When I was 20, I was in an abusive relationship.
I’ve written those words a dozen times and repeated them to myself a dozen more times, but I still feel detached from them. It still feels like it happened to someone else.
On most days I think I’m truly over it. But on others, the memories come flooding back. It’s like when you stick your head out the window of a speeding car. There’s a ton of air hitting your face, and yet you can’t breathe.
My ex-boyfriend lived in a rural part of Wales, so he was mainly a shut-in and devoured books and movies to pass the time. I was drawn to him because I related to art more than I did to other people and so did he. We’d communicate almost exclusively in poetry and film quotes.
At the time, it felt like I was in my very own rom-com. Which excited me because I was taught early on that the homely black girl didn’t get to be the star of the indie movie. We were lucky if we even got a speaking role. We sure as hell didn’t get the cute British boy at the end of those stories.
That gossamer of perfection wore off quickly though.
Suddenly it felt like our relationship shifted from being lighthearted and fun to being dark and draining. It was small things at first. He would shame the music I listened to and made me feel vapid and uneducated for liking it at all.
Then, the lies started. He would lie about everything. From his relationship with his mother to where it was he’d disappear to for days on end. When I questioned him in an attempt to get straight answers, he would flip it around on me and accuse me of being nagging and paranoid.
I spent a solid 80% of our abusive relationship totally confused about whether conversations actually occurred or whether I made them up in my head. This was years before I’d even heard of the term “gaslighting.” Back then, I had no frame of reference or language to talk about what was happening to me.
In addition to the gaslighting, there was emotional manipulation. He was diagnosed with bipolar disorder and he saw a therapist regularly.
More than once during our time together, he was admitted to inpatient care. Those times were especially difficult because I didn’t know how to handle someone who pushed me away but became obsessively clingy moments after.
He would tell me that I was “the only good thing” in his life. That I was the only thing he hadn’t “fucked up.”
I quickly recognized a pattern, though. He’d only admit these things during the times I had reached my wit’s end and was threatening to leave.
It made me uncomfortable. I felt like an incredible amount of pressure was placed on me. He had experienced so much trauma in his life and even though I was miserable and battling my own bout of depression due to the stress of our relationship, I felt like I couldn’t leave him. I started to feel more like a trophy and less like a person.
I felt trapped.
I wish I could tell you that one day I rose up, left, and never looked back. But that wasn’t how it happened. It was a slow and gradual process. I began to see and speak to him less and less. Since we lived in different cities it was easy to make excuses for my absence. Eventually, I blocked him from my phone and all social media accounts. I purged both his physical and digital existence from my life.
It wasn’t easy.
I spent two months in a sadness hole. I rarely left my bed. I rarely ate. I rarely did anything but sleep.
Looking back though, I think this time was necessary. I had spent so much time pouring myself into another person, I needed this period of mourning. I needed to remember how to be my own person again.
Five years on and it is still a process for me.
My relationship was never physically abusive but my scars are visible.
I’m still terrified to go on dates. Just the thought of romantic intimacy with another person scares the shit out of me. Little by little, and with every “swipe right” I am learning to work through that fear.
I may never approach romance with the same ease and comfort as someone who didn’t experience an abusive relationship. But every day is a step away from him and his influence.
I know I deserve better and I refuse to let him continue to have a hold on me.