Claire, my ex-wife, got a kick from being miserable. It was her thing. She was addicted to conflict. If everything was going alright, then she wasn’t. I’d lived that way for years. At first – before I really knew her – I really did think it was all me. If only I did jump that bit higher, move that bit faster, manage to actually move the house that bit to the left… then life really would have, could have been alright and normal. But after years of attrition, I realised the hard way, that the game wasn’t about outcomes. It was about the process… the process of anguish, and grief, and trauma and drama and the rest. Problems and issues were not therefore there to be solved but to be endured, to be wallowed in and exploited.
Victim identity was something Claire knew all too well. Everything in life was hers to do and do alone. All the weight of family life was hers to bear. At work she was always playing second fiddle to someone less intelligent, less diligent, less able and capable of performing the job she was tasked with doing. As no matter what roll she had, she was determined never to reach out and be the boss, instead preferring to be the long-suffering worker ant, foraging away, and producing the magic. The problem with this self-defined narrative was that nothing could be challenged. Nothing was up for grabs. Like trying to discuss her mental health… ‘gaslighting’ would be the cry, the final word and edict. Nothing could go beyond it.
Claire then, was the ultimate circular arguer. You could sit all night in a yelling match about whether or not the room was in fact round, and just when you thought she’d conceded its spherical properties, she’d then tell you to ‘go sit in the corner.’
Problem was I’d been here before with my previous fiancé, Gisele with one ‘L.’ An American, self-described complex intellectual and a victim of her own beauty. Like Claire she also needed control. She too needed to control the world around her and the people within it, especially her partners. Gisele had an eating disorder. She had a pathological relationship with food. Anorexia is not about vanity, but about control. In that it’s the one thing a person can truly own. Gisele would spend all night cooking a platter of delights for her whole family only to sit there and watch it get scoffed, never so much as putting a morsel to her mouth. But she was high. Totally and completely high as a kite. She simply got off on denying herself the nutrition.
Gisele was finally diagnosed with Borderline Personality Disorder. When she told me, she was elated! Like this diagnosis was an excuse… a licence to be horrible to me. At first, I didn’t think it was all that bad. I mean borderline what? Until I read up on it and saw that it’s borderline between psychosis and neurosis, in that she had traits of both psychiatric pathologies, but was also completely self-aware, thus dangerous and often untreatable. …As with her acute and consistent fear of abandonment, she not only tried to control who I saw and spoke to, but even my thoughts. She, like Claire, was in effect totalitarian, utterly dominating and paralysed by her mistrust of me.
Like Claire, Gisele lost her father early. The Gisele family having never got over it. Christmas time was spent watching reruns of family holidays. Her graduation dinner had a space for him at the table, while most conversations at home involved him. In essence, Gisele and her family lived in a necrocracy, where like North Korea and the long since dead Kim Il-sung – who in fact is still the supreme leader – the masses are made to mourn a man who they never knew, and certainly never liked. In short, made to love a dead man who they must also fear!
Like a Christian to Jesus Christ, I fell in love with two women who I had also opted to be fearful of. Think about it then… to both love and fear the same person. It’s ‘S and M,’ Sadomasochism in its simplest form. And thus, that’s what was in it for me!
Of course, it all stemmed from my youth. My youth spent with my diplomatic stepfather, as we clearly recreate in adulthood what we have learnt as kids. The problem then with Antonio was that he was capricious; capricious and cruel. He never beat me, ever. But what he did in some ways was worse. He was a psychological tormentor. He used brains instead of brawn in a constant effort to disassociate me from the family unit. He used reason against sophomoric reaction. He calculated what would hurt me and employed it with ruthlessness. He encouraged one action one day then scolded me for it the next. His houses were like museums, my childhood trappings consolidated to a cupboard in an up the stairs guest bedroom, a room which I was never allowed to personalise. …The ground floor giving nothing away that a child ever lived there. No pictures or toys as a child nor garbs as an adolescent, could ever be spotted. And his things were like mines, should I ever go near them. Of course, I’d make excuses for him to my friends; excuses for his weirdness. Like a battered spouse justifying their abuse to their circle. But in the end, people start figuring stuff out. And by then, it’s often too late. With Antonio, this vendetta lasted a small child’s lifetime.
So now as an adult I need to be on the back foot. If Claire was addicted to conflict, then I am addicted to imbalance. I crave uncertainty in love and affection and run from women who truly care for me, preferring the company of ladies who I can’t quite work out. And that’s where both Gisele and Claire were perfect, as caught in a pattern of acceptance and rejection, often both in a single day… I played out what was normal to me. I was home!
EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW WITH JOHN BUCHANAN-NICOL
We speak with author and coercive relationships survivor John Buchanan-Nicol about his new memoir, Janus, and about his experiences, insights and advice about controlling partners.
Q. How would you best define a coercive, controlling relationship?
A. For a victim, it’s the complete and total loss of self. It’s a hell. A living hell devoid of agency or choice. A place, a space even, where everything you once loved and valued has been taken away: friends, family, finances, travel, freedom of movement … the lot. And all at the hand of another, a dominator who seeks to exercise their power over you, so much that you are in effect a prisoner, a captive where the bars are constraints in your mind, constructed at the behest of a captor. That person being, in effect, totalitarian, convicting you of not just your actions—past, present, and future—but of your thoughts. Nowhere else then, other than monotheism, North Korea, and the institution of coercion and control, can the arm of ‘the law,’ reach into the deepest recesses of what makes you ‘you’, and there, with a free hand, attempt to rewire you, reprogram you, rework you—and all with a benevolence, that somehow this pathology is for your own good … a restriction thereof founded in love. It is, therefore, indeed a living hell, devoid of human affinity, empathy and sympathy, and whose entrance is often down a rabbit hole that can, initially, in keeping with all ‘good’ groomers, appear seductive.
Q. What would your key piece of advice be to escape such controlling relationships?
A. Control of others is as old as time itself and the scourge of this world we live in. Working both at the micro and macro levels, it grows like a cancer through our economic, spiritual, political, cultural, sexual, and social lives. Wherever the ‘thought police’ live, coercion is their currency.
All meaningful change then, as hard as it often is, can only come through rebellion. And that resistance can only start when you, the victim, choose to value yourself. Whether it’s a religion telling you that you’re not worthy; a government saying that you’re too stupid to be responsible for your own affairs; a society even, saying that your natural self is immoral or corrupt—or, indeed, a partner seeking to beat you into submission—dominance and, thus, coercion can only work if you are sufficiently devalued from the start, and your worthlessness continuously reinforced for all time thereof.
Q. People in controlling relationships may not want to leave them. Why do you think this is, and why is it important that they do break free?
A. Our destinations might all be the same, but our route maps are unique. Personally, I never wanted to leave because it was something I was always looking for. In the deepest recesses of my mind, I wanted to replicate in adulthood the repression I’d suffered as a child. Besides, there is a comfort in certainty. That although life is hard, and as tough as it gets, living with the dear leader, that one-party state, that total authority thereof, will remove the volatility from your life. That they, in effect, will always take care of you … partner, church or state no difference, and that therefore you, the immature underling, should accept your lot because you’ve been groomed—groomed, and conditioned into a headspace of worthlessness. That is after all, the totalitarian way … yes, totalitarian. The desired outcome even being in the word itself, the first five letters no less, as ‘total.’ In a way, a coercive relationship is no different to a cult, albeit a cult of the personality, as there’s a simple sophomore comfort in the infallibility of that one person, leader, character who controls you. A persona, an effigy even, which any despot worth their salts must master and project, if they want to stay in business.
Q. Having been involved in multiple coercive relationships, what are the biggest challenges to escaping?
A. It would be a misunderstanding, a cliché and a stretch to say that emancipation is all in the hands of you, the victim. It would be a disservice, then, to all those who suffer at the hands of another to say that if only you jumped that bit higher, moved that bit faster, gained the resolve to extricate yourself from your shame and shackles, that somehow life could be, would be better. The route, then, to true freedom is like life itself: often with two steps forward and three taken back. It is like a capsized ship, where up is down and left is right … meaning that liberation can be both as simple or as complex as the myriad of reasons which landed you where you are to start with. While all the time, life’s many competing commitments will continue to weigh on you, sinking your balloon, rendering redundant your capacity to throw out any more sandbags; as kids, cash, substance abuse, or indeed a clash of ideals, norms and cultures, all plummet you to rock bottom. In the end then, real escape is less of a jail beak, during the night while the guards are sleeping, and more of an unravelling, starting with an understanding of coercion itself and what’s in it for you.
Q. Your new book, Janus, is a memoir of a coercive relationship survivor. Why did you decide to share your own story?
A. Ask any sculptor and they’ll tell you that they simply scrape off the clay to reveal the art which already lies underneath. For me, my story is a saga which is well trodden, yet little understood. But is already there … existing, living even, and being endured by thousands, if not millions across the globe. Coercion, in short, respects no boundaries of class or culture and carries no passport. It’s enough, then, that just one person shares an affinity with my works, and makes a connection, and so feels just that little bit less alone in their stigma—alone yes, but no longer in isolation—and I’ll consider my efforts a complete success.
Q. What brought you to the realisation that you had to escape this relationship?
A. Hitting rock bottom wasn’t enough for me, as I simply adapted. I self-medicated through alcohol and withdrew from the world in an almost prophetic acceptance that this was my lot. Even the anger I once felt towards my captor started to focus inwards, which as I now know is also termed as ‘depression’. I’d spend hours then, ruminating, castigating and chastising myself for having got into such a position in the first place … a worthless position in a worthless place. A feeling which was continuously reinforced, constantly cemented even, by my totalitarian leader. In the end, I was released. Dumped if you like, back into the world … my utility no longer of value to her.
Q. You have pursued controlling relationships across your adult life. What keeps drawing you towards partners who are clearly not suited to you?
A. It stems from my youth spent with my stepfather. I’ve clearly recreated in adulthood what I learnt as a child, as he was both capricious and cruel. He didn’t hit me, preferring to use brains instead of brawn to try and separate me from any sense of family bond or love. I would, then, describe him as a psychological tormentor, using a formidable intellect to calculate what would strike hard, and pursue it ruthlessly. I was constantly kept off-balance this way, with him encouraging something one day and then censuring me for it the next. He was an ambassador so we moved between houses, but wherever we were, the house had to be, essentially, devoid of any sign that a child lived there, even upstairs in the private living area. As you can imagine, it wasn’t a happy childhood and the never-ending uncertainty and gaslighting has caused significant damage, psychologically. In my adult life, I have exclusively sought out relationships that replicate the same sense of imbalance because, to me, that is ‘normal’.
Q. What do you hope people will gain from reading your memoir, Janus?
A. In short, something or everything. A snippet of affinity with my position, or a complete recognition of their own lives in my story. Either/or, or anything in between, would make my endeavours a complete success. Coercion is by its very nature a clandestine affair. Sure, friends and family will notice your absence, but soon you’ll be cut loose and left at the hands of the dear leader, the perpetrator of your gradual destruction. And there, alone and at their mercy, you’ll be abused. I mean that’s what this is after all … abuse! Janus is then, for me anyway, both a memoir of my life, told in as much of an uplifting way as possible for such a dark subject, but also a road map. A guide out of very difficult predicament. Again, if I can help just one person make that break, then it will have been worth it!
Janus by John Buchanan-Nicol is out now in eBook and audiobook formats, priced £3.99 and £4.99 respectively. The eBook edition can be purchased from Amazon, and Barnes & Noble, while the audiobook version is available on Audible, Apple Books, and Kobo. You can hear an 11-minute sample of Janus, narrated by Steve Worsley, here.