“Please don’t go. I’ll eat you whole. I love you so. I love you so.”
It had been one hell of a year. Really, it was just the cruel punch line at the end of the three that preceded it. I am talking about more than a bad breakup. I am talking about watching a wrecking ball tear through everything that you thought you ever knew. By the end of it, I dangled dangerously off a precipice; solid ground slipping out from underneath me. I wasn’t sure what I knew anymore. Did I really know anything about love? Did I really understand what I was worth as a person? How had things gotten so out of hand? How did I lose perspective of how I deserved to be treated? How did I ever come to such a place in life? Wasn’t I stronger than this? Was that really the question I should have been asking myself? Why do we always try to blame ourselves first?
I am not a victim. That is not a role I want to play in life. I stand before you accountable for my own actions. There are certain things that happen to us in life that never could have happened had we not allowed them to occur. There are doors that we walk through, either willingly or blindly, but we are the ones who do the walking. We open that door and what we find on the other side of that door is the result of that choice. We may not like what we find there. We may not deserve what happens to us on the other side, but we have to acknowledge that we opened the door.
I am guilty of so many things. I am guilty of ignoring the signs. I am guilty of not being able to see what was right in front of me all along; of seeing what I wanted to see, and not the reality.
Here’s why I am not asking you to feel sorry for me, why you must not. I knew he was bad news. From the first moment we locked eyes, I knew he was trouble. I read him completely from the first time we spoke. I could see that he was wild, passionate, and out of control. Unfortunately, his arrival in my life corresponded directly with an irrational need I felt for danger. I had fallen into a rut of sorts and I needed some shaking up. Sometimes it just happens like that.
The thing is that we hear the same advice all the time: “You can’t change anyone.” and “You can’t save anyone.” I am sure there has come a time when you have sat down someone you loved and told them these very words to their face. I guess it’s what you might call tough love. You may even believe that these are words that ring true. Maybe you know someone who eventually had to leave a spouse with a drug addiction. Maybe you said these very words to that friend. The fact of the matter is: it’s easy for you to say. Even if you have been down a similar road in life, you cannot judge another person’s love or pain. You cannot weight it or chart it or begin to imagine it.
The fact of the matter is that until you are able to make sense of your own mind, you may as well be underwater. No matter how many people sat me down, no matter what they said to me, it fell on deaf ears. I can see my pattern of behavior so readily now in hindsight.
In the beginning, there were the justifications. This is the part that I was born to play. I suppose the reason why I put on such a convincing show was because, at first, my heart was really in it. When I defended him, when I made excuses for his behavior, I was steadfast. My well-meaning friend was forced to retreat, to back down. “Well, alright, then. As long as you know what you’re doing.” I heard that one a lot. I knew that I had not fully convinced them all the time, but I had also managed not to get tied to the chair until help came, either.
After giving so many of those performances, even I had lost the will to keep them going. I realized that the cracks in the façade were spreading at an alarming rate. Now when I faced my advisors, I had to hang my head. It was hard to look anyone in the eye. I even felt deeply ashamed of my tears. Nobody dared say, “I told you so”. Nobody had to. I was fully aware of the fact that I had been asleep at the wheel and had caused my current demise with that reckless behavior. I had run out of excuses. All that I had left were my rationalizations. So instead of cutting my losses, as any rational person would have done, I dug in the trenches. I had convinced myself, was attempting to convince everyone around me, that I was fighting the good fight. Look at all that I had sacrificed for this love. How I had altered the entire course of my future to be with this one person. How my love was the force that would lead him out of the darkness. How my support and care would be the stabilizing elements that would lead him to himself. I believed in these justifications with all that I was made of. I clung to them, drank from them, cried myself to sleep with them. I had become a martyr for this love. I was willing to sacrifice my own health, safety, happiness, sanity in order to repair this broken person. I had convinced myself that no one else on earth could do this job. I was the only one who truly knew his soul, the only one who loved him enough to bother.
All of these were nothing but delusions of the most treacherous kind, but I allowed them to permeate my being because, quite simply, I felt that they were all I had left. I thought that if I walked out, if I gave up, I would be thrust into some kind of terrifying personal limbo. I hadn’t just moved to another part of town. I had moved to another country on the other side of the planet. I was partially submerged in a culture in which I was an outsider, a blunt and convenient threat that was leveled against me when it suited. If I walked out that door, who was I going to be? Where was I going to go? How was I going to find the strength to pick myself back up?
It was the second incident of physical abuse that finally woke me up.
The first time it happened, I had believed the grief that he felt by causing me such pain. I believed him when he said that he would never be able to forgive himself for hurting me that way.
I managed to stay in that house with him for four days after the attack, and I marveled that it was that long. Of course, he bent over backwards to play the afflicted man. I don’t know how many tears were cried on my lap, how many apologies were choked through those tears, but something had grown inside of me. A seed of fear had been planted. When he came near me, I flinched. When he raised his voice, I backed away. I realized that I was behaving like a victim. The trust that I had placed in him had been demolished. The promise that he had made to me, to my family, to look after me, to protect me, had been broken.
There was no way to undo what had been done. There was no going back from that place. When I packed my bags that time, he didn’t try to stop me. He loaded up the car with them and drove me to my safe house. He knew that he was responsible for what had become of me and he knew that he could not change any of it. As we drove in silence, I remember thinking to myself, eyes closed, almost a prayer, “You’re still alive. You’re still alive.” Aside from a few suitcases, it was all that I had at the time to hold onto.
I am about to appear certifiable by revealing to you that I went back. I don’t think I will ever be able to reconcile such a lapse in intelligence. There must have been a thought process involved, but I can’t tell you for the life of me what it was. All I know is that a week after I left, I was moving right back in despite the pleas of the friends who had given me safe harbor, even against my better judgment.
This is why I stand accountable for the second incident of abuse. This is why I cannot be considered a true victim. I am not saying that I got what I deserved. I certainly believe that no one has the right to abuse another person. I am simply stating that I put myself in harm’s way. I have no one to blame but myself for that. Anyone in their right mind would consider the possibility of a recurrence of violence, or even a pattern of it. I can’t claim to be someone who was abandoned or neglected at a young age. I did not bounce around the foster care system or end up in juvenile detention. No, I was raised very well. I had a good head on my shoulders by all accounts. My parents didn’t worry about me unduly when they set me out into the world to find myself as an adult. They took stock in the knowledge that they had done their job. Therefore it stands to reason that the fact that I had allowed myself to be in the line of fire a second time was entirely my own doing. It was a clear-cut case of me not taking care of me. It had to stop.
I staggered out of that dark, horrible place. I suffered, and I did most of it alone. I was too embarrassed, I think, to cry on anyone’s shoulder at that point. What had happened in the end was no surprise to anyone in my life. I know there was a huge collective sigh of relief when it became clear that it was all truly behind me; that I was not going back. It would just be a long time before I had healed enough to join in the celebration.
Here’s the amazing part, the coup de grace. All of the pain and loss that I experienced, all of the torment that I was subjected to, none of it killed me. In fact, once the ragged edge ebbed off of the sorrow, once I passed through the tunnel of debilitating anger, I realized something very important about myself. I was still standing. I was still there. Had I allowed my past to become my future, there were no guarantees about what I have just said. This deeply traumatic experience was responsible for beginning a new and beautiful process. Like the tender young shoots that spring from the ashes of a forest fire, I was starting anew. I was not only going to get back to myself, but I was coming full-circle into the woman I was meant to be. It’s the best gift I have ever given myself.
I am not suggesting that it has been an easy road. There are no convenient answers, no quick fixes. I know now that this process may very well occupy me until the end of my days. Somehow I’m alright with that. There are things in this life that are worth finding; yourself, chiefly among them.