I have spent most of my 20s in emotionally abusive relationships. Until a year ago, I thought I was the worst kind of damaged goods, a girl who could only love men who hurt her.
I know there are three sides to every story. In this article, you're going to hear one; mine. I don't write this with venom. The men I've been involved with were handsome, smart, charming and talented. There were good times. The bad times outweighed them.
Most people don't know I've been in (to clarify again) emotionally abusive relationships. From the outside, I'd bet my life looks pretty great. Some parts of it always were. I guess I am proof that there is no likely candidate for abuse.
For a long time, I found my romantic past embarrassing, confusing and very sad. I didn't want to talk about my experiences because I thought that my kind of pain was self-inflicted.
If I was stupid enough to stay, I deserved it.
But when "the Jian Ghomeshi thing" happened, it was all I could think about. When people first sided with Ghomeshi and not his victims, I was so mad I started shaking. When I started listening to Serial, I had recurring dreams about Hae Min Lee. I was obsessed with figuring out who killed her.
Then, I started dreaming of all my ex-boyfriends again.
Trauma is a funny thing. It hides in the shadowy corners of your mind, resurfacing when all you want is for it to be erased from your memory forever.
I'm writing this for a lot of reasons. Some of them are: I think abusive relationships are an epidemic in our society. It could help someone understand their friend, their sister, their daughter who keeps going back. It could help someone who keeps going back. Because articles like this helped me.
Because what trauma really wants is a voice.
To anyone who needs help,
You think you are crazy.
You're anxious all the time. Your heart beats quickly.
You have a lot of questions for your boyfriend that you don't feel like you can ask. You wonder if you're always being lied to. You spend a lot time in the past, likely when you first fell in love him.
You apologize constantly. When you explain your fights to anyone who will listen, no one understands why you're apologizing. You are always confused.
You're high as a fucking kite when he's nice to you. He says "one small thing," and with an embarrassing clarity, you are reminded of all the parts of yourself you hate. How can he see those parts so clearly?
You cry a lot. Sometimes you know why. Sometimes you don't.
You are not crazy.
When you're with your boyfriend, you're usually with just him alone. You feel weird around your friends and family, the people you used to feel the most yourself around. You can't remember how to feel like yourself anymore. Now, being in your own skin is like a long dull headache that won't lift and then feels like normal. Pretty much all your thoughts about yourself are negative.
"I used to be funny, why aren't I funny anymore?"
You think you are crazy.
There will be good days with your boyfriend. There will be miraculous days of exquisite and suffering beauty between you two.
On these days, you will feel better than the best and like everything's okay. You will believe that the chaos has made you stronger; that he loves you more than anything. These days are bright spots in the darkness that has descended upon you. They are the moments of hope that you'll cling to, your proof that everything is okay.
But moments aren't a life. Moments aren't enough. You deserve weeks, months and years of feeling like everything is okay. You deserve a lifetime of that.
When your relationship ends, you will drown in the confusing, competing narratives in your head, just like you did while in the relationship. Memory is going to be a weird thing for you for a while. Grief is a delusional state.
We really loved each other. I could've helped him if I'd tried harder. I'm not perfect. And sometimes, I don't think love should feel like this.
The latter will be quieter, the former will roar inside you. Some days, you will think you left the most beautiful relationship and the truest love in the whole world. Some days you will think you are just hysterical and crazy and that you weren't being abused at all.
Until very recently, I still had days like that.
After you break up with him, you might not feel an immediate sense of relief, empowerment or really anything that resembles "I know this is the right thing." You will likely feel very alone. Unfortunately, coming out of the fog with your eyes open is more painful than slipping into one without noticing.
But remember: feelings aren't the truth. You aren't the worst off you've ever been. Expect the sadness. It sounds crazy but welcome it. That sadness is going to live in you for a long time and it will teach you a lot. I know you don't believe me, but that sadness is your friend. That sadness is your becoming.
Not everyone you lose is a loss.
Tell your story no matter how murky the details seem at first. Keep talking. Read every article you can find on abuse until you feel an intellectual understanding of what happened tunnel into you emotionally. The head will come first, your heart will follow; it will all become clearer.
Talk to your friends. Talk to your family. I promise you have more than one person in your life that can sympathize with you in the deepest of ways. You know someone who has lived through this. Maybe it's your mom. Maybe she modeled this kind of love for you.
If you're lucky like I was, you'll find a therapist that can help you. There are also a lot of free resources. There are a lot of great 12 step meetings you can go to. There is free counseling available (links below).
When getting help, you will have to reflect on your relationship. Don't blame yourself for not leaving sooner, and don't let anyone else blame you, either. In moments of trauma and shock the brain has a funny way of protecting itself. It's called disassociating. You have done a lot of this.
You will remember about three months in your ex-boyfriend did something and it was like a mask was lifted. He showed you a person you had never met before. I mention this because statistically an abusive person will do something that throws you completely off balance within the first three months. Then, they will be really sorry.
You will come to learn that real love is not a cycle of cruelty, effusive apologies, a honey-moon period, then a dreaded waiting for the other shoe to drop followed by more cruelty. Abusive relationships are defined by this pattern.
When you do leave, you will realize that the space that your relationship took up was enormous. It was, whether you knew it or not, the monkey on the back of every thought you had. When it's gone, the emptiness left in its wake will feel like an ocean around you
It will take way longer than you want to "get over it," and you will think you will never reach the shore.
When I was newly single and going on dates, this is how it went. First, I dated blindly and way more than I should have. I was attracted to guys who were like all my ex-boyfriends, physically and emotionally. Then, I started dating people who were completely different but whom I was not ready to love. Like a scientist, I observed how they treated me with a confusing detachment and thought, "Oh, so this is what it should be like."
"So, this is what kindness is like."
Dating made me feel like the loneliest person in the world for a long time. I wish now I hadn't done it at all, but withdrawal is painful and uncomfortable. I was willing to try anything to feel just a little better.
You will miss your ex boyfriend in a way you didn't know was possible and you don't think should be allowed. You will want to get back together. Abusive relationships fuck your brain chemistry up. They're addictive, and the withdrawal is not fun.
Don't worry, with time, your brain will even out. In awhile, you won't want to be with him anymore. Crying helps you detox, so do a lot of it. So does sleeping, exercise, therapy, eating healthy, seeing your friends and laughing.
For me, alcohol didn't really help. Or I guess, it did, until it didn't.
When you're in the withdrawal phase, you'll begin to understand why you thought being in an abusive relationship was okay for you. You're going to have to look at a lot of your past and your inherited patterns. It can get heavy but knuckle through it. You can do it. I did.
You will tell people that know your ex-boyfriend about what happened and how he treated you. Likely, no one will be surprised by his behaviour. Likely, no one will confront him. This is one of the saddest parts of our world. You will feel like the last one in on a sick joke.
Your ex-boyfriend will probably never apologize to you. If you do hear from him or see him, he will make you feel crazy. He's really good at that. He will likely minimize your history, dismiss your relationship and pull the rug out from under you again. The way he frames you and your relationship will be distorted.
I believe that amends can happen, but usually, not in a timely manner. Like you need time to really unpack and understand why it all happened, so will he. Now factor into this that you have the desire to understand yourself and your behaviour.
The closure you desire is a myth and it's not reachable in one conversation. Closure happens slowly and keeps happening. You'll give it to yourself.
If you leave your boyfriend for someone else, beware. Until you truly understand why you were in the situation you were, emotionally and intellectually, your subconscious will have a sad way of attracting an identical relationship that looks completely different from the outside. This is not always true, but has been my experience.
At first, when the fog is lifting, you will look at your past self with shock and disgust. Then, later, you will look at your past self with sadness. Then, with understanding. Finally, you feel the most visceral pride for the moment you left, even if you didn't want to -- because you did that on the blind faith that life might be better on the other side. You did that on hope alone. You didn't know what you do now. That's so brave.
You are so brave.
I know how scared you are. I still get scared. My year of recovery has been the most challenging and rewarding of my life. It's not perfect and I don't think it ever will be. I get lonely and restless. I live with those feelings. Actually, I try to understand them.
One day, your life will look like a version of mine. Things will keep getting better and better, faster and faster. Good things will keep finding you. You will be really happy. That happiness will get so big that you won't notice how the sadness is lifting until it's almost gone.
My life is full of hard work, art, friends who love and support me, friends that I am lucky to know. I have more energy than I know what to do with. I am the most productive I have ever been. I travel, I have meaningful conversation, I rest, I laugh a lot, I stay out too late. I am closer to my family than ever before. I found my way back to my old friends.
Maybe I'm becoming myself again.
Finally, (I know you're worried about this) you will meet someone else. You will fall in love again and this time, it will be about more than your wounds matching up with someone else's. It will be different and it will be better.
But something becomes more important to you than romantic love and it's called self-worth. It will feel like it happens almost over night, but you will grow to love the person you are. You should.
You fought hard to become her.
P.S. If you have a friend or a family member, male, female or transgender, that you suspect is the victim of emotional abuse, tell them you are there for them. Tell them you support them unwaveringly. Believe what they're telling you. Tell them you will be there for them when they decide to leave. Show them this article or articles like this. Send them these links:
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