When women get into abusive/forced relationships, we always ask them first, “Why don’t you just leave?”. Nobody asked Maddy Anholt about it because she was so adept at what she calls “I’m-fining.” However, during her 20s, she was pretty far from okay.
He spent that decade in relationships with a range of character types she calls “Controlls,” culminating in four years with a man (“Damien”) whose forced control and non-physical abuse nearly destroyed her. She felt isolated, stressed, anxious, financially controlled, sexually assaulted, unable to eat, drank too much, her self-esteem destroyed, and cut off from friends and family.
She was totally enslaved by someone she now recognizes as a psychopath, although he never actually beat her up, yelled at her in public, or even sent her offensive digital messages — he was too smart for that, she says. He left no trace, no trace except the wreck she had become.
The vivacious, articulate, confident Woman’s Aid ambassador I meet on Zoom bears no resemblance to the broken woman I just read about in Anholt’s recently published book. How to leave your psychopath.
What started out as an hour-long live performance piece, How to train your psychopath was wiped out by lockdown so she turned it into a guide for anyone who thinks they are going crazy and it’s all their fault and what to do next.
Putting some distance and plenty of therapy between herself and her ex, Anholt, now 34, has written in forensic detail about common abusive and controlling behaviors — tactics like gaslighting, negging, entanglement, shaming, the Hoover maneuver (something controlls do , if they want to win you back so they can control you again).
She uses her own experiences as examples, which, despite the book’s garrulous tone, makes for a harrowing read at times. She explains the differences between narcissists and psychopaths, what codependency means, the cycle of abuse (which is not unlike the cycle of addiction), and a whole list of reasons in response to “Why don’t you just go?”.
Important to those still psychologically trapped in abusive situations, she writes about the practical aspects of exit and recovery.
“I’ve had DMs from women saying they read the book and then ended toxic or abusive relationships,” she says. “I got one this morning that just said, ‘Thanks for letting me know I don’t have it all in my head.'”
She beams as she says that. She says writing the book was cathartic rather than retraumatizing, and quotes Brene Brown on the difference between being exposed and vulnerable. “The first thing I had to deal with was my imposter syndrome,” she says. “Even though I had a decade of direct experience with this subject, I thought people would say, ‘Oh, but you’re not a therapist, you’re not a psychologist.’
“What I then had to do was constantly check myself – am I writing this for entertainment or to serve others, am I sharing too much and feeling exposed. So with the sexual assault part [of the book]that was a back down all along.”
I ask about their loved ones. Where were your friends and family during all of this? “Emotional abuse is inherently designed to keep you isolated and quiet,” she says. “The easiest way for me to deal with it back then was to have a public face and a private face.
“When you’re emotionally abused, it’s not every day you’re like, ‘Oh, that’s horrible,’ there are days when you’re like, ‘I’m so in love with this person’ — even if you’ve lost six pounds and you’re drinking too much and you’re deaf, what is happening. You have no perspective – you don’t see that you are isolated, that you are hiding things from people.
“So it was a real shock to my family. I actually forbade my mother to read the book. I’ve had family members say, “I’m so sorry I wasn’t there for you,” but it doesn’t work that way. I did a lot of I’m-fining – a very Irish Catholic thing.” She laughs. (She is half Irish, half Danish – her mother is from Kerry). Also, none of her friends liked “Damien” — something she, looking back, recognizes as a big red flag.
When I ask her what advice she would give her younger self before getting caught up in controlling and abusive situations, her immediate response is, “Get therapy.”
She pauses. “Not because anything drastic happened – there doesn’t have to be anything wrong with you. I would encourage my younger self to see my worth and the value of chatting with someone weekly.
“I didn’t have any money, so I got crisis counseling [with a sympathetic NHS therapist she calls the Irish Miss Honey]. That could have averted my codependency tendencies early on because I think I was actively seeking out broken men without first healing myself.”
The three most common misconceptions about “why don’t you just go,” she says, are that people think, “you can just pack a bag and walk out the door, nothing can stop you.” The second is, “You think you deserve it.” And third, people think “you’re weak and needy and like drama”. Victim blaming often occurs, placing responsibility on the recipient of the abuse rather than the perpetrator.
“These three are highly toxic in themselves and add another layer of toxic shame to the victim,” she says. “What about money? What will become of your children?”
She vividly describes the cycle of abuse: “The love bombing and honeymoon period, when it’s all about dopamine and oxytocin, followed by the tension of hunching your shoulders by your ears because you sense something’s about to happen.
“You get gassed a lot at this time, so you’re dealing with stress hormones that suppress your gut feelings. At the bottom of the circle is the burst, which causes huge rushes of adrenaline as you fear for your life over what that person might do. And before you know it, you are at the beginning of the circle where there is reconciliation and back to calm.
“It feels like you’re in a tumble dryer. Ironically, what you want most afterward is a hug from your abuser. Imagine this pattern on a three or four month basis, continuously throughout a relationship. It is exhausting.”
When she wrote an article entitled “Why Don’t You Leave Him?”, an older male colleague accused her of cowardice for not leaving her and for hiding behind “misguided ideas about chemicals and hormones.”
“People think they can blame women or blame victims and then walk away,” she says. When I ask her about her alcohol consumption during the time of the abuse, she says that “the addiction rate for people in abusive relationships is astronomical.”
“Ironically, this is often used against victims – ‘You’re an alcoholic, you don’t know what you’re talking about, you’re going insane’ – which breeds even more shame. The connection between trauma, fear, adrenaline and the need for a drink is strong.”
She insists that labeling abusive individuals as psychopaths, narcissists, sociopaths, etc. doesn’t somehow medicalize their behavior and thereby let them off the hook.
“I tried to normalize these labels,” she says. “These terms tend to be clinical and remote, something that could be read in a research paper – we need to apply them to daily life because these people are everywhere. Just calling them bastards is what lets them off the hook. Let’s call a spade a spade. If someone is a true psychopath, they cannot be changed. They have something wrong with them, so stay out of their way.”
While she acknowledges that coercion is “a gender crime” and a common assumption is that women who have been in abusive relationships are vulnerable to repeating this pattern if they don’t figure out what’s happening and recover, Anholt debunks the stereotype of coercively controlled women as somehow weak or passive.
“Those with very controlling personality types actively seek out women who are strong, adventurous, sensitive and good with people because they lack those traits themselves, and if they can learn those traits firsthand then they can manipulate more people.” , she says. Booker Prize-winning author Bernardine Evaristo provides a vivid example of this dynamic in her memoirs manifest, recounts how she was forcibly controlled for years by an ex-girlfriend she calls The Mental Dominatrix. You can’t think of a less likely candidate than Evaristo, but her Controll story is textbook.
Today, Anholt is no longer afraid of being alone, which she says was “a classic codependent trait.” Instead, she accepted therapy and backed off from dating for a few years. “During that time, I moved into an apartment by the sea alone to write the book,” she says. “It didn’t take me long to realize the beauty of doing what you want in your own time frame. I had to show myself that I can do it. I felt really strong.”
https://www.independent.ie/life/health-wellbeing/health-features/are-you-involved-with-a-psychopath-heres-how-to-leave-them-41516865.html Are you dating a psychopath? Here’s how to leave them