Content Warning: Chronicling always deals with the difficult topics of abuse, domestic violence, and depression/mental health; this chapter, in particular, also deals with suicide
I was supposed to be searching—out, walking the streets of this city, still so foreign to me—hunting for an apartment, for employment. Instead, closed off inside our temporary residence while he was away at class, all I could think of searching for was escape. It was a relief to be without him—a fleeting sort of faux freedom—while he was at the university for at least a few hours. Yet, as wonderful as it was to be by myself, the sense of isolation—of being in a city of millions and yet being completely, entirely, on my own—was an ache unshakeable within my core.
In a way, it was easier to experience the isolation, the loneliness, the transparency and the anonymity, in a place where I truly was foreign, truly was an out-of-place piece of the greater puzzle of humanity. Tongue tripping over native phrases, falling into a silent language of gesture or avoiding interaction altogether where possible; easier to feel as though I didn’t belong where it was so blatant—irrefutable.
Fantasies that filled me equally with self-loathing and despair, for even as I dreamt them I knew I’d never follow through. I could leave—could hail a taxi, could with halting words and gestures convey my destination, could literally take flight from here and leave him to fend for himself. Head out and just be gone. I could. I wasn’t truly trapped—or, rather, what held me was not lock and key, incapability, lack of resources or resourcefulness. No: what trapped me, instead, was a snarl of emotions too hopelessly interconnected to detangle and resolve. My fear, my insecurity, my self-loathing, my stubbornness, my pride, my love, my loyalty, my anger.
I ached, constantly, in every way possible. Bruised, beaten, convinced so deeply of my own worthlessness while equally deeply resentful of what he was doing to me—was it any wonder that I came to the point of wishing for another sort of end? An escape where I no longer had to suffer, where I didn’t have to answer that most difficult of questions: what next? An escape where, in some small way, I might have vengeance—he might finally value me if he missed me. At the very least, he’d be inconvenienced. He’d have to do something for himself. It would be his turn to be on his own.
I only had a small, travel-sized bottle of generic acetaminophen, and this already small portion of pills had been diminished still further from more appropriate (more intended) use. Still, maybe what was left would be enough. Whatever the case, it was something against the inertia, against the stale uselessness of fear so frequent and so deeply-ingrained as to be exhausting rather than stimulating.
I swallowed them dry, the chemical taste of the white pressed-powder pills sticking stubbornly to my tongue, and the memory of the shape of them within my throat briefly stopping my breath however much I tried to swallow it down.
I didn’t want to die. I didn’t want to not exist. I didn’t want to have no future, no hope, no chance to experience something—anything. Yet, I was so tired. I was so tightly bound within the decisions the both of us had made, I couldn’t see my way out—however clearly I could fantasize about it, the possibility of leaving didn’t feel real.
Even as I was struggling to breathe around the lump within my throat, I was torn between the fear that it would work—that the handful of pills would be enough—and the fear that it would not. Immediate regret intermingled with a shameful hope that this, at last, was an attempt to leave him from which I couldn’t turn back—a decision I couldn’t take back, even if I’d changed my mind.
How many times had I left, only to return? Even knowing that things would be worse, only worse, for my having even tried to go, still I returned—each and every time. I left for myself, I left for him, I left in anger, I left in fear, I left in despair—and it made no difference. The most I’d stayed away was, what? One day? Perhaps two? Pathetic. Insignificant. Insufficient for anything but digging deeper into what would surely be my grave, one way or another.
That day, I learned that a travel-sized bottle of pain-reliever is not enough for anything except inducing an incredible amount of pain. I can still taste it, can remember so vividly the hours of vomiting that progressed from the more normal consistency through a vivid yellow bile that burned, and on into dry heaves so fierce as to tear my throat so that all that came up was saliva streaked with crimson.
I’m unsure whether he suspected the cause, but for once even he could not deny that I was ill. He didn’t care for me—was more upset at the inconvenience to himself than anything. Was angry and on edge, as usual. Was dangerous, as always.
I nursed myself to a shallow sort of wellness and called myself ‘recovered’ by the next day. Deep within, I also nursed my shame: for having tried at all, and for having failed so miserably.
It used to represent freedom and absolute comfort. I never had my own space, never had privacy—not really. The very idea of being able to strip down and slide, naked, between the sheets of my bed, was tantalizing and titillating on its own. I’ll admit that it was deliberately to tease, when I first mentioned it to him. Just a casual remark completely in keeping with the tone of the conversation. Oh, sometimes the reason it takes me so long to answer my door is that I sleep naked and I’m slipping into some clothes. I relished in the response received, in that feeling—so new to me, so difficult for me to believe—that I was desired.
Similar, the first time I allowed him to see me naked. Lying there—nervous, yes, but also so very excited, almost catching a laugh upon my breath as I thought upon the reaction he’d have when he pulled back the covers of his bed only to find me waiting there, more ready for him than he had any reason to expect. Sharing myself that way was a choice all my own. It wasn’t forced upon me, it wasn’t rushed, it wasn’t expected or even outright requested. I knew that it was something he wanted, something he would like, something he would appreciate…At least, I thought that I knew that. Looking back, did I ever really know anything of his thought or feelings? Part of what pains me most now is the fear that I never did, not really. How much--just how much—was false? Whether my own misconceptions (false hope, assumptions) or deliberate deceit, the end result was the same.
What moment was it, that something which once empowered me, which I once chose to share, became a crippling prison into which I’d allowed myself to be forced? When did something so harmless, so freeing, become a prison unto itself?
It’s amusing to see how in film nudity is so frequently, so studiously avoided. Lovers who never quite seem to get naked in bed, women who ridiculously sleep without removing their bras (as though that weren’t the first thing to come off at the end of a long day): it’s just one of the ways that media doesn’t quite map on to reality. Equally unrealistic, in my experience, are films where a captive is tortured or ridiculed while remaining clothed. Nothing matches the feeling of vulnerability that comes from being altogether naked. Nothing.
Unprotected. Unable to run. Humiliated. Cold.
The chill settled within my stomach, an unshakeable ache that my hands, my arms, could not soothe away. Any sort of cover would have been welcome—even the ability to curl upon myself so only my back was exposed to the chill (indifferent) air would have been a blessing. Clothing, comfort, cover of any kind were all barred to me. I stood, naked, shifting my weight from foot to foot, bending subtly to try to shake the pain gathered in my spine, trying to be silent, to seem totally still.
Yet, obeying sometimes made it worse. Don’t obey and risk beating, bruises, blood. Obey too long and risk the same. How to find the balance? How to know whether or not it’s safe, now—at least somewhat so—to crawl into bed, or to possibly at least sit upon the floor? Perhaps bed was allowed, but no blanket? If I slumped to the carpet, would I be beaten, filthy fool that I was, and forced, again, to bathe until my skin was itchy, raw, tormented by the torrent of now-cold water—warmth long gone? If I slipped into bed, would I awake to cuddles and the pretense that this didn’t happen, doesn’t matter, is at least over for now? Or would I awaken to a sudden blow, to split skin and bloodied sheets and desperate scrubbing--out damn spot—to forestall stains even as I wipe the blood and tears from my aching eyes? Or would I flinch from a blow sensed, but not yet landed, and so earn a beating even if one were not actually imminent prior?
Damned reflexes that betray. A hideous guessing game where, even when I gained some small reprieve, I always lost. There was no chance of winning. Not there. And so I stood—naked, vulnerable to him in every possible way, trapped by the equal powers of fear and indecision.
Looking back, the moments blend together. I see myself…
The time I thought maybe I’d leave, after all. Downstairs, desperately pulling a long wool coat on over my nakedness, cowering in the entryway. Reaching for the door only to be pulled back, yanked down, left gathering the scattered fistful of hair I’d lost; penance, perhaps, for the attempt.
The countless times I was denied cover—whether lying in bed without a scrap of blanket or standing at attention. Not allowed to sit, to crouch, to lie down, to move, to think too hard about just what I’d come to--mustn’t think, mustn’t cry, mustn’t run, mustn’t flinch, mustn’t speak, mustn’t let out the scream that’s welling up inside. Even when it is warm, cold will settle into your belly if you give it such chance to do so. It will ache.
How must I have looked, huddled within the dripping confines of the tub in our bathroom? Hair hopelessly tangled, curls turned to knots and loose strands caught up with those still attached to my scalp. Snot and tears and blood running together in a mess that progressed from damp discomfort, to itching, to a burning, unrelenting sting.
Wanting to shower, but then also wanting to stop. Neither one my choice to make—oh, certainly, I was left to make it. Yet, with such harsh penalties for making the wrong choice and only one correct selection I was supposed to somehow discover—what choice was it, really?
Just how many times did I sit so long damp in the shower after bathing that I had to bathe again in order to feel clean? Even once already one time too many; I truly could not count, could not guess the hours.
Whatever the situation my memory places before me, elements remain the same. Desperately trying to distract, to change the mood, to wait it out, to gauge what action (or inaction) will lead to the least amount of pain, of punishment. Hating my own flesh for its weakness, hating him for exposing that weakness, and hoping he’d never see some telltale flash of fire to speak to that hate, that resentment that smoldered deep within my being, that said this is wrong even when the rest of me failed to fight. Hoping my own thoughts and feelings—so very opaque to me—weren’t just as naked to him as he kept the rest of me.
When people learn how long I stayed with him, how long I dwelt with his violence and his control, they often remark upon it. Specifically, they question: how could someone like me—someone as smart as I am—stay in that sort of situation? How could I let him treat me that way for so long? Even if they don’t say it, I know they’re thinking, “I wouldn’t have stayed; I would have left; I wouldn’t have let myself be treated that way.” Yet, when I respond with a bare acknowledgement of my own stupidity—my own complete and foolish disregard for myself—they’re equally quick to backtrack. “No, I didn’t mean to say you’re stupid.” What did you mean, do you think? Do you even know?
I’ve always been this person inside. Always this strong, this caring, this kind, this careful, this carefree. I just buried it deep beneath insecurity and neuroses; beneath the conviction that he was right and I can help and don’t be so selfish, Elizabeth. Selflessness, charity, putting others first. It isn’t sustainable if you’re only a ghost of yourself, a shell emptied and hollowed and beginning to crumble apart.
I stared out the window at the bright sunlit world, briefly mesmerized by the slight sway of the tender branches of a young pine and the tall stand of lavender, set to motion by a breeze that was undoubtedly welcome to those outside in the dry desert heat. Sun-baked sandstone and glittering pale granite lined a patio that overlooked the mountains, and a part of me wondered at the knowledge that the metal tables and chairs that bedecked the paved area would be scorching to the touch should anyone try to use them.
I felt weirdly cut off from the world, sitting in a chair that, while it had seemed welcomingly soft when I first sat down, now felt hard beneath me where the fake leather molded to my form. The coolness of the air-conditioned room had been welcome, too, at first. Now, though, I found myself shuddering and thinking almost longingly of venturing outside into the blazing heat of the summer afternoon. I knew that I wouldn’t, though—that there was no way I would be able to bring myself to leave my spot at the low table, open laptop sitting before me so that I could make some pretense at business, waiting. I was waiting for him, just as I would always wait for him, and the thought of it sent a pang through my chest and had me suddenly suppressing tears. Blinking rapidly to forestall an embarrassing episode of public weeping, I quickly turned away from the window, staring blankly at the open document on my computer screen. The contrast between my situation inside and the brilliance of the summer just out of reach beyond the glass was suddenly more than I could bear; it all too clearly resembled the contrast between my current existence and the seemingly-blissful normalcy of the lives of everyone who passed in and out of the building around me. When had I become such a mess? I questioned myself, although I well knew the answer; he was the reason I was here, after all. Waiting. As usual.
Thoughtlessly, I rubbed my arm in an attempt to warm it—whoever controlled the air for this building obviously did not spend much time in it, or was one of those strange folks who prefers to wear a sweater indoors even during the hottest desert summer—and winced when my hand brushed too strongly against a nearly-forgotten bruise. “Fuck,” I whispered the word beneath my breath, then instantly flushed in embarrassment, checking furtively to be sure that no one had heard me—speaking aloud to myself as I sat in my little corner would be bad enough, but cussing … I reddened further, and had to force myself to take a few deep breaths.
No one was looking towards me, and there weren’t that many people around anyway. The university was sparsely populated, most students choosing to take a break rather than continue to study over the short summer semester. Further, it was a holiday weekend—most students and faculty would be home preparing to celebrate Independence Day. It felt as though I was a part of a small, exclusive club of those whose lives so revolved around the university as to have no reason to ever be anywhere else. Or, rather, I wished that it could feel that way—I felt far too isolated, and too aware that I was no longer a student myself, to feel comfortable the way everyone else appeared to be. It felt as though ever since I had graduated, I had a sign pasted to my forehead that warned people that I didn’t belong; it was with wistful nostalgia that I remembered the days when I felt comfortable anywhere and everywhere on campus, no matter the day or the hour—when this place had been school, workplace and home.
I glanced again at my watch, although I knew there was no real reason to do so—after all, there was no set time he would arrive; he would get here whenever he was done, and no sooner. Nonetheless, I kept checking the time—appealing to watch, cell phone, and laptop alternately—it wasn’t as though I really had anything else to do. Although, even that was a lie. There was plenty that I could—and should—be doing; I simply couldn’t bring myself to embrace those few activities that I could accomplish while I waited for him.
Trying to convince myself my shudder was solely the result of the cool air blowing down on me, I shifted in my chair and crossed my legs, the cold air striking unpleasantly against the back of my thigh where I had grown sweaty from sitting for so long. Smoothing my slacks along my legs, I tried to focus my attention on the work that awaited on my computer. The blinking cursor in the open document seemed to taunt me as I sat with fingers poised over the keyboard. With an inward curse, I again gave up. Giving myself empty assurances that I would be able to do it later—there was plenty of time, my mind just wasn’t in the right place—I sat back and once again settled into staring out of the window, this time hardly seeing the bright colors of the plants set against a clear blue, sun-washed sky.
It began with the photos. Really, not even photos, so much as the mention of them. To be accurate, it began with an entry in a blog. Not an email—not any sort of missive—and certainly not a phone call. A bland, innocuous, update to a blog it’s entirely possible no one ever really read. What it represented, though…I knew, even then, at least in part. The reaching out of it; communicating with, caring for, considering someone else. More particularly, to family, but really wouldn’t anyone at that point have been equally perceived as some sort of threat?
The way he phrased it, what I had done wrong was to deceive him. It wasn’t that I’d written the post, but rather that I’d hidden it from him. Or tried to, anyway. Obviously a job poorly done, that. Yet, why had I even the impulse at all to try to keep it from him? A personal blog, started before there was an “us”—back when it was still just “me.” An update from my first real trip abroad, from what should have been a brilliant, grand adventure. An apology for silence, for a recent lack of the sharing that so characterized not just my upbringing, my family, my acquaintances, but me.
I’d tried to keep it from him because I knew he didn’t want me to talk to my own family. He feared they influenced me. Surely, given time and effort, I’d prove myself to him and show him where he was wrong, and we’d all get along just fine. For now, though—for now, I’d just go along with what he wanted on the surface even if underneath I was drowning; screaming soundlessly, clawing at the edges of the transparent prison in which I’d allowed myself to be sealed, vision growing dim at the edges just as it had when his hands had gripped my neck. The scarf from his mother that had been a Christmas gift a few months prior almost hid the bruises entirely from view. I don’t think anyone even noticed. I sincerely hope they didn’t, not for the sake of my own shame or embarrassment, but for theirs. If they noticed, and they—none of them—said, did, anything at all…They didn’t see, surely. What was obvious to me, what had me anxiously tightening and adjusting that silk scarf about my neck, was not even noticeable, really. Surely.
Minor sign of the constant inward struggle, that blog post. He found out. I was scared—so scared—of him so angry, so I fled. Tried to lock myself away, to beg him to please stop, please calm down, please see what he’d become.
I can hear him, still, banging on the door. See him climbing over the edge of the stall. Hand bleeding from a cut he got struggling to get in to me. Did I see what I’d done to him? How I’d hurt him? What I’d turned him into? His voice, accusing, was a buzz within for so many years—Did I think he wanted to be a monster?
Nothing more dangerous than him no longer caring what happens to himself. If he doesn’t care what others think, then even public places aren’t safe, you see.
After he chased me into the girls’ bathroom, and I fled from the stall where I’d sought sanctuary, I wasn’t fast enough. I wasn’t loud enough. I still cared too much—didn’t want others to know, not really. Didn’t want him to get in trouble.
And so he caught me. Struck me, grabbed me, took me by my hair and dragged me down the hall. The dorm-room doors we passed were closed, indifferent as the occupants they shielded from view.
I was pleading, I was crying, I was trying not to cooperate, but the pain in my scalp had me scrambling; torn between the sharpness of that sting and the burning where my legs and arms dragged against the carpeted floor. His grip, even with that wounded palm, was unyielding.
Flung to the floor in the relative privacy of the small shared kitchen space, I was already half-blinded from tears when he took my glasses from me. Or, rather, knocked them from my face and didn’t allow them back to me.
I kept the pieces, carefully preserved, rattling about in a case, for years. He still has them, probably. Along with everything else I left behind.
You see, he snapped them—my eyeglasses—into an irreparable number of pieces. Such a smart move, really. An early indication of a skill he’d cultivate over the years to follow. First step to instilling terror, to maintaining control over a person: make them as vulnerable as possible. What’s more vulnerable than to be blind? How better to control me in that moment than to take my sight from me?
He then proceeded to threaten to take my life.
My response wasn’t to ask for pity, but to beg him to consider his own life. He wouldn’t get away with it, you see. It was too obvious. Everyone would surely know he’d done it. He didn’t want to go to prison, did he? To lose his own life? His own goals and dreams?
Which returns us, again, to the lesson: the scariest moment is when he no longer cares about himself enough to truly try to hide what he is doing anymore.
That moment someone walked in. What a sight we must have been. Me, a disheveled mess with hair in wild disarray, snot- and tear-stained, bruised and scraped, sniveling and crouched in the corner upon the floor. Him, hand bleeding and clutching the remains of my eyeglasses, clothing askew from his own exertions, damp with his own sweat and tears.
Someone walked in, alright. Paused a moment, hesitant upon the threshold of the room. Just long enough to cause a brilliant, painful, flare of emotion in me—a dizzying, kaleidoscopic mix of trepidation, horror, shame, and hope. Then, a single phrase, “Oh, sorry,” and the stranger was gone just as suddenly as he’d come.
Enclosed within a building with hundreds of residents, yet entirely alone, I talked him down, that night, from the verge of killing us both. Somehow, I talked him down.
One of the great benefits of writing is the catharsis that it can offer. Putting the demons that haunt my mind down into words is an excellent way to begin the process of exorcising them. The written word has a distinct power; it is harder to dismiss an experience that has been put down on paper, somehow. My abusive ex knew the power that writing can have, both to sort out emotions and thoughts, and to serve as a proof of experience. As such, he would not allow me to keep a diary when we were together. He was afraid that the truth of how he treated me would make it out into the world rather than staying caught up between us, a toxic secret meant to be hidden even from ourselves.
When I finally escaped from the prison of that relationship, I began to do many things to celebrate my new-found freedom, and to remind myself just how important it was for my survival and my sanity that I never return. One of those things was writing; I began to vent out all of the pent-up emotions, thoughts, and secrets that had built up over a decade of censorship. This began as a therapeutic journal, but I soon realized that my personal experiences may be useful for others to read, as well. Thus begins my Chronicling project; a memoir detailing scenes from my life, centered around my experiences with abuse, domestic violence, mental health, and chronic illness.
I hope that the snippets of my life that I share in the written vignettes that are my Chronicling posts here will help others to better understand what goes on in abusive relationships, and also to show those who are in or have been through similar conditions that they are not alone. There is a comfort and a strength that comes from the community of knowing that you--what you have suffered, and what you continue to suffer--are seen. I hope, as well, that those still caught within what very much feels like an inescapable situation may be able to recognize that they, too, can move on, can survive.
It is important to note that Chronicling will not shy away from difficult topics. The following content warnings apply: domestic violence, abuse, sexual abuse, suicide, self-harm