Trigger warning: Sexual & Emotional Abuse; Inability to Seek Justice.

He wasn’t what most people would call a textbook abuser. He had a story that could melt anyone's heart. He had lost a parent, toiled selflessly, sold everything he owned. He had come to Bombay, the city of his dreams, and earned a name for himself. He took care of me when I was in one of my most vulnerable states. If you were to see his life story played on the screen, you’d cheer him on. This guy could not be the villain. If you imagined he was, there’d surely be something wrong with you. That’s how I saw it too.

His deception and my trauma bond

I now know that I had a trauma bond with my abuser but I resisted accepting that he had subjected me to violence for the longest time. I found it hard to forgive myself for that. If I couldn’t see him for what he was, how will I make anyone believe my story? It is hard for me to write about narcissistic abuse but I am doing so nevertheless in the hope that more people will understand how it operates. My abuser is still out there- a supposedly popular progressive voice in India who enjoys a certain invincible kind of status due to his caste-class privilege. I can’t match his repute nor do I wield the social capital of his networks. But I have my story and my truth to tell.

When he first cheated on me, he refused to admit there was anything wrong because, according to him, we were not even in a relationship. He wrote poetry about how we had something that couldn’t be defined. I was hurt. But he kept telling me I was overreacting and had no right to. And I had to have sex with him to prove I had forgiven him. He didn’t physically force himself on me but I desperately wanted him to leave my home afterwards, as he usually did but not unless I proved I had "forgiven him" by having sex. Soon after, his pet died and he had sex with me in a very rough way, as if to get the frustration off and again, I couldn’t not stop him. I was scared- if I didn’t let him use me, he would go away.

He made sure no one got to know we were intimate other than just four of his friends who would never tell anyone about us. Abusers often have "flying monkeys" around them who enable them with unshakeable loyalty. Our relationship was to be guarded as a secret. I was not allowed to sit beside him in the presence of mutual acquaintances. He would not even acknowledge me in public gatherings such as protests or get togethers and would ask if we could make an entrance to social scenes separately. Ostensibly, it was to protect me from gossip. Once I had to rush to a friend’s place when a mutual acquaintance came visiting him at his place. I couldn’t explain why I was suddenly landing up. I felt ashamed and afraid. He was exercising control over me. He never hit me, but he kept my self-esteem and self-worth teetering over the edge to make sure I was compliant. I was a part of his life he would never acknowledge in public, while at the same time, he rode on my reputation as a staunch feminist to get closer to other women.

He left no physical trace of his abuse behind

For certain things, he never explicitly forbade me but he’d let me know I had done something not in line with his wishes as he would punish me with instant withdrawal of affection and silent treatment. I was on tenterhooks. Threatened and anxiety ridden. Especially when we went long distance after I changed my city for work, this behaviour became frequent. I couldn’t even fight his silence or his calm indifference without feeling tormented or playing into the stereotype of the clingy, angry, girlfriend who is too emotionally dependent on their male partner. He had groomed me to be the complete opposite- supposedly a strong, independent, rational woman. Objecting to his silent treatment would be weak and un-feminist. Or so he wanted me to believe.

He had a pathological carefulness of never having his abuse documented. He never wrote abusive things on messages or emails nor would he sent objectionable content on messaging apps where screenshots could be taken. Unless you had the presence of mind to have a recorder on your phone, your chance of catching him in his game would be zero. His abuse always took place behind closed doors, with no witnesses. In public, the relationship was not even acknowledged so I couldn’t speak of my pain within it to anyone, let alone have a space for confrontation or dialogue.

My gradual awakening

The constant stress and anxiety started taking a toll on me. I had already been diagnosed with PCOS, Borderline Personality Disorder, and Complex PTSD. His behaviour began to deeply aggravate all these conditions. Soon, my already ongoing medication and therapy had to be intensified. It was only when I started talking to my therapist did I realize that the erasure of my feelings, the lying about our relationship, and the silent treatments were all part of a pattern of gaslighting and emotional abuse. He even used the knowledge of my diagnosis of partial schizophrenia to guilt me into having sex with him by telling me that I had insulted him and lost all memory of it. This wasn’t the only way he coerced me into sex which felt like a deep violation. My psychiatrist and therapist believed it was very likely that he was manipulating me by lying, armed with the knowledge of my diagnosis.

This was very difficult for me to accept and yet, instinctively, I knew it to be true. The realisation was beginning to sink in and I started becoming disillusioned with the relationship. His charm was beginning to fade. I started withdrawing and he noticed. That is when the second wave of manipulation began. This time, to keep me in the relationship.

He tried to suck me back into his trap

He would call me, cry, and accuse me of being cold and cruel. According to my therapist, it was a classic example of how narcissists respond when they feel their prey slipping away from their grasp. Before this, he had never once made any effort to be with me, had constantly made me feel insecure about the relationship, hiding me away like I was some shameful part of his life.

He tried to blackmail me into staying. He said he had tried committing suicide and I was responsible for making him do so. He wrote emails after emails, accusing me of ruining him, and posted poems of heartbreak and betrayal on Facebook. During this time, I would speak to my therapist almost everyday. She kept me grounded, predicting every action he would be taking to further destabilise me. And he proved her right every step of the way.

This went on for weeks before I finally wrote an email to him telling him that I had accepted all his accusations not because they were true but because I was tired of the ordeal. And over a final phone call, I told him it was over. I later found out that while we had still been together, he had had sex with someone who was like a younger sister to me and he had flirted with another friend who was going through a rough patch in her marriage. Of course, he did not tell either of them about me.

What kind of people narcissists prey on

Narcissists always seek relationships with a power imbalance in their favour. They create an illusion of equality and free choice when all the while, they are really controlling their victims, grooming them to make choices that are essentially the narcissist’s own. I see why he was constantly seeking relationships with younger and/or vulnerable women. I was 22 myself when I got together with him when I was 22 and he was 30. I had faced childhood abuse for a decade and a half and been in a violent relationship. That made me vulnerable as I searched for affection everywhere, accepting it in whatever form I received it. The woman he cheated on me with was 12 years younger than him. My friend that he flirted with was about the same age as him but was going through a marital crisis. He actively made himself visible in spaces that have young, vulnerable women in large numbers.

The key to recovery and healing

Senior psychiatrist Dr. Geeta Maheshwari confirmed  to me that narcissistic  abuse can take any form- physical, mental, emotional, financial, spiritual or other and does not limit itself to only one of these spheres. And usually, the scope of the victim finding justice is extremely slim because narcissists never assume responsibility for their abuse and always shift the blame on to the victims.

A healthy, non-judgmental, and trustful relationship between victims of narcissistic abuse and their doctors and therapists is key to recovery. This can be a matter of privilege and luck in India with a severely understaffed mental health workforce. I wrote to trauma therapist Ruchita Chandrashekhar seeking her views on treating victims of narcissistic abuse. She told me that their inability to trust often extends to therapeutic relationships as well and that can sometimes be challenging.

In absence of any sincere apology, victims tend to carry the hurt long after they escape the abuse. I do not expect an apology from my abuser. I know it will not come. Even if it were conceivable, it would not help me in my healing. It's been two years since I freed myself of his abuse. I worked hard and learned to love myself fiercely enough to not forgive his abuse with just an apology. Though I do hope to see a better world one day where women like myself can name their abusers without being disbelieved.

He goes on being lauded for his carefully constructed grandiose image today, basking in his fake glory. And my only regret is that I have no way of alerting his future victims.