Content note: this post discusses coercive behaviour and domestic abuse.
I don’t know anything about conservatorship. This post isn’t about that. And it’s not about mental health and legal rights. It is about Britney Spears apologising for pretending to be OK.
There is a lot of dialogue about how female-passing people are forced not to show certain emotions, be unreactive, and generally suffer in order to get by. However, I was caught by the amount of times she apologised or talked herself down in advocated for many of her human rights to be restored to her. Like most people, I am angry and hope she is “freed”, but I am also grieving for her because I know what it’s like to doubt everything you think you know about yourself and how long it can take to realise how bad things are.
I have been in several abusive relationships with impacts on my emotional, psychological, and physical wellbeing that I am still untangling. Here’s an example. Readers who know me will be aware that I am neurodivergent. One of the manifestations of that is that I put things down when I am distracted and lose things in my house. One of my former partners used this to move my contraceptive pill around, claiming I’d “lost it” when I’d been moving around. They did this maybe once or twice a month for almost two years before we stopped living together. Now, when I have to do something every day, I have reminders and I keep the necessary things in place the whole time. When I travel, I know what the different bags in my case signify and I set reminders to check that one make-up bag has all my chargers in, and another my meds etc. My disorder is internal but I manage it very successfully. This person took risks with my health and then exploited my disability to make me think that I was being chaotic when struggling with insomnia.
I have dozens of stories like this where I didn’t know things were wrong until they were taken “too far”. When a partner was travelling, I started weightlifting. I LOVED it. I felt empowered and honestly found myself in my body for the first and only time. When the partner returned, they were not used to my new fitness, my new strength, my new confidence, or how my body had changed. Instead of adjusting, they wanted me to let go of those things. They booked things to clash with gym classes. They started “forgetting” to buy certain foods and replacing them with other things. They would only be happy if I went out in clothes they were familiar with. And here’s the thing… I didn’t notice.
You cannot imagine my shock when I discovered that my gym membership had magically cancelled itself and my account had been locked out. (Google autofill is not always your friend.) The people at the gym were nonplussed and said I’d put in a request to have my data removed. The account was there so they reinstated it but I spent several days wondering: had I done this when I was sleepwalking? Was my card info wrong? When did I change the password? And then, I mentioned it. As you do. And was reminded that I’d said I wanted to change gyms (true) so I must have just done it “sometime”. And that was when I knew. Online forms stress me out because of inaccessible layout and the room for typos/nightmare proof reading. I almost never do life admin on a whim because I make mistakes when I am not focused. However, this partner never believed in my neurodivergences because theirs were (to them) more severe. Eventually, I found the email in my sent folder and I knew immediately that I hadn’t sent it.
That was the first of many similar realisations across the next few weeks. It was also the time that I started to talk to other people about some of things I thought were happening. I’d been in this cycle of behaviour for years.
I realised about the contraception about two years later when I’d lost something and my friend said to me: “You always know where things are unless you’ve been distracted.” And it’s true. Interestingly, my current partner is a Tidy Person. I thought I was before but now I know that I am, actually, a Clean Person. And in the short time we’ve lived together, we have navigated how to support his mental wellbeing by keeping things fairly neat without him moving my stuff because it disorients me and I panic. We have had lots of 15 second conversations where we figure out systems. No stress. Just a quick check-in and on we move. He hates stuff on the sides so he stacks the dishwasher and puts it on. I empty it and he knows that if I forget, it’s not wilful. I just forget things that I can’t see. Therefore, he leaves the door open as a gentle reminder.
Seeing all the takes on Spears’s current circumstances, I’ve been thinking a lot about how people in controlling relationships amplify their complicity in these circumstances. Example from Hannah’s vault of bad memories: a partner and I had shared finances because I am better with money and therefore, I was wrong for not offering more financial assistance when they started stealing money from me. It took me a long time to realise that wanting to share and choosing to share with a loved one is not the same as the loved one taking from you. Similarly, I have (just recently) had to get out of the habit of asking permission to wear make-up or to go out in workout gear. I’d internalised this inappropriate practice and it confused the hell out of my current partner. Because I learned to ask my abuser’s opinion about things they had no business taking decisions about, I made myself feel partially responsible for receiving their orders.
Coming out of these situations, you have to name and build boundaries before you scratch the surface of the ones that have been broken. You have to ramble and guess and panic and hope that you are locating the things you need before you understand what you are trying to heal from. It’s terrifying and it’s risky. It’s also mistake-ridden.
I knew that I had lost any sense of bodily autonomy through the different abuses I have been through (via multiple partners). I’m only now starting to appreciate how I have manifested that lack of sense in the way I have lived since.
I don’t know if this post will help anyone but hopefully, it will tell or remind a survivor or person reclaiming their sense of self that it is possible to be safe. It is possible to be loved while you are healing. It is possible to argue without emotional abuse. It is possible to notice a new pain long after you were hurt and I believe it is possible to heal from these things.
I hope that Britney Spears is allowed to heal, that she is given autonomy to decide what she wants from her life, and that anyone who finds themselves trapped is able to find their way out in a manner that helps them move on. I feel like I’ve only really began to know myself (and not the person I thought I should be) several years on from my experiences. It’s really hard, I’ve made so many mistakes, and still, I continue to be filled with joy that I made those mistakes (and many more affirming choices) for myself. I still apologise for existing but it happens less and less and the people around me are able to tell me when I do it without it feeling like yet another rebuke. I want the Britney Spears I invested in as a small person to be able to say “I make my own choices and I’m glad to be alive” too.