My true-crime addiction helped me move on from an abusive relationship

Suzanne Morris
Photo credit: Netflix - Getty Images

From Digital Spy

Each year as part of Mental Health Awareness Week, Digital Spy writers share their experiences of how entertainment can be part of the conversation around mental illness.

I have an insatiable appetite for true crime. The definition of a binger, I'll usually swallow the latest documentary or podcast all in one go.

I always thought that my interest was based on innocent intrigue, in line with the general trend that's seen true-crime shows explode into the mainstream. That was, until I came across a Cosmopolitan article entitled: 'How true crime helped me heal after an abusive relationship.'

These were not dots that I had never joined myself, but it did throw some of my own truths into stark perspective. It made me reflect on when my interest in true crime really started, what I actually get out of it as a viewer and how this has all fed into my mental health.

A big true-crime show had just dropped and it seemed to be all anyone was talking about. Before I knew it, it was 3am and I was six episodes deep. The show had ignited a passion and I found myself working my way down a checklist of other documentaries within the same genre. With hindsight, this happened just after the breakdown of an abusive relationship and at a time when I was really struggling mentally.

Unlike many true-crime fans, I have very little interest in the actual crimes themselves. I hate to see crime-scene photographs and have been known to skip past the more graphic details. Instead my interest is really piqued when it comes down to the psychology of the person who has committed the act.

I am driven by the question of what compels them to inflict pain and destruction on another person. Is this something that is instinctive and within their make-up, or something that is the result of their own experiences?

It should go without saying that, while I feel empathy, I don't seek to relate to the victims featured in true-crime documentaries. They are, more often than not, subject to unimaginably abhorrent acts, resulting in their lives being cut short.

Having said that, true crime usually follows a common format: a woman has suffered some form of aggression at the hands of a man. It also cannot be overlooked that, on average, two women are killed per week by a current or former partner in England and Wales (as per a 2016 government report, via Refuge).

Could I be trying to understand these men – who are at the most extreme end of the spectrum when it comes to perpetrating abusive and degrading behaviour – in order to shine some perspective on my own life? Am I trying to work out why?

Shows like Mindhunter (not true crime per se, but based on real events) and The Ted Bundy Tapes have dived into some of these themes. But now I've realised that there will probably never be a definitive answer that will satisfy me.

Photo credit: Patrick Harbron/Netflix

I spoke to Lou Lebentz, a UKCP registered therapist who specialises in trauma, to help understand the possible relationship between this genre of television and past abuse.

Lebentz introduced the concept of "trauma repetition", which could explain where my true-crime habits stem from.

"Anything traumatic that happens in our lives, or that's significant, we have a memory of and quite often a bodily memory of," she said. "And most of the time we are seeking to release or resolve that original wounding or trauma. So there are many different types of repetition or re-enactments that we get into... to try and resolve that original incident."

Lebentz also explained that true crime could have been allowing me to go back and "try and repair that original trauma".

It's been years since I was in that toxic relationship. I was kept there not by physical walls, but in the psychological ones that had been constructed by my former partner.

When we first met he was both charming and protective. I've since learned that there were a lot of early red flags, but by the time his mask slipped I was so deep into it that I was convinced it was my fault he had started to behave differently. Rather than calling him out for his treatment of me, I'd do everything I could to try and get him back to the person I had first met. It was an exhausting and harmful cycle, one that went on for way too long.

For much of the relationship I was in a constant state of anxiety, walking on eggshells and never knowing what I might say or do that would set him off. Something as simple as my outfit being too revealing, not doing what he wanted or my daring to question him too much, would result in days if not weeks of isolation, vitriol or worse. Once he had decided the lesson had been learned, he'd become that charming man once again.

"If there are cycles of abuse [in a relationship] where we intermittently get reinforced with reward and punishment – one minute they're loving and kind and amazing, and the next minute they're punishing you or abusive – it creates a powerful, emotional bond," Lebentz said, referencing the concept of "trauma bonding".

This bond, she said, can be "very resistant to change" and hard to let go of. As well as explaining why it can be difficult to walk away from relationships of this nature, this also offers insight into the process of recovery once that leap has been taken.

Months after I eventually ended things with him, I moved into a flat of my own. A fresh start, I thought. How naive. I felt broken and like I was unravelling. Even though I didn't really understand what was happening to me at the time, I now see that I had started to unpick his hold over me and to process everything that had gone on. Away from his influence, I was starting to see things clearly for the first time.

I'd become so accustomed to the anxious knot in my stomach that it remained, despite his absence. Now in my own space, I became irrationally obsessive over things that were completely illogical. Did I turn the oven off? Had I left the water running? Is the front door locked? I'd check over everything dozens of times before going out, and even then extreme thoughts about fires or floods would later take over my brain.

I eventually sought counselling from a women's charity. Among many other things, this helped me come to the realisation that I was subconsciously transferring those ingrained feelings of anxiety on to something else. I'd spent so long being constantly on edge that it had become a habit, so I'd inadvertently found something else to focus that worry on.

I'd also get waves of sheer panic over other things that would be considered normal or completely non-threatening. I had to reason with myself that these situations were completely different from the environment I had been in before, but the raw feeling of panic they could trigger within me felt the same.

Dalia Spektor, PhD, a licensed clinical psychologist, told the author of that Cosmopolitan article that the watching of true crime fits with the long-theorised idea that trauma survivors are "biologically compelled to reenact the trauma in order to heal" and that by doing so they can "work through all of those feelings" and re-establish a "sense of control and mastery over the trauma".

Perhaps I was allowing myself to revisit some of those feelings while in the safety of my Netflix set-up. But having explored all of this, is it healthy for me – or anyone else in a similar position – to continue to feed that desire for true crime?

Photo credit: Netflix

"If you're watching it and it's creating distress... flashbacks or bodily emotions that are uncomfortable or there's any [element of] feeling worse, then I would cease watching it and go and seek therapy," Lebentz advised.

"If you're in control over it, and it's giving you relief... then I would carry on watching it."

I have had a lot of counselling and feel I've come out of that dark place. While I still have periods of anxiety and can get a little stuck in my own head sometimes, I can mostly recognise the perceived cause and have found ways to manage it.

I would also say that I have a healthy relationship with true crime now – even if I do have to pepper it with some lighthearted escapism every now and then to give myself a break.

Readers who are affected by the issues raised in this story are encouraged to contact Refuge (www.refuge.org.uk) or Women’s Aid (www.womensaid.org.uk). Both charities run the 24-hour, freephone National Domestic Violence Helpline, 0808 2000 247. The US National Domestic Violence Hotline is 1-800-799-SAFE (7233).

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