**TRIGGER WARNING – This article contains descriptions of emotional and physical violence and abuse.**
When I look back on my life and past relationships, sometimes I can’t believe what I remember, and what I don”˜t. It feels like I’m watching someone else’s life in a movie – a badly made, educational video that you might see in the waiting room at a clinic or after hours on PBS. Like some kind of badly acted PSA on what NOT to do. I see my past in blurred snapshots and segments. So much of the six years I spent in captivity are barely recognizable. I’ve forgotten whole chunks of my life.
For instance, when I lived overseas, I went to college. I went to college for three and a half years and obtained a degree in a topic I’m extremely passionate about. However, I don’t remember most of my classes, or studying for exams, or many of the friends I made. I held down several well-paying, respectable positions as an office administrator; one for a prominent barrister, and the other for an enormous international energy company. I barely remember working at either place, though I was a valued employee. I don’t remember taking up knitting or the clothes I wore. I don’t remember precious time spent with my animals or writing home to my family. I don’t remember Christmas, or Easter. I don’t remember the pictures I took.
I lived overseas for nearly four years and I have only three pictures of myself from that time period. One for each year. I avoided cameras and they avoided me. The gaps in my memory serve to protect me from what I lived through, how scared I was, and the entirely different person I became during that time.
I met Nicholas* when I was 19 years old. We met online as people have been doing for the past decade or so. It was not quite the clichÃ© it is now; in fact, I had quite a lot of explaining to do when I told my family and friends that not only was I “seeing” a man I met on the Internet, but that he was in another country entirely. They poked fun at me, insisted it wasn’t a “real” relationship, and took bets on how long it would last. I felt invalidated and unsupported. I really felt a connection with this guy. With every naysayer, I fell deeper in love with my long-distance soul mate. I was an impulsive teenager desperately wanting to get out of my small town, the town I’d been stuck in my whole life. I had dreams of traveling, seeing the world, becoming educated and being the writer I’d wanted to become since I was a child. In my mind this man was, in addition to being a great love affair, my ticket out.
He came to visit me during the fall of the following year, and I began to see signs from the moment we met at baggage claim. For one (and I’ve never admitted this to anyone, including my closest friends, until now), I wasn’t attracted to him. I still felt my heartbeat quicken whenever he spoke, and he had gentle eyes, but there was no spark. As we left the airport, I began to feel panic, and guilt. I began to berate myself for feeling that way at all. The words of everyone who had said it wouldn’t last, that you can’t fall in love with someone without seeing them, began to course through my brain and I cursed myself all the way home for being so flighty and shallow. I reminded myself that this man had just traveled for 23 hours by plane to see ME, to meet my family and my friends, and I would not back out now. I shoved my new-found anxieties deep down into my stomach and pasted on a smile.
The next three months passed by fairly quickly. I formed a bond with Nicholas and began to feel something like love for him. He was incredibly intelligent, had a dry wit that I loved, and we had fun together. There was no passion there, but I had become an expert at ignoring my nagging feelings. Our time together in my hometown was for the most part enjoyable, and we became very close friends. Still, the signs were beginning to crop up more and more. It became apparent that Nicholas could not drink liquor without becoming unstable, and in many cases, violent. One night my roommates were away and he decided to grill some chicken. He couldn’t work the grill properly, and in a drunken rage, smashed their glass patio table into hundreds of pieces. I had to think of a convincing lie to explain it to them, knowing that if they knew the truth they would make him leave. A few weeks later, he had a little too much to drink at a party, began to cry hysterically, and threw a beer bottle at my friend’s car, then later put his fist through my bedroom window. Every time something like this would happen, I would feel the panic rising up in my throat. Stupidly, I wasn’t worried about my own safety, or even his – I was more worried about being humiliated, or somehow being blamed for his actions. I walked on eggshells, praying that my friends would continue to like him, and not notice his off-kilter behavior. Thankfully, nobody ever confronted me about his outbursts. They, like me, just pretended it never happened. My family made it clear that they did not like him, but nobody could be specific as to why, so I ignored their feelings.
After Nicholas left to go back overseas, I fell into a deep depression. I was lonely and had insomnia. I didn’t miss him, but I missed having a relationship. I was unemployed, having recently lost my job, and was not getting along with my family. Most of my friends had distanced themselves from me (because of Nicholas, but I did not have the insight to realize that yet). I began to feel that the only way I could ever be happy again was to break away and move overseas to be with him. He agreed wholeheartedly, and began to save money to fly me over. We began to plan that we would get married, I would go to school, and we would build a life together. I convinced myself that we were deeply in love, that he was my soul mate, and that once I moved to be with him, everything would fall into place. I began smoking and binge eating, miserable in my own skin, just counting the days until I could be alive again.
In 2002 I flew out of the United States with no intention of coming back, ever. I’ll never forget my grandfather and father telling me goodbye in the airport, the disbelief on their faces that I could leave my family and friends with no intention of ever returning, for a man that was not right for me. But neither told me not to go.
I landed 23 hours later and when I saw Nicholas waiting for me at baggage claim, I couldn’t catch my breath. Something about him had changed – or maybe I had changed. I couldn’t meet his eye. When he bent to hug me, I was stiff as a board. Any small, miniscule portion of attraction I’d forced myself to feel for him was now long gone. He almost repulsed me. And he felt it. He picked up on it immediately. We rode back to his apartment – our apartment – in stony silence. I unpacked as he got ready to go to his bartending job, and he left me alone in a brand new country for the night, to think about what I’d done. I lay in our bed, so shocked and upset that I couldn’t even cry. I had just left my entire life and moved to a country I was completely unfamiliar with, to be with a man I did not love. Who I didn’t even like. I was terrified. The jet lag washed over me, and I fell asleep, convincing myself to give it a few days, that it would all be all right.
We fell into a routine. I don’t remember much of the next three years, but I remember a little. Mainly of food. I remember ordering pizzas in our hotel room the night of our marriage, and drinking champagne awkwardly in a Jacuzzi tub, trying to feign some kind of chemistry. I remember sitting at Indian restaurants, stuffing our faces, talking about literature (the only topic we could really connect on). I remember freshly baked bread at the bakery on the beach, where we’d go to once a month to “get away” from the stresses of trying to love each other. We would spend hours together but separate; reading or writing, or studying. A line from the movie Big Fish comes to mind: “We were like strangers who knew each other very well.”
The first time abuse occurred, he did not hit me. He shoved me. I found an online dating profile on his laptop, and confronted him. He reared back and shoved me onto the bed so hard that it broke. I sat there for a moment. Then I had a thought. “Well, it’s happened,” I thought calmly. “I am now one of those women. He has abused me. Great.” It seemed so absurd a thought that I began to laugh. I don’t recall an apology or a honeymoon phase. He simply left the room and we forgot the incident. Or he did, anyway. He made no apologies. Nicholas is not the type of man to grovel, or to regret actions. He is calculated, cold, and apathetic.
After the seal was broken, so to speak, he had no qualms about abusing me whenever it struck his fancy. He was very creative about it. He made it a game of sorts. Once he pushed me onto the floor and pressed a broom handle against my temple, adding more and more pressure until I screamed in terror, certain he was going to crack my skull. Another time he followed me out onto the street and beat me with the branches of a bush until I was covered in welts and sobbing on the sidewalk. I’ll never forget the large group of men and women who passed by without meeting my eyes, trying to avoid looking at us. It was apparent at that moment that I was alone in this. I became a recluse, never leaving our bedroom to speak to our roommates or go do the things that used to bring me joy. I ordered in takeout, or I cooked. I ate and ate. I became addicted to the Internet, to television and books, and food. All I wanted was to fill the hole. When we ate together, we got along. So we ate, and we ate some more.
Within a year, he had become morbidly obese and I had gained at least 30 pounds (I eventually stopped counting). The abuse continued. Once he threw a pound of cheese at my head. It formed a knot so large that I had to call into work for two days before it subsided. He threw a liquor bottle, an electric toothbrush, books. He flushed my mother’s wedding ring, an heirloom, down the toilet. He took apart our laundry rack and beat me with it when I didn’t get a job I’d applied for. When our cat got run over, he slapped me across the face over and over as if I had done it myself. One day, as we boxed up kitchen contents, preparing to move into a new apartment, he grabbed a butcher knife and reared his arm back as if he meant to stab me. His arm kept coming, almost as in slow motion, and I just sat there, thinking, “Is he really going to stab me? Is this it? Is he finally going to kill me?” He stopped literally centimeters from my chest. Teeth bared, he began to laugh uproariously. “Gotcha,” he said.
That same weekend, he stopped on a lone country road I’d never seen, in the middle of a field. No cars were in sight, and it was pitch black dark. I began to feel my blood coursing through my veins, the panic rising. He turned to me with a wry smile. “I’m going to kill you, and then I’m going to kill myself,” he said matter of factly. “Nobody will miss you. Nobody will care. I hope you’re ready to die.” He got out of the car and opened the truck. I saw him pull out a length of rope, and I started to hyperventilate. And yet, I did not move. I didn’t try to get out of the car and run, or even to fight him. I sat there and waited, resigned to my fate. Several minutes passed and he got back into the car, started the ignition, and began to drive. We didn’t speak for the several hours it took to arrive at our new apartment. Then, as if a light switch had been flicked on, he smiled and began to talk as if nothing had happened.
I became a master at ignoring everything. I sat obliviously as he drank and drank at an office Christmas party, becoming so inebriated that he sat with soiled pants, talking to himself and crying. When he would hit me, or throw things at me, I would sit stoic, almost as if I had left my body, and just wait for the abuse. I never tried to fight back, and I never cried. I would just sit, deadened. I even learned to not recoil when struck; I became a master at not reacting. The more I ignored him, the harder he would make it hurt, but I was determined that he would never see me cry or see me fall.
By the end I was suffering from extreme agoraphobia. I did not answer the door when people knocked. I did not leave the house to perform even mundane tasks. When the phone rang, I would not answer. If I was looking out the window and someone passed by, I would close the curtains. I became invisible. To this day I still suffer after effects. I have to remind myself that it’s okay to answer the phone, that nobody on the other end is intending me harm. I go through bouts of being a hermit and my friends have to force me out of seclusion.
My life had become a mindless drone of binge eating, dodging blows and pretending everything was fine. I led a double life, talking Nicholas up to my family like he was a godlike provider and partner. I put on a front of everything being incredible, amazing and perfect.
I suspect his family may have known, or at least suspected, and in several instances his mother even tried to reach out and talk to me, but I shut her down. I could tell she was incredibly fond of me, loved me even, and worried for both of our safety. But without acknowledgement of the abuse, she could do nothing.
Around the three year mark, Nicholas began to threaten to kill himself often. He drank every night, and if it was tequila, he would become violent. He would go into the closet and act like he was hanging himself with his belt. Once I even called emergency services because I thought he had done it. He was faking. Explaining that to the police was not easy. I was, of course, punished for it. I began to wonder if I was going insane. I would forget whole days at a time, was showing up late to work and getting in disagreements with my colleagues. My skin was sallow, my hair lifeless, none of my clothes fit due to my weight gain, and I was constantly suffering from back pain and migraines. I felt as if I were slowly dying from stress. It felt like a sickness that was eating away at me piece by piece. Nicholas often mocked me, even bringing me pamphlets on Domestic Violence home from work. He would give them to me laughing, knowing that I would never call the number.
I often caught him talking to himself or hurting himself when he thought he was alone. A work colleague of his even hinted that he may be mentally ill, but when I tried to broach the topic with him, he would only lash out in violence. So I learned to stay quiet and not ask questions.
In 2005 we began to plan a summer trip abroad to South America. We decided to make a pit stop in the United States to visit my family. It was his idea. I fought it for months. I didn’t want to go back and see them. I was afraid to let my family and friends see me. I knew they would look at me and know everything. I was in a panic, and I tried everything to get out of going. Once the plane tickets were booked, however, I began to sigh with relief. I began to have a thought that I couldn’t even acknowledge in my own mind. It was creeping in little by little, but I did not give it attention. One evening as she helped me pack, Nicholas’ mother told me sadly, “You won’t be coming back here, will you?” I was aghast at such a suggestion and tried to sincerely convince her that of course I’d be coming back. I was befuddled as to why she would even think such a thing.
It seemed that everyone, including Nicholas, knew what I could not admit to myself. The thought was too big, too terrifying, to confront.
Nicholas decided that he would go on to South America and I could meet him later, after visiting with my family and friends on my own for a few weeks. So off we went. All the way to LAX I clung to his arm, as if I would never see him again. I kissed him passionately at customs where we parted, and began to sob hysterically as he walked away. I felt as if I would never see his face again in my lifetime. It felt like goodbye forever.
Because it was.
The moment I was back on U.S. soil, I realized the thought that had been brewing. I was never going back. It was over. I was leaving him. It took all my strength and courage to tell my family that I was not back for a visit, I was back for good. I had been gone for four years. I was a completely different person, and life had carried on for them in my absence. I felt out of place and anxious. They thought I was foolish for leaving the big doctor with all the money and the exotic overseas life to come back to my small town with no options. Instead of defending myself and telling them about the abuse I’d suffered, I let them judge me. It was something I was now used to. After all, I was judging myself, too.
I spent five years total with an incredibly abusive and mentally ill man, who subjected me to violent and psychotic outbursts almost daily. It took me another five years to get over everything I went through. I am still not completely healed. To this day I have not admitted that I was in an abusive relationship to everyone who is close to me. I am still friends with Nicholas’ family on Facebook and they have no idea. In fact, I even talk to him from time to time, ignoring his occasional pleas to come back to him and making small talk about things that are going on in our lives. Even now I struggle with wanting him to like me, to approve of me, to forgive me for leaving him. I don’t want to be with him, but I can’t bear for him to hate me. And I should be hating HIM!
I suppose deep down, I have always blamed myself for the abuse, and found myself to be deserving of it, because of the sheer guilt I felt over not loving him. I was a child caught up in an adult romance, and I stepped into the deep end of the pool too soon. It is a forgivable offense, but instead of just getting out, I stayed in a loveless relationship for five years, trying desperately to make myself fall in love with the source of all my pain and suffering. I felt like he could see it on me like a scarlet letter. I felt like I had broken his heart and dashed his dreams, and for that, I deserved his abuse. I never once considered that he could have gotten out at any time. He wanted me that way; broken, guilty, desperate – because he could control me that way. He could hurt me that way.
It has been a long, hard road into feeling safe again. Time heals all wounds. It has taken me over five years, but I am finally at a place where I feel I can talk about my experiences and perhaps shed some light on domestic violence. I now know that I never deserved what happened to me, and that I don’t have to seek the approval of someone who hurt me repeatedly and on purpose. I have managed to forgive him for what he put me through and move on. It has been a difficult journey, but I finally made it back home.
*Name has been changed