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Surviving Shawshank: Personal reflections on life beyond narcissistic abuse

‘Who am i?

Am I Andy, or am I Red?’

‘Andy Dufresne – who crawled through a river of shit and came out clean on the other side.’ – Red

Last month saw the final end of my marriage.  For over 5 years I have fought to free myself from a person who continued her marital abuses of myself through a court system not designed to deal with such mistreatment and hatred.  The freedom though is not without consequences, and sitting with the shock that it is all over had me pondering questions like the one above.   

I knew I wanted to write something which signified the beginning of my journey back to life, but I wasn’t quite sure how to do so.  Representing one’s own journey, a black male heteronormative version of a very common experience, felt important not just for myself, but for others who hold echoes or experiences similar to my own.

The reason why I have made no secret of having endured domestic violence is because so many men fear speaking up and out about it, fears borne out of their internalisations of toxic masculinity and the patriarchal narratives which dictate that we should be strong, unemotional, and able to endure such treatment. 

Utilising Shawshank Redemption (Darabont, 1994) as a metaphor for this experience is an idea which came to me during one of my frequent sleepless nights.  The story of a man, Andy, who has been framed for a murder he did not commit, spends a good portion of his life, befriends a good number of people, but in particular Red who obtains a number of items for him, before some years later he finally escapes.  This is a story with many levels, two of which being the injustice of being incarcerated and abused within a system, and the second being the retention of faith in oneself and the belief in a better future. 

Yet, as I write this blog this month, as I exit through the gates of my own Shawshank, I ask myself a singular meaningful statement; who am I? 

One of the things I have always admired during our work together,

 is no matter how horrific things became,

you always carried yourself with dignity.’

‘I wish I could tell you Andy fought the good fight. I wish I could tell you that… But prison is no fairy tale world.’ – Red

The gradual dimming of ones light, of ones potential, richness, intelligence, brilliance, ability, in the face of almost consistent attacks is a factor of narcissistic abuse (Ponti et al., 2020).  That gradually blinking out of one’s fire to keep the peace, to allow the abuser to remain embedded within their belief they are superior.  The taking away of one’s voice, of one’s agency. 

As per the life lived in any prison, there is an institutionalisation that goes with living in an abusive environment I found.  Not that it is easier to remain than it is to leave, but that there is a fear of leaving as one doesn’t know what the outside world looks like beyond the abuse.  But that is the hook of an emotionally abuse relationship.  The often-covert message that there is nothing else out there, that there is no hope, that without said partner one won’t survive.  The attempts to destroy post separation were an attempted testimony towards that. 

For myself, there were times where, like the elderly character Brooks, the desire to die lay closer to the surface than I would have liked to have admitted.  The traumatised fear of receiving yet another letter of hate passed through solicitors, or those immediate moments post the reduced hours spent with my child when I missed her so tremendously, meant that the black dog of despair more often than not courted my attentions.  Jumping Beachy Head, weighed down as I walked in to the Channel, turning my car into a tree, all of these and many other sometimes fleeting sometimes not thoughts taunted my days as a means of ending such deep destructive pain. 

And yet, something kept me still here.  Was it my daughter?  Was it the work that I choose to do now for so many?  There is a definite yes to both of these.  But there is something about being institutionalised which also keeps one alive as well.  Something about being embedded within the systemic Shawshank of oppression which brings with it a comfort.  No, which holds at its core embers of hope. 

‘I guess it comes down to a simple choice, really. Get busy living or get busy dying.’ — Andy

‘It has been an horrendous time for you. 

An assault on many levels. 

It will take time to find your ground and get to know the man you will become.

For now, I would imagine it is about resting and healing.

Sending love’

‘Some birds aren’t meant to be caged. Their feathers are just too bright and when they fly away, the part of you that knows it was a sin to lock them up does rejoice, but still, the place you live in is that much more drab and empty now that they’re gone.’ – Red

As I begin though these earliest tentative steps on that Mandela-like long walk to freedom, I recall a quote from his book which has always stayed with me.  ‘I realized that they could take everything from me except my mind and my heart. They could not take those things. Those things I still had control over. And I decided not to give them away.’ (Mandela, 1994).

Narcissistic abuse is a strange thing to be on the receiving end of.  It is hateful, it is insidious, it is a gradual seductive creep down into the sewers of a Stephen King novel to be demeaned and distorted, devoured and destroyed.  Yet, recovery, for me at this stage, involves the slow gradual waking up out of the labyrinthine darkness of a relationship built to dominate and co-opt one’s own spirit.  The rediscovery of aspects of who I am, and the development of separate and new sidebars, continues to be a fascinating journey in seeing me again and meeting me for the first time.   This journey, together with the shedding of the projective cloak of self-othering, feels quite embodied.  Weight slides off, I feel energetically lighter, I can see more clearly now I’m not drenched in the storm of another’s darkness. 

‘I am both.

I am hope and I am resignation.

I am the longing gaze towards the future, and I am wary glances back at the past.

I am both the dignified perseverance of Andy, and the tear welling future facing fear of Red.

I am both.’

References

Darabont, F (1994) The Shawshank Redemption. Warner Bros

Mandela, N. (1994). Long Walk To Freedom. Abacus Publishing.

Ponti, L., Ghinassi, S., & Tani, F. (2020). The Role of Vulnerable and Grandiose Narcissism in Psychological Perpetrated Abuse Within Couple Relationships: The Mediating Role of Romantic Jealousy. Journal of Psychology: Interdisciplinary and Applied, 154(2), 144–158. https://doi.org/10.1080/00223980.2019.1679069