DISCLAIMER: This one is heavy. It is also very personal and at times sexually graphic. If reading about my sex life would make you uncomfortable, now is a good time to turn off your computer and go do a puzzle. If you happen to be a family member reading this, there’s no shame in quitting while you’re ahead; you might not want to know (love you though!). Or you can read it; you are more than invited here as long as you know you’ve made the choice to read it just as I’ve made the calculated choice to share it. And buckle up, because it gets icky.
CW: gaslighting, emotional abuse, sex stuff, depression, anxiety
This is a eulogy. I am giving it here, at a funeral for shame, self-loathing, and hiding. Don’t get me wrong, those three guys are zombie-like. Let’s not kid ourselves—they are going to come back. And when they do come back, hungry for brains, I won’t be angry; I will give them a cup of tea and a blanket and do this whole shebang over again. But today, I am putting them to rest. So I guess what I described is more like a nap. Okay, let’s call this a Nap Eulogy.
I’ll be up front. What I have written here is not going to make me look good. It will not depict me as particularly smart or confident or rational or strong, all of which are qualities I took a lot of pride in before all of this ever happened. I’ve dredged through tragedy, trauma, and heartbreak while keeping these personality traits more or less intact. You might not believe that after reading this. Because not this time. Noooo way. This is when all of those traits come crashing down faster than the cradle in that super messed up Rock-a-bye children’s lullaby (down will come baby…like, wtf?). Anyway, that’s okay, because my goal in writing this piece is not to make you think I’m awesome. It is to reclaim a part of my story that someone else got to narrate for me. It is about taking agency and looking at my imperfections and believing that I do not have to be too ashamed to share them.
And maybe it’s about you, Reader, and your imperfections and the parts of your story that you have yet to reclaim. Because my therapist keeps telling me I’m not alone, and she is a badass, so I’m inclined to believe her. Which, mathematically, means a certain proportion of people reading this might have felt some of the same things at some point in time.
Also, this is about a boy. I really don’t like that this particular story does not pass the Bechdel Test, but don’t worry, because I have a lot of stories that do, so I will make up for it later. Promise. Oh yeah, and speaking of Alison Bechdel, I am a huge, flag-waving, bleeding heart, pink-pussy-hat-wearing feminist. But you might not believe that at first either. Don’t worry; stick with it. I’ll find my way.
You might notice that throughout this piece, I point out gaslighting and manipulation when I notice it. In his article “Gaslighting as a Manipulation Tactic,” George Simon explains that gaslighting is a form of emotional abuse in which the perpetrator uses “sophisticated tactics of manipulation to create so much doubt in the minds of their targets of exploitation that the victim no longer trusts their own judgment about things and buys into the assertions of the manipulator, thus coming under their power and control.” Basically, it makes the target call into question their perception of reality, their instincts, and/or their basic foundations for understanding the world around them. Sometimes perpetrators don’t consciously understand their own tactics or patterns. It can be unintentional, but this doesn’t make the consequences less harmful.
Sometimes when I point out instances of abuse, you might be thinking, “hmm, why is she trying so hard to convince us this is ‘abuse.’ We get the point!” Well, lovely Reader, there are a few reasons. First, it took a long time for me to realize that what happened to me qualified as abuse. I was afraid that calling it “abuse” was whiney. I was afraid that I was just using it as an excuse to feel sorry for myself. Just because I was weak and taking forever to get over this doesn’t make it abuse, Caitlin. Wrong! So wrong. That is part of the whole shtick—gaslighting makes you blame yourself for all sorts of weird stuff. So now I am practicing calling it out as what it is without any shame. Shame is napping, remember? It is not invited.
Also, I am pointing it out for you, Reader, just in case it does help. If you are reading this, we are a team now. You and me fighting through some tough issues. I appreciate you. Step into this safe space and listen to me talk about myself for a while. I found out recently that a lot of women and men take time to come around to the realization that they’ve been psychologically abused, even if it may seem obvious from the outside. The world often tells us we do not belong to ourselves, that certain things are acceptable. And sometimes it helps to have a person say, “Hey! They can’t do that to you! That is not okay!” And sometimes if you’re ready to hear that you look around and think, “Oh shit. Maybe she’s right.” So, you can grab-bag. If any of this helps you, awesome.
Okay, whew, that was a long introduction. The preamble is done, you made it. But before we start, why don’t you take a second to make yourself comfortable? Life is tough, and you deserve it. I’d like to invite you to grab something that makes you feel cozy—maybe a stuffed animal from your childhood, or a pillow and a blanket, or maybe a hot chocolate. You are important. You are enough. Okay, ready? Here we go.
He never said mean words to me. He never laid a hand on me, outside of the bedroom, that is. He was charming and intelligent, a brilliant songwriter and musician with a quick wit and a kind of hot nerd thing going for him. I was an aspiring artist of 23, in awe of this person who had actually made a creative profession work. I watched him for the first time among a crowd of two hundred or so people clapping and cheering and singing along—a band, exalted on a stage, worshipped by their subjects below. That isn’t to say that all musicians look at it like that, but I would speculate that that worship was his fuel, whether or not he knew it consciously. I think my worship was his fuel too, for a while anyway.
Some of you reading this might know that for a lost someone trying to find their place in the world, nothing is as thrilling as being liked by someone who they, for some unfortunate reason, think is cooler than them. He likes me? Really? I’m a nobody, and he isn’t looking straight through me?
For me, it was a high, and a dangerous one because my maintenance of that high depended on my ability to convince him that I was worthy of him. But you have to understand, it started out all compliments—how pretty I was, how smart I was, how my hair looked so beautiful in the sun and blah, blah, blah, meow, meow, meow. He would pour over my art with me and tell me how creative I was and that he believed in my talents.
These were the good ole days—the dragon to chase, but I’ll get to that later. Once, he cuddled up on the couch drinking tea and watching Netflix with me for two full days while I was sick. He texted me constantly, made me feel special, cooked for me several times a week. We had a similar sense of humor and could “talk for hours,” as they say. I told him all my weird thoughts and he’d volley back with his own. He once said, “Ya know, if I didn’t have a penis and you didn’t have a vagina, I still think we would hang out all the time.” How romantic. I was nested in the warm illusion of safety, and during this period of time, I was so over-the-moon happy.
Maybe my favorite thing about him was that it felt like he saw a light in me. He acknowledged parts of me that I knew were there but weren’t always noticed or understood. It’s hard to explain—like describing a taste or a sound. It was as if he had seen a color inside me that I knew was there but that no one else could see. And he was curious about it.
He asked questions and he explored me. He wanted to discover more of the colors and sounds and tastes inside me. And that made me want to find and cultivate more colors in me also. Maybe I really am that beautiful. My creativity exploded. My imagination began spilling into notebooks and onto canvasses. Flowers grew from empty spaces. See me; here I am. That is what made me fall in love with him. That is what made me want to see all of him. He inspired me to cultivate stunning, new dimensions inside myself during those early stages. And some of them are still with me today.
It was because I felt so seen and respected during those early stages that I was able to justify the kind of sex we were having—a kind I hadn’t yet experienced.
Have you ever been with anyone who had a kind of “sex persona?” Like, you think you’ve put your finger on their personality and then as soon as the sexy time starts it’s a rapid transformation. Their body language, their expressions, their attitude are like that of a different person entirely.
The first time we fucked, he removed his nerdy thick-rimmed glasses and like Clark-fucking-Kent he transformed immediately. His eyes and face had a primal intensity. His touch lost its gentleness as he grabbed at my body with a hunger. He came on my stomach and left a few minutes after. It was about four in the morning. I went outside, rolled a cigarette on my front porch, and cried. I saw it all ahead of me for those few minutes of clarity. I was going to get utterly fucking screwed. And then I went back inside, fell asleep, and convinced myself the next morning that I was being silly, that I was in control, that I wasn’t completely high and losing sight of the ground below.
After that, it quickly escalated to a rough dominant/submissive power dynamic. Can you guess which role I was in? Before I go on, I should say that, while I had to do some mental gymnastics to convince myself this was not counter to my feminist ideals (I got really good at mental gymnastics during this relationship), it was completely consensual. I wished the sex could be more loving and caring, and at the same time, the roughness was thrilling and new, and it felt amazing. It had a raunchiness to it, a wrongness, that lured me in like a stupid, flailing fish.
We had many conversations reaffirming that it was okay because we had mutual respect for one another and we both knew this power dynamic was just pretend, a Foucauldian model of the fluidity of power. Of course this would all blow up in my face later when I realized there was not mutual respect and it was not just pretend.
Over the next few months he had spit on various parts of my body; he had choked me; and he didn’t go down on me more than a time or two. The kicker wasn’t necessarily the actions, but the talk. It was all, “I can do whatever I want to you.” “Yeah, I want you to use me.” “Tell me how big my dick is. Beg me to fill you up.” And I did. I begged; I told him he could do whatever he wanted. “I own your pussy,” he would whisper into my ear. “Yeah, you own me. You can do anything you want.” What I am sharing here is a cleaned up version of events because this is already super uncomfortable for me to share, so I hope you will read it kindly.
At first it was just pretend play. But gradually, over the span of almost a year, I started to believe these words as he rammed them inside my body where they grew into my beating heart and spread through my arteries to all my tiniest capillaries. And he began acting like he believed them too. He owned me, and I owned nothing, not even myself.
The truth was, I did want to please him. I was getting sick. He was sick too, but in a different way. He had control, and I was losing it. He explained he didn’t want anything serious; I pretended I didn’t either. We agreed not to be exclusive. I didn’t have sex with anyone for the whole year we were together. He had sex with multiple people. I knew when he was fucking someone else most of the time, although I would have preferred not to.
(I want to make a note here that I am not arguing against power play in sex. I am saying this became something that wasn’t power play; it was just power.)
I lived with him, not in the same unit but in the same duplex. He would come over for coffee in the mornings after spending the night with someone else, and we would fuck. Yes, I was very sick, but here’s what I would implore you to understand about manipulation. He communicated to me that if I had too many needs, this relationship wouldn’t work. I wanted it to work. I loved him. So I fought my feelings and put my energy into a “chill,” laidback demeanor. He knew I loved him; he knew I was vulnerable; and that’s how he wanted the power dynamic to stay.
I knew it wasn’t healthy, but I also knew that making it stop would be devastating. I would have to put myself back together—fix myself in all the ways I was broken—and I wasn’t ready to do that work. After all, we had some rules set.
Rule Number One, as I mentioned, he could sleep with other people and so could I. But, I always had to be his primary “person.” (He wouldn’t use the word girlfriend, even though we were cooking meals together; sharing secrets about families, friends, and work; shopping for cars together; sleeping at each other’s houses, etc.) The minute I was no longer the most important relationship, he had to tell me immediately.
Rule Number Two, we must be respectful and considerate of each other in regards to sleeping with other people. That means he was to go out of his way not to put anything in my face when it came to other women.
Rule Number Three, shower in between having sex with someone else and then having sex with me. Spoiler alert: he broke all of these rules, loudly and painfully. I know how fucked up this sounds, but believe me when I tell you he was one hell of a charmer. He truly made me believe that he wanted me. I thought he was just a different kind of person and conventional relationships just weren’t possible for him. How fucking progressive.
And you might have caught on that these rules were pretty much made for him. But there were rules for me too. Rule Number One, he didn’t want anyone to know that we were together. I chalked this up to him being a private person. And Rule Number Two, I couldn’t put any expectations on him. That means no obligations, no emotional needs, no nothing. Once again, he presented this as part of his quirky personality. He made me feel like that was an okay thing to ask because we weren’t in a “real” relationship. First of all, just no.
He didn’t see that it wasn’t me who had the expectations; it was him. I was expected to stay close enough but always at a certain distance set by him; I was expected not to have needs pertaining to the relationship (what??); and I was expected to keep our “thing” a secret from his friends. My version of reality and rationality became skewed and foggy. This is classic gaslighting. He made me feel like this was normal, that it was okay to expect a woman to have no needs. Asking for any kind of attention was met with coldness. I was made to feel greedy.
After a few months, the period of compliments and excitement wore off, and his attitude toward me seemed to shift. I had had this feeling of safety, but he slowly began to seem less interested and less excited to be with me. He was colder more often; annoyed at me more often. It became a cycle. When he would withhold his affections I’d plunge down into an anxious sadness because, after all, how could a person like him ever like a person like me. But as soon as I’d convince myself to give up he’d throw me some precious scraps of attention as if I was a begging dog under the dinner table, and I would bounce back up to all kinds of heights like a little Adderall-ed out Tigger. Isn’t the sky looking extra beautiful today? Are all the world’s colors a little more vibrant, or is it just me?
After all of this, when I look back, I see an edge of a plateau. After this “good ole days” period, he had a balancing act to play. He wanted me always on the edge of leaving, but ready to pull me back every time. The less I reached out, the more he leaned in. A day without a text from me meant a present left for me to find on my porch in the morning. The more forward I was, the less he gave. It was his way of keeping me passive. I don’t know if he was doing it consciously, or if it was his subconscious fear or insecurity running the show. I would guess a bit of both, but that’s just speculation.
This cycle of withholding and giving is how he kept me on the edge. Here, I had no control. Since most of his friends didn’t know anything was going on between us he was able to isolate me from them so that he didn’t have to be accountable to anyone else about the way he was treating me. He also had an easy, clean exit when he was done with me. No intermingling of friends; no explanations necessary. I would come when he called, and wait at home when he didn’t need me.
I bet I can guess your thought process. Why the fuck would you ever want that? We’ve all done shit that was ill advised at best. And second, that’s why this type of manipulation is powerful and tricky. Let’s all remember how this started out. He made me feel like the possibilities were endless (showing up and being present, bringing me gifts, complimenting me all the time), and then once I was locked in and hopeful, edging back more and more while I continued to cling to the same hope I had once seen. It’s hard to go backwards when you see that kind of hope. It’s hard to convince yourself someone is being shitty when you’ve already agreed with yourself to fall in love with them.
Once, about seven months in, I did tell him I couldn’t do it anymore. (Good for you, Past Caitlin! You tried, at least.) I was tired of being angry and miserable until the next high came around, and the part of me that knew I deserved better was on the move. But I’ll be deep-fried and god damned if that little mini-breakup didn’t hurt like a motherfucker. My chest felt hot while the rest of my body was heavy and cold. I cried in my car, at work, before I went to sleep. I tried to think of all the reasons why I shouldn’t be with him, but you have to understand, this felt like an addiction. Highs and lows, remember? Dark terrible caves of sadness on one side, Adderall Tigger on the other. And quitting sucks, but I was trying to stick with it.
Then one night, about a week later, I was sitting on our porch bench when he returned home and sat next to me. The smell of his shirt, his dorky glasses, his silly flat feet all made me miss him with my whole body. He put his arm around me (it’s important here that he started it). He asked me if I wanted to come inside. I did want that more than anything.
So we picked up where we had left off, but this time he was spending more time with me, being warmer, and the compliments were back. I honestly don’t even know if he knew how good he was at manipulating me. I surely couldn’t see it at the time. He was being nicer to me because now he knew that if he pushed me too close to the edge I would actually jump. This was some good ole fashioned boundary testing. Now he had to pull me in a little closer and redefine a new edge.
And that’s how it went for a little while—a few months, I would say. My dependent little ass was happy again, and on the heels of the car-shower-bed crying, it felt like walking into a warm home after being out in the cold for too long (you New Orleanians don’t know what I’m talking about, but take it from me, it’s a great feeling).
Okay, this is where the real chaos starts, so buckle up because I’m about to get “hysterical” (translation: the word for women who are upset when men wish they weren’t).
Things started to deteriorate even more about a year into our relationship. I’d been having a harder time looking past his exploits with other women. I knew I had agreed to this arrangement, but I didn’t know how to avoid anger or jealousy. I would later figure out that this was in no way what ethical polyamory looks like. As a friend explained to me much later (shout out to Teddy), if a straightforward monogamous relationship in Relationship 101, then polyamory is Relationship 401. It takes accountability, responsibility, trust, communication, and all those other key words. Do we sound like we had those things locked down in our relationship? No, you’re right, we didn’t. Our “don’t ask, don’t tell” rule was obviously not working since we lived in the same house. Our “keep it the fuck out of my face” rule was failing too because I knew when his car was gone all night.
I felt my mental health begin to decline, and I stopped liking who I was as much. I started listening for his car to get home, asking poorly disguised questions about what he was up to the night prior. He would receive a text from another woman and I’d watch his face curl into that same mischievous smile that he used to get from my texts months before. Hell. No.
This is where I started to feel “crazy.” And he let me feel that way. We both acknowledged that I felt jealousy and anger, and he was “sorry that I felt that way” but he wasn’t about to make any apologies for the behavior. This was the deal. If I had a problem with it, that’s exactly what it was—my problem. #gaslighting
One night at one of his shows, there were at least three people he had slept with among the packed crowd. That was common, and also a powerful form of control. Get a bunch of women you are fucking, pack them in a room together, and then get up on stage while hundreds of people cheer for you. I still can’t shake being in those crowds, looking at the other women he was sleeping with alongside a whole sea of strangers, all glorifying him. And who the hell was I? This invisible little ant who was completely alone, not even good enough that his friends could know I mattered, because I didn’t.
On this particular night, I walked towards him at the end of a show and saw another woman’s hand on his hand. I locked eyes with him before storming out. He would have never let me hold his hand in public. In fact, he treated me like a downright stranger when we were outside of our house. He would maybe talk to me in a formal, acquaintance way for a few minutes before running off, and he would not so much as make eye contact with me for the rest of the night. I was a ghost. WHY DID THIS GIRL GET SPECIAL HAND PRIVILEGES! See, crazypants. Which, in this case is a term used to place the locus of culpability on a woman who has been manipulated. He had broken me. And I was crazypants.
On another occasion, I asked him to put me on the list for one of his shows. He said he would, but he forgot, as if to whisper, “Caitlin, you aren’t important. You’re the only one out of all these other friends who I forgot to put on the list.” So a terrifying bouncer looked at me for a few minutes like he was about to stab me while I called this dweeby, celebrated little musician’s phone three times before he finally picked up. Christ. Then, once I was in the green room, someone pulled a pair of someone else’s lacey panties out of his backpack, and all of his friends joked about what a slut he was for a few minutes (haha, because guys can’t be sluts lol). I was mortified.
By the time his birthday came around (marking about a year of us being together), I was beginning to see the relationship’s toxicity more clearly and started trying to release myself from the hook. The breaking point was a relatively small event. He had agreed to play music for one of his friend’s weddings, but he was already burning the candles at both ends. He realized it would be unrealistic for him to devote the time to the rehearsals for it, so he lined up another musician. I listened as he called her, explained that he had another gig that had been accidentally double-booked, and it wasn’t in his power to switch it as much as he wanted to.
It shook me, not because of the lie, but because of how he told it. His delivery was flawless. His voice sounded sincere. He was so sorry about this “mix-up.” It was chilling. I wouldn’t have called it out as a lie if he had told that story to me, and I was under the impression that I knew him intimately. We were cooking in my kitchen. He made that call, hung up, and tended to his pasta as if nothing had happened, making a joke here and there, acting completely normal. That was the first time I thought it was actually realistic to believe that I had been played, that he wasn’t who I thought he was, who I had put so much faith in. How many times had he lied to me? I could think of at least four or five little lies I had caught him in, and now everything he had ever said to me became suspicious.
Okay, back to his birthday. Although I had attempted to break it off with him again—tears, hugs, the whole nine yards—it wasn’t going well. The night prior we had stayed up until 4 in the morning fucking. It was the kind of “I can do anything I want to you,” “I own you” type sex that used to be pretend. By this point, it was 100% not a game anymore. It was all real, being acted out on my body.
We had sushi that day and then met up later at the bar with all of his friends, and again several women he was sleeping with at the time were there. He got drunker, and I wasn’t drinking that much, so I offered to drive him home. At the end of the night, he was talking closely with the same girl who had held his hand a month or two prior.
I was jealous. I felt the crazypants starting to come on. How could he do this in front of me? That is clearly against the fucking rules! Why are they getting closer? I walked up to him. “Hey, [insert name], we need to go.” He brushed me off and turned back to her and touched her thighs, then moved his hand up and up and up and then squeezed. My mouth dropped open. They were whispering SEX STUFF into each others EARS! I knew by the way he was biting his lip like he used to do with me. “Hey, [NAME]!” I screamed. “We are fucking going.” I was about to lose my composure. My chest hurt. He gave me an annoyed look, like, “Mom, shut up; you’re embarrassing me.”
And then, they kissed, right on the lips, with me not even ten feet away. I fucking lost it. On the inside, anyway. I walked out of the bar, and for the first time in my whole life had to convince myself not to punch someone, not to slap off his stupid fucking Harry-Potter-but-less-cool glasses and stomp them into the dirt like a schoolyard bully. He walked outside with a drunk stupid look on his face as if absolutely nobody’s world had just came crumbling down in there. My arms and legs shook and my vision sharpened. If it was gonna be fight or flight, I was not about to fucking run.
“What the FUCK is WRONG WITH YOU?!”
“What are you talking about?” he stammered.
“Are you fucking shitting me right now?” And we can skip forward, but I can tell you that the whole car ride home went exactly that way. I yelled at him like I wasn’t afraid to lose him, so, basically, like I never had before. And he took the attitude of Steve Carrell in Anchorman. “I don’t know what we’re yelling about!” He, for a reason I could not fathom, could not see why what he’d done was so wrong. Why could I possibly be so upset? GASLIGHTING, people. There it is. In. Print.
Here’s what crazypants means here: getting the fuck woke. Wake up, Caitlin! Good job, you’re doing it!
Did I ever have sex with him again after that night? Yes, of course, plenty of times. That’s how it went on until the night before he moved out. Addiction, remember? He lived right next door. The goods, or in this case the bads (stupid, sorry…), were easy to find.
We carried on much like we did in these past few incidents. He would do something awful. I would get mad. We would have sex. He would treat me like I didn’t exist. Once, I accidentally spilled his whiskey on the nightstand and he was so annoyed that he huffily cleaned it up and then left to go sleep on the couch. He made me feel so stupid I cried until I eventually just went home. On the night a friend of mine died, I asked him if I could sleep with him that night because I was upset. He said he was staying at another woman’s house.
He told me he would go to my first art show. The night of the show, I saw his car pull around the venue. I went back inside, and a few minutes later received a text from him that the line was too long and he had to leave. Two of my other friends got there at the same time and only spent five minutes in a standstill line before the bouncers ushered everyone in within a matter of minutes.
How could this be happening? I thought I knew him. The person I fell in love with was kind and funny and caring. He would never do this stuff. I thought I knew him better than anyone. I had waded through all of this behavior because I was waiting for him to pull me back from the edge, just like always, but now it felt more like he was trying to push me off.
At this point, I had finally had enough. Depression swallowed my life. Food didn’t taste good. I didn’t want to be around anyone, not even my friends. My creativity was completely blocked. All I wanted to do was smoke cigarettes and drink so I didn’t have to hurt. I felt worthless, unwanted, unlovable. I was a small nothing compared to him. He was on the cover of OffBeat Magazine that month; I was scooping ice cream and hardly breaking even in my art. I was nobody. Completely invisible.
The day before he moved out we had sex for the last time, and I explained to him that I couldn’t do this anymore. We needed to end it for good.
“Did you ever love me?” I asked. He thought for a moment.
“Maybe every once in awhile, like when you were talking to your dog or something.” I winced, then more tears. You see, up until the end I was convinced that he truly did love me, in his own way; he was just too afraid and insecure and emotionally constipated to admit it, maybe even to himself. (Can that even happen? Can you love someone if you don’t even know it? And the person you’re with kind of bends the definition of love so she fits into it? Seems suspicious…)
“Does that woman that you kissed love you?”
“Yeah, she is definitely in love with me.” What I didn’t realize at the time was that he had been treating me so poorly because he didn’t need my worship anymore. He found someone else’s. The man who, by his own admission, did not know how to love somebody seemed to have no dearth of people who loved him.
“Are you going to be in a relationship with her?” I had asked the question for reassurance. Of course they aren’t; he’s been saying all this time that he doesn’t want a conventional relationship.
“Yeah, maybe.” My sad turned into mad.
“Are you going to be exclusive?” I kept my emotions reserved.
“That’s my business.” That’s when I lost my shit. All this time that I had thought he didn’t want a relationship, what he meant was with you, I don’t want a relationship with you. Whatever sense of self-worth I had left was utterly crushed, and I started thinking what women think when men pit them against each other. The conversation in my mind switched abruptly from a sad parting of ways to a flurry of comparisons. Why is she enough when I am not? What is it about her? WHAT IS WRONG WITH ME? She’s probably successful and smart and funny, and I haven’t accomplished anything.
We had marathon text and email fights, which were really more like monologues. Sometimes I would spill out as much “hate-filled vitriol” (his words, not mine) as I could to try to prove to myself that he cared about me enough to be hurt by something I said. I desperately wanted to find some evidence that I didn’t make up all of his feelings for me. At that point, I was slinging ten insults at a wall and hoping one would stick. I called him an arrogant chauvinist pig drunk on his own success. I told him he was going to hurt every person who ever loved him. I told him his existence was an affront to vaginas everywhere. Just like shucking an oyster—look for the weakest part and then cut in. It got real grim.
Overall, he seemed cold and unaffected by my angry ranting. What I didn’t realize until much later was that I was getting through. If my goal was to hurt him and shame him, I had succeeded. But he rarely let on how much it affected him, even after my most creatively engineered insults. For example, his responses often had this kind of tone:
“I detect blame. It wasn’t my fault or your fault that we don’t feel the same way about each other. I said from the beginning that I didn’t want to pursue a conventional, monogamous relationship.”
“It actually is fair. We don’t feel the same way about each other, so we don’t feel the same about how things ended up.”
Ladies and Gentleman and all our non-binary friends, that right there is gaslighting. I recoiled into the shame of my anger for months, asking myself why I couldn’t get a grip. What was wrong with me? Why did I care so much? It’s just like he said—he didn’t love you back. Just let that shit go and move on.
God knows I tried. I moved out of the house and began spending hundreds of dollars a month on high quality therapy. I stopped drinking; I started meditating; then I started drinking again. I journalled; I read self-help books; I bought herbal tinctures for anxiety and depression. But anger and hurt consumed me. It was in the cells of my body.
Then just as abruptly I would do a 180 and apologize for being so angry, which I’d follow with a thorough, thought out composition of my feelings. I imagine it often looked like I had written a new, fully developed Adele song on his text screen. (Again, not proud, but not ashamed.)
I knew that I eventually needed to cut off all contact with him, but I felt completely incapable of doing so. This was a person who literally trained me to depend on him, whether it was knowingly or unknowingly. I thought it was my fault. I knew it felt like an addiction, but I didn’t yet understand how or why. I didn’t realize yet that when he whispered in my ear that he could do anything he wanted to me, it was true. I let him program me to need him, and now I had to painfully uncover the possibility that this intimate connection, which I had used as my life force for over a year, was a lie.
In general, the pain was writhing, unrelenting. I couldn’t breathe; I couldn’t eat. I couldn’t find any joy. I stopped doing art altogether except for the therapy I was doing at weekly appointments. Coupled with the pain that he didn’t want to be with me, I had to face the fact that I was insane enough to make up the whole thing in my head. And this is also a crucial point of emotional abuse. Gaslighting makes you think that you are TOTALLY FUCKING NUTS. Before this, I rarely lost my temper; I considered myself to be confident and worthy; I was wholehearted and excited by others; and I fully trusted my instincts and intuition. Gaslighting makes all of these things crumble before one’s very eyes.
I was too ashamed to tell the full story to any of my friends. They knew the old me—the good me. I felt like I had to convince them I was just as good as always—totally normal—because I didn’t want them to see this broken person that was worse than the person they chose to become friends with. And I didn’t want my friends who had picked up on some of the manipulation during the relationship to be proven right. I couldn’t take the shame of that when I already felt so stupid.
That is the isolation effect of gaslighting. Gaslighting convinces a person that they are to blame, and telling the story of what happened would entail letting their friends see the “real” them—the person that is dumb enough to let someone else control them. I felt like a fraud, and I tried to continue going to social engagements because I knew it would be good for me to stay rooted in a community, but people became either threatening or uninteresting to me. It exhausted me to try to convince my friends I was okay so that I wouldn’t have to explain what happened, and I didn’t want to meet new people when I felt that I was the worst version of myself. I wanted to be alone all the time, because I felt even more isolated and afraid when I was around people.
My friendships with cis men suffered the most in the wake of the breakup. I began re-examining the roles men had played in my life, tediously combing through all my relationships and hookups, friendships and professional acquaintances, and I was horrified by how much fucked up shit I pieced together. I was overwhelmed by the experiences in my past that I was just now identifying as sexist. I realized that some of the circles I held dear in high school and college were completely male-dominated. Women may have been present, but they were never able to be the main characters.
A lot of my relationship history was just a mess of sexism, power relationships, and hegemony. A mental inventory of my past revealed over a dozen experiences that I cannot believe I had considered acceptable at the time. How did I let this happen?! I had spent actual years of my life studying gender and sexuality, and yet here I was, feeling totally defeated despite all the knowledge I thought I had.
The patriarchy is a like a swarm of termites in mid-June. You can do your due diligence to block it out, but it will find its way in through the tiny little cracks you couldn’t even see. You won’t know how it got there but it’s there in full force and has laid a million eggs. I had thought I was safe, but now my trust in my own judgment was erradicated. And I looked to all my own shortcomings to explain the position I was in.
I tried to have a little fling but ended it because I was too sad all the time and because all men were disgusting to me at this point. I went on a few dates, but ultimately I couldn’t continue with them because I couldn’t feel safe anymore. Not only that, but I was carrying immense anger not only at [insert name], but also at men in general. So I tried to make a list of all the men in my life who were honorable. Simple—just a list of honest men who did the right thing and held themselves accountable when they made a mistake. It was hard, y’all, and I had to think really hard to get a list long enough that I couldn’t count it with fingers. I spent a lot of time in therapy working through this and eventually just decided I have evidentiary reasons to distrust men, and that’s that until further notice.
Men were ruined for me now. I was too angry, distrustful, and afraid of them to even have no-strings-attached sex. So why? Being angry and sad after a break up is normal, but are these fearful and angry feelings towards men to be expected?
I had been exploring how pain and trauma nests itself in the body in my therapy sessions. Even if your mind can forget something entirely, your body has its own kind of memory that can react based on past experiences. I started thinking about my body’s relationship to the breakup. What might it remember that I haven’t processed yet? How was my body affected?
I found my answer, and I burst into tears. I finally realized that that smallness and worthlessness I felt from the relationship was intensified in multiples when he enacted that on my body, when he asked me to beg for him, told me he had control over me, choked me and spit on me during sex. It made sense why I was fearful, why I was anxious and depressed. It wasn’t just my mind that felt small; it was my body. My body had its own memories of being treated as worthless. That was why I couldn’t just be sad for an amount of time, and then eventually think my way out of the pain. It was deeper than that. These feelings of shame and fear were bone deep.
It was the first glimpse of the sun when I realized that this might not be all my fault. He had told me multiple times, “You consented to the kind of sex we were having. I did nothing wrong.” I had thought that I was being overly emotional, but this was abuse.
He met with me twice to try to talk things out. The first time I had three drinks and ended up throwing up for the next two days from stress. Both times he listened. Both times he didn’t really understand but he bore witness to the tears anyway. I told him it was my fault for not communicating my expectations properly. I should have been more honest about what I needed. He made it clear that he didn’t think any of my feelings were invalid, he just did not consider himself accountable for the things that happened.
Okay, timeout. Everyone take a breath. This is all getting really heavy. Anyone need another bathroom break? Or a snack? You can go get yourself a cookie and come back. I’ll still be here. It’s all going to be okay. There’s a happy ending. Okay, good debrief, now let’s keep going. We can do this.
In the couple months after the breakup, I tried to keep myself busy. Some days I pretty much cried straight through; other days I dedicated solely to self-care. I tried so hard to convince myself I was important and I mattered and I was not invisible. But all-in-all, most minutes hurt, and I tried to treasure the ones that didn’t. With my artistic endeavors more or less flat lining, the only thing I was “doing with my life” was scooping ice cream. And it sucked. I felt like I had wasted my potential, or that maybe I didn’t have any to begin with. My teachers and my family and my friends had all been wrong about me, and they were going to have to learn it the hard way.
At constant interplay with my newfound sense of uselessness was the endless barrage of [this musician’s] successes. Even though I had defriended him on Facebook, he popped up in other people’s pictures all over social media, sometimes with his girlfriend by his side. I “hid posts” from all of his friends, some of whom I was close with. I heard his music, which is still very emotional for me to hear, on the radio; his face was in local publications; he was doing interviews on television. If I had a nickel for every time somebody asked me, “Have you heard of the band [blank],” I would take them all and cram them in my ears so I never had to hear anyone ask me that question ever again. On most community bulletin boards in the city there was either him or one of his bands being promoted for an event. I changed the radio stations I was listening to, and I stopped reading any Louisiana-published magazines.
And then there was the fear of seeing him. Anywhere I went I was afraid he would be there. At first there was part excitement, during the few months after when I still missed him a lot. But after that there was just anxiety and fear. Even if the chances were small, it was in the back of my mind. So I stopped going out as much, especially to see music, which really sucked because live music used to be an important medicine for me.
About six months after our split, when nothing seemed to be helping the anxiety and depression, I decided to go on anti-depressants for the first time. Gradually, almost imperceptibly at first, my self-care routines began to work. I was able to do art again, a little bit at a time. Momentum built, and about a year after the breakup I reached the highest annual sales since I began selling art three years prior.
My healing wasn’t a linear progression. There were ups and downs, of course. But I noticed the latent pain subsiding. I could work, draw, and socialize without the weight of it pushing on my shoulders the whole time. Bodywork helped. I had always been under the impression that acupuncture was bullshit, but I decided to try it and it rocked my whole shit. I actually hallucinated during the session. It was awesome. Learning about cool stuff helped—things like history, art, or nature. It made me feel like I was doing interesting things because I wanted to, not because somebody might notice. While I am very into the importance of being seen, I also find it empowering sometimes to grow and learn without an audience, just because I want to do it for me.
I reconnected with a group of queers and drag kings that I had lost touch with a few years before. It was the first time in a long time that I felt genuinely excited and inspired by people. I had missed that feeling so much. They are interesting and dynamic, and they are so so kind. They all have experience with marginalization. Their spaces felt safe, and I felt understood. They knew that play was an important part of healing. They were colorful, vibrant, nerdy, and different. Many of them were drag king performers who performed twice a month. I knew it as soon as I laid eyes on them for the first time in years. These are my people. Thank God.
It’s still hard for me sometimes, and I get angry sometimes. Not like I was in the past; now it is normally only when I am triggered. But I still have my hang ups about the situation. I don’t think it’s right that he can damage someone this way and not have to see the fallout from it. It feels like cis men, especially men in glorified positions—athletes, actors, musicians, etc., can do whatever they want with a woman, throw her to the side, and then go have fun being famous. The significant others of these exalted men are so often treated like accessories. But they matter! They are important! They are enough!
I am writing this to grieve the loss of myself (don’t worry, I’ve found a new one), to grieve all the little tiny losses of self-love and self-worth that were chipped away through the year, all the losses of energy and time, all the losses of imaginations and unrealized expectations, the loss of my perception of a city I love. And, if you are reading this, [you know the name goes in the brackets by now, right?], I am grieving the loss of you, too. This is also your Nap Eulogy. I have to let you go along with all the shame and the self-loathing and the hiding. Very kindly, you are no longer invited.
It’s okay. Just go take a little nap—a nap away from my brain and my body and my spirit.
Sometimes it’s hard because I miss the person I thought you were, and I future miss the better person you will hopefully become. You sucked. A lot. But I don’t think you’re too far gone. I think you are trying to get better. If you’re reading this, know that I don’t hate you. I am glad I met you, because I am way more of a badass now. I know things I didn’t know; I can move in ways I couldn’t before move; I can appreciate things that I didn’t know how to be grateful for. I believe you can get your house in order. But I believe that from a safe, far-away distance where you can’t reach me or fuck my whole shit up again.
Nayyirah Waheed writes, “grieve so that you can be free to do something else.” So after this, I will be celebrating all the flowers that have grown in the empty ground that these losses left behind. I will celebrate that I picked myself up and I fought with all I had in me even when it didn’t feel like very much at all. I will celebrate the community I returned to, full of people who love me and want to be there for me. They tell me I belong; they make me feel important. They queer it up and do their own performances. All shapes and sizes and ages and genders are welcome, and I feel seen and appreciated as much as I see and I appreciate. It’s beautiful and it is home. And there is lots of glitter.
I will celebrate my girlfriend, who tries to convince me every day that I am important and special and talented and smart and utterly full of light, even when I don’t believe her. I will celebrate her for taking all of my deepest feelings and answering them with love and compassion. I am grateful for how we play and laugh and sing. She loves me fully and I never have to wonder if it’s real. She says what she means, bravely and with disarming vulnerability. I don’t have to convince her of anything. She wants all of me, even the flaws. She is wholehearted and funny and flawed and perfect.
I will celebrate all the things I have learned—and I think some of these are like, big, life altering things. Here are a few:
- That it is not only okay, but critical, that I say what I want.
- That my self-love does not need anyone’s approval, ever. And it is worth everything. Fight for that shit.
- That the next time I get holier-than-thou about someone’s relationship choice I can be humbled by the fact that I once lost my fucking mind and thought I was being totally level-headed and sane (during the relationship). And then regained my mind while someone convinced me I was totally losing it (after the relationship). Gaslighting, people. It’s really something else.
- That it is okay to feel sad and angry. It is okay if you aren’t the best version of yourself all the time. During college, I once told my professor I didn’t know if I could complete my thesis after going through a family tragedy. After some words of encouragement, he told me that, when doing a challenging task, don’t think about what the outcome would look like without all the messed up circumstances in your life. There will always be circumstances, and they will affect what you do, and that is part of putting your mark on the world. Do the task with the circumstances and be proud of it.
- In this same vein, FORGIVE YOURSELF. That’s the first step to forgiving others.
- That the people that I think are cooler than me aren’t really cooler than me. They just have a different thing going on, and if they don’t want me to be a part of it, that’s cool. There’s lots of other stuff to get into.
- That back there, when I thought I had lost my resiliency and my strength, remember? I was so wrong. I fucking rocked. I searched everywhere for little tiny pieces of light and slowly put enough of them back together to put the stars back in my eyes. I wanted to be with a rockstar? Shit, I am, and I don’t care if it’s cheesy. I’m a fucking rockstar. Goal achieved.
So, there you have it. That’s the story, fleshed out in full detail, totally naked. If you read it all, thank you. You persevered. If you skimmed it and skipped through and landed here anyway, that’s cool too. As a liberal arts major, I appreciate that (introduction, first sentence of every following paragraph, and conclusion—that is called reading a book, my friends). Now I will go out into the world and be able to more respectfully and actively listen to the stories of others.
Okay, one last thing. You, Reader, are a shining star. You have lots of colors and flavors and textures in you. You have flowers and you have empty ground where seeds can grow. You have hidden pockets of undiscovered light to explore. Your landscape is a playground. I love you.