Becoming the Abuser
My experience with childhood psychological manipulation
Are you still friends with me? I wrote on a scrap of paper. Below, I wrote the words Yes and No. I folded the note and wrote Amber’s name on the outside.
When our third-grade teacher turned toward the chalkboard, I nudged the boy next to me, reaching out with the note and motioning toward the girl with chestnut-colored hair seated in the front row. I watched the note progress up the aisle, my heart thumping in my throat, fearing both the consequences should I be caught passing notes and the possibility that the girl who I considered to be my best friend might circle No.
The teacher turned toward the class. I snapped back to my task, trying to will my eyes away from Amber and toward the work on my desk.
A moment later, the scrap of paper dropped down in front of me.
Maybe, she had written in.
I felt sick. This was even worse than No, leaving me on the hook to wonder what I would have to do to make her like me again.
Amber was capricious in a way that I had never been able to predict or comprehend. One day, we would be catching grasshoppers and braiding each other’s hair at recess; the next, she wouldn’t even acknowledge my existence. We had sleepovers together from time to time, but at school the following Monday morning she would often refuse to talk to me, or, even worse, she would tease me — a pastime in which the other kids gleefully participated.
Each day, as I arrived at school, dread pooled in the pit of my stomach as I waited to see whether or not Amber “liked” me that day.
I was an innocent kid, sheltered and naïve. Trusting. I was also desperately lonely. I can’t remember a single friend I had in first through fourth grade, with the exception of Amber.
“Hey, Nikki, do you want a bite of my banana?” Amber sang one day. As I reflect over the decades, I imagine her face in caricature: beady eyes; brows angled to a cartoonish degree; a smirk on her lips.
In the moment, though, I took her at face value. She had never offered me food before, but I didn’t think anything of it. And, anyway, I’m not one to turn down free food.
I shrugged, leaning in. “Sure.” I don’t like bananas that much, but getting something from Amber was better than getting nothing.
I had already taken a generous bite before I noticed the crowd that had gathered. As the food hit my tongue, I twisted up my face in disgust and spit the mushy mess out into my hand.
“Ew!” I cried, holding the half-chewed bite in my hand as I grimaced at Amber, the taste still acrid in my mouth. “What was that?”
“Horseradish!” she guffawed, and as I ran to the nearest trash can, the rest of the crowd erupted in laughter behind me.
Another day, as I was walking with my hands full, she tripped me. I fell on my face, unable to catch myself, and split open the bottom of my chin. I never spent much time feeling my chin before that day, but it was sore for months afterward and I was convinced that the tip of my chin had been broken off.
Amber moved away sometime after that, but I still felt the force of her manipulation, even from towns away. She was the master to my puppet, tugging at the twin strings of my need for approval and the belief that I was unworthy of love.
Somehow, by the age of eight years old, Amber had learned how to exploit my deepest needs, my biggest fears, and I — praised daily for my abundance of conventional intelligence — was none the wiser.
I moved away, too, and I found another Amber without even looking. This version came in the form of a duo, with one clear alpha, Loreli, and one obvious beta, Kelle, who together were basically my only friends.
When Loreli liked me, I felt like my life was worth living. But there were some days when Kelle would whisper, “Sorry,” and then say more loudly, “We don’t like you today.” And I would then be alone, once again subject to the whims of an abusive and unpredictable girl.
I didn’t agree with some of the things Loreli did, but I felt pressured into doing them too, so that I could remain friends with her.
Loreli smoked cigarettes. I did not. “What?!” she asked, incredulous. When Loreli came to sleep over one night, we stole some cigarettes from my parents and, from then on, I was a smoker.
I didn’t inhale, though, I told her later on.
“What?! It’s not even worth it if you don’t inhale.”
By the age of twelve, I was smoking — and inhaling— daily.
Loreli was sexually active — or so she said. I was not, though I’d been sexually abused by a relative the year before and was still — am still — coming to terms with that. “What?!” she said when she learned of my inexperience.
I lost my virginity before she did, it turned out, and it wasn’t until I learned this that I felt duped.
She was a liar. She was a manipulator. She had tricked me into doing what even she had been unwilling to do.
I’m so stupid, I thought. I felt so worthless.
And to top it off, I had messed up my life to — what? To impress her?
Well, it’s too late to turn back now, I said to myself as, rather than acknowledging my folly and turning back, I crept ever further down my new path — even after Loreli left school and stopped calling me.
Amber and Loreli weren’t the only unpredictable women in my life. At home, I was watching my mother self-medicate and behave erratically, and I felt powerless and insignificant in that relationship as well.
Many of my first physical relationships were equally unsatisfying. I perpetually sought a love that was absent from the circles in which I was seeking it.
The closest I got to a real sense of belonging was with a group of girlfriends I had in seventh and eighth grade. There were five of us, and we were all very close for a time. We had nicknames for each other, and we spent time together before and after school. We called each other on the phone, and we even created a logo for our group.
These girls, though they’d grown up with her, hadn’t been influenced by Loreli the way I had. None of these girls was sexually active. (I was.) None of them smoked or did drugs. (I did.) And none of them arbitrarily exerted power over their so-called friends in order to make themselves feel loved and worshipped and worthy.
But I did.
I am horrified, looking back now, at the things I did and said to this group of girls. I intentionally excluded certain ones from the group and pressured them all to do things they were uncomfortable doing. (Mostly, mercifully, they resisted.)
The girls whose parents were most involved in their lives began distancing themselves from me.
“My mom says you can’t come over anymore,” Ashley said.
“My mom says you’re a bad influence,” said Carolyn.
“Fuck them,” I said. “Sneak out.”
Angela’s sister, who was five years older than me, threatened to kick my ass if I talked to her sister again.
I was so indignant about losing my friends, and so painfully unaware that I was the one driving them away, that I completely turned my back on all of them and continued to self-destruct.
My oldest daughter, today, is just about the same age I was when I met Amber. She has already been used as a pawn by a girl her age in a controlling relationship, and I am terrified it will happen again.
My path has already been set. I didn’t “Turn Out Just Fine,” but neither can I go back and change the way I behaved based on my early relationships. I’ve done a lot of work to unravel what caused me to relinquish my own self-worth so freely, but that’s not my concern right now.
Right now, my concern is raising two beautifully self-aware girls — girls who don’t fall into the same patterns I did, because they know beyond the shadow of a doubt that they are worthy of love, and that anyone who tells them differently is not fit to be in their lives.
Author’s note: I cannot speak for the girls I knew as a child, but I do know that abuse is a cycle and that it is possible these young ladies were abused themselves. If you or someone you know needs it, help is available. Watch your kids for signs of abuse; it doesn’t always look like you’d expect it to.
This piece is part of a series I created for mental health awareness called Myths About Me. If you liked it, chances are you’ll like the others as well. I’d be honored if you’d check out the series!
Read about how trauma informed my decisions when it came to my own children.