Check out the first post in my monthly “Unearthing” feature, part of Rhythm and Bones’ Necropolis blog, in which I investigate the lasting affects of abusive relationships through my writing.
The Things I Can’t Tell You
First published in Ghost City Press
I want to say I’m sorry
about your dad, because mine
is always leaving, too, and I know
it’s hard to be the one left behind.
I want to say tell me about the heart-
break, the one that drove you to boxing,
the one from the poems. I want to say
let me tell you about the heartbreak
that drove me to a bottle of klonopin,
plus a handful of thirty other pills, or
let me tell you about the boy
who convinced me I should be
anyone but myself. I want to say
tell me what you’re scared of,
because I’m scared of bikes, of car
accidents, of dying alone. I want to say
tell me what you want from me, tell me
where this is going because that’s
something I’m scared of, too. I’ve spent
so long being told to not feel, to not
talk about feeling, I️ don’t know
if I️ could ever say this to you. Maybe
that’s why I’m writing this poem:
so I can slip it under your
pillow, hope you’ll find it in
the morning, hope you’ll read it, hope
you’ll want me, still.
Clawing my way out of an abusive relationship was one of the most confusing things I’ve ever had to do. People talk about how difficult and painful it is, but I don’t think it’s often discussed how disorienting it can be. I felt like I had to relearn how to exist in the world.
I lived with a partner for a year and a half who refused to be in a relationship with me, often refused to say he loved me or kiss me, belittled me for having any emotional needs, always wanted me to be someone else. Nevertheless, we were together all the time, talked all the time, were completely absorbed in each other. My life revolved around him and trying to make him happy, an endeavor that ultimately proved impossible. For that year and a half that we were involved, there wasn’t a moment I wasn’t thinking about him and how I could impress him. I changed so much of myself to be likable to him. Because of this, his abuse and manipulation found its way into every part of my life. I knew my love would never be good enough for him, but he somehow convinced me that I could never be good enough at anything I tried to do: writing, school, my jobs, my friendships. And even when I finally escaped his clutches, I still believed I could never be good enough.
A big part of that relationship was my partner telling me I was overly emotional, that I felt too strongly, that I was too needy. He didn’t think we needed to tell each other we loved each other every day, didn’t think we needed to kiss goodbye, didn’t understand my desire to tell him how much he meant to me and to hear those sentiments reciprocated. He would often tell me I was crazy, that my mental illness drove me to be clingy, that I needed to figure out in therapy how to calm down. We moved in together about six months after my suicide attempt, so I was not in a good place and was very impressionable to his opinion. I wasn’t strong enough to not believe him. I believed that there was something wrong with me for giving a shit about him. I believed I was crazy for wanting to hold hands during a movie. He convinced me that all of the problems in our relationship were my fault.
These thoughts made it incredibly difficult for me to be in a healthy relationship after we split. The aftermath of his abuse grabbed me every time I tried to love someone new. His voice was always present in my mind, no matter the years that stretched between us. This poem arose from that internal conflict. I found that in my new relationships after him, I never felt secure and I could never trust the other person, never truly open up. Though I knew these people were not my ex, there was still a part of me that feared they would respond the same way. It felt impossible to tell people I was interested in, “I like you. I want to spend time with you.” I couldn’t tell people how I was feeling or what I wanted for fear of being seen as crazy and needy. Even though these people had never done anything to imply they would respond that way, I had been conditioned to believe that was the response I would get every time.
Much of the abuse I suffered in that relationship is known as gaslighting, defined by Wikipedia as, “a form of psychological manipulation that seeks to sow seeds of doubt in a targeted individual or in members of a targeted group, making them question their own memory, perception, and sanity. Using persistent denial, misdirection, contradiction, and lying, it attempts to destabilize the victim and delegitimize the victim’s belief.” This poem explores that gaslighting and how I carried its effects with me into new relationships: “I want to say / tell me what you want from me, tell me / where this is going because that’s / something I’m scared of, / too. I’ve spent / so long being told to not feel, to not / talk about feeling, I️ don’t know / if I️ could ever say this to you.” Though this poem is centered on a specific relationship, the central struggle of it is one I experienced over and over again. It ruined a lot of potential relationships for me. I wasn’t able to participate in a healthy relationship until I was truly able to break free from the lasting effects of that abuse. Yes, it was painful and impossible at times, but it was also overwhelming confusing. I had to relearn to trust myself, to believe myself, to value myself. I had to let go of what I’d been conditioned to believe myself and notice the beauty in how deeply I love. I didn’t finally feel free until I could embrace myself with open arms.