(Photo courtesy of Carry Chalk – IG: @carrychalk)
…after my dreaded beheading
I tied that sucker back on with a string
and I guess I’m pretty different now,
— Manhole by Ani Difranco
Today I went for an early(ish) morning walk with my daughter to pick up fresh bagels and freshly squeezed OJ before some friends came over for brunch. I had been awake since 2 am. My daughter had wet the bed at 2:00 and after helping her to change her clothes and then changing her sheets, I couldn’t get back to sleep.
I have less insomnia now than I did a few months ago, which itself was, despite the smear campaign to demolish my credibility that was in full-swing, even less than I had six months before that when I was still in a constant state of emotional fight or flight, constantly teetering on the tip of do I stay or do I go, my mind and body always in an alert state waiting for the next emotional blow.
Last night was one of those nights where I just had to give up and watch TV sometime after 3:00 – my eyes stinging and watering but every time I closed them, images and words started their tornado tango that made sleep impossible. I’ve learned to not fight it anymore and to instead do the work in the daylight that makes these nights fewer and fewer with time.
I read an article yesterday that so succinctly and correctly outlined narcissistic emotional abuse that it took me four tries to finish the two-years-old HuffPo article. Four tries for freaking Huffpo. I kept having to stop because I couldn’t read through the water that kept welling up in my eyes. I would have to pause and find a tissue and breathe for a few calming counts and then go back to it.
I have done a lot of reading in my journey to heal. It’s what I do – gather information, make connections, look for places where I can touch the experience of others to make sense of my own. I’ve been trying really hard to understand not only what happened to me but also to make sense of what I did in my own head to stay in it way past knowing it was wrong, what kind of gymnastics I did mentally to avoid seeing it as something that couldn’t just be fixed with love and will and the right words.
That HuffPo article felt like the kind of thing someone else could read and start to get an inkling of what I went through, what so many people go through – a bizarre, unreal-sounding world of mind fuckery and truth twisting and then the avalanche of hate that unfolds once you cut them off for good, a world so rich and full and abrasive that it gets said, often, by those of us who have survived it that only those who’ve been through it can understand it. Everyone else can’t believe that what we say is real is actually real.
One quote I read recently likened this kind of abuse to death by a thousand cuts. To share one or two (or even ten) examples can seem like trivial things, like nothing to use the A word about. The sheer volume and absurdity of the world you find yourself in feels virtually impossible to explain to someone who wasn’t hearing about it in real time.
It felt like an article I could make everyone read and they would at least start to get it, start to try to get it, start to realize that the charming people sometimes go home and break down the people who love them so thoroughly and completely (and slyly) that they put those people in an adrenaline fueled confusion that makes leaving an option their brain doesn’t even get to because they’re still standing there trying to figure out the last ten sentences of their life and how those sentences could possibly be true when they know – they fucking know – that they are not.
What kept me up was knowing that even if I share this article, maybe no one will read it. Maybe they will and they’ll still say: but that didn’t happen to her. I just can’t believe it about him. That the isolation of this kind of healing and the shadow of my real life for the last eight years will always be just behind what people think they know about me (and him) and my relationship and my mental health and integrity.
So it seemed cruel and yet fitting that while I was on that walk this morning, as I was almost home, as I held my daughter’s hand and we strolled down the sidewalk, smiling and singing, that I should run right into one of his oldest friends. Someone I only know through him and only spent time with a handful of times (which, I am sure, according to the ex, is now my fault instead of how he isolated us from almost everyone until I started reaching out that last year to try to bridge our lives back into the world at large and reconnect us to the people around us, even his friends). I saw this man walking toward us and when I realized it was him, instead of someone who just looked like him, I could see him dart his eyes in that way people do when they want to find the secret hatch that will make them disappear before whatever is about to happen happens.
Time slowed. I weighed my options in that molasses second. I ran through several options. And then I smiled and nodded and said hello. Because I am still the person I always was, somewhere deep down, and I will not be too scared to do what feels right, no matter what anyone might think of me. His mouth contorted into some sort of partial smile and he nodded with a half-jerk that looked painful and kept walking.
My stomach flipped once. All of my muscles contracted. I missed a half step before I was brought back to the planet by the feel of my daughter’s small, warm hand in mine, our feet beating out a rhythm on the sidewalk as we kept walking.
I was still walking. My mind had frozen a few feet back near that oleander shrub but my feet knew to keep walking.
I was still moving.
I was OK, I told my brain.
Triggers are funny. They come in all shapes and sizes. This one, really, was pretty small in the scheme of things. But I still found myself counting breaths as my daughter and I crossed the street. I was repeating, silently to myself: you are in March 2020, not October 2019, you are in March 2020, not in October 2019. You are OK. You are OK. You are not the lies. You. Are. Not. The. Lies.
Such a small encounter. That man really doesn’t mean anything to me. There are people who believe his lies that I do care about, that I have to continue to learn how to let go, how to move forward with what will most likely have to be my next step in healing: severing personal ties and blocking anyone still connected to him. By all expert accounts, I should have done that months ago, but it felt like one more way he was stripping me of things I care about. Another way to lose things without giving permission.
So I haven’t yet.
Late last night, it was the openings that those connections make in my cocoon that also filled my head with fear-based scenarios. The way they start to feel like tentacles reaching out from him. I’ve startled awake from nightmares more than a few times in the last couple of weeks where someone still connected to him presents evidence of my craziness that isn’t real, that had to be made up, but is there in front of me, on paper, proving to everyone something about me that I know to be false.
One side effect of this kind of abuse, especially at first, is you don’t trust yourself about who to trust. How can you? I mean, really – how?
That is not a rhetorical question.
It’s a question I spend a lot of time trying to answer. It’s the key and the door.
The guy on the sidewalk, though? He’s not individually important to me. It’s just that right then and there I had to see the physical representation of the way my ex’s smear campaign has worked just how he wanted it to work. If people in his family who saw me be a parent to both his son and our daughter for almost a decade can discard that for the lies and projections he started spewing less than four hours after I told him no more, then of course a man I barely knew who barely ever saw me would believe that I’m a psycho and a liar and a cheater and abusive and unfit for motherhood and bitter and vindictive and and and.
Until today I was convinced that the hardest part of this post-separation abuse – the kind where the abuser yields social media and made-up stories over beers or dinner – was the isolation. The way you can’t really refute it – there’s no good way to say, but really, I’m not like that, I swear without sounding exactly like the guy who says but really, I’m not racist, some of my best friends are black.
You feel like you’re stranded on an island called Truth and no one wants to join you.
The only way to get through it is time. Continuing to live your life, honestly and quietly and (finally) mostly surrounded by calm. To hope that some people will eventually see through the pattern of his exes always being bitter and vindictive and mean and crazy and him finding a ‘new, healthy’ love in record time and then rinse and repeat and rinse and repeat.
Knowing that mostly it will mean people falling out of your life and having to cut off anyone who tries to defend him to you because they cannot ever fathom that the nice, funny guy they know who always seems to be getting the short end of the stick due to someone else wronging him is incredibly cruel and heartless behind closed doors and forces the abandonments that he so artfully bemoans in the perfect Saint Martyr role in order to hook another woman (like me, who will take care of him and save him). The stories that convince his friends he’s just unlucky in love, that tells them it’s always her, whoever her is that time. His stories that keep the carousel spinning and spinning and spinning.
And the isolation is an incredibly difficult and lonely part of this kind of abuse. When you stop the abuse, when you close your walls and keep the boundaries, you gain control over your home life, but you totally lose control over what image gets painted of you. Not that you had any control of it before – not really — but the fury with which someone whose whole focus was contorting and controlling you will work to shatter your life once they see they’ve lost that control is, on some days, more disorienting than the gaslighting you spent years trying to decipher.
Some of us, a lot of us, stay way past when we should leave because it seems safer and less terrifying to stay and try to manage the damage than to open yourself up to what he will do once you are not appeasing and mitigating. It’s an awful spot to be in – and I was in that spot for years – measuring if the damage to me was less in it than out of it, and more importantly, if the damage to me in it was worth it to save my daughter from the damage of being out of it.
Pause and think about that. You are lonely in it, but will you be alone and demonized out of it? And most important: will your daughter’s sadness break you more than his words ever could?
Even more than the isolation, though, I’ve come to realize that it’s the re-traumatization that happens when outsiders – friends, family, coworkers – dismiss or defend or disbelieve or perpetuate the lies that is the most heartbreaking part of this hard-won freedom. That the leap you had no choice but to make, eventually, leaves you at the mercy of lots of folks who really don’t know anything about what went on in your house.
It’s as though you are again standing there staring at a knife while someone adamantly tells you it’s a pillow.
As they tell you that they know better than you: here, lie your head on this cold metal blade, you’ll feel better, I swear.
You tell yourself they just don’t get it – they don’t understand – and thank god they don’t know because this is awful.
Saying that to yourself doesn’t save you from having to feel your daughter’s smooth, perfect palm in your hand in order to remember that you have a body and it is in the current moment and not hurled back into some earlier trauma. Nothing saves you from sometimes having to face the abuse that is still happening even if you work hard every day to try to not care about that. Even if you plug your ears and avert your eyes in order to make a new life that will, maybe, someday be free of these kinds of look-aways.
When I was in my early twenties, I lost friends and family because I fell in love with a woman. 1997 and 1998 and 1999 were incredibly hard years in that respect, before I came to terms with what was lost, before many of those people returned to my life years later. I lost my parents. Lost aunts, uncles, cousins, my brother. A friend I thought of like a sister. A job teaching at a private college. It hurt. More than words can ever express.
I had to come to terms with a whole new sense of self, a whole new identity. That was more painful than I could have ever imagined. I was surprised by this new development in my life. So I had to take this idea I had of myself that had formed over 23 years and put it in a blender and chop it up and reassemble it piece by piece. Really process who I was now and what that meant for how the world would see me.
I lived in the kind of city where just the two of us going to a movie, if we even gave off the scent that we weren’t just friends, would definitely mean dirty looks and stares, but also meant that the dark cloud of something worse was always right there. Matthew Shepard had just been murdered and the danger felt palpable in our conservative ag town.
I had to embrace being someone people would hate for no good reason and without knowing anything else about me except that one thing.
That was lonely. And scary and sad and infuriating. But also galvanizing.
I could stand firm knowing that I was on the right side of history and humanity and love.
And – and this is a big one – people would hate me for something that was absolutely true about me.
Coming out of emotional abuse only to realize that the abuse hasn’t ended, it’s just changed shape and scope, feels brutally unfair. Like a pipe to the knees some days.
Part of this healing process means that I’ve had to again dismantle what and who I thought I was and fit it back together with this new piece of my identity – someone who lived in abuse for a long time. Not a victim, I just can’t own that one. So I guess survivor, but I don’t want that one either.
I want to be the person I thought I was eight years ago, five years ago, hell, one year ago before I understood my life in this way.
People who were friendly to me, people who I considered family, now bad mouth me and cheer him on when he spends his time and money on anything but his daughter, when he calls me crazy and yet leaves her in my care for what amounts to 93% custody even when he shows up for all of his visits any given week. People virtually high-five him when he keeps posting memes about his ‘toxic ex’ or when he calls me psycho. His family, who have seen me fight harder for his two children (the family I poured every ounce of my soul into building) – they witnessed more of the day to day than even my family – they now block me and remain silent and don’t check on my daughter or invite her anywhere unless it’s the four to eleven hours a week he has her. They treat me like I am the plague.
His friends and family – some who have never met me or met me once at a music show or quinceanera or think they know me because they saw my picture for years on Instagram – they hate me because of lies. Not because of who I am but because of who he now says I am.
There’s no march to try to show I’m not that demon. There are no school clubs or PFLAG meetings to help those who hate me understand that what they say about me, what they pass on without knowing it’s true, is another way to abuse someone who has already said she’s had enough.
I’ve mostly wrapped my brain around (but am still trying to wrap my heart around) the fact that the person I loved so much that I practically sold my soul to the devil in order to try to stay with him could do all of this to me and have what amounts to no real emotions about it. Reading and writing and therapy and reaching out to other survivors has helped with that.
I am still, though, trying to wrap my brain around the fact that removing myself from the abusive relationship simply moved the abuse to a whole other realm, and in a lot of ways, ramped it up for several months with no real end in sight (since I can’t disappear from him completely).
This part may never end (in this age of social media the reach is fast and far) and so the goal isn’t freedom from abuse but freedom from seeing it or hearing it or letting it into my home. Mostly it means performing some kind of mental trickery with yourself to make yourself believe you don’t care about it at all.
So far I can’t get past that these mental games feel way too much like the ones I played with myself to stay close to him, to try to give my daughter (and his son) the family I thought I had actually built but had only hologrammed into our house. Right now, this process of trying not to care what people believe about me feels so close to the dysfunction that allowed me to stay that the triggers are hard to avoid.
I left the relationship to end the lies and stop letting them shake my world.
The aftershocks, though, are steady and on repeat.
This kind of abuse is so underground, so secret, so invisible that when you get free and the abuser does what every one of these type of abusers does – takes your name and your reputation and the trust and honesty that made you the perfect mark for his games in the first place – he takes all of that and he shits all over it and paints a picture of you doing everything he actually did himself.
He shakes all of his crimes off and superglues them to a paper doll of you that he parades out in front of anyone who will pay attention so they can tell him how sorry they are for his pain and loss and what a great guy he is and they hope he can bounce back from all that evil and bitterness. The irony is almost perfect. If only it weren’t so barbed and cruel.
So the advice you get as the survivor? From experts and people who’ve been through it? It is devoid of balance or fairness, but it is good advice if you want to get back to safety and health and something as close to normal as you can have in the aftermath.
To live your life. To heal. To keep living with honesty and integrity and cut out anyone who can allow him to reach back into your life and take anything else from you. Keep going. Learn. Live. Breathe. Accept and grow.
Learn to live with the galaxy-sized ball of unfairness that is remaining silent, for the most part, just like you did in the middle of the abuse, in order to save yourself more pain. In order to save yourself the retaliation that comes from not playing along.
Silence. Then. Now. The same.
He’s such a nice guy. There are always two sides to every story. Neither one of them is perfect.
It takes two to Tango.
But only one of us is hiding out and doing the emotional equivalent of throwing our bodies on the floor when a loud boom shoots through the air.
Only one of us.