…But Words Can Never Hurt Me
I’ve always been scared to write about this.
That’s kind of silly isn’t it? I mean, I’m a writer…I shouldn’t be scared to just…write. Last week I sat with my best friend in a Starbucks yelling so angrily at the top of my voice how I wanted him to suffer that a group of teenagers turned around, moving from pretending not to eavesdrop to full on reacting as if they were in the conversation.
“Bad break up,” I quipped.
“Five years ago!” She added.
“Cheers, that definitely makes me look less psychotic right now,” I replied.
Yeah, I need to write about it.
But I don’t really know how start. It’s like there’s just a brick where the words should be and no matter how many times I turn it over it doesn’t turn into what I want to say.
Some years ago I started dating someone who bullied me. He didn’t hit me. It’s so easy to define why someone physically abusive is bad. He didn’t physically do…well he didn’t really physically do anything. He wasn’t violent but he didn’t touch me affectionately either. There was very little warmth to him. Knowing myself as I do now, after 5 years of therapy (and still going strong – I should probably get her some wood for that anniversary because she’s officially my longest relationship) I can’t imagine why on earth I was with him. I can’t bear to think of how I let myself stay in that environment for so long – 2 weeks shy of a whole year. It makes my heart ache with hurt and anger for my younger self that I didn’t have the awareness or the confidence to call it out for what it was.
It was gas lighting, keeping secrets and lying. It was putting me down constantly. It was controlling. It was bullying. It was emotionally and verbally abusive.
I have a really excellent memory. Freakish almost. But I think back to that year, that relationship and I’ve blocked out whole chunks. Memory is a funny thing and while I think the forgetting protects me, I also sometimes think I’ve demonised him in my head. Recently I told someone a couple of the small things I remember clearly and definitely happening and they were so shocked by them and by how I just shrugged sadly after I said them…because I can’t do anything about them now. They happened and I can’t go back in time and stop myself or give myself the confidence I desperately needed to get out. So maybe between the forgetting and the remembering I have got some accuracy…what I’m saying is, I don’t know. I just know it wasn’t good. Here are the clearest memories I have:
- If I made a joke he’d glare at me and say, “You’re not funny, why are you talking?” even if everyone else laughed.
- If I made a joke that he clearly found funny he still wouldn’t laugh, he’d just look at me with a kind of begrudgingly impressed smirk on his face and then say, “Well done.”
- He once told me my best friend’s legs were nicer than mine and that they’d always be nicer than mine. That I could put makeup on my face to make that better and that’s great but I couldn’t ever change my legs.
- He was only really nice to me when he was drunk.
- I don’t drink alcohol and normally that’s not a problem. But I made him a ridiculous birthday meal of roast duck and a whole bunch of other things that took me all day to cook for him and his friends to enjoy and they played drinking games and when I said I couldn’t join in so could we do something else, he insisted they would be playing and suggested I start doing the washing up instead. It is one of only a few times I really wished I could drink because if I could drink maybe I wouldn’t feel so left out of the dinner party I had made. When I cried in bed that night he told me I was overreacting.
- He lied about his sexual experience and then later when the truth came out, made me feel foolish for having believed him.
- I remember crying at my parents’ kitchen table asking them why he didn’t love me. They didn’t have an answer.
- I remember trying to break up with him and it’s the only time I’ve been so close to ending it with someone and been pulled back in because he kept telling me I was right and it felt like the first honest conversation. How can you not give someone the chance to redeem themselves when they’re finally being honest with you? Or at least you think they are.
- He went on holiday with a female friend and I wasn’t comfortable with them sharing a room and for part of it, sharing a bed. He told me I had no say in the matter and did it anyway.
- I once turned up at his place doing the whole underwear, heels and trench coat thing at 2am in a tight turnaround between trips for him. We only had about 3 hours and I’d also bought him snacks to take on his trip resulting in a farcical trip to Tesco, changing in my car into just underwear but forgetting the carpark was very well lit, bashing my head pretty hard on the horn attracting even more attention to myself. He made me wait while he played FIFA with his flatmate.
- He expected me to go down on him but would make the biggest fuss about reciprocating. He made out like it was gross and he was so reluctant. Strangely enough reluctance about my body doesn’t make me feel great.
- He would never offer me information freely so if I ever wanted to know more than “I’m out with friends” I’d have to ask each individual question – where are you going? What are you doing? Who are you seeing? I felt like I had to interrogate him which was weird for me because I’m neither a stalker nor an interrogator by nature. Everything was kept separate from me.
- I remember we had 6 happy and fun weeks in the middle of the relationship. I remember how good he was to his friends and wished he could be that good to me. It wasn’t all bad. When something or someone is all bad you can’t hope that things will be better. You don’t stay when something is always consistently terrible. It’s not as simple as that. People are rarely so black and white. So I remember that how he treated his friends and those 6 decent weeks were all I needed to give me hope that one day he’d be that nice to me. Now I think 6 weeks isn’t very long at all. Now I think it was only good in comparison to how sad it was the rest of the time. Now I don’t know what I was doing for the other 44 weeks of our relationship.
- I remember crying while I told him I loved him after nearly a year and saying that I knew I shouldn’t be saying it because I was sure he didn’t love me and I wished I didn’t love him. He replied, “I don’t love you.” Nothing to soften the blow, nothing to make it gentler. He just came out and said it. I asked why he’d been with me for so long if he didn’t, what he thought he was doing, did he think he’d just wake up one day and it would appear? He said that’s how it had happened before but I didn’t buy it. I remember being totally heartbroken even though I had known it already, even though deep down somewhere I knew it wasn’t a good relationship. Confirmation of sad suspicion doesn’t actually make it better.
Those are just the bits I remember. People tried to tell me maybe it was just his style of banter but those don’t read like “banter” do they? And some of them might seem like they’re not that big a deal on their own but put them together and repeat over a year – the criticisms, the undermining, the constant verbal blows…you can see the picture forming and it’s not pretty.
I changed after that relationship. There was something hopeful that I no longer possessed. Perhaps it was naivety and that’s not meant to last, but I wonder if it’s supposed to disappear slowly rather than all at once. Since then I have developed a pathological need to know where I stand. I hate being in any kind of limbo for any amount of time. I need to know what I mean to someone, what the status of a relationship is in any context and I need to know it immediately. I came out of that relationship with less confidence in myself and less belief in my judgment. I had a whole giant bucket of trust issues and zero belief in the idea that someone might ever want or love me. When someone literally tells you they don’t love you and they’ve kept you around for a year to bully and toy with anyway…well it’s not hard to see why my self esteem was in shreds. It took me 4 years to have another relationship and at the start I had a huge hyperventilating, sobbing panic attack about the fact that I liked someone, that I was making myself vulnerable to another human being. Before, I’d been able to fall in love almost too easily and with the carefree abandon of someone who wanted to just give and make a partner happy. But after, I couldn’t even like someone without freaking out about how much of myself I might lose. Because what if I give and they just take? What if I give and not only receive nothing back, but actively give up a piece of me? How many pieces do I have left that are expendable?
Feelings and expressions of them had no place in our relationship. When I showed my feelings he treated me as less intelligent than I am. He treated me like I wasn’t worth listening to because my feelings made me irrational or less trustworthy. And when someone treats you like that for a long time, slowly in little increments you start to believe them. I started to believe him.
I have big, full, tidal waves of feelings. Sometimes when I feel something I talk almost entirely in hyperbole (I know right, what gave me away?) because the feelings are so big normal words don’t do them justice. Sometimes I’m so full of love it fills my chest like a balloon and I really think it might burst because I’m so happy to be surrounded by my closest people. That kind of overwhelming bubble of pure joy in your chest feeling. Sometimes something hurts me so much it spreads, also through my chest, like ice creeping over roots and freezing them, snaking around my heart and my lungs and squeezing so I can’t breathe because it’s so tight.
But this man to whom I gave so many of my feelings seemed to believe they made me weak. He seemed embarrassed by them as if they were an indication of something wrong with me, something I ought to be ashamed of. Feelings were not for showing to anyone, not even the person you’re dating for a year. I felt like I had to squash all my giant feelings into a tiny, tiny box. Make each of them as small as seeds and put them away.
Of course now I know my feelings don’t make me weak. My feelings make me open and strong. My feelings challenge other people and me and they certainly have no negative impact on my intelligence. My feelings take up space. Those seeds that I squashed down burst out of that box and they grew and grew. Now they’re the size of the biggest oak tree, no, the biggest oak tree forest you have ever seen. It’s a forest that gets richer, wilder, more complex and beautiful every time I let myself feel something new or scary, good or bad.
I once tried to confront him about how he treated me. Six months after we broke up we went for a walk in a park and I tried to talk. But he wouldn’t admit to treating me badly. He brushed me off instead of acknowledging how I felt and I certainly didn’t get an apology. He dismissed me – he didn’t say these words, but he might as well have called me a hysterical woman because he treated me like that’s what I was. He made out it wasn’t that bad, that he didn’t know what I was talking about. I think I even ended up apologising to him. For months I was so angry that I didn’t have answers. I couldn’t understand what had made him treat me that way for a whole year.
I have a different kind of anger now. I’m angry that I didn’t know better even though I couldn’t possibly have done. I’m angry that I didn’t have all the confidence and self worth that I have now. If someone tried to treat me like that again I’d call them out on that crap so damn fast. I’m angry, with the self awareness and knowledge of being nearly 29 for the young and trusting 22 year old that I was. And I’m so deeply angry that I’ve had 5-6 years of dealing with the damage caused by that relationship and he was seemingly unaffected, unharmed. I was left in the rubble of myself trying to find and pick up pieces of me after he had set fire to them, and he just walked away.
I think I was scared to write about it because of how small and mentally unsafe he made me feel. It was like even talking about my feelings around this relationship conjured up that tiny box for squashing in those seeds. I still want answers. I still want an acknowledgement from him that what he did to me was wrong. I mean, I think it was cruel, but I’ll settle for wrong. I want an apology. I want to know if he ever regrets it, if he’s embarrassed by how he treated me rather than by my feelings about it. Everything was always on his terms – cold, professional almost, and obviously unfeeling. A blank and unreadable veneer covering over all the stuff he didn’t want people to see. I’d like there to be a conversation on my terms…but I’ll never start it because I’m still scared. I am terrified that if I approach him I’ll be dismissed again. I imagine he’d sneer and be kind of irritated by me, like I’m a fly buzzing around him, just something to bat away with his hand but not give any thought to. He’d say something like “It’s been years, why are you even still thinking about this? We’ve both moved on.” and we have. We’ve moved on to other relationships and I am happier than I have ever been in mine. But that would crush me. It would break me into tiny pieces and prove that I was right – that he was totally unaffected. That it was all such a total waste. He took things away from me and discarded them because they meant nothing to him. I don’t want to give him that conversation too. I don’t want to give him anything else.
I’m brave, open, smart and strong. I even quite like my legs, unchanged though they are. I am unashamed of my feelings and I take up space with all of them now. I have grown with my forest but I don’t think I could take it if I were to be brave enough to approach him and he burned my forest to the ground. I could not give him that too.
That at least is on my terms.