I see a young woman when I close my eyes. She stands on ashes and rubble, her head hangs. She breathes long, deep, exhausted breaths. Her body is covered in gaping wounds. The blood glistens in the light of dwindling flames. And yet she stands tall, breathing, breathing. She fought. She won.
What is abuse? To this day, despite all the conversations I’ve had, the therapy, the articles I’ve read, I don’t know. Intellectually I could tell you that abuse involves regularly punishing, manipulating and violating a person physically, emotionally or psychologically in order to control them. But I struggle inwardly to own this narrative. When I use these words I feel like my story has been co-opted. It has been squeezed into snug little lexical pigeon holes; “abusive relationship” you say? The listener paints their own vague picture of what this means with whatever knowledge they have. And I feel unheard, glossed over, silenced. These are just words. They do not tell you what I feel. They hang a veil over a deeply visceral experience, an oppression felt deep to my core, deep in my cells. A slow suffocation. A drawn-out death that I chose. Yes, I chose. Everyday I chose to stand by a man I loved in full awareness that it wasn’t right. I chose to stay because I couldn’t leave. I couldn’t leave because I felt empty. He completed me as much as I, him. I do not feel like a victim, I was a partner in a toxic dance that broke me.
These words are hard to write. It is difficult to put words to an experience that, at times, feels unspeakable. Such terms do not do justice, either, to the man I knew. I held dear the brilliance, the power and potential that I felt in his heart. Our connection was deep and real and I made it my sole purpose to find a solution to the pain of our relationship. The hours I spent reading books… Watching videos… Attending seminars… Thinking up conversations, or the perfect combination of words set in just the right order that might, just might wake him up… There was nothing I didn’t try. And when nothing worked, I was not defeated. My final option was to change myself – I knew he would either grow with me, or we’d fall apart. I prayed, and prayed, and prayed it would be the former… I prayed on my knees, I prayed while I wept. And of course as perfect providence would have it, it was the latter.
I do not believe this man knows the significance of what happened. My heart cries with the knowledge that he probably never will. I wish I could show him the gift he’s given me, the depth I’ve experienced, and the woman I’ve become. Could he ever know? I think this will remain a sadness with me forever. In the quietness of my heart I hope to show him one day; I hope he will have the eyes with which to see me. And yet, none of this truly matters. He lives now in a sacred place for me, where he will stay.
When I met this man I felt beautiful, free, and open. Though I had not been looking for a relationship, I fell in love hard and fast. The beginning was intense, an overwhelming and utterly consuming experience. This should have been my first red flag, and when I look back I see there were many. But they all passed me by.
I remember the first time it happened; I had forgotten to take his clean clothes out of the washing machine. He stormed into the room and, to my disbelief, exploded into a violent rage. I sat, silenced, shocked and bewildered while he steam rolled into me with disproportionate hate and anger. We’d been together for a couple of months by then, and shared what was for me a life changing intimacy. A tenderness, a joy, and a deep care; emotionally, I felt I’d found my home. Yet I was suddenly at the receiving end of a punishing and brutal diatribe. Over clothes? I couldn’t believe it. Is this for real? I attempted to rationalise with him, which only added fuel to the fire. When he left I curled up on the bed and attempted to absorb what seemed like a totally bizarre experience. He came to lay beside me not long afterward, and held me tight. He told me it was nothing. “How could you do that?” I asked. Ti amo bella, he said, everything’s okay.
But it wasn’t. I had begun to feel ill at ease. A week or so later I made the mistake of putting a metallic object in the microwave. I joked about how silly that was, thinking surely this won’t be an issue. But it was – he exploded again, and stormed around the flat. I was irresponsible, clumsy, disrespectful. Anaïs! I remember how he bellowed my name when I spoke up in defense of how ridiculous he was being. His voice boomed across the flat with controlling authority when I challenged his behaviour; You’re always trying to discuss things! You’re too smart, manipulative! Incapable of admitting you’re wrong! His flatmates heard it all. I would’ve laughed out loud if I hadn’t felt completely humiliated, and spoken to like a child. I remember thinking, I cannot be treated this way, this is ridiculous. This can’t be real.
For my twentieth birthday, he took me to Venice. My heart breaks when I think about how this trip could have been. With the right person it could have been full of fun, joy, and discovery, but to me it felt like purgatory. I had suggested that we get to bed early the night before our day out, which was enough to set him off. You are selfish, egoistic! You think about nobody but yourself! Who do you think you are! If this wasn’t serious, it would be laughable. This was now after months of regular exposure to such abuse, and I had lost the ability to see things clearly. There is a sad transformation of the heart, a deep heaviness that takes up residence when you get used to being verbally battered, trapped and unheard. It clouds everything, and one forgets what a ‘normal’ relationship is or even feels like. At this point, most of my energy was spent trying to avoid the outbursts, obsessing about how to change the situation, and doing everything in my power to downplay what was happening to those around me. I felt humiliated, ashamed of what I had allowed to happen. I couldn’t afford to let people find out.
In Venice I was subdued, nervous and clumsy. He spent the beginning of our trip in a threatening mood, making it clear that if I set one foot astray there would be trouble. When I dropped the top of our bottle of water into the canal he scolded me angrily, protesting vocally about how clumsy I was. I had become an expert at silencing myself in public, so I said nothing. The rest of the morning continued in the same vein. There are photos of that day in my wardrobe somewhere… Photos that, to anyone else, would seem like we were a happy couple on holiday. But I know differently. I see a young woman in a straight jacket, unable to lift a finger for fear of retribution. In truth, they disgust me. I don’t recognise myself. From her smile to her posture, this woman hides the ball and chain around her neck. I remember the delight when people heard where we’d been, and the intense pressure in my chest when I couldn’t tell them the truth.
I have lost count, and memory, of all the times this happened. A regular pattern of gratuitous & random outbursts of rage and punishment was in full swing by then, and after a few months of this I started losing weight. It was, unconsciously, the only way I knew how to cope. At the time I didn’t even consider that leaving was an option, though I couldn’t admit it to myself. Not eating was the only way I knew how to take up less space. Food became repulsive to me, but I couldn’t for the life of me understand why. “You have to eat beba, I want you to be happy, healthy” he would say. It’s only recently that I discovered, in therapy, a buried belief at the core of my anxiety. If I disappear, he won’t see me. He won’t feel threatened. He won’t punish me. When it got bad people began to notice, but I never knew what to say. When my parents freaked out I shut them down. It never got so bad that I had to seek medical support, so I figured I could manage it fine, thank you very much. I got used to force feeding myself just enough to be okay, and until 7 months ago I had actually forgotten what hunger felt like. I have only recently really begun to enjoy food again.
Two of my friends staged an intervention that winter. I sat down with them at a cafe and they admitted they’d been talking and were concerned. “You’re not the same friend we knew a year ago” I remember them saying. I had made the mistake of bringing him along to a social occasion earlier that month (something I quickly learned not to do) and they had noticed something was wrong. I believe they tried to be as diplomatic about it as possible; they knew I’d react badly to being cornered and having my relationship challenged. I am only sorry I couldn’t hear them. Unconsciously, the only message I heard then was that I had failed. Failed to make him stop, failed to manage my relationship, failed to hide the pain.
Though the abuse took up a lot of space, it wasn’t all there was to our relationship. When Mr Hyde wasn’t rearing his head, my partner was loving, tender, sweet and kind. I couldn’t accept that he had issues that would not be overcome. But the penny dropped during the last few months of our relationship. We had been living apart for some time by then, and I believe I was gaining some perspective. My food problem had stopped becoming manageable, and I was no longer able to force feed myself. I was tearful with relief when I decided one day to stop torturing myself with food. It was a relief to stop eating, to finally give in to what I felt. I started wishing that I could disappear, just switch off and end the pain. I remember looking him in the eye and saying “you have to understand what you are doing. I cannot continue like this.” I explained to him why as best I could; he looked at me then with such sadness and confusion. He was never able to admit to his rageful episodes. Until the end, he acted as if they never happened or rationalised them away. Over time his denial of the abuse led me to believe that it was probably nothing. I could not deal with how totally he denied and rejected the effects his behaviour had on me. There was no place for my story. There was no place to be heard. To this day I often struggle with shame when using the word ‘abuse’ to describe what happened. He never hit or beat me; how dare I complain when some women experience a physical violence that is really worthy of the term. I know I will struggle when publishing this blog to stand by what I’ve written. I will want to delete it. I still harbour a deep and persistent desire to deny the experience.
A month before our relationship ended, I told him I wanted to be polyamorous. Polyamory would not have been possible for him without a complete overhaul of the relationship he had with himself. In essence, it was my last attempt to shock him into personal growth. But most significantly, it was my attempt at clawing back my freedom. I still could not bear leaving of my own volition, yet had to escape out of what felt like a death sentence to me. I never once perceived him as abusive, never really believed that he meant it. I saw that the man I loved was hurting. He was hurting so badly that he took it out on me, and I had to do anything in my power to help him. I believed I must somehow be guilty, somehow I was bad. I deeply needed to win him over, and felt I had failed when I couldn’t take it anymore. In order to even come close to the realisation that I wasn’t somehow failing, I had to begin loving myself enough to care about what the relationship was doing to me. I was hurting myself badly. I had begun fantasising about cutting my skin open to relieve the tension, and wishing to give my struggle up for a peace I thought I could only find in death. I started therapy before I could entertain any of this much longer, and I think this was my saving grace. Letting go is the hardest thing I’ve had to do, but it has given me the most sacred experience of all.
Self-love isn’t just a commodity to be bought in self-help books. Self-love is a lasting experience of the most precious relationship there is; the relationship to oneself. Falling in love loses all meaning when one finds that the essence of the self is love. Suddenly, there remains nothing but the joy of intimacy, with yourself, with others, with the sacredness of life. There remains much for me to heal, but I bow in gratitude to what I’ve experienced. Without it, I would not have discovered the depths of my heart, its incredible resilience and power. I no longer have to repeat these patterns, as I bring them tenderly to the light of my awareness. There is no longer anything in my way now of pursuing the life I am here to live. I cry as I realise I am free. I am free. I am free.