trauma drama

 I weighed myself again last week and the numbers whispered back

You’re out of control. 

You’re unrecognizable. 

This is why he didn’t want you. 

Anxiety settles in like a cat on my chest. A little tail curls around the back of my neck, little claws pad into the fabric of my shirt. It circles round, its weight heavy, heavier, heaviest; I awake with a startled gasp for air.

It comes in waves for moments, minutes, hours. Out of no where, for no reason, or reasons I can’t understand.

There’s a fog, a hazy blurriness around the edges, the feeling that at any moment your throat might finally close in, the unstoppability of the tail curling tighter and tighter and tight—-

I blink a bit and try to watch from the outside. I squint into the fog as an observer, no longer the active participant.

From this vantage, I separate myself to watch the mental tantrum that trauma is throwing and feel the angry-toddler energy from afar. 

I recall that today’s mental clutter might be inspired by years-past conditioning. I recall that last week may have been especially challenging, considering I’ve had to narrate my dysfunctional story at two separate meetings, with two groups of people, for two separate reasons.

The first, an initial appointment for the annulment process. The next, an interview for my ex’s work.

Thinking about, preparing for, and participating in these story-telling pow-wows has taken me over. 

Do they think I’m crazy? Do they believe me? Will they be kind?

The breath comes shorter. 

It’s no longer a cat. It’s the slightest threat of his hand on my neck, he’s above me, the sex, the choking the gagging the hands on the back of my head, forcing it down my throat til it hurts I’m at the mercy of his larger-than-mine hands his hands over my face til my vision blurs its all just a joke. 

It’s drowning.

I show up at church, trying to explain what went wrong, very practically explaining dates and engagements and STDs and the reasons I shouldn’t have married this man in the first place.

I show up at coffee shops, trying to somehow explain that, sure, he might be good at his job, but no, I found him to be deceitful and manipulative and unreliable and rageful and really, no, no one else saw much of that behavior, it was reserved mostly for me, so maybe its unverifiable and it didn’t really happen.

Of course, everyone’s been kind, everyone has listened, no one has told me I was wrong. I still can’t turn off the nervous energy or the dreams or the circuit in my head running in loops warning me that everything is out of control.

I try to chase it away with sweat and yoga and reading and walking and writing and breathing and medicating.

It’s a little bit tiring.

I’m looking forward to the days these things don’t sneak up on me in such a visceral, physical way. 


In the meantime, I continue to observe.  

To be honest, it looks like quite the mess. There’s a party of diagnoses carrying on in my head and, I’m sure, a handful of fancy labels we could hand out like favors.

All I know for sure is that today I’m choking on anxiety and popping Reeses by the handful, trying to smother everything else.

Thankfully, the internet is a wide, wide world, and with gratitude towards to some handy YouTube videos and qualified mental health professionals I’m starting to hone in on why the heck I feel like I’m losing my shit.

There is a particular fancy label, C-PTSD, or Complex Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, that has felt particularly helpful as of late. This particular cluster of ‘stress responses’ has not yet been verified by the DSM (diagnosis bible for psychology), but nevertheless has provided me a framework with which to format my experience a bit more clearly.

There’s a version of PTSD we recognize nowadays thanks in part to education and in part to war-themed movies/Grey’s Anatomy. Collectively we’re able to recognize flashbacks and violent outbursts and are happy to non-judgmentally support those who are struggling.

We also recognize that PTSD develops in times of threatened safety, where the brain sees danger and reacts chemically to prepare the body for defense. Vigilant ‘fight or flight’ mode activated.

After time, with repeated exposure, this vigilance has the capacity to convert to hyper-vigilance. The mind hears the same warning bells day in and out until it loses the ability to distinguish between real or perceived threat. Every bell is an alert to action, and certain bells engrain deeply enough to become triggering alerts to action out of proper context.

Cue Marine triggered to flash-back by ceiling fans posing as helicopters.

Worth noting- this ‘fight or flight’ response can be triggered by any threat to safety, and the same chemical reaction takes place in the face of war, car accidents, house fires, etc., etc.

Incidents are different, body responds the same.

Makes sense, right?

What was news to me was that the ‘fight or flight’ response can happen in cases of psychological danger (aka abuse) too.

It’s a little harder to pin down, as it’s a little harder to recognize psychological or emotional abuse. The process wears down the mind differently- there isn’t always one particular moment of danger. More typically, there are many, many moments over an extended period of time.

Also interesting- while the brain does not distinguish between different flavors of physical danger, it also does not differentiate between physical or psychological danger, especially when the situation is perceived to be inescapable. The body remains vigilant until the brain learns new modes of operating in a dangerous world.

With all that said, apparently there is also such a thing as an emotional flashback.

This is where the mind provides inappropriate responses to situations that have triggered the need for self-protection in the past.

Cue panic attack when your Bumble match doesn’t text you back. Sounds stupid, feels like real abandonment when you used to have a husband who didn’t text you back for hours, sometimes days.

Then after the anxiety-soaked meetings I had this week, I’m starting to identify more of those triggers in my own life. I’ve come to this conclusion: I don’t like submitting my story for critique in ways outside of my control. Writing here? Under my control. Feedback at a minimum, at least to my face. At church? In public? At work? No thank you. 

I don’t like opening myself up to a place where someone can tell me I’m crazy. Yes, I certainly am attempting to move beyond requiring validation, but, yes, I lived in a world for many years where my experience was not considered to be truth. It takes a long time to move past that.

A sprinkling of other strange triggers I’ve been not-so-pleasantly discovering on this journey with anxiety:

My weight. I see the scale and my brain recites a mantra. I’m unlovable. I’m undesirable. I’m too much, too big. Worth cheating on. Worth leaving, ignoring, treating unkindly. I earned it, it’s my fault. I’m not worth looking at, I’ll stay away.

Online Dating. LOL all you want, but many ignored messages later my fixated brain and speeding heart tell me I’m alone. I’m abandoned, uninterested, unwanted. Intimacy is the ultimate danger and people, especially men, are not trustworthy. 

Gym Paraphernalia. This feels silly, but I swear every time I hear a shaker bottle I’m back at home with him. I’m sure I’ll be alone for hours, isolated, starving for attention, neglected emotionally, not worth investing time in, not as worthy of care as a set of abs.

Vague Criticism. Unhealthy, yes, to respond to normal snippy family dynamics with shame. I made the coffee wrong? Panic. They’ll be leaving soon. They’ll be emotionally distant. They’ll be cold. Hide.

Other reliably anxiety-inducing triggers: Lying. Misogyny. Unreliability. Jeans that don’t fit. Movies where couples are fighting. Blah, blah, blah. An interesting rainbow of bizarre crap my brain has done.

I’m looking forward to untangling the rest of this mess, because this is freakin exhausting. 

In the meantime, I whisper to my anxious cat, pet it and hold it and tell it it’s safe, again and again, over and over; he pads away to rest.

there’s no catchy title for this (abuse)

I still haven’t found an easy way to explain why I left my marriage.

Especially in casual conversation, especially when I’m meeting new people. I still haven’t found my neat one-liner, my simple solution to drop into chit chat. The classic ‘we grew apart,’ ‘we just weren’t happy’ or ‘we wanted different things’ doesn’t quite rub me the right way. 

Of course, I imagine those are some of the lines he’s fed to old friends or family…Probably something along the lines of him pursuing a military career and me nagging him to stay home and start a family. I guess that falls under the ‘we wanted different things’ category. 

Which, in a way, I suppose is a little bit true. We did want different things. And yes, him telling me he didn’t want kids was my last straw. It gave me pause and the permission I needed to step back and analyze our relationship more objectively. I realized I did want different things.

Was the problem his job? Our lack of a family? My job?

Absolutely not.

This decision I made cannot be reduced to me acting as some neglected housewife begging for children and harping after a man chasing promotions. 

No.

I left because I wanted something new. 

I left because I was abused. 

I wanted that to end.


I’d like to say it again, just for clarity’s sake.

I. Was. Abused.

I’ve tried to avoid those words. I didn’t want to risk sounding melodramatic or like a complainer. I wanted to avoid criticism, and I believed that if I didn’t say it out loud no one could tell me it didn’t happen. No one could say “it wasn’t that bad,” or “it could’ve been worse.” 

This is something we all need to work on- validating someone’s experience without criticism, comparison or judgment. 

I need to show the same grace to myself.

So yes, I am aware it could have been worse. Yes, I’m aware someone else has been through something more painful. Been abused more overtly. More openly. More obviously.

No, that does not take away from the significance of my experience. It does not lessen the impact it’s had on my life, my health, my view of the world, my view of myself and my view of relationships.

I’d even go so far as to say that psychological and emotional abuse was more challenging to notice, escape from, and heal from than I ever would have imagined. 

I always grew up believing that if a man ever hit me I’d be gutsy enough to immediately walk away. I’d know that wasn’t how a woman was to be treated, and I’d move the heck on.

What I didn’t grow up knowing? 

That withdrawing affection is abusive. Neglect is abusive. Manipulation by providing and removing that affection again: abusive.

Creating an environment of fear is abusive. Fearing consequences, reactions, loss of love: abusive. Fearing violence- abusive. Fearing rage- abusive. 

Fearing pregnancy. Abusive. 

Refusing to use condoms but making me feel guilty for choosing fertility awareness? What I wanted to do for the health of my body and the health of my faith? Abusive. 

Using coercion and guilt to gain sexual favors is abusive. Stepping over boundaries is abusive. This should have been obvious -no means no!- but, to me, it didn’t seem like much. Until it got worse, and more frequent, and blatantly, unavoidably, obviously, abusive. 

Making me the gatekeeper of that behavior, like it was my responsibility to make sure my spouse respected me, is freaking abusive. Real respect, real love, does not look like that.

Furthermore, sex that hurts- due to carelessness and drunkenness or uninvited aggression- is abusive. 

Lying is abusive.

Cheating is abusive.

Calling someone names, making fun of their size, comparing them to other women- joke, after joke, after joke- abusive.

Also, there is such a thing as spiritual abuse. I didn’t know that! What I’ve since learned is that it is wrong to shame or manipulate your partner into feeling guilty for their faith. I shouldn’t need to hide my journal or close Scripture or put away my rosaries because I’m afraid of being seen praying. More than anything, I should not be made to feel as if I deserve bad treatment because “I love God too much.” 

What made this all the more confusing? Harder to pick up on? More challenging to recognize?

When he told me I was crazy. 

This is gaslighting: when you present reality to your abuser but they tell you you’re wrong, insane, or imagining things. Your experience becomes twisted and fuzzy and damn-near impossible to sort through. You can’t tell who’s right, who’s wrong, who deserves excusing and who just had a bad day. You start to believe the lies until they become part of a new twisted version of truth.

I’m done with that now.

I didn’t make this up. I didn’t imagine this. I am not crazy. 

I never was.

How’s that for a one-liner?

an anniversary

Our wedding anniversary was this week. Of all the memories I have of our wedding, the ride to the church is what’s been following me around lately. I was with my dad crammed into the front seat of his car, drowning in tulle. We rode through the Dunkin’ drive through and ordered iced lattes like it was a normal day. I wonder if we knew what I was getting myself into.

After that, memories of the dancing or the church haven’t bothered me like I thought they would. Instead, it’s the night after. I didn’t have much planned, just was hoping for a sweet moment in some girly cupcake-fluff lingerie. We had danced so much that we were both too sweaty for that, so instead of a sexy moment we just slipped into normal life like we were meant to be there. He helped me unzip my dress and birdseed fell all over the carpet. I got into the shower, where he found me, and it felt like coming home. 

And then Costa Rica. So hot, so sticky in our quiet jungle cabin. So deep in the jungle there was hardly anything to distract us from each other, but also too removed from the world for air conditioning. Required a lot more showering. Something about that stands out to me most of all- beyond the awkward first-time-sex energy… It was such a normal thing, but became something kind of lovely. He let me wash his hair. It wasn’t much, but felt vulnerable and intimate, something like a secret. And honestly, you don’t let just anyone wash your hair. You could create chemistry with just about anyone if you tried hard enough, but something about closing your eyes and letting someone shampoo you is meant for people you really trust. I was happy to do it. It felt very wifely, like a simple I love you that was brand new to our brand new way of life. 

We were happy that week. There were frogs and flowers, sloths and iguanas, fresh fruit from the garden. Walks to town for fish, piña coladas, sunburns, and the strange dark color of the sand. I remember laughing and talking and ending every night on the deck. Him in the hammock, me in the rocking chair. There was hope. Maybe relief, too, that I had his attention all to myself, and he was being so devoted after months of the opposite. We got lost in each other a bit, and it felt like it could stay that way forever. I knew marriage would be work, but I thought we’d always find each other and find a way through. We had before.

Someone asked me the other day when the rest of it started – the neglect, the bizarre manipulation. I think it only took a month. It’d all been happening, really, but something about living with someone highlights their worst in a more obvious light. Obviously. So there we were, him talking to me like I was stupid, me with those first alarm bells tinkling in the back of my mind- he’s just stressed, he’s just tired, it’s fine, it’s fine, it’s fine. 


After my wedding, grief had me flipping through the Rolodex of the other weddings we’d been to. Usually they were good times, except for one we’d been to in October, right at the start of a bad stretch. I felt his mood shifting while the leaves were turning, like the weather was changing for us too.

It started with the bachelor party, where he’d either he’d been to a few full-nude strip clubs and lied about it, or he was so damn drunk he honestly couldn’t remember a thing. I couldn’t tell which version of the story annoyed me more. Then there was the reception; he made a joke about getting me drunk just in case I was pregnant from the weekend before. Wanted to fix that problem, ha freakin’ ha. Then he asked – Are you done? Meaning: was I done being an annoyed/annoying crazy wife because, really, none of my feelings were worth talking about for real. Best to ignore it all and be done. That night he woke me up for sex that hurt more than it should. He was drunk and careless and I thought I couldn’t say no. It felt too weird to talk about after.

Then there was last year’s anniversary. We’d had a barbecue for the holiday weekend with some friends, and everyone was happily buzzed and ready for summer. At the end of the night it was just the two of us and we started fooling around on the patio, as one does when buzzed in the summer. It was sweet until he couldn’t quite keep it going enough for sex and the night ended with me guiltily helping him towards a one-sided finish line. Started out feeling a little loved, ended up feeling a little used. 

I cried that night, wanting God to make it end- the guilt, the coercion, the fear of what would happen to me if I starting telling my husband no. No, I don’t like how that makes me feel. No, this doesn’t seem like you want to have sex because you love me, this feels more like you just want something from me and more than anything, I’m scared because I really don’t think you care what I think. 

There’ve been many more tears since then at his expense, but that was one of the last when things were good. Good-ish. Maybe normal is a better word? Back when things were status quo. Before I’d decided I’d had enough. 

I miss Costa Rica. I miss the simplicity, the easy sex and showers and undivided attention. I miss loving and feeling loved. It’s a small moment of time untouched, like a little pocket in the jungle still wild. I wish it could’ve lasted. 

going public

This account was set to private until last week. I’ve been typing away for months in hiding, getting my story down and out, processing, waffling somewhere between snotty tears and girl-power anthems. I knew I wanted to let this all breathe in the open someday, but I was planning to let it wait. I was scared.

Even here, after all this time, I was scared of him. 

I was scared he’d find this and read it all and be absolutely enraged. How dare I say this or say that, report this, talk about that. Interpret it this way, feel that way. No one was supposed to know, this was supposed to be private, it was personal, this was between husband and wife. I was afraid he’d be furious.

The thing is, though, he’s already furious.

The other thing- I already left.

I realized now was the time for me to let my story see a little daylight; it was time to stop being afraid of him. I couldn’t lose his affection any more than I already had, and I needed to stop giving him power over me. I stand on my own now because I choose to, and he doesn’t get a say here anymore.

I’m not trying to be hateful or take anyone down. I’m just trying to tell my story. And he doesn’t get to tell me how I do that anymore.

Of course, regardless of his opinion, telling a story of my own left me open to the frightening opinions of others. I was pretty damn afraid someone could hear it and tell me that I was crazy.

I was afraid that I could lay it out there: the moments, the facts, the feelings – and someone could look at the body of it all and tell me that I made it up. That I interpreted everything very, very poorly, and completely took it all out of context. That what I felt was wrong. I imagined it all. I was wrong to leave, I was wrong to believe what I did, I was insane to have the standards I did or the faith I had. He never really made me feel small, he never really ignored me, I must have been dreaming. I was stupid, I was being a typical woman, I was being overdramatic.

But I suppose that’s the point of overcoming any kind of abuse. I used to laugh when people claimed to own ‘their truth’ – it felt like a very millennial catch-phrase – but now I understand. You can’t cope with the reality of what happened if you don’t believe it yourself. Abusers are the ones who convince you it wasn’t real. Abusers tell you you’re crazy and completely in the wrong. So in the end, everyone might have a different version of this story, but I’m not going to believe the version where I am insane anymore. I have a claim to truth now, and I will not let that be silenced.

Aside from all that, there is still the problem of being seen. I was (am) afraid of that too.

Naturally, for all my fear, it’s one of my deepest desires. Who doesn’t want to be fully seen, acknowledged, celebrated, loved?  After spending a lot of time being unrecognized, becoming unrecognizable, I started to believe that was it until I left the shitty vortex of my marriage and found my voice again somewhere safe. 

Unfortunately, since then, I’ve come to realize that honest story telling isn’t safe at all. In all creation through all of time- in music, art, poetry, writing, acting- there is vulnerability. Even here, I open myself up to judgment, misunderstanding, forgettability, and failure. Still, I walk forward, willing to speak up and let everyone turn away, again, leaving me unknown, again. This time is a little different, though, because this time I don’t put so much weight on someone else’s seeing. This time, I see myself.

In reality, this story of mine just exists somewhere small, but it’s my somewhere small. I’m going to own it now. My story is part of a larger story, and I’m going to tell it without being afraid. Try like hell, anyway. 

Part of me still is cautious, and human, and I’d like to stay on your good side, so I’m sorry if my story bothers you. I’m sorry if it offends or paints a picture of reality you never noticed on your own. I apologize if the details are too much or you don’t understand or you don’t believe me. 

You’re welcome to walk on by. 

Because sorry or not, scared or not, I’m ready to let this exist. 

sex and disrespect pt. ii

Memory Lane

Dating

I did a lot of rationalizing. I would try to assert myself and my boundaries, even tried to break up with him a couple of times. One time I decided we were breaking up because we were going to stay in a hotel with some friends and I didn’t want to share a bed. Yes, to most people this is not a big deal. I’m not even sure today I’d be that concerned about it, though I do believe it fosters an intimacy that is best reserved for marriage. Anyway, at the time, he threw a huge fit. He was angry and weird, and we got in the usual you-chose-religion-over-me argument.

I realized that more than the actual problem was the fact that every time I had a boundary he could not find it in himself to simply respect it. Just be respectful and and support me if I’m feeling uncomfortable. Don’t act like a crazy person and make me feel guilty for trying to love my God in the way I believe in. No tantrums, no guilt-trips, no arguments. I was being disrespected, so I tried to leave.

Obviously it didn’t work. He fed me some lines about how I was beautiful and he would cope. I believed him and we moved on. Except we didn’t move on! It would come up and up again where he would be a nice little boyfriend until he cracked. He would start being pissed we weren’t having sex and I would say, fine! Go date someone else! Go have sex somewhere else! If you can’t deal with this, then don’t. Be free. Then he would COPE. 

Always coping, and I always rationalized. It was hard in today’s culture for guys to deal with physical boundaries. They have hormones and wild friends and porn. I let it slide. I started carrying the guilt for having so many needs and rules. He was really struggling for me and he must really love me.


Engagement

Then there was a ring. When we got closer to our wedding the reality of natural family planning started to hit home. For those of you unfamiliar, NFP/fertility awareness is a cycle-tracking system where you avoid sex when your body gives you signs it could get pregnant. I’m into science, and aside from the fact that this is encouraged by my faith, I believed in it from a purely biological standpoint. I was always open that this would be the path I would be walking, due to my religion/love of God/choice for what was best for my body. I had been tracking my cycles for years for purely health-related reasons. 

Welcome back, Moody Boy. Beyond moody, actually. Hurtful and angry more than ever before. Isolating me, withdrawing affection, ignoring me. Where there should have been supportive respect out of love, there was hurt. The guilt of enforcing my rules weighed even heavier. Again, I tried to go. Again, I started to feel like it was less about that actual issue and more about the lack of respect. Why was it so hard for him to be kind and supportive? This was my body, anyway. I didn’t want to put chemicals in it! 

I offered him a way out and told him if he couldn’t find a way to respect me then he could find another woman to be with. To be clear, this wasn’t an ultimatum, it was honesty. There are many women in the world who are happy to go on the pill, but it just wasn’t for me. I didn’t feel like he could manage to meet me where I needed, so maybe this wasn’t going to work out. He told me no, he’d cope, he didn’t want to lose me. After months of arguing, we didn’t talk about it again. 

And again, I rationalized. He was just struggling with the stress of engagement and graduation. This would be fine. 


Marriage

We did fertility awareness and it did work fine. He didn’t make a big fuss about it anymore, but things were worse in a different way. Every month I was anxious. Whenever I couldn’t have sex because he didn’t want to get pregnant, I would hold my breath, hoping he didn’t want to that night. If I said no, sometimes he was fine. Or sometimes he would tease me and tell me I was useless. Sometimes he would roll away and not even want to hold me. It was everything or nothing, those nights. Message received. If I wouldn’t be available for sex, he wouldn’t be available for love. 

I can’t tell you how long the weekends were when we both were off from work and I was fertile-myrtle. It was constantly in the back of my mind. What a relief when I was in the clear- I wouldn’t have to be on guard, I could relax, I could be available to him whenever he wanted. 

And the relief when I got my period month after month! I can’t tell you how many pregnancy tests I hid in the bathroom garbage. Because, obviously, if we got pregnant it would be all my fault for choosing NFP. If we got pregnant he would be mad and it would be my fault and then I would really be alone, and so would that baby. 

How twisted that I lived in this place for so long. I was the gatekeeper ready to serve at the pleasure of his moods and somehow felt I deserved it. He was burdened by my rules and my faith, and he was really great for not making me go on the pill. What an angel. 

Unfortunately, whatever he wanted sometimes didn’t mean sex. This is personal and probably a little graphic, so if you’re feeling easily scandalized or aren’t in the mood, wander somewhere else or fast forward to part five.

anger management

Dear Soon-To-Be Ex, 

I’m angry today. We’re going back and forth between lawyers about the house and other things you’ve decided are non-negotiable. Who the hell gave you the power to decide what we negotiate on? Look, when we bought that damn house I was under the impression we were starting a family together. Also that you wouldn’t continue to be a completely shitty husband.

If anything was a non-negotiable it should have been: Thou shalt not be an eternal man-boy who only cares about himself. FYI, when you tell a woman you’re going to have a family with her and let her make a permanent commitment to you that also includes real-estate, you don’t turn around and say “I married you because I felt bad.” Fuck that. You didn’t accidentally date me for four years then randomly wind up with a ring then stumble upon a church for a wedding. You were an adult male with a brain. You should have done the negotiating back then. 

If only we all had the balls you have. I think you really believe you’re in the right and need to get everything you deserve. Certainly the last thing you deserve is to keep that damn house. Honestly, I don’t think you can be trusted to own your own property. You’ve left a little snail trail of rage everywhere we’ve lived and I think it’s time we looked at it.

House One. A lovely little place across the street from the ocean. The first week we lived there we were working on getting internet installed and you lost your damn mind on the phone with the help-line people. Obviously, I know, they can be extremely frustrating. I can’t say I’ve ever screamed at any of them though, let alone ripped the TV mount out of the wall. That shit was nailed in pretty good, too- a jerry-rigged mess from the tenants before. I think that was the first time I was so close to such explosive rage. I quietly snuck out to the other room to wait for things to simmer down. It’s normal to be stressed during your first move, right?

House Two. Look, I know this house was falling apart and had a weird smell and I’m sorry I picked it out. Actually, I’m not sure if I should be sorry, since we both looked at it together and signed the lease. Sure, I was stressed about the short time-line we had to move and there weren’t a lot of options, so I guess I was in a rush, but you were there too. If you didn’t like it you could have slowed down and talked to me about it instead of being pissy the whole time we lived there, blaming me every time you stubbed your toe or had trouble getting a pan out of the kitchen cabinet. Such a treat, being there for two years. 

I can’t really remember what triggered this particular blow up, but I know you came home from work one afternoon and walked right into the kitchen to punch the freezer. The freezer! That thing is metal! And you dented it! Honestly, the most jarring part was how unprecedented it felt… There I was, minding my business folding laundry or something, then BAM! RAGE! Such an intrusion into my space. An unwelcome visitor in my day and my home. 

I think this was the first time I mentioned you could be a little frightening. This made no sense to you, which, in turn, made no sense to me. If I’m married to someone who could dent the freezer door in the middle of a nothing day, how am I to know what turns that anger on and off? How am I to know when it’s going to be turned on me? We didn’t talk much about it again, and I covered the dents with some magnets and pictures and wedding invitations. Bury that, no one will know, probably shouldn’t tell anyone though. Here’s a clue, past-Becca: if you have to hide shit like that, it’s probably not great.

House Three. I was in the kitchen having a glass of wine with my sister who was in from out of town. We were chatting and laughing, doing the sister thing. Out of the bathroom walks my husband, tripping on something and hitting his shin or toe or whatever. Naturally, very uncomfortable, I’m sure. Did you really need to punch another fridge, though? Multiple times? This time took a lot more magnets to cover up. My sister was there for this one too, which was interesting. Because now it seems you have a weird little habit, and now someone else is watching. And this time when we moved out the landlord noticed. You really weren’t interested in paying her back for the damage. Please. If you’re going to throw tantrums like that over bruised shins, just man up and deal with the consequences. You were man enough to punch the shit in the first place.

House Four. Last house, I promise. This time was special, because we were actually arguing about something important. It was towards the end, and you were pissed because I wouldn’t say I loved you more than God. You were mad and let me know “I can’t even be at home because it reminds me I’m always in second place.” Simultaneously you managed to blame me for your constant absence (not my fault), make me feel guilty for loving God (not a bad thing), and tried to make yourself more important than God (narcissism, much?). 

So, there we were, me refusing to deny my religion, and you refusing to accept it. And then you punched a hole through the drywall. Probably not hard to do, but it was a bummer because the house had just been purchased. Also a bummer because this time I was right next to you and your rage was directed at me. Not that it hadn’t been pointed in my direction before, but this was the first expression beyond purple-faced screaming I had earned. I made a joke, told you to get a less expensive habit. We both laughed. It seems while you developed a habit, I developed a coping mechanism. Humor diffuses all. 

Thanks for developing a pattern I could pick up on. Thanks for teaching me that I shouldn’t have to wonder when my husband will stop punching walls and start punching me. 

Maybe instead of worrying about what is non-negotiable in our divorce, you crazy asshole, you can start working on that. Anger management: non-negotiable. 

a letter to you on your birthday

Today, in a bizarre toast to you on your day, I made the decision to go through my box of old love letters. Back when we started dating I went to TJ Maxx and bought a box with purple lilacs and French script printed on the cover. What a perfectly romantic place to store the letters you’d been sending me from school! How heartbroken our little teenage hearts were when you left! We knew it was the beginning of a long road paved by the military; lined with long-distance, hard-work, and loneliness. 

Your letters were sweet and short and written in between desperately busy days. You wrote to me about how beautiful I was. How sweet and kind. How much you looked forward to seeing me again. How much you looked forward to the next part, the next month, year, whatever, because it all meant we were closer to seeing each other again and always inches closer to the ultimate: life together after school. You wanted to see me wake up in the morning and hold me at night. You wanted to tell me you loved me and laugh with me. You wanted to be friends. You wanted to be family. 

What do I do with those letters now? Do I throw them away and pretend they never existed? Do I reduce them to some manipulative scheme and dismiss them? Do I let them sit in my heart and feel the love I felt when I was 18, 19, 20, etc., etc, etc. 

I’d like to think it was real. If you were manipulating me I don’t think you knew it. I’m not sure you loved me as deeply as you claimed or as intimately as I needed, but I think somewhere and somehow you loved me. In some universe, when you addressed cards as my love, I really was your love. When you wrote me that I was beautiful and would be a perfect mother and wife, that you would take care of us and protect us, you didn’t know yet I would need protecting from you. You didn’t know that you would tell me someday you wouldn’t want kids because you didn’t want them to grow up to be like me. That one day you could watch me tip the man in the parking lot and look at me, seriously, and say “I fucking hate you” and pretend you never said anything at all. I don’t think you knew on our first Valentine’s Day when you called me your heart and soul that on our last Valentine’s Day you would get me a blank card on the way home from work and never write in it. 

Buried even deeper in the box is a list of things you loved about me where you told me I was smart. I don’t think you knew we would get in a door-slamming, sleep-on-the-couch fight because you thought men were smarter than women, and especially that you were smarter than me. That you could tease me and call me dumb and useless and I would laugh it off. 

How do I reconcile these people that I knew? There was the sweet, sensitive boy who wrote these letters. He surprised me with a weekend to the beach one of our first married summers. We took a ferry to an island and spent the days eating seafood, sleeping on the sand, drinking and smoking cigars and singing 90s songs on the porch. We were at home together. You used to open your arms up to me and ask for a hug while you were on the couch- I loved that you did that. I would be busy, cleaning or folding clothes, and you knew that sometimes an interruption was best. Your arms were strong and warm.

How was that the same man who could leave me alone in a house night after night for hours at a time? Who could disappear to a bar with friends without caring to tell me when he’d come home? Who wouldn’t hug me or touch me or speak to me unless I begged him? Who could scream til he was blue because I took too long curling my hair? 

I used to think the kind version of you was the real one, and the dark version was the one that needed excusing, and there were plenty of excuses. Now I’m not so sure. Maybe that version was real enough, but those roots can only grow so deep. At the core and buried underneath is your darkness and sadness and hatred. I think it might be rotting you away, because it certainly tried to rot me.

I’ll put it so you can understand: I think your kindness is real in the way paint is layered on the canvas. You’ll paint it on thick enough until even you believe it and everyone else sees something beautiful. In the end, though, the canvas is weak and thin and when the paint starts to chip off there’ll be nothing beneath but sadness. 

Happy birthday.

Love,

Me