The thing I have always struggled with whenever I set down to start writing about this is I have no idea where to start. For so long I thought I should start at, well, the start, and tell the story as it happened to me. The problem with that is that the way it happened isn’t linear—a lesson that was one of the longest ones; it loops back on itself like knitting. Things I thought were the end of something were beginnings. Things I thought were the “first time he really hurt me” were actually the hundredth, I just hadn’t admitted to myself that it always felt bad, but I had tolerated it because I thought I needed to for one reason or another. And I think that’s the core of it for me, that the trauma, the pain, the anger, the sadness, the betrayal, are all different shoots one a single trunk that was my relationship with men, specifically two men, who hurt me in ways that were so different, yet so similar in that I tolerated the abuse, believed I attracted it to myself by my own actions, accepted it as justice and ultimately I refused to leave each of them for fear of “giving up” (words they wielded against me like a blade every time I stood on my hind legs to walk out.) I remembered sobbing into my hands as I recited to my reflection what one of them had told me when I felt unsupported and cast aside as a burden during a fight: “you receive the love that you deserve.” And I thought they were what I deserved, until I could love myself—until I could earn the right to be loved in return.
Understanding that the trauma wasn’t a continuum or a story with a beginning middle and end, was a healing moment—it was liberating. Suddenly I no longer felt like I wasn’t doing it right or “moving past it” as though such a place on the horizon existed and I hadn’t arrived at the point where it was officially “behind me.” Mythically “over it.” An impossible escape that I am sure now doesn’t and will never exist. When I realized the trauma was more like a tattoo, an ever fading, stretched out, “used to mean something different to me than it does now,” but always on me, piece of who I am, I felt better. I can’t outrun my arm. I can’t break out of my head. I can’t “get past” myself or my own life—which is why it hadn’t been working all the times I had tried to. Accepting that the trauma and the things that happened to me live exclusively inside of and on top of me was really important, because it helped with the other part that I had struggled to unpack, which is that the story and how I comb through it, changes—it changes a lot.
Already I can see the hair on some dudes neck stand up—”the story changes a lot?” Oh yes. Not the facts. Not what happened. Those things stay calcified in place, but I change, and the people around me tell me their stories, ones running parallel to mine and that changes things further. When I heard what he did it to other women, it changed the way I felt, like it wasn’t something that I had personally summoned. When I look back at being 14 and him hovering around my desk talking about the way I looked after I had lost my kid weight and my kid glasses, it’s different than it was when I was the insecure child at the desk becoming friends with her rapist. The story expands as my understanding of myself does. The story inhales the new information, and exhales a renaissance of context. The story shifts, pivots, tilts, weaves, bulges out thick and deep in some places and peaks narrow and sharp in others. There was a time when I was mad because, I’ll call him Trevor, but that’s not his name, had thrown up in my bed after a night of binge drinking. At the time I was angry for my sheets, and the hassle. Looking back now, knowing the whole thing, knowing what it looks like as a body-of-work rather than a tableau, seeing how people portrayed me and my side of the conflict, it wasn’t just that he got sick in my bed. It was not barf that broke me—he had ignored my telling him he couldn’t stay at my place if he drank, again. So my anger was mud in my 28 year-old head, ripe with frustration, reeling from the tyranny of another Trevor thing to manage. I couldn’t place it when I was standing under the faucet, I was mad he puked, but I knew it was more, but at that time, I clung to every chance I found for a valid outlet for my pervasive ambient distress in our relationship.
He had kissed someone else at the party and I had left, furious, and done for the final time. He came to my house with a friend who was also staying with me, and climbed into my bed while I was in the shower, when I had already told him I was done, and our friend not to bring him. He threw up, from chugging organic beer, in my home, where he wasn’t supposed to be, in a state I had told him he wasn’t supposed to visit me in, laying on a mattress that wasn’t his, with unmet terms and a defiant curl of my blankets around his shoulders—and now I see it like a vivid tapestry of my relationship. I see a man who never listened to what I wanted, my boundaries or rules even for my own home (and in retrospect as well for my own body), who had come and let himself in without shame or apology, without asking or checking in, made himself a place in the most intimate spot in my house and thrown up on the side of it.
I can read the scene now like it was a grand simulacrum that revealed everything that was frustrating me about my relationship that I was too close to pull focus on. During that year I was so angry, friends told me I was being rude or mean to him, people said I was cold, standoffish, and curt. Close friends accused me of saying terrible things about him with no cause and it would make me angrier and more adamant that he and I were just “not a good fit.” I was desperately adjudicating the reasons so others could accept why I needed him out of both my bed but also my life. Selling, constantly this panicked “why” to confront everyone who had told me since I was a teenager that this man was my soulmate. He was not; he was an error gnawing on me in private all the time. My relationship was not uplifting, fun or mutually beneficial, it was taxing, exhausting, hurtful, aggressive, belittling and abusive.
The cost of dating Trevor was so high. I was consumed buy it and latched onto anything that I could use as a distraction or as justification for my internal frustration. I wanted to scream, to cry, to break the bones in my hands on my walls. I was unhappy. I was stunted. I was bored. I was being pressured into a really narrow box where I was essentially a hole to fuck that made him feel special, stabilized his life, and fulfilled some prophecy that was a teen-decade in the making—my high school love and I, reunited as adults, as in love as when we were kids holding hands by the train tracks. We weren’t 15 though and the space between us was a cavern. I was constantly trying to bridge the divide with common interest, (and failing) overshadowed by his attempting to bridge it with screwing, and pressure to return sober me to the drunk teenager I had been when he knew I loved him last. But even when I return to our “young love” now it’s not there, and never was. We weren’t ever in love. I was just isolated, green fruit. When he returned in my 20s I had known other conditions for love, I knew what love felt like, and I knew nearly straight away this wasn’t it.
The imbalance. The disrespect. I remember pushing him off my bed to the floor. A “cold and unreasonable” action, or so it was deemed by the friends who heard about it. He was always my responsibility, and my bed was his by right, regardless of his intoxication or my sobriety, or preferences or boundaries, because I was still his girlfriend, because the ink wasn’t dry on my ending it. Regardless of who paid the rent or who washed the sheets, what was mine was his, irrevocably. He was a grown man, 28 years old, with his own apartment and he was fall down drunk, and I was dating him. This was my problem—a universally accepted arrangement in my circle of friends since grade 9, regardless of his choices/options. That was how I found myself in it again, years of this trash and still putting a pillow under his floppy head, working through my feelings of both resentment and guilt for feeling that resentment, while wondering who of my friends would still be my friend when I finally said enough (spoiler: jumping ahead to now, several years later, maybe 2.)
My entire social group, my whole youth, I was groomed to look after men like him and their bullshit, and if I didn’t, I was cold, excluded, penalized, talked about, ostracized. And if he didn’t look after me, my needs, my spaces, my mental wellbeing or my limits, well, that was just because he was too free-spirited, or too wild. Our social group had a nucleus of special men, who has special rules, and he was one. It had every girl in it, firmly grasped in it’s talons. Looking back most of us were in secretive relationships with them from fourteen onward. Some still are.
Years of therapists asking “why do you feel like you need to be of use to someone; be helpful to them, or offer them some material gain or reward for their companionship? Why do you feel like no one will like you for you, rather than for what you produce or provide?” Decades later, I still have not rooted out that thought pattern. Decades later, I still can’t answer but to say “because that was just how it was.”