When I couldn’t live with #98 any more, I moved in with #117. I had placed an ad looking for a room, and he answered it. It was just the two of us. The rent was more than I had wanted to pay, but the idea of peace and quiet appealed to me, even though this new arrangement meant giving up the freedom to host visiting punk bands; even though I couldn’t even stick posters on my walls. The flat felt oddly formal, owned by #117’s parents and thus decorated to their old-fashioned tastes. It was not me at all. But I thought maybe it would be good for me.
The getting-to-know-you sessions, smoking joints until the sun came up, quickly made me realise that I was attracted to my flatmate. I knew from the beginning that it was best not to act on this, but I also figured that you have to explore where things take you. I never imagined how damaging it would actually be.
About a month into living together, I kissed him. It was me who started it; it always is. I was happy that first night. I was excited. Things were good for a while. But I have two and a half years to condense into this post, and for the vast majority of that time I was not happy, and neither was he.
I heard alarm bells early on. I chose to ignore them. He was pessimistic and didn’t think much of people in general. He didn’t socialise and he smoked dope all the time, I mean all the time, not just recreationally. He’d avoided the company of others for so long, it was like he’d just allowed his teen angst to grow into his twenties, unchallenged by interactions. He had low self-esteem. I thought I could convince him of his worth; I didn’t realise that he just wouldn’t believe me, that he would throw my attempts back in my face.
And I compromised. He didn’t like to go out, so I went out less and less. He didn’t respond well to visitors, and anyway my friends felt uncomfortable when they came round, so that happened less and less too. It became easier to shut myself away from the world like he did. He claimed he was cool with having a queer feminist girlfriend, but then he’d demonstrate such insecurity about it that I started to censor myself, avoiding reading certain books, watching certain films or discussing certain topics when he was around. As things broke down more and more, he repeatedly told me what he reckoned was going on in my head, even though his conclusions were nothing like my own.
I went off sex. It became a chore and a huge drama. He wanted it anyway so I’d try to do it in the false hope that it would keep him happy for a few days and buy me some peace. Alcohol helped but it made him feel bad that I needed to be drunk, so I had to make an effort when I was sober too. I tried to pretend I was into it because it made him feel bad to think that I wasn’t. If he felt bad, I had to reassure him that he was not abusing me. Whatever way we looked at it, the problem was me.
I became unrecognisable. I cried all the time, and when I didn’t cry, I felt numb. Every few days things would flare up. This was especially guaranteed to strike on special occasions, when I had guests, and on the rare occasions I was away from home, reminding me that I couldn’t forget our problems on a brief holiday, and refocusing my energy into pleading with him long-distance. I called in to work a whole lot of times, cancelling my shift at the last minute.
I learned that if I cried, it was only a selfish attempt to distract from the matter at hand, which was how I’d fucked up in some way. I learned that if I stayed quiet when he said hurtful and confusing things to me, it was only more infuriating and made him grow harsher because he was desperate for a reaction: I drove him to it. I learned that my own understanding of myself and the world was no match for his irrefutable take on things. I learned that it was easier not to argue, and that the safest thing to do was always to apologise, even if I didn’t understand what for, even if I didn’t really believe I’d done wrong.
More than anything, it is exhausting to live like that.
My hope was being eroded. After every incident, he’d suddenly see the light. He’d be sorry he’d upset me so much. He’d reflect on his own issues that had contributed to our problems. He’d make me cards and give me gifts and promise that from now on things would be better. Things did not get better. As the years go by you lose count of how often these things happen, how often empty promises are made, but I don’t imagine we ever got through more than a few days without drama, and there were a hell of a lot of cards to recycle when I cleared everything out afterwards.
“I think we’re both equally to blame for what went wrong in our relationship,” he said after we broke up. I pretended I agreed, because I didn’t see the point in debating it. But I do not agree. I was by no means flawless, but I’ve spent a great deal of time thinking about what I did wrong, and I can only think of a few things, all of which seem so small to me that it would feel petty and stupid to even mention them here. Maybe it’s a leftover of the way he made me feel like I was going crazy: I continue to ask myself if I am forgetting something big, if I am glossing over some horrendous transgression on my part. All I can do is trust myself. Meanwhile, it exhausts me just thinking about the amount of energy I put into trying to keep the peace, how tense I was, how it was like walking on eggshells all the time. I never deliberately hurt him just to provoke a reaction. I gave up my social life and my creativity and all my adventures. For this.
But I think it’s also important – crucial – to recognise that he didn’t just wake up one day and decide to fuck up my life. He had issues of his own. I understand at least some of his motivations, which by no means excuses them. He should not have behaved the way he did, but the fact that, in context, I could somewhat follow his twisted logic, made it harder for me to recognise that I was experiencing abuse. I pretty much thought that abusers were macho, devious, ogre-like types who deliberately set out to control their partners. And #117 didn’t fit this model at all, but his behaviour was ultimately controlling nonetheless: it was the kind of controlling that makes you think it’s your own decision to give up your friends and your interests – because it’s easier than meeting with his disapproval.
There is a good side, though, and that’s the aftermath. The freedom I experienced after it finally ended was intoxicating, and we’re going to get to those adventures soon. I rediscovered that I was more than capable of getting by on my own. I found joy in all the small things I hadn’t experienced for so long. I’m aware that I still have things to work through, even five years since the end of that relationship: issues with trust and sex and boundaries. But I’m content to work through them at my own pace, and I’m confident that I can do it. I have a heightened awareness of what I need and don’t need, and most of all, I will never accept that kind of treatment again.
This is an emotional abuse checklist. (EDIT: Since the original site is down, I’ve used the Internet Time Machine to access it. This means the script will no longer calculate your results for you, but the checklist is still really, really useful in outlining what to look out for.) If you think you maybe relate to anything I’ve described here, whether you identify with me or with #117, please check it out. If it tells you that you’ve got some work to do, please take it on board. Most of all, do not allow yourself to become trapped in limbo. Two and a half years feels horribly long to me, but a lot of people remain in situations like this for much longer. Maybe you can fix it; maybe you need to end it. And the end is scary, but it’s so goddamn exciting to get your life back.