One of the weird things about being a painter is that the shittiest and most painful experiences often bring forth some of the most compelling paintings. I’m not sure whether that’s the case here, but the past month certainly has been a compelling painting *experience* anyway, where I got to throw two years of pain and betrayal into color and canvas….
Anything that hurts can be processed into color and light, motion and energy, only half arrested between artist and subject, audience and canvas. And so, here I am, painting the end of a long and terrible “love” affair…. Processing having been used, abused, exploited, betrayed in every possible way… having LET someone do such things to me for more than two years… and hoping to come out on the other side of this without hatred. It’s a tall order, because, frankly, these canvases got the *shit* beat out of them, with such hatred I have never known. (My name is not Catharsis Jones for nothing.)
But… this project has to be more than that. I have to be more than this.
This is a strange story, because artists are strange people. This is the story of how I wasted two years of my life trying to love someone so much more profoundly fucked up even than I am that it turned out, sadly, not to be possible to love him at all. No one can say I didn’t try, though. Our motto was, “We might be crazy, but we’re never boring.” And we were truly never boring.
I was pretty crazy about this boy, once, even if I’ve known for a long time that it wasn’t really love. I’d have done almost anything not to have to leave him. But he forced me to, and it took some doing. (Honestly, I used to get so god damned upset, every time he would do some unforgivable thing. Not so much because he had hurt me, again and again, as because I wanted so much to be able to stay with him, and he was making it impossible. I couldn’t understand how he could not see this. I wonder if he finally gets it, now that I’ve finally left him for good.) This person put me through a lot of suffering, and it’s taking some processing before I move on from here. Catharsis is, after all, not just a name I use, it’s also where forgiveness almost always begins. So I air out the wounds and let all the angry energy travel through, and as I am a painter, this is where the stains of that resoundingly failed relationship go. I did literally beat these canvases, infused them with the anger that was the only thing left of “love,” even painted some of them with the blade of a dagger. But… but as I said, this will have to be something more that that. The art will be in the healing.
There are a lot of stories in this collection of paintings, drawings, and pages from my journals and sketch books. This was a very troubled, troubling, and predatory “lover,” someone who did everything he could to slice me to ribbons, to hurt me in every way he could, to tear me down and break me, the entire time we were together. He was also someone I cared a lot about, once, and would have overlooked almost anything to have been able to stay with. …almost.
He was (he is, he would say, but to me he is just a was)… he was a musician and a writer of a lot of perpetually unpublished novels, some better than others. And it was in that capacity that he once tried, shortly after the real ending, to send me a piece he called “This is how it ended.” It was something he had written, he said, years before the actual end, after one of our more tumultuous fallings out. He said it would “explain a lot.” He sent it as a text message, though, so almost none of it came through and for that I am grateful. Because what little I saw of it read like the same old, weirdly disconnected-from-fact, self-reifying, self-glorifying, gaslighting, twisted narrative he always tried to force on me, in which he was long-suffering and innocent, and I was guilty of an amazingly ironic litany of abuses he imagined he suffered rather than meted out. It was, as with everything he tried to say about why I had to leave him, a strangely convoluted meth dream, all weirdly disjointed and all completely sanitized of his own terrible behavior. This strangely, emotionally sadistic person was forever trying to cast himself into the role of victim in all his narratives, when, from my perspective anyway, virtually all he has ever been in life was a victimizer. He needed to see himself as a burnt offering, I suppose, to assuage the guilt he would otherwise have had to bear for the selfish manner in which he constantly inflicted unnecessary and thoughtless suffering upon anyone who trusted him. This need to victimize, tempered by delusions of victimhood, turns out to be a pronounced feature of one of the personality disorders from which he suffers (see below), so I guess he cannot help that part. His version of “how it ended” was a script, meant to convince himself, if not me, that he was the hero of the story. Thankfully, only a paragraph or two got through and the rest was lost to the ether. That’s just as well, because, like virtually everything he ever insisted was the truth, it was mostly just a bunch of convoluted lies. This is how it really ended, and here is why there is so much wild energy of anger in these paintings.
How It (REALLY) Ended
It ended on a bridge, over water. A cleansing at last, of a dirtiness I’d been feeling for a very long time but had not had the courage to wash away, a weight I’d been needing for a long time to finally let go of. He didn’t see it coming, no matter how many times and ways I had warned him that it would… and I led him there, to the end of him, by his own darkness. It was a cinematic ending on a bright fall day, the first day of autumn…. It was how artists end things. It was a perfect piece of performance art that brought down the house and left everyone in tears. It had a very shocking surprise ending that took his breath away and left him stunned, leaning against a rail for support, sucking in September air, and murmuring “nicely done” at my back as I finally walked away from him for good, victorious and done with him at last, even if it hurt like fucking hell.
This boy was never good for me. He was the most abusive person I have ever been with, in so many bizarre and unbelievable ways. He turned out to be a predator, a misogynist, a betrayer. But he presented very well at first, and I had met him at a very vulnerable time. He was able to take advantage of that vulnerability to keep me with him, and to keep convincing me that I was so damaged I would never be able to find real love again and this abusive nightmare was, he suggested, the best I could ever hope for.
I met him when I was in mourning, and he knew this. (Except for that ending, where I used his own
dirtiness against him and trapped him like a dung beetle in a jar …except for that, I was never anything but honest with him.) Sidberry, the love of my life, had died only 8 months before I met this boy, and the wounds were all still raw and jagged when we met. (Indeed, they will always still be raw and jagged.) He knew what I had suffered, knew everything I had been through, and made colorful word shrines suggesting that he was devoted to helping me back to life. This new boy had walked into the middle of my bottomless grieving, promising to save me from that well, but all he ever did was dig it deeper and try to drag me to the bottom. When he came into my life, he tore me limb from limb and refused to let me heal. I was broken beyond repair from love, and had no heart left to give. He took it anyway, and the blue guitar my son gave to me, and everything else he could carry away.
He made me sicker and sicker, told me I was broken and unfixable, but that he “loved” me “anyway” and I should be grateful for that. We were the “perfect love affair,” he would say, and he’d tell me how he “craved” me and how he loved “the way you move through the world.” His words were a lot different than the terrible things he did to me, and I attached myself to the words and kept hoping for them to manifest into reality. I craved the romantic fairy tale he promised so much that I made myself believe it all the way up until almost the very end. “Watch us go,” he once said. And I did. I watched us go right over the edge.
Yes, THIS is how it really ended. He simply hurt me far too much, far too often, for far too long, and so I stopped loving him and it sniveled and snarled and whimpered its way out. It was over long before I finally called it and sent him oozing on his way. I simply ran out of anything but disgust for him. I had been abused in every possible way by him. So the day that I discovered that the fairy tale of romantic “love” I had wanted so much to believe in was a lie, that there was no core to it at all… well it was long past time for me to be leaving him anyway, letting him sink to the bottom, so that I could learn to float again. It did hurt to finally see that all that hard, hard work of trying to find common ground, trying to understand him, trying to accommodate his behavior problems, trying to excuse him on the basis of his mental illness, trying to forgive his many predations… was all for nothing. Nothing was ever real between us at all. The “love” that had hurt me so much for so long was never even real. That still hurts to think about, mainly because of everything I lost because of him, and everything I gave to him, foolishly trusting in his “love” even when I knew I could not trust his word, could not trust him alone in my apartment, could not leave money out around him, could not leave my journals unattended near him…. What was I thinking to have ever imagined that I could trust him with my heart.
So it ended for good on a bridge. In a trap. He, weirdly, was wearing my favorite pair of fishnet stockings, stolen from me, under his grubby pants, thinking perhaps to impress a woman he did not even know with his kinky prize, but more likely getting some weird and secret pleasure out of the clandestine slap in the face he imagined that would be to me. He was carrying the guitar my son gave to me, stolen from me, to woo an imaginary liaison with song. Yes, it was a trap, and yes, it had come to that. But let’s face it, this thing had been sniveling to a halt for a long time before that. It was an anticlimactic ending, even if a beautiful piece of performance art that I have to say, I’m pretty proud of. Life is nothing if not performance art. But yes, my heart had slammed a door and given up on trying to love him long before he found himself trapped there in his own deceptions, sinking to the bottom, weighed down by the heavy load of bullshit and stone that wobbles fitfully in his otherwise empty chest.
Notes to Self
It was really over before it ever started. In retrospect, I realize that our “love” was never anything but a lie. But it would take me two years to discover that, and what drama we had along the way! It was a strange denouement, this ending of a tumultuous affair. Because I’d been telling myself all along to leave him. My journals over the past two years are FILLED with testimony to all the many ways in which he was unfit to be my partner. I kept track of everything in those journals, and for whatever it’s worth, I was miserable around him almost all the time. Graphic novel passages depicting some of the bizarre, soap-opera-ish dramas he put me through, idle sketches in moments of despair, and words from inside, beseeching me to leave him. In glorious and lurid detail, there is my own hand, telling me what I knew all along but did not want to see. I’d once actually counseled domestic violence victims, so I was familiar with the frustrating pattern… but knowing it and feeling it and being able to follow through with it are very different things. God, there is some unholy drug in attachment…He gave me nothing, took everything, made me miserable almost all the time… and still I kept on taking him back.
Just some of the many journal entries I should have heeded….
We were as famous for our dramas, fires, and defenestrations as we were for our healthier passions or our art. But I stayed anyway, as faithful as he was faithless, out of inertia I guess. My heart had not been in it for more than a year, and I had mostly been sitting around watching it implode, trying to survive each wave of it, wondering how and when it would finally, mercifully, end. And then I realized, it was up to me to push it over. So I did. Thank God, I finally found the courage.
Before he was a demon, though, he was just a man. The mind does these things… changes whole substances through some alchemy whereby matter is mixed with new information. A tilting of perspective to reveal new form. But really it’s all the same thing, isn’t it? Aren’t we all just shadows on the wall of Being, just transitory forms, flickering between light and darkness, not recognizing that we’re all really One? None of us lives in only one dimension, and no matter how much he hurt me, this person cannot be defined solely by the anger I feel with regard to my interactions with him. And I did really believe I loved him once. Madly. (At least… for awhile. Before the closing of the door that never opened again. And I do thank my heart for that. For at least knowing, long before I believed it, what he really was and was not worth.) Nothing really changed between love and hatred, except perception. He’s the same boy now as he was when I first met him. As when I was in love with him. It’s the trajectory of meaning that has changed, the story. The string of information that feeds the narrative. And my heart. My heart has certainly changed. But the person is the same, and in that there must be some kind of allegory.
I thought he was beautiful once, though not so much in the way he looked, as in the way he made me feel… early on, when it was all Shakespeare and lies and I didn’t recognize them yet for what they were. So I’m not going to be that person who translates it all to hatred now and demands the world see the evil the way I once begged them to see the good. I don’t want to see just the evil anymore either. This isn’t a revenge screed, some bitter ex-exegesis intent on mocking and ridiculing someone with whom I once shared everything of me. I’m seeking something more than catharsis, although the catharsis in the paintings I have stomped on, stabbed, and thrown things at this month has certainly helped. What I am seeking, though, is bodhicitta.
I guess that’s a lot to ask. Maybe I just want to deal with what was done to me, to compost it into the earth, to transform it all into new soil in the groundless ether, from which I might grow again. I poured the worst of it into canvas, the way any painter deals with anything. I do have to say, this relationship was the worst I’ve ever known, the most abusive I have ever suffered through. It left me hurt to bleeding, it took almost everything I’d had left away from me, and the person I had thought I loved turned out never to have existed at all. But I can take things back from this. I raged all that I could of it out of me and into these canvases, a cleansing, to start anew. I hate what was, and what was done to me. I still do. But I do not want to hate the person who did it any more than I ever want to see his festering form again. I want to exorcise the demon, and to see him again as just a person.
In truth, we are all flawed beings and I do desperately want to have compassion for this boy, whom I’d once foolishly thought I’d loved… For his terrible flaws just as I’d once had such compassion for the things that I thought were good in him… even if most of them turned out to be false. Even if his flaws wound up cutting me to the quick, over and over and over again, in the end quaking my body with shuddering nightmares for awhile. I’m a long way from forgiveness, and I can’t even imagine, now, what I ever saw in him at all. Thankfully, mercifully, at last I cannot think of him at all without disgust and revulsion. It’s a balm of self protection, – where once I kept letting him back into my life out of misguided “love” even as he tore me to pieces, now I am over him for good. I no longer risk falling for him, the door is forever closed to him. I am safe from him now. But does that mean I have to hate him?
What if I can transcend the illusion of separated forms, the egocentric view of all Others in terms of what they do or do not do to me. What if I can, with some work, come to just see him as another lost soul, another broken piece of God lost in the dream, wandering through the ether, a long, long way from enlightenment, just like all the rest of us.
(There is irony in the fact that I am mining the wisdom of my own religion in search of forgiveness for him… he is an avowed atheist and would likely not appreciate the depths to which I must plunge just to reclaim anything of the past two years with him that is not hatred. Ah, well. This is not about him, anymore. This is about me.)
Although it’s hard to tell from these paintings, I want to find a real kind of forgiveness that will open the door to redemption for us both. Or at least that will allow me the space to breathe again without breathing in the stink of his betrayals, like the greasy, yellow night sweats of the dying. Some way to at least look back over the last two years and take away something besides hatred and memories of nothing but angst and anger and betrayal. It’s hard to cultivate forgiveness in the groundlessness of a love that never really was. It’s hard to forget everything that I lost because of him, after finding out once and for all that he had never been worth any of it. But Oh, forgiveness. Come.
Every now and then I feel it, like a little seed starting to grow. But it’s such a wavering thing, so easily turned to ice and then to rage when I think of everything I suffered at his hands, all the lies he told to and about me, and all the reasons I have for hating him… A whole litany of bizarre and ridiculous dramas, thrusts of rusty knives into tender flesh, sins that I think of as demonic on his part, sins that tore me to bone and knocked the wind from my lungs over and over again. I do not know how to ever be cleansed of his clammy touch. So in leaving him, I have found some hard places inside and I can look upon him as a teacher of sorts. Someone whose jagged edges point me toward understanding the limits of my own capacities for forgiveness and compassion, and thus he goes from being someone who nearly killed me and only depleted me to someone who helps me to grow from his composted remains.
To get to that point, a place of forgiveness, first I lean in. I have to face a lot of fears and pain, and to try not to let that harden my heart.
“If someone comes along and shoots an arrow into your heart, it’s fruitless to stand there and yell at the person. It would be much better to turn your attention to the fact that there’s an arrow in your heart…”
― Pema Ch0dr0n
…there is an arrow in my heart.
It’s very hard for me not to want to shoot it back. (He, bizarrely, would take that as a “death threat.” That was one of his more pronounced behaviors… He was fairly significantly mentally ill, and imagined everything was death threats. Maybe in some way this one really is. It certainly felt like traveling through Hell for awhile to have this arrow here and I do resoundingly wish it out of my heart and into his. I think I do not care if he dies of it.) So here I sit, looking into the abyss and tugging at this stupid arrow. Cupid didn’t shoot this one.
First, The Litany
Catharsis comes with a desire for accountability. If there’s one thing he never was, it was accountable for the terrible things he did to me. So here is an accounting anyway. Whatever secret things I know about him only because we were intimate, I will not fling up now. That’s bad form. Other than that, the things he did to hurt me are fair game, and this is the context in which a hard-won forgiveness must now try to grow. I need to get this toxin out of me. To drain and cauterize the wounds. To heal. There it all is in canvas, and this is the first time I have said any of this anywhere but in my private journals. Although he was an accomplished shit-talker, I never was. I might have my faults, but trashing a partner, ever, has never been one of them. Privacy means something to me, and so does solidarity. I had chosen to be with him, and I have never been interested in going around trash-talking someone I am in a relationship with. It creates distance in places where one wants intimacy. (I learned this lesson in high school, after a fight with a boy I once dated. I went home and told everyone he was awful, shared some crap about him I might have kept to myself. Then, when we made up again a few days later, as happens when you’re in high school, the shit I’d said about him still hung in the air all around us… my family wouldn’t really tolerate him after that. Lesson learned.) So let me be clear here, that in the two miserable years I was with this person, I have been visibly upset with him often, but I have never shared with anyone the terrible, terrible things he did to me. Even the WORST of him, I kept to myself. Because, back then, I still wanted to create intimacy rather than distance. Now? Now I want distance. A LOT of it.
He came with flowers and such flowery lines. I didn’t know, then, that all those lines were fake, and wrecked with repetition – that they had been recycled through God knows how many other women before me, all verbatim, and would be reissued over and over to others, behind my back, in the two years or so that we were together. So I fell for them all, and very hard. In the end, as I watched him tangle himself up into his own lies like a cocoon, on that bridge to the end of him, I got to deconstruct it all. Every lie he’d ever told me, every line he’d ever just repeated by rote, every promise broken, every thrust of the rusted knife. I got to see, intimately, how seemingly sincere he gets, and how self righteous, when he’s lying. Got to finally face the truth of the suspicion I had had all along, that he was not capable of love at all, that he was unworthy of my heart and always had been, that nothing about him, or “us,” was ever even real. He was, and is, a pathological liar, and very accomplished at it. He lies to everyone. In the years we were together, I watched him lie to his mother, to his sisters, to his friends, even to his own son. And he lied to me as easily as breathing. He often blamed this penchant for lying on the fact that his mother sent him away to boarding school when he was a kid.
(He would obsessively refer to this as the defining moment of his life, the most traumatic thing that ever happened to him… being sent to a prestigious boarding school for choir boys in New York City. He blamed everything on that. Who knows. Maybe. Maybe he was once the sensitive, creative soul I thought he was when we first met, driven to personality-disordered madness and infliction of suffering upon others by perceived abandonment. Maybe. Or maybe he’s just a shitty person seeking excuses. It’s hard to say.) But whatever the reason, he was a consummate and pathological liar. I didn’t know it yet when we first met, so I fell for all his ridiculous lines, and those first few weeks were intoxicating in the way that a new crush always is. We spent whole days and nights rolling around in linens together then, barely even coming up for air, much less for food nor social responsibilities nor for anything else. We were living on the drug, on “pheromones,” he would say (…though he’d also have said that to anyone else with a vagina, as awkwardly as a gaping, ape-faced teenager).
Within two months, though, bizarre things started happening.
Early Warnings Not Heeded
There were a lot of things I should have paid attention to, early on, but I had wanted to be in love so badly that I’d just swept them aside, pretended they weren’t there. For instance, it became clear right away that he was threatened by anything I’d ever done worthwhile. Rather than celebrating past or even present accomplishments with me, like a lover would, he would instead become angry and surly just hearing about anything important in my life. This was baffling to me. I had thought he was my lover, and in my experience anyway, lovers share and revel in each others’ accomplishments. So I’d tried, many times, to share things I’d written, films I’d done, and other work I thought he might be proud of me for having done. While he did admire my paintings, he got angry and mean every time I ever tried to share anything else. He had refused to watch most of my films, once telling me that they only made him think about the fact that I’d had a life before him (as if there were something wrong with that). He was threatened by my work as an animal rights and environmental activist, and preferred never to discuss that. If I tried to share something I had written with him, he would sigh noisily, act burdened, and then often not even bother to read it. I couldn’t figure this out for the longest time. After all, he was always sharing things he wrote and songs of his with me, and I was eagerly receptive to them. That’s what lovers DO, after all. It’s one way we connect across the space between us. But once, he finally just said to me, “God, you keep trying to make me read shit you write.” I was taken aback by that. I honestly didn’t understand at all. It was a thing my previous lover and I delighted in, this sharing of each others’ worlds. Why was this person so stingy and awful about such things? Why was he so eager to have me read his words (and praise him for them), while denying me the same gift? It was much, much later before I finally realized that it was that he has so many personality-disordered fears of inadequacy that they come out like this. He cannot bear the thought that his lover might be so complete without him. “It makes me feel so small,” he once said to me.
It’s that smallness, that tiny window into his inner world, where I find some little bit of compassion for him here. While his behavior, and the fact of him wanting to dismiss and ignore every moment that was special or important to me, was unnerving and selfish by almost any standard, there seems to be a pain beneath this behavior that must be unbearable. It makes me sad for him, which tempers the anger. In any event, though, his behavior got worse quickly.
I started getting insight into a darker side of his nature by listening to some of his surly criticisms of past partners he had had. One ex girlfriend, he confided with an obvious desire for commiseration, had dared to, oh my god, “pet her cats in bed.” Baffled, I waited for more. But there was none. “What… um… what’s wrong with that?” I prompted. “It made me feel ignored,” he said, apparently astonished that I didn’t get it. (I later came to know this weirdly childish quirk of his up close… he was always jealous of my dogs, too. For taking any of my attention away from him. He had no qualms about saying so.)
He told me a series of stories about this particular ex that raised some red flags that never went away. In one story, he had fought with her on a stairway and she wound up falling (or being pushed, depending on which time he told the tale) down the stairs and was injured enough that she needed a sling for her arm. Somehow, according to him, this was all her fault – though details were sketchy and inconsistent as to just how or why – and “that bitch” then went around accusing him of abuse and badmouthing him for “no reason.” Later, he told stories about friends of hers following him around Spokane threatening his life “unless you leave her alone.” Why, unless he had been really terrible to her? He could not say. People always were “abusive” to this boy, in his narratives, and always “for no reason.” (Later, he would say the same about me. In strange quirk of his character, the women in his life are always the villains, no matter how good to him they are.)
He told of another ex partner he cheated on, “because I was mad at her.” (At the time, I asked whether that was something he would do to me. He said no, of course not. In point of fact, he already had. “A cheater cheats,” I said, and felt the ominousness of the words even as I said them. A person who is unfaithful is a person who is willing to be again, and I knew that.)(Indeed, his past was filled with stories of him foolishly cheating on people, thinking he was entitled to.)
Then, there were the alarming things he said about his ex wife. He told me, one night, in frank confession of having been “victimized,” that she had once pushed him out of bed on the morning of his birthday. He sulked sadly, even years later, about this. He made her out to be such a villain, and himself to be such a sad and pathetic victim. But when he went on to describe why she did so, it turned out he had been cheating on her and she knew it. “But… but wait…” I began quizzically. His indignant expression changed, in that moment, just a crack. He saw, I think, that maybe he had revealed a little too much of himself right then. He faltered, but only for a moment. He tried to smooth over the uncomfortably glaring fact of his infidelity from the story, but in the end he just wound up being defensive about it. To him, it was perfectly obvious that she had been “awful” to him, and that he did not deserve her “abuse.” In fact, the most troubling thing to me, up to this point, was his explanation of what had gone wrong in their marriage. She had left him, as have virtually all the women he has ever been with. But he had found such fault with her before she did so that the marriage was basically over anyway, he said, and he was sleeping around with a woman barely out of high school (a thing with him). The reason? Well, said he with gravity, after her pregnancy, “her sex drive fell to almost nothing.” He added, as if in explanation or justification, “And I was a young man.”
Jesus. Seriously? Their marriage ended when her child was but a toddler. Did he not understand that there is naturally a period of time after the birth of a baby when it is normal and healthy for a woman not to want much sex for awhile? Was he really so selfish and utterly self centered that he would find fault with her about this, that he would cheat on her rather than supporting her health and well-being, rather than being by her side where he belonged in this important time, raising a new baby together and patiently waiting out the post-baby libido drop? This was my first glance at the selfish and pathological sense of entitlement he had – a flaw of his that I later came to know most intimately. Christ… what had I gotten myself into? (“Try pushing a bowling ball out your urethra and see if you feel like sex right away,” I’d said to him in disgust. It rolled off him like water off grease. To this day, he talks about being deprived by his ex of sex during that time, as if she had owed him that and as if, because she withheld sex, he deserved to poke around in the high school playground.)
It was so hard to reconcile this information with the romantic boy I had fallen for, the one I so desperately wanted to believe in. So… so I just put it out of my mind. I somehow tucked it away in the collection of things one talks about a little too frankly after a few beers and then forgets. I imagined he had grown since then. That he was different now. That now, he really was just that boy who stretched out with me in candlelit baths, reciting Shakespeare and Gaelic poetry… and not the kind of pathetic, selfish git who would cheat on his wife the moment she gave birth. But my concerns grew. Meanwhile, his behavior toward me changed quickly from romantic to stifling. He wouldn’t let me out of his sight. I was accustomed to solitude when I wanted it, but suddenly, if I went off to my own studio to paint, he sulked and acted like he had been somehow betrayed. He insisted we spend every moment together, and he started getting mad at me for weird little things. If I wanted to spend time with friends, if I ever just glanced at my phone, or checked my email, he got surly. If I spoke to friends, male or female, he grew angry. If I went anywhere without him, or encouraged him to go find something to do, he acted hurt and betrayed. We started fighting about everything.
The Slut Baiting and Double Standards
Then, the weird slut-baiting started. We lived in a building full of artists, and I had lived there before him. I had a lot of friends there, both male and female. It was a dramatic and vibrant and oddly warm little community, where we all wandered around painting or dancing or acting or playing music, and in between we would hang around in the kitchens or the courtyards or the gardens or the halls together, socializing or comparing art techniques or sharing pipe dreams or living out
our various dramas in colorful vignettes.
We sat in little groups together all over that building, draping ourselves over furniture, or having community meals around the tables. It was a life I had embraced fully. But suddenly, once I started seeing this boy, I was no longer allowed by him to socialize with any of the males. And if I dared to be seen talking to another boy, this one would get vicious. We would have enormous fights over this. He kicked over my drink one day in the garden and then stormed away, just because a friend came over to talk to me. He screamed obscenities at me out in public, and in front of his 4 year old son, because he imagined I was interested in some other boy (I wasn’t). He took to leaning out his window when I walked by, every time we fought, yelling things like, “Slut!” “Why don’t you just go fuck everybody!” and, memorably, “Hey everyone! Look at her! She wants to fuck you all!”
I couldn’t handle his jealousy, was not used to a partner so insecure and needy. It wasn’t just that he was toxically jealous, though. It was that he had such double standards about it. In our relationship, he had no qualms about spending long afternoons on lunch dates with his ex wife, and at first, I had no qualms about letting him. That’s what grownups do, I reasoned. But after being berated enough times for even daring to mention the name of an ex, after having my drink kicked over in front of his child and a garden full of people for daring to speak to a friend, after being hollered at every time a man would dare to talk to me, after having him embarrass me publicly by challenging other men even for the most innocuous conversation with me… it started to really grate on me that he allowed himself the privilege of interacting with other women so freely, but denied me the very same privilege. He used to get very upset if I dared to mention memories I had of Sidberry, whom I was still grieving over. (As toxically jealous as L was, I think he really did try, at first, to be understanding with me about Sid. He gave lip service to it a lot, would tell me that he understood that I would always love Sidberry, told me he didn’t expect to take Sid’s place. But then, if I dared to mention him, he’d grow surly and mean.) Occasionally, he would tantrum and throw things, just because I’d dared to share a memory from before we met and accidentally used the word “we.” It just wasn’t fair that the same boy who saw nothing wrong with spending whole evenings dating his ex wife would not even allow me to grieve or have memories. It wasn’t fair that he would have long conversations impacting us as a couple, not with me, but with his ex, at the same time that he thought I should see how obvious a “sin” it was on my part to still grieve for Sid or even just to talk to friends I’d had since before I even met him. Again and again I tried to talk to him about this, but he never could see the inconsistency here. (This kind of double-standard was one of the most difficult and oppressive things about that entire relationship. He just couldn’t see things the way a normal person would, never acknowledged this kind of double standard, and always insisted the fault lay with me and not with himself. I would get to the point of wanting to pull my own hair out trying to explain such obvious concepts to him, but he never would get it and I never could figure out why.)
Once, I left him, I thought for good. I moved thousands of miles just to get away from him. I will not go into why. Some things just cannot be written about. But we started talking again, and he told me with such lying, false “sincerity” that he had not been with anyone but me since I had left and would “always want another chance” with me, would “wait for me forever” (all lines he had recycled, btw… he later sent me a “love” cd full of songs to women he had been with before me, and they were all replete with these very same lines). I didn’t know these were lies and lines, though, and it all seemed so romantic that, soon, we were trying to be lovers again, even across the miles. We were talking on the phone almost every night, and visiting occasionally. One night, I had gone to an art opening. He called me while I was there. Seeing who it was, I was ecstatic to get the call and rushed to answer it. But, because he could hear music and conversation in the background, he grew poisonously angry and accused me of cheating on him. (Ironically, I later discovered that he was carrying on an affair at the time, though I was not.) When I insisted I was only at an art opening, he remained angry anyway, and demanded to know why I would have answered then, instead of when there wasn’t the noise of other people in the background. “You’re just trying to make me jealous,” he snarled. He was utterly incapable of understanding that I had answered the phone because I was happy to hear from him, and not as a secret plot to make him jealous with background noise. He really was that neurotic, that self centered, that needy, and that emotionally abusive.
Another time, when I was moving away from all my friends – my only support network – to be near him, my friends had a going away gathering for me on my last night in Ohio. Thinking I was sharing details of my life with a lover, I sent him a photograph of us all smiling together, telling him that it would only be one more day and I’d be moving close to him. I thought he would enjoy it, thought that I was sharing a moment with him, thought we would laugh about it together. Instead, he sent back a vitriolic thread of hatred, again accusing me of intentionally trying to make him jealous.
So there was a lot of fear at the heart of a lot of the problems that we had. Both of us, I think, feared not being good enough, feared being unlovable, feared abandonment. I’m pretty sure that was at the heart of a lot of his behavior. Jealousy, after all, is just fear directed outward, and he took that to new heights. Understanding that fear, I’m sure, is a step toward forgiveness. A lot of hatred is just fear-based aggression. Recognizing the root of it in him, that it’s the same as the root of it in me, taps into the well of bodhicitta perhaps, and grows that little seed of forgiveness.
Borderline Personality Disorder
It wasn’t only that, though. He started treating me in ways that just were not consistent with the way I thought a lover should. It was weird little things, at first, but they grew worse and worse. One night, early on in our relationship, we went out to a club together to hear some music, and for no reason I could understand, he got angry and stormed off and left me to fend for myself, make my own way home across the dark city in the middle of the night. It was one of our first fights. It seems like a small thing, I guess, but to me it was a strange betrayal. I had trusted him with my well being that night, and he had let me down. He’d stranded me across the city from my bed, had left me there in the dark without a thought. No lover I had ever had would have done such a thing to me. (I should have given this a lot more thought, then. Because this was a behavior that got worse and worse, until everything involving him at all was a betrayal that risked my well being.)
Another night, a group of us all went to see a band play at a different club. While I was getting a pint, some poor old man came careening drunkenly by the plate glass windows on a bicycle, and as I watched in horror, he lost control of the bike and crashed right there in the doorway. He hit his head and lay there, blood pouring out of the gash in his forehead in a widening stream. Holy God! I ran out the door to help him. I sat on the ground with him and put my jacket under his head, I asked the club bouncer to call an ambulance, and I spoke soothingly to the victim until the ambulance arrived. While all of this was going on, my erstwhile “lover” came out of the club once and hovered over me briefly, but instead of an expression of concern, he was glowering. I didn’t know why. And then he just went in and left me out there. When the ambulance finally came, I didn’t know what else to do so I went back inside and washed the blood from my hands and sat down next to my troubling date. I expected some comforting conversation from a lover, a comrade in arms. I remember even thinking maybe he would be proud of me for jumping up to help this man. But… he was visibly upset with me, and I couldn’t figure out why and he would not tell me.
It turned out, he was jealous that I’d given this poor old man attention he thought should have been his. While the paramedics worked on the old man, I kept glancing over to see whether they would patch him up there or whether he would have to go to the hospital. (They took him to the hospital.) The poor old guy had asked me to make sure his bike was safe, and I wanted to make sure that the club manager would put it inside as he had promised. But every time I glanced away from L, he would literally demand that I “Look at me!” “Make eye contact with me!” He was so weirdly surly and demanding that I assumed he must just have had way too much to drink. And I will say frankly, that I do make room for things like that. I am, after all, no stranger to addiction troubles. I thought he was only surly because he was drunk. But when he sobered up, we never had that “Ha remember last night when you kept getting mad at me just for being concerned about that poor old man” moment that I had expected. Instead, he still thought he was right to be angry because I had given my attention to another man. (Well what did I expect, after all, from a man so selfish and self centered that he imagined he had the right to cheat on his ex wife for daring to turn some energy and attention to her newborn baby instead of him? A man who gets jealous of freaking CATS?)
And so it went.
He had seemed so perfect to me at first that this emerging behavior was baffling to me. I couldn’t understand why it was happening, why such an otherwise romantic person was sporadically getting so cruel and mean. I started trying to find the reason in myself. What had I done wrong? Was there a misunderstanding? What was I not seeing? And this, my friends, is what can happen when people with mental illness try to love each other. We both had our idiosyncratic weirdnesses, that portfolio of diagnoses that every artist has behind the art portfolios. My disorders, while they do not sever my relationship with reality, do make me easy prey for these kinds of thoughts. I have a fairly significant case of OCD, for example, and self doubt and uncertainty are hallmarks of OCD, much more-so than the stereotyped-to-death and generally inaccurate handwashing behaviors made so famous by Hollywood. Any time there is discord, I tend to blame myself. And we had so much discord. Any time I could not figure out how to get through to him, or see reality in the way that he insisted I should, I assumed the problem lay with me. And for his part, well he has his own mental disorders of a different stripe, often convincing him that he is victim when he’s victimizer, often making him feel slighted at the slightest whim. So both of us kept blaming me, and I spent years letting him convince me I was responsible for his sporadically mean and predatory nature.
At long last, though, we found out that he has a classic case of borderline personality disorder, among other things. Holy God, this explained SO MUCH about what we were going through. It had taken a lot of detective work and doctor visits and combing through the DSM-V to figure this out, but once we did, God, the strange puzzle started to become comprehensible at last. It was, initially, SUCH a relief to finally have a name for the thing that had kept sinking us.
Sadly, though, we were nearly 2 years into our relationship before we found this out. We had always known something was awry with his mental health, and he certainly had other diagnoses as well, but we did not have this particular label until a lot of damage was resoundingly done, and by then it was too late to do much… unhealthy patterns were already set in stone, and too much harm had already been done. I do not mention this disorder, btw, as the unsubstantiated insult of an ex that most people mean when they say it. In fact, to perceive this as an insult at all is to grossly mistake it. People struggling with mental illness have enough trouble, without having to deal with added stigma. It is no slight and no weakness to have to deal with such a thing. I take mental illness very seriously, and do not use its labels lightly. I do not mean this as a euphemism for shitty behavior. I do mean, he literally has borderline personality disorder*. Finally figuring this out explained a lot, but not soon enough.
Sadly, this disorder is well known to prey upon those who have it almost as savagely as upon those who love them, or try to. Pathologically afraid of being abandoned, he would constantly accuse me of cheating on him, and ironically, would cheat on me and/or abandon me any chance he got. Until we figured out his diagnosis, I could never understand what was happening, why he was treating me the way he was. Once we finally knew, I struggled hard to forgive him for things that would have otherwise been unforgivable, to excuse the worst of him on account of this disorder. People cannot help being mentally ill… but they can help what they make of it. I kept hoping he would work on not externalizing so much of the fallout from it onto me. He never did, though. (“Sometimes,” a friend wisely said to me about him once as I tried to defend him on the grounds of mental illness, “Even a person with mental illness is just an asshole.” Another counseled me, “Whatever the reason, look at what he’s doing to you. You can’t keep allowing this, no matter what the reason.” Both wise counselors in retrospect, though I resented this truth at the time and did not take their counsel.)
[*I’ve included a lot of links above and below regarding borderline personality disorder. If you are someone with this disorder, or especially if you’re trying to love someone who has it, please feel free to click on the links to learn more about how this awful affliction victimizes both the sufferer and the people who try to love them. There is plenty out there – mostly written by people who have been victimized by people with this disorder – that adds to the stigma and misunderstanding with regard to this terrible illness. In spite of my anger and pain at being victimized by someone who suffers from this, I have specifically avoided any of that bullshit. In fact, as with any mental illness, a lot of L’s charm and best qualities hail from this wiggy wiring, just as so much of the things that hurt me could be traced to it. Mental illness is not a death sentence… or at least it doesn’t have to be. If you have it, you’re probably easily moved to tears of empathy, probably charming, probably capable of feeling things deeply… if you can just power through those abandonment fears and personal pathologies that lash out at everyone who loves you. It’s treatable, and you don’t *have* to just be an asshole. ;-)]
Walking on Eggs
One of the problems with borderline personality disorder is that it can cause those who suffer with it to misread and mis-translate everything in ways that are ripe with an imagined persecution that isn’t really there. And so, around L, I always felt like I was walking on eggs. Anything I said or did could set him off, even the most benign comments. One night as we lay in bed together, about two months after I met him, I had made some totally innocuous comment, and he got really angry. I couldn’t understand it. I tried to trace the thread of reason from the spool of meaning to the place where it got broken. I thought it must just be some kind of mistake. “Why don’t you tell me what you heard,” I murmured, “And I can tell you if that’s what I meant to say or not.” “No! We’re not doing that,” he snapped. He said it with such severity that I kept thinking it must have triggered something in him, to have him so angry just because I had suggested such a useful and widely advised communication strategy as this. Maybe a therapist had suggested it as his marriage ended, I thought. Otherwise, what on earth was his problem with that? I never did find out, and that communication tool which might have helped us was rendered useless to us because he refused to even try it.
So yes, this was a thing throughout the entire relationship. I was constantly afraid of saying or doing anything around him, for fear of how he might take it. I could never see it coming, could never anticipate the weird ways he was going to perceive things, or the even weirder ways he was going to react to those perceptions.
He would, for instance, get angry with me if I awoke from a dream in the morning and tried to tell him about it. That seemed like such a warm and intimate way of sharing… but for some reason he would get really angry at me for this. In fact, being in bed together in the mornings often set him off one way or another. It’s where a good many of our fights often started. I do not know why. I learned, though, never EVER try to share any dreams with this person.
As I mentioned, part of the unhealthy dynamic between us was that I kept trying to locate the blame for everything that went wrong somewhere within myself, and so did he. I kept combing through everything, trying to figure out what I’d said or done wrong. Even so, strangely, he often accused me of “never being willing to take responsibility” for things he alleged that I had done. (Everyone else who has ever known me well says I apologize too much, take too much responsibility for things I have no control over. This is, indeed, a facet of my OCD. And most of the people who have known him long note that it is *he* who generally has trouble accepting responsibility for the things he says and does.)
“I feel unheard,” he would often say, and I kept trying to figure out what he meant by that because I was *constantly* trying to hear and understand and accommodate him, and he was never making it easy and he was never reciprocating. *I* felt unheard, but still I tried to understand, tried to change whatever it was he was referring to. I now suspect that this phrase, “I feel unheard,” was like so many others he would repeatedly parrot, in that it was probably something someone had once said to him regarding his own behavior, and he had simply adopted it and made it something he just says. Because he does have a way of making a person feel profoundly unheard. It was yet another strange quirk of his that any critique one made of his behavior would wind up incorporated into his odd lexicon of ready-made accusations, turned around and pointed backward, away from himself. Thus, when I once noted that he seemed to have no sense of self awareness, he responded by telling me, from then on, every time we fought, that I lacked self awareness. (Ironic, because the rest of the time, he used to tell me that I had more self awareness than anyone else he’d ever known.) The same thing happened when I accused him – for good reason – of sabotaging me at every turn. Suddenly, the words, “You’re sabotaging me!” and “Don’t sabotage me” were rolling from his lips like beads of spittle. Often, he said this at exactly those times when I was working the hardest to provide help and support to him – exactly the opposite of “sabotage.” So, also, when I complained of his constant double standards, he began trying to apply that criticism to me, though it was absurd. (He didn’t seem to understand what the phrase meant but that didn’t stop him from trying to aim it my direction.) And bizarrely, after spending months trying to cut me off from all my friends, haranguing and bullying any man who dared to speak to me, demanding I not check my messages, and badgering me every time I talked to anyone else or even pet my dogs, he started accusing me of “isolating” HIM. His claim that he was always the one being abused, rather than being a terrible abuser, was part of this pattern. Deflection was such a marked trait of his manner of interacting that I’m sure he must have been told this in his past, and yet he often directed that word at me under dubious circumstances. That one got so frustrating that I resorted to trying to illustrate the ridiculousness of this accusation for him with this graphic, “Deflection Projection” (See image). (I had tried all sorts of modes of communication with him, trying to get us to understand each other. None of them ever did work. But I favored graphic novellas.)
“If we learn to open our hearts, anyone, including the people who drive us crazy, can be our teacher.”
― Pema Chodron
He’s actually still doing this weird behavior, too, or at least he was, last time I paid any attention to the messages he kept leaving me. In between a lot of declarations of the “love” he pretended was real, a lot of insistence that I must still love him, and a lot of mean, terrible insults, he was also randomly referring to me as “stalker.” This was especially silly, given that I haven’t had any interest at all in him, his life, his whereabouts, or anything to do with him since I left him. He has a YouTube channel that I’ve not been remotely moved to glance at. Last I knew, he was still living like a troll in his mother’s basement, 15 miles away, and I haven’t been tempted, even a little, to drop by there. I simply don’t care what happens to him, and would be happy never seeing him again in this life. Meanwhile, he’s been weirdly stalking me, both online and in person. He left me messages admonishing me about posts I wrote on two different websites, and when I asked why he was still trolling my sites, he replied, “I’m stalking you because I love you.” (I stopped even posting to those sites, as it felt invasive to have him peering over my shoulder like that.) He left numerous comments on this site, all horrific, insulting, and threatening. In two of these messages, he suggested that Sid died in order to get away from me, and that his death was my fault. Needless to say, thank goodness for the moderation feature. He sent wave after wave of emails and text messages to me until I finally had to block him, and left hours of bizarre messages in my voice mail. Most disturbing of all, friends are still occasionally calling to let me know he was seen skulking around outside my building again. (This is especially frightening, and everyone in my building has clear orders NEVER to let him inside, and to let me know immediately if he is spotted in the vicinity.) So yes, in true personality-disordered fashion, he stalks me and calls me “stalker,” with no apparent sense of the absurdity. (I’d have expected no less.)
[Added on December 16, 3 months after I left him: By a curious irony, as I was looking over this piece this morning, trying to decide whether to bother to post it or not, I received a spate of calls and texts from friends and neighbors, warning me that this person was stalking around outside my building, asking questions about me, and apparently spitting on the windshield of my car. The stalking continues, and I have been forced to get a restraining order. These are photos from today:
He later called and left a voice message on my phone, claiming that he “wasn’t stalking,” that he was “only Christmas shopping,” and saying that I cannot banish him from my neighborhood. “I didn’t think I would see you,” he said incredibly. This is the kind of bullshit that drives one crazy with such a relentlessly lying ex. He certainly WAS stalking. He walked up and down, up and down the street in front of my building, he circled the block repeatedly, he asked my friends and neighbors about me and whether I am seeing anyone else, and he does not even live in this city. There was NO reason for him to be “Christmas shopping” outside my building. In addition, he left details in the message letting me know that he has been keeping track of me online as well, and he let me know that he stopped by a gallery up the street to see my show there. Arg.]
The Shit Talking
Then, there was the shit talking. As I mentioned above, solidarity and intimacy are important to me, and shit-talking a partner is an unacceptable betrayal. We weren’t far into our relationship before I discovered he was habitually betraying me in this way. After every weird fight he would start out of nowhere, he’d then go around telling everyone about it, weaving a strange and dishonest narrative about each disagreement, whereby I would be cast as the villain. I’m told, now, that this is a pronounced feature of borderline personality disorder, but I didn’t know this at the time. He’d make up lies to explain to people why we were fighting. He would do these bizarre, awful things to me, and then if I reacted (and I’m human, so I did), he’d pretend the fight started there instead of where it really had.
So, for instance, we had a lot of weird fights via text, and he’d show my angry texts around, completely out of context, and act like an innocent victim to my “unreasonable” tongue-lashings. Or he would call and leave these terrible, terrible messages, threatening my family members, calling me horrific names, and just saying awful things to me. If I called back angry, he’d put me or my messages on speaker phone for everyone to hear, and sit around like the poor, innocent victim. For the first few months of our relationship, we were living with a hundred other artists, and people would come to me all the time to let me know he was “doing it again.” It was often amazing to hear the narratives he was creating around our discord, as his version of what was happening was so absolutely divorced from reality or truth. I spent a lot of time trying to figure out whether he really believed all the shit he was making up, or whether he was just a self-serving liar. For a very long time, I was sure that his impression of reality was so impacted by his mental health disorders that he just couldn’t help it, that he really saw things this way. (I no longer feel that way. He is ill, but I also think he is a manipulative liar who gets off on attention at other peoples’ expense like this.)
For the most part, the people around us could see for themselves that he was not being honest with them when he was carrying tales about me. They were used to him, were often front-row witnesses to his abusiveness, and knew us both well enough to know he was making shit up. But it was still painful to have him doing that to me. I consider that, too, to be an intimate betrayal. He would sometimes gleefully report back to me, during a fight, what he had said to people, and that he thought they believed him. (Regarding our mutual friends, he was generally wrong about that. He seemed clueless as to how distasteful they were all finding his relentless attempts to drag them into our personal business. But with regard to his people whom I’d never met, it’s anybody’s guess. They all know him, I’m sure, but then we always want to believe our friends.) He began telling me, about a year into our relationship, that he’d been running back to his hometown and telling his friends and family these awful things about me, and then he’d tell me, “They all hate you.” Of course they would, I’d think to myself, because they’d never even met me, and all they know about me came from his shit-talking lies… but he took that as “proof” that I was inferior to him, that I was flawed, that he was the better person. (Once, he reported to me that his sister noted, sadly, “You always wind up with such abusive women.” I wonder if he heard any sarcasm or irony in those words…. )
It was odd that he hung so much of his self perception, and perception about our relationship, on the opinions of people who had no first-hand knowledge of what went on between us. Indeed, he was often convinced that I was to blame for discord between us because, as he would say, “My friends all hate you.” He had a friend whose home he would charge to every single time we fought, and he reveled in telling me how she “hated” me and thought he was an abuse victim due to all his bizarre stories about me. I do not know whether he was telling the truth about this, because I never did meet that friend, nor most of his other home-town friends, in our two years “together.” However, I can say for certain that most of my friends hated him, and wanted him out of my life. They based these feelings NOT on anything I had ever said to them, but on things that they had actually seen with their own eyes. My housemates watched him behave abusively toward me every time he came to visit, watched him break down doors in our house to get at me, watched him emotionally batter me, watched him leave me in tatters after every visit… They hated him fiercely. One of my housemates once threatened to throat-punch me if I ever let him come near me again. Everyone in my life kept telling me to leave him. Everyone. And I would get very defensive about it. After all, no one wants to hear that about someone they’re trying to have a relationship with.
One day, as he was telling me how much people he knew (who had never met me) hated me because of things he’d told them about me, I pointed this out… that his people were basing their opinions solely on what they heard from him, while my people had all met him, and had rejected him because of who he was, not just because of things they’d been told. I noted that my housemates and friends all wanted him out of my life specifically because of things they had seen him DO, things they had witnessed for themselves. Suddenly, he tried to tell me that’s why his people hated me, too. It made no sense, since the people he was talking about had never even met me, but as with so many other things, he took what I had said and turned it back on me in exactly the same language I had used: “My friends hate you,” he would say, “because of things they saw you DO, things they witnessed with their own eyes.” Sigh. Such an exasperating, gaslighting, bizarre person this was.
He was so frustrating, and so very, very destructive. Each time I had a show, he would somehow try to sabotage it. Often, he would start an enormous fight on the day of or the day before a show. He wouldn’t show up, he would show up drunk and mean, or he would say horrific things to me on the day of the show to make me doubt my work, myself, and my sanity. I’m not even exaggerating that. Every, single show. Like clockwork. On one occasion, I was offered a solo show and the venue traditionally booked a musician on the night of the opening reception. Knowing he needed the work, and wanting to support his music, I put in a good word for him and got them to book him. I’d been through so many of his weird mind lapses, though, that I actually asked him to promise me he wouldn’t fuck it up, to promise me that no matter what was going on between us that night, he would show up and play, and not sabotage the show. He swore that, of course, he would be there and of course he wouldn’t fuck it up. (Like every promise he had ever made to me, he broke that one too.)
Days before the show, he started a huge fight over less than nothing, left town, and refused to play the gig. He was in the throes of his own brand of madness, I realized, and I actually felt sad for him. I had to ask another musician, at the last moment, to cover for him in case he didn’t come through. Even THEN I made the excuse for him, in my mind and to others, that he was mentally ill and couldn’t help it. My friend, who agreed to stand by to play the show in his stead, tried to be very understanding about this, and agreed that if L managed to pull himself together and show up, he could play. I told L this. I even offered to drive him home afterward, as I knew he did not have transportation and the last bus would have left before the end of the show. He refused to commit to be there, and on the morning of the opening, he called and left message after message on my phone, berating me and telling me how gross I am and, as always, undermining my confidence in my appearance, myself, and my work. Later, he pretended this was all was my fault, because I had told him the night before the show that, although we were all still keeping the door open for him in case he pulled himself together enough to be there, he should not come if he was only going to try to hurt me. “Don’t think you can just show up and fuck with me and sabotage everything,” I said, “Because I have that possibility covered too.” He characterized that as yet another “death threat,” and said he would tell everyone he couldn’t play the show because I had “threatened” him. (Really, it was no threat. I simply had some friends there who understood the situation, and were willing to escort him quickly and quietly out in the event that he started kicking over drinks, abusing me, or hollering in the middle of the venue – behaviors that, sadly, were in no way out of the question for him.)
He never did show up, my friend Eric played instead, and the show went well anyway. It was yet another brick in the wall that I had had to build up between us, to one day save myself by climbing over and leaving him behind.
It wasn’t just my shows. He literally wrecked every single holiday since I met him, except for one birthday. (My first birthday since we met? He was busy cheating on me and missed it.) Every special moment for me throughout our entire relationship, he found a way to fuck it up. I marveled at it, thinking it was some kind of freakish accident how he did this. Why would anyone do such a thing to a “lover” on purpose? I was like Charlie Brown, perpetually believing that Lucy would hold the ball for me at last.
Let me just describe our first Christmas. Yes. So he invited me to come to his mother’s home, 500 miles away from my own, to spend Christmas. I didn’t have a car or any way to get there, nor did I have any resources. But it meant enough to me to spend our first Christmas together that I somehow scraped together enough for a rental car and drove myself and my dog all the way there.
I was really nervous about it, because I had never met any of his family before. I wanted them to like me. Only later would I find out that he had shit-talked me, in his odd way, to his entire family before I came, and before any of them had ever met me. Every time we had ever gotten into a fight, he had gone running off to them, carrying his bizarrely twisted tales of my alleged misdeeds, all colored through his personality-disordered filters, all gloriously embellished to make me seem like some kind of monster, and all sanitized of his own awful and usually initiating, behavior. (He uses a narrative of victimhood the way some children use a security blanket. He curls up in the middle of these tales, all false, and wallows in the attention he feels like he deserves. Another thing, perhaps, that he learned from being sent away to boarding school. Maybe it’s the only way he ever got any attention as a kid, pretending to be bullied and hurt and victimized. But, again, this is also a fairly common feature of borderline personality disorder.)
You would think that the people he grew up with would be used to this weird behavior of his, but being family, they all apparently believed him, hook, line, and sinker. (He said so, anyway. Used the fact of their belief in his lies as “evidence” to me that the things he said about me must be true.) But I did not know he had done this yet, so it was like walking into a trap, like having my pants pulled down in front of them all, and not evening knowing it until later. I couldn’t figure out the glares and strange silence from some of them at the time (though I do have to say that most of them were actually very nice to me). (He later apologized again and again for having spread so many lies about me, such a solidarity breach. He kept telling me that he would “make it right,” that he would “tell them the truth,” and that he would never do it again. But he never did make it right, and every time we got into a fight, off he would go to do it all again.)
Ah, but as I said, I did not know any of this yet on that first snowy Christmas. Nor did I know, yet, how much he had betrayed me in every other way, from the very beginning. At the time, as far as I knew, he was my lover, and in spite of the difficulty of our relationship already, I was so desperately happy to be spending Christmas with him. It had seemed like such a gift, being with him, and with a family again at Christmas time. My long-time lover had died the year before, and I was estranged from my own family. So the warm womb of family at Christmas was something I had craved deeply.
I got there two days before Christmas, and when I first saw him, my breath was nearly sucked from my chest just by the sight of him. I was so in love with him in that moment. Truly, in spite of all he had done to me already, the moment I saw him my heart swelled so much at the very scent of him that I thought it would burst. It was an addiction I had, then. Something between us that is gone now, killed by his own hand. Now, I cannot even imagine being moved by him at all, except to revulsion. But right then, I thought he was the most beautiful boy I’d ever seen. Spending time with him then was like a drug to me. I was drunk on it. I still remember so clearly the way he looked, what he was wearing, how his hair fell across his face. He was wearing one of my shirts – a red one, with the words, “All My Heroes Have FBI Files” on it. I remember the way the color looked against his skin, how it harmonized with the brown of his hair. I was mesmerized by him. In fact, it was the feelings I had for him in those two days that still, to this day, even knowing everything I now know… even now, the weight of those two days makes it seem like such a tragedy to me that things worked out the way they did.
God, I was so in love with him as we wandered through the little snowy villages of the Hudson river valley.
And then came Christmas night, when he destroyed everything and it was never right again.
Well, and there needs to be a little detail here. His mother lived in an old church in Kinderhook. And they are a very large family. The house, the church, was filled to the rafters with people by Christmas eve. Brothers and sisters and nieces and nephews, children everywhere. It had seemed like such a Christmas postcard, a Good Old Fashioned Christmas. In retrospect, of course, some of them were a little cold to me and I was not really included after all, but I did not know why yet and I thought they were just a little reserved. My eyes were all on him, then, anyway.
The night of Christmas eve, though, once the house was full, I felt really uncomfortable about the sleeping arrangements. Well, all right, about sex. He and I were very active in that way (come on, you knew there was SOMETHING that kept us together for so long in spite of everything else). We were never quiet about it no matter how hard we might have tried to be, and we had never gone a night together without it. But here we were, surrounded by his entire family, in the basement of a church, no less. His 85 year old mother with her bad eyesight compensated for with sharp ears was right upstairs, his sister and her husband in the very next room, audibly snoring through the thin walls, one of his brothers just across the hall, and a friend of the family in a little room just at the end of the narrow little hallway. Not to mention his 6 year old son, sleeping fitfully in the room just to the other side of ours. And someone on the couch up in the living room. I was shy about, well, you know, being… heard. So I gently tried to demur when he made an advance on Christmas eve night. But he hated being told no about anything, especially that. He got surly and mean. He berated me, refused to let me sleep, slung all kinds of accusations, and was horrible to me. My stomach churned. I couldn’t understand how the boy I’d just been SO in love with could do such a thing to me. I tried to pretend it hadn’t happened, and as I did about so many things, I tried to excuse it because he struggles with mental illness. (This was before I knew that he had borderline personality disorder. Knowing that now, this episode makes a little more sense – people who suffer from this disorder often read any kind of limits as rejection, and often react very, very badly to any perceived rejection. I didn’t know this yet, though, so I was taken off guard.)
Although things were pretty tense between us for part of Christmas day, we managed to patch things up (even if part of the “patching up” had him cornering me in his mother’s greenhouse, yelling at me for daring to refuse him the night before, and chucking a screw driver across the snowy grass in anger). By dinnertime, we had somehow managed to work through this. He’d told me that he didn’t know what had come over him, that it would never happen again, and I forgave him. Still high on the drug, I was in love all over again. I remember watching him in the kitchen from the corner of my eye as he interacted with his family, trying to imagine him as a boy. They all still treated him like one, and his demeanor changed around them in that way one becomes somewhat small again, even as an adult, when one goes back to one’s grandmother for a hug. God, my heart swelled. I felt closer to him then than I ever did otherwise, before or since.
And then came… that infamous Christmas night. Again, we all went to bed, again in that crowded old church, again with the sisters and cousins and ancient old farting, snorting, mother… and again he wanted to have sex with me despite all of them within ear shot of our creaky, hundred-year-old bed and our never-quiet lust. I just couldn’t. It wasn’t that I didn’t want to be with him as much as he with me. It was… I couldn’t do it there, under those circumstances. I tried and tried to explain to him why, how uncomfortable it made me feel, how I wanted his family to like me and didn’t want to weird them all out like that, how privacy matters to me, how upsetting it was for me that he refused to hear me about this, how used I was starting to feel, having him just dismiss my thoughts and feelings and think himself entitled to just use my body without regard to how I felt about it. Again, he got surly. I pulled the covers over my head and pretended to sleep, just to get away from the glare. But about an hour after we went to bed, he began to sigh loudly. Over and over again. I grew afraid. I had come to see this as a warning sign with him.
He started noisily flipping the covers around, and when I did not respond, he pulled them all the way off me. I stayed curled up tightly, trying to protect myself from the storm I knew was coming. Suddenly, he flipped on the light. “If I can’t sleep,” he hissed, “why should YOU?” He was suddenly so mean. Everything about him turned cruel. Even his appearance was completely changed. (This, too, I had become used to. It was a trait of his personality disorders that he would become almost an entirely different person when he was upset, and even his appearance would change markedly.) His eyes had gone from warm and sweet to flat and cold and hard. His voice, too. I tried to fend it off. Tried, at first, to reason with him, then tried to appeal to his sense of shame by pointing out his behavior. But it only grew worse. He started yelling at me, which, with all his family nearby, was almost more embarrassing to me than having them hearing us having sex might have been. I winced, and tried to get him to calm down and stop. But he wouldn’t. My dog, who had been sleeping on the floor, grew nervous and came over wagging, to see what was happening. He yelled at the dog, and threw a basket at him. My dog went cringing to the corner, and that’s when I finally got angry instead of just frightened. We had some words – mine hissed and his shouted. He got up out of bed and began piling my suitcase and clothes in the middle of the floor, demanding that I leave. “It’s Christmas night!” I cried, incredulous. My stomach was in knots. My heart was breaking. Not for the first time in that relationship, I began to miss having an ally in my corner. I thought how someone who loved me might respond in a situation like that. Thought how Sidberry would have ended this reign of terror before it ever even began. But I had no one in my corner. I only had him, and he was no ally. Not ever. Yet again, I was more alone in that relationship than I’ve ever been in my life, before or since. He grabbed my things and started throwing them at me, insisting that I go. “It’s 3am! There’s a blizzard!” I entreated. “I can’t go now. Please… please don’t do this.”
But I knew it wouldn’t stop. These storms of his, once they’re on, they’re on. There is no stopping them. He just lets them rage until they have played out and completely victimized anyone he targets with them. And they take a lot of casualties. I was always collateral damage.
This was a feature of our relationship – that I would find myself begging him in advance not to do things that I knew would be unforgivable. I could see something coming that I thought would be the end of us, and I desperately wanted to head it off. I was so fearful, then, of having to start my life all over again after everything I had been through, that I just couldn’t reconcile the sense that I should leave him with the terror of being uprooted from context all over again. I wanted so much for this relationship to work out, but I could see it going awry, and I desperately wanted to right it before it went careening off the rails and took me down with it. But he would stay the course of destruction like a trainwreck. And for far too long, I kept forgiving him when I should not have. I wondered, as he raged on that Christmas night, whether I could ever forgive him for this, and I couldn’t imagine.
At one point, he left the room to go upstairs and get something to drink. I ran to the door and locked it, not knowing what else to do. When he came back down the stairs, he was enraged to find it locked and kicked it open… flimsy old lock. Then he hollered and yelled and threw my things into the hall. I was horrified, believing everyone in the house was witnessing this shameful moment. (He later told me that his sister claimed to have slept through it all. I wonder how anyone could have, even WITH all that snoring that had been going on in her room. A dubious claim, but if true, they must have just been used to him.) The only way to end this nightmare, it seemed, was for me to go. I knew that if I did, it would be the end. No one could be that cruel. I could never forgive this. God, and I had been SO FREAKING IN LOVE WITH HIM, only the day before. Whether or not I ever took him back,I knew that I would never love him like that again, and I was right.
I gathered my things, left a note to thank his mother and try to explain my leaving, and left in a blizzard at 3am on Christmas night. The dark, snowy drive 500 miles home, without any sleep, and with my stomach churning and my heart aching, took 13 hours and was one of the most terrifying ordeals of my life. I cried almost the entire way.
When I finally got home, eyes swollen and red, the day after Christmas, most of my house mates were surprised to see me. I had intended to stay a week. My best friend, who lived upstairs from me, the woman who had once threatened to throat punch me if I took him back again, was not too surprised. She took one look at me and knew. “Um, do you wanna talk about it?” She asked soothingly. “No,” I said, and went upstairs to cry alone.
(She’d always had his number, from the first time she ever met him. She noted his selfish sense of entitlement and his toddler-like emotional immaturity within 20 minutes of meeting him. She spent a year trying to help me to see this, and I spent a year trying not to. Sigh.)
For some stupid reason, I did take him back after that, so that he could cheat on me, prey upon me, and wreck one more Christmas after that (and my birthday, and New Years, and the 4th of July, and several more shows, and several important anniversaries). But I was right that I would never love him again the way that I had loved him those two short days.
Indeed, in thinking back, if I can conjure up any good feelings for him at all right now, it is in remembering not just those first mad weeks before all of The Troubles, when we hardly came up for air… but also the boy I thought I knew, the one I felt so close to in those two brief days before that first Christmas night. In truth, after those first few breathless weeks, we never did get along for more than a few days at a time before I was wanting to tear my own hair out in frustration at his stupid assed behavior, before he was ranting, flat-eyed and awful at me, before I was throwing him out or he was leaving on his own, amid broken glass and anathema and sometimes broken skin. I never could understand how this kept happening. He would come into my world again so sweet and so full of romance, and I’d fall for it every, single time. At the beginning of it, no matter how many times I’d seen it all play out so poorly already, I just never would believe that things could fall apart again. And I was always so ridiculously blindsided by it every time it happened.
I get it now, though. There’s nothing like hindsight. Now, I understand that it was all just lines with him, just lies. The romance and the “love,” I’m sad to say, was always just an act. I know that now. And an act takes such hard work to pull off. He must have found it all so exhausting. He was never good at more than 4 days, tops, before the hateful, angry, bitter, mean sadist that he really was inside would come slashing out of the “sensitive” facade, all angry and howling and tearing up every last thing.
Gaslighting was one of the most crazy-making things he did to me, one of the most pronounced ways in which his emotional abusiveness played out. It was the most frustrating and difficult thing to pin down. For the longest time, I just couldn’t figure out what was happening. Every time we didn’t get along, he would insist that I had done “awful” things to provoke his bad behavior… and I could never figure out what it was that I had done. He had these weird interpretations of everything that just didn’t make any sense to me. He’d yell at me for something he said I had done to him, but I couldn’t figure out why he was angry. Like answering the call while I was at the art opening, or trying to help a little old man outside a nightclub… he would insist that I should see what he was so angry about and I just never could.
I kept feeling like I was missing something in the course of the conversations that we had. I just never had this kind of communication trouble with anyone else in my life, while he seemed to be perpetually plagued with communication issues with the people around him. I now know that this, too, is a very common feature among people with borderline personality disorder. For years, though, I did not know this and so I took his word that it must be my fault at least as much as his. (It was only this article that finally cleared this up for me. When I read this, and looked at our relationship through its lens, suddenly many things came into focus. Everything about this piece sounds like it could have been written about this troubling boy.)
He would do these crazy, awful things to me… things people just don’t *do*. And then, somehow, he would always manage to turn it all around to be all my fault. It didn’t make any sense. He would refuse to acknowledge what he had done, and would insist that I had been the one to cause the trouble. That terrible Christmas, for example, he insisted was my fault, that he had acted like a tyrant that night because I had been “awful” in some intangible, unexplained way. He never could point out what it was that I had done, exactly, to cause the problem, but he was always certain, nevertheless, that I had been “awful” to him.
I just couldn’t believe he would just make shit up like that. So I tried so many times and ways to see things his way, to understand what on earth he was thinking, to explain what I was perceiving. But I could just never get on the same page with him in these times. He kept “moving the tack,” as I have come to see it. He’d hurt me, I’d react to that, then his narrative would re-set the beginning of the discord to my reaction rather than to the place it really started. (I do have a temper too, and once provoked enough, yes, I can say some pretty angry things. An Irish tongue. I’ll certainly cop to that. But in truth, those things he liked to point toward to justify his behavior or place blame on me were ALL things that I only said long after he had been ranting and raving and poking and prodding for hours, sometimes days, in the meanest and most sadistic ways.) Once, for example, he slammed me against a wall, pulled the hair from my head, and screamed in my face right in front of his 4 year old child, simply because I had stopped by to retrieve a painting of mine that he had in his apartment. I fought him off, went up to my studio on the floor above his, and wrote him a letter telling him in no uncertain terms that if he ever laid hands on me like that again I would fuck him up, no questions asked. He saved the letter, and referred to it ever after as my “death threat” against him. He brought this up over and over and over again, as if he thought it was wrong of me to have written it, as if he thought I might melt in shame and kiss his feet over it. When I told him I did not believe it was wrong and that, in fact, I stood by it, he would tell me that I was “deflecting” or that I was “not hearing him.” He wanted sympathy and apology and groveling for that. To this day, I maintain, if he ever lays hands on me like that again, I will CERTAINLY defend myself, by any means necessary. A threat? Yes. And a promise. I will defend myself against physical abuse, by ANY means necessary. (“I will be peaceful with those who are peaceful with me.”)
If “hearing him” meant accepting his assertion that it was I who had been at fault in that moment and not him, then it’s true that I refused to hear that. I will not entertain nonsense like that. He was never willing to acknowledge that it was his own violence that started that fight, and that I was more than justified in threatening to lay hands back if he ever laid violent hands on me again.
Another time, when I was recovering from some demons of my own and some which he had caused me, I had gone to California to stay with family. He lured me away from there, promising me sanctuary and healing at his apartment in Spokane, a thousand miles away from my family, and 3000 of miles from my home. I had told him that I really needed rest and recuperation, that I was not well, and could not handle any stress right then. I suggested that it might not be good for me to be around him, told him that I feared being stranded up there if things did not work out. Again and again, he begged me to come anyway. Again and again, he assured me he understood what I’d just been through, told me that he would make a nest for me to rest in and recover. He even “promised” me that he would not strand me, that he would be good to me, that he would not cause me any stress. Foolishly, I took him up on his offer. This was even before that first awful Christmas, so perhaps I can forgive myself for this one. I left real sanctuary and headed north. The night I got to Spokane, I felt so close to him. I remember the colors and textures of that autumn night so clearly I can almost reach through the past two years and touch the dewy, crisp, yellow leaves lying in a pool of light along the sidewalk outside his apartment building. I remember the snap of the air and the way the light settled on the floor of his kitchen, the way the walls muffled sound, the way it felt to walk hand in hand with him through the dark and silent streets that night, nestled against his shoulder. Oh yes, I was in love with him back then.
But less than 24 hours after I arrived, it all crashed down again. We had some words over his double standards again. Once again, he was getting surly and mean with me over his petty jealousies, while at the same time allowing himself to indulge in the very behaviors he was denying to me. In fact, his ex wife called him and wanted to take up our morning on my very first day there. He saw no issues with that. And yet, only a few hours later as I curled up next to him in his apartment, I tried to make polite conversation with him. I brought up the place where we had been living when we met, a gentle attempt to just connect with him again, over mutually shared memories. A totally innocent, innocuous bit of conversation. But he went weirdly and violently off the rails over it. He got angry, stormed away, came back again in sullenness. When I asked what was going on, he pretended it was obvious. After being pressed, he finally divulged that, because I had mentioned the building where we used to live, I was obviously thinking about a boy I had dated very briefly there before I met him. (A boy whose name I had not even mentioned, who had not even remotely been on my mind at all.) He decided to angrily hold me accountable for this imagined absurdity.
This fight grew through the day, lying oppressively against me like a curb stone. As he grew more and more surly, I remembered all the other fights we’d had and how he turned them all around after, convoluting all the details and blaming me for them. So this time, I wanted a record. I told him I would record what was happening between us, so that we could look back later and see it clearly. I didn’t hide the fact, because this wasn’t about shaming him. I simply wanted a record this time, so that we could both look back and see what had happened later without all the strange perspective gaps. I just kept thinking that if he could objectively just SEE what he was doing, he would fix it, and we would be all right. I was still convinced of his good intentions, and thus still trying to solve a problem that could not be solved.
Even knowing that the recorder was on, he badgered and belittled and raged. He started ordering me out of his apartment. I said I had nowhere to go, reminded him that he had lured me hundreds of miles from sanctuary and that he had also promised not to throw me out and strand me there. I refused to leave at first, and was so exhausted that I just went over to a corner and curled up under my army coat to try to sleep. The recorder on my phone was still going. He came over and started badgering me to take my shoes off, saying that they were a “potential weapon.” He started demanding that I assure him I wouldn’t steal from him or break things, since he had “brought me into his home.” It was all so absurd and insulting. (Also ironic, given that he knew very well he had stolen from me on numerous occasions, but I had never stolen anything from him and never would have.) When I ignored his weird demands and remained curled up under my coat, he called his upstairs neighbor, told him I was being “abusive” and “dangerous,” and called him down to “help.” The neighbor did, in fact, come down and hovered awhile, until it was obvious that there was no real threat. I was so embarrassed I thought I would melt. In my world, people just don’t do shit like that.
He continued to hound me, alternatively trying to get me to leave or, when I said I would go in the morning, trying to get me to stay. He just kept screaming at me. When I started looking up shelters in the city where I might stay, he got livid and told me how I was only doing that “so you can go back and tell all your friends you had to stay in a shelter, like a feather in your cap!” (Yeh… some feather.) At one point, he picked up a metal scooter he kept around for his son to play with, and threatened me with it, brandishing it like a weapon. Then, when I started to cry and hid under my coat to avoid having to engage with him, he started threatening to call police unless I left, there in the middle of a cold Spokane night, hundreds of miles from anyone I knew. By the end of it, he was literally jumping up and down screaming, “GET OUT OF MY HOUSE! GET OUT OF MY HOUSE!” (Like I said, I’d made him promise me, before I came, that he would not throw me out and strand me in the streets of Spokane. He promised… and then broke that promise within 24 hours of my arrival. I am not exaggerating to say that he broke every single promise he ever made to me. Every last one of them.) And so I left, there in the middle of the night, got a cab, found shelter for the night, and left the next day for Portland, where I had friends to stay with until I could manage to get back home. Later, when he predictably tried to tell me that fight was all my doing, I reminded him that we had a recording this time, and he should listen to it and tell me what he heard. I sent it to him. But, incredibly, though he was there through it and though there was an audio recording of the whole thing, he accused me of editing it to “make him look bad.”
I’m not sure now, whether or not to believe that he really believes his own delusions. If he does, then it is easier to find some forgiveness for his troubled soul. However, part of me rejects that as being implausible. He was in touch with reality enough to carefully edit his stories for those he told them to, in order to receive the unearned pity and attention he seemed to crave. He knew just which details to remove and which to play up. It feels intentional to me, this persistent habit of his of placing himself in some flogged-Jesus role of constant, shining, long-suffering hero. In any event, I kept the recording. I also kept others that I made along the way, and many of his messages to me, threatening me, berating me, calling me awful names. I don’t know why I saved them. I think, in part, it was a way to keep my sanity, to remind myself that, no matter what he said to the contrary, this is what really happened and I could trust my own memory of it. But in part, I also kept it to remind myself that I would need to leave him one day. I wasn’t strong enough yet, back then, but I knew that I just couldn’t allow this to continue. One day, I promised myself, I would be strong enough to end this.
Still another time, after passing out drunk in the doorway of my building, he awoke to find I’d removed the bag of beer he’d fallen asleep on. I did so because, well, he had been a drunken ass to me earlier that day, and more to the point a doctor had recently told him that unless he stopped drinking, he would die. But he came to as I was going inside, and he got livid when he found I’d taken his beer. He began drunkenly bashing and kicking at the front door, trying to kick it in. (I took photos and video of him doing this – see photos below. I was also on the phone with a family member while it was happening, and that person was ready to fly all the way to New York to permanently remove this bizarre, violent man from my life.) He injured his ankle in that ridiculous brawl with the door, but the next day he insisted that I had been the one who injured him. He said I’d kicked him. Indeed, he limped around for weeks trying to gain sympathy for that injury, and getting angry that I “wouldn’t hear him” about it. I actually watched him faking this limp, too, btw… he limped slowly down the sidewalk until he turned the corner, then started walking normally. He didn’t realize that I’d followed him, and could see this miraculous recovery.
During that same fight, he stooped to a new low and called police on me and brought them to my door, because I had taken his beer. (He told them that I was abusing him, too. They quickly assessed the situation and told him to leave. They did ask me, first, whether I wanted to press charges. I declined.) He always was a snitch, always threatening to sic the police state on me for imagined slights. In my world, few things are lower than that. Maybe someone who has sex with children…. (Cough. Or a 42 year old basement troll who has revenge sex with dullard, giant-legged high school girls…. But I digress.)
In his correspondence with me now that it’s finally done, he variously either begs me to take him back again or verbally lambasts me. The gaslighting has never stopped: He claims he “had to” treat me the way that he did, he claims I deserved his abuse, and he frequently cites by rote a weird litany that he wants me to feel responsible for. It includes an insistence that I once punched him, and in fact, he now disingenuously and disgustingly presents himself as a “domestic violence victim” to anyone who will listen to him because of this item on the list. What he fails to mention, either to me, to anyone else, and probably to himself, is the CONTEXT for that event. He’s right. I punched him, and under the same circumstances, I would do it again. As I said above, I have no qualms about self defense. He had laid siege to me and to my home for days. He had abused me both emotionally and physically to the point of sadism. On the day in which this punch occurred, I had repeatedly asked him to leave, begged him to leave, demanded that he leave. He refused. He was drunk and belligerent and violent. He broke through a locked door and accosted me, and I fought back. Hell YEH I punched that SOB, and yep, I’d do it again. He never did seem to grasp the concept of self defense, nor did he seem to believe I was ever entitled to defend myself against him, no matter what he wanted to do to me. So his litany is, to this day, filled with ridiculous items like that.
The thing is, he was always doing these terrible things to me, then claiming he wasn’t, then claiming that I was doing them to him. I’m sure beyond doubt that I’m not the first person to have experienced this kind of emotional abuse at his hands. But I’m pretty sure that, of anyone, my own weird demons and acronyms made me particularly susceptible to this kind of abuse. I stayed longer than most of the people whom he had shat upon like that. Far longer than I should have.
[* Added later… A year after I wrote this, one of his other victims reached out to me and we compared notes. That makes four of his other victims who have commiserated with me now about this ridiculous dope, and every one of them has described the exact same, poisonous pattern. One, a woman whose rotator cuff he tore throwing her down her stairs and then gaslit her so badly that he actually had her questioning whether it had been her own fault, put it very well. “He’s an emotional vampire who preys on wounded women,” she said. So he is. Not in the modern, romanticized sense a vampire, but in he older, more grotesque, foul-breathed, sense. It seems the only impact this abusive being will ever have on those he thinks he “loves” is to be left by us, and the only satisfaction he can ever possibly have about that is to know we were brutally traumatized by him. Still, every one of us has utterly forgotten whatever it was that drew us into his snare in the first place, and every one of us has gone on to far better Iives and lovers since giving him the boot. Trust me, there’s a lot of satisfaction in that, even if forgiveness still remains elusive, glimpsed now and then, but then overshadowed by memories of intentionally inflicted trauma. They say it’s a process, after all.]
The Gobbling and the Boundary Issues
I mentioned that he lost a fight with a door last year, but I should add that this boy often specialized in breaking down doors at me. He broke down my bedroom door so many times I lost count. Kicked his way into my house not once, but several times. Once, he kicked through the front door of a house I shared with others, came up the stairs in a drunken rage, and kicked his way into an upstairs room I had tried to barricade myself into to protect myself from him. (On that occasion, I came flying out of that room when the door came crashing in. I threw water at him and Sparta-kicked him back down the stairs. It then took my house mate, who is 6 feet tall and very muscular, and 6 musicians who had been practicing in a downstairs room, to get him the fuck out of the house and away from me. He bellowed the whole time. He then went off to New York City, showed around the bruises he got, and told all of his friends I had abused him, as always, “for no reason.”)(He also later called to berate me for the “scald” he said he had gotten on his face, from me throwing what he erroneously believed was hot tea on him. In fact, it was only water, room temperature, and he was again lying for the sake of pity. When I told him there’s no way I could have scalded him, as I’d only thrown water, he said there “must have been something in the water,” like acid.) He once explained this predilection of his for kicking in doors by telling me that he had a “thing” about closed doors, and he actually attempted to shame me for ever daring to shut him out… no matter how much I needed space, no matter how abusive he was being at the time. He simply saw himself as entitled at all times to my spaces, to my body, to my attention.
In fact, every boundary I ever set, he violated. Every last one. He would stalk, and harass, he would barge through locked doors, he would break promises and confidences, he betrayed me in every way that one human can betray another.
He had an enormous sense of entitlement, and was a relentless mooch. He never had a real job in all the time I knew him, never contributed a shred of material resources to our upkeep, but expected me to foot all the bills for everything. In fact, he lives off the women in his life like a leech, and generally derides them even as he takes from them. Thus, his wealthy sister who has always supported him was a “bitch” in his mind for “only” paying his rent, his phone bills, all his travel expenses, and many other things. She did not do “enough” for him because she occasionally expected him to do some work for the cash, or to at least be good to his mother. Sometimes, she even set limits on just how much of *her* resources she was willing to kick down to her able-bodied, middle-aged brother. (How dare she.)
He lived off his mother, too, staying with her for about a year of our relationship and then stealing food from her and bad mouthing her for caring that he was gobbling through all of her resources. He complained that she was being over-bearing because, for instance, she did not want him wasting electricity, and as she was mostly blind, she wanted him to put things in her kitchen back exactly where he got them from.
And then there is me. I am a starving artist. I have gone through some very lean times for my art, nevertheless managing to pay my own way in the world. I have no wealthy benefactors propping me up, and I have had times when I could barely manage to support myself. He would show up in my life, crash in my apartment, eat through all of my food, benefit from my paying all of the bills, and he never contributed nor even showed a hint of gratitude for it. He just expected it. Suddenly, if I wanted to go out, I was not allowed to go out without him, but if we went anywhere together, I was stuck paying bills for both of us. Then, if I dared to mention that I couldn’t afford it, or that I was feeling used, he would get angry and accuse me of “classism,” of “not understanding” what his poverty was like. (That was a ludicrous charge, btw, to be making to a woman barely keeping above water, a person who did not have a wealthy sister paying all my bills for me, a woman who had been homeless awhile and who was living, literally, in a closet when we met, sleeping on the floor with 3 dogs.)
Several times, when he announced that he was coming to stay with me, after the sheen had worn thin, I carefully explained to him that I simply could not afford to feed him. I told him I didn’t mind him staying with me, but he would need to feed himself. It didn’t matter how many times I told him this, he would STILL show up without any means to feed himself, and then he’d guilt me into sharing what I had with him. He didn’t just eat a little, either. He ate a lot more than I did, ate very quickly, and gobbled up all the premium groceries before I even had a chance at them. After enough warnings from me that I COULD. NOT. FEED. HIM. he began to steal food from his ancient mother. He’d show up with a few boxes of mac and cheese, or some pouches of rice dinners, or a few cans of soup that he’d taken from her cabinets, that he claimed he would eat while he stayed with me. Even this generally only lasted him a day, then he would be back to raiding my kitchen.
He never had any qualms about laying claim to other peoples’ resources, and then holding it against them if they dared to deny him. He’d tell me stories about how “awful” his mother was, for being parsimonious about his use of her groceries, but I was not a receptive audience to this and would tell him that if he had to pay for the groceries he might come to understand her perspective better.
He’d park himself in my kitchen, cooking my food. He was always terribly clumsy in the kitchen, often burning food, for example, and once setting my electric teapot on fire by putting it on the stove. He always used far too many of my hard-earned groceries on his meals. But he’d get surly and mean if I dared to interject any advice, dared to point out that he was burning food, dared to suggest he not use “quite so much” of whatever premium ingredient he was going after, dared to set any limits on what he took from me. (Like mornings in bed, the kitchen was another place where he would reliably come undone with little provocation. Both at his family’s home and in mine, he would often bristle and rage at even the lightest conversation in the kitchen, and would take everything as criticism.) I had some very special cinnamon, a tiny jar from Afghanistan that was a remnant from my other life, when I had been more flush. It was a special gourmet condiment, and was something I only used very sparingly. He was dumping it into these big, weird “cakes” he was trying to make out of (my) whole boxes of bisquick, as if it were any old cheap brand from the dollar store. When I gently mentioned that I’d rather he use the (much cheaper) McCormick’s cinnamon for that, or that he use less of it, he flipped out. Same with some special vanilla crystal that I had, a gift from a friend. I had regular vanilla extract that he could have used, but instead he kept dumping the vanilla crystal into these “cakes” and he got mad at me for daring to mention that I’d prefer he saved that. Everyone’s resources belonged to him in his mind, and people were always “assholes” if they dared to question that.
And then, there was the Famous Butter Incident. We had a terrible fight and we both had SUCH a different perspective on it that we had to agree never to speak of it again, lest we fight about it all over again. It was over, of all things, butter. I have to say here, that I had been vegan for a long time before meeting L, but he is allergic to all nuts. A deadly allergy. So I never had any nuts, nut milks, nut cheeses, or nut butters in my home during our entire relationship. It’s *really hard* to be vegan without nuts. So I was temporarily lapsed from the fold. A troubled vegan…. I had taken to buying butter again. (And let me just say now, I found out with a vengeance that veganism is SO MUCH HEALTHIER! The MINUTE I started eating dairy again, my always basement-low cholesterol shot up to dangerous heights. So I’ve learned my lesson. Vegans, don’t judge me harshly, I already know. ;-))
In any event, L was plowing through my groceries for days, even though I’d told him before he came that I could not feed him. On this particular morning, we were planning to go on a beautiful autumn road trip. He was in the kitchen, my kitchen, burning things and using up all my food as usual, and as usual I was trying to walk on eggs and not anger him. I was making polite conversation with him – I remember being happy and feeling light, expecting to have a great day for once. But I couldn’t help noticing that he was cutting huge chunks of butter the thickness of my big toe and piling them all around a single piece of bread. It seemed excessive. Not only was it using up all the very last stick of my butter on one freaking piece of toast, it was also really unhealthy, and that’s the thing that finally prompted me to gently say to him, “Um… that’s a lot of butter.” Suddenly, without even looking up, he stopped, gritted his teeth and clenched his hands in this exaggerated, mocking, angry manner, and then he threw the toast across the kitchen and into the sink. Thus, he wasted my last slice of bread, wasted my butter, and treated me with absolute contempt and disrespect in one fell swoop. All because I had *dared* to suggest that he could use less butter. A fight then ensued, and to this day he insists I started it by being so rude as to tell him “how to cook.” This is another of those places where he was convinced that I had been “awful” to him, even though he could not specifically point out how. It was a peculiar blind spot with him, that even when one challenged his strange delusions and asked for specifics, he refused to recognize that there were no specifics to point to. He clung to his delusions of victimhood and righteousness.
I had to deal with this kind of thing all the time. He was always entitled to other peoples’ resources, and if anyone dared to place limits or boundaries, they were being “awful” to him. He had no boundaries when it came to helping himself to other peoples’ hard earned resources, and he felt everyone could afford him.
It wasn’t just the mooching, the double standards, and the gaslighting. He was also very predatory with me. He wielded everything like a weapon. Every intimacy, every vulnerability revealed, was like handing him a missile. Lovers understand that being able to expose our weaknesses to each other is one way in which trust and intimacy are kindled. But this boy used every weakness against me. For instance, after I confided to him that I have body dysmorphia, he used it as a tool and preyed upon me with it. Any time he felt I was not solicitous enough of him, any time he got angry with me, he would tell me I was ugly, he’d pick on particular aspects of my appearance, he’d tell me that I was hideous and unlovable. During our fights he was always reaching for an easy weapon, and he always went after my appearance for maximum damage. Abusers are like that. They look for the weaknesses, and me with my body dysmorphia, well I gave him endless wordplays on my looks. He attacked me regarding my appearance to such a degree that to this day that I can barely stand to go out into public, cannot bear to be photographed, and when I see pictures of myself, I cringe.
The thing is, this is a special kind of cruelty. Body dysmorphic disorder is a terrible bitch of a disorder. A cousin of the OCD that I also have (acronyms like to stick together), it’s more disabling than you can imagine. Many people who have this can’t go out and interact in public at all. At least a third of the people who have it try suicide. You wouldn’t think that something so silly on paper could hurt so much, but it does. I deal with it. I go out anyway. But it still hurts. (It’s why I almost always wear weird hats. To cover up with. So I’ll give it that. If you’re going to suffer from an acronym, you might as well suffer from one with style.)
But L knew about this very private and disabling struggle, and he used it like a knife any time he was angry. He repeatedly tore the hats off my head (sometimes also tearing out my hair), he repeatedly went after facets of my appearance that he knew would continue to sting and cripple for years after.
He knew I struggled with a mood disorder too. (Look, we’re artists and we’ve got our troubles and our acronyms. You cannot be truly in touch with the world and come out unscathed by it. That’s just a fact.) But he preyed on me with this as if it were a battering ram. During fights, he would often try to use the fact that I’m very frank and open about my struggles with mental illness to buttress his gaslighting claims that he was right and I was wrong, that I was being unreasonable when I was not, or that I had earned his wrath when I had not. He’d insinuate that the only reason I was not seeing things his way was that I was crazy, or “having an episode,” as he liked to say. He would label any discord between us as me “having an episode.” And in fact, he would work hard to try to set me off balance. He would try to manipulate me into doubting myself, into giving him control over me, into accepting his word about things even when he knew he was lying. (Funny, in the months since I kicked him to the curb, I haven’t had a single “episode.”)
He often used these same weaknesses to try to destabilize me in order to feed his ridiculous ego, his narrative that HE was the “reasonable” one in our relationship, and that I was “the crazy one.” In spite of his assertions to the contrary, I have very good self awareness regarding when I am or am not struggling through an “episode” of mood disorder. (Even HE always acknowledged that, unless we were fighting, then he would claim otherwise.) I also have a service dog whose main job is to keep track of when I’m all right and when I’m not, and usually I’m all right. In any event, either way, I know. I do not need him to tell me that I’m not all right when I am. Nevertheless, he would often insist that I was “having issues” when I wasn’t – usually any time I disagreed with him. But when I really WAS, I would often confide that fact to him, expecting a little bit of extra support and understanding. Instead, any time I ever told him that I was spiraling down, that I was anxious or depressed, he would take that as his cue to subject me to extra stress. He would poke at me relentlessly during those times, and I can think of no other explanation that that he was *trying* to destabilize me, trying to create dependence in me, trying to hurt me.
I also had a ptsd-inspired fear of the police state that he knew about. I had been an animal rights and forest activist in the Pacific Northwest, during a time now infamously referred to as the Green Scare. I had watched friends go off to years in prison for nothing more substantial than things they had written on the internet. People who had done nothing wrong were subjected to surveillance, harassment, grand juries, incarceration, and worse. Although I had not taken part in illegal activity during those times, I refused to condemn people who had. And, like so many of us then, I lived in constant terror of discovering that my best friend might be a paid FBI agent, that my home might be under surveillance, or that I might be “disappeared” in the night for my political beliefs. L knew about these fears, knew why I had them, and knew how much anxiety this caused for me. And he exploited them. This was yet another tool that he used against me in his arsenal. Every time we were not getting along, he would threaten to turn me into the police state for unspecified and made-up “crimes.” (This, btw, is the one and only thing he did that I did, in fact, tell friends about. While I never shared details with people about the terrible ways he was treating me when we were together, I did warn my friends that this was one of his behaviors, and after the first such incident I never introduced him to any more of my friends nor did I share any details with him about other activists. Our worlds remained very separate after that. It’s not like there was any smoking gun for him to use, it’s not like we were going around breaking laws, but in the United States of the 21st century, you do not need to have committed a crime to be threatened by the police state. US jails are, in fact, filled with innocent people whose only crimes are thought crimes or political dissent.) This weird, Jimmy-the-Snitch behavior of his would have been utterly intolerable to me from anyone else, ever. But, as with so many things about him, I excused him for the inexcusable because I knew that he suffered from mental illness. I thought he couldn’t help being an asshole in this way. I set up fire walls between him and other activists around me, but I forgave him for this unforgivable lapse of conscience.
Anything that he knew about me because of intimacies we shared became a potential weapon for him to use against me. Even the ways in which he cheated on me were geared to privately inflict the maximum amount of harm, degradation, and insult. He took women to places that had been special between him and me, and secretly got off on the added insult. He wore my clothes to cheat on me in, and did not wash them before returning them. He made coy little allusions to affairs he had had, thinking I would not catch the reference. A secret joke at my expense, he imagined. (In short, I add in a moment of flaring anger as I reflect on some of the things he did to me in this regard, he was a disgusting pig of a man, and I should have dumped his crusted, pock-marked form years before I finally did.)
Like so many ways in which he hurt me, I kept trying to excuse and justify it all on the grounds of his troubled mind. My own journals were screaming at me that I had to leave him, that he was someone who could not be trusted, no one I could really love. But I did not take my own counsel any more than I took that of my friends or family about him. I had simply been through way too much, had lost everything only the year before I met him, and I could not bear to be cast out into the world alone again. Somehow, I had attached myself to this bullying, broken, menace, and I simply could not face being torn apart again by letting go.
So I look back now, and marvel at how I could have been seeing his unsuitability as a partner for me so clearly on one hand that it’s splattered across my journals, even as I denied it all with the part of me that, as he likes to say, “moves through the world.” It’s just… I wanted so much to love him. To not have to leave him. To not have to start my life all over again.
In the end, he made it impossible for me not to leave him, but no one can say I did not try to stay. And, if I can believe anything about what I ever saw in him (a dubious hope on my part), he was also a person who suffered a lot of pain, even if most of it was of his own making.
A little over a year ago, he was living on the west coast and I was out east, where I had actually gone to get away from him. He kept calling with the weirdest dramas. He’d be in tears, begging for help, in one panic after another. He’s always struggled with mental illness and a nuclear drinking problem, and they seemed to be getting worse. (And here, let me be clear about something. I have a lot of empathy over the struggle with mental illness, and I do not hold that part against him nor against anyone. I mention this, not to ridicule him for it, but to explain why we wound up living in the same hemisphere again, after I had vowed not to.) So yes, there were strange, late-night calls filled with panic and tears, and I stayed up all night long with him through these, coaxing him into warm showers or into the kitchen for chamomile tea.
Also, he was always getting beaten up. (He was like a magnet for other peoples’ fists. He was getting beaten up on the streets every time he turned around. Always, of course, “for no reason.”) Then, there were the seizures. He started having seizures that were almost certainly related to his drinking binges. I was still so attached to him then, so I was going crazy with worry. I kept trying to hold his hand through the desperate miles between us, trying to help him problem-solve everything. He was stressed out, had not been gainfully employed since I’d met him, and even with wealthy family and friends patiently supporting him, his meager resources were finally running out. Everything was crashing in around him. (So he said anyway. Who knows how much of what he was telling me was just made-up drama. But after a lot of discussion and a lot of angst, we finally decided that he would come east, would move to the Hudson Valley, to be near his family in the hope that they could provide some much needed stability and emotional support for him. His coming this direction was actually my idea to begin with, I cringe to admit… it seemed like a good idea at the time. Mutual aid, I thought. His mother was in her mid 80s, going blind, and in failing health. That awful Christmas, she had divulged that she’d been falling now and then. So I’d been worried about her too, and it seemed that if he could come and live near or with her, perhaps they could take care of each other.
So he did. He came east.
From the very beginning, this effort to take care of him was a hair brained scheme. (Who’d have guessed.)
Once back in my vicinity, he became violent and predatory. He even began abusing and threatening my dogs. Once, before I realized how dangerous he really was, I had to go on a long trip and he offered to watch my little pit bull, Romeo. I was so relieved! Romeo has knee problems and doesn’t like long drives. But after I left, and was at least a hundred miles away, my personality-disordered abuser suddenly got it in his head out of nowhere that I was just running off to cheat on him. (It sounds bizarre, but people with borderline personality disorder often imagine abandonment scenarios that border on delusion.) So he started calling, and demanding I come back. “Come and get your dog!” He demanded. And then he started threatening to hurt him. “Get your dog or you won’t like what’s gonna happen,” said one voice message. “GET YOUR DOG, or YOU ARE RESPONSIBLE FOR WHAT HAPPENS TO HIM,” said another. Horrified, I turned around and started racing back. While I was still driving, he left another message telling me he was going to leave my dog with his blind, 85 year old mother and go partying in Massachusetts for the weekend, and that his mother was going to take my dog to the pound and have him killed. I was frantic. I raced back as fast as I could drive. He called again, and typical of him, suddenly had a completely different demeanor. When he learned I was on my way back, he told me I did not have to come after all. He said he was “just joking” about killing my dog, told me he loved me, and “promised” to take good care of him.
Obviously I couldn’t trust him with my dog’s life after a that like that, so I kept heading back anyway. When I got to his mother’s house, I discovered that he had, indeed, left my dog with her and gone off to Massachusetts. He had lied to me about staying to care for Romeo. And indeed, that terrible old woman had been threatening to take him to the pound and have him killed.
I doubt I’ll ever forgive either of them for that. There, again, I bump up against the limits of my capacity to forgive. (I’d had some choice words about her then, and that’s part of the litany he now repeats regarding my alleged sins: That I told him I thought his mother was a “fucking bitch” and wished her ill after I discovered this. Ah, well. I did. But I love my dog, and anyone who threatens his life for no reason is a fucking asshole. I could not BELIEVE what almost happened to him at the hands of these two awful people.)
This was yet another of the things he did to me over the course of our acquaintance that I never really could forgive, though I worked on it a lot. (He again told me he “didn’t know what had come over him,” he apologized, and he insisted that he didn’t really think that awful woman would really have killed my dog. It wasn’t enough to ever really forgive, but we did at least patch things up for awhile longer. I never trusted him again with my dog, though, obviously. And I never again spoke to his mother.)
Which brings me, finally, to the last straw and the end of this awful, awful person’s resign of terror in my life.
Curiously enough, infidelity is what finally made me leave him. God, all the things he had done to me along the way! ALL the things I should have dumped him over long before I did. I used to get so upset when he would do things that I knew would one day lead to my leaving him. I tried SO hard to stay. But who knew it would be *this* that finally ended it? This is odd, because I wasn’t even the one who had wanted a monogamous relationship at all. It wasn’t the fact of him fucking someone else. In point of fact, HE was the one who wanted monogamy, who enforced it with a vengeance, not me. We were apart so much in our relationship that I had offered him an open relationship a million times. I hadn’t even wanted a relationship at all when we first met. I’d been broken and torn apart completely by love. My hair hadn’t even grown back yet from having cut it to my scalp in grief after Sid had died just the summer before. He had seemed so “too good to be true,” at first, that I assumed that he was only using me awhile. So yes, I had asked him for an open relationship in the beginning, and offered it over and over since. But he insisted it was “love” between us, insisted he wanted monogamy, and in fact enforced it upon me with violence when he didn’t even have to. Every time I mentioned the possibility of an open relationship, he ranted and raged and accused me of “just wanting to cheat” on him. So no, it was never I who insisted upon monogamy. It was he. And he was the only one of us to have committed such an intimate betrayal as he did. I have only ever wanted what was freely given to me by my lover. But it turns out, fidelity meant more to me than I thought.
Because the thing is, after he had killed off everything else about our relationship, the one and only thing left was a sense of fractured romance. If nothing else, he made me believe I was the only one for him, and I confess, I’m something of a sucker for that. Everyone wants to feel special, and he made me feel that way until I found out otherwise. As awful as things got between us, he would show up on my doorstep begging me to take him in, telling me how he could not live without me, begging for another chance, and I would always give him one. He told me that he had never been with anyone else in all the time we had been together. And that seemed really romantic to me, for some stupid reason. I can’t really explain this part, even to myself. Ridiculously, it had meant a lot to me that, despite all of our many struggles, despite so much time apart, and despite all the drama and defenestrations… we had this bond that even WE could not break. It felt like such a tragically beautiful, messed-up-person’s fairytale to me, and, stupidly, it made me feel very special to him. I’d told him so again and again, and he, without conscience, secretly laughed at me for buying it. We had been apart so much, I would have forgiven whatever went on, had he but been honest. He was not, and it mattered. This was the last of his lies to me. I’d caught him in so many others, yet somehow I had always pretty much believed him about this. I was already tired of all the other dishonesty, though, and told him so. Trust MATTERS to me, and I’d warned him that if I caught him in another lie, it was over. I meant that. I warned him that he would be surprised to find out how very much I mean that.
Of all things to have caught him lying to me about… this was the end of him. It turns out, he had been cheating on me from the very beginning. Oh and I should have known, of course. But I was not a suspicious nor a very jealous person, and I had trusted him to do the right thing in at least this one way. Even when I had not been able to trust him in so many other ways, I had trusted… “love.” Also, I just had too many things going on in my life to be saddled with worries about what he was doing when I was not around. That part had to be up to him. As a person with a conscience, I knew that I could never have convincingly lied about such a thing. It would have showed. So I never suspected him. I always thought that, if he cheated on me, it would show.
There was certainly a lot of evidence along the way that I’d overlooked, with more or less difficulty on my part. I’d caught him sneaking around behind my back with other women, I’d once found some dumpy woman sitting in his room, on his bed, playing a recorder that he had trouble explaining away, and he left his email stupidly open on my computer once….
(Turns out, he had a thing about cheating on me with lonely, desperate, unattractive, uninteresting women. It’s what he could get in a pinch, and I think he enjoyed the fawning gratitude they’d bring, not to mention the easy disposability of people with little to offer. It made me feel pretty cheap, though, and not special at all, to learn that the people he was cheating on me with were not even attractive, not even interesting. I know, that’s catty of me, but it was a glaring fact of his infidelities, impossible not to notice, and it doesn’t feel great to be shined on for someone who doesn’t seem to have anything to offer. When I pointed out, after finding out the list of his transgressions, how strikingly unattractive they all were and asked why he couldn’t at least have chosen someone even mildly pretty to at least help my ego, he accused me of “look shaming.” Perhaps… but that’s not exactly a wise thing for an idiotic dolt to say when he’s just been caught by his “lover” with his icky pants down.) Don’t expect political correctness from me about this. These infidelities HURT, and although I try to recognize that he was using these women as surely as he was using me, I can’t help but be resentful. Like I said, I’m human.
Before I ever even left the west coast, he fucked a woman in our building who had been a friend of mine. She was a musician, and while he always claimed he couldn’t stand her music, I had really liked it. I didn’t know he had fucked her, but I found a photograph of her on his computer about a year later, and asked him about it. He made up a stupid story and lied about it. It seemed a little strange, but once again, at the risk of sounding catty about it, the fact that she had buck teeth and thick coke-bottle glasses and giant feet and the figure of a 13 year old boy led me to believe he wouldn’t have cheated on me with her. It just didn’t make sense. Later, he showed me one of his journals, for some weird reason, and on one page I found that he had a LIST of women he’d cheated on me with… “the stripper,” this woman, and another one. He acted surprised to see the list, then tried to explain it all away with some story about how these were characters in a story he was writing, but of course he was lying. (He claimed not to even remember who “the stripper” was.) Again, he could have just been honest about this transgression, because early on, I would have happily had an open relationship with him. But the fact that he lied about it and covered for 2 years, even as I maintained a friendship with this woman, makes it irredeemable. He has no conscience at all, typical of a person with his set of disorders. (I don’t really hold this against her. I think she thought I knew about it. He and I were often on the outs, and she knew enough about me to know I wasn’t overly possessive. I recall her making comments several times in which she seemed to be mentioning that she’d had a brief thing with him once when he and I were not getting along. I didn’t pursue the comments, as I didn’t really want to know. Not from her, anyway. I’d have preferred to find out from him. I never did discuss it with her, and have long since lost contact with her. But I blame him for this one, and not her.)
This next one is a lot harder for me, and my feelings about it trouble me still. He once faked a suicide attempt in order to get sympathy and attention from me. (Actually, several in a row. First, he said he was going to shoot himself, then he said he was going to wander out into the snow and freeze himself to death, and several times he was going to drink himself to death. I took them all very seriously.) On this occasion, he called and said he’d eaten rat poison, scaring me almost to death and getting himself committed in a psyche ward for a week. No traces of rat poison were ever found in his system. It was all just a stupid, predatory, lie.
While he was there in lock-down, I came to visit him every, single day. I drove through the terrifying, slippery, icy, snow that is typical of the Hudson river valley in late winter. I kept a notebook during that time, a long love letter that I was writing to him, that I never gave him. I came across it the other day, and it hurts to even look at it… hurts to see how wrapped up I was in him, and how hard I was working to try to understand him, to try to help him, to try to love him. And all the while, he was being the selfish, loser-assed git he’s always been. I visited him every day, I called him every night, I wrote him letters, and brought him books and cards and gifts. He used the cards to play games with this dull, dumpy, dead-eyed, manipulative girl who was also there for a faked suicide attempt – apparently she had done it to manipulate her parents in the way he had used his faked attempt to manipulate me. Stupid me, even though he kept trying to pretend he was some kind of psyche ward lothario, it was actually my idea for him to get peoples’ contact info so he could keep in touch with them after he got out. He asked me to send him the url for the site where he’d posted a lot of his cloying, boring, tinny-sounding music. I gave it to him… to give to her. The dullard. I thought maybe he could use some social support. I cringe about that in retrospect. (There was nothing so low it was beneath him.)
I later found out that within a month, he had seduced that horrid, dead-voiced teenager. Oh, and how awful it is for me to hate her for that. I know. Yes, yes, and to point out that she was a lump of clay wrapped in cellulite and duck-faced bubble gum. (“Look shaming” again.) It’s true, I want to be better than that. Though allegedly “of age” he later bragged, she was a teenager, *still in high school*, a child for Christ sake, and he was a grown fucking middle aged man, 42 sweaty, piggish years old, older than her father, and still living in his mother’s basement like a fucking parasitic troll. She was vulnerable, mentally ill, and naive, and he was the one responsible. He was using her. I want to recognize her innocence, but so far anyway, I cannot. So I am working as hard on trying not to hate that dumpy dullard as I am on trying not to hate him. But I’m only human. And that terrible girl saw me come there every day. She sat right there and talked to me, in her horrid, chalky, empty-headed voice. I shudder. Yes, but he is the one responsible for that, not her. He probably told her, as he did most of the women he fucked behind my back, that we were broken up, or that I was “abusive” to him. Probably used all those same, stupid, insipid lines on her that he had on me. (“I’m smitten with you,” “You’re my womanly ideal,” “I’m so taken with the way you move in the world,” and all the rest of that ridiculous garbage.) He probably presented himself to this dunce as someone who “loved” her, just like he does to any woman who will give him the time of day.
Oh, but you can tell by the language I’m using that this one is not so easy for me to let go of. So yes, here I am again, bumping up against my own character flaws, the ways in which fear and hurt and insecurity make me less than I want to be. The places where compassion and forgiveness run thin, even when I know all the reasons why they shouldn’t. Yes, I’m human though. I still have a recording of a message he left on my phone. It pops up every now and then, when I’m reviewing messages. In it, he says, “Thanks for reminding me of the ladies from the psyche ward. I’m gonna go fuck the HELL outta one of em!”
…what a schmuck. She must be so proud, to be the object of that kind of… sentiment. What did I ever SEE in this loser?!
That message was left during a fight, after the fact. But the entire time he was grunting and rutting with that fat little pig-legged nothing, there he was, telling me how much he “loved” me and not telling me about this betrayal. I found out about this, along with the others, on my own. After I dumped him, I let him know that I had known about this one awhile, and several others. He immediately began trying to back-pedal, trying to make excuses, trying to claim that he “thought we were broken up” at the time. Thinking it would somehow help, he told me “she didn’t mean a thing to him” (such a cliche), that it was a terrible idea, that he was not attracted to her (well how could he be, I cattily wonder), and that he only did it “Because,” he said, “I was mad at you.” As if revenge-fucking a CHILD to get back at me out of anger would make him less reprehensible in my eyes. Yes, there is a lot to forgive here, and some of it I have trouble believing anyone could.
He was a cheater and had always been a cheater, and every line I’d fallen for had been a lie. No matter how much I had known I needed to be rid of him to save myself, I would likely have kept taking him back forever if not for the discovery that he was unfaithful in every last way. So I guess, in a strange way I should be grateful for the revelations that sent me sprawling in wave upon wave of revulsion. But I just feel stupid for having fallen for it all, and worthless for having been disrespected like that, cheated on with women who weren’t even interesting, not even attractive.
It was a friend who finally got through to me. She had had his number for more than a year. She’d had cause to be concerned about my safety and well-being from this person after some really bad behavior that she witnessed, and she did a little investigating. She knew he had been cheating on me, and she had been trying to get me to listen to her about it for awhile. For a long time, I would not. I resented the well-meaning intrusions of my friends into this relationship, probably because I knew all along they were right, and I did not want them to be. I did not want to have to leave him if I could help it. When I finally listened, I was pretty devastated at first. But the devastation turned to relief when I realized, I was finally, resoundingly, over him. He’d been careening around my apartment and my life all that month, wrecklessly sabotaging one joint project after another, steadily making me hate him, when I found out. And it was such a strange relief… watching him implode and disrespect me and do stupid assed things to hurt me… and knowing that this time, it was finally over, this time, I could finally bring myself to just leave him. Not a shred of attraction for him remained, and it was time to choreograph the performance piece that would mark the falling of the curtain on his last act.
And so, the trap was set. He thought I was a thousand miles away, and tried to make a date with a woman he had met at an event that I had organized for him before I “left.” She really hadn’t led him on, had not played him emotionally, had not seduced him. She had done nothing more than give him a slightly prolonged hug of introduction. That was all. And the moment he thought I was out of town, he was contacting her, setting up a date. He didn’t know… she was only a stranger to him, not to me. She was a friend of mine, and I was not out of town at all. So I got to watch the whole thing play out. I got to write most of the script, even. There he was, using all those same ridiculous lines on this woman whom he had never even met, did not even know. There he was, telling her all the same things he had told me, about why he fell for me. There he was, texting yankee scores and “I love you’s” to me…in between sending a complete stranger to him driveling, awkward, cheap, come-on emails, claiming she had “fallen from the sky” and he was “so attracted to her he didn’t know how to proceed,” and he “wanted to know whether the connection he sensed was mutual,” and bla bla bla BLEK. There he was, trying to be charming, and exposing all the ugly pulp of him.
It really took no entrapment at all, beyond that slightly long hug. She didn’t lead him on. I wrote half the dialogue back to him, making sure he was not emotionally manipulated, that HE was the manipulator, that it was his darkness that sunk him and nothing else. HE set the date, not her. HE talked her into it. We had her tell him that she had been cheated on before by a guy still hung up on his ex, that she had been hurt very badly by that, and that she wanted to make sure he would not do such a thing to her. He grew slimy and told her how much she “didn’t deserve that,” and how he “wanted to be the person who treats her better.” She asked him *repeatedly* whether he was still with me, and he repeatedly told her no. …In between those messages, he was telling me by phone, text, and email how much he loved me, how he’d never cheat on me, how he “only wanted ONE person,” he “only wanted” me. I even asked him to put up a video and dedicate it to me, which he did, in between shaving and showering for his expected “date.” The dedication was one of the most sickeningly cloying pieces of bullshit I’ve ever seen. Oozing with false “sincerity,” he looks into the camera, all “sensitive-new-age-guy,” cocks his head, and tells me several times how he “loves” me. It was a cold, hard look into the face of real evil. It sent shivers up my spine. I had been sleeping with the enemy all along.
So yes, he made the date. He picked the setting, too, and I’ll hand him that. It was perfect. He set up the date for a bridge over a lovely lake in the middle of the park… less than a block from my home. It was a place that had been romantic for him and me, and I wonder how many others behind my back. (Before I had “left,” he had also tried to talk me into giving him the keys to my apartment, so that he could “take down my show” in the event I was not back in time to do so. I’m sure he would have been trying to pass my place off as his, and would have been trying to screw other women in my bed.)
The setting he chose had a perfect vantage point from which to watch him as he wound his way toward his ending. I got there early, black hoodie covering my features. I sat on a hillside, and talked to him on the phone almost the entire way, him thinking I was at a rest stop in Indiana. I asked him if he had ever been unfaithful to me. He promised that he hadn’t. I asked him if he would cheat on me while I was away. He became self righteous and incensed. Of course not. Again, he promised. In point of fact, he literally swore on his mother’s and on his son’s lives that he had never and would never cheat on me. He even told me a ridiculous anecdote, certainly an irrelevant lie, about how some woman named “Emma” in New York City had “wanted” him, “you know, WANTED wanted…” and how he had been “faithful.” “Really,” I said, as I watched him coming up the path, carrying my guitar. “Interesting.” I kept having to clip off my own words, trying to bite back the anger and disgust at him as he talked, while I watched him walking to that bridge. I asked him if he meant it when he said he wanted to spend the rest of his life with me. He assured me that he did. I asked him if he would want to marry me. He said he would. And he kept on walking toward that bridge.
That’s one of the things that I kept reminding myself about after all this, in order to maintain my resolve that I would never speak to him again. Had I really been out west, had I not been sitting in the grass watching his betrayal play out in all its ugly glory, had the other woman been real… that would have been the date of our proposal. We might actually have gotten married one day, and he would always have had that secret memory… that he was on his way to fuck someone else when we proposed. Oh my God, he had no soul at all.
When he got near the place he was supposed to meet the other woman, so close to me by then I could have poked him with a stick, though he did not see me, he told me that his phone was about to die, and that he would try to call me again when he “found somewhere to plug it in.” (This was a line I had heard before when we were apart… under similar circumstances I’m sure.) I watched him turn off his phone and stick it in his pocket, watched him smile a sick and sickening, smug little smile, and I watched him walk to the middle of the bridge. He stood there, surrounded by several of my friends, who had come for security. He did not know them, did not sense anything amiss. … I wonder what he was thinking right then.
I walked up to him. I was wearing a hoodie, and he was not expecting me, so I walked all the way up to him and looked him in the eye before he saw that it was me. A thousand different expressions flashed across his face. He seemed to have forgotten who he was waiting for, at first, because there was a quick and happy smile of recognition, then surprise, then horror… then a lot of other incredulous and astonished and shocked and horrified stories unwound across his loser face.
“Looking for someone?” I asked evenly, in spite of my heartache and anger. He stood there like a frightened insect. I held out the only gift he had ever given me. A heart shaped box. His eyes fell on it, as they had nowhere else to go in that moment. With a flick of my wrist, I tossed it over the rail and into the water. He turned and watched it sink into the green lake. I nodded at a friend who was standing just on the other side of him (there were 5 of us in the park that day, and he had not seen any of us), and then I turned and walked away. I heard him suck in air, as the distance between us hardened into stone, and I heard him gasp huskily, “whooo… nicely done.”
And it was. I win.
He knew it was over, knew he had lost. Wordlessly, he hitched my guitar up over his shoulder (I let him… I didn’t have it in me to fight him over it) and he began walking toward the bus out of town, still, shamefully, wearing my fishnets. I wanted to keep walking away, to not even look back. But I couldn’t help myself. I turned once. “NEVER fuck with an Irishwoman,” I said through clenched teeth at his retreating form, as he slunk away across the park. I faltered and wanted to sink into the ground for a moment. But I could see my friend A, still standing on that bridge, flashing a brilliant smile. It was done.
I will share this one moment that occurred as it all came crashing down afterward, because it lends a note of humor to an otherwise fairly dark tale. My favorite line from the whole, sordid episode, came as L realized he had been trapped up in his own betrayals, and that I would not be taking him back this time, not ever:
“You lied so much to uncover my lies,” he said to me in an email that I have kept for its gold, “That there can never be trust.”
So that was pretty funny. There were some things I could laugh at, in spite of the pain. That, and a lot of the ridiculous things he was writing to “the other woman” who wasn’t… God, I got to see all of him at last, all his naked foolishness uncovered, all his lies and tactics revealed.
In the end, discovering that no thread really bound us at all, that everything he had ever said to me really was just a recycled line, pulled out and waved like a pathetic flag at any woman he thought might be willing… Well that was freedom. Finding out that all those promises (that I was the one he really wanted, that he loved me, that he would “wait for me forever”), that all of those words were all just stupid, jaded, ridiculous, empty lies… that was the end of any power he ever had over me, the end of this absurd charade. He’s still writing to me now and then, still variously begging me to take him back in between screeds of anathema. [And as of the 16th of December at least, still stalking around outside my building.] But it’s over. I am no longer his, and I will never be his again.
In full personality-disordered madness, he veers from one extreme to the other. Any sense of shame or decorum regarding these communications shriveled up and disappeared along with his last shred of dignity. He did send me back my fishnets, worn, dirty, and stinking of his filth, after having worn them around New York City awhile trying to look “alternative” in them. (They have gone into an art project… and a caulderon.) Then, he literally sent me a poorly done, utterly un-sexy, home-made porn video of himself getting a blow job from some woman he called “June,” apparently intended to hurt me, in between messages begging me to forgive him and telling me that he “loves” me. Who DOES something like that?! I doubt he had the permission of the woman in the video to use it like that, and I wonder what she would think to know that he had. (Was he trying to make me jealous?! He can’t possibly imagine, I think, what a favor that disgusting email was to me. It was such an icky, predatory, gross thing for him to do, such a revolting revelation that sexual intimacy meant no more than that to him, such an utterly not-hot look at him grunting and porking selfishly with ulterior motives, that it erased any last vestige of feeling I might have had for him and finally showed him to me in the way that everyone else in my world saw him: A disgusting loser, not worthy of my time. That was the bit of correspondence that ended any mourning I did for the relationship that never was.) The whole thing began to feel like an episode of Mary Hartman Mary Hartman, that famously, deliciously, so awful-it’s-great adult soap opera from the 1970s in which everything has a tinge of ew.
Still, it breaks my heart to this day thinking of everything I lost because of him, and he was never even real.
I don’t even miss him, though. How could I, after that?
Tapping the Well
Well, there you have it. That’s the litany. A strange and dysfunctional relationship filled with harm and secret betrayal. He’d say it wasn’t *all* like that, that there were some good times too. Well there had to have been, right? Or I’d not have stayed. I can’t for the life of me remember any of them now, though, so few and so outstripped by all the awfulness were they. It’s not like I’ve just thrown every last bad thing about him into this narrative, either. There were plenty of terrible things he did that have not made it into these paragraphs. Some of the very worst of him is not written here, because it hurts too much to say. I’ve left out hospitalizations, terrible suffering, awful betrayals, and horrific insensitivities. But yes, this is a testimony to why I left and why I still had enough anger to abuse these canvases with it. I came not to praise Caesar, but to bury him.
So what am I to do with all this now? Now that I have bled it all raw onto canvas and paper, now that I’ve finally gotten all of these words about it out of me. How do I reconcile that sweet boy apparition I fell for once, and that I’d loved so much on those two days before the Christmas of 2013, with the asshole who kept savagely doing everything in his power to wreck my life? Was either of them ever even real? Was I really that much of a fool that I imagined him out of whole cloth, that I fell in love with a mask? Is it possible he could be both of those things? (I’d often imagined us as yin and yang. “You’re the black one,” I once told him. The Darkness. And I hoped with all my heart that the little spot of light in the middle of that darkness really did exist. Maybe that was the boy I saw on that Christmas eve.)
“Rather than letting our negativity get the better of us, we could acknowledge that right now we feel like a piece of shit and not be squeamish about taking a good look.”
― Pema Chodron
So I have been feeling like shit, and I’ve been taking a good look. This awful person who is, nevertheless, one more facet of the face of God, did this to me, and I let him. I see him now, the parts of him I did not want to, and now I’m seeing parts of me I would rather were not there. The hatred I feel for him, the difficulty I am having in dredging up any sense of forgiveness or compassion. The anger I have felt at the people he used behind my back. The weakness that kept me taking him back so many times. The idiotic vulnerabilities I don’t like to face.
“Only to the extent that we expose ourselves over and over to annihilation can that which is indestructible in us be found.”
― Pema Chödrön
So there it is, then. And so here am I, still desperately trying to find compassion for this person who so willfully, so intentionally, and so relentlessly hurt me, preyed upon me, betrayed me. The mind spins narratives either way, and if mine is going to, then I want these narratives to at least be tempered with an attempt to understand why he did what he did, a narrative that takes into account his pain as well as his savagery. The suffering that he experiences as much as the suffering he causes. I want to lean in, here, to see past the pain he intentionally inflicted upon me, and to touch those places where we are the same; where all beings are the same. I want to connect us in the Web of Being by these tender places we protect. By our secret fears and pains and insecurities. I cannot excuse the pain he inflicted by blaming it all on the pain he suffers, but I can try to recognize that the narratives of the mind, the storylines, are just illusions and I can try to connect with the underlying energy of the pain we both feel. I think there is a lot of wisdom to the notion, so ingrained in so many religious traditions, that we are all imperfect beings, that we all do shit we want to be forgiven for, and that if we want to be forgiven then we need to also forgive. This, I think, is the way I will heal. This is how I will let this moment be a teacher to me, to show me how and where I block Bodhicitta, this is how I will try to purify myself after his unclean touch, how I will compost the anger and resentment and hatred within me and grow compassion from it. I have to realize, we are all one thing, we need to forgive ourselves and each other, and forget the lines that separate. This incarnation of him that I have known will never have a place in my heart or in my life again. (No, I do not mean that kind of forgiveness, for I am not so foolish as that after all.) But I don’t have to hate him, do I? Can I just accept him as another piece of what we are, and exist with it in the world?
“Out beyond ideas of wrongdoingness and right doing, there is a field. I’ll meet you there.” -Rumi
This is hard. It’s difficult to rise above a perception rooted in the illusion of Self… he caused me great pain. I feel it. There’s an arrow in me, and he shot it there. It’s hard to see this through a lens of anatman, to recognize that he and I and everything are One. I keep wanting to replay in my mind all of the terrible, terrible things he did to me. To chide myself for having let him, to hate him for it all. And when I try not to, it spurts up in dreams, nightmares of him betraying me, of me foolishly believing his stupid lines, of all the ways I tried so hard to love him while he tried so hard to make me hate him. Even when I dearly want to forgive, these storylines keep repeating themselves to me. So I sit with that. I accept it as part of the way I will be processing all of this awhile.
Shit becomes compost, compost becomes soil, and we grow from soil.
Meanwhile, I paint up a storm.
He has his own stories about it all, as colored by his personality disorders and wishful thinking as by truth. I’m sure those stories will make it into his writing and his songs as well. We process as we do. In truth, there were things I did or said when we were together that were less than perfect too. (Though I have to add, or my house mate will punch me, NOTHING in what I did or said could ever begin to compare with the painful, horrific, lunatic dramas he enacted at my expense, and just as learning to forgive him is important in my healing, so is finally being clear on what really happened and innoculating myself forever from his gaslighting interpretations of it all.)
What do I do with all of this now? This story is filled with fear and pain. Wallowing in that pain would be easy. Running from those fears is tempting. But fear only grows stronger with avoidance, as years of anxiety disorders have taught me. It’s easy to hate him. That’s the first thing our emotional immune system tends to do for us when we are hurt by someone like that. We bleed and form a bumpy scab over the wound, and recognize what hurt us as the enemy. And so I did. Like the branch that finally senses the inadequacy of the quality of light… it forms a crust between itself and the dead leaf hanging from it, and no longer nourishes it. I formed that crust, and I dumped that leaf under a bridge, on the first day of Autumn. And now it’s time to turn away from it and turn inward. To curl up for the winter and save myself for spring.
After throwing paint and stamping out madness into canvas, after stabbing and singeing and ranting in an ecstatic dance of art and life, I am finally letting go of most of the anger, finally having processed away most of the pain. In truth, I do understand that this person is hurt a lot by his own demons, that he suffers more than anyone from the stupid-assed things he does and has done. I understand that he is mentally ill, and cannot help that even if he could certainly have helped the mean and predatory ways in which he allowed that illness to manifest itself within the world we shared awhile. I’m angry that he fucked everything up, that he fucked it all up for BOTH of us, and that I gave him every opportunity NOT to fuck it up, but he did it anyway. I’m angry that he was stupid enough to think it would work out for him this time, lying and sneaking and inflicting suffering on a “lover,” in ways that this kind of behavior has never worked for him in his life. But I also can’t help trying to imagine what a frightening and lonely place it must be in his head. I saw him yesterday, skulking around outside my window, hoping to catch a sight of me. I’m angry about that too (it’s what made me decide to post this rather than just keeping it to myself)… but part of me really is starting to feel some small but concrete bit of forgiveness for him. The more I am able to separate out what he did to hurt me from who he is inside, the more I am able to let go of constructs of the mind that keep reminding me what an *asshole* he was to me, and the more I am able to connect with the fact that he is broken and victimized by illness in ways that I never fully appreciated when we were together, the closer I get to being able to let go of the hatred I do not want to feel anymore anyway.
Every now and then, when I’m in the proper mind for it, I can call to mind an image of him as a scared and lonely man as hurt and baffled by his own inexplicable evil as anyone he’s ever inflicted it upon. Suddenly, upon seeing him, I realized that I don’t really wish him harm anymore… I just wish him away. Every now and then, I am moved by a little bit of compassion for him, a little spark of recognition of the God within us all. Namaste.
Strangely, it has been in tentatively considering opening my heart back up for someone else that I’ve come to feel the stirrings of a need to find a better resolution than hatred for the man I dumped, the boy who never was. Love is like that. It’s all that water behind the dam one builds between Self and the rest of the world, we think for safety. When that dam cracks, it doesn’t just soak one or two things, it covers everything. When that water comes flooding forth at last, we start to learn that we live here, that this is our true context. We swim in the water. And God help us, if we do it right, we can learn to float.
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