Early on in my internship days at a residential treatment center, I was doing an intake for a young 20-something woman. We must have doing the sexual trauma section of the intake. All I really remember is when she said “There’s a fine line between consent and giving in.”
I had to hide my gasp. The words struck me- they still do. Such a poignant way to describe a terrible truth.
It wasn’t more than 2 seasons later that I found myself experiencing her words for myself. The truth now haunting my own story.
This is the first time I’ve told this story*, over 3 years later. Even my loved ones only know this story in part, and I still fear them reading this. Most people know me as an open, vulnerable person when it comes to sharing my journey, so why I haven’t I told it? Here’s a few of the reasons: the story wasn’t there, how strories usually first appear in my mind and then wait for me to write them. I was still confused on what happened, how I could have let it happen. With that, came a great deal of shame. People may actually think differently of me, that I’m not as strong as they thought, after reading this. Additionally, I was scared, for reasons that will later be revealed.
Additionally, I also wasn’t fully aware that what happened was traumatic until a dear friend (another therapist and healer) I was hiking with used that word as she reflected back the story.
Now, I can look back at the end of this story, the part where Pacer and I were staying in a hotel room, and see the beauty within it. I can remember the love and strength of my sisters. When my older sister, in the midst of her journey with cancer, telling me “life is too short to be anything but happy.”
I have also found compassion for my ex-boyfriend. I believe, at least in this society, this term is both overused and that we all have some narcissism in us, and that part of us is very insecure. To have the true narcissistic wound is a painful existence. Inside, these people hold inside the exact opposite of what they externally show: confidence, prideful, put-together, self-admiration. Internally they are constantly fearful of how others perceive them, have little self-love, and are terrified of anyone finding out about their imperfections. It’s not a way I would want to live.
Finally, I have started to forgive myself and the role I played in the relationship, and the actions I took even after my sister’s helped pulled me out of dark waters.
*I did allude to it here: https://adogandhergirl.com/2019/09/10/heartache-and-healing-in-the-san-juans/
The relationship began with a surge of excitement. In therapy terms, his love bombing (which comes from a deep attachment wound) played off of the emotional neglect I experienced in childhood. (My parents are wonderful people, but their midwest, baby boomer generation had learned to dismiss emotions as unimportant, and this message was passed on to me until I decided to change it. Otherwise, I knew I was loved and all my other needs were met.). This felt exciting to me, and my usual nervousness around new people quickly diminished…which was my excuse of not pursuing a very kind, Jim Carey-like man I had also recently met. I can’t say I didn’t notice red flags, but I easily dismissed them. Like the time the bartender wouldn’t serve him another shot after talking to another bartender and nearby restaurant on down the block. Then that night, or maybe it was another, that I was slightly nervous about him driving me home after almost missing a red light.
I didn’t know until much later that my older sister had noticed these red flags right away, how he always had a drink whenever we went to a restaurant, or the flare in his voice the Christmas Eve party . My twin sister still hold on to some guilt. She always questioned my decision to be with him while also trusting my decision. I think that’s what a sister is supposed to do, and I never told her all the details. Probably because family rarely talks about personal lives or even asks personal questions. Actually, my parents know nothing to very little of this story at all (a friend may have leaked a small portion out). My sisters and I felt that they were already going through enough, especially with my older sister fighting cancer. My mom’s cancer diagnosis would come just a few weeks after…and I’m pretty sure she wouldn’t have told us if she could have hid the side effects of chemo. (Twin, while I would prefer that you not read this, because I know it was a painful experience for you too and I’m ashamed of some of my actions, please know that I will always value your opinion and your spiritual guidance. But this was not your fault. Your job was never to save me, but your and Amanda’s support meant everything to me. )
Not much longer after the we started dating, I remember covering for him at a group run. I think in one of the days before he had hit his head on a cupboard, which brought on symptoms from previous concussions he had got fighting in the Iraq war. (Note: Him and I morally disagreed on some big subjects and usually I was made to feel guilty if I even inquired about his view points. Yet. as a Highly Sensitive Person, I felt compelled to caretake.) After the group run and his speaking engagement at the running store, I remember my sister and a friend giving me quizzical looks. I can’t remember what I said, but I did my best to cover up for his odd behavior. Truly, I don’t know if his behavior was concussion related, medication related, or alcohol related. But he was a war hero, who appeared to be highly regarded in the running community*, and wasn’t I doing what I was supposed to be doing?
*Later, after the relationship ended, I discovered that others had mixed feelings about him too. I had no idea.
That winter, I don’t remember much. Things must have been okay for awhile, and I was busy with my second year of grad school in Naropa University’s Clinical Mental Heath Counseling/Transpersonal Wilderness Therapy program, which included many trips outdoors (more shame- should I have seen this coming with my training?). Actually…wait. That’s not true. During a backpacking trip in Utah, my dog got deathly ill back at home. I remember my sister telling me that he went to work and left the clean-up and caretaking to her and her partner…they quickly took my dog, Pacer, to the ER. At this moment, I can barely type. My dog is my everything… how could I have ignored that? How can I forgive myself for that, and all the other times I let him make the decisions off of his needs…like when our flight from one of his races got in late, and he wanted to stop at IHOP, when I knew Pacer was at home waiting for me?
I do remember almost breaking up with him. I believe it was January. I remember standing on his doorstep. I think we basically had broken up. Then I decided to do a short, late afternoon snowshoe hike to a mountain lake. You would think that would have cleared my mind and calmed my body. But I went back to his apartment after that and allowed the story to continue.
Spring brought on more flags, that I didn’t know were flags. I just knew he seemed a little off. My second year of grad school ended with canoeing trip down a canyon in Utah, followed my a formal rites of passage, something my cohort and I had been building up to all year. A rite of passage is a sacred event. All year, I had been working on accepting a part of me that I had pushed down much of my life, and I wanted to step into my sacred feminine power. For three days and nights, I slept, meditated, and fasted on the Colorado-Utah border and basked in the magical space my peers and professors had created with the land. It was a transformational week. When we got back to Boulder, we held a “welcome back” ceremony with family and friends. This too, was important to me. I invited my sister and him. My sister, as always, was excited to be there for me and took part in the ceremony. He was subdued, quiet, and a little “off.” That weekend, I held a more intimate dinner with him, my sister, and her boyfriend. I cooked a special meal, and read a poem I had written in the desert. While a little awkward for all of (none of us had grown up in a spiritual fashion), he just wasn’t there. Uncomfortable. Which ended up being the norm for all the times the attention wasn’t on him.
It wasn’t until summer that the signs really became obvious to me, or I at least knew that the relationship wasn’t good and I wanted to get out. My lease was up at the end of May and I had plans to move up to Estes Park at the end of summer as I began my internship. So, in the interim, I moved in with him. I cried almost as soon as I got there. He didn’t clean. Didn’t make any room for my stuff. I didn’t want to be there, but I had nowhere to go (my sister’s place was tiny and didn’t allow dogs.). That June, my sister was racing in Poland and her partner soon after in France. They bought me a plane ticket and paid for my stay so my sister and I could celebrate our 30th birthday together (we’re twins). I again trusted him with my beloved dog, Pacer, who’s both very sensitive and protective. Without going into detail, what I now believe was carelessness (but he had a good story at the time), led to a lot of court dates that became my responsibility. Luckily, she stayed safe.
Then the yelling began.
I tend to be a forgetful person at times. I lose my keys and forget where I put IDs. For instance, as we were getting ready to check our bags at the airport, I forgot that I had left my credit card in my Yoga bag. The plane tickets and his race expenses were on my card, as usual (I think I eventually always got paid back, sometimes with some dispute. There’s was something about credit after the housing market fell…). He got pretty upset. My survival response is to freeze, his was obviously, to yell (fight). On the ride back to Boulder, I literally sat frozen in the car in fear of the anger penetrating of his body, as well as my guilt for messing up the trip. Back at his condo, he slammed the door in his bedroom, and I laid in the fetal position on the patio. Still feeling guilty for potentially ruining his race and letting his sponsors down, I talked him in to taking a later flight. I repacked his bags.
It happened again, sometime during the Perseids meteor shower and right before I was due to check out my potential place in Estes Park. I can’t remember if this was the time I remember him driving too fast down I-70 and me thinking “Pacer is in the car”, but being too scared to say anything else for fear he would drive faster. Or maybe it was another time. What I do remember him yelling, and I do remember leaving, driving away from town to hopefully see a shooting star, wishing for an escape, but returning, again because I had no where to go and had none of my stuff. And, after all, the yelling wasn’t “that bad.” The next day, I desperately didn’t want him to go with me. A week later, I desperately didn’t want him to sign the lease with me as I moved in. But I had forgotten how to say “no.”
Really, the yelling and silent treatments are all pretty blurry. I only know they happened because I wrote them down, which ended up being a key to my sanity. Proof I wasn’t making things up.
He was staying at his place down the canyon for another month. For a short period of time, I enjoyed the freedom of my new life. I had decided, with the help of therapist, to write him a letter to end the relationship. I believe I gave it to him before he left to pace a well-know athlete at 100 miler, another link to popularity (and probably a good reason to date me, with a sister and her boyfriend, whom I consider my brother, both being professional athletes). While timid, there was a relief in leaving him the letter. If only it had lasted…
Not long after, he came to my basement apartment, tearful and apologetic. I did say no…until he continued. He pleaded for a month or two, to see if we could work things out. I didn’t like this idea, but I gave in. I don’t know if I came up with this idea then, or at the beginning of the next summer, but I decided that I liked the rest of my life, so I could handle a partner I didn’t want to be with. Plus, it made the rent cheap. It wasn’t until much, much later that I realized if your goal is to have a joyous and meaningful life, you don’t need to invite darkness in and then let it hang around (I’m not referring to him specifically, but the darkness inside of him.)
In general, things were going okay for the next few months. I let him drive back to Ohio with me for Christmas (why didn’t he go see his own kids?). I soon kicked myself for allowing this, rather than having a peaceful drive with my sister. There must have been some type of argument, maybe because I protested that I wanted to listen to my music too, and then a tense silence. This is when I could feel my older sister’s dislike of him, though she didn’t say it.
Sometime in the transition between winter and spring, I fully understood, by experience, that client’s words “there’s a fine line between giving up and giving in.” Now it’s obvious to me that I had been doing it all along. “It’s not that bad.” There were plenty of good times too. He wasn’t always upset. And really, he only yelled a few times. He’d never physically hurt me. This continual practice of giving in eventual led to sex too. He never forced it. For me, it was just easier to give in, to allow a few tears to invisibly trickle down my face in the dark room, then to say refuse and deal with the tension the next day. I know some people won’t understand, and I’m thankful that they don’t. If you’re an HSP/empath, you might…the felt-sense of tension, of waiting for something to break, can feel unbearable.
On the other hand, I learned later that for a narcissist, not having the attention on them cab be extremely uncomfortable. That sign, that I didn’t yet know was a sign, was evident that spring as I neared my graduation. Like the day my cohort and I were giving our capstone presentations. I was super proud of mine, “Mother Nature Attachment Theory” I had titled it. I remember my sister being super proud too. He must have said something to me after, but didn’t stay much longer for presentations equally wonderful from my cohort, my friends. When I got back home late that evening, he was napping, no dinner made. Just some comments on the effort he made to get there on snowy roads. Then, month later, my family flew out to Colorado. I just didn’t want to admit it. I didn’t think they all would come. My old sister barely made it. She was so sick between the cancer and the chemo and other drugs. It meant everything to me that they came. Unsurprisingly, he wasn’t in a great mood the morning of my graduation. Driving down the canyon to Naropa, again listening to his music, I had to explain to him that this was as important to me as one of his ultra races were to him. I think he actually understood that. It just didn’t last. A few weeks later I was driving up the canyon after a long day of wilderness first responder training in the valley, and I ended up right at the scene of a major car crash, just minutes after it happened. One guy was trapped in his car, and I think eventually was helicoptered out. The other gentleman was out of his car (pulled out by two amazing people) and in severe pain, his dog faithfully by his side. While I did little more than check the guys vitals and sit by the dog, I was pretty shook. After making sure the first witness to the scene, who also stayed the whole time, were okay, I drove back down the canyon (the scene was still blocked) to go up the long way, getting home hours later than planned. I don’t remember being asked if I was okay. I remember him walking up the stairs to do his laundry.
We still had a few adventures that summer, though I was sure we wouldn’t make it through him running a well-know race in July. He didn’t understand why I didn’t want all the expenses on my credit card, or why I was at least hoping to get help paying for my plane ticket. But he did agree that I could climb a 14er beforehand. The 22 mile hike was amazing, but I got extremely dehydrated coming down and felt like death by the time I got to the car. After first he was concerned when I gave him a call. Then I fell asleep for an hour. When I got back it was a “you took all day while I was stuck in the hotel.” (The town was only a few blocks long). Yet, the trip ended relatively well. For the next month, things were okay, until they weren’t.
I’m not really sure what happened. He must have been out drinking with a friend. Something must have been said that opened, or threatened, a wound. I was at home completing my Girls on the Run volunteer online training. He just went off. Then he’d go into the bed room, close the door, and come back out to yell some more. This went repeat for awhile, me just sitting on the couch with Pacer and taking it. Then I snapped and my protection mode switched for the briefest, regrettable of seconds. I threw a glass at the wall. This just further enraged him. He told me if I didn’t pick it up, he would call the police. I think I refused at first, then maybe I did so tearfully when he actually did call the police. I may have called my sister during this time. I remember praying my landlord and her granddaughter weren’t home (they weren’t.). The cop who came was really nice. He asked to talk to me first, and asked I why I threw the glass. I said I didn’t know (in hindsight, I was fully in my amygdala and definitely not in my prefrontal cortex, the thinking, rational part of the brain. It was a true reaction.). Then the cop told me that my then boyfriend actually had an outstanding warrant, and that he was under arrest. He was taken away, and I felt some relief for the briefest of hours, alone in the apartment with just me, Pacer, and his cats. I wish the story ended there. Instead, he called me a few hour later from the jail and told me “It’s in your best interest to come pick me up.” I was never really scared of him physically. It was more the threats he threw at me and my family. More along the lines of ruining careers, and for me a counseling career I had just started. My sister and her partner always laughed at these (and there perspective helped a great deal), knowing there was no basis for his threats. Unfortunately, I did’t have that perspective. So, I picked him up. I think another week or two passed. He ran another race. Then it happened again. I was on the couch, hiding under a blanket with Pacer, and he yelled and yelled and yelled. This time, I was at least smart enough to call my sister and her boyfriend in-between the yelling and door slams so they could record what was happening (I still had my old slide phone at the time). After listening to a few rounds of this, my sister told me to get my dog and get out. I don’t know why I needed someone telling me the obvious (probably because I was back in my freeze state, as my fight state had just made it worse last time) but I did. She got me a hotel nearby, and we drove down the hill and towards safety in the dark.
The next day I still really didn’t know what to do. My sisters made sure I was able to stay at the hotel for a few more days. My landlords texted to see if I was okay. They had heard most of it, and would have come down if they heard anything physical. However, they also knew that Pacer is quite sensitive, and that could have added to the chaos. They asked to meet me by the lake in town. The plan was to ask him to move out, which they did. And yet, the next evening, I was crying on the phone to my old sister on the curbside by the hotel. He had given them a story on how this was my fault…he’s always been quite the talker. My landlords didn’t know what to do, but I think we’re taken aback on his refusal to move. In the end, they had to give him 30 days to move out and then allowed me to move back in. This is when I took off for a week to camp, then moved into a motel for a month.
Another hopeful end to the story. Unfortunately, there’s more, including a part that I am deeply shameful of.
Somehow, another month or so later, he asked me to meet him for coffee. I don’t know if I didn’t have him blocked on my phone and he texted, or maybe he emailed, or even wrote a letter….there were lots of letters, many that I just threw aways as I had been holding onto them as “just in case” evidence. Me, being too overly compassionate, especially because he had two boxes of my friends stuff that we had put into storage for him, agreed. Another tearful apology, still wanting to make things work. I think I said no… but then he called. Late one night, I think from somewhere out of state. Another military friend committed suicide. (I don’t say that lightly. The post-war deaths are some of the most concerning.). He was emotional, potentially suicidal. Of course, I, at that point in my life, felt like I had to help him de-escalate. Then for some reason, a few nights later, I was experiencing extreme physical pain. Weak, I called him. Really, for a problem he caused. He wasn’t a fan of condoms, so I got a copper IUD. (My brain and body can’t handle anything hormonal, nor apparently, a foreign device.) The different but shared pain experiences were enough for a chemical reaction and a physical re-connection. A choice I still can’t believe I made.
I slept with him. Three times. After all my sister’s did for me. After all we went through together. After all the help they gave to me. I felt like I had failed them.
What would they think of me? What would my friends think of me if they new any of this story?
I finally said “no”, a true “no”, when it stopped feeling good, the guilt took over, and knowing I would never let him near Pacer again. I blocked his calls, his emails, etc.
It’s just so hard to break-up with someone in a small town.
Soon, I couldn’t go to the gym without fear of harassment, him matching his schedule to mine. Letters on windshields. Stories from a friend that he was talking about me. Encounters at the parking lot of the one main grocery store in town. My poor boyfriend after, truly a lovely man, being on the receiving end of my panic attacks and spirals. Calls to my landlords with threats of suicide, saying it was my fault if I didn’t go see him. Another drunk night, with him driving into an electrical poll that fell close to my landlords bedroom. My fierce landlord, a woman then in her late 60s, yelling at him to go as he knocked on my door while Pacer and I hid in the bedroom. (I laugh a little bit now looking back…no wonder why my already sensitive nervous system was a mess for so long.)
Eventually, it ended. A random text here and there after he changed his number, a rare encounter at the grocery store, a message from his ex-girlfriend after me, not saying much except that she was also scared.
The shame has been slower to let go of. It was my fault that he moved to the small town. Being in grad school to be a mental health therapist, I should have seen the signs. Going back on what my sisters had done for me. The feelings of being weak. Not holding my boundaries.
In hindsight, I think that maybe I thought I was tough. I could put up with it. Because it wasn’t “that bad.” And that is why I write this.
I’m still a little scared to share this story, partially because, as I said at the beginning, I know this will change people’s view of me. A friend I’ve known since college, who knows parts of this story told me “that doesn’t sound like you Rach.” Partially because I am scared of getting an angry correspondence from him or a threat to sue or something like that. But after witnessing another kind, empathetic woman, like me, endure a similar situation, I don’t have a choice. I know too many woman who have uttered the cursed words “It’s not that bad.” as a reason to stay in an unhealthy relationship. While I don’t want to compare myself to women who have been in truly abusive relationships, I write this because I know my situation is far too common. For no other woman, or really person on this planet, would I wish them to live a life that is “not that bad.” As my older sister, now passed on, said to me “Life is too short to be anything but happy.”
In hindsight, I can explain what happened from a therapist’s perspective. I can talk about how hormones work, the emotional brain vs. the intellectual brain, and different attachment styles. I would tell my clients “It wasn’t your fault.” “Look how hard you were trying to be loved.” “Look how hard you tried to prove to another person that they were lovable too.” And I would mean it. When it comes to myself, it’s been a lot of work to give my inner therapist a louder voice than my inner critic. It’s been a slow process to give myself the same compassion I show others, but I’m getting there.
Since this experience, I was in a relationship with a wonderful man (aforementioned above) who is still one of my closest friends. After him, I briefly dated a man with bipolar disorder. I don’t say this in any way to condemn anyone with bipolar disorder. When under control and actively being worked through with a trauma-informed therapist, there’s nothing wrong with dating someone with bipolar. The man I was dating, however, often presented very young and very reactive. Again, I knew his abuse history and my heart went out to him. This time, I realized a little bit sooner that it was patronizing to him and unhealthy for me to continue dating him. Then, why never in a relationship, I briefly dated a man whom I deeply loved, but his sacred contract was to break me and it was he who finally turned me into ashes. I am still rising from those ashes, but I’m certain that it’s a Phoenix I shall become.
In writing this, I have done my best to leave out specific details. However, a few readers may know whom I talking about and I ask that you please, please don’t share this with him, both for the aforementioned reasons, and for his sake. Again, I don’t envy anyone carrying the darkness of a narcissist. He still has light within him. Whether altruistic or not, he has raised money for a lot of charities, has kids, and deserves peace if he chooses to claim it. I’m fearful of how reading this would affect him…it could cause a psychotic break, which is why I’ve gone round and round on whether I should publish this or not. My intention here is to be a light, not to hurt. With that, I hope this gives others the courage to refuse to live in a place of “it’s not that bad”, and to instead live in their own fullness and beauty.