Hiding my favorite benzodiazepines – Xanax and Klonopin – in lipstick tubes and vitamin bottles, the false calm they’d bestow upon me and then the fog. How hard it was to stay away from single-edge razor blades and sharper things. The constant hunger. The trash always in need to be taken out, full to the brim with empty glass bottles of one thing or another. Our dog sensing the hurricane brewing in the pit of my stomach, licking my hands, my legs, my face, knowing the imminent deluge was a dangerous thing; more anxious than me, maybe. Never sleeping before 3 in the morning and always waking up before 8. My makeup scattered across the bathroom counter, my hair on the walls in the shower, my eyebrows in need of plucking, how I no longer cared to make everything perfect for him. The ends of neon colored straws dipped in white in my cosmetics bag, in the silverware drawer, at the bottom of my purse. Condoms we didn’t use hidden in his glove compartment. The way my body folded in on itself when he touched me. Cursing the building we lived in when the shower wasn’t burning enough. Wanting to throw myself into the pyre. Wondering where I had gone. Mourning who I was.
These are the things I remember most from the final year of our relationship.
They say your body knows things before you do. It’s the way that we explain away the fact that our bodies understand love before our brains do – love at first sight if you believe in that kind of thing. It’s also the way we perceive danger, a reptilian inheritance, the way our bodies warn us against would be predators.
I remember the first time my body tried to tell me something.
During our relationship, he only ever touched me as a prelude to sex, or during, never after, and never just to be affectionate. I can’t think of a time he ever grabbed my hand, kissed me for no reason, held me by the waist, caressed my arm, or ran his fingers through my hair. I was always starved for touch, always starved for love, for anything, really.
I think it was a Saturday afternoon, we had plans with friends later that day, but we were already drinking some tequila concoction my father had taught me how to make. In retrospect, I was drinking far more than anyone ever should, back then, and using alcohol as a coping mechanism to ignore my misery and keep playing my role in the life I’d subjected myself to – dutiful, loyal, faithful, pretty, devoted, forgiving, girlfriend.
The kind that woke up earlier on weekends to have his breakfast ready by the time he got out of bed. The kind that washed the stains out of his shirts without him having to ask. The kind who sat uncomfortably on the couch in a tight top and skinny jeans because he hated seeing her in sweats; hair always blown out and makeup done. The kind who tried to perfect a recipe for some dish or another until it was to his liking. The kind who wrote his business proposals, made his appointments, and refilled his prescriptions. The one who bit her tongue in half and swallowed it to avoid being cut into ribbons by his anger. The one who was never allowed to be herself. The one who took his shit and still got on her knees when he said when.
There I was, sundress and bare feet padding around the kitchen, pretending this was love, refilling his drink and pouring more liquor into mine. I walked over to hand it to him, and when he reached out with two fingers to trace along my cleavage, I flinched and jerked back, not in surprise, but in the kind of way your body reacts to something it is terrified of. In that fleeting second, my body rejected everything that was him. I realized what I had been in denial about for so long. One small graze of his fingertips did more than any years of cheating, emotional and mental abuse, gaslighting, manipulation, and putting me down ever did. I didn’t know who the man I’d given so much of myself to over the last few years was. I never had. All I knew, in that moment, all I wanted so badly to ignore, was that whoever he was, there wasn’t a single bone in his body that was good. Not only was I trying to push back the fear I felt, but I was swallowing my disgust.
When he asked what was wrong, I told him I was just jumpy from late nights and a lack of sleep and kissed him on the cheek. I had known in my very core for a long time what my mind was just then allowing itself to accept as fact. I was still trying to dismiss the truth. I was still hoping it was I who had reality skewed. I wanted to be wrong because I didn’t know if being right said more about me or more about him. I wanted to be wrong because even the revelation I had that not only was this a bad man but that I didn’t love him anymore, wasn’t going to be enough to make me leave.
I stayed for a year after seeing him for who he was and recognizing what he was doing to me. Opening your eyes isn’t enough, neither is reaching your threshold of pain. I’ve been asked why I put up with so much, why I allowed so much to happen, but abusive relationships are as hard to leave as any other. Harder, even. You always think, That would never be me. I’m out the minute this or that is done or said to me. You couldn’t possibly know what it’s like until you’re there. It’s different for everybody: it can be for financial reasons, the fear that they may do worse if you leave, because you share kids, or a million other possibilities of reasons. But the two common underlying things in any case are that you have been brainwashed into believing that you don’t deserve any better and that this is as good as it gets, and that you keep hoping the person you fell for and that they made you believe they were, in the beginning, is still inside there somewhere. I knew I hated him, I knew he got off to my pain, and I knew whatever I had blinded myself into believing was love wasn’t love, but I also knew I wasn’t going to leave. It wouldn’t be that simple for me.
I crushed up a Xanax and lined it up next a line of coke at 3 in the afternoon, cut the end of a straw, and told myself I could do this.
And so began a cycle of bad habits and a spiraling into one of the darkest eras of my life.
We headed out for a pub crawl with some friends a bit later that day. That entire evening, my whole aim was to just numb myself. I kept trying to shove my thoughts into a shoebox in the back of a closet deep in my mind. Truthfully, Ignorance is bliss had been my motto already for quite some time, but it wasn’t going to work for much longer. I remember going into the bathroom stall with his friend’s girlfriend, feeling thankful when she produced a bag of the white substance from her purse, and thinking, Maybe I won’t feel anything when he fucks me later.
He did – fuck me. I felt nothing but my mind retreating, my body folding in on itself, me somewhere outside my own flesh. I had never felt cold like that before and I never once felt warm again after. For the first time in our relationship, I appreciated the fact that he never looked at me or held me after. I felt anger, rage, disgust, hate – as much toward myself as him.
I didn’t sleep at all those late hours and that early morning. I suddenly understood the cause of my unexplainable stomach issues, why I would break out in hives often for no reason, why no medications were helping my anxiety, why I couldn’t fall asleep, why I couldn’t stay asleep, why I was constantly exhausted. For a long time, my body and I had been living in a state of hypervigilance.
On any given day, I was nervous about what mood I would find him in. Which one of his personalities was taking a sip of the coffee I had prepared for him that morning?
It was a labor to even have a conversation with him sometimes because I had to be careful in molding it and skirting around subjects that were sensitive or that we disagreed on. He was adept at making me feel intellectually inferior to him, whether I didn’t share his belief or point of view on something, or just to make himself feel bigger. He would sometimes quiz me on certain topics, eager to find something to educate me, lecture, or correct me on. Then there were times when he became angry when I expressed an opinion that differed from his. I remember him leaving me at a restaurant once and making me walk in the rain because as a feminist, according to him, I didn’t need him to pick me up from the front of the building, in fact, he said that I didn’t need a ride at all. Once, discussing politics after the bar, he threw his drink down in the kitchen and left the apartment. I, the blind fool that I was, ran after him to the parking garage, and he refused to come back home until, in his words, I would “agree to shut the fuck up.”
It wasn’t just that, I couldn’t express my feelings, either. He would go into rages, cut me apart with his anger, or punish me in some way if I ever expressed how I felt, especially when it regarded him or our relationship. He would make me believe that my feelings weren’t valid. He would make me feel like I felt how I felt because I was mentally imbalanced. He would insist that I was either thriving on the drama, or that I was insane. Somehow, when I was the one who had a right to be angry or a right to be hurt, he would come out the end of it being the offended one, and I would be the one doing the apologizing.
If he did or said something to hurt me, then I was too sensitive. If he lied to me about something and I uncovered that lie, I was the problem for not trusting him in the first place or for sabotaging his attempt at protecting me from the truth. If he cheated on me, I was to blame – I had put on weight, I had been making him feel suffocated, I had been acting “too depressed”, I pushed him to it in some way, or I had put it out into the universe by not wholeheartedly trusting him.
When his tactics were less effective and I stood more of my ground, or when I challenged him more, he would threaten me with breaking up or suggest that we should take a break. It always worked because he had this way of making me feel like I should be thanking him for being with me. He made me believe I was lucky for having him. I believed every single label he ever put on me: crazy, dumbass, fat, weak, insecure, needy, too emotional, too sensitive, irrational, psycho, idiot, bitch, ungrateful, not good enough. He said as much as he thought he was the only person in the world that could ever put up with me. I was so broken down mentally that I actually felt grateful to him for loving me. Not that I love you were words he used often. No, I only ever heard that when he wanted something, when he had been caught cheating again, or when he wanted to reel me back in.
When I made him mad, stood up for myself, wrote something about my past or something that painted him in a bad light, saw people he didn’t want me to see, spent some time away from him and enjoyed it, he would give me the silent treatment. He’d suggest I go stay at my parents’ and I wouldn’t hear from him for days. When I tried desperately to get into contact with him, he would accuse me of being unhinged and suffocating and obsessed with him.
It was one of his favorite things to do, to make me feel like I was crazy. He took things I had trusted him with and used them as ammo. He would use my struggles with mental health to back up his theories about why I was acting the way I was, or thinking the way I was, or feeling the way I was, or to make me believe I was inherently irrational. I think he actually enjoyed making me feel insane and making me doubt reality. I was afraid of being alone sometimes. Things would move around the apartment from their original place, or something I swore I put somewhere would end up being somewhere else, and I constantly would get phone calls from blocked numbers. Looking back, I am positive it was him doing both things.
He would accuse me of doing or saying things I never did, so vehemently that I doubted my own sanity. On mornings after a night of drinking, he’d accuse me of having blacked out or embarrassing him in some way, when I was sure I hadn’t done either. He made the people in our world believe that I was the problem, while he painted himself as a sweet, charming, devoted guy who could tolerate this crazy girl with emotional issues. It was a lie I believed, too.
I was lucky, I thought. Who would want someone sad and unstable and not beautiful? This was the narrative he insidiously fed me.
He constantly commented on my fluctuation in weight, pushing me to lose pounds, and even went as far as making me feel guilty when I ate certain things and telling me what I should and shouldn’t eat. I dropped weight to the point where it didn’t look good on me, so I decided to put a bit more back on, I was still at my fittest, but he wasn’t happy with it, he told me I had looked better months prior and I could drop it again.
See, he liked me better smaller – physically, mentally, and emotionally.
He wanted to have 100% of me. He wanted all of me without giving me any of him, and while making me feel like he didn’t need any of me. The truth is, he couldn’t function without that control and power he had over me, my heart, my time, my body, my mind.
I didn’t recognize his behavior and actions as abuse, not only because it’s common for the victim not to until they’ve gotten away from that situation, but because I had previously been in a relationship where the abuse was more physical, so in my mind, what he was doing to me wasn’t abuse. I didn’t even register that anything was being done to me.
An old friend and ex-lover I had been confiding in about certain aspects of my relationship bluntly asked me at one point if he had ever hit me. I said that he hadn’t, not really, no. All he had done was slam me against the wall and then punched said wall. Did that even count? I had been through worse – it was how I excused a lot of what I put up with. It was why I was blind to the fact that he was being mentally, verbally, and emotionally abusive. It was how I overlooked the times he did become physically violent. He had thrown things, he had slammed doors hard enough to rattle the walls, he had broken things, he had punched walls, he had manhandled me, he had pushed me, he had put his hands on me hard enough to leave faint marks behind, and I had seen his eyes go completely black, witnessing him physically and internally restraining himself from acting out towards me. That was violent behavior. He may have never hit me across the face, kicked me, punched me, or pulled my hair – he may have had enough control to never strike me – but the damage he did to my psyche left me as black and blue as if he had done any of those things.
Coming out of an abusive relationship you realize the biggest thing you were robbed of was not your dignity, your time, or your heart, but yourself – who you were and all the things that made you so uniquely and extraordinarily you. You lose yourself like following footprints in the sand, looking up, then down again, to find everything wiped by the tide like nothing was ever there. You may come close to some resemblance of your former self, but you never again revert to the person you were before. No amount of time, healing, or therapy, leads you back to who you were. You are irrevocably changed.
I have insecurities I never had before about who I am as a person, the way I see things, and my appearance. I was left with a rollercoaster of a battle with body image issues. I used to be this exuberant and confident girl who believed in her power and beauty, and who went after what and who she wanted. I doubt myself now, and become paralyzed by the fear that I am not good enough. I don’t see the best in people anymore, and that used to be one of my favorite things about myself. Now, I doubt the good that I do see, I become skeptical of it, I am mistrusting, I wait for the other shoe to drop. I am all too comfortable becoming physically intimate with someone, but sabotage any possibilities of emotionally connecting with anyone. I am jaded.
These are all things that I’m working on, and I know I’ll overcome them all one day, but there will always be a part of me that is tender that won’t let me forget; I’ll always have an inner voice inside me telling me to be careful. The thing that makes me saddest of all is knowing I don’t have it in me anymore to be as giving and generous as I once was. I can’t love again and give my all.
Maybe that’s okay. Maybe my all should always be given to myself and only myself. Maybe only then I can reconnect with even a few of the broken little pieces of who I used to be.