It's hard to admit when you've been held under a system of abuse, especially when it's something you signed up for. Especially when you look back and realized you ignored the many (and perhaps glaring) red flags. Especially when you loved and trusted the person or people involved. Especially...when you still love them.
Few things in this life give me a greater sense of hope than witnessing people around me claiming their rights, opening up and advocating for the struggles they've been through - being vulnerable and speaking out about their experiences so others might hear them and not follow them down the same path. Brave, beautiful people do this every day, about all sorts of obstacles. Toxic relationships are one of these obstacles. The tricky thing with toxic relationships, though, is that they take on different shapes and patterns depending on the individual, unique lives and partnerships they enter. No abuse of power, no toxicity looks exactly the same. And though they often have very similar characteristics, the thing that makes them the most elusive is that no one wants to admit when they're caught in one. We manage to snooze the alarm until it can no longer be ignored. Why is that?
Well, I want to talk about that today - because it's exactly the reality I'm waking up to.
About a year ago, I signed up for an online coaching course taught by a girl I knew from childhood, who was now a spiritual guide of sorts. I had been seeing her on Instagram, living a life that looked so completely free and enlightened and aligned with some higher calling, I truly couldn't look away. Half of what she spoke to scared the shit out of me - seemed so radically impossible to achieve - really facing my fears? Not just revealing my shadows, but playing with them? Interacting? Terrifying. But she promised absolute freedom. If I took her wisdom and applied it fully and honestly in my life, I could be healed and fully happy. And before you call me a sucker, here's the deal: when I knew her long ago, she was nothing like this. Though I didn't know her well, I saw her as closed-off and unapproachable. Kind of a bitch, really. I thought she had to have undergone something radical in her time away from the public eye to become this beacon of light that she was now. Her story was vague to the public, but she promised more would be revealed about her process if you committed to the journey. I was curious, about her and the work she had done. I thought it might be cool to catch up with her, too. So I signed up for her course.
I can't lie - it was life-altering. I was thinking in new ways, noticing the world around me like never before, noticing myself, actually feeling sensations in my body and tying them to the present moment. I really had never been able to be so present, so able to reflect and journal and put energy toward my well-being. I don't want to suggest that this was a scam, because to me, it wasn't. But even in those early days, there were some red flags. She wasn't licensed in any way, not to say that you need an education to do this kind of work, but the "work" was vague. I could never really put a label on what it was that she was doing (I hesitated to call her a spirit guide, because I'm not even sure that's accurate). But I loved the way I felt, I loved how I was thinking, and I wanted more; it was genuinely addictive information.
In order to keep working with her, there were opportunities for additional courses and groups. But they were expensive (I'm talking thousands of dollars), so I held off. I kept watching her stories and attending free masterclasses, doing what I could to absorb her wisdom and interact with like-minded people. Every once in a while, though, in those masterclasses, she would offer "one-time" deals for her more exclusive, in-depth courses. Her most prized, typically valued at $4000 for a lifetime-access initiation to her deepest healing practices and 24/7 access to a Facebook group with her most dedicated students, was being offered at 75% off. I had just earned my first few paychecks from teaching, I had some loose change for the first time in my life. It could have been used elsewhere, and I fought myself about it for as long as I could hold out before the deal expired in 48 hours. This was a huge financial commitment for me; hard to justify. But I wanted to keep working with her, so I went for it.
That experience, too, was life-altering. I went through the modules and wrote my heart out on paper each night; I secluded myself to the coziest corner of my room to devote time to her teachings. I started taking saltwater baths and engaging more in the incredibly intimate somatic experiences I had never noticed before. I confronted myself about a lot of issues going on in my life, floating around but never getting sorted through. Best of all, I met a group of incredible women who were right there in that journey with me. We were all on a mission to our highest freedom, all together, stopping at nothing to get there.
We learned, rather quickly, that there was no "getting there." That there will always be more journey to take, and you're only done in this lifetime when your body dies. From there, more will happen. You will have prepared your soul for the next steps, but it's never truly over until it's OVER. I loved this way of thinking - I still love it. But there are caveats.
One of the processes of not fully "getting there" was that there was always more to learn, more to sign up for. One night, after a particularly potent group call, our leader posted a video about how she had felt called to something bigger. We were all invited to join her, but our time in this space had to end for the sake of making room for the deeper, wider and more revolutionary thing coming our way. In down-to-Earth English (which I tried to misinterpret): "I'm disbanding this group, starting a new one, and you're going to have to pay me to join it." Three months in this container, whereas some were in for six, and some were in for as little as two weeks. It was supposed to be lifetime access. Something about that really didn't sit right with me, but I didn't say anything. I didn't want to be the downer.
Right around the same time, one of the other women in the group posted publicly about how our leader had been flaking on some of their one-on-one calls, still charging for them, and at other times, refusing to meet with her until her demeanor had become more positive and possible to work with. She told me, privately, that she wanted to leave the group because our leader was exhibiting signs of emotional and financial abuse. She said she knew, because she had just left an abusive marriage. Her post was only up for about an hour before being taken down, swiftly leading to her banishment from the group. Our leader said next to nothing about it. Nothing close to an explanation or an apology, rather, a suggestion that there was a lot more going on behind the scenes that we knew nothing about. We never did know. We were never told.
At that point I decided I had seen enough, and vowed that I wouldn't pay another cent for this woman's courses in the future. That didn't stop me from wanting to, nor did it stop me from interacting with her online, texting her, and trying to stay as close to the core of her work as I could. I felt indebted, even though she was the one who was not holding up her end of the deal. It broke my heart every time she shared that one of the women I had met in the previous group joined the new one - it was like she was posting to instill jealousy; to chide me into deciding that I could part with a couple more thousand dollars for the sake of my freedom, for the sake of sacred community. The more you put in, baby, the more you get out. Right?
So I was shocked when I began to see that some of those women I had met and worked with, halfway through the new container, started speaking out against these so-called "healers" and their manipulative, money-grabbing tendencies. They were in the container, I thought. They couldn't possibly be taking about the person who was flashing in my mind as I listened to their words. But they were. They had picked up on the same icky feelings and red flags that I had, all in the span of those close-knit months together. We had all seen it, and we all said nothing. It's only now that a handful of us have opened up and met again on this strange acknowledgment, that I feel brave enough to come forward and share it with you. I was manipulated - some might say emotionally, psychologically, and/or financially abused. I fell for that shit. I never thought I'd be a victim. (She told us having a "victim"/"survivor" mentality would keep you in the trenches forever...think on that...but that's a topic for another time.)
So that's my story, but I'm sure you have your own. Maybe you're like me, and you're pissed that you didn't pick up on it sooner, didn't realize what was happening to you. Pissed that you ignored the warning signs, or weren't the first to speak up. Maybe you still haven't spoken up.
I want you to know that if you feel any (or all) of these things, that it's okay. I'm thankful to say that this is something I feel strong enough to overcome just by talking through it with loved ones and my (licensed) therapist for a few weeks, and I'll be good; I'm glad that this hasn't been much of a recurring theme in my life thus far. That said, I really thought I knew better! I really thought that if I ever caught myself in any type of abusive relationship, I'd have the wits to stop in my tracks and say "Fuck this, fuck you, I'm out," and it wouldn't have to be more complicated than that.
Here's why that just isn't the case, though: It's damn near impossible to form a relationship capable of abuse or manipulation without someone completely trusting the other. And when you're close enough to trust them 100%, you probably love them, too. I trusted this coach with everything, and, whether I like it or not, that's going to take a long time to unlearn. I wanted her to love me, and trust me, and see me as a friend. The abuser sees the desire to please, and - it doesn't matter if they're a partner, boss, coworker, coach, whatever - they know how much of your power you're willing to give in order to keep trusting and loving them.
Friend, please don't take this as a sign to stop trusting people. Trust is a hard balance in this life, and I know how easy it is to become jaded after your power is stolen a few too many times. But if I can offer just one piece of my own somatically experiential advice: Don't let them hold on to your power. It's yours - it was always yours. Take it back.
Power is meant to be a gentle thing - something that we hold as our own, something that we regard as a prized, precious possession. We don't take it from others, and we don't give ours away. It's just ours. But power is alluring, and we all want more of it in some sort of facet, even if we don't consciously realize that we do. If you can imagine "your power" as some sort of palpable entity - something that you have to look after and take care of, like money, or a pet - maybe for the moment it will become clearer what our responsibility is with it. If somebody took your money, or your beloved cat, you're going to do anything you can to get it back, right? Our power is much the same, only, joyously, so much easier to take back. The other person will never know. The friend who you love so much, but who has been neglecting you for the past year (and it's not just about quarantine) - she's holding onto your power. Take it back. The boss who makes you feel like an idiot, who talks down to you while he touts his own false greatness - he's holding onto your power. I need you to know that, however difficult it may seem right now, you can get it back.
I acknowledge that all types of abuse are real, and painful, and do not want to suggest that "envisioning your power as a pet" is going to free you from the chains it presents. I'm not a spiritual guide; I'm a high school English teacher. I don't have any sort of qualification to ensure you that I know what I'm talking about, and that I can heal you, and that you will be free forevermore after reading this post. It's never quite that easy, I'm afraid. But can I ask one thing of you?
Can you acknowledge that your power is as real as the pain?