No More Secrets

Photo by  Kristina Flour

Being in an abusive relationship is a horrible, nightmare of a scenario.

It is also a horrible nightmare to admit that you are or were in an abusive relationship. What does that say about me? What type of person allows themselves to get into a situation like this, much less to stay in it?

When I was with my ex, I never allowed the word "abusive" to enter my head. In fact, it wasn't until a couple of months after the relationship came to an end that I first awkwardly and questioningly uttered the word to a trusted friend. It was still a long time after that--and many, many therapy sessions later--before I was able to share the truth about what I'd been through with my circle of family and friends. The mere combination of those three syllables on my lips felt almost violent. Sometimes, it still does.

I made it for thirty-seven years of my life without being abused. I assumed that I would complete the rest of my days in a similar fashion. Or, more accurately, I never even stopped to consider the notion that I wouldn't, because abuse wasn't something that was a reality in the lives of myself or my friends. It fell under that murky category of "things that happen to someone else."

I've spent a lot of time in the past year wondering how I got here and how that relationship ever happened in the first place--or, at least, how it continued on. Now that I'm out of the situation, it's very difficult to connect with how I felt when I was in it. When you are in an abusive relationship, it is much like living in an altered version of reality that exists only within a teeny-tiny universe that is solely occupied by two people. Lies are truth, down is up, and none of the rules that apply to the rest of the world apply to your universe. 

How I Got Here

After being pretty happily single for a couple of years, I vowed to myself that I would only get into a relationship at the point where I found someone who would make my life better than it already was. Life wasn't perfect, but it was pretty darn good. I had gotten to a point where I knew how to make myself happy and to create a life that I, for the most part, loved. I had a successful career, fulfilling friendships, and lived in a city that I adored.

My ex started off wonderful. He was attentive, in touch with his emotions, and really seemed to get me in a way that no one else had. It felt like he saw me. It was easy to let myself move fast and make big decisions because it felt so real. 

The first sign that things were off was, in retrospect, a huge red flag, although not of the abusive variety. My friend spotted my ex on Tinder after we had been together (and serious) for several months. I called him out on it, and he adamantly denied it, blaming the profile on a "crazy ex." Normally, I feel like when a guy talks about a crazy ex it tells me way more about the guy than it does the ex. But this guy and his past situation seemed extenuating. It seemed impossible that anything sideways could possibly be going on. So I brushed it aside it and kept moving forward. He swore up and down that he was honest, and that an essential part of his character was not lying. I believed him.

The first time I really saw his temper was literally the day I moved out of my apartment to move in with him. I remember a few stomach-dropping seconds of standing in the entranceway of the now-empty place I had called home for six and a half years. I had lived so much life there. It was my warm and inviting little corner of the earth. "What have I done?" I wondered. But it seemed too late to back out. It seemed like I had already given up too much. It seemed irreversible. 

A couple of months later, we moved across the country, away from my friends and my life. He fixated on what he was losing and the people he was leaving behind. Collectively, we spent a lot of time nursing him through that. We spent a lot of time nursing him through a lot of things. But, for some reason, the same didn't apply to me. He would get annoyed or tell me how easy I had it if I ever dared to mention how I was feeling or who or what I was missing. 

My New Reality

This became a pattern. Whatever I was feeling wasn't okay, whether that was stress or sadness or, sometimes, even happiness. After a while, this graduated to the next level of him telling me what I felt or what my motivations were. At first I tried to correct him and explain what I was actually feeling or motivated by, which was, pretty much without fail, the opposite of what he projected upon me. I earnestly tried to explain away his accusations, which were always ludicrous. But, more and more frequently, a temper unlike anything I'd ever seen before emerged. So, after a while, I just stayed quiet and tried to project beige emotions. It was easier. 

Not only did his temper arise more frequently, but also to greater and greater degrees. When it came, it was like the person I knew completely vacated his body. In his place was someone else--someone dark, menacing, and hateful. Someone who would often shut the doors and windows of our condo so that he could yell and throw stuff without the neighbors hearing (which, of course, they did), which made me feel trapped and panicked. Someone who would throw away not only my things in a rage, but also my dog's. Someone who would scream his head off in the car while we were driving along the busy streets of our city, even when I rolled the window down in hopes that a rush-hour audience would deter him. Someone who, at times, adopted an accent that wasn't his while he screamed, which was chilling. Someone who threw furniture around. Someone who screamed and called me a "stupid fucking bitch" as I held my less-than-month-old daughter in my arms. And someone who, still, continued to hold fast to the argument that it was somehow my fault that he was so angry. 

Nothing was off limits. There was nothing about me that couldn't be picked apart on the cruelest level. There were no “safe” days—in fact, in my experience, it seemed as if the chances of an explosion increased on holidays and special occasions. I spent one Thanksgiving alone because I made the mistake of "not caring enough” about his pain. Apparently, the acquaintances he spent all day and night with that Thanksgiving "got" him more than I did. So I spent the holiday alone, while he went out and celebrated.

Of course, that occasion was my fault, just like they all were. If I tried to argue my case, I would "always have to be right." But, the truth is, many times "my fault" in these tirades literally involved no more than me sitting at my office chair working. Somehow, my mere presence was offensive enough to warrant violent blowouts that often seemed to come out of the blue. Everything was fine--until it wasn't. In retrospect, one of the sickest parts of all of this is that, to varying degrees, I often ended up apologizing. Because, of course, in some way it was always my fault.

Life in an Emotionally Abusive Relationship

The thing about situations like this is that there are never really moments when everything is okay. Even during those times when everything is calm on the surface. You are in a constant state of wondering when the next explosion is coming. It could come at any moment, for any reason. It’s like building a house on an active fault line. The Big One could come at any time, so you can never let down your guard. You don’t know when it will arrive, but you know it’s inevitable.

I can't even begin to count how many times I uttered the phrase, "Please just be nice to me." Literally hundreds. It became like the world's most pathetic mantra. But still, I was a "c*nt" who he "hated."

So, why did I stay? It’s difficult to explain the effect it has when the person who supposedly loves you the most appears to hate you the most. Your self worth quickly goes down the drain. You are constantly fighting for your right to be loved. In many ways, it comes to feel as if you’re fighting to justify your existence.

For a while, I loved him. I felt bad for him and the anger that seemed to invade him like a cancer. I naively thought I could make it better. I believed the person I'd first met--and who I still saw sometimes--was the "real" him, and would someday come back for good.

The truth is, nothing I ever did was going to be enough. I was giving to an endless well emotionally, physically, and financially. I’ve come to find out that empathetic people like me are particularly prone to situations like this, because we are built to give and try to understand the other person's circumstances. But I now know that there are some people who you simply cannot give to. They will take and take, and you will be sucked dry.

Getting Out

After a while, I did want to leave. I was depleted. Then I got to the point where I straight up dreamed of leaving. I even started to leave a couple of times. But I felt trapped. I was living a lie, and I had given up an entire life on the opposite coast. I was in a financial nightmare, supporting both of us in an expensive city on a freelance writer's earnings. Never before have I been so maxed out mentally, emotionally, physically, financially, and energetically. Saving the amount of money it would take to reestablish my old life while still paying to live my current life was mind-boggling, especially for someone who was already so devoid of life force.

There were other logistical reasons why I felt trapped, too, like the fact that the one time I tried to kick him out based on a slew of text messages I found from him to several other girls that he was both dating and having sex with (which, of course, a crazy ex was responsible for), he held a knife to his wrist, and threatened to commit suicide. I physically wrestled the knife out of his hands and then, terrified, left the house. A while later, he called to say "goodbye" sounding slurry, muffled, and generally out of his mind. I called the police in an effort to save him from god knows what.

The lasting impact of that scenario was the constant reminder of how "disloyal" and ridiculous I'd been to call the police. It was recorded in our personal history books as an example of me being dramatic. There was never any mention of what had triggered the scenario. In the rules of our universe, that was off-limits. However, after I hid the knives so that this situation would never happen again, he did tell me, "You know, I can always just take enough Adderall to make my heart explode." As someone who has lost a deeply beloved person to unnatural circumstances, this fear that he would hurt himself and that I would somehow be responsible buried itself deep within me. In the end, he did try to do it again, but with over-the-counter sleeping pills. The second time he tried--or, at least, said he did--I was pregnant. 

While this was all happening--and even after--I somehow felt as if it was my secret to keep. First, to protect him, because, for a while, I loved him. I thought something had gone wrong that would be reversed at some nebulous future time. But I was "protecting" myself, too. I could barely wrap my head around what was happening, let alone find the words to explain it to someone else. And then, after a while, it seemed too hard and shameful to admit that I hadn't already left. What was wrong with me to get myself in a situation like this in the first place, let alone to stay? There was so much shame and confusion. I felt almost completely alone in the world. I would never wish this experience upon anyone. 

Adding to all of this was how pathetic I felt on a day-to-day basis. I would slink around our condo complex with a cheery grin plastered on my face, mortified about what the neighbors must think. "Oh, there's the girl who always gets yelled at. What's wrong with her?" And I felt pathetic on other levels, too. Like, for example, my ex lied all of the time, and I knew it. But it got to the point where it wasn't even worth calling him out. All it would mean was another fight for me. 

The mechanics of it were also very difficult for me to wrap my head around. I literally didn't understand what was happening. I didn't even know what gaslighting meant until I met him. I couldn't fathom that someone could or would be as mean and cruel and manipulative as he was. When he wasn't yelling, he was either not talking to me, or loving me to the ends of the earth. I couldn't explain his logic or the swings. When things were bad, we obviously couldn't talk about it; when things were good, it was always tenuous, and I needed relief and reprieve--discussing what was wrong would just lead to the next spiral. And, so, I ended up questioning reality a lot. Had it really been that bad or was I being dramatic? Of course, he was always there to assure me that, yes, I had the situation all wrong, and my perspective was completely off-base, and I ignored my own role in the scenario at hand as well as all of my more general faults.

The Aftermath

When I think back on how life used to be, I have a physical and physiological reaction. It wasn't just bad. It was a nightmare. My nervous system is still paying the price. I have spent almost a year in trauma therapy. It's getting better, but there is still a lingering fear and jumpiness planted within me that I never knew before I met my ex. I am horrified at the amount of damage he managed to wreak in a relatively short amount of time. However, I will resolve this. I refuse to be permanently altered by this person in any ways that are not positive. He has already had enough control over my life as it is. Those days are done.

The entire relationship lasted for three years. Now that I've learned more about emotional abuse, I know that I actually got off easy. I got out. I have an amazing therapist, and family and friends who love me. I didn't lose everything, like so many people do. I am lucky.

Yes. This is what lucky looks like.

Since all of this has happened, I've talked to and met with others who have been in similar situations. Like me, they are probably people you would never guess lived through hell. What I've learned is that, on top of everything else, there are really unfair and sometimes adamant expectations placed on the abusee, which run the gamut from "you should talk" to "you can't talk."

No. No, no, no, no, no.

Actually, you get to do whatever you want. Although you may have been stuck in an abusive situation for a while, you almost certainly did not choose it. You don't owe anyone anything because of your experience. Except for you. You are the only person you are accountable to. You don't owe anyone to talk, and you don't know anyone to not talk. You get to do exactly what feels right to you. And you also get to change your mind about what the right thing to do is if and when you want to.

As for me, I'm done not talking. I'm done whitewashing this behavior as "a bad temper" or "passion." I'm done being told that all of this is me not understanding, ignoring my own part in it, or relaying past events incorrectly. I'm sure that in certain circles I am now the crazy ex. You know what? I can live with that. I know the truth. The only thing that really matters is that I'm now the ex. 

My voice and right to feel my feelings without the influence of someone else was taken away for long enough.

I'm done with that now.