by Hannah Page
I surveyed the landfill that had become of the apartment my (now-ex) fiancé and I had once envisioned as where we would make our first home together. The whole place was an uncomfortably apt metaphor for Chris’s and my relationship. We rushed into the lease without inspecting the place long enough to discover its problems. The entire bathroom tile floor would come up after it got wet enough times, leaving a dirt surface, and the hardwood floors might as well have been ramps. We had proudly signed both our names on the lease, thinking this moment was our beginning. I mean, it was a beginning. It was the beginning of our decomposition, like any of the crawling bits of food matter strewn about the place months later.
OUR ILLNESSES FED OFF EACH OTHER
How did it get so bad? I have OCD tendencies, which means I’m extreme about cleanliness. But when I’m depressed, as I was for the majority of that relationship, the switch flips from clean-freak to slob. Chris had a habit of blaming me for the mess once we lived together, which I didn’t think was entirely fair. He liked to paint me as the pig, he as the rational one with good reason to be on my back about it. There were a few times early on when he did help me clean in a significant way, like when we moved out of the tiny bedroom I’d been renting and moved into our one bedroom together in Hell’s Kitchen. But eventually, with both of us spiraling further and further into depression and mental un-wellness, something had to give.
THE DOWNWARD SPIRAL
He shed his sobriety like an extra skin, smoothly deciding he’d have “a beer or two” at the bar while we were watching football one Sunday. This turned into at least one or two six packs an evening. Me, I was smoking close to the most weed I’d ever smoked, making little effort to control it because I didn’t want to feel the truth of the situation underneath. We were doing blow every other night for up to a month and a half and we were fighting worse and even more often than usual despite having begun to see my therapist as a couples counselor.
The topic of cleaning the apartment had been coming up since our earliest joint sessions with my therapist. Chris said he’d clean with me when I did. I explained repeatedly that I was not well enough to clean, at least not with the state of disarray to which things had gotten. I explained that merely considering the task felt like facing a brick wall of anxiety. He did eventually agree to start fixing the place up, but by then it was too late.
A BREAKING POINT
The moment that convinced my therapists, my parents, and myself that I had to leave him was when I had fallen off my meds. A month or two later I confessed to them that my cocaine use was what interrupted my medication. Either way, I had been too depressed to get out of bed and he refused to walk two avenues to the pharmacy to pick up my meds for me because, as he regularly pointed out, I should have been able to do it myself.
So, I moved out to a corporate apartment funded by my parents, which allowed me, yet again, to begin recovery from my mental illness. I had left the majority of my possessions at the dumpster-apartment. Now I mostly only own things I care about, and because of it, I feel lighter.
A PATTERN OF ABUSE
There are plenty of stories with I could tell to convince you Chris was abusive. But stories don’t make abusers, patterns do.
- Constantly checking my texts so I felt unsafe telling any of my friends how I honestly felt.
- Forcing me to cut a dozen people out of my life he was jealous of.
- Begging me for a female-female-male threesome so I would feel jealousy over him for once.
- He expected me to repeat everything I’d ever done sexually with him, or he’d say I loved my old sexual partners more.
- After I moved out, he called me nearly every night between 3-5:00AM hysterically threatening to kill himself if I didn’t come over.
He told me nobody else would love me the way he did.
I hope that’s true.
The thing about abusive men is, women know they are abusive. We have a sense of it deep within us. That sense is often blocked or hard to hear because it’s more convenient to stay with the abuser, especially if it hasn’t gotten bad yet and especially if we’re not yet trapped.
Particularly susceptible to becoming the prey of abusive men are women who struggle with their mental health. For me personally, the borderline quality of perpetual emptiness paired with my depression sometimes takes me to a place low enough that I’ll suffer so long as I have someone to hold me at night. The second part of it, for me, is that I have an unstable sense of self so when I enter into a relationship and my partner becomes my favorite person I end up putting that sense of self on them. When that happens I don’t exist except through their eyes. Imagine a breakup where that’s the case. It’s like disappearing.
A STRING OF ABUSIVE RELATIONSHIPS
Chris was my third abusive relationship, and I’m planning on lucky number three breaking the cycle. When I look back to the beginning of us, I can pick out some of the red flags. I hadn’t missed them so much as chose to ignore them, because I’d been conditioned over years of abuse by various men that I just didn’t deserve any better. For instance, from the very beginning I’d found Chris was far too comfortable lying to me, but I let it slide.
I’m happy to say there are a lot of signs I’m growing. If my relationships are cyclical, I’m getting better and more quickly able to spot the red flags — even if after the fact — and extricate myself from a toxic environment. Even with Chris, in our dumpster apartment, I was able to recognize the signs and break it off. I broke it off after we were already engaged, sure, but also before we’d planned much of the wedding. It was also relatively early into the outpatient program I entered early this year (their support helped immensely) and much sooner than I might have in the past.
Why people stay in abusive relationships is complicated. But the cycles, for me, are getting shorter and I am, slowly but surely, getting shrewder. I am more able to detect abusive patterns and detach from them when necessary. I focus every day on nurturing my self love. Only when I can comfortably stand alone will I be truly safe.
Hannah Page was born in Manhattan. She graduated from Columbia University in early 2016 with a BA in Creative Writing. Hannah has battled a slew of mental illnesses for nearly two decades and only this year, with the help of a truly brilliant team of holistic doctors, has finally brought herself to a place of relative wellness. Through her work as a writing tutor, she has discovered a passion for helping others find their voice. She was recently accepted to Columbia’s School of the Arts where returns in the fall to earn her Masters in Poetry. Hannah intends to become a professor.