Two years ago, I’d matched with a guy on Tinder who was the definition of my type: buff, bearded, and loaded with baggage. After little convincing, my friend and I went to get drinks at the bar he managed because who doesn’t love free drinks from a hot guy who runs the place? Long story short, it was love at first sight (for me). I went home with him and spent the next four nights at his place. Talk about going 1-100. The two months that followed were a fairytale. I had never felt so happy and I had never been so in love with another human being. He had his flaws, but at that point, I didn’t care about any of them. I was on Cloud 9 and nothing was going to bring me down.
That was until the three-month mark rolled around and he hadn’t asked me to be his girlfriend yet. When I brought it up to him, he told me that he just “wasn’t emotionally ready” for a relationship because of how badly his previous one had ended. He gave me this whole sob story about how his ex was abusive both emotionally and physically and how she was just absolutely crazy and my empathetic ass bought it. I don’t want to necessarily discredit him but at this point, I’m not entirely sure how accurate that story is. But I was frustrated and confused as anyone in my situation would be because we would spend 4-5 days in a row together every week. The only thing that would’ve changed in our relationship was our relationship status. That was the first red flag. The first of many.
So at this point you start to think. Or overthink, as I like to do. In my head, there was only one logical reason for this, considering I was essentially his girlfriend, just without the title. I present to you the thoughts that started overwhelming my brain at this point:
He must be seeing other girls. But I’m with him all the time. And when we’re not together we’re usually texting. Or are we? He does like a lot of other girls pictures on Instagram. Maybe this is why he doesn’t let his texts pop up on his phone. Does he still have a Tinder? Shit, I should’ve asked. But what if he lies about it? When he says he’s going to bed does he actually mean it? What if he’s not really at work when he says he is? But I usually drive him to work so he must be. But there was that one time I didn’t hear from him for 6 hours because he said he didn’t have service. When doesn’t someone have service? Maybe he was with someone then. Sometimes he gets home from work at 2:30 in the morning and sometimes 3:30. Why an extra hour later some nights?
Believe me, the list goes on, but I’m sure you get the picture.
After going through his phone one morning while he was asleep (because he didn’t know I knew his password and because I couldn’t take my thoughts any longer), my fears were confirmed. He had tons of texts and Tinder messages from multiple girls. His most recent text thread was from a girl named “Hot Emily”. He had texted her saying, “good night gorgeous” while I was sleeping in bed next to him. I felt like someone had just ripped my heart out of my chest. He then woke up due to my uncontrollable crying and apologized for “hurting me”. Hurting me? Felt more like he ran over my body with an excavator fifty times while digging my grave. It will go down as one of the worst days of my life thus far. Not only because that pain from that day has left a permanent scar but because I can’t explain to you how much I regret not leaving after that. Or after the time(s) I found girls socks in his bedroom while doing his laundry. “Your mom’s socks again? Really?” How much more naïve could I have been?
He apologized for the messages. Begged me not to leave him. And just like that I was back at his house sleeping over not two days later. At this point, the narcissistic abuse was already so bad that even if he hadn’t begged me to come back, I probably would’ve anyway. It was then that I became aware of the toxic reality of the situation. Let me explain.
Going back to someone who has caused you an unreasonable amount of harm isn’t normal. I’d like to think that the majority of girls who, had they been in my situation, would’ve been like, “Boy, bye. I deserve better.” But the idealization phase was so strong that I always craved those highs. The idealization phase of a narcissistic abusive relationship (the beginning) is when the abuser draws you in with lots of attention, flattery, and “love”. The fairytale, as I like to call it.
Next comes the devaluation phase. As Shahida Arabi mentions in her book, POWER: Surviving and Thriving after Narcissistic Abuse, “The first time a narcissist throws you off the pedestal is actually the best time to leave and it is usually the moment most survivors wish they had left, had they known what they were dealing with.” In my situation, this act of betrayal was the devaluation phase, but there are many ways the narcissist can toss you off the pedestal.
Finally is the discard phase. During this phase the narcissist stoops even lower by ensuring that you feel worthless. This phase happened in two steps for me: first, when I broke up with him for a final time and he blatantly ignored me, denying me any closure. Then, six weeks later, I found out that he’d been seeing someone else for months: someone I’d questioned him about on multiple occasions but like clockwork, he had denied it.
I’ll come back to the cheating in a bit, but first I want to talk about the psychological effects this relationship had on me. During the majority of my time with him I felt like I was crazy. Not only because he would tell me I was, but because my thoughts and actions weren’t mine. Him, his dogs, and our relationship had become my whole world. I had essentially lost control of my life. I had given up pursuing my passions, lost contact with most of my friends, and rearranged my everyday around him because he was the only priority in my life. It felt like a fulltime job, and not one I enjoyed. But there’s no denying that I was living for him: from the second I woke up to the second I’d fall asleep, the relationship was the only thing I’d think about. It controlled my thoughts, feelings, and whether I would have a good or a bad day. And since my brain was consumed at all hours of the day with thoughts of insecurity in regards to what I believed was the most important thing in my life, (along with other things that he would do to further my insanity), I began to literally go crazy. I became a miserable human being… someone I didn’t know, someone who wasn’t me, and I wasn’t sure I’d ever be able to escape the situation or the person I’d become. Every time I would try to leave him, the pain of the withdrawal I felt was so strong that I always went back. Yes, withdrawal. I was so addicted to him and to the highs of our relationship that leaving him gave me the same symptoms a drug addict would feel in rehab. (And no, I didn’t just make that up: you can read more about it in Chapter 17 of Arabi’s POWER.) I figured that the pain I felt with him couldn’t be as bad as the pain I felt without him. At least if I stayed, I’d have the occasional high. But there were nights that I’d felt so mentally unstable that I would get in my car and contemplate driving myself to a psychiatric hospital, all because of a relationship. I couldn’t escape the one thing that was ruining me in every way. How could this person be my worst enemy but also my best friend? I knew the relationship was toxic and I knew that this situation was incredibly unhealthy for me and had taken over my life, but I felt helpless. I knew that the longer I stayed, the harder it would be to get out, but that wasn’t enough for me to leave. If I couldn’t save myself, no one else could.
We had this constant cycle of really high highs and really unbearable lows that served to keep me drawn in. Even when there was an in-between, I usually wasn’t happy. Which, according to him was my problem, my fault. Just like everything else in the relationship, I was always to blame, always at fault, and always apologizing. He would use Intermittent Reinforcement to keep me hooked on these happy highs. He would give me occasional tastes of things I loved (like dates, words of affirmation, an unusual amount of attention, a gift, etc), and because I received them so rarely, they meant much more to me than they should have. Him calling me baby or kissing me good night when he’d get home from work late shouldn’t have made my week, but they did. These were such little things for him to do to keep me coming back for more but they worked every time and I lived for the highs. I stayed for them. This was linked to the abuse cycle: he would do something that would upset me, we’d fight about it for a couple days, he’d usually ignore me for a bit, then he’d ask me to come over to cuddle or say I love you for the first time in weeks and I’d be okay again. Then it’d repeat. This was the majority of our relationship. He even went so far as to tell me that he loved me for the first time mere seconds after I had broke down crying in front of him, telling him that I couldn’t handle the relationship anymore because it was destroying me. “But I love you…” was clearly enough for me to ignore my own sanity and stay for another year.
He didn’t ask me to be his girlfriend until we had been “dating” for a year-and-a-half. And the only reason he did it was because I told him, “If I’m not your girlfriend by midnight, I’m never speaking to you again.” Though knowing my habits of not being able to leave him, that likely wouldn’t have been possible for me, but he must’ve believed it because he asked. And I said no. No, that wasn’t my revenge plan all along. But in my head, if you’re going to make me wait a year and a half for the one thing I wanted more than air, then I’m going to expect an over-the-top experience with fireworks and a speech, followed by some good Mexican food. Okay, maybe that’s a little excessive, but as you can imagine, there wasn’t much work put into it, not to mention the fact that I basically had to force him to do it, I was disappointed. So I said no. And little did I know, that “no” gave him the green light to find someone else while keeping me around.
Things lasted for about two more months before I had hit my final breaking point. I had texted him one day saying that I needed to talk to him because I couldn’t do it anymore. At that point, I didn’t care if the withdrawal hurt; I didn’t think it was possible to feel any more pain. And what does he do? Ignores my text for 48 hours and then responds saying, “Yeah, Sam, I need space from you. You’re driving me crazy.” And if that isn’t textbook for a narcissistic abuser, I don’t know what is. So, naturally, feeling the symptoms of withdrawal, I still reached out to him through email occasionally throughout the six weeks that followed (because he had me blocked everywhere else): mostly nice emails, one even begging him to take me back. In my head, there was still hope that we’d get back together, and I held on to that hope the whole six weeks. It gave me comfort, even though I spent most of my days crying. He ignored all but a couple of my emails during that time. He was really good at ignoring me.
Then, one day I received a call from my cousin who was following him on Instagram (because I was blocked, remember), and she told me that he had posted a picture with another girl in Vegas and that they were kissing in the photo. My heart started to race and thought I was going to puke, for three reasons: 1. Because my biggest fear during the entire relationship was him having/finding another girl. I worried about it every day, excessively, and there it was, in picture evidence, right in front of my eyes. 2. I would’ve legitimately given my one of my kidneys for him to post a picture with me on social media. That was another aspect of our relationship that had slowly eaten away at me. I felt like a secret (because I was), but was always assured that he just liked to keep his personal life personal. I guess that was just for me. And 3. Every time I asked him to go somewhere with me, he’d say no because he couldn’t leave his dogs. He didn’t want to have to ask his brother to watch them. I had to beg him to come to Catalina with me for the day for my birthday… and even that was like pulling teeth. But here he is, in Vegas, with some girl who he’d only met a few times because she lives in Arkansas (still have no idea how they met). It is quite ironic though, I’d joked a couple times while we were together that he should just be in a long distance relationship because he never wanted to spend time together. Well that bit me in the ass, didn’t it… I must say though, I do miss those dogs.
That picture essentially confirmed the worthlessness I’d felt for so long. Everything I had worked so hard for, he literally handed to this girl. Things I wanted more than I even have the words to explain. I would think to myself, well, maybe if I try a little harder (as if that was possible), love him a little more, kiss him a little longer, he’ll tell people about me. Or, maybe if I work out harder or do my hair more often, he won’t be so embarrassed or ashamed of me. Maybe then he’ll post a picture. But it didn’t matter how hard I tried, I was never going to be enough. And the fact of the matter is, I was giving 110% to this relationship and it was destroying me. He was letting me know, in numerous ways, that I simply was not good enough (to be his girlfriend, to go on dates, to hear words of affirmation, to feel special, for a post on social media, the list goes on) but I couldn’t give up. He had me believing that I was worthless and I’m still working on building myself up from that, months after it’s over. Regardless, once I’d learned about this girl, I knew it was over. That was my closure. That was my answer to why he had been ignoring me, and the permission I needed to give myself to let go and move on. And that’s what I did.
Nonetheless, the most important part of the entire story is this: I stayed with him for as long as I did because I feared the pain that I’d feel the day that he was no longer in my life. I thought that my world would crumble around me once he was gone, so I stayed in the toxic relationship. But on that day, once I got passed the initial shock of him cheating, I actually felt free. I felt like I could breathe again, like this weight had been lifted off of my shoulders. My world didn’t crumble because he was gone. It had already been crumbled, and now I could start putting it back together. Yes, I have a big hole to dig myself out of, mentally and emotionally, but suddenly there was a ladder there to help me get out.
I’m now two months into recovery. Two months of zero contact. Something I’d never dreamt possible. I’m not going to lie, as free as I’ve felt, it has been extremely difficult. I have to recover from over a year-and-a-half of narcissistic abuse and a skewed view of love that has affected me and will continue to, in more ways than I can count. But I’m taking steps to help aid in my recovery (therapy, SLAA, self-help books, talking to friends, and writing a screen play about it… keep your eye out) because recovery is much harder to do alone. I will say that Shahida Arabi’s book has helped me immensely. I didn’t even know narcissistic abuse existed, much less described my situation, until I came across her article on it and bought her book. And that’s part of the reason I’m writing this. I wish I‘d come across an article that helped me understand my situation, to help me feel less alone, less crazy, while I was in it. I feel I might’ve been able to get out sooner had I had the resources, so reader, if this gives you a little bit of clarity, I want you to know that you’re not alone, and that on the other side of fear, is freedom.