It’s something I don’t talk about, and as a general rule, try not to think about. But the truth is that I was in an emotionally abusive relationship, a relationship that almost took my life.
It’s been roughly one year since I last heard from my abuser, and two years since I’ve seen him in person. And in all this time I haven’t opened up about the details of my experience with anyone. I’ve been pulling the pieces of myself back together through a simple strategy of submerging painful memories with silence and forgetfulness. “No Contact” became my golden rule. And “No Contact” meant not only no contact through phone, email, or face to face—but it also meant that my thoughts and attention were to have no contact with his memory or non-physical self. This strategy, along with the blessing of passing time, has done wonders to get me back on my feet. But recent conversations with a friend have made me realize that I still hold a piece of this powerful darkness inside me.
This friend has also been through an abusive relationship, and our shared experience gave me the courage to tell him part of my story. Talking with him, I felt hope that there was someone else who not only understood the depth of darkness I experienced, but who has felt this same darkness in their own guts and bones. But I soon began to feel a crushing heaviness whenever he would mention his abuser in conversation, and the familiar feeling of despair surprised me. Wasn’t I over all of this already? In part, I was angry at his abuser, my abuser, and abusers everywhere for their destructive, consuming, and irresistible power. Harder to admit, I was also angry at my friend for giving his abuser power by thinking and talking about her. But worst of all, I realized that I was also jealous of the abuser’s power. I regretted the fact that I would never exert the same force over someone, garner the same adoration and attention as my abuser and others like him are so skilled at receiving everywhere they go. All I wanted was to be loved with the same force that I loved my abuser, with the type of love that covers a multitude of sins. So yes, a large part of me resents not being loved in this way. What do they have that I don’t? But it’s exactly this type of thinking that abusers thrive on, and any power that feeds on the weaknesses of someone else is a power I want to stay far, far away from.
Talking with him, I felt hope that there was someone else who not only understood the depth of darkness I experienced, but who has felt this same darkness in their own guts and bones.
I know all this, of course. The problem is that I know it with my head, but not with the soulful part of me that feels. Not yet. So I’m not proud of getting angry at my friend for talking about his abuser. I’m not proud of feeling jealous of her power over him. And I’m definitely not proud of wanting this power for myself. But I need to own these feelings. They emerged automatically, settling into a complicated, tangled knot in the pit of my stomach. The automatic intensity of these feelings, the familiar suffocating despair edging in on my sanity brought me to another painful realization: I’m still not okay. By rushing into my rigid rule of “No Contact,” I skipped an important first step in the healing process—sharing my story. So in part, writing about my abuse is self-serving. For my own sake, I need to get out the essence of my experience, in whatever way it chooses to reveal itself. Everyone’s abuse story is different, but if my story makes anyone who has experienced abuse feel less alone, then it’s worth sharing. Whenever I hear someone courageous enough to share their story, I’m reminded of two facts that my abuser never wanted me to know—1) I’m not crazy, and 2) I’m not alone. If anything, please internalize this, not anything else that goes against your value and worth as a wonderful, unique, and complicated human being.
I was living in NYC, my abuser in Boston, but we had known each other through mutual friends at Ohio State. He was going to be in the city for a weekend, so we ended up getting together at a bar downtown. By the second hour we were holding hands, oblivious to anyone else around us. By the fifth hour we were naked in my bed. We traded personal stories, taking turns speaking and listening intently, like the words we were saying were the most important ones in the entire world. After one story, I remember he thanked me for sharing. Thanked me. I had never been thanked for sharing a part of myself, and his intuitive knowledge of my need for encouragement and validation opened up doors and windows and almost made me feel like I didn’t need any shelter at all. Blast the walls and expose me to the elements, I thought. Here was my prince in shining armor.
And for a couple of months he was just that. Charming and worming his way into my heart. With him I had my first experience into eye-gazing, or soul-gazing, and when he told me we had the same soul, I believed him. So when he first questioned me about a male friend living in my building, I took his jealousy as a testament to his love and adoration for me. Even prince charming could be insecure, and that made me love him all the more for his innate and messy humanness. One night we each went through our relationship histories on the phone, and he told me about how he had been betrayed by every women he had ever been with. I didn’t question why every relationship of his had ended so dramatically, and I definitely didn’t consider the possibility that he hadn’t been cheated on or betrayed. If anything, I was more determined for our love story to last and be the exception to the string of destructive relationships of his past. He was a victim, a slightly tattered and worn prince charming that needed someone like me to show him what real love was. He told me that I was different than all the others, and with those words I did feel different—better, the best self I’ve ever been. But with these words he was also placing the fate of our relationship entirely on my shoulders. Either I was different and it would work, or I wasn’t and it would fail. Either way, it was all on me.
I was living in NYC, my abuser in Boston, but we had known each other through mutual friends at Ohio State. He was going to be in the city for a weekend, so we ended up getting together at a bar downtown.
Christmastime came and we both flew home to Columbus for a week and some days. He charmed my family and friends. I joked that they liked him more than they liked me. But one night he was quiet and sullen. I asked what was wrong, and he told me he hated my brother and seeing me interact with him made him question who I was as a person. His harsh judgment, and the anger behind his words, surprised me. But I didn’t question his judgment, even though I was hurt by it—instead, I questioned my own worth. Something had happened to make him doubt who I was, and it was up to me to fix it. It’s embarrassing to admit now, but I offered to cut ties with my brother, and even that wasn’t enough. He yelled at me for crying, saying that I was making him feel bad. I had asked him what was wrong, and now I was betraying him by getting upset. He couldn’t trust me. That was the first time I tried to touch him and he shoved me away, going down the stairs and out the door. But that wasn’t the last time he shoved me away, and I soon learned not to get near him when he was angry. I also learned how to sit through hours of him screaming at me by digging my fingernails into my skin, drawing blood in order to let my emotion out in a way that wouldn’t offend him. He began to interpret my tears as a mockery of his own hurt. If I was hurt by his words, that meant I didn’t value what he was feeling. My tears were a selfish manipulation to make it all about me. So I learned how to take insult after insult, internalizing his words until I came to believe that they were true. He called me pathetic. A whore. He told me I was just like all the others. That I had the emotional capacity of a teenager. That I should seek psychiatric help. That I was unlovable. That I would end up alone. That I was a selfish bitch. An embarrassment.
Back on the East Coast, I started handing over my phone and laptop so he could monitor my texts and emails. I took the long bus ride to his place every weekend. I stopped talking about him to my family. I stopped hanging out with my friends in the city so he wouldn’t get jealous, and so I wouldn’t have to admit what I was going through. One weekend he kicked me out of his house, accusing me of texting a lover behind his back. There was no way to convince him I wasn’t a cheater, so I agreed to do everything in my power to make it right. He no longer saw me as beautiful and wonderful, but as an insecure and desperate individual who would do anything to keep him in my life. And in truth, I had become that person. Every time we said goodbye, I was plagued with the fear of him breaking up with me, and half the time he did.
I would love to say that I finally came to my senses and broke it off, asserting my self-respect and worth. But what finally broke us for good was when I found out he was cheating on me. I’m glad he cut off contact, because it was something I needed but didn’t have the courage and strength to do on my own. So when months later he reached out again, seeking comfort because his new girlfriend had cheated on him, I was able to clearly see the destructive cycle of his abuse. After our final breakup, I went through a dark depression, continuing the self-harm I had started during his screaming sessions. His painful words were now part of my internal monologue. I mocked my own sadness, his words echoing in my own voice: pathetic, whore, unlovable, fucking idiot, alone. I began looking up ways to commit suicide in the least painful way possible. I moved out of my building because it was full of people that I was too embarrassed to face. Once I moved into my new apartment, I finally worked up the courage to call a therapist. The intake specialist told me I was brave for calling, and her simple, formulated kindness made me cry. Kind words were not what I was used to. But my actual appointment was uncomfortable at best. At the end of the session, the therapist told me she was going on a short vacation, but would call to check-in and set up our next appointment. She never called, and I never tried to go back. And my abuser’s words continued their echo inside me: alone, alone, alone…
Time thankfully dulled the sadness, loneliness, and despair I felt, but one feeling that persisted was my anger. It had started during the relationship. At times, I wanted to drag my abuser down with me. If we couldn’t be the best together, then let us be the worst, but still together. Looking back I can see that in my desperation and hurt, I was turning into a monster myself. After it ended, I still wanted to bring him down in our last conversation. I needed him to see himself for the monster he was, and when that didn’t happen, I fantasized about outing him to his family and friends. But my anger wasn’t hurting him—it was crushing me. I had to realize that what he thinks and does will never be in my control. And that’s what anger is really about anyways: control. I felt vulnerable and insecure, and extremely helpless. Anger was the only way I could grasp a moral high ground, a small place for me to put myself above my abuser and regain some feeling of self-worth. But what I needed was a sense of self-worth completely independent of my relationship with him. I know now that I shouldn’t be ashamed of the anger I felt (and sometimes still feel), but I also know that my healing process shouldn’t end in anger and revenge, but in an outcome more reflective of the type of person I want to be. Philosopher Martha Nussbaum has written about anger and forgiveness, and she asserts that though anger may be well-warranted, it is important to eventually move from anger to what can be done to regain well-being and self-respect. She says:
“The way to deal with grief is just what one might expect: mourning and, eventually, constructive forward-looking action to repair and pursue one’s life. Anger is often well-grounded, but it is too easy for it to hijack the necessary mourning process. So a Transition from anger to mourning — and, eventually, to thoughts of the future — is to be strongly preferred to anger nourished and cultivated.”
It would take another article to dive into how I’m going to regain my well-being and self-respect. And to be honest, I’m still figuring that out. One truth I’ve learned to accept is that it’s okay to ask for help. It’s been two years and I still haven’t strayed too far from my island of isolation, but I can finally admit that a move off the island is necessary. I’ve also started the process of rediscovering who I am, consciously seeking out activities that feed the most creative and soulful parts of myself. I once felt like my abuser was the only one who could see my soul. We had a deep psychic connection, and with him, I felt like I was in touch with a much higher source. I could see more, feel more, and be more. But the high I felt at the beginning of our relationship was the feeling of my consciousness expanding, the feeling of deep connection to him, yes, but also to myself and the rest of the outside world. Even though he was the catalyst, I was wrong to believe that he was the only one who could inspire me to open up and let the universe in.
After our final breakup, I went through a dark depression, continuing the self-harm I had started during his screaming sessions.
Anything can be a catalyst for living more fully, including a solid, spiritual connection with the self. That is the connection I’m focused on building now, and I know this connection needs to be strong before I can be a stable partner to someone else. So another truth I’m learning to accept is that I need to take responsibility for how my wounds affect others. Intimacy is terrifying, especially for people who have suffered abuse. But victims can also be aggressors, and I need to avoid seeking control through arbitrarily claiming my victimhood. I’ve done it more times than I’d like to admit since my abuser has been out of my life. I’ve tried to ease my insecurities by finding fault with other people, by demanding them to heal wounds they have nothing to do with. On better days, I can get out of my own head and tell the difference between when I’m being treated badly and when my hurt has more to do with past experience than anything else. So I try to be compassionate with myself when I mess up, and I ask forgiveness. And I wake up the next day resolving to not let my insecurities control me. I will keep trying and failing and trying again, but I’m determined to not let my experience turn me into someone I don’t want to be. So I can be angry, but I am not anger. I can be bitter, but I am not bitterness. I am compassionate. I am strong. I am lovable. I am free.