TW: Domestic Abuse
I wish I could draw a timeline – neat, boldly labeled, everything in its place. I lived in Columbia, South Carolina, for ten years before him, two years with him, and four years after him. In the years since, I’ve been in New York. I wanted to make a clean break, cutting through the“before” and the “after” — but trauma doesn’t stay in the lines. It’s ink that spills onto the whole story, bleeding into the before with no regard for boundaries or memories.
It’s a cliché, being the kid who grew up in the South (or Midwest or Southwest or any place that nurtures “anywhere but here” feelings) yearning for New York and disowning their hometowns. I was protective of my resentment of South Carolina. I felt like if I let it slip, whatever momentum that took me to New York would disappear. But once I was in New York, I realized how much of South Carolina was still a part of me – is still a part of me. When you become an adopted New Yorker, you suddenly want to be from somewhere, to have origin stories to tell. What was comforting and beautiful about the South sharpened with distance. What hurts more than anything, though, is that the city I grew up in for a solid decade without abuse became poisoned by trauma, by the things that made me close up and stop assuming the good in people.
After: At this point, I’m 26. We haven’t spoken in six years. That ink stain I meant to leave in South Carolina still spreads and licks at the back of my mind at the first hint of insecurity. Even the most unrelated stress takes his shape in nightmares. Depressive episodes sit on my chest, and in his voice says, “you’ll never be a whole person.” I apologize to my boyfriend when I’m afraid of someone who isn’t HIM because it’s always HIM in my head. I saw HIM in a bar in Columbia and the panic came so strong that I felt like I was choking on my own heart.
There’s a TED Talk about “experiencing happiness” and “remembering happiness.” I’m embarrassed to cite it because it was another old boyfriend who showed it to me. (That’s an example of remembering happiness, by the way: when a relationship ends badly, the remembered narrative and all things associated with it are informed by that negativity – it’s no longer fun or romantic to consider.) Accounting for differences caused by memory vs. experience makes us feel adrift. We don’t want to admit that how we feel right now could so easily be made inaccessible. Once inaccessible, we don’t want to admit that those past feelings were ever true.
Before: I was 18, and he was 31. We met deep into a holiday party, when good spirits and alcohol made it easy to drift into intimate conversations with strangers. In language that seemed too beautiful for Facebook messages, he sent me missives about visiting his family or the movies he saw. I had never known a real writer before. His passport was full of stamps from dangerous places, and he drank and talked about having a death wish with an affected bravado that nobody I’d ever met had been able to pull off. He was the most interesting thing to happen to me all year.
Feeling wanted like that, even hunted, was overwhelming and heady. Bringing food to a man who lived in his own apartment, who traveled for work – it felt so adult. If he noticed that I barely ate in those early days, he didn’t seem to care. That, too, made me feel grown up. I believed him when he said he needed me, and I believed him when he needed me to be always better, different. He was generous to stay with me even though I spoke too softly, put the dishes away wrong, cried too much, was too sad/thin/serious/needy — too everything to truly deserve his affection. “You have to earn me,” was his mantra. It all felt worth it to wait for the promises and the love he had poleaxed me with in the beginning to return.
“I only said those things to get you through the next moment.”
Anything can be recontextualized. All stories flow from the future to the past.
Now: I’m afraid that making space for that naive 18-year-old girl will weaken me, that even acknowledging that she existed will cause her to reach forward from the past and strangle some of the legitimacy out of my anger. If I admit I ever felt happy with him or loved him, I’ll open myself up to “why didn’t you just leave?” and “everyone has bad breakups.” When we think about being reliable narrators of our own lives, I think we’re mostly anxious about being reliable to ourselves. Experience vs. memory wouldn’t be so upsetting if we didn’t know that other self, now permanently out of reach. That it acted on a truth that seemed – no, was – real. What do our remembering selves owe our experiencing selves? Forgiveness, probably. I’m still working on that.