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I have a new piece up in my NECROPOLIS column, “Unearthing.” This installment is called “Someone I Used to Be” and explores how I still sometimes seek out my abuser’s approval, two years after the fact, and how that impulse arose from conditioning in our relationship. You can read the post here!

Someone I Used to Be

“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.”

This snippet from my first NECROPOLIS post is reflective of the biggest struggle I faced in my abusive relationship: believing that I could never be good enough but trying to be anyways. Because of how my ex abused me, I was conditioned to believe none of my accomplishments would ever be satisfactory and attempts I made to be successful in any part of my life would fall flat because I, as a person, was not good enough. There was no way that I, Ailey O’Toole, would ever be more than adequate.

My ex and I have been separated for two years. We didn’t speak for a long time after we first split, but have been in and out of touch as time has delineated us from each other. I am not the girl I was when we dated; after losing touch with myself in the wake of his abuse, I learned to rebuild myself. I am now someone who I am proud to be. However, every conversation I have with him seems to thrust me back to that miserable, dependent, scared girl I was two years ago.

Every few months, one of us will text the other to check in, a casual, “Hey, what’s new?” His stories are often the same: Oh, I’ve dropped out of school again. I’m too good for all the job offers I’m getting. There’s a girl but she bores me. Despite having become familiar with the most intimate corners of his mind over the course of our courtship, I am always baffled by his inability to follow through on commitments, his intense narcissism, his tendency to treat women as playthings. I also wonder how I was able to swallow those parts of him for so long.

When it’s my turn to share what’s new, I often find myself in a blind panic because, to this day, two years later, I still feel like I have to impress him, prove to him that I’m good enough, prove to him the person I’ve built myself into is too good for him now. I tell him about my writing and all that I’m accomplishing. I tell him about how stable I am, how I’m off all my meds and have never felt better. Sometimes, I even apologize for who I was back then, because he somehow still has me convinced that he abused me because I was defective.

I don’t know where this impulse comes from. I don’t know why he still has any hold on me, despite the time and the distance and the pain that occupies all the space between us. If I had to guess, something about his voice over the phone or his texts on the screen sends my body back to someone I used to be. The situation is too familiar and some primal part of myself that was doing the best to survive in the face of his abuse takes control, tells me to fight, tells me to breathe, tells me to do whatever I have to do to endure him.

I think there’s a part of me that feels like my recovery and success only matters if he thinks it’s valuable, another indicator of how his abuse conditioned me to see myself differently. I still long for his approval, still long for him to say, You’re finally good enough. It’s a breath I’ve been holding for a long time. I am trying to be gentle with myself, recognize my own worth, remember that my life is mine to live and all that matters is if I’m satisfied with it. And I think I am. I don’t know when the urge to be satisfactory in his eyes will dissipate, as I am still pulling his claws out from the softest parts of me. But when I get to that point, oh, what a triumph that will be.

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