Written by Mariana Kay.
Art by Marija Ancic.
CW: Emotional/psychological abuse.
We’ve all heard the historical stories about men who unjustifiably and maliciously tried (often successfully) to have their wives committed to asylums, but never in my wildest dreams did I think it still happened today.
Well, it does: it happened to me.
An article in The Guardian was recently published about how legendary author Charles Dickens embarked on a campaign to have his wife committed to an asylum. In the article, Dickens’ biographer Claire Tomalin is quoted making the argument that it was, in fact, Charles Dickens who was mad, and not his wife: “I think during this period he was mad, effectively, and their lives were thrown into turmoil.”
The same could also be said for the situation with my husband.
Unemployed and bingeing on Adderall and alcohol every day (sometimes going up to three days without sleep), he was alone all day in our apartment doing god-knows-what while I went to work. One thing I know for sure is that he wasn’t looking for a job; by the time I finally left him he had been unemployed for five months and had only had one interview that led to nothing.
After five months of relentless substance abuse, his grip on normalcy had completely evaporated. As had mine. Walking into the apartment at the end of my work day was intense. I began staying later and later in the studio to avoid going home. When I was there, he was hyper-focused on my movements around the apartment. Things like cleaning the dishes or taking out the trash would be subject to criticism and admonition. He would literally follow me around the apartment and criticize the way I did things, the things I said, and the way I reacted to him. I was constantly on edge waiting for the next attack.
I spent over a thousand dollars for [psychiatry] sessions and the only thing I was diagnosed with was social anxiety, which, notably, began around the same time as the beginning of our relationship.
But his abuse had started a long time before he became unemployed; unemployment only intensified what was already there. It had started with little lies and escalated in tandem with the slow but certain exposure of his manipulative behavior. When I became upset at the things he did and said to me, he maneuvered the situation so deftly that by the end I was the one apologizing. He convinced me that there was something wrong with me and that I needed therapy, so I started seeing a psychiatrist. I spent over a thousand dollars for these sessions and the only thing I was diagnosed with was social anxiety, which, notably, began around the same time as the beginning of our relationship.
After five years of this constant head-fuckery, I snapped. During a particularly nasty fight that seemingly came out of nowhere, I lost control and smashed a couple of potted plants and hurled a small mirror across the room while sitting at a desk with him standing over me, berating me relentlessly. After I threw the mirror, he disappeared.
The next thing I knew, the police showed up — responding to his call. They separated us, but not so far from each other that I couldn’t hear my husband say, “I think she needs to be evaluated.”
So, off they took me in an ambulance to the psychiatric unit at the hospital. After around two hours of waiting around and finally being interviewed by the psychiatrist, they released me. I assume it was clear to them that I am not mentally ill or suicidal, nor in the midst of a psychiatric break. I should also point out that everyone I dealt with — the EMTs, the nurses, and the psychiatrist — was a woman; I wonder how much this factor may have worked in my favor.
However, one would assume that a caring partner would be there at the hospital with me, making sure I was OK. But of course he wasn’t. He had stayed home. His behavior up until that point was absolutely not out of care or concern. He had lost control over me, and he wanted me gone. He wanted me to blame for everything that was going wrong in his life. He wanted me to be the one in the relationship who was mentally unstable, not him. And that’s the crux of it. Abusive people want to blame those closest to them so they can avoid facing their own demons. This deflection happens all the time.
Unfortunately, the history of men campaigning to have women locked up appears as recently as the 2016 US presidential campaign with Trump’s infamous “lock her up” catchline — another classic example of a narcissist’s deflection tactics. Looking back a little further we know of Rosemary Kennedy, John F. Kennedy’s sister, whose mental illness and learning difficulties proved such an inconvenience and embarrassment to the family that her father had her lobotomized and sent to a psychiatric hospital. She was entirely separated from her family (with the exception of a visit from her mother twenty years later) until the death of her father.
While it is easy to point to well known and recorded cases in which unruly women are sent away, the extent to which this happens to the average person is much harder to grasp. There are no statistics that can tell us how many men have unreasonably tried to have their wives locked up. But we do have word of mouth, and we do have the internet (thank god), and seemingly a revived sense of camaraderie and sisterhood among women in light of all the present day, ever-so-blatant misogyny going on all around us.
Women have been expected to suppress their anger throughout history, but anger is what gets us through.
Women have been expected to suppress their anger throughout history, but anger is what gets us through. I’m not ashamed of my angry outburst at my husband that led to me being taken away to the hospital. I’m grateful that it happened, and in retrospect, I’m not surprised at all. We all have our tipping points. Anger is the only rational emotion to feel when we have to deal with so much working against us, with so many people trying to control and manipulate us and wishing us away when we pipe up. My potency does not make me crazy. It does not warrant subjection to punishment and denigration by anyone, nor should it ever impede my ability to move freely and respectably in this world. Nor should it with you.
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Mariana Kay is an artist and writer based in New York City.