Saturday, June 2, 2012

Through the Looking Glass

My car accident was the turning point in my life for a long time-- the event that marked the line between Before and After. I thought that was how I'd always define myself. I thought it would always be the worst thing that ever happened to me, and everything would fall into those two categories: Before The Accident. After The Accident.

I suppose it was inevitable that I would someday go out and create myself a new dividing line, but if I'm honest, I have to admit I didn't see it coming. I didn't know what to watch out for, then. It never occurred to me that I was vulnerable to more than blind chance on the highway. I didn't know the dominoes were still falling. 

It started with a boy. 

It ended with him, too, but that comes much later. Six years later, in fact. What happened in between is very important, and very hard to write about. I can feel myself shrinking away from the emotional experience of putting that time in my life into words. I want to write around it, as much as I realize that not only this post but the very journey I'm on has to dig in and pass right through it if I'm ever going to get where I'm trying to go.

The road has led me here because it's the only way out. Forgive me if I drag my feet a bit.

A year after college, restless and unsure of what to do next, I packed my belongings and moved 500 miles away to San Francisco to live with friends, apply to grad schools, and Figure Things Out. 

It was five years after the accident, and although I didn't know it, I was well into the short-term effects of PTSR by then, and beginning to show some of the longer-term effects identified by PTSR guru Peter Levine, as well: I was already familiar with disconnection and deadness; depression had begun to seep in; exhaustion and avoidant behavior were to become the themes of the next decade of my life. 

In my current therapy, I've been able to look back at my late 20s and, instead of feeling like what happened then was the cause of the depression I've struggled with in my adulthood, I've been able to see all of it as a symptom of something that was already well-established in my psyche and in my habits. 

This has been one of the greatest gifts of the recovery process. Sure, it's uncovering the depth and breadth of the grip of PTSR on my life, but it has also taken a lot of power away from the events and instigators of that time. They're just a few pieces in a much larger puzzle, instead of the whole picture.

I don't know why this is such a relief, but it is.

This will probably make more sense if I actually tell you what happened, yeah? 

Okay. Once again, I'll start at the beginning.

It started with a boy.

We'll call him T. That is not his first initial. It doesn't stand for anything. 

T was smart and funny. Charming. Handsome. We met through my roommate.

He had a sad story, as people often do. He was a little damaged. And he liked me.

That wasn't unusual, incidentally. I was accustomed to being liked by boys.  I was pretty and flirtatious, I was smart and sharp-witted, and I was a genuinely nice girl, if a bit too naive for my own good. I'd always had a lot of admirers, and was sure of myself in relationships. I knew my boundaries and had no trouble holding them. I didn't fall for peer pressure. I didn't play games. I didn't have sex before I was ready, much later than anyone I know. I dated nice, respectful boys who took "No" (and "yes") for an answer and who showered me with affection, and got it in return. 

I knew what I was doing, in other words.

It seems important to establish that before we proceed. That was who I was Before.

So. When T came along, things progressed in the usual way.

He was a nice guy, talented, full of promise. We enjoyed each other's company. We had fun together. As time went on, I learned more and more about his tragic past: the months he'd spent caring for his dying father, the remarkable prevalence of addiction and abuse in his family, his missing childhood memories, his hidden sorrow. He needed someone who understood him. I wanted to be that person. Seems harmless, right? Lots of relationships begin this way.

I'm not sure when or how it started. The small jabs, the subtle undermining. He often said, in the beginning, that I hurt his feelings with my sarcasm, that I threw him off with an unexpected reaction or comment, that he felt like I was attacking him and he didn't know how to defend himself against me.  

I was horrified by this, of course. I'd never been accused of such things in my life, and began to question my own behavior. Was I unintentionally cruel? Was I insensitive? How could I act so callously toward someone who had been through so much?

I began trying to protect T from himself, in small ways-- or at least, that's what I thought I was doing, as much as I thought of it consciously at all. I started to change little things about myself-- the way my wit tended to be sharp and sarcastic, the way I tended to be spontaneous, the way I liked to debate issues and argue my opinions for the intellectual exercise, because he didn't like those things (at least, he didn't like them in me. He liked them quite a bit in himself, I failed to note) and I didn't want to see him sad or hurt. He had enough to deal with already, I thought. I worked hard to create an environment where he felt comfortable, because he shut down or withdrew when he got upset.

And if he did that, how could I help?

None of these changes seemed large, in the moment. That part is important. It was all very small, insignificant stuff. Keeping a teasing remark to myself, because he didn't like to be teased and got upset, for example. That wasn't a compromise of my values, right? In fact, I'd come to see that the way I joked around-- however benign-- was actually mean, and I'd be a better person if I didn't do it. Especially to him. He deserved my consideration, after all he'd been through, after all he'd endured at the hands of others. If he didn't like to be teased, well, who could blame him? 

In fact, I began to realize, I'd been selfishly assuming that my sense of humor was harmless, that I was generous and considerate of others, that I voiced my opinions respectfully and compromised well, that everyone took my jokes the way I intended them and that I never hurt people's feelings unintentionally. But I found myself constantly blundering with T, overstepping boundaries I'd missed, causing distress when I'd meant to comfort or entertain. 

And in this context, somehow, it began to feel like a character flaw. I was not the person I thought I was. I began to wonder how many others I'd hurt in this way, but who weren't as intimate with me and didn't risk telling me to stop. He assured me there were others, that I did it all the time and didn't notice. I believed him. I wanted to take better care of him, of everyone.

I wanted to be a better person for someone who needed it. And also, if I'm honest, I wanted to keep him from getting upset with me.

Because that's how these things really happen, isn't it? This is how women-- strong women, intelligent women-- end up with abusers. It's not because you're weak, it's because you think you're being strong for someone else, and you're willing to make some sacrifices if you can protect him from himself; from the reactions he can't help but have.

And if you get yourself caught up in doing all of that, it's really just a very short slide down that slippery slope to the point where you're working to keep that environment non-threatening to him to protect yourself from his reactions, because he doesn't shut down so much anymore when he's upset-- you're inside his defenses, now! you've made progress!-- but rather, he turns his anger on you

Or maybe it's not even as cut-and-dried as that. It's not like he flies into rages or punches walls (or, god forbid, of course not, punches you). (He would never! It isn't like that!). It's just that things are more difficult when he's upset. You find that it's easier just to keep him from losing his temper or being uncomfortable or being disappointed or any of the number of things that set him off. 

It's just... easier. Easier if you go along with whatever it is he wants, whatever it is that will keep things stable and steady. Easier to keep your opinion to yourself and let him call the shots. He's going to call them anyway; why prolong the conflict by digging in your heels? That will only bring on one of his Dark Moods. The silent treatment. Derailed plans. Cold distance. Slammed doors. Condescending remarks. The implication that you have failed as a girlfriend, as a person. The subtle, relentless pressure to give in. 

And again, the changes are small at first. You go to the restaurants he wants to go to, because he never likes your choices and becomes increasingly more irritated until you just ask him where he wants to go, wanted to go all along, where you'll end up going, of course, because you always go where he wants to go. It's just a restaurant. No big deal. Not worth fighting for that.

You buy the cookies he likes, even though they're not your favorite, because he hates the ones you like and it seems silly to buy two kinds, and a waste of money, as he never fails to point out. But they're cookies. Not your integrity. What could it possibly hurt to compromise?

You hang out with his friends, and you don't mind, because you like them and they like you, and your friends make him feel unwelcome, he tells you on the drive home sometimes, and then every time. In fact, you always do the things he wants to do, go to the places he wants to go, because he doesn't like the things you like and you don't mind indulging him, so what's the harm? 

You wear the clothes he likes to see you in, because he lets you know when he doesn't find your appearance pleasing. Sometimes he even goes shopping with you and picks out things for you to try on and model for him, and the other women in the shop think it's so cute, he's so interested, their boyfriends or husbands NEVER shop with them, and look, he has such good taste! 

And you think it's cute too, because he really does seem interested and it's fun to have his attention like this; he's in such a good mood when you let him dress you and direct you like a paper doll; and when you start to notice that the size you've always worn is getting too tight and you need the next size up, well, you figure it's because you're 26 and you couldn't be tiny forever-- you're just getting a more womanly shape-- and anyway a size 8 is still quite small, more than reasonable, and you have a long way to go before you have anything like a weight problem so you'll just watch what you eat a little and walk more and it will be fine. 

And he starts to say things about going to the gym, and about the things you like to eat and like to wear-- he's been doing that for a while now, come to think of it-- but you just laugh it off. You're not sensitive, your style has always been a little outlandish, and anyway, you could always stand to cut back on sugar, right? You're not a teenager anymore.

And then, later, when you find you need a size 10 and he refuses to bring you things any larger than a 6 or an 8 and keeps insisting that you should be able to fit into your old size-- it's not that small when you compare it to other people, really, is it? An 8 is almost double-digits!-- well, you have to agree because if you're really honest with yourself you'd much prefer to fit into that size 6, you have always been thin, fine-boned, with wrists so tiny that watch bands hung from them like bangle bracelets and a waist you could almost fit your hands around. 

You had a fast metabolism as a kid, hypoglycemia, you had never imagined in your life that you would have weight issues, you had never given a second thought to the way you ate, you'd always gotten plenty of exercise and were reasonably fit but now with your back issues it's harder to feel strong and you don't have the mobility that you used to have and anyway you're so tired all the time that you just don't get around the way you used to, can't bring yourself to care about it, can't find the motivation anyway. 

You begin to eat in secret, because he gives you dirty looks when he disapproves of what you're eating-- you eat too much sometimes, you really do, and you should be more disciplined about it but you're just too weak-willed to keep yourself from indulging-- and it's just one more way that you've changed yourself to keep him from reacting in ways that are hurtful and the worst part is that the more you do it, the harder it is to hide-- you're carrying 20 extra pounds, then 40, then 50; the number on the scale is higher than you ever dreamed it could be with your build; your size 10 becomes a size 12, and 14 is looming in the near distance--and the more hurtful his comments-- or even his pointed silence-- about your burgeoning weight become.

And you deserve that, don't you, really, if you think about it? You're the one who's sneaking candy bars and fast food and always having dessert and spending too much time on the couch and not even trying to go to the gym. It's your own fault. You've brought this on yourself.

He's not saying these things because he's cruel. He's saying them because they're true.

And there you are. A once-strong, independent, spontaneous, confident young woman who no longer believes she deserves to be admired. Or respected. Or cherished. Or even heard. You no longer trust your own opinions or decisions. You no longer think of yourself as attractive or independent or strong. You look in the mirror and see a stranger. You don't recognize a single thing about yourself. You don't know how you got to this point.

You just know it's no one's fault but your own.

(I mean I. Me. Mine. This is my story, but did you see how I slipped out of first-person POV back there, for the worst of it? That was unintentional. Apparently, I can't help distancing myself even now from the way I felt, the person I became, the things I did and said to get by during those years. I've been staring at that section for a week now, trying to rewrite it from my own point of view, and I just can't bring myself to do it. I don't want it any closer than a very long arm's length away.)

Anyway. Once I'd accepted the blame for what I'd become, the rest of it just washed over me like the tide, just as inevitable, just as relentless. Every birthday, every holiday, every vacation, every event of significance to me-- my acceptance to grad school, my 10-year high school reunion-- were particular minefields, filled with explosions of inexplicable anger, accusations, demands that shifted the focus of attention from me back to him

I began to dread celebrations. I began to dread everything, really, because they could come at any moment: the endless, back-handed comments, dropped like grenades at precisely the right moment to keep me forever off-balance, forever ashamed.

On his ideal woman: Holly Golightly from Breakfast at Tiffany's is the perfect woman. She's so free-spirited and cool and outgoing and social, and always ready to party. She never takes anything seriously. She just likes to have fun. She's, like, the opposite of you. No offense.

On the way to a party... no, on the way to every party: Are you ever going to wax your facial hair? Doesn't it bother you? It's really noticeable.

Over dinner, while on a trip to England: All guys really want to date supermodels. They just lower their standards to what they can get.

On graduating from my MFA program: You're not really a "Writer." You're just someone who likes to write things occasionally. It's not 'who you are.' If it were, you wouldn't need to go to school for it, it would just be something you woke up every day wanting to do.

By the time we'd gotten to the point where he could lob gems like these in my direction, I was beyond answering back. I responded to it all with silence. I felt hurt and angry, of course, but the days when I might have defended myself were long since past. 

I rehearsed in my head a million times what I'd have liked to say, calmly, firmly, murderously, leaving no doubt about the consequences: That is the last time you will ever speak to me that way. Do you understand? I told myself a million times that next time, next time, I'd open my mouth and say it.

I didn't. I never did.

What I did was this: I didn't let new acquaintances-- coworkers, classmates-- get too close. I avoided people who knew me well, who knew me before, who might see me and be shocked at what I'd become. My family. My closest friends. I didn't want to disappoint them-- they'd always thought I was so strong, so together, and now it would be obvious to everyone how weak I was, how out of control; a freak, a waste, a failure.

I didn't want to let anyone down, so I began to avoid not only people, but situations where I might be forced to answer questions I didn't want to answer: 

First, it was: What happened to you? I was convinced people would see what I'd become (fat, sad, exhausted, ugly, ashamed), compare it to what I used to be (thin! fun! purposeful! confident!), and want an explanation for the ways I'd failed to live up to my former promise. The fact that nobody ever asked me this-- and never would have, not like that, anyway-- never registered. I assumed it was all anyone could think when they looked at me. It was all I could think when I looked at myself.

And then, the slightly-more-complicated dip beneath the surface: How did you get this way? It was another question that never came, of course, but it lurked in the background of every thought, every moment of every day. I never, ever acknowledged it consciously, even to myself, but I was beginning to suspect the answer to this question and even though I spent all my time trying not to let the words form in my head-- you know how, you know who-- I was judging myself harshly for having let it happen.

After a while, even the simplest, most rote question of all-- How are you?-- became one I couldn't bear to hear, even from those who knew me, who loved me, who I knew on some far-away level would never judge me if I blurted the real answer, even if I collapsed in a heap at their feet and begged them for help, even then.  

They say abusers isolate you from your family and friends, and they're only partly right. You do plenty of that work-- most of it, even-- all on your own. So that feels like your fault, too.

My fault, I mean. It felt like my fault. It all felt like my fault. I hated myself for staying with him, even while I couldn't admit the reasons I should leave. I hated him for the way he treated me-- I did, although I never admitted it to myself-- even while I cut myself closer and closer to the bone, just trying to make him love me. 

Somewhere along the way, I'd given up everything, everything I'd ever valued about myself, for that.

I never sought therapy during those years, even though it became clear at some point that I was deeply depressed, because I knew I'd be judged for being with him, knew I'd be advised to leave him. I was able to see that very clearly-- as faulty an assumption as it may have been--  without ever articulating to myself why that might be true. 

There was no way to win, no matter what I did. I had become my own abuser, really-- I found ways to take up where he left off from every conceivable angle. It seems now, even to me, that this had to have been unbearable, that surely I would have seen it and protected myself, taken steps to get myself to safety.

I didn't, though. As dissociated as I was, it was easy by then to distance myself from reality. It was easy to trade in the pain I felt for the only alternative I could imagine, the only one that didn't require me to face what I didn't want to face: feeling nothing. 

Nothing at all.

I'd like to say this was the extent of what happened during those six years-- it's more than enough, isn't it?-- but it wasn't. 

This story will continue...


  1. Wow. I can really relate! Thank you for sharing this, I cannot wait to keep reading! 

  2. I get it. I was married to a T, and didn't seek therapy for a long time because I "knew" I'd be told to leave him and I wasn't ready. Keep going, wanna read more...

  3. I'm sure you already know this, but you're not alone. Thank you for writing this.

  4. Wow, this brought flashbacks of my childhood. Thanks for writing about your experience and progress.

  5. Oh Kate. I wish that I was more aware back then. I wish I could have helped in some way.

    You are so incredibly brave for sharing your story. This was such a profound post. You are touching lives with your story and I'm quite sure you will help many women in similar relationships. Sharing your story is going to save lives. I truly believe that.

    I love you. I'm so very happy that you found your husband. He is an aamazing man who loves you the way you deserve to be loved.

    Keep moving forward, sweet sister. We are all here for you.

  6. Kate, you are so, so brave for writing about this experience. Your story serves as a warning to strong, independent women who think it could never happen to them. Women like me. Thank you.

  7. Chilling and so honest it hurts.  We read this the night you posted and have had more conversations that you can imagine.  It has helped us too. 
    As i have said before you are a brave wonderful soul.  Thank you for doing the work for many.  

  8. KateTheGirlWhoLived13 June, 2012 09:44

    Thanks, Sam. I'm sorry that you can relate but very glad you're where you are now, and grateful for the comment! Thanks for reading!

  9. KateTheGirlWhoLived13 June, 2012 09:46

    Thanks, Susan. I'm discovering that many more of us than I realized have a T in our past. Fortunately for all of the women I've heard from in the past week, the past is where our T's remain. We've all moved on to greener pastures. Give Stephen a hug for me! ;> 

  10. KateTheGirlWhoLived13 June, 2012 09:51

    I'm sorry to hear that it resonates, Tia-- it's been very hard to hear that from so many women I care about this week. On the other hand, it's been empowering to see where all of us have ended up-- with men who treat us the way we deserve to be treated. We created that ourselves. None of us remained as victims. We are powerful!

  11. KateTheGirlWhoLived13 June, 2012 10:03

    Thank you, Bonita. I have heard from so many women this week who had similar experiences, and every one of them falls into the "strong and independent" category. It can happen, and it does with more frequency than we realize. I'm glad it's never happened to you. I hope you'll never accept less than you deserve from anyone. You are way too awesome. ;>

  12. KateTheGirlWhoLived13 June, 2012 14:45

    Thanks, S. It means more than you know to hear this from you. I think you might feel about this blog the way I feel about you guys and all you've built and accomplished and created together-- you freed yourselves and beat the odds in your own way. No one knows better than I do how stiff those odds were.

    Seeing your success and happiness-- and still getting to have you guys in my life after all this time and all that happened-- feels like redemption. 

    I'm so glad you commented! xoxo

  13. Kate, I happen to know you're gorgeous, and your body is strong and wonderful and beautiful, and I admire you and respect you, and also I sneak candy bars still ;->.   I wish for you that you hadn't suffered at this guy's hand/words.  I want to say that he can't harm the perfect you deep inside, but I know it's not that easy.  I'll just say that I believe that love heals.  Sending you love, wrapped in deep respect. 

  14. Ohhh, dear.  I'm so sorry about this.  The saving grace is knowing that ultimately, you transcended this dirtbag.   

    "He was a nice guy."  Nope.  He wasn't.  But sometimes it's very hard, if not impossible, to tell these things up front.  

    "I was pretty and flirtatious, I was smart and sharp-witted, and I was a genuinely nice girl, if a bit too naive for my own good."  You still are!  T wasn't successful in taking this from you; you still have it.  OK, I can't speak to flirtatious, because you're a happily married woman, but you're pretty, smart, sharp-witted, and a genuinely nice person.  Not so much naive, because life strips away innocence and replaces it with experience, but the other stuff?  Yeah.  

    I've been aware lately of where certain people resonate for me.  I experience people I love at chest level -- there's sort of a soaring giddiness at sternum height.  I experience people like T at gut level -- all nausea and clenching and dread.  What's insidious is that sometimes a relationship starts out at the chest and then slowly, inexorably, heads for the entrails.  It's very hard to extricate oneself when this happens.  Congratulations on pulling it off.

  15. KateTheGirlWhoLived23 June, 2012 12:44

    Thanks, Lisa. Love does heal. Still learning that one every day. Yes!

  16. KateTheGirlWhoLived23 June, 2012 12:59

    Transcended the dirtbag. Yep. I like "transcended" so much better than "escaped" or even "dumped." Transcendence implies so much more, all of it positive, purposeful, liberating.

    So, yeah. That.

    And as for the question of me being flirtatious, I think I once told you, in a feverish literary rapture after reading your great writing  before we'd even properly met, that I intended to make out with you. So I clearly haven't left that behind, even in my happily-married state.

    Fortunately for us both, neither have you, because your enthusiastic (though cyber-only, I shall note for the faint of heart) response helped to launch our epic Sherlockian friendship. ;>

    Chest vs. gut level. Yes. Those people who hit us in the gut have us automatically, viscerally bracing ourselves against them, hopefully before the blow ever comes. An excellent function of the reptilian brain. I allow this reaction to be an instant deal-breaker now. It took me too long to recognize it once, but it won't again.

    Life is too short to take on futile projects. I've done my work (and continue to do it, clearly), and I prefer to surround myself with people who have done theirs, as well. That no longer seems like too much to expect.

    It's THIS thought that makes me quite happy to be well past my 20's. Here's to experience, even though it comes with wrinkles and a larger derriere! ;>