“Even the most fucked-up love can feel better than the thought of being utterly alone.”
By the time I left my ex-girlfriend, I had stopped being able to eat around her.
I would force down a few mouthfuls and throw up. At 5’4, I weighed 46 kilos. She did not beat me, but my body was weak, sleep-deprived, and permanently on edge, because that is what daily experience of being treated like I was not a person – but rather an object to fulfill another person’s needs – did to me. It was the cumulative impact of the playful jibes that became unrelenting criticism. The protracted silent treatment whenever I did or said anything she disliked. The constant jealousy and accusations no matter what I did. The other women and the men, the ones she strenuously denied, the endless text messages and emails that I found. The way that it was always, somehow, my fault. That I had driven her to it. Was imagining it. The lying, and the lying, and the lying.
But I couldn’t leave.
I could tell you that I stayed because childhood trauma has broken my fight or flight mechanisms. I am desensitised to red flags. I attach myself to dangerous people, and when I realise that I am in danger I become both terrified and paralysed. I could explain that you can dux your school, earn three university degrees, do therapy, do your job well, surround yourself with wonderful people, and still recreate those patterns. It’s exhausting, it’s frustrating and it’s hard, hard work to break them.
I could tell you that I stayed because, during the months when I woke drenched from head to toe, the nights when my body seemed to create its own amphetamines to pump, pump, pump through my heart, to flood my lungs with, that she would come. That she had done this to me, was continuing to do this, and yet, when she came, I could breathe again. I could sob.
I could tell you that there was no one else. That all of my friends and loved ones had become unreal to me, apparitions whose love I did not trust. That even the most fucked up love can feel better than the thought of being utterly alone.
I could tell you that I stayed because giving up on someone you love is bloody hard. And I loved her. I loved her because she is captivating, smart and funny. I loved her because I got it. Well, some of it. I got the distrust, the dissociation, the emptiness. The way that an intelligent mind can turn those things into fuel, accomplish, accomplish, accomplish and never stop, never stop moving because it hurts too much. The reasons why people need to regain control.
I could tell you that I stayed because the thing I didn’t get was that it was possible for a person to lie that much. I ultimately had to change my understanding of humans, and of the world, to fathom what the reality had been.
Something in us bonded deeply. It was a traumatic bond. It was intense and exhilarating and toxic – for both of us, because we replayed the things that had wounded us. We were both unable to leave. I loved her because, in some ways, she was who I could’ve been. I loved her because I was in love with the idea that I could heal her.
I loved her because she is worth loving.
I could give you any of these explanations. Every one of them is true.
After almost a year of being lied to, controlled, isolated, cheated on, blamed, belittled, humiliated, I forgave her. “I don’t know why I’m such a monster to you,” she would say. She wrote me 30-page letters, paid for therapists, held me and cried for hours. Said she could never lie to me again.
Later I would discover that, two days later, when I went to visit my family in Australia, she had a threesome with two much older women. She’d been having a relationship with one of them during our reconciliation. And with two other people.
It had never stopped. The tears, the letters, the therapists, and it had never stopped.
I began to think I had gone insane. I questioned her over and over about what had happened while I was away. I kept waking in the middle of night, having panic attacks. I told her, many times, that I did not consent to being with her, or to being touched by her, if she was still lying. She looked into my eyes, stroked my hair, told me I was losing my mind. She explained, again, that she barely knew the older women. They were high-profile professionals; she said she had met with them to discuss a job. I began to believe her. There’s something wrong with me, I wrote in my journal, I’m accusing her of bizarre scenarios. She chastised me for not trusting her, reminded me that I’d promised to give her another chance. I apologised, felt riddled with guilt. She convinced me that I was delusional and needed help.
Somehow, within a year, I had gone from being a confident extrovert – someone fiercely loyal and protective of my close friends and sisters, someone who had learned tough lessons, didn’t let people mess with me – to being desperate. Disoriented. Needy. Terrified. Unwell.
When I found the graphic sexual messages from the older women, and from others, something finally clicked. Even she could not provide convincing enough lies this time. I finally left. What followed were several months of deep, free-falling depression, of suicide fantasies, of days when hearing someone say “I believe you”, and “you are not crazy” literally felt like a lifeline.
And then there was healing. Then there was the realisation that she will suffer far more in this life than me. I still get triggered, I still feel occasional bursts of anger and fear, but I have realised that my deepest desire is to see others who love her hear the truth and hold her to account. I couldn’t heal her. The only chance of that ever happening would be if those who love her could engage with the truth, and still love her. But that will not happen in this society. I have learned that people prefer to simply disbelieve uncomfortable truths about those we love, rather than do the work of continuing to love them and holding them to account. When we dehumanise abusers we entrench this, making it even harder to speak out, forcing people to ‘take a side’, forcing our abusers to keep lying out of fear that they won’t be accepted if they confess.
She had a beautiful singing voice. Her favorite song was called “I need my girl.” “I keep feeling smaller and smaller,” the song went, “I need my girl.” She needed people because the shame forced upon her as a child had made her abandon her own body. She no longer knew what she felt. People would remark in amazement at how she could drink, and fuck, and do drugs, and not sleep, and go to work, still high, and feel nothing. She needed to be held and held because she never had been, because when no one was touching her she stopped existing.
Tell me, who should I blame for my abuse? The people that abused her in her past? The extremist religious school that shamed her for being gay? The politicians that allow hate to be taught to schoolchildren? The people around her who feed the lies, or who maintain false friendships with her, because they can’t be bothered engaging? Perhaps I should blame the public dialogue that renders my experience, and that of others in same sex partnerships, invisible. The conversation that keeps focusing on revenge and punishment as a way of dealing with perpetrators, rather than asking how they can be held to account and loved, which is the only realistic route to change.
Love is an act of courage, not of fear or weakness. It is a strong and beautiful part of us that propels us to want to heal those we love. We live in a society that breaks its children. All of us are complicit. All of us suffer. And there is something beautiful about the fact that some of us try to love those broken men and women. That doesn’t mean it is safe, or healthy, or okay for us to accept abuse: but it is not weak. Our abusers are not evil. Our love is not false. All of us can heal.
On one of our last nights together, I lay on the bathroom floor, nauseous and hyperventilating. For a while, she lay beside me, tracing my bony back, telling me she hated herself for doing this to me. “Mel,” she whispered, “there’s nothing good in here.” She held her hands to her chest. Her voice was blank. “I am not a good person. There’s just nothing here.”
I knew that, for once, she believed what she was saying. And it broke my heart.
For more on family and intimate partner violence and how to combat them: