Violence without lifting a finger

This is another piece that I wrote a long time ago, but I wanted to re-post it as an illustration of what it’s like to live in an abusive relationship – I am not sure I could fully capture these feelings any more, not as urgently (thank god).  I tie my thoughts together more in my next post, but it feels important to describe what this was like in detail.

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I moved in with Larry in November of 2001. (I can’t believe it was that long ago already; I honestly think that being so shaken up by 9/11 had a little something to do with my decision to move in with him, I wanted the security. Ironic, isn’t it?) He didn’t start hitting me until March of 2002. It was a 2 month cycle; March, May, July, and then I left, although the very first morning I lived there we got into a fight and he threw me to the bed in a rage and tore my blouse off, buttons flying around the room, forever lost, and believe me, there was nothing sexy about it at all and I look back and I’m astonished that it only took 12 hours after I moved in for him to start getting physical with me. Can I tell you that that was the worst Christmas of my whole life, too? I spent it crying and alone on that ratty futon mattress in that filthy living room and thank god I had the cats for comfort as I tried not to cry and I tried to pretend everything was fine.

But it wasn’t Christmas I was thinking about this morning, it was my birthday. The weekend before my birthday, Larry threw me a surprise party (that I found out about beforehand) and it was probably the last good time I had with him. All my friends were there, and my cousin even drove up from North Carolina (and I was so shocked to see him that I started crying, and it was a relief because I didn’t have to pretend to be surprised!), and we were all drinking and laughing so hard that our sides hurt and our mouths hurt and Larry had said to me that for my birthday he wanted to get everyone who loved me in one room together and at the time I thought it was the sweetest thing I’d ever heard. (Although now I am cynical – with good reason – and I suspect that his motivation was to impress upon my friends his supposed good intentions toward me, and I give them credit that they weren’t fooled as I was.)

But my birthday itself was really the turning point, the entry to the abyss, if you’ll indulge a little melodrama. That night, it was a Wednesday, we sat down to watch Billy Elliot, which I’d gotten from Netflix, and I ordered Indian take-out, and we sat on the crappy futon and Larry turned the lights out and as we watched the movie, I would occasionally glance down at my plate as I was eating to make sure I didn’t spill any food on my blouse. Suddenly Larry started sniping at me that I was “watching the movie wrong” because I was taking my eyes off the screen – for a few seconds at a time – during the dance scenes. I got annoyed – I was shocked, honestly, what a ridiculous thing to care about! – but pissed off, too, and I said something along the lines of “who the hell are you to tell me how to watch a movie? I’m not bothering you!” And that alone set everything into motion.

I wish I could remember exactly what happened. I feel the need to depict this perfectly, but it’s all so blurry. I remember he turned the movie off and turned the lights on and berated me for hours. About the same old stuff. About how I never trusted him. About how I was sucking the life out of him, draining him, how I was so hard to live with, and how much easier his life was without me before I moved in, how things weren’t working out, how he wanted me to leave, he couldn’t stand to have me there. (I look back with hindsight 20/20 and am shocked at his gall; I was the only one who worked and I paid all the bills and did the grocery shopping and cooking and cleaned as much as I could and I supported every stupid idea he ever had.) Meanwhile, I just cried, out of exhaustion and confusion, my plate of food barely touched and cold, bewildered at how our intimate night at home for my birthday could change with no warning, how the man who planned such a wonderful party for me just days earlier could be so cold and cruel to me now.

He wouldn’t let me spend the night in the bed; I spent the night of my 28th birthday alone on that thin and dirty futon mattress (can you tell how much I hated that futon?) crying myself to sleep and trying to pretend it wasn’t so bad, and again, thank god for the cats to keep me company.

The next morning I woke up to get ready to work and I hoped as I always did that he would have melted in the night, come to me with apologies and affection; although he never ever did, my hope died hard. And this is where the story is so unclear in my head, just how it happened, and where it got so shameful.

We went for a walk through the woods before I left, out the back door and into the park and into the forest, and as we walked the trails in the park he started going on and on about how what he was going to say was so important, and I had to listen and understand, and my head was so fuzzy and thick and my eyes were swollen and I felt like lead and I just wanted him to shut up but I listened, even though he never made any sense, I realize that now, it was all hot air and bullshit and smoke and mirrors, but that day I listened.

He started asking me questions like “we can both agree that out of the both of us, I’m the one who has his act together the most, right?” Again, in retrospect, this is laughable. I was working, running the household, had a strong network of friends and family, and he was the one sitting at home unemployed and stagnant and unproductive and bitter and angry at the whole world. But I was so battered emotionally, and so confused and lost, that it actually seemed true, because he acted like he knew it all, and I felt like I didn’t know anything. (A friend called him The Guru – she told me after I left – because he lectured me incessantly about what I needed to do to improve my life.)

So as we sat on a rock in the deep woods, he said something like “I talked this over with my social worker, and he agreed that this was a good idea. I want you to agree to go along with what I tell you to do – when to eat, what to read, how to keep your schedule, get up in the morning and exercise – because these are the things that are working in my life, and I need you to do them to fix your life if I’m going to be able to live with you. I need you to do these things and not question me about them and trust me for three months, like a probationary period. If you can do this for three months, then you can stay; but if you get willful or rebellious or question me, then you’ll have to leave immediately. Remember, the social worker said that it was a good idea.”

Of course those aren’t his words. I can’t remember them specifically, and he was clever enough of course to sugarcoat them into something a lot less blatant than how I wrote them – how I wrote them is really what he meant, and I wish I had a tape recording of that conversation, so I could hear how he possibly could have phrased that so I could have possibly agreed to it.

But of course I agreed to it. I was demoralized, depressed, lonely, scared, I had nowhere to go and no one to turn to. He hadn’t even hit me yet. How could I have called and said to someone “Larry is making me do what he tells me to?” I was humiliated, and I still am. I am so ashamed that I said yes.

The five months from my birthday until I left him were the lowest moments of my entire life, lower than I could ever imagine possible. He gave me books to read and wouldn’t let me read anything else, and anyone who’s known me for more than a day knows how much of a violation that was. I would sneak to the library on my lunch break and get out books that I wanted to read and leave them at the office and sometimes even dare to keep them in my purse, all the time making sure never to say “I read something the other day” or otherwise give myself away.

He wouldn’t let me listen to the news in the morning, and I would turn the radio on to hear the weather and if I left it on after the weather he would get out of bed and glare at me with those stone eyes and berate me for trying to get away with hearing some news.

Mind you, this was all for my own good.

He would keep me up late at night and then insist that we get up early to exercise, except that his back always hurt and he stopped doing it himself, insisting that I do it alone, but do the exact routine he specified, and every morning I tried to just get some more sleep, oh please god I just need some sleep before I trying to make it through a whole day at work, and he would berate me for trying to get away with sleeping in.

Around my birthday I was taking singing classes and one Sunday perhaps two weeks later I came home from class exhausted – it was about six PM – and Larry started going on and on about how I needed to keep my schedule organized and I needed a planner. When I told him, hello, I’ve got an electronic planner that works fine, he insisted that I needed a written one, even though my handwriting is bad and I hate how my hand cramps up and I never had any problems with the electronic one, because he had a written planner, and I had to do it his way, right? (Never mind that he was constantly missing or late to appointments even with his oh-so-precious planner.)

Fine, fine, I said, I’ll get one in the neighborhood tomorrow at work. That wasn’t good enough – even though it was almost seven already at this point, he wanted us to go to Staples (a good 200 block trip one way) that evening, and when I protested that I was too tired, he said, “that’s it, you’re not keeping to our agreement, you don’t trust me, I want you out of here, out of my apartment, out of my life, start making arrangements to get out.” And as I sobbed and wept and protested how unfair it was, he looked at me with disgust and said “look at you, look at how upset you are, how you’re acting, what’s wrong with you?” which made me cry even more, and this cycle continued and continued until I literally thought I was going to die from the crying, or I wanted to anyway, and then something snapped in him and he started holding me and stroking my hair and comforting me as my breath came in great heaving sobs and he did that to me time and time again and I am so ashamed still that I lived like that, in such turmoil.

I lived like that for five months. Every day on the edge, sick, scared, furious but unable to acknowledge it even to myself, beaten down, subjugated, humiliated and silent. The physical assaults were nothing compared to this whittling away of me, the thousands of daily little cuts that shredded me.

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7 Comments

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7 responses to “Violence without lifting a finger

  1. Pingback: You’re not the boss of me « The Embodiment of Fat

  2. Andrea K

    My last relationship wasn’t that blatant, but a lot of what you say resonates. 6 years of living with an unstable emotionally and verbally abusive alcoholic took a big toll on my already messed up psyche. Definitely relate to those unexpected tirades where you just sit and get berated for hours, desperately wishing they would run out of steam and go to bed so you could stop cowering and trying to figure out how to traverse the minefield.

    I never was hit. I used to WISH I was hit. Because to me that was an irrefutable reason to end things. I could defend that. I was in a place where I felt “I’m not happy and he makes me feel like dirt” was not a position I could defend, because, it’s not like he hit me, right?

    And I was paying all the bills, was the only one working, he was in my apartment (later my house), but I still felt I couldn’t kick him out because he was too crazy and unstable to support himself, I couldn’t be the one that made him homeless in a gutter, etc. So it was this long long process of trying to help him get on his feet so I could not feel guilty about making him go away. Like, really? After all he had done to me emotionally and financially?

    Ugh. I really hope we are both healthy enough at that point to not let ourselves fall into something like that ever again.

    • Ouch, I am really sorry to hear that you can relate (and that must have made the news earlier this year complicated, if I am making the connections correctly.)

      I am really glad he didn’t hit you, though, although I completely understand the desire to have a physical manifestation of all the wrong, something concrete to point to. Although in my case, once the hitting started, I still couldn’t leave, still couldn’t make sense of it. My cognitive abilities were totally stunted and all I could see was the next five minutes into the future. My best friends found out and got me to leave that very minute, just not go home, and I don’t know how long I would have stayed if they hadn’t intervened.

      Wishing you (and me) that continued health!

      • Andrea K

        yes, you’re making the connections correctly. His death saddled me with a LOT of guilt. Because I had finally gotten him out, and he was woefully underequipped to deal with his life, and I had “turned my back” on him, in my eyes. (And in his, frankly.) Intellectually I knew I had every damn right to, and reason to. But I still felt awful, like I had removed his support. It was especially hard when it seemed to be suicide, but the results have since come back and that was not the case, so I feel less responsible. But it’s still sad to think back on how I was not able to save him from himself. I just had to save ME from him in order to not lose myself. It feels wrong to choose myself over someone else. My life has not been laid out to support that idea. But I’m learning.

        *hugs*

  3. Wow. That made me cry. I can unfortunately relate. My last relationship was very abusive in similar ways.

    I wish you the best.

    • I’m sorry to hear that April, but I’m so glad you’re out of it. I’ve been out for almost ten years now – I still feel the effects sometimes, but I am worlds happier now. I hope the same for you.

  4. Dominique Millette

    @Andrea K: even if it was suicide, you still had no obligation to take care of a grown man. I know it’s hard. A man I took in threatened suicide when I wanted him to leave, because I didn’t love him, and I felt terrible guilt because I’m depressive myself and I know how it feels. However, he could only manipulate me for so long. Eventually, after he pouted so much I couldn’t invite my friends over anymore, he became abusive. That was the last straw, but it still took a few months for me to leave. And it was the most painful thing I’d ever done, because he was my whole life, had made sure he was. This even though I was about as feminist then as I am now and well-educated. Still doesn’t prevent it.

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