An Emotionally Abusive Relationship: Falling In

Roland held the burning stick of incense perched in his lips as if it were a long, thin cigarette. The fragrance streamed behind us and mixed with the exhaust of the scooter as we kicked up dust on the left side of the road in Arambol. I untied the green and turquoise sarong around my neck and held it overhead to let it flap in the wind like Hugo Weaving in that majestic scene in Priscilla, Queen of the Desert.

In the heights of our time together, I marvelled at the places he took me. Sitting behind him on the scooter, we made it to remote temples with vibrantly painted ceilings depicting incredible mixes of Christian and Hindu icons. We spent days at crumbling ruins next to hundred year old mango trees with branches soaring overhead, casting mangos like manna from heaven to the ground every few minutes. Uncultivated mangos were small and green, no larger than a lemon in your hand. When they fell to the ground, there would be a mad scramble for them by anyone around. The green skins were hot to the touch, having baked in the sun their entire lives. Inside, a warm nucleus of bright orange, more sour than sweet. We would jump up with delight at each thump on the ground, peel them with our teeth, and devour them until our fingers and faces were too sticky to bear.

I did not know then that the price of these off the beaten path experiences was the eventual exhaustion of becoming entangled with an emotionally abusive narcissist and sociopath.

Roland had been coming to Goa every year for the last twenty years. He was one of the most atypical Germans I had ever met, strongly rejecting his own nationality for the allure of something else. With his straight shoulder length hair, tall and toned physique, and consistent disregard for the rules, he could have easily been anything you wanted him to be. And he knew it. Years later, a German stand up comedian would tell me that the rejection of one’s own Germanness is actually one of the tendencies most strongly associated with Germans.

It was April in Goa, approaching monsoon season. The heat and humidity changed how you interacted with the day. The way to manage was to get up just before dawn, then retreat indoors during peak sun hours where the ceiling fans were always whirring, and emerge again in the early evening when the sharp smell of burning coconut husks rose and suffused the town. It was my third month in India. I had been alone for most of it and was passing through one of the valleys of inner lostness that all solitary wanderers come upon.

The first time I met Roland, he was standing on the beach in his underwear. Nothing special about that in Goa. He didn’t own swimwear. Just swapped wet for dry underwear when he wanted to switch between beach and village mode. With a smirk, he invited me to play frisbee with him later on that day. Having no good reason to say no, I came back around in the afternoon, and found him at Mama’s fish thali joint. Roland’s one-handed thali eating abilities were impressive. He had practiced them for two decades, after all. In the weeks to come, we would often frequent Mama’s for her cheap and filling fish thali, making fun of the fresh tourists coming through, who would sometimes bury both their hands in the thali like children still learning to eat.

Roland told me he was 33. A mere six years older than me. He said that his face didn’t look it because he had been involved in a hot air balloon explosion some years ago and the skin had not grown back exactly right after it had all been burned off. It was plausible, though he had no scarring. At the time I paid little attention to his stated age. It’s something that never mattered much to me.

One evening, still languishing from the heat of the day in his flat, sitting facing each other on the bed, sheets sandy from our beach feet, he made me look him in the eyes for longer than I can remember. For those who have not tried it, sustained eye contact is one of the most intimate experiences that can be shared. You can only do it if you stay open to the other person. And Roland knew it. After we broke our gaze, he whispered, I was your brother, wasn’t I?

Part of the allure of long term traveling, especially when running away from Standard Life as I was, is that you can compulsively throw your old structures away for something different, no matter how weird it might be. After three months of aloneness, decluttering my insides, and dealing with just how vastly different this land was from any other I had encountered before, the idea of past lives was by no means a stretch. In this environment of energy healers, transcendental meditation instructors, and yoga teachers of every variety breathing and bathing in magical thinking, not entertaining that we had been connected in our past lives was considered small-minded. So in an act of trans-lifetime incest, Roland became my former-brother turned lover.

In moments when Roland wanted to point out how small my conceptions of the universe were, he would look at me derisively and say You’re being so three-dimensional. Asking practical and rational questions about new ideas such as past lives would often garner these kinds of responses from him. And I was often too three-dimensional. Wanting to be a good pilgrim, I took it upon myself to do better. I put the questions away. Like those who need religion for structure, I craved sureness in something greater — an external guiding force so that I didn’t have to figure it all out myself. Like many who find themselves lost, I wanted something to believe in. And so I worked hard to accept the mental gymnastics of these concepts and of this relationship.

Roland had an ex-girlfriend Alanna, a Russian yoga teacher and witch with whom he’d been for five years. They had broken up this year, but were still seeing each other when they were both in Arambol. He liked to mention her at unexpected moments to see how I would react. I never did, but he always tried. One evening he invited her over while I was there for ‘something important’ they had to discuss. His eyes danced gleefully at the prospect of me meeting his ex as he told me how imperative it was that he have a private conversation with her. To his disappointment, I could have cared less. I sat outside on the porch happily playing the guitar while they were in the room with the door closed. Jealousy of an ex-girlfriend wasn’t something he could use to control me. But he was not easily deterred.

Some days after, I was back on his terrace, thinking about friends at home and missing them. I told him so. He took out a long, thin, mint flavoured cigarette that he’d bought from Alanna, lit it, dragged on it and trained his eyes on me. Cooly, he responded, “I don’t think your friends miss you.”

Part II: Entanglement

Things to Consider about Emotionally Abusive Relationships:

  • Abusers will try many ways to undermine you. If one way doesn’t work, another avenue is coming just around the corner.
  • Once an abuser has found a weak spot, they will use it to their advantage. There is not the grace of leaving your sensitivities alone. They have now added something new to their arsenal and are always looking for opportunities to use it on you
  • It is to the abuser’s advantage if your self esteem is worn lower and lower as time goes on. The beginning is the easiest time to get out. It becomes progressively harder as the relationship goes on and your confidence in your own ability to make decisions and take action wanes.

Part II: Entanglement