‘The Abuse Was Just A Casualty Of Being Awake’

By Nicole Audrey Spector

Recently, my boyfriend Patrick and I got engaged.

The first thing we did after hugging and kissing and texting friends was to log onto Facebook and change our relationship status to “Engaged.” We watched the likes pour in, gloating at our popularity.

Later that night, I lay in bed marveling at my luck; at how beautifully normal life had become. Then I bolted up in panic.

The Facebook status. What if Miguel had seen it? He’d be coming for me.

I’d un-blocked Miguel after the Boston bombing. I’d wanted to know that he was okay. Had I forgotten to re-block him?

A Facebook search revealed that I had.

I blocked him again, wondering if I was too late. Facebook apologized for my experience — but it was Facebook’s fault we’d met six years ago.

I’d just gotten out of a three-year relationship with a guy I’ll call Bruce. Bruce was never too amorous, but by the tail-end of our time together, he was completely impotent, and he didn’t want to talk about it or see a doctor or try anything new. He just wanted to listen to Glenn Gould on his iPod and read.

I stayed with Bruce because he was my best friend and I trusted him at a time when I didn’t trust many people. That previous spring, my Dad was sentenced to 19 years to life in prison for murder. I never questioned my father’s innocence or the wrongfulness of his conviction, but I sensed that certain friends did, and I couldn’t bear to be around them. I felt patronized and pitied.

Eventually, even my friendship with Bruce withered, leaving nothing but the bones of a relationship long dead. I suggested we take time apart. I recall thinking he’d be upset over losing me, but he just drowsily drifted away, like he had on so many nights beside me. Goodnight, Bruce.

Soon after, Miguel swept in like a storm.

I discovered Miguel on Facebook while reading through a friend’s page. He was impressively handsome, and seemed well read, politically outspoken, and generally passionate.

I left some cutesy comment on a thread he’d been commenting on, and he replied, with matching cutesiness. He friend-requested me, and we went back and forth messaging all night, slinging puns and winks.

When he asked for my number I was reluctant, but then gave in. No one had ever been that eager to get to know me, and in truth, it felt nice. We talked for over two hours, though it’s safe to say he did most of the talking. He had so much to tell me.

He was 32, five years older than me, and lived in Boston — which he kept needlessly assuring me really wasn’t far from New York, where I lived. His father, whom he strongly resembled, was Puerto Rican, he said, as though to explain his Hispanic name and looks, things I’d later learn he was self-conscious about. He told me that his mother was white and that he couldn’t stand her, but that he owed her some credit, as he was living on her couch.

He’d had a tough year, he said. Well, a few tough years, actually.

He didn’t want to get into it and neither did I; I was exhausted, out in California visiting my father in prison. The experience of visiting him always leaves me somewhat wounded and wanting, but back then I didn’t know how to handle any of what I felt. Part of me hated myself for bearing witness to his injustice without also bearing its consequences. I left the prison stunned and silent.

Typically I talked as little as possible after seeing my dad, and with comatose Bruce, that hadn’t been a problem. But Miguel was back on the phone that night wanting to know everything. I didn’t tell him where I’d been that day — I was wary of telling new people about my father’s situation — but I did talk about how abysmal I was feeling. He was an avid listener, as though he wanted to inhale me.

We talked every night for the next week, and when I got back to New York we made plans to meet.

Our mutual Facebook friend also lived in Brooklyn, and though he admitted he hardly knew Miguel, he agreed to facilitate our burgeoning love by letting Miguel crash at his place. That wound up not being necessary, as Miguel and I didn’t leave each other’s arms for three days.

Miguel was wonderful: funny, sweet, charming, romantic, and humbler than he came across in photos. And he was insatiably desirous of me. After three years with a partner whose appetite for me was narcoleptic at best, I was elated.

While in my arms, Miguel told me that he had been diagnosed as having schizoaffective disorder. He lived on his mother’s couch because he’d been in psychiatric care for a long time and had to sell his place to pay his medical bills.

Rather than bolting from him as friends later suggested I should have, I felt more drawn to Miguel after finding out about his condition. I have an anxiety disorder and clinical depression, and I wouldn’t want anyone running from me because of that.

The profound difference between us, and one I didn’t know then, is that I do what I must to be well and functional. Miguel would frequently deny that anything was wrong with him. He also wasn’t on his prescribed medication. I’d learn all this later.

There were many instances in those early months of dating — during which Miguel came down almost every weekend — where his behavior was unsettling. His mood swings could be sudden and extreme. A simple situation of, say, the wrong order being brought to our table at a restaurant could send him into a brooding rage. He’d become intensely paranoid. My asking if he was okay often indicated to him that there was something I was hiding from him.

Always, he’d emerge from these dark spells in tears, promising to look into adjusting his medication. I’d often wind up holding him while he sobbed, and I would sob, too. It was the only time I felt I could.

Around month six of dating, Miguel had started working again and saving money. He wanted to get out of his mother’s house. I didn’t want to commit to him moving in with me, but I thought maybe a summer away with him would do me good. So, I quit my job, sublet my room for the summer, and moved to Cambridge, Massachusetts to be with him. (Yes, somehow this didn’t feel like that great of a commitment to me at the time.)

I thought I could get back to writing there, but more than that that I thought I would heal in a new setting with a man who loved me. We got a sublet in a Victorian house that masqueraded as charming when really it was falling apart.

It was a three-month sublet. By the end of week two, I was sleeping with a knife under my pillow. By the end of week four, I was gone.

As soon as I moved in with Miguel, I felt dangerously unmoored. His mother had taken us to dinner when I moved up. She chattered restlessly about his work, her nervous little eyes veering from me to Miguel. I dished out bland smiles and talked about myself when prompted, but she didn’t seem to be listening to be me. Only Miguel. He snickered and called her out on incidents with which I wasn’t familiar. Something stupid she’d done at work. Something stupid she’d done at her job. Something stupid she’d done while raising him. We were at one of those boisterous faux Mexican restaurants with jolly waiters and watery salsa.

After dinner, his mother pulled me aside and told me that if anyone could save Miguel, it was me. She’d been trying to get him back on his meds for years, she said. That night, I watched them holler and fight and throw things at one another.

I felt slammed in the gut by the mistake I’d made, and became massively depressed and cripplingly agoraphobic. All this stuff was in me already, but here in this strange new town with a man I realized I didn’t much know or want to know, I fell into a black hole. I withdrew into a state that even I couldn’t penetrate, afraid to go outside in the remarkably rainless summer, to see the beautiful gardens and rich melony sunsets. Miguel gave me a bike he’d gotten for cheap on Craigslist — he was always giving me gifts after a tantrum — and I found that I had literally forgotten how to ride one. I fell over in the backyard and didn’t want to get back up. Miguel dragged me to my feet and onto his back. A piggy back ride upstairs and back into bed, where I knew so well the cold purple sheets.

As I shut down, Miguel exploded. There was no longer the lost, crying man under the rage and paranoia. There was only rage and paranoia.

Miguel was convinced that I was sleeping with the entire neighborhood. Once, when I was walking to his office, a drunk homeless man antagonized me. I hurried across the street where, coincidentally, Miguel was walking toward me, on his way home from work. Miguel warded off the guy with a menacing machismo I was, at that moment, grateful for.

When he got home, Miguel searched the place. He thought that our condoms weren’t where they usually were, which to him meant that I must have fucked the homeless guy. That was the first time he promised to kill me.

From then on he was unflinchingly hateful. He said he couldn’t stand to look at me, so he took photos he’d had of me on the wall and shredded them. He said he couldn’t stand to touch me, so he masturbated in front of me and talked about the other women he’d find that night when he went out to the bars. Women were there to serve him — especially the local Harvard girls who thought they were so smart. He’d bring them back and fuck them right beside me — me being the ugliest girl he’d ever fucked, he said.

I fought back, screamed my head off, but nothing ever felt like enough or even like anything at all.

Neighbors would ask, “Is he hitting you?” And I’d say “No,” which was true, and they’d say, “It’s still domestic abuse,” but the urgency in their voices would vanish.

Miguel berated me, hid my phone, read and deleted my personal emails, and threatened my life — but he never hit me and somehow that appeased people, even me.

And, like the classic abuser, he would often become loving again. He’d blubber and make dramatic promises about change. He’d cut out alcohol and pot, which only aggravated his symptoms. He’d talk about all the money he was making and how the next deal would push him into financial fortune so he could finally get the medical care he deep-down knew he needed. We’d get out of that town. Back to NYC where I was clearly happier.

In these instances, he’d often call my mother, who at the time was incredibly ill awaiting a liver transplant, and beg her for my forgiveness. She didn’t know the half of what was going on. He wrote insane letters to my father begging, again, for my forgiveness. He had an obsession with my father, who has been written widely about as being a “mad genius.” In his rage, he’d mock my belief in my father and call him a murderer. He’d talk about calling the trashy tabloids and explaining what it was like to be with me, a famous murderer’s daughter. Other times he’d liken himself to my dad and suggest that only my father could understand the artistic war within him. My dad barely knew Miguel existed, and never opened any of his letters.

I knew I was living with an abusive maniac, but I also couldn’t wholly admit it. How could I — a feminist who would never befriend, let alone move in with, someone who treated women with disgust and disrespect — end up with someone who was the precise composite of those things?

I’m a much stronger and more educated feminist now than I was then, but even at that point, my ideals were well-rooted. I’d been raised — particularly by my father — to fight for all women, along with the LGBT community. I marched for women’s rights. I engulfed myself in feminist literature, a genre that was wide-open to me as a former student of the New School. I went on rants wherever I could to take down the mediocre white man. And yet, there I was, being shamed for being a woman, by a power-hungry and possessive man.

Sometimes it felt like a contest — how much could I tolerate, how unbreakable was I? Other times I was too depressed to care. The abuse was just a casualty of being awake.

But I snapped out of it long enough to know I had to get out. I wrote emails to friends explaining that I needed help getting back to Brooklyn. I had brought a lot of stuff down with me, along with my dog and cat, and on top of everything, I didn’t drive.

A month after moving in with Miguel, a friend I might just owe my life to came down in a U-Haul and picked me up.

Miguel begged me to stay and said he would kill himself if I left.

I told him we weren’t breaking up, that I just needed to go home and get grounded.

I would say anything at that point to get out.

As our truck pulled away, Miguel pretended to throw himself in front of the vehicle. I turned around to see him standing with his hand in his pocket and smoking a cigarette with the other, pacing like a trapped animal.

That was the last time I ever saw him — just seven months after I met him. For about a year, he tried to get a hold of me. I still get a creepy text message from a 617 area code once in a while. I still feel afraid sometimes.

I’ve been thinking about my relationship with Miguel more now that I’m engaged — just as I’ve been thinking about all my past relationships, sifting through them as though through hanging garments in my closet.

But this one sticks out like a stranger’s uniform. I wonder, how was it ever mine? How was I once there and now here, with a kind, loving, sane partner?

Honestly, I don’t know, but I suspect the formula may be the reverse of what I originally thought. It’s not weakness + insecurity = abusive relationship. It’s abusive relationship = weakness + insecurity. And feminism has nothing to do with it — only pain.

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