A woman's journey to take back her life…

Breakups And Knives

When I had been with S for about eight months, I tried to break it off with him. I was too afraid to talk to him in a private place – the beatings were routine by then and I was afraid of him – so I told him on the steps of the student union. It was public there, and yet curiously private: it was the kind of place where you could gain anonymity just by being part of a crowd.

I told him that this had to end before his wife found out. He took the news surprisingly calmly.

I expected him to stalk me, but I did not turn around that afternoon to see him vanishing behind a corner. He did not send me obscure messages through other people, or leave notes on the windshield of my car. When I got back to my apartment after classes, there were no notes in the mailbox, and the phone did not ring.

They say that if something seems too good to be true, it probably is.

By the same token, if something seems too easy to have been accomplished, it probably is.

I went to bed that night without incident. At about two in the morning, I was jolted into heart-thumping wakefulness by the ugly jangling of the phone.

My wife stabbed me, he said, sobbing. She took the breadknife, I raised my arm in self-defense, and she stabbed me.

Well, what was I going to do? Leave a stabbed man to bleed?

I met him in some obscure park and drove him to the hospital. When I got a good look at him in the light, I almost keeled over. There, on the fleshy part of the inside of his arm, was a deep stab wound, about eight inches long, steadily pumping blood. The nurses whisked him away, and returned him to me about an hour later, stitched and neatly bandaged. He looked shaken and pale. Not surprising, I guess, considering the amount of blood that he had lost. I asked the nurse if they had given him any blood.

“We have a shortage,” said the nurse, who was clearly anxious to move on to the next patient. “We save the blood for the people who are really desperate.”

S looked at me plaintively. “I know you broke up with me,” he said. “So I understand if you want to send me back home to my wife.”

He knew me better than that, of course. He knew that I would never send him back to the woman who had stabbed him. I brought him home to my apartment, gave him his medication, and put him to bed. Once he was asleep, I cried myself to sleep, knowing that I was trapped, that I was stuck in this relationship whether I liked it or not.

Many months later, as we were eating dinner, I found myself staring at the scar on S’s arm. And suddenly I knew exactly what had happened. The positioning of the scar made his claim of self-defense impossible.

He had laid his arm on a table, and he had stabbed himself. As I sat there staring at him, I knew this with an absolute certainly.

He had done this to himself. He had done it in order to manipulate and control me.

From that instant, my relationship with him took on a whole new sinister meaning.

Usually I’m so busy beating myself up about having allowed a married man to abuse me so badly that I forget the time I actually tried to do something about it.

Early on in the relationship, shortly after he started hitting me, I went to see a therapist in the student medical center. The therapist seemed so nice at first. She was a soft grandmotherly type of woman, and she gave off an aura of comfort and safety.

I was soon to find out that auras can lie.

After the initial obligatory questions about my upbringing and whether I had subconscious issues with my father, we delved into the reason for my visit. I am in a relationship against my will, I told the therapist. I have been sucked into this and I don’t know how to get out.

The therapist asked some not-so-gentle probing questions about “the man in question.” I answered hesitantly but truthfully.

No, he’s not a student. He works on campus.

He’s older than me. Seventeen years older. He’s married and has children.

Yes, we’ve had sex but I didn’t want to.

Yes, I have been involved with him since we first had sex. And yes, we’ve had sex a number of times since then. But I never want to. Sometimes he hits me.

Yes, I was friends with him for a time before we got involved. But back then, I thought he was a nice guy.

Yes, I have met his wife and yes, I have met his children.

No, I don’t feel good about this relationship. But I don’t seem able to get out of it. That’s why I’m here.

And on and on and on. Sometimes the questions were worded in a roundabout way, like you see in TV shows where a lawyer is trying to catch out his witness in a lie. At some point during this barrage of questions, the time for the session was up. I left the medical center and promptly burst into tears. I mean, what was that all about?

As traumatic and all as that session was, I decided to return. I figured that maybe the therapist was just getting information. Maybe this was just how it was done, and maybe next time, I would actually get some help.

Fifteen minutes into the second session, I was already crying. The therapist laid into me right from the beginning, going on about personal responsibility and doing the right thing, and about how it was wrong to get involved with someone who was already spoken for. I know that, I wanted to scream. But it happened and I cannot make it unhappen and I don’t know how to make it go away. By the time the full hour was up, I was a wreck. The therapist had made it plain to me that what was happening in my life was my own fault, and that I had to deal with the consequences of my actions. I walked out of there feeling a thousand times worse than I had when I had walked in.

The next time I was hit, and every time after that, this little voice in my head told me that it was my fault. Whenever I was raped, I believed that I deserved it.

I did not go back to that therapist again. I did not go to any therapist at all. I just assumed that they were all like the first one.

Late last year, with the gentle urging of my husband, I decided to give therapy another go. During my first session, I was shaking like a leaf. I was so nervous that I wanted to throw up all over the therapist’s carpet. But that session came and went without the world ending. The therapist didn’t bombard me with trick questions. He didn’t look at me accusingly. He was not judgmental. After I revealed that I had been in a relationship with a married man, he didn’t look at me as if I was the scum of the earth.

I was sceptical. I thought that the judging and the meanness would start soon enough. But at the next few sessions, there was more gentle probing into my history, my family, my relationships. At every session, I was afraid and nervous. The therapy sessions were traumatic just because they were therapy sessions, and because I was constantly waiting for the therapist to damage me and crush my sense of self-worth, the same way the previous therapist had.

I am now almost ten months into therapy. The fact that I am still going is a testament to the level of trust I now have in my therapist. The trust is building up slowly and tentatively. Although I still have some pretty intense jitters for a couple of days before each session, I no longer feel as if I am going be sick. The sessions can still be absolutely traumatic for me, but this is because of the subject matter being discussed, and the memories being explored.

And now, ironically enough, I am feeling intensely anxious because my therapist is going away for a few weeks. I know that he is entitled to a vacation like everyone else –hell, in his line of work he probably really needs the break – but still. His office has become a safe place for me to talk about things that I cannot discuss elsewhere. If something bad happens to me during the week, like a major panic attack or a flashback so bad that I cannot get out of it, I always know that in just a few days, I can discuss it with my therapist and try to gain some understanding of it.

I am nervous about not having that safety net during his absence. I am worried that going without these sessions for a month will cause me to lose whatever ground I have so tentatively gained. It has taken me ten months to make just a little bit of progress. The progress feels so fragile, like it will fall apart once I am left to my own devices.

And I wonder: have I developed an unhealthy dependence on my therapist, or is this anxiety about his impending absence normal?

The Man On The Subway

Earlier this week, I had a panic attack on the subway, when I saw a man who looked exactly like S, my abuser. I totally freaked out, got off the train at the next station, exited the station, and blindly ran until I found a place that had a restroom. I threw up violently, sobbing and shaking, and then sat in the stall for God knows how long, waiting for the panic to pass.

I have submitted a more detailed post about this incident that will in due course be published on Band Back Together, but the end result of it is that I am now afraid of the subway. Which is a problem, because I have to use it for my morning and evening commutes, for about 40 minutes at a time.

This morning I told my therapist about the incident, and described how last night, I had chosen to take a series of buses instead of the subway. It took me twice as long to get home, but I just couldn’t handle the intense anxiety that now accompanies every subway ride.

My therapist told me that I have to do whatever I can to not change my routines. I guess this situation is a bit like getting right back onto a bicycle when you fall off.

With some gentle probing questions, my therapist drew from me the confession that although S has been dead for 20 years, there are many times when I think – and fear – that he is still alive. When he died, I was not permitted to go to the funeral or burial. I didn’t see his dead body. I did not have it in me to actually go out and get a newspaper, so I never saw the obituary. When I went to see the grave, there was just a mound covered with dirt. I have never seen a headstone, or anything with his name on it, indicating that he is indeed dead.

All I have is the word of his widow, who called me with the news all those years ago.  And as crazy as it may sound, and as illogical as it may seem, there are times when I think he is still alive. On the subway train, I really thought that I was seeing him, and not just a lookalike. I thought that he hadn’t died at all, that he had been looking for me for the last two decades, and that he had finally found me on this subway train, many hundreds of miles from where the events took place.

My therapist believes that the reasons for this are twofold.

First, the abuse I suffered was so extreme – particularly in the last five months or so before he died – that I was left with a great deal of fear. I suffer from PTSD, and that sometimes has me in a grip so powerful that all sense of reason and logic abandons me. I’ve kind of known this for the last 20 years, that many of my reactions are driven by fear.

The second reason is that because I was denied the opportunity to partake of the usual rituals when someone dies, my mind is holding onto the notion that S is alive. My therapist believes that something needs to happen for me to get resolution of that. What that something is, we don’t know. It is a topic that will be explored in more depth in upcoming sessions.

For now, I have to do what I can to overcome this fear of the subway. I just wish it wasn’t so damned hard.

As One Door Closes

When I went to University, it was to do a Bachelor of Science degree with a Psychology major.

It was never my intention to become a clinical psychologist. God, can you imagine? Someone with my shyness and social anxiety choosing a career that involved talking to people all day? Even back then, when I was young and stupid, I had the sense to know that this would not be sensible career choice for me.

Psychology always interested me, though. As I navigated my own childhood of developmental delays and learning disabilities, followed by my years of intense teen angst, I was fascinated with the question of what makes people tick. Whenever I saw a perceived injustice, the question burning in my mind was always, “What made this person do that?”

And so my intention, when I went to University, was to get into a career that would allow me to explore that question. I was going to get my Bachelors degree, and then work my way through the honors, masters, and doctoral programs. This would lead me into the world of psychology research, a world that I wanted to inhabit. Here, I would be able to do work that would potentially help other people, while satisfying my curiosity about the workings of the human mind.

In the beginning, everything was great. Although I did form some friendships, I was never the kind of student who parties hard. So in my first year, while my friends spent a lot of weekend time nursing hangovers, I was doing coursework or studying for tests. Consequently, I sailed through first year with good grades.

My second year started well. Even after I met S and got into that relationship that was doomed from the start, I was able to channel my energy into my studies. Towards the end of that year, though, the stress I was going through in my personal life was starting to take its toll. I finished out the year with good grades in most courses, but I failed second year economics. While this did not stop me from passing the year, it did mean that I had an extra credit to make up in my third and final year.

In my third year, the burden on my shoulders was just too much for me. I started skipping classes because of the bruises, and I fell further and further behind in my coursework. Having an extra credit to make up did not help. Neither did S, who told me over and over that I was pursuing this degree for nothing, that I would never be able to do anything useful anyway.

I never stopped trying, though. From time to time during that year, I made concerted, focused efforts to get caught up again. It was hard, though. At one point, I was asked to leave the university due to my poor showing at classes, but I begged them to allow me to stay. Swayed by my good performance over the previous two years, they relented. The message was clear, though. I was being watched.

By the time classes were winding up, my academic performance had picked up somewhat. I had improved my attendance record to levels that were only just acceptable, I had written every test, I had turned in every assignment. My grades, which had sunk to dismal levels during the course of the year, had improved. All I had to do now was get through final exams.

Once classes for the year were over, I had about three weeks to prepare for my exams. It should have been enough time. Under normal circumstances, it would have been enough time. But my circumstances were anything but normal.

During the first two of those three weeks, the beatings administered by S ramped up to a frightening level. He knew that I didn’t have to go anywhere or see anyone. Because I was sequestering myself in my apartment with my nose deep in my books, he didn’t have to worry about whether anyone would see the finger marks around my neck, my face with bruises and a split lip, or the fact that the violent sexual encounters left me unable to walk without a limp.

It made it kind of hard for me to focus on exam preparation.

In the last week before my exams, the beatings abruptly stopped. All of a sudden, S was coming home with lotions and ointments to put on the scars. He was encouraging me to take baths with special bath products he had bought that were supposed to soothe and relax. He cooked me nutritious meals, made sure I was getting enough water, and told me to get enough sleep. When I went to bed, I did not have to endure sex, violent or otherwise.

For that week, S didn’t lay a finger on me. He treated me almost like a normal person.

He said he was doing all of this so that I could go into my exams feeling refreshed and relaxed. But I knew better. He was doing all of this so I could go into my exams without bruises or cuts or a visible limp. Not that I wasn’t grateful. After almost two years of abuse, a full week of not being beaten felt like Christmas, whatever the reasoning behind it.

I clearly remember the rainy, windswept day when final grades were posted. I cried twice that day.

I cried for the first time when I realized that despite everything that had been happening to me, and despite those two terrible, frightening weeks, I had passed all of my courses and earned the right to graduate.

I cried for the second time when I realized that my grades were not good enough to get me into the honors program. Which meant that I was not going to be able to pursue the career I had always wanted. As I stood there, I felt more of my life crumbling around me, and I felt almost completely without hope.

Almost, but not completely.

Against all odds, I had gotten myself a university degree. And that achievement lit a tiny flame of – something – within me.

I was never able to go after my dream career, but that flame has never gone out, and it is now starting to grow, to fuel a fire within me to follow a new, different dream.

There is always hope.

Lost In The Wilderness

Yesterday was therapy day. The flavor of the day was my relationship with my mother.

Sigh.

I feel so conflicted about my mom – about both of my parents, really. It’s just that the focus is more on my mom because she happens to be alive. Dad has been dead for several years, so there’s really not a lot I can do about my relationship with him.

I feel conflicted because there were so many great things my parents did for me, that really made me a better person. But there were also some really, really bad things that damaged me very badly. Sometimes I felt safe and secure with my parents. At other times, I felt lost in the wilderness without a compass.

Some of the good:

  • Providing me and my brother with all of the material necessities of life. Food, shelter, clothing, and all that jazz.
  • Ensuring that we got a top-quality education.
  • Teaching us some solid values that I am now passing on to my own kids.
  • Treating each other with the utmost love and respect, thereby allowing us to grow up knowing what a loving marriage should look like.
  • Giving us wise advice and encouraging us to not give up on things that we wanted.
  • Giving us opportunities to see the world from a young age.
  • Advocating for me during my early years, when I was developmentally delayed and learning disabled.

Some of the bad:

  • Incessantly comparing me with my brother and finding me wanting. I grew up feeling like a second-class child, because I was always hearing about how much better than me he was.
  • Telling me from the age of twelve that I was fat. I heard this all through my teenage and early adulthood years. I wasn’t fat. And now I’m bulimic.
  • Cutting me off from them when they found out I was involved with a married man, without even asking me if I was OK. They didn’t even ask about the bruises.

Recently, my mom broke something that she had given to us as a gift a couple of years ago. It was something that did not have any monetary value, but it had a lot of sentimental meaning for us. On a recent visit, she saw this item in what she thought was a forgotten place.

Most parents would have either asked about it (Hey, why is thing here and not there?) or at the very least, they would have just let it go. Most parents would NOT have assumed that they had the right to break it.

My mom broke it. Deliberately, intentionally, with the purpose of us not having it anymore. When I told her that we had actually liked this item and placed a lot of emotional value on it, she didn’t care. She didn’t even apologize. When we told her we were going to try and get it fixed, she told us that she didn’t want us to. As if it was her decision to make.

The second worst thing I feel is the sense of violation. This item was not hers to break. She may have been the one to give it to us, but once she gave it to us, it became ours. She had no right to destroy something that belonged to us.

The worst thing I feel, though, is the renewed sense of abandonment. Due to some of the actions of my parents as I have navigated my way through life, I have an intense fear of being abandoned. I am genuinely afraid of being lost and alone and bewildered. And this latest action on the part of my mom brings that fear rushing to the surface.

I feel as if my mom has once again emotionally forsaken me.

And it’s a feeling that really sucks.

I was born wearing a pair of rose-tinted glasses. Ever since I was a little girl, I have lived my life under the assumption that no matter how bad things are, they will always get better. This belief, which I have clung to in the hardest of times, has gotten me through – well, the hardest of times.

During the years of my abuse, though, my rose-tinted glasses slowly but surely got darker and darker until they went completely black. In the beginning, my natural optimism was alive and well. I thought that somehow, things would get better. S would stop hitting me, or I would find the strength to leave, or maybe someone would even rescue me. I wasn’t sure what form my salvation would take, but I was sure it would come.

After a while, I started losing hope. Every time I was hit, every time I was raped, every time I was told how useless and worthless I was, my spirit got chipped away a little more. Still, I hung onto the belief that things would get better for as long as I could.

By the time S died, though, I had no hope left whatsoever.

S’s sudden death was not a salvation for me – at least, not at the time. I was completely under his control by then. I had been cut off from my friends and family. I had no job and no money, and no prospects of getting either. I had no place to go and no-one to turn to for help. I was physically battered and emotionally destroyed. I had no self-esteem – only self-loathing. I did not have the ability to think for myself.

S had become my life, my entire universe. And now that he was gone, I had nothing. I was young, alone, and absolutely terrified.

My rose-tinted glasses had been completely crushed.

Or… had they?

For about a year after S died, I was doing nothing more than merely existing from day to day. I sequestered myself inside my own head and didn’t let anyone in. For a full year, I had no physical contact with anyone. Can you imagine that? No hugs, no handshakes, nothing. I could not bear to be touched. By anyone at all. And if I had locked my body away from the world, I had locked away what was left of my heart and soul even more securely.

But somehow, after a year or so, the tiniest, faintest spark of hope started to slowly, slowly rise up from the ashes of my spirit. At first I didn’t trust it, at first I thought that the spark would just die out. After a while, though, I began to think that maybe – just maybe – this tiny glowing ember would take. Maybe there was some part of myself that was salvageable.

Maybe those rose-tinted glasses could somehow be pieced together.

And so I started to do things. I travelled. I went back to school and got myself a career. I got a job, moved into an apartment, got a cat. My inability to form friendships of any kind would stay with me for a long time, but I was at least creating something resembling a life for myself.

I slowly re-entered a world where people touch each other. I learned that just because someone was touching me, that didn’t mean they were going to hurt me.

Eventually – after several more years – I got a boyfriend. He pursued me persistently but patiently. He never yelled or got angry. He didn’t hit me. He told me I was beautiful. He held me when I cried and reassured me when I woke up from nightmares.

The first time I had sex with him was surreal. Although I had lost my virginity nine years before I met him, this was my first-ever normal, fully consensual sexual encounter. I was stunned at the discovery that I could have sex and not be hurt by it.

Over the next few years, some big changes happened in my life. I moved to a different country, met my soul-mate, had children, got married. I was thrust into the world of special needs parenting. I lost a parent to cancer, I lost a baby during pregnancy. I moved on in my career and became a recreational athlete.

While all of this was going on, I was perfecting the skill of pushing bad memories away from me. Any time the past started to intrude on the present, I metaphorically held up my hand to ward it off. The last thing I wanted was memories interfering with the frequency of my rose-tinted glasses.

But…

Twenty years or so after S died, my magical memory-averting powers started to wane. I found those memories invading my life, no matter how hard I tried to push them away. I wasn’t only remembering them, I was reliving them. I was experiencing the same terror that I felt twenty years ago. My mind was processing the memories as real-time events. I was having nightmares again. I was resisting physical contact, I was having panic attacks. My rose-tinted glasses were starting to go black again.

My husband gently suggested therapy. Won’t it be hard? I asked.

Yes, he said. But you will be exploring your memories in a safe place, with someone who is qualified to help you deal with them.

Now, I am seeing a therapist once a week. It is more than hard. It is excruciating. It is bringing the memories to the surface, so they are harder to ignore.

Right now, life feels very hard. I am struggling with these memories that are hurting me, I am in the grips of post-traumatic stress disorder, I suffer from panic attacks, and a long-time eating disorder has once again raised its ugly head.

But still, STILL, I have on my rose-tinted glasses. They may be cracked and distorted from all the damage, but I’m still wearing them because they give me hope.

Alone And Broken

Spring, 1989

Spring has not even officially begun yet, but already it’s swelteringly hot. I have been in a relationship with S for five months now. It doesn’t feel right, this relationship. I have a permanent sense of impending doom, a feeling that something very bad could be lurking around any corner. In a way, it’s true. S’s moods are unpredictable. He has already hit me enough times for me to expect that the next blow could come at any moment. It’s more than that, though. I live with a sense of dread that has seeped into my bones and permeates my entire being.

I cannot think about that right now, though. I have a test tomorrow and I need to stay focused. As I do my last-minute revision before bed-time, S is sitting across from me at the table, reading a newspaper. He went to the doctor today because he has a nasty cut on his leg that became infected. The doctor cleaned it up and gave him some medication to fight the infection.

S doesn’t want to take the medication. He struggles to swallow pills and he keeps saying that his leg will get better on its own. I remind him of the doctor’s warning: if this infection spreads it could make you very sick. He concedes that I’m right, and takes the pills.

These drugs are stronger than either of us realized. Within minutes, S is lying on the bed, out like a light. I finish my studying, and then go to bed as well. In truth, I am relieved that S is sleeping so soundly. It means I don’t have to have sex tonight. I hate sex.

I sleep through the night and wake up early. I put on a bathrobe and wander to the kitchen to set up the coffee machine. I go to the bathroom to pee, then I head into the living room to wait for the coffee machine to work its magic. As I’m entering the living room, though, S steps out from behind the doorway, scaring the living crap out of me. I didn’t even know he was awake. He was asleep when I got up ten minutes ago.

Before I can react to his unexpected presence in front of me, he grabs me by both shoulders and slams me against the wall, hard enough to knock the breath right out of me. He’s yelling at me, with his face inches from mine. Yelling about how I made him take those pills knowing they would make him pass out, yelling about how I’d done it to avoid sex, yelling about what a bad person I was, what a useless girlfriend.

“What kind of woman doesn’t want to fuck her boyfriend?” he screams, right in my face.

As he’s yelling, he’s slamming me with great force into the wall. Over and over and over.

Just as I feel as if my back’s about to break, he pulls me away from the wall and shoves me across the room. I try to keep my balance, but I lose my footing and crash into the opposite wall.

He’s not yelling anymore, but he is walking towards me, removing his pants. I know what he wants and I know it’s going to hurt, so I try to back away, even though I know I’m backing myself into the corner.

Then he’s on top of me and his hands are around my neck and he’s thrusting into me so forcefully that I start to bleed. It hurts so much, I think I’m being ripped apart.

Then he’s finished, and he gets up. He uses my bathrobe to clean himself off, and then he gets dressed and walks out of the apartment, leaving me lying alone and broken on the floor.

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