Seven years ago, I started a little tradition around these parts: I’d write a letter to my younger self. At 21, I wrote to the wide-eyed, swoop-haired version of myself that existed at age 16, at 24, I wrote to myself at 21. In keeping with the theme from previous years, I’m both delighted and horrified that these pieces exist and are easily accessible by confidants and foes alike. Though I’m not going to craft another yet self-congratulatory semi-essay, I will say that this is a big year for me, and it deserves credit while credit is due. More than that though, I’ve been thinking about how I ended up here, because 27 was full of significant trauma.
I’ve gotten to the point in my life at which I’m averse to “making plans” but I also feel that I need some kind of plan. None of the plans I made in my early 20’s have worked out. At all. Reading those letters actually made me laugh. Twenty-four’s included a clause about hope dope it is to “be paid to write,” and to “never give up!” For context, that’s when I was working my job in broadcast news, and quitting it quite literally saved my life. I also prompted myself to find a way to monetize my gift of making people laugh. At 28, I now know that most people are laughing at me instead of with me, and that’s okay. I don’t mind give ‘em away for free. There is one thing that stuck out to me the most, and it’s something I wish I’d read about a year ago:
It'll seem hopeless for a little while but you'll learn quickly-- that's just what being an adult is. Never lose your childlike sense of wonder. Keep being the little idealist you always were. Never lose your propensity to romanticize everything. The world will tell you that's not a way to live but for you, it's the only way to live. Keep dreaming. It's gotten you places you never would have imagined and it'll get you so much further an either of can imagine at this point. Don't give up hope. I've tried... it's no pleasant. It turns every little moment into a nightmare scenario. Never bow to convention. Be brave. Be steadfast. Learn the meaning of "integrity" and practice, practice, practice.
Though I’ll go ahead and say that the trip around the sun in those 365 days between 27 and 28 has been my best yet, there was a point at which I got dangerously close to losing it all—and by “it all,” I mean the very essence of myself. You may have thought that you were getting a lighthearted birthday letter but instead, you’re getting a brief postmortem of the process of getting tangled in, going through, and eventually breaking free from an abusive relationship. (Abridged version, of course.) Because though there were a lot of triumphs in 27, this is by far the most important.
I’ve spent the last few months coming to terms with what happened, but for now, let me say that I know that I’ve finally broken below the surface and can say that I’m truly better off and that if I was truly the bad person he always told me that I was, he could have left at any time. The thing about abuse is that abusers will do everything in their power to make the victim believe that they’re the one in the wrong. I was made to believe at various points that I was a bad person, a bad partner, and a unworthy human. None of those things are true. I was vulnerable and craving something passionate. I got caught up with someone I believed was passionate and wanted my vulnerability. Turns out that sociopathy often presents itself as passion, and the thing about vulnerability is that it’s quite easy to exploit.
I consider myself to be a pretty smart person. I know how and when to adapt, and I need to give myself credit for that. Having said that though, there was a long period in my life when I could be blinded by external validation. What this guy had to offer me—interest, interesting conversation, what I believed could be a fervor I hadn’t experienced in someone outside of myself—seemed too good to be true, which is how I knew it had to be true. Any great love feels that way at first, yeah? I’ve never been one to wait for the other shoe to drop. I’ve historically been all-in early on and I figure it out as I go along. (I’ve since slightly adjusted this approach, with great aplomb and even greater results.) Have you ever heard the metaphor of sticking the frog in boiling water and having him jump out, but if you stick a frog in room-temperature water and slowly bring it up to a boil, he won’t realize? Any questions as to why someone would want to boil a live frog aside, it’s a pretty good way of summing up the basic concept of “creeping normality.” Essentially, a big shift can’t really be felt, and can even be accepted as the norm, if it happens through incremental moments of small change. For those in abusive relationships or those who love people they may suspect are in abusive relationships, realizing the warning signs is key. (I’m not a professional and will never claim to be so if you want to read up on these warning signs a little more—while keeping in mind that no two situations are completely alike—here’s a resource.)
Like others who have been through periods of abuse, I began to doubt myself and my most basic instincts. He made me, someone who believed herself to be entirely self-assured for so long, to question just about everything from faith to favorite color. I could fill several books with stories, and I’m sure that someone of you want to read them, but talking about the details is still painful. What I will say though is that I found myself being berated for just about everything I’d do, to the point where I was too crippled by fear to actually do anything at all. Other forms of abuse in this relationship aside, the emotional abuse still affects me to this day. I have to constantly remind myself that I’m okay. That my partner isn’t going to get mad and flip out because I “said the wrong thing.” That I have the freedom to express myself. That is so precious and I will never take it for granted again.
How did I figure all of this out and find a way to break free? To be candid, it was a long, emotionally draining process. I knew for a while that I wasn’t happy but I didn’t know how to get better because I was told and believed that the unhappiness was all my own doing. My friends will tell you just how bad it was. We’d be at dinner or a coffee date, I’d receive a text, and my entire demeanor would change. I’d get quiet and distracted, sometimes I’d go to the bathroom to cry and do a terrible job of hiding it. Why? I thought it was because I did something to make the guy upset, but I know now that he was insecure that I was spending time with someone else and wanted to separate me from that support system.
Since the pervasive theme here seems to be, “know thy self,” I will say that this entire ordeal taught me a valuable lesson. I’m often too permissive with my partners but there is a hard line I’ve drawn in every instance, which has always been my career. In this case, I given the opportunity to give a TEDx talk—something I’ve been wanting to do for quite some time. I put together a presentation deck and asked the guy if I could go over it with him. He said—innocently enough— something to the effect of, “are you sure you want to do that? It’s a lot of pressure and I don’t think you’re ready.” I didn’t think too much about it until I decided that maybe it was too much for me. I thought maybe I’d bitten off more than I could chew. I’d contact the organizers and let them know that I had something else come up, hoping they’d give me an opportunity in the future. I was hurt though. Hurt that the guy didn’t seem to believe in me. Hurt that he wasn’t pushing me in the way I was trying to push him; and there they were: the first seeds of doubt that were strong enough to blossom into something worthwhile.
A few months dragged on and I realized just how unhappy I was. I put on a LOT of weight because of the stress and the fact that he’d always give me backhanded compliments about my body to the point where my mind felt so distant from my physical self that I didn’t even want to go beyond the most basic nutrition and personal hygiene practices. He’d twist the words I’d say and gaslight me into feeling guilty about sentiments I never truly felt, to the point where I stopped sharing my thoughts, which meant almost never writing. (I’m honestly still trying to get back into a routine and to not be “scared” of putting my words out here anymore.) He’d get upset if I shared a blog post without letting him read it first. I almost stopped blogging because I was afraid that I’d lost this medium that I’ve poured so many hours of thoughtful and unfiltered reflection into. I no longer felt like myself but was still helplessly and hopelessly devoted to him, because he promised me so much. I admitted defeat and decided I’d just have to be another person.
It wasn’t until a meeting with a counselor that these notions all coalesced into something more tangible. Things had gotten so bad that we called in professional help. After the first session, when the guy hung up (we did our sessions via secure video because he lived in another country), the counselor turned to me and quite bluntly remarked that she believed that the guy was an abuser and that if we didn’t live an international border and several timezones apart, she’d be putting together a safety plan for me. I walked out of that session and vomited on the sidewalk. I called my best friend as soon as I got into the car and apologized profusely. I don’t remember much from that conversation aside from the fact that I had to pull over because I was shaking, and I was just saying, “you were right” over and over and over again. He never once said, “I told you so.” Further affirmation that the people I thought I had to get away from to make this “relationship” work were, in fact, the ones who really did care about me the whole time.
There’s clearly a lot more than can be said about this, but I won’t get into it now. I will say that I’m glad that my “making plans” no longer includes this person. I’m happy with someone I can be truly vulnerable with, and that’s a wonderful feeling. I feel safe. I feel very, very wanted. I’m okay. It’s good. I’m not afraid to start making plans again, since I’m supported, both career-wise and emotionally. Before I got to this point though, I realized that making plans isn’t a terrible thing: it just requires some flexibility and the ability to see goals as feelings and milestones instead of people, places, and things. If your goals include a partner, romanticize how you’ll feel when you get to wherever you want to be together rather than romanticizing the partner themselves. (That leads to nothing but trouble.)
Thanks for letting me share a little bit about my story. If you’re reading this and you know or suspect you may be in an abusive relationship and you’re worried about your internet usage being monitored, you can reach out to someone at the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1−800−799−7233.