day to not replying at all. She had another public fall out with a friend. Was I going to be next?
Two weeks ago, I decided to ask her about it. She lied to my face — and I made the decision to block her. She posts a lot about how if something isn’t serving you, it's ok to cut it out. I needed to cut it out.
I went quiet — but then was told she’d recorded an hour-long video about how I had been bullying her. I hadn’t seen her. She had been ignoring me for weeks. She never mentioned my name, but it was so recognisable people were guessing in the comments and friends got in touch with me without having to be prompted by an explicit mention.
She would take video snippets of me when we were doing things, out of context and post them on her project’s Instagram story then tell me that her followers thought I was problematic in private messages.
She was and had turned me into content — a vague character to make memes about. Those memes rewarded with likes and shares, I am sucked into this matrix of advice and empowerment. No control nor consent over my own story.
All of this was bringing up the same feelings that I had not felt since back in 2012. When I was trying to reason why somebody who was trying to take control of my own reality.
And when it is somebody else’s platform, somebody who has the explicit goal is to turn all this personal journalism into a career, where is my right to reply?
Clever enough to not use my name, claiming to some I was embarking on a smear campaign to ruin her — she knew exactly what she was doing. She is the victim here — and she was going to show how empowered she was by overcoming me.
13 days ago, I blocked her.
The first thing she did when I tried to get space was to contact my boyfriend. I don’t know if this was an attempt to ‘get your woman’ in check — or thinking somehow she could manipulate him to believe her about me. She then contacted my best friend and straight-up asked him to chose between me and her, that I was a toxic person and she was done with me. She then contacted my flatmate, begging to get him to get me to unblock her, and when he said he hadn’t seen me, she said that the truth about me will eventually come out.
Another bizarre claim was that she accused me of using her for her social media presence.
These days, I keep my Instagram private. I have enough social media in my life. I do not want to have to keep telling my private stories to a public audience. I value my privacy a lot more these days.
But rather than targetting me, she keeps on messaging the three closest people to me always every night. They haven’t been replying to her — but they are scared to block her because they have seen what she has been doing for the last 13 days. We are currently existing, waiting for the next message — hoping that she will get bored soon and move on.
Last night, I went to bed in tears because she messaged my flatmate at 22.30 asking him to tell me to give her her sharpies back. He asked her to move on and to leave us alone. She blocked him. She then messaged my best friend than my boyfriend, outraged that my housemate has asked her to leave her all alone. They carry on ignoring her. She seems to want to lay claim to them.
When I finally dumped my ex, he moved into a bedsit 200 metres from me. He’d get drunk, follow me home from the subway and then text me in the middle of the night about how I needed to let him in to get his socks back. He must get his socks back because I was holding them hostage.
He would come up with ways and excuses to open contact with him so he could tell me why I was wrong for blocking him out his life. I couldn’t stop him messaging me — I called the police twice, but I got told to ignore him and eventually he would leave me alone. I sat it out for months until he left me alone — every so often I would get a drunk message or mail sent to my house, but he grew tired of it and moved on. I sat in silence and took it.
What this woman is doing to me, if it is innocent Internet drama — or something more deliberately sinister — has been scratching at the closed scars of the past. I am trying to work, I am trying to keep going, but every night, she starts again, and it gets worse. I’ve been here before.
I feel backed into a corner, where I am waiting for the next passive-aggressive post, or message to my closest loved ones which she has been doing every night, to the people who have picked me up after all that has happened before.
I blocked her when I needed space — and now she is suffocating me. She is spinning her weave around my private life, I am bracing myself for the next thing. I am breathless and shaking as I type this.
I don’t know what to do and I don’t know how to make it stop.
But I know the signs.
There is so much advice out there about how to deal with emotionally abusive relationships. I have contributed my own story to that.
But there is almost nothing out there to help you cope with emotionally abusive friendships.
Especially friendships that have publicly co-opted and capitalised on the language of personal stories, of empowerment and of safety.
A friendship that has left no room for anybody else to make words.
I don’t know what else to do.