The Most Painful Kind of Abuse
One of the best kinds of love, I think, is the love you give yourself.
Recently I found myself asking the question, “Why didn’t anyone really do anything about it?” The question startled me. For at least a year I tiptoed around this issue, choosing to laugh it off as a joke rather than something serious. Remember that period when you guys never saw me and I lost all contact with my friends? That time when I claimed to have become really clumsy when I showed up to school or work with bruises? Ha-ha, what times! How dumb was I!
I met P in college. He was two years younger than me, and I got to know him through a cultural organization we were both on the board of. Our story started not unlike how many other relationships start — through a drunken hook-up at a party. For about three years we were more on than off, and for about three years he denied our relationship and refused to admit that we were anything. I clung onto him more each time he threatened to leave and came back, and the more he chipped away in my life, from my friendships to my grades, the more isolated and without control I became. We created our own little world and I told myself I was special in his life. Even after the bruises and cuts started appearing, I would try to find little victories, moments where he was sweet to me, desperate to find any word, gesture or emotion that would confirm his affections for me.
I am standing in the hallway of my studio apartment, sobbing but trying hard not to because he is screaming at me to stop crying because I didn’t have a right to cry. He is yelling at me to take off my pants, take them off and check if I have a dick because surely, there was no way I could be a woman if I had the audacity to talk back and sound so manly. I was vulgar, disgusting, desperate, a turn-off. There was nothing elegant, “ladylike”, pretty or likeable about me.
I believed almost everything he told me. He told me if I were really sorry I would prove it by taking off my clothes in the frigid winter streets of New York and take a picture. If I were really sorry I would prove it by drinking water from the toilet. If I were really sorry I would go up to my friend who’d always liked me and ask him to sleep with me and film the whole thing. No matter how sorry I ever was, his anger and everything that came with it was always my fault.
They (the always unidentified, collective they) say that victims of abuse often blame themselves for what had happened. That the victim had done something wrong to deserve the abuse in the first place. That the other party was justified in some way. That he or she wasn’t really a bad person, he or she was just caught up in the moment and it was really my fault that led him or her to be so angry in the first place.
I hit up all these excuses and more, mostly to myself, but to anyone that knew what was happening. Many times after a fight, P would hold me and tell me he was a monster, that he should be locked up, and I would repeatedly tell him he wasn’t, that it was all me turning him this way, and how I should try to be a better person.
A part of me (consciously or subconsciously) chose to pretend nothing happened simply because it was too painful to think about. Another part of me could hear his voice in my head when I did think about it, reminding me just how arrogant, self-centered and egoistic it would be of me to talk about my problems with other people. People did know, I wasn’t very good at hiding secrets, nor did I try very hard to hide these problems.
Maybe people do want to believe that things are better than they really are and choose to not interfere in what they do not know. Maybe things weren’t as bad as they were. I don’t ask the question “Why didn’t anyone really do anything about it?” because I want to blame anyone who knew what was happening and did nothing about it. I don’t think I could have been helped unless I really wanted to, which was difficult to ask for as I was stuck.
A few years ago, P moved across the country to a different city for a new job, and I cried my eyes out the night he left. For a few months we continued to talk, and nothing changed. We were still not in a relationship. I was still expected to respond to his every text within seconds, and no text could be left unread. It didn’t matter if I had an important client meeting, I should have known to tell him beforehand where I would be. One day in a fit of rage, he blocked me, which was an action I was used to. Instead of begging for forgiveness, I stopped chasing it. I had started a new job by then and was slowly making new friends. I gradually learned to not have to talk to him everyday.
A few months later, P flew back and showed up at my apartment. He told me everything I had wanted to hear in the three years we were “not in a relationship.” He told me he had been lying to himself and that he loved me this whole time, and he was ready for me to be his girlfriend. I told him I loved him too, and a part of me would always feel a sad fondness for him, but I couldn’t go back to whatever that was.
It’s been almost two years since P and I last spoke.
Was it really love? Maybe, in some ways, I gave him an unconditional sort of love. Certainly not a healthy one, but I tried to give him everything I had. The most painful kind of hurt, for me, wasn’t the physical harm P inflicted on me. It was the words and his control that led me to forget who I was and give up all dignity I had. For me, the most painful kind of abuse is denying any love and pride you have in yourself because you no longer think you deserve any of it.
Recently I’ve met someone who I very much respect, admire and love. He is a wonderful person, completely kind-hearted, patient and understanding. He isn’t perfect, because nobody is, but he’s perfect for me. I’m not describing him to brag about what an amazing boyfriend I have and how lucky I am. I do think I am lucky, and I think it’s okay to show off your love every now and then, but I think most important is that I’m not ashamed of this person he’s also grown to respect, admire and love.
It’s an amazing thing, what two people can do for and to each other. But in order for something wonderful to start, you need to learn to love yourself. It’s okay to be by yourself, it’s okay to be a little insecure and unsure. But these should have all been on my own terms; my insecurities are my decisions and mine alone to overcome. If I never learned to forgive myself and love myself again, I don’t think I would have the capacity to truly be there for someone else even if I wanted to.
I don’t think he is ready, and perhaps he never will be (or need not be ready) to know the full extent of what I went through. He is aware of some details, but not everything. And maybe he doesn’t need to, I don’t know, and the opinions will vary. Maybe I’m not ready to share my full story with him yet either. Regardless, I’ve come to realize it’s never too late to reach out for help, it’s never too late or too self-centered to tell your story, and when it comes to situations like this, it’s never your fault.
I still don’t necessarily know the best ways to handle any of this, to handle myself when I think back and start to feel scared and alone. I do know that the time-old wisdom of “time heals everything” has garnered more credibility now than ever, and that the healing may take a very long time. But I’m okay, and I will continue to be okay. I love me for me, and nobody, whether it is a significant other, a boy, a girl, a stranger, a boss, a relative, will ever be able to change that.