Water torture encompasses a variety of techniques using water to inflict physical or psychological harm on a victim as a form of torture or execution
I’d like to start this post by pointing out the term “Chinese water torture” is racist and nonsensical actually. When this torture technique has been used, it has been mainly by Europeans and there’s no recorded instances of the Chinese ever having used it.
Ok, onward and upward.
There’s this book by Lundy Bancroft I bought years ago titled “Why Does He Do That?” It’s about abusive partners and the many myths that surround our ideas of abuse. He’s a counselor that works with abusive men who either want to change or have been forced by the courts to undergo counseling. We often say abusive men need to learn to manage their anger but Bancroft argues that abuse isn’t an issue of out of control anger. Rather, it is a systemic, deliberate process used to control for the benefit of the abuser. They don’t need to learn to control themselves; they need to learn to stop controlling their partner (and everyone else in their lives they’re controlling).
In the book, he details ten different categories of abusers. The one I am going to talk (err-write) about today is the Water Torturer.
We’re all familiar with the idea of water torture. Not the waterboarding done by the US government. Rather, this idea of tying someone down and dripping water down onto their forehead slowly, drip by drip. The drops come randomly and it induces a psychological breakdown.
Lundy uses this as a metaphor for the kind of abuser who doesn’t yell or hit. He is always calm and appears to the outside world to be a great guy. He rarely slips up and lets anyone see what he’s really like. He knows how to push his partner’s buttons and get *her* to scream and get emotional. Then he says “why are you getting so worked up?” “you really need to work on your mental health problems” “stop abusing me.” He doesn’t punch or kick but he engages in subtle physical abuse such as blocking her from leaving the room or following her around the house arguing when she tries to get away. He doesn’t engage in blatant sexual abuse such as rape but rather makes degrading comments about her sexual interests, her appearance or withholds sex. He makes extensive use of sarcasm, put downs, controlling where she goes, controlling money, undermining her sense of self worth, isolating her from friends and family, badmouthing her to other people and gaslighting. Lots and lots of gaslighting.
Because you see, like Harry Houdini who helped popularize the idea of water torture, he depends upon an illusion to keep her with him. He depends on creating distractions so neither she nor the outside world can see what he really is and what he’s really doing.
The good news, friends, is that you don’t have to remain strapped down to that table. The damage done by this abuse is extensive, but most definitely something you can heal from.
You just have to keep in mind the Wizard of Oz is not real and keep your eyes on the little man behind the curtain. It’s hard to do, but you’re a badass so you got this.
I see this a lot in my practice. I have women who come in with black eyes and broken ribs, but more often they come in telling me stories of emotional abuse like this. They’ve been so worn down by it, like a pebble in a stream that becomes small and smooth over time from the water flowing over it. They are too tired and broken to leave. And they’re in love. And they’re addicted to the chemicals our brains grow to crave when we’ve been in toxic, tumultuous relationships for so long.
The University of Illinois did some research and noticed there are 5 stages to leaving an abusive relationship. The first two stages encompass the very beginning of the abused partner noticing there is something very wrong, something that goes beyond normal relationship issues. She’s nowhere close to leaving, but the spell has started to wear off. Stage three, women start to notice the effect of the abuse on their children. They start viewing the abuser’s behavior as abuse on a regular basis. And they start preparing to leave. Maybe they tell a friend what’s going on. Start stashing away cash in case they need to run. Call a domestic violence line. Stage four is an interesting one.
Stage four is the yo yo stage. You leave but then you come back. You might end up yo yo-ing several times before you truly leave. Why? Because he says he’ll change. Because being on your own is hard, financially, logistically (with kids), emotionally. Because he gets other people to guilt trip you. Because he won’t “give up on you.” Because you’re addicted to the brain chemicals. Because this dynamic is comfortable to you. Because you love him.
Stage five is the final one. You have left and you have stayed away and aren’t going back. The researchers define this as having left and stayed away 6 months or more. The abuse can continue if there are children involved and you are forced to have continue contact with your abuser, but it’s much less than before and you can begin to heal and move on.
It’s hard as doctor to have patients in those first four stages. Hard for friends and family too. But you can’t skip stages and you can’t rush someone through them. They have to make the choice to leave and stay left. You can support them by listening without judgement and validating their feelings. If you’re a friend or family, offering help with kids and other logistics can help too. And if they yo yo back, be there for them. They may be afraid to tell you. They may avoid you. Don’t give up on them. The abuser will likely make even greater attempts to isolate his partner if she goes back, so stay in her life whatever way you safely can and let her know you’re there is she ever needs you.
A lot of doctors shy away from dealing with the issue of intimate partner violence because they find it so frustrating to have a patient that won’t leave or who goes back. There are a lot of reasons women stay or return. And the sad reality is, sometimes it’s safer or necessary for her to stay. Being there to keep her as safe and supported as possible is hard, but it can be life changing for her. If you abandon her because she won’t leave, you’re just continuing the patten of the abuser, seeking to control her.
The longer you stay, the harder it is to leave. So, if you’re in a relationship with a water torturer, don’t put off considering leaving. A lot of times the reasons we come up with to stay aren’t as convincing if we discuss them with someone outside the relationship like a therapist, domestic help line or friend. Once you’re down in his world of gaslighting, isolation and control, your sense of reality is skewed. You need someone who isn’t riding that Tilt-A-Whirl.
Once you are out, the healing is not necessarily the most fun process. It’s kind of like when someone is getting over opiate addiction. There’s a lot they need to dig out from. A lot of pain and sadness and the practical part of rebuilding your life. But there’s also joy. And as the months pass, there is less and less pain and more and more joy. And you will look back and say, how did I do that all those years? How did I survive? And you’ll see what a badass you are. And that there are far better things at the carnival than the broken Tilt-A-Whirl. And you and your kids will eat cotton candy and laugh and sleep soundly at the end of the day cozy in your warm, safe beds.