No one would ever love me as much as he did. At least, that’s what he told me. From day one, he made it very clear that my wellbeing and happiness was his first priority. On paper (and on Facebook), his love for me read like a romantic novel or a Twilight movie without the vampires. To the outside world, he appeared to be the most romantic, caring man on the planet.
Little did I know, he was slowly conditioning me to accept his controlling behavior.
As an independent, strong, emotionally intelligent person, I never thought I’d end up in an emotionally abusive relationship. But that’s exactly what happened. And here’s the kicker—while it was happening, I didn’t see any of it as controlling or abusive.
In my mind, we were simply a once-in-a-lifetime, passionate, devoted couple who couldn’t get enough of each other.
After I finally ended the three-year-relationship—and a judge granted a restraining order to help protect me—I dug deep to figure out how I didn’t see what my life and my relationship had become. And why I stayed with him long past first realizing something was not right.
Here’s what I discovered…
I mistook control and manipulation for love and protection.
Here are the top five ways he conditioned me to accept emotional abuse:
1. He constantly sent text messages (or called me)
During the honeymoon stage of a new relationship, you expect to stay up all night talking about your deepest thoughts and feelings. That all felt normal to me. What I didn’t expect was to be tied to my phone every minute of the day when I wasn’t with him. He constantly sent me texts asking how and where I was in the moment. If I didn’t write back right away—because God forbid I was in a meeting or simply living life—he’d frantically text bomb me. Where are you? Are you okay? Please text me… I’m worried. Rarely could I have a drink with a friend or spend vacation time with girlfriends or family without fielding a barrage of texts and phone calls….
So, who’s there with you? Tell them I said hello. Have fun, baby!
(Phone pings again a few minutes later) Is so and so there?
(Phone pings AGAIN) How long are you going to be there?
And on and on and on….
I spent 90 percent of my time making sure I responded to him and it felt oddly normal because it ramped up so gradually. It was only when I was finally out of the relationship that I saw the constant texting and calling as controlling rather than loving and protective.
2. He showered me with compliments before criticisms
In psychology circles, the beginning stage of a controlling relationship is referred to as the Love Bombing stage. This was certainly true for me. He masterfully put me on a pedestal and proclaimed love within a few days. He made it known that he loved all that I was and all that I did. On the flip side, he became exactly what he learned that I wanted and conveniently loved the same things I did. We continued on this way for a few months.
Slowly, I noticed that he would sandwich a demeaning or condescending remark in between flattery. The remarks ranged from how much eye contact I made with others to what I wore to how I spoke with clients. The devaluing statements started gradually around the four-month relationship mark—a mark that seems to ring true for many survivors of controlling, manipulative relationships.
Over the next three years, the pendulum swung so far in the opposite direction that I literally felt like I couldn’t do anything right. I couldn’t predict when he’d get upset or sling hateful words my way no matter how much I tried to prevent it from happening. I went from being someone he adored and admired to someone he’d roll his eyes at more times than not. Smartly, he wasn’t an ass all of the time—we still had good times, and he still told me how much he loved me. I was being groomed to accept the abuse because I was always waiting for the wonderful, caring guy I fell in love with to resurface. After every fight, he would tell me how hard it was to see me in so much pain. In a twist of irony— toward the end of the relationship—he told me that I was no longer the strong, independent woman he fell in love with three years prior.
3. He used "concern for me" as a reason to yell and berate...and I became addicted to the ups and downs
Between the constant reporting in via text and the frequent fielding of critical zingers, I was unknowingly starting to live in a constant state of fight or flight. I couldn't predict when I'd let him down or trigger anger, so I was perpetually walking on eggshells…and it felt normal. At times, I even craved the ups and downs. In medical speak, I became addicted to the highs and lows via biochemical bonds I knew nothing about. We’re talking about the way Oxytocin, Dopamine, Adrenaline, and Cortisol work in the body when you’re in a controlling, coercive relationship. Toxic relationship expert and best-selling author, Shahida Arabi, spells this out beautifully in an article about narcissistic abuse.
She explains that rather than shaming yourself for “not feeling strong enough to end a toxic relationship, it’s essential to understand the biochemical bonds that make it extremely difficult to leave these types of relationships.
In Shahida’s words, here’s what may be keeping you addicted, or was keeping you addicted to a relationship dripping in control and emotional abuse:
1) Oxytocin. This hormone, known famously as the “cuddle” or “love hormone,” is released during touching, orgasm and sexual intercourse; it promotes attachment and trust. It is the same hormone released by the hypothalamus that enables bonding between mother and child. During “lovebombing” and mirroring in the idealization phases with our abusive partners, it’s likely that our bond to them is quite strong as a result of this hormone. Intermittent reinforcement of positive behaviors dispersed throughout the abuse cycle (e.g. gifts, flowers, compliments, sex) ensures that we still release oxytocin even after experiencing incidents of abuse.
I’ve heard from many survivors who reminisce about the great sexual relationship they had with the controlling, manipulative person, containing an electrifying sexual chemistry they feel unable to achieve with future partners.
2) Dopamine. The same neurotransmitter that is responsible for cocaine addiction is the same one responsible for addiction to dangerous romantic partners. According to Harvard Health, both drugs and intense, pleasurable memories trigger dopamine and create reward circuits in the brain, essentially telling the brain to “do it again.”
Do you remember recalling the pleasurable, beautiful first moments with your partner? The romantic dates, the sweet compliments and praise, the incredible sex – long after you two had broken up? Yeah – it’s releasing the dopamine in your brain that’s telling you to “do it again.”
The salience theory of dopamine suggests that our brain releases dopamine not just for pleasurable events but to important ones that are linked to survival. As Samantha Smithstein, Psy.d, puts it, “Dopamine is not just a messenger that dictates what feels good; it is also tells the brain what is important and what to pay attention to in order to survive. And the more powerful the experience is, the stronger the message is to the brain to repeat the activity for survival.”
Abuse survivors are unfortunately hijacked by dopamine. Abusive tactics like intermittent reinforcement works well with our dopamine system, because studies show that dopamine flows more readily when the rewards are given out on unpredictable schedule rather than predictably after conditioned cues.
So the random sweet nothings whispered to us after an incident of emotional abuse, the apologies, the pity ploys, the rare displays of tenderness during the devaluation phase, right before another incident of abuse – actually help cement this type of reward circuit rather than deter it. Combine this with powerful experiences of abuse which alert our brain to “pay attention” as well as pleasurable memories we recollect over and over again – and we’ve got ourselves a biochemical bond from hell.
3) Cortisol, Adrenaline and Norepinephrine. Cortisol is a stress hormone, and boy, does it get released during the traumatic highs and lows of a toxic relationship. It is released by the adrenal glands in response to fear as part of the “fight or flight” mechanism. Since we are unlikely to have a physical outlet of release when cortisol is triggered during cycles of emotional abuse, this often traps the stress within our bodies instead. As we ruminate over incidents of devaluation and abuse, increased levels of cortisol lead to more and more health problems. Christopher Bergland suggests numerous ways to counteract the effects of this hormone, which include physical activity, mindfulness, meditation, laughter, music and social connectivity.
Adrenaline and norepinephrine also prepare our body for the flight or fight response, and are also culprits in biochemical reactions to our abusers. Adrenaline promotes an antidepressant effect, triggering fear and anxiety which then releases dopamine – this can cause us to become “adrenaline junkies,” addicted to the rush of vacillating between bonding and betrayal. At the end of a toxic relationship where contact is severed, withdrawal from that “rush” can be incredibly painful.
I personally found that it took six months for my body to stop craving the highs and lows (aka, the hormone releases). Prior to learning about biochemical addiction, I felt deep shame for staying too long in a relationship that I knew wasn’t good for me. Once I understood just how addictive it all was, and how much I was psychologically conditioned to accept the verbal and emotional abuse I endured, I finally gave myself a break.
4. He wanted me all to himself, and he didn’t like it when I hung out with friends
I stopped spending time with friends and doing things I enjoyed because, over time, he’d let me know he wasn’t happy. He wouldn’t forbid me—he was too smart for that. Sometimes, if I he knew I was having fun, he’d subtly shame me for making the decision to be with my friends rather than him. “Well, I’m glad they got to spend time with you,” he’d say. This, of course, was after he acted super supportive of my plans to spend time with my friends. He became Jekyll and Hyde. I didn’t know who I was going to get when I responded to him.
Initially, he loved my friends and family but eventually started questioning everyone and everything. “There’s something about so and so that I’m just not sure about, Kiers.” It would be more pointed when he was talking about my guy friends. “Why did he write to you privately? I think he wants to get with you.” When I’d push back and tell him that said friend was just checking in on me, the whole day would spiral into one long text fight. My work day would derail and I’d end up feeling guilty about having friends. Eventually, he’d trash talk all of my friends, especially the ones he figured were clued into what he was doing. It became hard to trust myself—to trust my own intuition. I eventually learned to apologize even when I knew I wasn’t in the wrong. “Sorry... you’re right...it was my fault” became a sure-fire way to stop the agony of the moment. Inevitably, after I apologized, he’d go back to being the guy I met in the beginning of our relationship who showered me with compliments and love. What I didn’t realize at the time was that I was being conditioned and isolated from everything and everyone I knew before he came into my life.
5. He talked incessantly about protecting me (and conversely how I didn’t protect him like he protected me)
I just want to protect you, he’d say. Baby, are you okay? would pop up on text messages more times than I can count. When I’d reply that I was fine, he’d say, “Oh, good…I just love you so much…I was worried something might be wrong.” Eventually, it went from checking on me to asking where I was all of the time. I was lucky that tracking apps weren’t readily available back when I was in this relationship or he would have been monitoring my whereabouts 24/7 in the name of protection. I’ve heard from a few teens who were in abusive relationships that some partners flat out demand to be linked on a tracking device like Life360 or Share My Location on iPhone, and Snapchat. (Side note: It’s becoming an expected norm in teen relationships with kids as young as fifteen. Ask your teens about it.) Sadly, these tech devices that make it easier for a controlling, manipulative person to track their partner are only going to evolve and multiply.
When he wasn’t consumed with “protecting me,” he’d accuse me of not being a “pit bull” for him, and for not protecting him the way he wanted to protect me. For example, if someone did something that he didn’t like, and I pointed out that maybe they didn’t see it the way he did, he’d fly into a rage. There was no room for questioning. I was expected to be loyal to a fault or I’d pay the price.
I hope that sharing what I've learned will help others in similar situations. It sure seems there are way too many folks of all ages falling into the trap of control. I don't know everything about these types of couplings, but I do know this: love and control can’t live in the same space even though all five of these behaviors and tactics can easily be misconstrued for love. I’m living proof of that. I’m also proof that you can heal from controlling, manipulative relationships and move on to a life filled with real love, support, and space to be exactly who you are.
I didn’t expect the panic attack that came on yesterday.
It was supposed to be an easy doctor’s appointment, but I’m now realizing that when you’re a trauma/abuse survivor, it’s just not that simple.
The lesion on my eyelid isn’t all that bad even though it’s been there in some form for a bit. Three years to be exact. It doesn’t look like the horrendous photos you see when you google eyelid cancer. Still, I figured it was time to get it looked at by a dermatologist, again. And I even reckoned that she’d want to take it off.
As usual, Scott was right there by my side, thank goodness. We joked and laughed before the doc and her team came into the room to inspect my face. I thought I had everything under control and was feeling pretty calm.
When it came time for her suggest a biopsy would be the best course of action, I started sweating profusely. I couldn’t catch my breath and I couldn’t understand why. I’ve had punch biopsies before with no issue. I was prepared for this, even. I knew she would say what she did and want to do it right then and there. Sure, the needle carrying the numbing solution stings a bit but it’s nothing I can’t handle. I’ve had two c-sections, a ripped illiotibial band, and broken bones, after all.
This was supposed to be an easy peasy 5-minute procedure. And it wasn’t the gynecologist office, which is where I normally have PTSD issues. Being sexually abused as kid will do that to you.
As we listened to the doc talk about what she wanted to do and what I would need to do post-biopsy, I started to feel dizzy and nauseated. Doc’s assistants thought I didn’t notice when they were placing items on the tray near my now slip-n-slide of a sweat-covered treatment chair. First, a needle. Then a scalpel. Gauze. Ointment. Other things I didn't recognize. I kept my focus on the doctor but saw everything happening around me.
I was clearly having a panic attack, but why?! None of it made sense in my head or my body.
That is, until it hit me…it wasn’t the needle or the pain that was freaking me out. It was the “don’t move” part. Afterall, she was about to slice into my eyelid. If I couldn’t stay still, I would risk injury to both of us. Tears welled in my eyes as I realized there was no way I could go through with it even though I wanted the biopsy to happen. I've pushed through fear before but this was beyond my control even though I needed this procedure.
I’m pretty sure the doc thought I didn’t agree with her recommendation that I needed a biopsy until I choked out through tears, “I’m a childhood trauma survivor.”
“Whoa, that’s deep,” she blurted ou while taking a step back. Let’s just say she may need a primer in talking to trauma survivors.
I couldn’t articulate anything else except that I agreed I needed the biopsy. Scott tried to help explain while he held my hand and rubbed my back. By this time, she had other patients to see and was growing weary, and I felt shamed for not being able to let her do what I knew needed to happen...what I know will tell me definitively if I have skin cancer or not.
Before leaving the room to let the assistants wrap up, I told her I’d like to come back in another day after I’ve had time to prepare for the procedure by way of Xanax.
“Can I take a Xanax or Valium before the biopsy?” I asked, wanting to know if it would somehow interfere with the procedure. You know, like when they tell you not to take aspirin before they cut into you.
“I can’t tell you whether or not to take Xanax,” she shot back. “This is your psychological barrier.”
She wasn’t getting it and I apparently wasn’t being very clear. It's hard to be clear while you're sweating and getting ready to pass out.
Eventually, I left with a reminder card in my hand to come back next Friday at 8:30am for my biopsy do-over.
As Scott and I walked hand and hand to the car, I regained my composure a bit. Then I thought about how many abuse survivors there are out in the world who have PTSD reactions like mine. And how many of them don’t go to the doctor or the dentist for that reason.
I’ll admit it’s been way too long since I’ve sat in the dentist’s chair. LIke the biopsy procedure, being confined, held down, or in a position where I can’t move freely in a dentist's chair feels like abuse and control all over again.
While I know this is MY trigger to heal, and I even know how I will likely have to go about rewiring the neuropathways of my brain to NOT react this way (aka, EMDR therapy), I also wonder just how different it would be if every doctor—no matter the field of practice—went through some sort of trauma-informed care training.
We don’t want to be defiant. We don’t want to drag appointments out. We actually want to do what we know we need to do.
Sometimes, we just can’t.
To my fellow survivors out there, you’re not alone. And I’m so sorry that this is part of your life. A part that shouldn’t be this hard.
To medical professionals, please, please understand we’re just having PTSD reactions. In most cases, we’re not judging you or defying your orders and recommendations. We actually like you, we believe in you, and we’ve researched the hell out of you before seeing you.
We’re simply a volcano of subconsciously stored pain and fear erupting (at the worst times) in your treatment chair.
A few weeks back, my friend Chris (who is an unstoppable force for LGBTQ equality) asked if I’d be a part of something called "The Human Library" in Sedona. It’s an event held in September that helps dissolve prejudices and stereotypes. Essentially, I’ll be a “human book” telling my story in about 15 minutes time, and then attendees can ask me questions for another 15. I’m honored to be part of this event surrounded by incredible human beings who, in most cases, have endured prejudice and unfair treatment far worse than anything I’ve ever endured.
For me, well, my topic is about gender inequality. Here’s my book cover description…
"As a self-taught carpenter and furniture designer, and the founder and CEO of an internationally-known furniture company, she faced gender discrimination on a weekly basis for fourteen years. Despite being told she was crazy to think a woman could do what she did, she built a furniture company out of her LA garage in 2007, won a deal on the TV show SHARK TANK in 2011, and grew her brand internationally through licensing partnerships. Now, at the age of 47, she’s fighting for her transgender daughter to ensure equal rights for all genders."
When I was crafting my book cover description, I thought back to my carpentry days and all of the sexist comments, the looks, the naysayers, the grossly inappropriate comments, and a few moments where I had to leave the room in order to not strangle someone. And then I realized that even now, during a time that I’m not as entrenched in the male-dominated furniture industry (aside from designing pieces for the Frank Lloyd Wright collection), I still continue be a target for men whose egos are larger than Texas.
Ironically, when I finally ousted a few king and queen narcissists from my personal life, the same damn type of person showed up in my work life. I thought I’d left behind the old boys’ network that is still at the helm of the furniture world. Turns out, they are in or around nonprofit work, too.
My husband, who is the antithesis of the men I’m describing, is one of the good ones who does all he can to fight for gender equality. He’s even gone to bat for a woman who was being sexually harassed by a top dog in the TV industry only to find himself kicked to the curb because he stood up for her. There are a few other good ones, too. But on the whole, over the last three years that I’ve been involved in nonprofit work, I’ve seen many wolves in sheep’s clothing. And let’s be honest—most of them are older white men. That’s been my experience, at least.
I’ve been told to calm down when I wasn’t doing anything but asking questions about a project this particular man needed done. For God's sake, I was helping him!
I’ve been retaliated against when I stood up and demanded to be paid for the work I’d done. (Apparently, this dude just expects everyone to do work for him for free.)
I’ve had to stand up to abuse while filming a speech only to be made a target again and again for expressing that I will not tolerate bullying.
One guy even asked a woman that I report to if she could handle me. First of all, that question is incredibly demeaning and degrading to both of us. I’ve never been someone who has needed to be "handled". I’ve always gone above and beyond to ensure our team succeeds, no matter where I'm working or volunteering. Now, think about this for a second…if you swapped out two men for the two women in this scenario, would he have asked the question in the first place? I think not. Who asks another man if they can handle a business colleague or direct report?!? No one.
I used to want to believe that what I endured while building the Mod Mom brand was mostly industry-related. That it was just the good old Southern boys running the show, ya know.
But it’s not. Despite the work of equal rights activists like Gloria Steinem and Malala Yousafzai, and all who came before and after them, gender inequality is everywhere.
Like the silent epidemic of childhood abuse, sexism and chauvinism are still happening at a rate I didn’t want to believe to be true.
How do we stop this, you ask?
You keep standing up.
You keep talking about gender inequality and sexism.
You keep shining a big freakin’ light on generational cycles of dysfunction and abuse that will only end when people are aware of what they’re handing down to their children.
But what do I know?!?
I’m just a woman who needs to be handled.
Friends, you have to read The Ghost Photographer. If you're a fan of wicked smart badass women, true tales of intuition and the afterlife, and touching memoirs about the human condition that bring tears to your eyes one minute and make you laugh the next, BUY THIS BOOK. Or, download the Audible file like I did.
I happened upon The Ghost Photographer while researching the publishing house called Atria. As you likely know by now, I don't believe in coincidences. Clearly, I was supposed to find Julie Rieger's incredible book about how she became a ghost photographer.
In a nutshell, Julie Rieger-- the award-winning former President, Chief Data Strategist, and Head of Media at 20th Century Fox in Hollywood—wrote a book about how and why she went from analytical skeptic to full-on believer in the afterlife (and much more). Her awakening began after her mom passed away from Alzheimer's disease. As Julie said in an interview with CBS News,"Grief creates chaos which allows us to shed our rigidity...our rigid belief systems. I happened to shed the skepticism, and that's what opened the door to The Other Side."
Now, I'm not going to give anything away, but I do want to say that I felt, at times, like I was reading my own journey. Chills raced up and down my body more times than I could count as I made my way through her memoir. I, too, was a skeptic with an analytical mind who, later in life, awakened to the world of spirit. Also, neither of us had a near death experience, like many do who suddenly start channeling spirit out of nowhere. And neither of us offer spiritual services (like mediumship) for a living—we both kept our day jobs. We simply do what we do for the people we love, and for those who are guided to us for one reason or another. And we talk about our journey because it is life changing in the best (and sometimes scariest) ways.
Not only does Julie share her incredible journey, but she also shares tips on how to capture photos of ghosts (and more), how to protect your space, how to clear your home of negative energy, how to utilize crystals for healing and protection, and how to talk to your guides/angels who are helping you live your best life. Or, in Julie's case, saving her from crashing her car on the freeway. (Okay, I did just give that away, but you'll have to read the book to find out what happened.)
If you're still deciding whether you believe in life after death, READ THIS BOOK. It's my new favorite memoir/how-to primer about discovering and trusting intuitive gifts. We all have those gifts, ya know. Even those of us who are wired to trust empirical data over gut feelings.
In Julie's case, and in my case, learning to trust our intuition changed our lives for the better.
Reading this phenomenal book just might change yours, too.
FIND JULIE AND/OR HER BOOK HERE:
Ah, April 1st. April Fools' Day.
This day is full of so many memories. Some are amazing, some are not so amazing. On April 1, 2011, Shark Tank aired my segment on ABC primetime. AMAZING! Then, on April 1, 2014, I flew down to North Carolina to be the spokesperson for Stanley Furniture's kids' line (Young America) and to sign the accompanying licensing deal only to find out they released to the press they were shutting down their Young America furniture line. They just didn't tell me. I learned about it when I stepped off the plane. There went my spokesperson job and my licensing deal that was projected at five million in sales for the first year. I was crushed at the time, but now I see it as a gift. The Frank Lloyd Wright deal (that never would have happened if I'd been with Stanley) began to take shape in April 2019 and launched officially on April 2, 2020.
Is April a big month for you? I definitely now see it as beginnings and endings for me. And this year, I'm seeing April as a huge period of change for so many loved ones in my life. I'm personally waiting to hear back from several publishers regarding a book deal, and I just found out my personal narrative made the finals (consideration for inclusion list) for a new book by Dr. Ramani Durvasula. On the sawdust side of my life, we're in the process of cranking out new prototypes for the Mod Mom/ Frank Lloyd Wright line of furniture. More to come on that!
Ironically, this morning, when I rolled over to check my phone and was reminded that it was April 1, I also saw a headline in my inbox that read: "Stanley Furniture suspends domestic operations." I did a double-take. For a split second, I thought I was back in 2014. But I'm not, and their news isn't an April Fools' joke. For me, it's a reminder that even the gut-wrenchingly hard let downs in our lives are simply just redirections to something better.
Here's to Spring beginnings and endings!
Link to my Shark Tank episode: modmomfurniture.com