A few people know this, but for the past few years up until January 12, 2018, I was in a really awful place. I was in a relationship that was destructive and toxic and emotionally draining, with a person who was verbally and emotionally abusive, who chipped away at my self-worth until there was very little of it left, until I was so used to feeling on edge and anxious and depressed all at once that I didn’t remember any other way to feel and I didn’t think there were any other ways to feel. That feeling—that I just had to live with those feelings of anxiety and depression—that was my normal. That was my everyday. I became used to feeling on edge; I became used to feeling like it was just any other day having to tiptoe around my ex-boyfriend’s feelings. That became habit. It became so ingrained my daily life—it was like brushing my teeth. It was just something I did every day. It didn’t feel good, but it was something that I just had to do. Because the alternative was much, much worse.
What I think people don’t necessarily realize about emotionally abusive relationships is how complicated they are—and that’s why they’re so difficult to leave. There were a lot times I felt like I was going mad. Like I was doing everything I could but somehow it wasn’t enough, and why couldn’t I just have what my other friends in relationships had, and why couldn’t I handle it when my boyfriend got angry with me, and why was I so needy and why couldn’t I care less and what was wrong with me and why was I so damn emotional? I felt exhausted all the time. I felt confused a lot of the time. I felt sad, and worthless, and alone, and hopeless, a lot of the time. But then, there were also times—lots of times—when things were great. Really, really great. When my ex-boyfriend was thoughtful, and kind, and affectionate, and, well, a normal boyfriend. And we laughed together and went on fun dates and had great conversations. But then, inevitably, something would set him off—something I said or did, and maybe it was just wired in his personality—and then he would get angry. And it would be my fault. And we would fight because how can something so small or something so random feel like it’s tearing our whole relationship apart, and why did I have to fuck up in the first place but it didn’t feel like I actually did anything wrong but you know what, maybe I did, and now that he’s explaining his side and how it made him feel, I see that I really did screw up, so if I just fix that thing then everything will go back to the way it was and we’ll be even stronger because we worked through it, and I just have to work on those things.
He made me responsible for things that I did not need to be responsible for.
It was not my job to tiptoe around his emotions because he could not control them himself and express them in a healthy way himself. It was not my job to curb and adjust every aspect of my life—from who I hung out with and when I hung out with them—because it threatened his feeling of control over me and caused him to take his anger out on me. It was not my job to be his verbal punching bag, and “just take it” until he cooled off and came back to apologize.
But at the time, I didn’t think of it that way. I thought of this person within the parameters of a normal relationship with a person who was not abusive, who was not manipulative, who was not toxic. In a healthy relationship, with an emotionally mature and healthy partner, when you have arguments, you do work through them, and you do come out stronger. You learn, and you compromise. Emotionally abusive relationships are a perversion of this concept. Because you do argue, but those conflicts only get resolved when you submit to the abusive partner and you concede in the exact way your partner wants you to concede. And that way usually involves you taking all the blame, and your partner being absolved of any responsibility. (Or, your partner taking the blame for something so minute that it hardly requires much compromise on his part.) And then, going forward, as you “work through it together,” it’s really just you working to not upset your partner and you working on a bunch of stuff because you’re made to believe that you are terribly, terribly flawed. The onus falls on you to make the relationship work, and your partner has no responsibility and nothing to compromise on, while you have to compromise so much on almost everything.
And, you willingly take up that mantle. Because you love your partner. You want him to be happy, and you want to be the one to make him happy. So you take on the difficulties of being with him, being in a relationship where the deck is stacked against you before you even start to play, being with a person who will always find fault and flaw and always find a way to remind you that you are not worthy of his love but you can be if you just do X, Y, and Z. And at first you think you can do it; you’re a strong woman and you can get through this and come out on the other side victorious and you can earn his love and once you do, it will be perfect. But then, it starts to eat away at you. Your self-esteem starts to wither and slowly die. You become tired of carrying that burden, that big load of responsibilities, of tiptoeing around his feelings and making sure everything is absolutely perfect because if it’s not, he could be anything from mildly annoyed to incredibly, royally pissed off. But if things are perfect, he could be anything from indifferent to incredibly happy and grateful and thoughtful and kind. On braver days, you gamble with those odds, and at first, you have more braver days. But then the braver days start to come fewer and farther in between. And most of your days are just sad and empty and lonely, though you’d never let it show. You feel like an outsider while you see your friends living their lives. And when you see your friends in relationships (healthy ones), you wonder what’s wrong with you. You wonder what’s wrong with you. Not what’s wrong with your partner, or why he treats you like that. You don’t question why he treats you like that—most of the time, at least. You question why you can’t handle why he treats you like that. Because you’ve convinced yourself that you are in the wrong. And when he explains to you why you are in the wrong and why he is not wrong and why he does more than you think he does, it makes sense. The explanation may not always be accurate, but he twists his words and your words to form an alternate truth and you convince yourself that it is the truth. And even if you don’t totally buy it, you swallow it anyway because you love him and you want him to be happy and you want to be the one to make him happy. And if that means sacrificing your happiness and your sanity and your energy, then so be it. Because that’s what it means to love someone so earnestly and selflessly, to love someone who simply keeps taking and taking and who likely doesn’t know what love really is.
But that isn’t to say that he doesn’t love you. He does—insofar as he knows how to. In his own, twisted way, he does love you. It’s not a healthy love, by any means, and it isn’t actual love—because actual love is selfless and understanding and kind and patient and forgiving—but it is a kind of affection that he is capable of. And this is where it gets so confusing and complicated. Because there are good times, and there are bad times, and every time things go bad you wonder if you have anything left in you to keep going, to keep pushing through until the good times become more frequent and the bad times are far and few. Because you know that there is something there, something that might be a little like love, if not love or something close to it. And you so want love, and you so want that love to come from this person. And it is so frustrating and confusing and maddening to wholly, unconditionally love a person who is responsible both for making you happiest, but also breaking your heart and shattering your self-worth to its core. Love always wins—and usually, your love for this person overcomes everything else. And that’s why it’s so hard to leave.
What makes emotionally abusive relationships so insidious is that you hardly know the damage is happening, but it is. It’s a silent attacker. All those signs that things might be wrong—in the beginning, it’s so easy to look past them and conflate them with less harmful signs. You simply accept what’s happening and do the best you can, but as you continue contorting yourself to fit your partner’s every minute demand, you slowly start to lose yourself. And even worse, the cause of all that destruction is someone you love and can’t let go of. Simply recognizing that the relationship is emotionally abusive is difficult, and once you do recognize it, it takes even more time and effort to be able to readily admit that to yourself, and to others, and then on top of that, even more time and effort to muster up the courage to leave and not look back. And then, once you do leave, the real work begins—the real work of picking yourself up and putting yourself back together.
Finding the courage to leave is the hardest part, in my opinion. It’s the part that rocks you the most; it’s the part that feels most uncertain and most scary and most alone. It’s the absolute darkest before the dawn. I can’t speak for other people who were in emotionally abusive relationships, but for me, it took a series of events that were so awful and so obviously wrong for me to finally tell myself that enough was enough and even if it hurt, staying would hurt too, and staying would hurt more, and staying had been hurting more, but I had just been denying it.
I can’t say how things would be now if I had done things differently, but during that time, I reached out to a few people I trusted to talk this whole thing over and work through my emotions and figure out how to get through this. And they really were there for me, and supported me, all in different ways. And I am forever grateful to those people for being there for me during a time where I did not think I was worthy of any kind of affection or help or love or support.
Thank you for reaching out to me, and for talking through every single thought I had about my relationship, and for telling me that you would support me no matter what and that my safety was the most important thing and to make sure to put my own safety first.
Thank you for always being there to listen and talk, and for encouraging me to seek help to work through all the pain that this relationship had caused me.
Thank you for staying on the phone with me until 4am the night that it ended, just to talk me through and be there for me and help me process everything and keep me company and remind me that you are there for me. I was panicky and frantic and confused and guilt-ridden and sad and heartbroken and scared all at once. And even though you were miles away in another state, you were there for me and you reassured me that things would be ok and that I had people who cared about me. And you must have been exhausted but you stayed on the phone until I felt safe enough to hang up. And then the next day, when I had all those feelings again and I had to deal with the emotional fallout of the previous night’s events as well as logistical things that day, you stayed on the phone with me and let me talk and you listened and you again reminded me that you were there for me and I had people who cared about me and that things would be ok.
Thank you for being on the phone with me the morning after it ended, to listen and comfort me and reassure me that I did nothing wrong and I made the right decision and that it was ok and that I deserved better.
Thank you for getting coffee with me and talking it through and supporting me and checking in with me to make sure I was doing ok and letting me know that you were there to help if I needed anything. That entire weekend, I felt so strange and scared and numb and despondent all at once, and seeing the messages you sent just to check in with me and remind me that you were there if I needed anything was like an anchor that I held on to just to feel stable and safe and sane while all this was happening.
Thank you for driving to my apartment to keep me company, even though it was late, and you were out doing your own thing downtown, enjoying your Friday night. You told me to hang tight and you’d get there as soon as you could, and a truck even scratched up your car on the way to me and you still came by anyway, and it was 4am by the time you came by and you stayed and kept me company and that meant so much.
Thank you for offering to crash on my couch over night, a few days after it ended, just to keep me company and make sure I was safe, since all this was still pretty fresh. That week, I was such a mess and just not myself, and you helped me feel safe. It was the first night in years that we had met up, and I had just told you about everything that had happened. It meant a lot that you offered to do that and that you wanted to make sure I was safe. And thank you for letting me stay at your place the following night. I never told you this, but that night was the first night I felt safe since the night that it happened. The change of scenery, being away from my place and with someone who cared, was just what I needed. You knew I wasn’t eating well because my stomach was always in knots, and the first thing you did when I came over was ask me if I had eaten and offer me soup. I hadn’t eaten, and I honestly was thinking I’d just not eat because I couldn’t. I had barely eaten that day anyway. But you heated up soup for me, and I had dinner with you and your roommate, and for the first time since the thing happened, I felt like I could relax and not worry and not check the doors and the cabinets and the closets. I felt like I wasn’t on edge for the first time since the night it happened, and it was such a good feeling. So thank you.
Thank you for our phone conversations. Even though you’ve since moved cities—thank you for always being there for me, and for praying for me, and for being one of the best friends I’ve ever had.
Thank you for letting me call you every time I walked to or from my car, just so I wasn’t alone and could feel somewhat safer. And you stayed on the phone with me as I checked the cabinets and closets and all the rooms once I got home, to make sure no one was there, and you stayed on the phone with me until I had made sure everything was clear and I felt safe.
Thank you so much for helping me even though you were thousands of miles away on vacation. I don’t remember why I thought of you when I needed help, but I just did, and I’m so glad I did. That night, I needed someone to talk to and I needed someone I felt like I could trust, so I reached out to you and told you to call my new number which I had given you a few days prior. You called, right away, and I told you what happened. I was trying my best to sound calm and not frantic but I think I sounded like I was freaking out anyway, ’cause I was. I asked you if I screwed up by calling the cops and you answered with a resounding no, and assured me that I did the right thing. You comforted me and said you’d be home in a few days and we’d hang out so I wasn’t alone. And then after we hung up, a few minutes later you messaged me saying you had just spoken to your neighbor who had a spare key, and he’d give me the key so I could stay at your place if I needed to. That night was one of the worst, if not the worst, nights of my life. I was already in a low place, and that night just exacerbated everything I was feeling already. But when you called, and we talked, and you told me that I had a place to stay if I needed…for someone to do something like that when for the longest time I had felt like I was so unworthy of anything good…that just gave me hope and made me feel better, on a night when everything was so scary and surreal and awful. I’ll never forget that. It might not have been a huge deal for you to help me, but for me, it made a world of difference and meant so much.
And to the cop who came when I called 911…I remember telling you that I didn’t want to seem like I was overreacting, and you asked me, when would it not be overreacting?. You knew, more than I did at the time, that these situations can escalate, and it was better to be safe than sorry. You were on my side, and I am so lucky that it was you who came to my door. It’s not always the case that cops take a woman at her word and make sure she is safe. You listened to me, and you believed me, and you looked out for me. And you called me later that night, after you had spoken to him, and you told me that while it may not feel like it at the time, I was a victim, and I did the right thing. You wished me all the best in the future. At the time I was too distraught and upset and afraid to feel anything else, but when I look back on that night, I am so grateful for you because that night, you were my hero.
To these people—thank you. You saved my life. I know it sounds cheesy and dramatic, but you really did. Because if I didn’t have you to talk to and help me work through this, if I didn’t have you to tell me that this kind of treatment from my ex-boyfriend was not normal and not something I deserved and not something anyone deserved, if I didn’t have you to do things to make me feel safe and supported and loved and cared for during that incredibly difficult time, if I didn’t have you to support me and continually support me as I worked through those feelings and realizations and then gathered the courage to leave and start over…I don’t know how things would have gone. I don’t know if I would have had the courage to definitively turn my back on this ugly chapter of my life at the point that I did. I don’t know if things would have gotten worse, or escalated, or led to other types of abuse. I don’t know what my life would have looked like. I don’t know where I’d be right now, today. I am here, right now, exactly nine months later, because of what you all have done and because of all the support I got from you. I would not have been able to do that, to leave and not look back and to pick up the pieces and start over and rebuild myself, without you and your support. You each have, in your own way, helped me find the strength to leave a relationship that was destroying me from the inside, and helped me find the strength to realize that I am enough, and I am ok, and I can do this, and there is more out there.
Because of you, I look back on one of the hardest times in my life as a time that also paved the way for hope and growth and renewal. After I left my relationship, and I was starting over, putting myself back together, trying to find happiness again—I found it because I surrounded myself with people who have shown me support and care and friendship—I spent time with you, and it helped me heal. I am where I am right now because of you. So thank you, thank you so much. You have no idea how much your support has meant to me and how much it has helped me and been a rock for me to lean on during times of doubt or difficulty. I am so, so lucky. This whole thing—this relationship, me leaving it, and the period after leaving—all of it could have gone differently, but instead…I am no longer in that relationship, and instead, I have beautiful friendships and a renewed, stronger sense of self-worth—one that is hard-won and resilient. Instead, I am happier. Instead, I am safe, and I am alive, and I am healing. Thank you for helping me get here. Thank you for saving my life.