1st of several.
This is the first in a series that I want to write about manipulation, about relationships, and about honesty. I start here, in the middle, because this is where I began to learn to speak my truth. As I come to be able to internally and externally name myself as a complex being, stretching to cover every inch of gray space between good and bad, I seek to write with honesty based first and foremost in being honest with myself.
Between the ages of 16 and 19 I was in an abusive relationship with a woman who I lived with for almost three years. I want to write about my experience, about manipulation, about the complexities of intimate-partner abuse. I can only write about my perspective, my role, my choices. I can only give one small part of the whole story, a piece of my part.
It was my first “real” relationship and it became very serious very quickly. I remember feeling obsessed with her. I thought that she was the best thing to have happened to me and I felt so lucky to be so wildly in love that I couldn’t concentrate on anything else in life. She consumed my every thought. She was sweet and wrote me notes with little doodles all over them telling me how important I was to her. She worked at a science day-camp over the summer and when I would visit her we would share picnic lunches by the Mississippi River and talk about the world and the grand dreams we both had of traveling and learning. Anything that I didn’t like or that didn’t feel right was easily brushed over without a second thought. I was in love and it was all-consuming.
I transferred to the high school she had graduated from and moved in with her and her mom. It was my junior year but my moments of acting like a junior in high school were few and far between.
I don’t remember when we started to fight. Obviously we were already off to a poor start because no relationship should be all-consuming, but there was a turning point in our relationship where my being consumed by her translated into my disappearance and the emergence of someone who existed for her. I wish I could name a day, an event, or even remember some sort of pivotal moment in time when things changed, but I think it was all much more subtle than that. Slowly we absorbed one another and I could no longer separate myself from her or myself from the relationship. Emotionally dependent, financially dependent, socially dependent; complete and utter dependence. I could not see myself as a separate person and therefore could not see my self-worth without her direct involvement.
No one can carry the weight of someone else’s self-worth on their shoulders. It was no one else’s responsibility but my own. But some combination of low self-esteem, emotional instability, and manipulative behaviors led me to place the responsibility of my own self-worth on her shoulders.
I don’t think we fought before we lived together, but honestly, I don’t remember. What I remember is that at some point we started fighting. I get uncomfortable when there is conflict, but 9 years ago I didn’t get uncomfortable, I became panicked. I would take extreme measures to avoid conflict and I would shut down completely when we fought. When I do get angry and become upset, I would tend to bottle it in until the point of explosion. And then I would completely lose control and enter into a full-fledge panic attack because of the combination of anger I am feeling and the anxiety produced by that anger. I enter into a panic attack that leaves me destroyed. I say nasty things and I act in irrational ways and in the end I am just crushed, exhausted and unable to breathe. I spend the next however-long with a weight on my chest, my breathing restricted and on brink of losing control again. One wrong nudge and I am flung off the cliff.
I was never violent but I was unable to handle conflict in any way, shape or form, and that conflict would arise in me more conflict and therefore more panic and result in a vicious cycle that, in the end, prevented anything in the original conflict from being resolved.
We would fight and sometimes it would lead to what I described above and other times I would find myself in the corner, in fetal position, unable to handle the conflict and trying to simply disappear from the space while being yelled at. Often I cried and tried to make myself as small as possible. I didn’t yell, at least not frequently enough to remember a specific time. And the moment her yelling began I could feel myself breaking down, the anxiety tearing apart my insides. It was especially anxiety-provoking when the yelling happened at night when her mom was home and trying to sleep because now there is a third party involved who would often yell back at her daughter to “shut the hell up!” and my shame would shoot through the roof, paralyzing me and making me wish I was dead. I don’t say that lightly. Having a third party privy to these fights and respond with more, what I would call, violence, was debilitating for me and I remember wishing in so many moments for my existence to end right then and there.
The fighting was provoked by everything. One time I went to my parents’ house to do laundry and spend the Saturday with them. I dropped her off at work and went along my way with the loads and loads of clothes. I spent the day doing laundry and wasn’t paying close attention to the time. All of a sudden she was supposed to be getting out of work in 20 minutes and I was at least an hour away. I quickly packed up the car and went speeding to pick her up, praying I arrived in time. I got a $250 speeding ticket along the way for going 78mph in a 55mph zone on a major highway. She started calling as soon as she left work and I sobbed to her about the speeding ticket and apologized for running late. She told me how upset she was with me that I was making her wait and that if I really thought about her so little then I should’ve stayed home. I finally made it to her place of work and found her outside waiting for me. The door shut and she started yelling. Scolding me for being late, yelling about how long she had to wait, telling me I was an idiot for getting a speeding ticket and that if I had just left on time none of this would be happening. We got back to her place, unloaded the bags and bags of laundry and began to put it away. Somewhere in the midst of this she realized that she didn’t see her favorite bedsheet. It had smiley faces on it. We realized that there were several other things missing and my heart sunk. I called my mom. I had left a load in the dryer. She screamed and cried and said nasty things to me, angry that I had left her favorite bedsheet behind, angry that I had disappointed her. I cried in the corner, a weight on my chest.
Another time we were fighting about something, I don’t remember what. We started upstairs and then it somehow moved downstairs. I remember her being downstairs screaming at me to come down. I was standing at the top of the hard wooden stairs and thinking, how much courage do I need to throw myself violently down these stairs right now and end this fight with a trip to the hospital? What will the extent of the damage be? And, if I don’t succeed in seriously injuring myself to the point of requiring a trip to the hospital then will the fight simply continue? I proceeded to walk down the stairs. She yelled at me to get out, that she didn’t want me near her. She screamed that this was her house and I was not welcome. I resisted, not wanting to risk losing myself, because if I lost her then I lost myself. Pero de repente the door looked like freedom. It looked like a way out and I ran for it. She got in front of me and put herself against the door, blocking my exit. I fought with her, trying to push her out of the way but she was bigger and stronger. After a bit, for whatever reason, she moved and I ran.
The moment I got outside I regretted it. I felt a kind of emptiness I have never experienced. It was winter and I had left the house in my normal clothes without shoes or keys. I stuck my bare feet in the snow, punishing myself for being an idiot, for whatever I thought I had done to deserve what had happened during that fight; punishing myself for the months of mistakes I had been making to deserve those yelling fits of hers; punishing myself for leaving the house when what was inside that house what all I had, or so I thought; punishing myself for existing. I stayed standing in the snow until the cold no longer hurt my feet but rather I felt nothing. I walked to a nearby church whose doors were always unlocked, went into the basement in one of the meeting rooms and cried as my feet painfully warmed up. A couple of hours passed and I went back to her house.
She didn’t drive, but I did and I had a car. More often than not I would show up late to school after dropping her off at work and find some excuse to leave early to go get her. On days she had off, I would ditch. At what point did this take a turn from me being helpful to me being manipulative to her being manipulative? I am sure it started off as a favor I offered (being helpful). Then it transformed into a way for her to depend on me, making me necessary and giving me control (me manipulating). Then, it transformed into me feeling obligated to relinquish whatever else I needed to do in order to attend to her and the hour she says and being screamed at when I either try to get out of it or show up late (her manipulating). How did those transformations happen?
I see a similar transformation regarding money. When I moved in with her I had no money and a job where I wasn’t getting enough hours to cover gas to and from. I was depending on her to help support me until my hours got better. This started off as a kind effort on her part to make the transition a bit easier (good intentions). And then it began to feel good to depend on her and it felt like it gave us a [sick] sense of security, being bound by debt (me manipulating). My hours began to increase within a month or two and it transformed into a way for her to control me. I owed her so much that no matter how much I worked, I always owed more than I earned because whatever I would pay off I would then need to borrow more to make it until the next paycheck. And the car was intertwined in this as well. I couldn’t go where I wanted when I wanted because I was wasting gas and gas is money and the money belonged to her. And then animals were brought into the mix, increasing expenses. Oftentimes things were bought without my knowing or without me being able to say no and those expenses would be added to the ledger. I wanted to burn that ledger so many times. I was never able to leave this vicious cycle of owing her money and that somehow transformed into her controlling every cent I spent and didn’t spend (her manipulating) from clothing to food to spending on gas to visit my family.
I didn’t see my family much during those years that I lived with her. Oftentimes when there was a family event- birthday, easter, etc- she would have a reason for not going and for that same reason it would be very difficult to be far from me for an entire day. I would feel guilty for leaving her and so I would either not go or I would show up late and leave after an hour or so.
I remember her yelling. I remember things being thrown at me. I remember nasty words and violent shoves. I remember being kicked at to get up. I remember having my body commented on as I entered the shower or changed my clothes and I remember when that transformed into my clothing being critiqued and controlled. I remember being screamed at and having a cooking pot thrown at me because I had forgotten about a pot of macaroni and cheese I was making for us and had burnt the batch. She was hungry and furious that we now had to make lunch all over again. I remember not making any friends at the new school because I wasn’t allowed to have anyone over to her house nor was I “allowed” to go out with friends, aka I would be made to feel horribly guilty if I made plans with other people.
I also remember being jealous and lashing out because of that jealousy. I remember trying to make her feel bad, trying to break her down. I remember one time in a parking lot, her new girlfriend had come to pick her up from work. I arrived also, without her wanting me there, to pick her up. Amidst the jealousy and rage, amidst my feelings of non-existence [because she was my identity], I threatened to do harm to myself in an attempt to manipulate her. She called my mom.
I remember wanting to break her down to my level of brokenness. I wanted her to suffer in the way that I felt I was suffering. I wanted her to feel trapped and guilty. I wanted to inflict pain on her in those ways and I wanted us to suffer equally. I resented everything about her and acted out of that resentment, however I felt completely incapable of leaving her. I tried. I made plans. One time I executed the plan. But I was back at her house within the week. This feeling of being incapable to do what I wanted to do filled me with more resentment and desire to do harm. Toward the end of our relationship when I realized she was seeing someone else I remember thinking, “there is no way I am letting you go. you have kept me trapped for so long.” and those resentful thoughts pushed me to different levels of manipulation than I have ever experienced in my life, making absurd and shameful decisions that I am trying hard to explain here.
No one ever talks about this part of abusive relationships. I don’t know if this is a truth for many, but it was a truth for me. I did hurtful, shameful, manipulative things to her out of a desire for control and out of immense levels of resentment. The lines are more blurred than I’d ever like to admit, but that is the purpose of writing this: to admit it.
The entire time we were together the emotions were raw, but they were not genuine. They were based on a desire to control the other and simultaneously based on such a deep resentment of that person that it resulted in wanting to do harm to them.
I have written many times, mostly privately, about this particular relationship. I have discussed it with more people than I can count and I live with a dinosaur tattoo on my shoulder that I got for her while we were still together. She is a part of my past that I continue to think about almost on a daily basis and I have often asked myself why. Why is it that after working through so much abuse, control, physical and sexual violence, after working through so much suffering and hatred, why can’t I let go? What prevents me from being able to let go and stop analyzing and thinking and re-analyzing and thinking more and more about the relationship we had?
One response I have to that is to write this. After almost a decade of working to heal the pain she caused me, I now am ready to face head-on the pain that I caused her. I am finally able to really be honest with myself about my role in the manipulation. I have associated that word [manipulation] with her for 8 years and to now turn it onto me is incredibly triggering. But it is the truth. I was also manipulative in that relationship. And I was before that relationship and I have been since then.
So this article is the first in a series. The first in a series of articles to examine my own manipulative behaviors, take honest responsibility for my past choices, and begin exploring change.