(Trigger warning: If abuse, sexual assault, or anorexia makes you uncomfortable, you might want to avoid this one.)
Over the years, I’ve attempted to write this, quite literally, 17 times. I’ve spoken to friends, therapists, lawyers, publicists. The drafts have ranged from cathartic, angry letters to litigious, hardened accounts of inexcusable treatment. Until I got one piece of advice from a friend: Write from your heart. You’ll know it’s right when it’s right. So, here I go.
I’ve struggled with such a great fear of talking publicly about my experience with long-term abuse. There’s an explicit danger- putting my personal and professional reputation on the line.
It’s so easy to make judgments about someone you don’t know personally, or maybe do know personally, but not well. It’s the same both ways. “Did they, didn’t they?” I’m here to tell my story, not necessarily intending to point my finger at the man who did it (though that may be an unfortunate consequence for him), but for a different reason.
Admittedly, there’s still an anger inside of me. An anger at him, an anger at myself for letting myself fall into the trap and being naïve enough to stay there. But after hours and hours of thought, I‘ve finally come to the conclusion of what I want this to be.
I want this to be two things. Number One: Closure. I’m approaching my thirties, finding stability, and quite simply, I want this out of me. But more importantly, Number Two: A warning.
Emotional abuse is a very common thing. More common than you’d think.
Here is my story.
In my early twenties, I was a vibrant, goofy kid who loved video games, Doctor Who, dressing up in cosplay with my friends, and karaoke nights. One day, I met someone at a convention and ended up falling for a man almost 20 years my senior. It wasn’t the first time I’d found myself in a relationship with an older man; I’ve always joked about my daddy issues, and thought that with age came stability and wisdom. Welp.
Our relationship started out poorly. Within 2 weeks, rules were quickly established. Some of these included:
- I “should not want to go somewhere at night”. My nights were expected to be reserved for him, as he had a busy schedule. This alienated me from my friends.
- I was to not have close male friends unless we worked together. All photos of male friends were to be removed from my apartment. This was heartbreaking for me, as my best friend happened to be male.
- As he was sober, I was not to drink alcohol. Before we began dating he said, “I noticed you have a glass of wine with dinner. That’s going to stop.”
- I was not to speak in public places (elevators, cars with drivers, restaurants where tables were too close) as he believed that people recognized him and were listening to our conversations. Our dinners out were usually silent, him on his phone.
- I wasn’t allowed to take a photo of us. (Eventually, he softened on this rule, but was very stern about me asking permission.)
These were just a few of them. And I made the choice to accept his controlling behavior, as he’d just left his long-term girlfriend and I assumed that he was going through some serious emotional discomfort. This was a huge mistake.
Our first convention together, San Diego Comic Con, he instructed me to not leave the hotel room. He went to parties by himself and got a famous actress’s number with intention to date her at the same time as me. I found out months later, and couldn’t bring myself to say anything because by this time, my self-worth was in the toilet.
I was quickly pressured to take an on-camera job at his company I didn’t want (I do not like to work for my significant others), because he insinuated I would be ungrateful to not accept it. Scared to upset him, I accepted the job, but I refused payment for my work, feeling uncomfortable about the whole thing (though the lovely folks at his company eventually forced me to take a check). By this time, like I said, I was terrified to piss him off- so I did what he said.
…Including let him sexually assault me. Regularly. I was expected to be ready for him when he came home from work.
How did this happen? At the beginning of our relationship, I was quite ill often due to my diet, something I’ll get to in a bit. One night he initiated, and I said, “I’m so sorry, can we not tonight? I’m feeling really sick.” He responded, “I just want to remind you, the reason my last relationship didn’t work out was because of the lack of sex.” It was a veiled threat. I succumbed.
Every night, I laid there for him, occasionally in tears. He called it “starfishing”. He thought the whole idea was funny. To be fair, I did go along with it out of fear of losing him. I’m still recovering from being sexually used (not in a super fun way) for three years.
The first time I told him I loved him after 6 months of hoping he’d say it first, his response was (and I quote), “I think I love you too, f****t.”
What I wanted was a partner, someone to confide in, someone to share things with, someone who wouldn’t judge me, someone I knew would be there for me. What I felt that this man wanted was a woman who would feed him, sleep with him, and go to events with him.
I watched and supported him as he grew from a mildly successful podcaster to a powerhouse CEO of his own company. He was obsessed with celebrity, being famous, famous people. He did not spend any time with people he considered “friends”, and only really made time for industry people who he considered “worth it”. I, myself, had very little personal support, as I’d been alienated from my own friends, other than an occasional party I was obligated to leave early when he decided it was time. Sometimes he’d let me go play D&D, but I always had a curfew. He would yell in his voicemails at me if I didn’t answer his calls. I was expected to follow him everywhere and exist pretty much solely for him, save for a hosting job once in awhile.
When cameras were on us? He was a prince. Turn them off, he was a nightmare.
During all of this I lost myself, both mentally and physically. I lost 15 lbs within weeks, started pulling out my hair (and had to get extensions regularly to hide it). I generally stopped speaking unless spoken to while with him, drifting through life like a ghost. I would try to sleep in as late as possible so my days were shorter. I stopped listening to music entirely. I ceased to be. I was an ex-person.
No one could save me but myself. After three years of being snapped/yelled at constantly, very rarely being shown any affection- I finally left him. For another man. That I had literally just met. I was so desperate to be out I just clung on to the first knight in shining armor to show up.
Unfortunately, there was a slight crossover: a kiss. A kiss I immediately told him about, and he, surprisingly, instantly forgave me. Turned a total 180. He begged me not to leave him, even told me he was planning to propose; despite stating previously he had no intention to marry me. I knew this all stemmed from his fear of being alone (He actually got engaged very shortly after I left him) so luckily I remained strong in my resolve to leave him, despite my only desire for three years being that he loved me the way I loved him.
Because of my leaving him for someone else, he made calls to several companies I received regular work from to get me fired by threatening to never work with them. He succeeded. I was blacklisted. With the assistance of a woman who’d gained my trust and my heart over the past year, he steamrolled my career. The woman actively made it her mission to destroy my friendships. And she did, because by the time they’d realized she was… an unreliable source… the damage had already been done. To be fair, in break-ups like this one, some friends will just naturally gravitate towards the person who wields more power (and the ability to employ them), especially in the business I’m in- despite whatever history exists. Still, there’s so much more to that woman’s story (including 6 other women whose reputations/careers she attempted to sabotage) but I don’t want to digress too far from my point, which is abusive relationships, not friendships. This time in my life was agony.
One night, I found myself on top of an overpass, looking down at the 101, at the lowest point in my life. I’d lost many of my friends, the woman I’d considered my sister was trying to destroy me and I had no idea why, and the career I’d built from scratch had toppled- I was blacklisted from my industry at the age of 25.
Obviously, I didn’t go through with it, but over the years I considered it many times. With the help of a therapist, a psychiatrist, good people, plus a lot of hard work, I’ve managed to rebuild my life and I’m in a much better place. I’ve got a wonderful group of friends, a healthy career, a film I’m proud of, a show I’m proud of, two wonderful dogs, a house I own, and a bright future (at least, in my eyes).
But I never received closure. For the long-lasting trauma, physical and emotional. For the time I was screamed at for spilling some bottled water in a rental car. For the time I asked him if he “was okay” one too many times. For the time I gasped at a cute puppy and I was punished for startling him. For how cold and unkind he was to me 90% of the time. For losing the life and friendships I’d built because of his insecurities. For blaming me for leaving him when he was never there in the first place, except when he wanted sex.
I’ll leave you with this: I lost my period for a year because of anorexia. Somehow, I got pregnant ectopically (I was told I’d have to have surgery IMMEDIATELY because ectopic pregnancies are very dangerous and can often be fatal)- when I found out, I collapsed on the floor, terrified he would be furious with me. Between sobs I told him over the phone, “Please don’t be mad, and don’t worry, I have to have surgery to have it removed or it could kill me at any time.”
My fear of his anger at me for getting pregnant was literally greater than my fear of death.
Let me add here: I’ll never forget the night this man slept in a cot at the foot of my hospital bed after my surgery. It made me believe that deep down inside of him maybe there was a man who loved me.
Then, after my recovery, he and my mother were greeted by the doctor.
“The surgery went well, she’ll be fine,” said my doctor.
“Thank god,” said my mother.
“That’s great. When do you think I can have sex with her again?” said my ex.
It was his first question. My mother never forgot.
While we were together, he repeatedly shared with me that he was terrified I would talk publicly about how he treated me, but I’m done protecting him at the expense of my own mental health. He talked about me publicly, incorrectly speculating loudly and regularly that I was sleeping around on him, on multiple occasions (once in front of an audience of thousands at a convention). It got so bad I ended up having to ask my lawyer to write his a letter. Meanwhile, publicly, I continually tried to go high while he went low. Also at the time, I knew it was unlikely people would choose to believe me over a cheery-sounding famous guy. All it would do to properly come forward was hurt me. And guess what? It will probably hurt me now too, despite the #MeToo movement. We’ve come a long way, but we still have a ways to go.
You know, perhaps this post could be construed as me going low when I should be going high, but I’d like to think Michelle Obama would support me in this… Because I’m not alone. This kind of relationship is so common, and so easy to slip into. Normalizing behavior happens incredibly quickly, and one can lose track of what is acceptable treatment.
And that’s the big question, isn’t it? If this person treated you so badly why did you stay?
Your guesses will probably include:
- It wasn’t that bad. Memories can warp.
- He was famous. She enjoyed the lifestyle. (For the record, I usually insisted on paying for dinner, thank you very much.)
- She was dumb and/or weak and didn’t have the strength to stand up to him.
Here is my answer: I believed that, to borrow an analogy from a friend, if I kept digging I would find water. And sometimes I did. Just enough to sustain me. And when you’re dying of thirst, that water is the best water you’ll ever drink. When you’re alienated from your friends, there’s no one to tell you that there’s a drinking fountain 20 feet away. And when your self-worth reaches such depths after years of being treated like you’re worthless, you might find you think you deserve that sort of treatment, and no one else will love you.
This story, post, whatever this is, serves as both closure for me as I say farewell to my twenties and stumble my way into my thirties, and it serves as a warning for every single one of you, regardless of gender. One of my favorite quotes comes from Bojack Horseman:
“You know, it’s funny; when you look at someone through rose-colored glasses, all the red flags just look like flags.”
Please, please, keep an eye out for those red flags.
Former Trophy Girlfriend/Ghost — Chloe Dykstra
PS: To the man who tried to ruin my future: A sincere and heartfelt apology could have made my last four years a hell of a lot easier. The person I used to date would try to sue me due to pride- I would not recommend it. I have audio/video that will support and prove many of the things I’ve stated in this post. I’ve chosen not to include it for your sake, in the hopes that the person you’ve become will do the right thing.
(July 7th) EDIT to address the change in my essay:
I had kept the words “sexually assault” in my piece since the very first draft. Before posting, I got cold feet and was pressured to change it to “sexually violate” out of fear of backlash. When it posted unlisted, the edit did not save- and I’m grateful it didn’t, because it did not allow me to back away from my original statement. When I decided to “publish” it properly (make it “listed” instead of unlisted), it changed the words back to “sexually violate”. I immediately went to rectify it as quickly as I could. I stand by my statement.