How to spot a psychopath

For years Maddy Anholt ignored her partner’s womanising, uncontrolled rages and sexual violence, still believing that he loved her. Then she realised the terrible truth…

It was always the same: I’d see a broken man and I’d want him. ‘A new project!’ I’d squeal, as Lady Gut Instinct shook her head and rolled her eyes. I thought that was my ‘thing’: that my role was to fix these lost souls; I was the Mother Teresa of unhealthy relationships. This cycle persisted from the age of 18 to 30. My disillusion grew with every relationship but I was convinced I had to be in one as I was so terrified of being alone. Each destructive partnership intensified in terms of control. First, there was Ollie, who made me share my diary with him after just three weeks. Then Shiv, who used money to control me, knowing I was in debt, and invoiced me for ‘expenses’ I’d incurred after we broke up. But the four years I spent with Damien nearly broke me.

how to spot a psychopath
Sarah J Coleman

We met at a networking event in an East London bar. He was tall with fiery red hair, and there was just something about him. Four hours passed in a blur:I was completely and utterly disarmed by his charisma. I focused on nothing else that night: there was no one more interesting, electrifying or captivating than him. We quickly tumbled into a relationship. ‘I’m infatuated. I’ve been waiting for someone like you. I see our whole future together,’ he said after two weeks of dating. It was magical. I felt so lucky. I couldn’t believe Damien had chosen me and I did my utmost to show him gratitude and prove I was everything he had been looking for. Every act – cooking, cleaning, being at his beck and call, doing everything he wanted sexually– was rewarded with recognition, love, company and affection.

Slowly, however, he began to get bored. After only a few months, we barely went anywhere together. Next came the other women: I had to stop following him on social media because his exchanges were so brazenly flirtatious. A year into our relationship, Damien presented me with tickets to a music festival. I prayed this was ‘proof’ that he wanted to be with me. But when we arrived, a tiny, pretty woman approached. Damien said Eve was a colleague, but then kissed her dangerously close to her mouth. He was irritated when I had the audacity to introduce myself. Months later, when her name came up on his phone, he shot me a ‘don’t you dare’ look and took the call in another room.

Very quickly into our relationship, I normalised his womanising behaviour, his sporadic temper, his micro- and macro-aggressions. When I made a special anniversary meal, Damien was so furious he punched a wall. He said I had cooked to show him up because he’d forgotten the date. At a New Year’s Eve party, he raged at me for posting a joke picture on Instagram of me kissing a tree with the caption: ‘Branching out for a New Year’s snog. #shouldhaveputaringonit’. I ‘embarrassed’ him at ‘every opportunity’ and couldn’t see how ‘entitled’ I was, ‘brought up in a silver-spoon place, no clue about the real world’. I was ‘a spoilt brat’. One time, when he’d been away for work, my crime was unpacking and washing his clothes. He backed me into a wall: ‘Why did you go into my bag? I’m a grown f***ing man. Perhaps I’ll break your f***ing jaw, then you’ll learn some respect for me.’

Damien shamed me for any emotional reaction to his behaviour. He would store away occurrences when I had spoken out, reacted sensitively or, god forbid, talked back. These would be used to discount future occasions where his actions were being called into question; he often twisted his account of events, making it hard for me to recall the real version: ‘You’re always overreacting and fabricating stories in your head. You need to sort out your paranoia’.

* * * * *

Thinking we needed to get away, I booked a holiday. He was apathetic about the idea; angry about the early start; and irritable when we arrived and stood in the 11am sun. I smiled and held his hand. He gritted his teeth, plucked his hand from mine and said nothing. There was a familiar squeeze of anxiety in my stomach. I looked at the couple behind us; the woman jokingly pulling her partner’s cap over his eyes as he laughed. Why weren’t we like that?

His fury intensified when he realised the coach journey was longer than anticipated. That was it. His entire disposition changed. He had a vacant yet needling stare. Tears ran down my cheeks, but Damien hated it when I cried – he thought I was putting it on – so I turned my face away to be sure he couldn’t see me. He brought up this ‘incident’ continually over the holiday and the following weeks.

Damien was smart. He never hit me, and if he was incensed when I was with him he never shouted so someone else could hear. He wouldn’t even vent his fury in a text message or email; I assume a foresight in case I ever showed anyone. That would make him look bad and why would he want that? No, he only ever used direct, hushed rage.

* * * * *

Things got worse. Damien was always busy – but not with me. He was increasingly superglued to his phone and would hide it when I walked in the room. Whenever he was even a few centimetres away from it, he would turn it face down. I asked him a few times what he was doing and would get the angry reply, ‘Jeez, you’re so paranoid’.

Damien always said he was working late. Deep down, I knew he was cheating, but I succumbed to the gaslighting and blamed myself for being unreasonably suspicious and overly jealous. He enjoyed keeping me awake to suit him. ‘I’ll be back in an hour’ he would text. If I was too exhausted to get up and make myself look presentable, I was reprimanded: ‘I always make an effort to see you, but you never bother. What’s the point?’ When I suggested we could find time at the weekends to spend together rather than midnight on a weeknight, I’d get snippy responses like: ‘Here we are again, everything on your clock.’ When he finally turned up, he’d watch TV and I had to sit beside him to keep him company like a dutiful dog.

Three years into the relationship, I was broken. I’d lost myself entirely. The weight had fallen off me – three stone in under six months – so much so, my periods stopped. My arms were scarred with psoriasis. I barely spoke to family and friends. I was addicted to a man who was poisoning me from the inside. I wanted Damien to want me like he did in our first few months together. I wanted him to want me like he wanted all the other women. I could offer him something they couldn’t and that was true, devoted, no-holds-barred love. Little did I know, this wasn’t what he desired at all. He wanted a steady stream of ‘fresh’ obsessions.

how to spot a psychopath
Sarah J Coleman

One night, we went for drinks before his work night out which I wasn’t invited to. I was thrilled just to be with him, when three gorgeous women joined us. He didn’t introduce us, winced when I said I was his girlfriend (I wasn’t allowed to do that) – then left with them. I trawled his social media for proof of his cheating, hoping this would give me the impetus to finally leave. I found it. A photo. Her grinning inanely, him, arm wrapped tightly around, underneath her breast, planting a kiss. He didn’t come home that night. And yet, somehow, this entire incident turned out to be my fault. I couldn’t begin to explain why.

We never made love; Damien had sex with me. He would grab my ponytail, put his hands around my neck and choke me. But god forbid I moved his hands. Through forceful, sadistic, rough sex, Damien weaponised degradation. He wanted to be in total control. I chose the least resistant route: I let him have sex with me, when, where and how he chose to.

* * * * *

It finally ended when we were due to move to a new flat together. A flat that was meant to be a new beginning, but he couldn’t even be bothered with the ending. I knew something was coming. He looked through me, not at me, like I was an inconvenience. He didn’t bother to hide the traces of his infidelity and lies: the Viagra, the messages, the condoms. The signs of a sordid life outside us, in plain sight. Yet I grew to accept it as my fault.

He sat on the sofa as I packed, then deliberately placed his phone on to charge next to me, as if he wanted me to see when the other woman called. And then she did. After taking the call he returned. ‘I can’t do this,’ he said, devoid of emotion. Rage swept through my body like vertigo. Damien pushed me to every limit. Enough sneaking around, making me feel worthless, intimidating me. He had mercilessly destroyed me.

I ran downstairs to the street. It was dark, raining and I stood in the middle of the road, wailing. I sat on the wet pavement and rang my dad. I wanted it to be over. I tried to picture what was ahead. Where I’d live, how to put myself back together. I was so deep in dark thought, I didn’t see the figure in a dressing gown and slippers who appeared next to me, handing me a plastic beaker. A warm, northern drawl drifted out. ‘Not being rude, but I heard ya. Crying an’ that. I thought ya might need…’ The figure leant forward and handed me a beaker of red wine. ‘You’re all right,’ this Red Wine Angel reassured me. ‘Ave a drink. And then go back and live ya life, hen. No one’s worth this.’ With that the Red Wine Angel was gone. Suddenly, I was hit with a feeling I have  never experienced in my life. The only way to describe it is like being lifted from above, but my feet stayed firmly on the ground. was washed with an awareness: ‘He doesn’t love you because he can’t love you.’ All at once I got it: Damien isn’t capable of love.

* * * * *

Although he was gone, it didn’t mean we were done. What followed was 12 months of Damien using me in whatever way he wanted. He got back in touch, his ‘hellos’ graduating to late-night, soulless sex visits. I allowed it, feeling wretched, but he tempted me with flashes of the highs from our relationship.

When I stopped replying, Damien’s messages became a barrage of violent abuse. One day when he rang, I was weak and picked up. He spat vitriolic, wild allegations, nonsensical venom, demanding money (£2,000) he insisted I owed him. I decided to end it all. I couldn’t pay Damien so I would never escape him, but at that moment my phone vibrated. It was my twin brother, calling from Germany. He saved my life. He agreed to pay the money if Damien signed a written contract saying he would never contact me again.

I was frail and fragmented, but ready to be reconstructed. I had £1.34 in my account, so I typed ‘free therapy near me’ and found the number of a therapist through the NHS. In minutes, a gentle-sounding Irish woman booked me in to see her.

* * * * *

I didn’t want to go to therapy. Not only did I think I didn’t need it, I believed I didn’t deserve it. At my first appointment with Nicky, my NHS therapist, I insisted I was ‘totally fine’. I’d kept everything inside for so long. I baulked when she referred to the ‘domestic abuse’ I’d experienced. It couldn’t be, could it? But as the weeks, months and years went on, I saw how emotional abuse by its very nature has you keeping shtoom, wrapped in your tiny bubble, make-believing that everything is fine. Therapy starts peeling off the layers until you get to the core of the matter. You begin to feel freer, lighter, less burdened; slowly your independence and self-esteem return. Though painful and petrifying, after six months I had left my psychopath.

Today, I am free – and to any woman stuck in an abusive relationship I’d say this: it is never too late to leave and start again, you are stronger than you think. Life is better psycho-free and it’s great here on the other side. I have my wonderful friends and family, and a partner who has shown me what kind, compassionate, gentle love is. I am an ambassador for Women’s Aid, so I can help other strong, brilliant women. It gives me hope for the future. I am so grateful I never gave up, that I knew I was more than my circumstances.

How to spot a psychopath

Psychopaths have minimal empathy, are often callous, cynical, lack remorse and thrive on instilling fear in their target.

They are more charming, alluring and self-confident than the average person. They are Oscar-worthy actors and masters of deception. At the beginning of your relationship, they can be anything you want them to be. They work out what makes you feel good and reproduce it. They are good listeners and will begin to mirror you.

They isolate you. Gradually, it will be just you and them against the world. No one else gets you like they do. Then they take away their charm, validation and love.

Over time, they start to normalise abusive behaviour so you become desensitised to it. Be wary of the downplay, for instance: ‘Calm down! I wasn’t angry, just upset! What, I’m not allowed to show my emotions now?’ ‘You need to rein in your paranoia about me and other women – it’s all in your head.’

They use ‘negging’ – emotional manipulation that buries insults inside apparent validation. This masquerades as constructive criticism, advice, backhanded compliments and comparison. This is a precursor to abusive behaviour whereby a person deliberately undermines the confidence of the victim, consistently lowering their self-esteem and increasing the desire for the abuser’s praise.

They gaslight, making you disbelieve your own thoughts, gut instinct or sanity by casting seeds of doubt in your mind. This screws with your idea of reality.

They stonewall, refusing to engage, communicate or behave in a pragmatic way. They use the silent treatment as a form of punishment or petty manipulation.

WHERE TO FIND HELP

  • RAPE CRISIS offers a free live chat helpline. Visit rapecrisis.org.uk.
  • NATIONAL DOMESTIC ABUSE has a freephone line, operating 24/7: 0808 2000 247.
  • WOMEN’S AID DIRECTORY gives a comprehensive list of local support organisations on its website womensaid.org.uk.
  • ‘ASK FOR ANI’ (Action Needed Immediately). Many pharmacies (including most branches of Boots) participate in this government-backed scheme and display a poster with this slogan. Go to the counter and ask for ‘Ani’ (pronounced Annie); a trained member of staff will take you to a private place and offer access to a phone and help with contacting the police or domestic abuse organisations.

Maddy’s book How to Leave Your Psychopath: The Essential Handbook for Escaping Toxic Relationships is published by Pan Macmillan, price £16.99. To order a copy for £14.44 until 20 February, go to mailshop.co.uk/books or call 020 3176 2937. Free UK delivery on orders over £20.

Some names have been changed