Illusions

It is amazingly easy to deceive oneself. Sometimes we just don’t want to accept the reality in front of us, because the truth is too difficult to bear and appears incomprehensible to us. This is where I found myself last spring, after the horrible night my abuser first became physically aggressive with me. I still wanted to believe that we stood a chance: that he wasn’t really a bad guy; that his aggression was a just result of heavy liquor and drugs; that the previous charges against him were completely false; that his need to control me was actually him trying to protect me; and that despite whatever he did or said, he still loved me. And that was all that mattered.

He cut back on the drinking and promised to never get as drunk as he did that horrible night. I convinced myself that this was enough and I pushed every nagging thought or hesitation out of my mind. Then came the issue of our parents. I told both of my parents everything, about the horrible night, his constant putting me down, his control and manipulation. They of course didn’t want us to stay together. I don’t exactly know what he told his mom, he wasn’t very close with her. But one very odd memory I have is that he told me that his mother thought that he, her son, was abusing me. To this day, I still cannot comprehend this: did his own mother truly suspect something and believe that her own son was capable of hurting a woman? I am sure his mother had been abused at one point or another based on the descriptions he gave me of his childhood, so she was most likely very familiar with domestic violence and abuse. Maybe she actually believed that the previous allegations against him were true. But more importantly, why did he tell me this? Did he expect me to immediately refute this idea, which I did, and so he could gain reassurance? Was this another one of his manipulation tactics? Probably. But like so many things, it remains a mystery.

Despite whatever our parents thought, things did suddenly appear to go back to that blissful, honeymoon phase, in some ways at least. We went exploring in the city, for walks in the park, and got way too much ice cream on warm summer nights. I thought we could make it through this. Perhaps, this hope was due to the intoxication of freedom that summer always brings, even in grad school (well, sort of). Nevertheless, we became almost addicted to each other, and spent all of our time together, even more than we did before the horrible night. I don’t know exactly how to describe it, but it became like we couldn’t eat, sleep, or breathe without each other. I have of course experienced that need to be with someone in the early stages of relationships, but this was different. Maybe it was our attempt to move past that horrible night (which we started to refer to as “the incident”) and replace that memory with new memories. Maybe I was just trying to make sure he wasn’t drinking heavily. Maybe it was another attempt of his to control me and my life by ensuring I had nothing else besides him, which I know is the typical situation of abusive relationships. Either way, the threats were still there and became worse and more frequent; about other guys mostly, him checking my texts, telling me over and over that I could not talk to a guy he didn’t know, that this was for my protection because I was just naïve. These threats expanded to what I was wearing: that it needed to be fashionable and stylish, but also couldn’t be too revealing. I was his after all. I once didn’t have a top button done on my shirt and he told me he would be “fucking furious” if he came up to my lab and the button was undone again. But it didn’t matter how much these treats started to scare me or keep me up at night. I used all my energy to ignore them and made believe in my mind that everything was going to be all right.

Looking back, I think I tried to believe this illusion because I never thought that I could end up with an abusive man, or than an abusive man could also be a highly intelligent medical student. I refused to acknowledge that I too could be fooled. But abuse does not discriminate. It can happen anytime, anywhere, and to anyone, even me.

Here is a poem I wrote describing this.

Not Me

I thought it would never be me.
I was too smart
I would surely see
I could not be fooled
No, not me.

I thought it was obvious
How to spot a man like you
I mean really,
How hard could it be?
I could not be so blind.
No, not me.

But you were charming
And you knew what to say.
Mesmerized, you had me under your spell
And so, like the girls before me,
I fell.

I fell so hard and I fell so deep.
For those first few months
Everything was just a dream.
They told me don’t rush
Things are not always what they seem.
But I knew what I was doing
I would not be deceived.
No, not me.

Then day-by-day,
You started to change.
You had a dark side
I saw it in the things you said to me
The things you did
I saw it in your eyes.
Still I tried to ignore
when you were angry
when you were mean.
It would go away, I was sure.

But it never disappeared
It got worse and worse.
I could no longer play pretend
Though it killed me, it had to end.

If there’s one thing I learned,
It’s that it’s not so easy
To spot a man like you.
There’s no warning on your face
Saying “I abuse.”
But there were always signs
Things I saw but didn’t want to believe
But I am no longer blind.
And I am NOT weak.
And this will never happen again.
Not to me.

 

Fear

I never thought I could be scared of a man. Not once did I ever think a guy could become aggressive with me. I thought that men who hurt women hid in the shadows and lurked outside of bars at night, and that women who got hurt by men were foolish or naïve. But in reality, I was the naïve one. If you had told me a year ago that the man I knew and loved would try to hurt me, I would’ve thought you were crazy.

I will always remember that night and the monster you became. You had too much to drink and smoked a random stranger’s joint. We got back to your place. You started talking like a madman, drawing experiments on a scrap of paper. Then you threw yourself face down onto your bed, pounding the pillows with your fists, saying over and over that you were a bad person and had done bad things. I tried to console you and tell you that you were not bad. But that’s not what I was thinking inside. Inside I remembered what you had told me a few months ago, that you had been charged before by an ex-girlfriend. I had never doubted your innocence until that night, as if your words were a confession and a warning of what was to come. Because, before I knew it, you started yelling. Threatening me. Your eyes turned dark, pitch black. You tried to hit me with your belt. You put your hands on me. You were screaming and so was I, telling you to get off of me. Your roommate came and tried to help. He said to get you something to eat, play you some music, but it didn’t matter. It was no use. I was trying to get out of the house, you were pushing me and I almost fell down your steps. The next thing I remember is you charging at me, screaming my name. Then your body flew across the yard and hit the ground; your roommate had tackled you in attempt to protect me. I will always remember that sound your body made when you collided with the earth. Though I was not the one who was tackled, I felt the impact a thousand fold. I fell to my knees and looked at the monster before me. The last thing you said to me, looking so fiercely into my eyes, was “Coco, you know me.” I said the only thing that still seemed true in that moment: “I don’t know you like this.” And then I ran.

I received the texts all night. First, they were threats. Then, you repentantly asked to please talk this out, as if words could fix what you did. Then the threats again. Then the message that still makes my heart stop, “We are over.” You called me several hours later, after the sun had risen and it was morning, though I didn’t sleep for minute. I tried to confront you about what you did last night. You told me so assuredly that no one would ever believe me. You were coming over to my place. I told you to stay away, not knowing what you would do. But you came over anyway.

I don’t remember the conversation very well. Only that it was long, my head was hurting, and that you somehow managed to manipulate and blame the whole thing on me: I overreacted, I handled the situation poorly, I was too sensitive. And I believed what you said. I guess that isn’t quite true, but somehow I was too scared of losing you than I was of being with you. So I put my head down like a guilty child and accepted what you said.

The next few days were more of the same: your manipulation, your continued twisting of the truth to excuse yourself of any wrongdoing, the outbursts, the aggressive texts asking what the hell is wrong with me over and over, coming at me so fast that your fingers must have been moving a mile a minute. Of all the things that made me cringe, it was those texts more than anything. Because your words were like a knife piercing right through me. The anxiety I felt when my phone went off was unparalleled to anything, even compared to that night itself. I never knew what you would say or what would happen. And then, five days after that night, it finally came, the text saying that we were over once and for all. It was finished.

But like so many other things, that text was a lie. A few days later you messaged me saying you missed your stargirl (the nickname you gave me). I told you that I missed my sumtangui (the name you gave yourself). You played the same games and the same manipulation tactics. And then we were back together. You took no responsibility for what you did, and I just let it slide. And I prayed to God that it would never happen again.

P.S. – I didn’t intentionally address this to my abuser. I just started writing that way and went with it. Also, Coco is my pseudonym for this blog

Here is a poem I wrote about this horrible night

“The First Time”

The first time
Your eyes went black
On that dreadful night
Nearly a year past.

Everything was in slow motion
But my heart stood still
Among the commotion.
I remember your belt
Coming at me.
How I nearly fell
as you continued to scream.
The fear and disbelief
shaking me to my core.
Wondering who was this man?
This man I fell for?

I thought it must be a mistake
Like I was in a movie
Or playing a game.
Because this wasn’t you.
The monster with black eyes
Was not the man I knew.

I remember lying on the ground
As your roommate tackled you down
You looking at me, screaming
“Coco, you know me.”
And the funny thing was
I thought I did.
But I was dead wrong
“I don’t know you like this”
That was my response.

I remember calling 911
But hanging up
Just wanting it all to be done.
But the weirdest thing
Was on that night,
I didn’t cry
And I wasn’t sad.
I’m ashamed to say
I really almost laughed.
Because I couldn’t believe it.
Though now I wonder,
How did I never see it?
The signs were there
Long before that night
But I tried not to care
And so I paid a price.

And I’m still paying it
Even now
After all this time,
I still wonder how
You did those things to me.
Was it ever love?
Or just a dream?

That look in your eyes
Will haunt me forever
I will never forget it.
No, not ever.
And so
Though nearly a year has passed
I will always remember
The first time
Your eyes went black.

Warnings

I knew he had been abused before he told me. I saw the scars on him, on his arms, his back and that glaring one on his forehead, which still makes me shudder when I think of how he got it. I saw pictures of where he grew up, heard him describe the violence and crime.

He told me early on in the relationship of all the pain he had endured in his thirty years of life: abuse as a child, the death of his sister and father, abandonment by his mother at the age of 6. He told me he was dead inside from the toll all of this had taken on him. Hearing his story, my heart broke for him in a way I never thought possible. I wanted more than anything to save him from this pain. Naively, I thought I could.

I thought if I loved him with my whole heart, held him in my arms every night, gave him constant affection, that it would be enough. And in the beginning it was. He told me over and over how happy he was with me and how it was all “a dream come true.” But before long he always needed more from me: I should have known what restaurant he wanted to go to, even thought he never told me, I should’ve known he liked mayonnaise on his sandwiches when he had always said honey mustard was fine, I should dress more fashionably and wear heels for him, I should be more like other girls, whatever that even means. He even told me that I should know more about sponges (not kidding, he was horrified when I didn’t know about every kind of sponge at the grocery store). I never measured up to his expectations. No matter what I did or said or how hard I tried, it was never enough.

He started to make a list of rules, of things I should or should not do. And it was up to me to memorize them by heart and follow them exactly, even though they changed constantly. One of the first rules was that I needed to stop wearing so much pink. I thought this was reasonable enough. Although pink is my favorite color, perhaps he was right and I should expand my wardrobe. The next was that I needed to be available for him sexually whenever he wanted it, whether I felt like it or not. The next rule, and what became the most threatening, was that I was not allowed to talk to other guys, ever. If a male stranger I didn’t know approached me and casually started talking, I had to immediately extricate myself from this situation, or at the very least, let it be known that I had a boyfriend. He threatened me about this one all the time, saying he would be “fucking furious” if he ever found me talking to another guy. I am not a flirt, but I am also not rude. If a person, male or female, is nice and starts talking to me, then I will continue the conversation like a normal human being. But this was not allowed according to him. I must be fully, entirely, his.

These rules became his way of trying to possess me and own me, and they worked. I stopped wearing my favorite pink t-shirts and replaced them with clothes he deemed “fashionable” (even though he was color-blind and admitted he had a horrible sense of style). My body was always his to do with as he pleased. He started taking on the lovely habit of grabbing me and touching me whenever and wherever he wanted, in the car, in rite aid, in bars, in a park in New York City; yet another way to degrade and own me. I cut people out of my life, rarely talking to my friends because I was so consumed by him and doing everything I could to meet his expectations. I lived in a constant state of fear, of accidentally slipping up and breaking one of these rules, and not knowing what would happen if I did. What’s more, in the back of my mind there was one thing he told me that no matter how hard I tried I could not forget: that he had been charged before by an ex-girlfriend for assault, battery, and rape.   I still wonder why he had even told me this. It wasn’t exactly like I had asked. But he did so at a time when I still believed he was the innocent victim and that is exactly the role he played when he told me. He said this ex-girlfriend tried to con him into a marriage because she was here illegally. When he found this out, she sought revenge by charging him. He was heartbroken because he had really loved her and he nearly lost his career because of her accusations. That was his story. And I believed him.

Despite all of these signs, the possession, the constant putting me down, the control, and even his previous charges, I never put the dots together. I never realized that these are classic signs of an abuser. I didn’t realize that up to 35% of people who were abused as children go on to become abusers themselves. This is not at all to say that having been abused as a child is a sentence to being an abuser later in life. I have known others who were abused and went on to become amazing people. But there is an undeniable correlation. All in all, he was a psych101 textbook case. And despite being an academic and spending much of my life buried in textbooks, I still didn’t see it. I ignored every warning sign no matter how obvious and apparent it was. He once even told me that “he was so in love with me that it was dangerous,” as if he himself was trying to warn me. But it didn’t matter. I looked the other way and tried to follow his rules and be the person he wanted. And I nearly lost everything.

Here is a poem I wrote about living in a world of rules, trying to be “enough” for someone and the prison that it all becomes.

Souls

Have you ever had a person steal your soul?
I have.
Now, what you may not know
Is it doesn’t feel so bad.
It always starts slow.
Change this.
Change that.
It’s better for you this way.
That’s what he would say.
So I believed
What did I know?
He was older.
He was more experienced.
Of course he knew better.

So I changed.
Piece by piece
I followed the orders exactly:
No more pink.
No more being silly.
I must be mature.
I must go dancing.
Heels and lace,
I must wear.
Thought I had no interest at all.
I really just didn’t care.

I did it for him.
I tried with all my heart
To become the person he wanted.
Until I fell apart
Until he stripped away everything that made me unique.
And made me into his mannequin,
That he could mold to this liking.
The transformation,
Rather striking.

A zombie,
A doll,
Call it whatever you want.
Without a soul,
There is nothing at all.
Empty, vacant stare,
A mere shadow of what was once there.

You may not notice.
But we are everywhere.
In the streets,
Schools,
And especially,
In perfectly manicured homes.
But what you wouldn’t know,
Is we have all been robbed,
By the men we have loved most.
So slow,
That even we did not know.
So this I ask of you,
Please find what they stole.
Please,
Find our souls.

 

Falling

Anyone can be fooled. Above all else, this is what I have learned over the last year. Anyone can fall into the trap I fell into: being taken by a likeable, charming man who slowly changes into a controlling, abusive monster. A transformation so slow, that it’s impossible to see from the inside.

I wish I could say that I had always seen it coming. That some part of me actually knew what I was getting myself into. But that would be a complete lie. Of course, looking back, I can see all of those classic warning signs – the possession, manipulation, his constant putting me down and making me feel like I was never enough. But even still, it didn’t start that way. It started innocent and sweet. He would ask to see my cells and I would watch him do surgery (we are both neuroscientists). We cuddled on the couch in front of Netflix, played in the snow, and wandered around the city. I wanted to spend every second with him, and he wanted to spend every second with me. He called me “Stargirl” and told me over and over how much he loved me and how happy I made him. We had a neuroscience romance, and it all seemed too good to be true. Clearly, it was.

The profile of my abuser is hardly atypical. They can put you on a pedestal and almost worship you for the first few months. They are also incredibly charming, charismatic, even magnetic, and other people tend to be drawn to them. This is perhaps why many survivors, myself included, feel like no one would ever believe them. Because it is this likeable and charismatic person that the rest of the world sees. No one sees who this person becomes behind closed doors. And this is probably why, even once extricated from the situation, survivors may doubt themselves and wonder if they were the crazy ones. I know this is what happened with me. Most of the time I remember how my abuser would offer to climb in the liquid nitrogen tank for me to put my cells away, how he would surprise me in lab, how he would hold me so close as though he couldn’t get enough of me. Perhaps one of the hardest things to accept is that there is no way to reconcile these good parts of an abuser with the bad. What most people don’t understand is that a situation like this isn’t just black and white. An abuser can be caring and sweet, but he can also suck the life out of you. Both sides are there and are somehow intricately wrapped into a single person. And this is precisely why we fall. It’s not that we’re foolish or naïve or ignorant. It’s that there was something to fall for. So don’t blame yourself for falling, or think that you should have seen it coming. I didn’t.

#Speak

I never thought I would be the kind of person to start a blog. But as I have learned this past year, there are a lot of things that happen in life you cannot anticipate.  I am starting this blog because last year I became involved in an abusive relationship with a fellow student in my graduate program.  I never thought anything like that would happen to me.  I was under the naive assumption that I was too smart to fall for someone with abusive and controlling tendencies.  Wrong.  This can happen to anyone and it can be anyone.  My abuser was an MD/PhD student, getting the highest degree possible, and doing outstanding neuroscience research. There is no typical framework when it comes to abusive relationships.

Although I am now free from this person, I struggle everyday knowing that this man still works in my building, that he is going to get away with this yet again, and that I cannot even say anything without risking my own graduate career.  And, more importantly, there’s the undeniable fear that no one would believe me if I did tell.  I know that there are many other women who have experienced this feeling and are living in this prison of isolation – of wanting to tell and have your voice be heard, but knowing that speaking the truth could have serious consequences for you and that you might not be believed.  This is what makes me angrier than anything, because it is this pattern of silence that enables the cycle of abuse to continue.  I want women out there to be able to share their stories and know that someone believes them and cares.  It is the only way for the cycle to end. I will be posting excerpts of my story and I hope that you will comment and share your stories too.  Because it is time to tell.  It is time to speak.