This post is the first of a series of posts in which I describe a relationship I had with an emotionally and sexually abusive man- how I came to be in that relationship, why I stayed, why I left, and how I slowly and painstakingly rebuilt myself afterwards. It’s all true, as told from my personal perspective, with names and places changed to preserve identities and allow me full freedom of expression without fear of ramification. The rest of the series can be found on the Stories & Series page. Thank you for reading, and please feel free to share this story so that others can learn from my experiences instead of needing to make the same mistakes.
I don’t lie, as a general rule. I do my best to phrase my truths diplomatically, although sometimes I fail and what comes out is too blunt, but I would rather be forgiven for bluntness than for lying. To me, it’s the one and only immediate deal-breaker for a relationship. I’ve come to realize that, to me, it really is an unforgivable sin.
But I did lie, once.
I told my boyfriend I was going to the ATM- I told him directly, face to face, me standing next to my rental car while he was on the porch holding his sweet dog by the collar as she strained to follow me. I told him I was just going to the ATM, and that I would be right back.
But that was a lie.
I got in that car and I drove, drove until I was a safe distance away and only then did I stop, park, and marvel at what I had finally done. And I cried. I sobbed, wracked with choked, heaving breaths while I reminded myself not to hyperventilate. I cried loudly enough that passersby peeked in the windows, but I never went back.
Maybe that was the first time I let tears fall that day, but I had been crying most days for the last ten months. And on this day, the day that I left, my tears were for a different reason: because I finally didn’t have to cry anymore. He couldn’t make me cry anymore, I wouldn’t let him, I had realized that I didn’t have to and I didn’t want to, and that was reason enough.
It’s difficult in hindsight to describe an abusive relationship, not necessarily because it’s painful to revisit but because once the fog lifts it becomes almost surreal to survey the wreckage. It’s hard to explain why you didn’t leave when the first bomb fell from the sky, exploded right in front of you, and sent you flying backwards onto your ass, sprayed with shrapnel and accompanied by the never-ending hum of tinnitus in your broken ears. For some reason, you got back up and walked deeper into the war zone.
One of the most absurd things about it is that you would only ever do this to yourself. If your best friend came to you, broken and bruised, you would shelter her and prevent her from further harm. Yet, when it’s your own suffering you take it all, fall down, get back up, and take some more. I’m not a psychologist, I can’t purport to understand the myriad of reasons people stay in abusive relationships, but what I do know from my own experience is that whatever the deep-seated reasons are, they probably boil down to two things: self-respect and self-value, or a dearth thereof. Although my own experience was traumatic, it was also an incredible lesson to learn because when the humming stopped, I could hear myself again and my inner voice was unrecognizable from the girl I had been. My new voice is one I trust implicitly, above all other things, all other words that can be spoken by all other people, and that trust in myself gives me a confidence I’ve come to realize is exceedingly seldom found, and usually very hard earned.
I suppose I was insecure, and homeless. Not homeless in the sense of a house, but homeless in the sense of without a foundation on which to stand and build. I was newly graduated from college, acclimating to the working world and trying to identify my next goal. My parents had been divorced for about two years, but because I had been away at school I had never really needed to cope with the reality of it in any sense that could be regarded as adaptation. But, please, don’t read that and think that I was a soul in need of saving. I had been an honor student at a first tier university, graduated first in my major, found immediate employment and financial fulfillment. I’d always had a strong and reliable group of friends, though spread geographically across the US, on whom I knew I could rely for anything and in the following years I would come to need more than ever before. I was pretty by most aesthetic standards and beautiful by some, successful by any measurement, and had a lot of reasons to be happy about life. Vulnerability and happiness are not mutually exclusive- that’s the point I’m trying to make. Anybody can be vulnerable, and you may not necessarily see it outwardly, and that may be how I came to date Eli.
Eli and I had met in early in freshman year of college. He was charming, intelligent, wealthy, and attentive. Our conversations mesmerized me- I remember that I would be on the phone with him until 4am without even realizing that the time had passed. He talked me to sleep most nights in his soothing southern drawl, telling me things he said he’d never shared with anybody ever before, and allowing me to share more of myself than I ever had as well. He remembered the little things about me, what I liked or found funny, and where applicable he made gifts of them. He tantalized me with his wealth, talking about impromptu getaways on his father’s corporate jet. I let myself be seduced by all of it, because it felt incredible, exhilarating, that a person from a place of such opportunity would open that door to me and invite me to enter his world. In that first week, I went with him back to his dorm room and spent the night, but in the morning I felt that I had moved too quickly and wanted to pull back. I’d gone into college “on a break” from my high school sweetheart and still wasn’t used to being with anybody else, which I explained as kindly as I could.
Eli was furious, he lambasted me with foul language and told me he wouldn’t be sad if I got hit by a truck and that I shouldn’t dare reject him because my looks were “marginal, at best.” I felt nothing but guilt for hurting his feelings, because I knew that was where the anger was rooted. We lost touch except for that every year without fail he wished me a happy birthday.
That Christmas holiday, I got back together with my high school sweetheart for another year. When we conclusively went our separate ways the following January, I took a semester abroad and put as much physical as emotional distance between us and returned to college in my junior year, re-invented. One of my closest friends in college welcomed me back with a small party, and said she had “funny news” to share. I went to the party and found the news was that she and Eli had begun to date almost as soon as I left. They lived in the same building, and she knew who he was and what that meant to me. Things between them had moved fast and she’d already bought him a puppy, a beautiful hound and shepherd mix who’d broken her leg and was in a tragically cute cast that meant she had to be carried everywhere by Eli.
He was back in my life. Anywhere she was, he went too, and whether or not I liked it was irrelevant because I valued my friendship with her and didn’t plan on giving that up. At that party he apologized for saying the things he’d said. Our college’s town was having serious issues with irresponsible pedestrianism; no less than five people had died by jaywalking in the preceding academic year. Eli divulged that every time he read a newspaper article about a pedestrian death by bus, he secretly feared it would be me and that he’d somehow have been responsible for having wished that fate for me. We got a pretty good laugh out of that (no disrespect to the deceased), and made our peace. In the next two years I grew apart from my friend. I quit the sports team we shared, and took too many classes to have any semblance of a social life, and both she and Eli dropped off my radar.
We graduated the next May and I took a short term job in another state. Unsurprisingly, Eli made contact on my birthday during the following autumn, like always. We hadn’t spoken in months, maybe even a year, but as had happened before it only took a few brief exchanges before we were snared once again by whatever it was that drew us together. When I moved back to my home state we were separated by 500 miles, but were essentially inseparable.
The distance wasn’t an issue- I was financially solvent and Eli had some sort of trust fund, so every two weeks we were able to either fly or drive to spend the weekend together, alternating who had to travel and trying to keep it fair. By Christmas, we were in love, he’d given me a key to his townhouse and asked me to look for jobs down south so that we could live together.