I was supposed to go back to the east coast this holiday season. My significant other and I had planned to meet each other’s families. I intended to present him to my mom and dad and say, “Look. See. This is the person who has managed to not make me sigh of indifference or fear for my life.”
And my parents would say something like,
“Oh, thank God!”
I haven’t met anyone’s family in quite a long time. My dating style consistently sticks to the following pattern:
1. Jump all in.
2. Hang around for a year or so at most.
4. Jump all out.
It was a vicious, constant cycle. This accurately sums up me in most of my past relationships:
I partially attribute this to an abusive relationship when I was 18.
I graduated high school, went off to college, and immediately started dating someone embarrassingly older than me. He was the sort of man who limited my visits home. He cornered me into ending most of my friendships and cut me off from people in general. He insisted on “total transparency,” which is code for “Tell me every single thing about your day, or I swear to God, we will sit here for three hours until I feel satisfied that you didn’t tempt another man to look upon you.”
He obsessed over his ex girlfriend to the tune of several times a day. He consistently talked down to me. He forced me to quit jobs so that my funds and income were extremely limited. Not only did he find it acceptable to hit women, but he thought that women secretly enjoyed being hit, saying things like, “It’s all for you,” on more than one occasion. He never went ballistic because he got carried away; he went ballistic because apparently I needed him to. That was how he saw it.
After a year and a half, I got it together enough to ask for help from my family and the friends I had managed to not alienate. I packed a small bag and, after one last confrontation during which I told him that I was leaving, I drove home. I was supposed to fly north with him for the holidays the next morning. Instead, I drove back with two friends and moved all of my stuff out of his house. With the exception of a frightening drive home when we passed each other on the road, I have not seen or had any contact with him since. I got out, but not before I almost gave up or lost everything.
It would be nice if I could say, “… and then it was all over and everything turned back to normal and I was completely fine!”
Discussions around domestic abuse tend to focus on the aspect of leaving. You don’t hear as much about the aftermath, but it exists and it’s ugly. Nobody becomes magically “all better” just because they get out. Your brain was basically re-programmed over an extended period of time. You can’t just undo that. Getting out is only the beginning of a long and arduous healing process.
Leaving doesn’t make you a saint. It doesn’t make you a strong, impenetrable beacon of goodness, strength, and hope. Leaving just gets you out.
No one tells you that your judge of character becomes severely compromised while you’re in an abusive or very controlling relationship. When you get out, all you want is friends and to be around people. You can now interact with everyone you weren’t allowed to before. So you do – with whoever will tolerate you, regardless of their character.
No one warns you about the onslaught of panic attacks and the countless triggers that you didn’t know existed. No one tells you how good you will become at excusing yourself before you make a spectacle – or the weird tricks you learn to taper your anxiety. There’s also no way for you to know that sometimes you won’t make it completely out of eyesight or ear shot before you hyperventilate or break out.
No one talks about the selfishness you experience because you can finally be selfish. You wreak havoc on yourself and everyone around you because of it. You might rekindle a good number of the relationships you lost, but then you alienate them all over again because you understandably want to act out, have fun, and do everything you can to avoid thinking about what you have experienced. That or forget it entirely, even if it’s only temporary.
No one talks about the embarrassing things you do in the name of your new found freedom. You feel robbed of time and experiences and you desperately want to catch up. You want to be able to identify with your friends and other people who have led normal lives during a time of significant growth and change. So you party. You hook up with people. You try to do as much as you can as fast as you can. You are ridiculous.
No one warns you that you are about to do and say a lot of stupid, hurtful things.
At first you get a small grace period to adjust where people will look past your foolishness and your mistakes, but a small grace period is just not enough time to deal with the onslaught of psychological fallout.
That brings me to the element of shame. You feel ashamed that you allowed yourself to get into a situation like that in the first place, you feel ashamed that you didn’t leave sooner, you feel ashamed that you turned into a crazy person when it was over, and you feel ashamed because you have difficulty relating to other people. Eventually, you constantly feel ashamed just because.
No one ever tells you that you will probably deal with these things for years after you leave. Your feelings and instincts regarding relationships have quite possibly been changed forever.
I never went to therapy for a couple of reasons. For one, I could not afford it. For another, I refused to admit that I needed it. I just blundered around my life and wasted time and took no care in bettering myself. I just festered. I made excuses for myself. I took no initiative to repair any of the damage. This carried over into the relationships that I entered into.
I don’t want to throw around specific periods of time, but this past November marked a significant anniversary of me leaving. I felt like enough time had passed that I should have eliminated every single remnant of him. Yet, when an old friend who I have known since before, during, and after the situation came to visit, I couldn’t help but talk about it. It continues to impact my life. There is not one day that goes by where I don’t think about it.
I sometimes wonder if I would have been better at picking partners if I had never experienced that situation. In the years that followed, I picked partners whose goals didn’t match up with mine. I often picked partners who were clinically depressed – a terrible idea when you, yourself, are also depressed. I dated people who lacked motivation.
Oddly enough, I also found myself strangely attracted to people who displayed the same suspicious, manipulative characteristics as the crazy man from years prior. I once dated someone who could not move past the fact that I had a bunch of guy friends. They had trouble understanding that my friends were more like actual brothers and less like actual brothers that I wanted to have sex with. To him and many others, if I place myself in the company of men, I must want them to screw -me.
I dress like this most of the time.
I’m not wearing this beanie and flannel because I need my friends to give me their undivided sexual attention. I don’t flounce around and sit on people’s laps or talk in a baby voice. I hate getting picked up. I don’t want them to want to screw me, so lay off.
I once dated someone who told me, “The only reason you want to go dancing with your friends is so men will hit on you.”
It’s a far cry from playing whack-a-mole with my face, yes. It is common, yes. However, this idea that we must want to get hit on if we choose to go out with our own kind (women) and have fun (dancing) is indicative of a controlling and predatory nature that affects much of the male population. It doesn’t need to be dangerous; for me, having experienced what I have experienced, it is unacceptable.
Sometimes there would be nothing wrong with them at all; I simply could not be in a relationship without feeling stifled. However, I digress: what I’m saying is I’d hang around and have fun until it wasn’t fun anymore. Then I’d realize the following: I had not grown as a person, I had made no significant progress with my career, and I felt trapped in yet another relationship. I’d simmer in my own self pity for a period of time. Sometimes I’d make shitty decisions. Always I’d leave.
It went that way for a long time. I have wanted to explain to people. I feel judged all the time. I feel like people think that I’m weird, depressed, or difficult. I want to say, “If you had any idea at all,” but I don’t for a couple of reasons.
For one, it’s how people as a majority react to a revelation of abuse. People don’t want to hear about it. The word “abuse” triggers an eye roll and an accompanying thought like, “Oh my god, not this again.”
Either that or it’s this fashionable cause to get loud about – something that you can post a few articles about on Facebook and then pat yourself on the back for a job well done. Sometimes I feel like the only people who are ever going to truly get it are the ones who have actually been there.
For another, there’s the aforementioned shame factor; the idea that you shouldn’t be the way you are in the first place, that it doesn’t matter that anything happened to you, and that you are weak for even giving this issue the time of day after so much time has passed.
I recently took well over a year off from relationships. Well, serious ones. I tried the whole “casual” thing that the kids are doing these days. I believe they call it hanging out. Except hanging out is dumb. You essentially spend time with someone you don’t know if you could ever be serious with who has no idea if they could ever serious with you. You sit and kind of enjoy each other’s company for a while, but the stale conversation and lack of momentum build up and, ultimately, you find yourself with your head in your hands as you stare at the table and mutter, “What exactly is the point of all of this, again?”
Which, if you’re into hook-up culture, is fine. I’m not into hook-up culture, though. It’s unsatisfying. There’s no requirement for a real beginning or a real end; things taper off or fizzle out and I hate the uncertainty. I like the idea of relationships. It’s just that I forgot how to be good in them. I forgot that they are supposed be quite wonderful. I became engulfed in the failures of my own and the failures that I constantly felt surrounded by. Divorce, break-ups, couples that hate each other, or people who resent or will resent the sacrifices they have made for their relationship practically ooze out of our society. That last one especially strikes a cord with me: I have to deal with the fact that, on some level, I still think that relationships are traps.
I want to make this clear: as of right now, I think that my relationship with D is great.
I was friends with D for a while before we started dating. After it became apparent that we were into each other, I said no to dating. He had been with his previous girlfriend for over five years. Something that significant can’t end without producing emotional baggage – which I didn’t want to deal with.
“You were in your last relationship for how long? Over five years? Oh, no no no. You need to chill out.”
Fast forward: we actually make a good couple. We can talk openly about nearly anything. D has seen the inside of the toilet after I forget to flush and he still wants to be with me – that’s saying something. He knows that I’m great with children but completely and totally respects that fact that I do not want to be a mother. I never have to worry about him becoming upset if I want to be alone or with my friends or make new friends. We joke and talk openly about attractions to other people that we experience. I tell him when I think he’s being an ass and he tells me when I’m being a crazy person. He is ridiculously helpful. We are both poor, but I’m not really dating someone to be taken care of, so that aspect doesn’t bother me.
I’d rather not screw it all up because of my pent up issues from something that happened years ago. But I’d also like to stop feeling like every single relationship that I enter into is stopping me from other things. It’s difficult to write, network, make friends in the improv community, and create your own projects when you have a significant other that you spend the majority of your time with.
Then again, maybe that’s how I have conditioned myself to feel about relationships. D doesn’t stop me from doing anything; he encourages me to do anything I can think of. The only reason I even submitted something to the Sundance Lab was because he hounded and hounded me until I did it.
The relationships never stopped me; I stopped me. I can’t let that kind of negativity control my professional and personal life. I can’t continue to blame it on other people, especially if I’m surrounded by people who want to see me succeed.
How do you go from feeling weighed down, cloudy, and anxious to feeling motivated, clear headed, and excited? I want to make a New Year’s Resolution, but to say, “I promise myself I’m going to do better!” with no real idea how to actually do it – well, it seems pathetic. How do I feel confident in a relationship and feel confident as a person and a performer at the same time?
So let’s just start here: I’m with someone who I get along with and supports me in what I want to do. When I say, “I want to go to shows or get to know people well enough to work with them on an improv team,” he says, “Yes! Do it! I absolutely support you.”
What’s in the past is in the past. I’ve wasted so much time worrying about the past and how the past has affected my life. I’m the one who affects my life. I have a feeling that if I could see a therapist, they would tell me something similar.
“Sorry that some guy slapped you around and screwed with your head A MILLION YEARS AGO, Jas. However, it’s time to make a concerted effort to let it all go. You’re the only one holding yourself back at this point.”
They would be right. To give myself a little credit, I’ve come a long way. I just know that I can go a lot further.