Prism & Pen
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Prism & Pen

A Gay Man’s Survival of an Abusive Relationship

Part I: Mapping Out The Trauma

Photo by Ylanite Koppens from Pexels

I broke a map yesterday.

It was a big, beautiful, antique map with a gorgeous frame and its own ornate stand, around which I’d wreathe garlands and fall leaves depending on the season. I’d been trying to hang it in my new apartment because I just didn’t have room for a floor stand.

Too heavy for the wall, it fell and shattered. I’d thought that could be a possibility but I hung it anyway, a part of me almost daring it to fall. It would look amazing if it held. It wouldn’t survive if it didn’t. It didn’t survive.

The map itself, I discovered, was just a cheap piece of cardboard. The rest was all window dressing.

“I’m glad it’s broken,” a friend of mine said when I explained that mixed in with the disappointment was this rush of relief. It had been a gift from my ex, and while I have a number of useful things left over from him, that map hadn’t served any purpose other than being something from him.

“What the hell?” another friend replied. “Get rid of that stuff. Literally throw him away.”

He bought lots of stuff for me. He enjoyed spending money on me, and I’m sure there was love in it. But I think maybe he was also exerting power.

I’d try to assert spending limits on gifts because I just didn’t have the money he did and wanted to keep our relationship equal. He’d find ways to skirt around the limits or just blow past them. I don’t know the exact price of that map, but I’ve found similar ones online, and they’re all far outside my budget.

But it was just a gift. They were all just gifts and they were okay, because they were shared out of love. And maybe I shouldn’t over-analyze gifts. But I applied that reasoning to far too many things with him.

It was okay, because he loved me. And I loved him.

Love, I’ve realized, can manifest in many ways, and they aren’t always healthy. I’m still not sure exactly how I got into something so unhealthy. Youth and naiveté, maybe. White knight syndrome. Not really knowing other gay people or having any kind of role models probably didn’t help.

It’s gotten a bit better now, but for a time, LGBTQ+ movies and TV were so often about how difficult and traumatizing and heartbreaking life was. Our world was different, our rules were different. Our love would be different too.

Being gay meant having to be stronger than everyone else. Being gay meant handling baggage and fighting for love. I was strong for so damn long. I fought for love.

I should have turned around and walked away, but I didn’t.

Not for a long time. And even after I managed it, I still struggled to fully sever our ties. By then, the love had just hardened into fear.

We were still Facebook and Instagram friends up until a few years back. We didn’t interact, but he didn’t get rid of me, and I was afraid that if I un-friended and blocked him and his friends, I’d disrupt the status quo and he’d notice me again and suddenly regain interest. He had a way of drawing people back, years after declaring them dead to him. I’d seen it happen.

I’d block him, he’d demand to know why, demand his way back into my life, demand I give him back a window to keep tabs on me.

It was like the freaking Lord of the Rings. I’d draw the Eye of Sauron by the very act of putting on the One Ring and trying to hide myself. It was stupid, but that’s almost how I saw him — not as a being of great evil, but as a powerful force of nature. I finally plucked up the courage to cut those last ties, but it’s partially how I see him now.

My friends say they’d never let him hurt me if he came back.

That’s comforting, and it also speaks to how much stronger I am now in who I am and the life that I’ve built. But I still can’t help thinking, “You don’t know him. You wouldn’t stand a chance. He’d destroy you.”

Again, it’s stupid. He’s just one person. He’s just a damn ex. He might not even think about me or give a shit one way or another anymore. I know I need to take a rational step back and not ascribe these mythical qualities to him.

But that’s easier said than done. He worked very hard for a very long time to make me to see him that way. Powerful. All-knowing. Inescapable. Inevitable. I’m still a bit scared of this getting back to him and incurring his wrath. Though it’s not, I should make clear, necessarily physical harm I’m afraid of.

Part of it, I just realized, is still that feeling that I can’t disappoint him. That whatever this is for me, it wouldn’t be okay with him. I’m not entirely sure what to do with that.

As I would describe to people I met afterwards, he was manipulative and controlling. That’s all. I’ve never even been sure how much he did consciously and how much had been survival mechanisms. As time went on, I started thinking of it as being mindfucked. It’s an ugly word, but it was still safer than the alternatives.

I first heard the word “abusive” applied to the relationship in therapy, and like the word “rape,” I didn’t like it.

If you’ve read my story of that experience, you’re probably now beginning to wonder: What is wrong with this guy? Sexual assault and an abusive relationship? It’s a fair question that I’ve had to ask myself.

But I need to make clear that I’ve been incredibly privileged in life. I know this. It hasn’t been full of adversity and struggle, but I have been through some experiences that I think we could all talk about more. Experiences that, especially when it comes to guys and our problematic notions of masculinity, strength and pride, aren’t talked about enough.

That afternoon in a bar was one of them. These seven years were a less obvious one. To me.

I’d met people who’d been in abusive relationships, who were isolated and controlled, physically threatened and attacked. My heart broke for them and the pain I saw lingering in them. But that wasn’t me. Was I just especially weak to be, as I’d only recently begun to realize, traumatized?

I was pretty shaken after that therapy session when I told some friends that my only relationship had been called abusive.

“Yeah,” they responded, “but didn’t you know that already?”

This came from people who never met him, or even me, until after I’d told him to get out of my life. They just knew that I referenced him a lot. That he came with a ton of negative emotions every single time. That I’d share glimpses of the relationship here and there and they were… problematic.

They could see the truth long before I could. They’d known me as long as I’d been with my ex by then, and could see that in all that time I still hadn’t shaken him.

It would be easy to just villainize him. To a lot of my friends now, that’s what he is. A villain. But it’s not that simple. I don’t know if I can ever untangle my emotions when they come to him.

We haven’t had any contact in almost nine years, but there’s a part of me that’s still afraid of him.

And there’s a part of me that still, I think, craves it? That’s the really messed up part. It’s not conscious. There’s not a single waking part of me that would ever allow it to happen again.

But I still have nightmares where he’s back in my life and there’s these horrible mixed up feelings of, “This feels natural, I should just let this go,” and, “No, no, no, how did this happen? I got away, I don’t want this! I’m never getting away again!”

I hate those dreams. I hate all of the leftovers from our time together. I have sexual hang-ups. I have hang-ups about meeting new people and worrying about whether I’m acting “properly,” or if I’m liked.

And I have a crap-ton of relationship hang-ups. I don’t think problems come from a singular source, but when someone finds them in you, learns to exploit them and spends years cultivating them, I do think it can turn minor quirks into major issues.

I’ve got, for instance, an independent streak that’s been complicated by the lingering feeling that relationships are traps that you can’t escape from. I haven’t had anything more than almost relationships since him.

When guys start getting attached and start thinking of me as “theirs,” an undercurrent of panic runs through me. And rebellion. I’m my own man, dammit.

I’ve also got a tendency to get attached to men who are either unavailable or just plain wrong for me. They’ll never work out, so the threat is minimal. Or, if there’s someone I really like, I slow things down to a crawl so I can put off anything serious for a little longer. Just a bit. Just until I’m ready. Until they get confused, tired, and move on without me.

And I’ve got a hard time asserting what I want. I have a hard time asking for it. I have a hard time even knowing what it is. I don’t think I used to be that bad, but my trying to assert too much was so often met with resistance. Or I was made to feel guilty.

He, on the other hand, would push me to do what I didn’t want — sometimes subtly, sometimes through brute force — until I gave in. Him giving in to something I wanted was A Big Deal. It was a sign of how much he loved me.

He always knew how and when to wield those signs. I spent our relationship thinking those were the ones I was supposed to be looking for. I was very, very wrong.



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Curtis Harding

Curtis Harding


I get paid to write about soap opera news (Yes, that’s a thing!) but I’m also keenly tuned into social issues and news, particularly in the LGBTQ+ community.