** trigger warning: domestic abuse **
People often talk about abusive relationships in the abstract. Details are painful or shameful. Admitting what feels and seems like a shocking level of “weakness” is embarrassing. Embracing your complicity in a toxic situation is really tough. Explaining your past to people who are “too strong to ever put themselves in that situation” is humiliating. Examining your decisions with a magnifying glass can be maddening.
Thankfully, many people don’t understand what abuse feels like. What you lose and how you lose it. (Gradually, first, then in waves until you’re pulled under.) I can’t tell you how many times I Googled “signs of a toxic relationship,” or trolled advice columns yearning to find something that would give me permission or validation to leave. All of it was broad and generic and left me enough room to close my computer and keep treading water. In spelling it out, hopefully my experiences can help someone else out there who is googling for answers or hope or clarity. You’re not alone, and you’re stronger than you think.
I refer to the things I gave up/lost/walked away from during my abusive relationship as the “things I lost in the fire.” Most of those “things” were items or people that were proof that I existed prior to him; things to which he ascribed inappropriate or inaccurate weight/meaning:
- HOBBIES: It started early. The marathon training I had just started before we met suggested I “wasn’t serious” about a relationship because it took time away from him. I was in the best shape of my life and the long runs that required early mornings and time away devolved into panic attacks. Without choice, my training runs suddenly became shared time. I stopped racing entirely, afraid of the training, of the arguments, or picking a race that would anger him, of running into people I had been forced to step away from.
- POSSESSIONS: One of the most vivid memories of my relationship is the day we moved me out of my own apt. We drove past the dumpsters that were piled with the majority of my belongings. The mattress that had been “used by other men,” the bookshelves I proudly built by hand that “were too heavy and didn’t work with what ‘we’ had…”
- TROPHIES: Race medals and clothing I had earned while dating other people weren’t allowed in “his” home. I once fearfully (and tearfully) filled a duffel bag with the “forbidden” clothing I had been hiding at the bottom of drawers/closets and placed it in the trash room on a different floor, concerned that he would see it and hopeful that it would benefit someone else instead of end up in a landfill.
- MEMORIES: My privacy was nonexistent, and anything I had ever thought to put down on paper was fair game for critique/debate. I couldn’t leave my laptop open without password protection because he once went through my email and berated me for a four-year-old email about a bottle of wine I had tried to track down for a guy I was dating. After that, I started opening my email in my browser’s privacy mode so I didn’t have to remember to log out. I deleted scores of ancient, forgotten completely innocent pictures and emails from my computer and social media. At one point, I took a sharpie and redacted excerpts from my old journals about high school/college crushes or relationships because I was fearful that he would use that as a weapon. There are practically no photos of me from this entire time. I disappeared.
- CONNECTIONS: He spent HOURS and HOURS over the course of our relationship scouring social media, digging up comments or tweets or photos from/to/about exes, mutual friends of exes, and even people who had ever interacted with an ex at the most superficial level. He constructed elaborate backstories or context for the most innocent of interactions. Everything was viewed under the lens of “whore.”
- VOCABULARY: I once called something “innocuous” in an argument about something he had dug up from god knows where. He didn’t know what that word meant, and my push back, combined with his ignorance, threatened him. That word became a trigger for him. It inspired rage. In turn, I was called all kinds of vile and nasty things. If you’ve cringed at it, I’ve been called it.
- TRANSPARENCY: I started to lie about everything; where I got something, who I was with, how I knew something, where I had been. You quickly learn what can be used as a weapon, and to blunt the truth wherever possible. Instead of giving him knives, I gave him spoons. I learned to be just evasive enough.
- OPENNESS: The list of forbidden names, places, events, and things got longer and longer the more time he spent digging for reasons to be angry. I deleted all of my social media accounts and ancient, long-forgotten photo albums in an attempt to starve him of the fuel he sought for his anger. My world was filled with tight ropes; I white-knuckled almost two years of my life. I didn’t laugh, I didn’t tell jokes. I spent every conversation on the edge of my seat, in fear that someone might say something that would trigger his anger, or give him “justification” that a friend was a bad person to be cut out our lives. I smiled weakly. I faded. I stopped talking to people out of embarrassment. Everyone could see me for who I was: weak, pathetic.
- INTERACTION: He refused to spend time with friends who had ever *met* anyone I once dated & constructed elaborate rules around making plans with my friends, conflicting reasons why existing plans had to be cancelled, and angry diatribes when I spent time with anyone solo. I sectioned some people off into a social quarantine. In my mind, if I never reached out or made plans with them, time would stand still and they/I wouldn’t get hurt. In reality, that meant people were ghosted and relationships were irreparably damaged. It meant that I lost time with dear friends that I will never, ever get back.
- FRIENDS: People in my life were cut out and cut off with weak excuses that boiled down to fear. Friends who deserved better were discarded. My family + friends were forbidden from speaking of anything/one tangentially-related to my past. If they did, I paid for it with further isolation/rules. I cut off my best friend and spent two years missing her on a daily basis. I almost missed out on the birth of her first child.
- SLEEP: I feared the times he traveled for work the most. He would spend hours alone in his hotel room on the internet, working himself into a frenzy, calling me at all hours of the night, morning, at work to scream. Rehashing arguments or comments or concerns from the ancient past. I started sleeping with my phone in airplane mode & dreaded turning it back on in the morning. He would wake me up early in the morning to tell me I’m a liar, that I’ll never be forgiven, that he was leaving me. He took what I valued and disrupted it.
- TIME: I once bolted home from a friend’s house (what turned out to be a bit of an intervention, ironically) so that if he FaceTimed me, he wouldn’t know I had been out. I couldn’t leave my phone in my purse. I dreaded the notification of “XX missed calls, XX test messages.” I spent dinners or movies or happy hours or any time away from him in constant fear. I missed opportunities with people that I will never see again. I spent the better part of a wedding reception convincing him that leaving him for 2 minutes to say hi to the bride’s sister wasn’t inappropriate. I spent days and days and days at work either in a fog from a fight/lack of sleep, or attempting to ignore or mute his repeated calls to my office to fight more about some tired artifact he dug up. In a different office environment, I probably would have lost my job. I was never present.
- SHAME: Perhaps one of the things I’m most ashamed of doing: I declawed my 10-yo cat. After already committing to moving in together and setting things in motion, he gave me an ultimatum. Fully declaw the cat I had owned since college or lose him. Ultimately (thankfully), she’s fine, but her health & well-being were my responsibility. She went through a lot of unnecessary pain and surgical risk to satisfy his selfish needs.
- HEALTH: Towards the end of the relationship, I developed shingles from the stress. At 30 years old. You can go ahead and google that. It’s not normal. I stopped running. I gained weight. I lost weight. I lost sleep.
- SELF-WORTH: I was constantly reminded that my student loans were an anchor to the future he imagined. My work/job were diminished. My law school knowledge was dismissed when explaining the simplest legal matters. Even household chores were too complex. He repeatedly told me I couldn’t possibly Swiffer/mop the floors properly by myself.
I internalized all of this. Friends and family – the ones that remained – saw pieces, warning signs. They tried to intervene in ways that wouldn’t isolate me further. Their eyes regularly dripped with sadness and concern. They watched their words around me, aware of the traps but confused by the rules. They went through the motions and hoped for the best. I refused to shine lights into the dark corners. I had been told that our business was ours alone. He wielded his “love” and our relationship as a weapon, and my stubborn urge to hold things together, to prove I wasn’t a failure, to be loved, was the sword upon which I fell.
While the majority of his abuse was psychological/verbal, he regularly attempted to intimidate me with aggressive stances, hovering over me during arguments, and there were moments where things got physical. The last time it happened – the night I left him – I missed a dear friend’s going away party. I sent flaky apologies for my absence. The party was less than a mile away, and I felt more alone than ever.
He smashed a chair on the floor. A canister of drink powder. My friend was disappointed in me, and as I continued to send feeble responses, I saw the last grips of any connection I had to the outside world sliding away. “He’s getting physical,” I texted. “I’m on my way,” came the response. The relief felt immediate and warm and thrilling. I had finally pulled back the curtain.
I grabbed my coat and ran to the stairs; I didn’t trust the elevator’s speed. He chased me through the basement levels, finally cornering me in the stairwell. In desperation, I jumped through the railing to the level below, fleeing through a side door and falling into the arms of my friends a block away.
I don’t remember where we went or what was said. I think we sat at a nearby Dunkin Donuts where they gave me water and let a jumble of words and apologies and justifications and sadness – almost two years worth – spill out of me. I slept in my friend’s sweat pants. The next morning, I sat at her dining room table, an ice pack on my broken hand, surrounded by love and concern and relief and sadness. There were bagels. I cried. I was deeply ashamed, deeply sad, and deeply and profoundly grateful for their support. They waited outside in their car the next morning as I went back home and packed some necessities. I rebuffed their offer to come inside with me (I was afraid it would set him off), and instead agreed to text them every ten minutes that I was safe. They gave me the strength to finally go through with the escape I had considered and daydreamed and weakly abandoned several times before. I didn’t expect things to end so dramatically as fleeing in the middle of the night. I had begun to accept that our relationship would end in divorce or (my) death. I had started getting used to the idea that my world would have to shatter in order to break free.
Over the next few weeks, I picked myself up. I found a new place. I moved myself out – hiring movers wasn’t in my budget and the physical labor felt like the appropriate penance for my bad decisions. I slept on an air mattress for weeks. The first month was focused on surviving. The next few shifted to thriving. I saw promise and hope in the act of filling the empty rooms. I healed. I ran. I cried as my mom bought me necessities (silverware and a plunger) at Target: things I had recently left next to a dumpster. I wasn’t perfect, and I remained deeply ashamed of my actions throughout that relationship, but I grew from that shame and fear and anger. I forgave myself.
After some time, I steeled myself to reach out to some of the people I had left behind. Some friends came back. I sadly left others – those that publicly mocked me for stepping away – behind. I still brace myself for the time when I may bump into them. I still feel sadness about what happened. I still feel some anger at the way they chose to express their hurt. I still feel conflicted and guilty about what I did in the name of self-preservation, but I can’t take any of that back.
The specific details of what I endured are personal, but the story is universal. Abusers aren’t creative. They’re volatile carbon copies; embarrassingly transparent in their insecurities and desperation. They cling to ownership and dominance. They’re men, they’re women; they’re not animals, but they’re not human.
It’s been years, but from the ashes of what I lost, I found joy. I found love and partnership on a level I never dreamed possible. I found self-worth, reconnected with friends, rebuilt a life for myself. Even still, with all that I have today, with all of the full and enthusiastic wonder with which I now live my life, I harbor regret for what happened. I still wonder how life might have been different.
I still mourn the things I lost in the fire.