He Always Inspired Me To Do Better

Trigger warning: This article contains sensitive content involving abuse.
Valentina Doria

I was out the other night with some friends. Tight high waisted jeans. A new blonde do. Killer heels. Lips coated in burgundy looking like they could taste like cherries. I’d been knocking back tequila shots. I was feeling some kind of way.

I noticed one of the most beautiful men I had seen in a long time waiting in line at the bar with his dog. He was sexy in this non-generic kind of way. A little rugged but with this impeccable wavy sandy hair. All I could think about was disheveling it, running my fingers through it, tugging at it as I pulled him closer to myself.

We kept exchanging glances. My best friend demanded I walk over to this stranger and introduce myself. I almost did, but then he came back to haunt me. I gripped my drink harder. All I could do was stay still.

I don’t think much of my ex these days. In fact, since I left I don’t think I ever looked back. I didn’t just shut the door and throw away the key. I burned the whole building down. He hardly ever makes appearances in my writing. He’s not a topic of conversation that ever comes up with anybody. It’s like he’s this character I faintly remember from some book I read.

This isn’t to say he didn’t hurt me. This isn’t to say I never loved him. This isn’t to say I never hated him. It’s just that some things hurt too much to revisit. It’s just that some graves are left better untended without fresh bouquets.

The thing is, after drinking so much of the same venom you become immune to it. After having your throat slit so often by the same blade, its edge starts to become dull. After someone has bit one too many times into your neck, you no longer feel it when they sink in their teeth.

After they’ve hurt you one too many times, you no longer feel anything.

I was a different person before him. I was a ghost of who I was when I was with him. I’m someone else entirely after him.

In a life in which my heart wasn’t all scar tissue and all bruise, I would have never thought twice about walking up to and flirting shamelessly with a stranger. I would be a lot like my old self. But I live in a world in which every part of me once loved him, and in which he always loved breaking pretty things.

He was all soft when I met him. My wrists were still bleeding and everything inside me was once again heavy. He made me feel like I wasn’t lonely. Back then he was something sweet my tongue could savor. He was something like Eden in the beginning.

I had no idea that his softness was just a projection of what he saw in me. A kind of tenderness he could rip apart and feast on. I had no idea he’d draw more blood and would wind up making me feel more alone than on my own. That the sweetness would come at a price and only during times he wanted to reel me back in. After all, the garden of Eden did disappear.

I try to remember at what point in time I slipped out of my own body and let a man dictate my emotions, my perception of myself, whether I was happy or unhappy. I can’t. I don’t know when it happened. I just know that I was a confident, intelligent, self-assured, maybe at times depressed, but still a vibrant girl, and then I wasn’t. I was someone who always spoke her mind, someone who never backed down in fear of a fight, someone who held her ground, and then one day I was reaching for my throat wondering where I had misplaced my voice. I became highly insecure. I questioned my worth. I doubted my thoughts and my feelings, and even their rationality. I became more anxious. I fell into depression more than I had in the past.

I looked in the mirror and didn’t recognize myself one day. I actually stared at the tear-stained, mascara infested face staring back at me and uttered the words, “I don’t know who you are anymore.” I remember that night vividly. After months of cheating on me, after years of him calling me a psycho bitch and making me doubt my sanity, I actually begged the man who’d let my heart drop and shatter underneath someone else’s bed (again) to stay. I actually apologized to him.

“I can do better. I swear I’ll be better,” I said not for the first (or last) time.

“I’m sorry,” said the lamb to the lion. And then apologized further for even bleeding.

You see, it was never his fault. It was always mine. I was never doing enough. I was never acting how I should be acting. I was never good enough.

The first time he messed around behind my back was also the first time he told me he loved me. We’d already been together two years. I had never heard those words from him. I was prepared to never speak to him again. But there he was, saying the three words I always wanted to hear from him. With all the perfect apologies to mask the bitter taste from my mouth. The most melodious of words icing the wound. And excuses in a way only he could give logic to.

He only loved me when he was sorry. The same way he only loved me when I wasn’t there. Those were the only times he ever wanted me. When I had had enough. When parts of the old me started showing through just a little bit.

The next time he did it (and got caught) he made a comment about my weight. “You’ve put on a few pounds.” Throughout our relationship, he’d have remarks to make about my body. My curves were sexy but he thought I’d look better if I was just a little skinnier. I could do it, he said. Sometimes he’d ask things like, “you’re going to have another bite,” or “are you sure you want fries with that,” or “do you know many miles it’ll take to burn off those M&M’s.”  He’d praise other women in front of me. He’d talk about other women’s bodies and faces, even acquaintances of ours. I still had never heard him tell me I was beautiful.

There was a period in time I exhausted myself running every morning before work and every evening before bed. I limited my calorie intake to 700 a day. I made sure I burned those, if not more. I ran myself ragged. I could do it. I could be better. I lost 38 pounds in two and a half months. I was exhausted. I was jittery because of detox and diet pills. I was in pain. I was starving. But it didn’t matter. I’d never felt as good as when he said, “You’ve never looked as good.”

A few of my family members and a couple of friends told me it was time I stopped dieting. They thought I had lost enough weight. My body had always been shaped like an hourglass, and my curves were no longer visible. So I kept up with working out and put on a bit more weight back. After all, it was about being healthy. I don’t think I was starting to look it. I was still the thinnest and most toned I’d been in a long time. We were getting dressed one day when he said, “the hottest you’ve ever been was back in February when we spent time in North Carolina. You can get back to that size, babe. But I was already so small. Wasn’t I?

I could be better. I would do better.

Every fight we ever had was because I couldn’t do better. I’d catch him in a lie, but somehow it was my fault for not trusting him in the first place. Nobody made me go around digging. I’d apologize. I could do better. He was only acting the way I expected him to. It was my fault for putting it into his head. For putting that energy out there.

If he forgot to call, if he ignored my texts, froze me out for days, or punched a wall, went into startling rages with clenched fists, it was my fault. Because you see, I wasn’t doing better.

He couldn’t be blamed when I couldn’t keep my fucking thoughts or feelings to myself. How dare I try to communicate? How dare I stick up for myself? How dare I disagree with him? How dare I express my opinion?

It was my fault when I ruined his day because my depression was so debilitating that I couldn’t see past it. He had plans. How dare I be so negative? It wasn’t his fault that he thought I was doing it all for attention. After all, what can you expect from a crazy girlfriend? And even if my depression and anxiety were real, it wasn’t his fault his girlfriend had a mental illness. He shouldn’t have to bear the weight of that. What did I have to be depressed about, anyway? It didn’t matter because he wasn’t a licensed therapist. He didn’t want to hear it. He’d slam the front door and leave me sobbing on the bathroom floor because he couldn’t do this alone.

I could be better. I could do better. I’d go to more therapy sessions. I’d talk to my doctor about switching medications. I wouldn’t burden him with my depression. I was his girlfriend. I was supposed to make it easier for him.

You see, it was something I tended to do, make things harder for him.

One of the times he cheated on me, he actually got angry at me for finding out. “I was trying to protect you. Look at you now. I told you to leave it alone. Why couldn’t you listen to me?” I shouldn’t have reached out to the girl he had spent a whole summer fucking abroad while I was at home waiting faithfully for him. He told me nothing happened, I shouldn’t have listened to my witch’s instinct, I should have left it alone. It was my fault for not trusting him. I was making it harder for us. There was also the fact that I made him feel lonely because I was going out more and spending time with my friends. Lonely, even though I was sending him packages and daily emails, staying up at weird hours of the night waiting for his FaceTime to come. Lonely, even though I had sent him off to his trip with over 50 “open when” letters. I made it harder for him because he missed me. He couldn’t be blamed for finding solace in someone else.

I tried to write out my pain from his affair. He told me I humiliated him by putting those things out there. I was villainizing him. “How do you think that makes me feel,” he asked me. “Do you really think I’m an asshole?” “You’re making me look manipulative.”

I wasn’t free to write about the trigger he pulled on my self-esteem when he cheated on me. I couldn’t soothe the pain of his distance and the cold emanating from his being with a pen. It would only harden the glacier between us. I couldn’t confess that he only ever kissed me as an interlude to sex, that sometimes he didn’t even look at me while inside me, that he never once held me after, that after he was done he’d walk away and take a shower and go back to being his mercurial self. I had to swallow the poem about how sometimes it felt like I was laying in bed next to a stranger and I was afraid of him. The same poem about how much it used to hurt that he never held my hand, but now I thought I could live with that.

I stopped sharing and started hiding my poems about the ache he’d cause. And it didn’t stop there. I’d write about anything pertaining to my past, a former love, someone that wasn’t him, and he’d get angry. Those were all parts of me, my experiences, my lessons. But I had no right.

I’d use writing as a form of therapy for my depression, and he’d tell me it was too dark, that I should write about other things. By this point, I started to realize he really just didn’t get me. He had no idea who I was. But there, still I was.

“That’s not the girl I fell for,” he said on numerous occasions and in reaction to numerous situations.

“It’s those friends of yours putting things into your head.” But the thing was, my friends had no idea. They all thought he was so sweet, so nice. I let them. I posted the cutest pictures of us together on Instagram. I swallowed all my pain because I wanted to protect him because I didn’t want them to stop loving him. I bore the label of the crazy girlfriend next to the word irrational on my forehead, so he wouldn’t be the bad guy. Sometimes, even I, myself, believed it.

“Maybe you should try smoking again, you used to be a lot more chill.”

Chill.

He was right, since he came into my life I started having zero chill. I wanted nothing more than to have a joint, but with the job I had at the time, I couldn’t risk it. So I started misusing my Klonopin prescription. Then I took to medicating myself with alcohol. First, to cope with the fact I was still, despite everything, in love with him. Then, to mask the fact I was miserable in my relationship. And later, to cope with his hands on my body when he decided he needed release.

He would do one nice thing, smile at me in a certain way, finally rest his hand on my back, tell me I looked pretty or that I had done a good job with my hair, and I would hate myself, because how dare I have these bad thoughts about my boyfriend. I would start to question if I was wrong, if he was still that sweet guy I had fallen for. Maybe it really was all my fault. Maybe I pushed him too far. Maybe I really was the problem. I’d start to question my sanity.

Towards the end, I was broken down to the point that I believed I didn’t deserve more. I  believed I wasn’t worthy. I believed this was it for me. Sometimes I thought that I could love him again. I could make him love me. I could try to be better so we could both be happy. Then, there were times that I simply just didn’t care. I would dissociate from my body and live my life almost mechanically. It is what it is, I’d think.

I began getting close to an old friend again, someone I had deep history with, someone I would always have feelings for. It was just texting and phone calls. In my mind, it made what my boyfriend did and how he treated me okay. Texting and phone calls led to wine and a pile of clothes on the floor. By this point, it didn’t even feel like cheating to me. By this point, the veil had been lifted. I was in an unhealthy, toxic, and miserable relationship with someone who was never a good guy. By this point, I knew I had to leave. I just didn’t have the courage, I just still had that little doubt in the back of my mind telling me what if. I was still hoping I was wrong.

My blessing from the universe came to me sleeping a few feet away in a bed, a couch outside the door, my best friend and his hands. I wasn’t even shocked when she told me. I wasn’t surprised. I don’t think that in that moment I was even hurt. Someone can only hurt you for so long.

I heard he told people that he broke up with me because l was inconsiderate and cold. That we had a fight right after he had gotten surgery because I left him to fend for himself, while I went to Austin to have a weekend with my girlfriends. That I didn’t even come see him at the hospital after his surgery. That much was true. What he failed to disclose was that I went on a trip after I found out what he had done, that I was with my girlfriends because I finally had gotten the strength to leave, that I wasn’t there for him because I was done.

I was done stroking his ego. I was done managing his emotions. I was done keeping quiet. I was done walking on eggshells. I was done doing his laundry and walking his dog. I was done making his appointments. I was done cooking him homemade meals and making him a drink. I was done making his favorite dessert. I was done going through business documents for him and editing them. I was done writing his business proposals.

I was done trying to be his version of better.

I may still be healing, I may be a lot stronger than I was when I was with him, I may be falling back in love with myself, but I’m not all the way there, yet. Sometimes I can hear the faint echo of his voice telling me to be better. To do better. That I’m not good enough. I’m still running away from it. I’m still looking for that place, far, far away, where I will never once again hear it.

I missed my opportunity with that hot guy I saw early on that night at the bar. But some time later, there was another one. In a brief moment of bravery, I told my ex’s voice to shut the fuck up and I flirted shamelessly with this second stranger, the way I was so good at once upon a time.

Luckily for me, there’s so many of them out there I haven’t met, yet.

I can do better. TC mark

Natalia Vela

poet and bruja. still checking books out from your local library.

Bring magic to your Instagram feed ✨

You look back and you just feel stupid.
You can’t forgive yourself for falling
or believing all the lies.
You reread every text.
You relive every memory.
And it all starts making sense —
he never wanted love.
He only wanted attention.
He only wanted validation.

“It’s just wondrous how every time I go through some emotional trauma, your posts are so relatable and it gives me so much hope. I love the writing and the photos. It’s all a pleasure to read. I can’t thank you enough for it, really.” — DM from @ThoughtCatalog Instagram follower

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