My Little Trauma

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Some memories spoil other memories. My last memories of you have tarnished all the ones that came before. Even after all this time, the recollections that should be fond are quickly followed by that sick feeling I had when I was so utterly alone, broken and vulnerable with you lying right beside me.

I don’t think of you as much as I used to but when I do, it is not a pleasure. The problem with completely breaking the deepest sort of trust is that it destroys one’s faith in all the kind things that were said and done prior, so that they seem to be tricks, lies, a thin and false veneer over something profoundly ugly. The problem with trust is that it takes a long time to build but only a moment to destroy.

I always thought I’d remember you as one of the great loves of my life, instead my strongest memory is the pure disgust in your eyes as you looked at me like a roach that you wanted to crush underfoot.

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Emotional violence thrives in silence and so I feel compelled to tell my own little story, though it feels so small and so insignificant compared to what many endure. A microcosmic moment of emotional abuse that gives me an empathetic point of connection when I hear the far more harrowing tales of others.

I’m afraid to write this. Afraid of responses from other people that suggest I overreacted, that I’m oversensitive. Afraid of being told, by others, that I am playing victim. Basically, I am afraid of other people saying the same things that he did. I am afraid of feeling confused and stupid and small again. And I’m afraid he’ll read this. Because this isn’t for him.

In the early days, I did want him to read my words. I wanted to tell this story out of anger, to get revenge, and at that point, I did not trust the motivations behind my writing this. Nowadays, I am tired of this part of my history and very much ready to move on from it so the idea of writing about this makes me feel weary. However, as time passes and I learn the intimate details of the emotionally abusive relationships so many people experience, I am realising how much shame and self-blame we collectively hold on to for the ways in which we have been treated. It’s painful, isolating, incredibly damaging stuff and so I suppose I hope that by telling my own tiny tale of being in an emotionally abusive relationship, it might help other people recognise violence occurring within their own dynamics.

I am afraid of my small story taking away from people’s far more horrible experiences. I do not want to pretend mine was nearly as traumatic as what some have been through, I only wish to add to the stories about what is unacceptable in a relationship because I think our idea of abuse needs more nuance so that perhaps people will be able to see red flags earlier, not only realising it is abuse when things are horrifically bad or that abuse only occurs in traditional relationship structures. I also fear that people will use my alternative sexuality, relationships, lifestyle and flaws to read into this as somehow being my fault but… fuck that noise.

I will do my best to make this coherent but not overly edit it lest this entire exercise becomes too exhausting. Here goes something.

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I should perhaps start by mentioning that I am polyamorous. In early 2017, where this story mostly takes place, I had a husband with whom I had been for almost ten years and a girlfriend of just under a year. I am also a sexually submissive masochist and had a Dom, who this story mostly revolves around.

We had been in a D/s relationship for the year of 2013, when I was 27 and he was 36 (I think.) I was the submissive, he was the dominant. It was my first D/s relationship and it was passionate, intimate, intense during the short times we were together and profoundly lonely when we were apart. During that time I had fallen madly in love with him but the feelings were not returned, I was not his first submissive and so, perhaps, I was something less special to him. One night towards the end of 2013, overwhelmed by my feelings, I asked him if he thought he could ever love me to which his reply was “no” and indicated his general feelings of being closed to romantic prospects. I fell asleep crying and the next morning, I woke up utterly miserable so I wrote a note “so long and thanks for all the fish” and then I cried all the way home. Unrequited love is a profoundly painful experience and so, while I had the strength to do so, I broke up with him over email, knowing that I couldn’t do it face to face because I really, deeply did not want to. I told him to get in touch if he ever felt that he could see to loving me.

His reply broke my heart; “Well, this is sad news indeed. So long beautiful girl, you were the best thing about 2013.” I knew for certain then that he did not love me because the hardest decision I’d ever made in my life was merely sad for him. It wasn’t his fault, he couldn’t help how he felt, but the feeling was acutely painful.

I spent the next couple of years pining after him, not a day went by where he wasn’t on my mind. I had other loves and other adventures but my heart was still stuck on him so that when he emailed me at the end of 2015, I had two years of hope stockpiled under my ribcage. And we started talking, and we started bonding, and this time it was different. I knew how much of a cliché this was, but I swore he had changed. In fact, it truly seemed as if he had, he’d put in a lot of work after all. He’d been getting therapy and doing work on himself and the closed off person I’d once known was communicating, was open, was looking at me when I spoke. I felt seen.

Over the next several months, we began to open to one another and quickly, my love began to deepen. One night, in a burst of intense emotion and vulnerable fear that I was once again foolishly putting myself through the horrific pain of unrequited love, I wrote him, demanding that he let me know how he was feeling, demanding that if he loved me, he should “man up” and tell me that he loved me. Not one of my finer moments but I had spent two years trying to forget him and now I was falling ever deeper. I needed to know.

He called me. He was furious. He was disgusted that I would tell him to “man up” and not control my emotions, he was angry that I wasn’t giving him time. He had been feeling closer to me, like things were going so well and now he was questioning whether he wanted to be in a relationship with someone who acted on the impulse of their emotions. Shaking, I apologised, I told him he was right, I listened to his angry words for a while and gradually, he calmed down. I felt stupid, I believed he was right. I needed to better control my behaviour in response to my emotions – that’s exactly what I was told all the time when I was a child.

In retrospect, I see his angry response that was devoid of any compassion for my feelings (of which he was well aware) as a red flag but at the time, I only felt remorse for my own behaviour. At the time, I was only grateful that I had not ruined things.

About a month later, while we were both inebriated and hanging out with a friend of his, he finally told me he loved me. I could see that he meant it and I felt a sort of joy that is difficult to describe. At last! He loved me!

I feel tremendously revealed writing out these details of this relationship, how pathetic I felt in my obsession with him, how deeply gratifying it felt to be finally loved by him, like a dream come true. I feel how foolish I might seem from the outside. But this doesn’t consider the genuine connection we had, this devalues the way we would laugh so much together, the way we lay in bed reading books to one another, the youtube vortexes we went down, the adventures we went on, the special places we took one another, the camping trips, the visits to his grandmother where we had singalongs, the wild, passionate, filthy sex and the profound intimacy of BDSM. To judge how much I loved him fails to consider the way we cried in one another’s arms, the secrets we told one another and the way he would, towards the end of our relationship, whisper “babe, you’ve changed my life.”

I wore a collar he had purchased for me and became his property, a deeply meaningful act of love and trust within a D/s relationship.

“Babe,” he would whisper “I need you.”

“You’re the love of my life.”

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My mental health was not in a good place back then, many years of battling with my chronic pain and disability in my arms had me feeling overwhelmed, helpless and deeply depressed. Suicidal ideation was my constant companion and yes, I felt the bitterness of envy towards the freedom experienced by others. So when, over dinner one night at the end of 2016, he told me that later that year, he was flying to visit China and then New York, I burst into tears.

Embarrassed about my emotional outburst (I often felt self-conscious about being “too emotional” around him as this something he had often accused me of being, while conversely stating that my depth of feeling was what he loved about me) I attempted to explain myself. When I was younger and my disability was not yet an issue, I set myself the admittedly arbitrary goal of having an exhibition in New York by the time I was 30. Instead, I was already past that age and at that time my arm pain was becoming so bad that I was wondering if I might have to give up visual arts completely. So the fact that he was able to fly himself around the world, particularly to New York, just made me feel so heartbroken and bitterly jealous because of the current state of my own life. It was not my intention to make him feel bad, it was simply that the contrast between our lives felt stark. And yes, comparison is the thief of joy but like I said, at that time, my mental health was not in a good place.

A week or two later, I received a call from him. He said that he didn’t like spending money on other people but that that he wanted to get over this hang-up and he would like me to come with him to China and New York. My heart was racing; I had not expected this and something about the offer made me feel apprehensive. I suggested to him that we should both take some time to think about the offer, he insisted that he had already thought about it but I asked for some time to think it through, I very much wanted to say “yes” but needed some time.

In the end, I said “yes” to going to New York with him but not China, as I was launching a web series during that time and as it had been my only recent accomplishment and often a big reason for my wanting to live – some sort of purpose and meaning to hold on to. He was excited and so was I, though I was also preoccupied with the launch of our web series and still feeling a little apprehensive, in ways I couldn’t quite define about the upcoming trip and so perhaps I disappointed him by not matching his enthusiasm, excitement and planning. During this time, I dimly perceived some sort of coldness and distance from him, but told myself I was being paranoid and besides, I was preoccupied with the launch of the web series.

Then, suddenly, it was the end of April and I was waiting at an airport in China to join him on a connecting flight to New York. I had my Lonely Planet guide filled with bookmarks and underlined parts, a sturdy new suitcase, black walking shoes and just over $1000 that I had made from sex work which is legal in Australia. It wasn’t a lot but given my disability severely limiting my employment options and general capabilities, I felt tentatively excited that I had recently been brave enough to give sex work a try and had managed to make a bit of money to help out during our two week holiday. I had mentioned to him that I’d do some work so I would have some cash to help out, I felt good to be able to make that offer as I had not had my own income in some time. I was nervous but excited, we had never spent this much time together yet we’d already had so many incredible adventures and this was set to be our biggest one yet. I was deeply, passionately in love with this man and projected him deep into my future, imagined us watching one another grow old together. My other partners knew and got along with him, it all felt like a polyamorous utopia.

And then we arrived in New York.

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I really don’t want to write about my time in New York, I don’t enjoy thinking about it and in fact all this time later, it’s still hard for me to look at footage of the city without getting an echo of the sick feeling I had in my stomach almost the entire time we were there. For my own sake, I’m going to break this into some of the standout memories. Some of them have little to do with him, more to do with my chronic pain and depression at the time.

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It is day one and we are sitting in a diner in the fancy part of town where he has gotten us lodging. The cost of what I expected to be a cheap breakfast is shocking to me and I anxiously express my fears about money and suggest that we go to supermarkets and cook together. He expresses that he too is worried about the cost of things in the city as he was hoping to return from the holiday with some savings but that his favourite part of travelling is to eat out and he doesn’t want to miss that experience so he suggests that I just cook for myself and we can eat separately.

This suggestion upsets me. I feel sad at the idea of eating separately but don’t want him to think I am clingy. I feel hurt that he, who has much more money than I do, would not want to help me out but I also feel ungrateful because after all, he flew me here in the first place. I stare out the window, my eyes welling up with tears which has always happened to me at the slightest hint of emotion and I tell myself not to be silly and ruin this holiday over something as insignificant as whether or not we eat meals together. Aren’t I lucky that he has flown me here? Hasn’t our relationship always been one of intimacy and independence? I resolve to have a good time.

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I am lying in our Airbnb in Alphabet City, crying big gulping sobs. We only recently arrived at the Airbnb and he has gone out cycling to explore the area but I have had a bad pain flare and the combination of the burning of neuropathic pain with the intense hyper-stimulation of the city has me desperate to rest. I am feeling a deep sorrow that though I am on holiday, I have not been able to leave my pain back in Australia. I feel afraid that I am letting him down by not also exploring the city. I feel lonely and preoccupied with my health concerns, I want someone to hold me and tell me this pain isn’t my fault but I’ve never felt especially comfortable talking about it with him. I didn’t want him to see me crying too much, in any case, as I often felt he was frustrated with how frequently I tended to cry.

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It is night time and we are walking along the water. We have just had a wonderful day being shown various sights by a dear and generous old friend of mine and now it is just him and I. He has requested that we do not talk for a while and I think it is wonderful that he can communicate that, though often he walks ahead of me so quickly that when I stop to take photos of the water, I realise he has walked off ahead of me and now I am alone in the night-time city. I have a feeling as if he doesn’t like me but tell myself not to be silly, I have a feeling of anxiety for being left by the dark water by myself but tell myself not to be a big baby. I run to catch up with him further down the path and he takes us to a bar.

At the bar we order two beers which he suggests I pay for, as he had shouted myself and my friend drinks earlier in the day. Earlier that day, I had also bought my friend lunch (as she was dear to me and had taken me out to a marvellous dinner the night previous) but now was feeling anxious about all the money I’d spent so when he suggested I pay, my financial anxieties came to the surface and, once again, tears welled up in my eyes. I paid for the drinks and we went to sit down.

I cannot recall what he said to me at this point but I do recall his anger as he spoke in a low voice about his frustration with me for worrying about money, yet spending all the money earlier on my friend and the various ways in which I’d been unlikeable and needy on this holiday until I snapped back “you’re the one who invited me on this holiday you asshole.”

I stormed out of the bar and down several streets. Shortly I calmed down and decided it would just be wise to head back to our Airbnb and give us both some space. So that he would not worry, I sent him an SMS saying that I was going to head back to our accommodation. “I have the keys” was his reply. “Ok,” I wrote “I’ll come back.” As I walked back to the bar, I thought to myself about how what had just happened wasn’t a big deal and that now I was calm, we could talk through our feelings and sort things out. Travelling was just emotionally fraught, all we needed to do was communicate and it’d be ok. He was sitting where I had left him and had drunk both our beers. He was silent and looked sullen as I sat down beside him and sheepishly said “hi…”

He looked at me with an expression I hadn’t seen before, his eyes were burning with disgust and loathing. “You are just an absolute piece of shit to me right now.” He said. What followed was the most brutal character assassination I have ever received. For what felt like two hours, though could have been ten minutes, he listed everything about me that pissed him off. I was ungrateful for the holiday, I had not come to China with him when I was lucky to have the opportunity, I was ungrateful for all the things he did for me because I was used to having people do things for me. I was hopelessly dependent which he blamed on the fact that I had been chronically ill in my childhood and was disabled in my adulthood, he believed that this had taught me a learned helplessness and that other people were perfectly capable of making a living despite their disability. He told me that travelling with me was frustrating and horrible, that he’d been thinking on taking me to another trip he had planned to Syria but now he was thanking God he knew not to do that. He told me that I was really hot and could make a killing as a sex worker but that I just hadn’t pursued it like I said I would and when I expressed that the work was hard on my pain and if I did it, I was worried that I wouldn’t be able to do any art whatsoever, he told me that this was just the real world and I had to grow up and deal with it. He said that if he had one ethical stance, it was self-sufficiency and I was pathetically dependent, childish and whinging. He said he’d never wanted a wife.

Honestly, his words are a blur but what I remember is the look on his face. It was a look as if I was a fly he wanted to swat. I remember the way his nose crinkled in disgust, as if I was a terrible smell. I remember the low, quiet growl of his voice and the way my body trembled. I remember experiencing a sick feeling of gratitude, at last someone who knew me had the guts to speak the truth. I was, indeed, a piece of shit. I remember the feeling of deep, humiliating, abject shame unlike anything I’ve felt before. I remember pleading with him to please stop talking to me this way because it felt in this moment that he no longer loved me. I remember imploring him that we could figure things out but I just needed to know if he loved me.

I guess it calmed down at some point. I don’t know. I remember him hugging me outside of the bar and whispering “I’m sorry babe”. I remember that when we got back to our Airbnb, I admitted, ashamed, that I was feeling terrible about myself and asked him to tell me why he loved me. I remember he held me and told me things such as how he loved my friends and how weird and hot I was but somehow the compliments had no sticking power.

I remember that night he held me down and fucked me while whispering the cruel, nasty, humiliating things that had always been a part of our D/s dynamic and which had always turned me on intensely. Except now it felt different and so I lay there, crying, until he came inside me. My crying was not an unusual part of our sex life, in fact it was something that we both sought out as it turned us on, but this felt different. I no longer felt emotionally safe. “I probably shouldn’t have done that tonight” he said as he held me. “I’m ok” I whispered back, through tears.

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The next day I needed to be alone and for a while I wandered aimlessly. At some point I found myself at a train station. At some point I found myself standing too close to the tracks. I could hear a train coming and I could feel the vertigo, I could feel the pull, I thought of the relief that would come from halting my own existence and I felt my body tense in preparation to jump.

An image flashed in my head of my husband, Wes, having to have my gory, mangled corpse shipped back to Australia. I did not jump but the fact that I was only a split second’s decision away from doing so still sickens me with horror.

Instead I visited an incredible contemporary art exhibition. I was fascinating and thrilling and gave me enough energy to message my Dom and ask to talk about what had happened the night before. He agreed that we should but he told me tonight he first wanted to meet with a friend of his and he wanted me to meet her too, he wanted us to party together. I shouldn’t have agreed to that but I was honestly still afraid of letting him down as he’d already made it apparent that he felt I was ruining our holiday and so I did on the condition that we talked afterwards.

That night I joined him in a bar with his friend. An incredible pianist from New Orleans was playing and he was back to his old self, laughing and joking with his old friend. He put his arm around me lovingly and I was confused by the emotions I felt – relief that he still loved me and confusion when he had been so revolted by me just the night before. Now he seemed so proud of me, so in love. That night we got increasingly inebriated at his friend’s house and as I became more intoxicated, I found my mind wandering with a desperate feeling of rage and confusion. Why was this scene so normal? So light-hearted? Had I imagined how much he loathed me the night before? Was I overreacting? I felt so bewildered, it was a long night for me.

At last we got back to our Airbnb in the very early hours of the morning and I requested that we talk. As we spoke, he began to explain why he had been so angry at me which felt to me like justifications. Rapidly, he became frustrated and snapped at me for bringing this up so late at night. I went to sleep crying silently.

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The rest of the holiday is a whirlwind of the sort of amazing adventures we always had but also many uncomfortable memories of him getting frustrated with and snapping at me for minor things. There   are many microscopic stories I could tell but I’m weary about rehashing them all. I feel this anxiety that I should tell more of my story, every single detail to “prove” how horrible the holiday felt and “prove” that he was emotionally abusive but I don’t know that this would achieve anything more.

Something I recall is that over time we did “talk” about what happened but somehow the conversation ended up being about his frustration with me because he felt he was always spending a lot of money on me and I was ungrateful. I suggested I’d start cooking more things for him at home and he seemed satisfied with this. I felt awful but supposed he was right, just because I was disabled and unemployed, didn’t mean he should have to pay for everything. I told myself his criticisms of me were good opportunities for me to grow, that he only wanted me to be the best version of myself. He wanted me to grow up and so did I.

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There was also a night when I became very drunk and after he snapped at me in front of a friend we had made, I stormed home with him walking a block behind me, occasionally calling out to me “I know you can hear me”. When we got home he said “I know you’re angry and want to talk but honestly I’m sick of this shit and can’t be fucked” at which point I flew into a rage at him for the way he had been treating me that holiday. I cannot recall what I said, though I do recall it being along the lines of calling him an emotional coward and behaving nastily to me. I regret getting drunk and angry and perhaps behaving in exactly the same way he had. Abuse is a contagious disease.

I do not think fondly of New York, though at the time I told myself I was in love with it and explored it ravenously. I have too many memories of wandering around all day, unable to bring myself to eat because I had a sick feeling in my stomach that wouldn’t go away and a whole lot of money fears. I have too many memories of crying on trains by myself. I have too many memories of overly assertive men hitting on me, of my not being accustomed to dealing with such men and of my Dom getting angry at me for being weak and not asserting myself so they would leave me alone.  I have too many memories of being street harassed while I was feeling broken, vulnerable and suicidal. I’ve never been exposed to such relentless street harassment and I found it incredibly confronting.

In short, I was traumatised and that informs every memory of New York. Even all the good ones. This feeling of misery compounded my feeling that he was right – I was ungrateful and unable to care for myself.

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I returned home an absolute mess and suffering from several breakdowns. My loved ones had me on suicide watch and I came uncomfortably close to the edge several times more.

Over the next couple of months, I continued to try to talk with him about what had happened but this only lead to new insults. That I was needy, that I played victim, that I would always hold this against him just like I was always throwing other misdeeds of him in his face, such as the time back in 2013 when, drunk and on the verge of a breakdown, he choked me when it was a hard limit of mine. He spoke of how amazing our holiday had been but how I only fixated on the negative things which was also typical of me. What I wanted from him was a promise that no such thing would ever happen again, what I got was him telling me that I was bad at dealing with confrontations and anger. He would tell me he hadn’t meant the things he said but then double down on them with lines about how I was “needy” and he had made the mistake of thinking I was “more self-actualised” than I was.

In the meantime, my therapist was telling me I’d been through trauma and my friends were using words like “emotional abuse” and “gaslighting”. Those words seemed too dramatic for what was going on with us and when I suggested it to him, he said “do you honestly believe I’m capable of the illegal act of abuse?” I told him I didn’t think he was an abuser but that his behaviour was abuse. I don’t know what the fuck I meant by that, I so often found myself trapped in debates with him where I came out feeling stupid and confused.

Eventually I told him we needed a break. I didn’t want that break, I was still so deeply in love with him but I could see no other way. He was angry, he told me that this was typical behaviour of mine, to not accept his apologies, to give up on what we had, that he had offered to get couples counselling with me and I had not researched it, that he now believed he loved me more than I loved him because he’d never give up on me but I was giving up on him.

Heart aching with the idea that he would think I didn’t love him, I confessed to him that I had nearly jumped in front of a train in New York but had been too ashamed to tell him. His face softened in shock and horror and he came over to hug me “I’m sorry babe” he whispered.

I told him I had to go. My very last memory of his was of him pouring a glass of wine and scowling as I softly shut his apartment door behind me. I officially ended the relationship over email several weeks later and began the process of healing. I haven’t seen him since and I hope I never have to.

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I feel as if I want to make this story ten times longer to flesh out the nuances of my experience because it is not my wish to portray him as a monster, though for a while I had to believe he was to push him out of my heart. But he wasn’t, he was a creature who had had some deep wounds in his childhood which made him angry and in pain. He and I had a lot of beautiful moments together and if you had seen the way he loved his grandmother, you would see why I loved him. But this doesn’t excuse or negate how deeply wounding and painful his behaviour towards me was. Somebody once described it to me as “emotional rape” and that description gave me goosebumps as I realised how deeply I had been wounded.

Yes, along the spectrum of abusive relationships, ours was lower down but it was nonetheless a violence that he did to me. He took the trauma of my childhood, my health problems and the secret vulnerabilities I had trusted him with and weaponised them in a moment of anger. During that moment, his anger created in him a desire to destroy me and it almost worked.

To this day, I remain grateful to me two other partners who supported me during this time, I feel lucky that being polyamorous seemed to protect me from some of the dangers of emotional abuse because for every nasty thing he said about me, my other two partners were adamant that he was wrong and that his behaviour was not ok. They did not see my vulnerabilities as weakness and they vehemently disagreed with his criticisms. Because I was in a dark headspace, I wondered if they were wrong and he was the only one who could see the real me, the piece of shit me. But of course, that was the depression, low self-esteem and trauma speaking.

I do believe that if I had stayed with him, things could have gotten increasingly worse. I also believe I would have stayed with him longer if I’d not had the support of my other two lovers who were boosting me up and furiously angry at him.  Even then I might have stayed with him – I was still wildly in love with him after all – had a dear friend not flown me to Sydney, taken me whale watching and shown me what it was like to be loved and cared for without shame or anger. I felt better when I was away from him… That was a revelation.

At the time that I was leaving, he was angry that I did not seek out couples counselling for us but honestly I was afraid. Afraid because he had such a way with words that I could imagine him convincing a couple’s counsellor that I was the one who needed to fix their behaviour and deep in my gut, I knew it wasn’t me who needed to alter their behaviour. As this article on the ways society gaslights abuse survivors states:

“The primary reason we don’t recommend couples counseling is that abuse is not a “relationship problem.” Couples counseling may imply that both partners contribute to the abusive behavior, when the choice to be abusive lies solely with the abusive partner. Focusing on communication or other relationship issues distracts from the abusive behavior, and may actually reinforce it in some cases. Additionally, a therapist may not be aware that abuse is present and inadvertently encourage the abuse to continue or escalate.”

It was not my job to get couples counselling for us and the fact that he made it my responsibility speaks to his inability to accept accountability for his own actions. This was the crux of my dissatisfaction with every conversation we had about what happened in New York – I wanted him to realise it was horrible, emotionally violent, abusive behaviour. I wanted him to be horrified with his actions and seeking counselling for himself. I wanted to be told he’d do everything he could to make sure it never happened again. I wanted his “sorry” to feel genuine and I wanted him to be patient in regaining my trust.

Instead, all I got was his anger and resentment that I wasn’t “letting it go.” All I ever got was conversations about the ways in which he was just expressing reasonable frustration with me. All I ever got was being told I was oversensitive, whingy, needy and unable to deal with anger. He never faced the violence of his behaviour and so I was left to do so on my own.

Leaving him was painful and for a very long time, I pined for him. This may seem hard to understand from the outside, given how nasty he was, but I was deeply in love with him. His words wouldn’t have hurt nearly as deeply if I hadn’t been so profoundly in love.

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Thankfully, I was not destroyed by the experience. In fact, that trauma was a catalyst for many changes in my self-perception as I confronted the internalised ableism, self-loathing and childhood hurts that had made his words so brutally effective. He knew me well so he knew how to hurt me. So I was not destroyed but I do have new trust issues and triggers which I am working on overcoming with my psychologist and my loved ones.

But it did destroy our relationship. Not only did it end the relationship, but it discoloured every memory I have of it prior to New York. There are a few memories that still glow with brilliant beauty, but they are surrounded by grief, rage and aching sadness. And to be honest, nowadays the love I once had for him is dull and faded because part of me cannot trust the good times were true or genuine. Part of me wonders what kind of person could be so cruel to someone who they called “the love of my life”.

That cognitive dissonance has, at times, been profoundly difficult to sit with. Sometimes it’s easier to simply believe he was a narcissistic asshole. Maybe he was. Holding memories of us staring lovingly into one another’s eyes and sharing our secrets along with the memories of him looking at me with loathing and disgust… like I said, that cognitive dissonance has been difficult to sit with.

Ultimately I am not interested in painting him as a monster but I do believe his behaviour was monstrous and I hope by shedding light on the darkness, perhaps it will give other people who might read this the validation to realise when they are being emotionally abused. It’s not always obvious, in fact chances are it’s murky, confusing and mixed up with a deep love and connection you have with someone. And perhaps neither of you realise just how abusive the relationship has become because you both believe their abuse is just them being “honest” and “genuine”. That is what I believed.

I believe the idea that only monsters are abusive is a deeply dangerous idea because it simply isn’t true. The people who abuse us are often the people who love us and who we love in return. They are real, complex, nuanced humans who have light and beauty within them.

But this doesn’t make their behaviour ok. In many moments he treated me brilliantly but that in no way excuses the deep psychological violence he enacted on me, using me as an emotional punching bag when I was vulnerable and alone in a city he had insisted on flying me to.

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On the very last day I ever saw him, he angrily told me that this was just going to become another of my stories where I am a victim. He told me I’d never let this go and that I’d whinge to all my friends about how abusive he was. That was his final parting blow and it worked. In my weaker moments, I wonder if he was right and I was just overreacting. It worked because I’m afraid to post this writing online in case the people who read this think the same things he did.

But I was not overreacting. What happened in New York was a profound trauma that took a lot of time for me to heal from. I’m ok now, despite the occasional triggers and trust issues, I’m better than ok, but that will never make what happened ok.

Some things are never ok. And so I’m going to share this messy, complicated, small experience of mine because yes, this is one of my stories that I tell my friends but no, I’m not playing victim. I’m processing pain and shedding light on darkness.

He will never understand this and if he ever reads this, I imagine he’ll be angry and disgusted with me. But that’s not the point. The point is that I’ve realised his behaviour was inexcusable and his opinion of me was incorrect, unloving and cruel. That it has taken a long time for me to heal from his emotional violence is not due to my weakness… but his.

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Our Tangled Roots

I’m learning on the fly how to hold the pieces of myself together. It’s a skill I’ve never been good at before, I’ve so often crumbled, wilted, broken down, melted down. But now I know it isn’t just about me, now I know the ways in which the architecture of myself is interlocked with the structures of beloved others so that we hold one another up.

Did you know that some trees fuse their roots together? They share information and nutrients and become stronger within this interdependence.

I used to think that I wasn’t important, that my absence would be to the detriment of nobody. Wisdom came when I nearly ended my own existence and was confronted by the tremendous pain of a beloved. Now I can clearly see the way hurt spirals outwards and I feel, as a deep responsibility, the importance of my continual striving to keep myself intact.

Kindness is to never shame those who cannot cease their disintegration. Compassion is to understand the drive towards self-destruction and know it for what it is; the anguish of an animal in acute pain. Pain that may feel utterly inescapable. Pain that may be utterly inescapable.

Do you know that you are important? Perhaps you cannot conceive of the ways in which your existence enriches mine, perhaps you cannot believe that your absence would leave a permanent wound within my chest. Do you know that you are a source of love and light and joy? Do you know that I’m holding the pieces of myself together for you?

Look, can you see it? Love, can you feel it? My roots are fused with yours.

Disability and Love

Recently I was talking with some women who have chronic health issues and though our health problems manifest differently, we all spoke of having similar insecurities around talking too often or too openly about our troubles. These insecurities come in many different flavours; we the chronically unhealthy are afraid of being perceived of as whingy, boring, pitiable, crazy, energy vampires… the list goes on. Because of these fears, we are constantly engaging in a juggling act between our inner turmoil and our outward appearance – from one minute to the next, we are weighing up whether or not we should speak up about our struggles.

Personally, for every one time I decide to talk about my experiences with chronic pain, mental illness and disability, there are twenty times I keep quiet and hide how I’m feeling so that people won’t tire of me. I often challenge myself to speak publicly of my struggles because I know that when others do the same, it makes me feel less alone and better about myself and I believe this encourages compassion and connection. I have seen the evidence of this because every time I speak candidly of my problems, I will be the recipient of a multitude of messages from others who are going through their own trials and who are grateful for my honesty. Conversely, I know that if I speak of my problems a little too often, people will experience compassion fatigue and start tuning out, unfollowing me on Facebook and even resenting me. This is not paranoia, this is the lived reality of many who have walked the chronic condition walk and we have all experienced the exasperation of someone who is sick of our complaints. Even if that someone is simply ourselves.

Recently a friend sat on my couch drinking tea and, through tears, she spoke of her struggles with chronic pain. She confessed to frequently choosing to make the decision to smile through her suffering when in the company of others because she didn’t want to lose their love. She said she felt that was probably a bit of a dark and bleak outlook but I told her that I do the exact same thing and do not feel any shame for sometimes choosing to conceal my misery. Why? Because, to some degree, I am in pain almost all of the time but I don’t always want to talk about it, nor be viewed as someone to be pitied. Because sometimes I like to pretend, just for a while, that I am able bodied and as capable as I’d like to be. Because often I am miserable and happy in the exact same moment.

But most of all… because I need love.

We need love. Humans are social animals and love gives us an evolutionary advantage – love forges the bonds that incentivise us to look out for one another. Within a capitalistic and individualistic society, we create and revere a mythology of the self-sufficient and self-made person but the moment you examine that idea, it disintegrates like the illusion it is. No man is an island, this is so obvious that it’s cliché and yet we forget it is true.

My disability makes me acutely aware of the interdependency of humans and, well, all life on this planet. I have many needs; food, shelter, medicine, art, fun… and since I don’t qualify for any disability benefits in this country I am not a citizen of, all my needs are paid for by people who love me. Learning to be comfortable and at peace with this fact of my life is an ongoing process and it is still easy for me to fall into a spiral of shame about the perceptions I sometimes hold of myself as a worthless bludger. I counter this negative self-image with evidence to the contrary – to those that support me, in return I offer the things that I can, housework, food, adventures, sex, art, comedy, connection, love. Perhaps my acute knowledge of my own need has made me particularly talented at the last two, like they are skills I have honed out of necessity. If I love you well, you will love me well and then we can really take care of each other. Not co-dependent but interdependent.

Except… sometimes it feels imbalanced. Chronic pain and health concerns often preoccupy me and sometimes leave me feeling so deeply frustrated, depressed and miserable that the offerings I make in exchange for love seem lesser, stunted as they can be by the exhaustion and bitterness I sometimes feel. It’s hard being in chronic pain and I’m harder to love when I am in chronic pain. When someone you love goes through a personal tragedy, it is easy to support them because you know at some point there will be a light at the end of the tunnel, that they will most likely be better someday. With chronic health problems, there is not necessarily a point where the person gets better and things get easier (though certainly we develop the most incredible coping strategies!) So much of living with chronic pain is facing the same problems day in day out with no necessary end in sight. This is exhausting and also incredibly tedious. It tests all but the strongest of bonds.

This is not to say I am unlovable. In fact, I am blessed with a whole lot of love in my life and like I said I work hard to earn and sustain that love. However, only a few of my truly closest people get exposed to the complete truth of me – that sometimes loving me is a lot of work. I cry, a lot. I hurt, a lot. I feel, a lot. For the last couple of years, I’ve battled suicidal ideation and pretty serious mental health problems as a direct result of my physical health struggles. Often, I am insecure. Often I am lost. Often, I am exhausted. Sometimes loving me is a lot of work.

But, I repeat, I strive to make it worthwhile and I have been told it is. And lately I believe it. Lately I can see that my life experiences have given me the ability to throw myself into joy, when I receive it, with the wild abandon of someone who doesn’t take joy for granted. When I feel freedom I feel it with an exuberance and intensity that I believe is infectious. Living on the periphery of society has the incredible effect of making me less concerned with abiding by its rules, rules which I have forgotten or never learned in the first place. My own struggles have given me a deep supply of compassion for the ways other people can struggle and I believe this has made me into an open minded and caring person. Finally, I love with the intense gratitude of someone who knows exactly what a gift of time, energy and vulnerability it is. I do not take love for granted.

Sometimes when friends read the things I write online, they exclaim to me that they had no idea about my struggles. They tell me, with kindness and generosity that makes me adore them, that I do not have to hide it from them but the honest truth is… I do. Sometimes I do. And I want to. See, the thing is, if I complained to you whenever I hurt, I’d be a cracked record that you’d soon tire of listening to. This is not your fault, or mine, this is just the truth. Chronic health problems are boring, tedious and exhausting. If I showed you how I’m really feeling all of the time, if I let you know every moment when I am weakened, you wouldn’t want to be around me. And that’s fair because you need energy to fight your own battles. My struggles might be greater than some able bodied people, but that is, to some degree, something I have to face on my own. This is the juggling act we all have to do between external connection/interdependence and independence/emotional resilience.

Recently, a new love came into my life and as I came to love and trust him deeply, I allowed him to see the truth of me. We loved one another passionately but witnessing my truth was too much for him to sit with and so, one night, to diffuse his own discomfort, he used my greatest vulnerabilities as a weapon. In anger, he thoroughly shamed me for the ways in which I depend on other people both financially and emotionally. His words were vicious and personal in ways that I am not comfortable writing about publicly and they continued in smaller doses over the next several months. These words had me feeling small and pathetic, precise as they were in their intent to wound me. I was looking at myself through his eyes and what I saw was a parasite. Over time, I overcame the deep feelings of humiliation and shame by realising that though there was some truth in his words because he knew me well, mostly they said more about his internal landscape than mine. Having done the work to overcome that hurt and having extracted myself (with a great deal of sadness and heartache) from that relationship, I am now feeling stronger than I have in a very long time. But it wasn’t easy.

What got me out of that dark place was love. Love from my friends, family and other partners but most importantly, love from myself. In order to survive one of the moments in my life when I was most vulnerable, when I saw my very existence hanging by a tenuous thread as my suicidal ideation reached an unbearable pitch, I had to take myself on a crash course in self compassion and learn to love myself. I talked endlessly to people who suffered from a multitude of health struggles and was struck by the similarities of our experiences and as my heart expanded with compassion for others, so too it grew for myself. I got counselling from a lovely therapist who spoke my language. I went on SNRIs to cope with the clinical depression I realised I was struggling with. I sought wisdom in the written words of others and my bibles were “Daring Greatly” by Brené Brown, “Option B” by Sheryl Sandberg and Adam Grant, “How to be Sick” by Toni Bernhard and perhaps most influential of all, I am finding myself being deeply affected and influenced by the words on compassion, suffering and kindness from Tibetan Buddhist, Pema Chödrön.

“Compassion is not a relationship between the healer and the wounded. It’s a relationship between equals. Only when we know our own darkness well can we be present with the darkness of others. Compassion becomes real when we recognize our shared humanity.”

― Pema Chödrön, The Places That Scare You: A Guide to Fearlessness in Difficult Times

I stopped wanting to die when I started to believe I am a creature that is worthy of love, not in despite of my struggles but because of them. Because of the ways they make me the person I am today. I stopped wanting to die when I stopped feeling like a parasite and truly embraced the beliefs I’ve always held but never applied to myself; humans are social animals. The very foundations of our evolution as a species have been innovation, intelligence, diversity and in my opinion most importantly, interdependence. That’s why ants dominate underground and that’s why we dominate on land. None of us exist without support from others. None of us. None. Though I might not have the normal symbols of status and power to offer loved ones – money, a career, regular “achievements”, my offerings are, nonetheless, precious to the people who know me and who love me.

Because I am not a parasite. Chronically ill and disabled people are not parasites. We are in configurations of mutualistic symbiosis with those we love and we have much to offer the rest of the world too. Though the things we offer might be quieter, less immediately obvious, they are there and to the ones who adore us, we are irreplaceable.

So yes, sometimes loving me means extra work because I have a body that is prone to failing and that means I have to work harder to inhabit my flesh. But my capacity for giving love is momentous and now, as I learn what it truly means to love myself, I know I am worth the work.

Shame is Boring

Recently I started making my own little youtube videos and though I’m still feeling awkward as I learn to navigate a new medium, I am finding it to be a very exciting, raw and direct means of communication and self expression. I feel tremendously excited but also incredibly vulnerable, as I allow my imperfections and awkwardness to be seen.

But I am proud of this video particularly.