You know what really bothers me, after all this time and even after your death?
It’s the question everyone still asks—my now-husband, my parents, my friends, my therapist: why did you stay?
It’s the question everyone in an abusive relationship is constantly asked.
If it was so terrible, if he was so mean to you, if he hit you, or humiliated you, or robbed you, or threw your bird out the window (you remember that, right? We’d been out with friends and you decided I was too full of myself. When we got home, you threw my beloved cockatiel out the window into the freezing New York night to its death as punishment).
If he did all those things—why did you stay?
We didn’t have children. I didn’t need you to support me. We weren’t even legally married until the almost-end. We owned no property together. (I’m sure you’ll recall we owned nothing at all. We were destitute and had been since early on when you decided that drugs were more important than food and shelter and, for some strange reason, I went along with your dictum.)
I didn’t really even like you, and you clearly hated me.
So why did I stay?
I was 25, a waitress at a big fancy steakhouse and a struggling writer when I met you. You were handsome then, but you wouldn’t be for very long because drinking made you fat and drugs made you sallow.
You were also full of yourself—your Yale self, your big shot trader self. Normally I would’ve sneered at a guy like you. I was an artist. You wore a suit. End of story.
But there was something different about you. Or, more accurately, there was something different about the way you made me feel. As if I was important. As if I was different. As if I was beautiful, incomparable, special. I’d never felt a single one of those things in all my days, and once you made me feel them, I was hooked. I never wanted to feel ordinary again.
After the first blush of romance wore thin, I would endure losses beyond all imagining just to have that feeling one more time. It is exactly, precisely, like the reasoning every drug addict uses to explain their addiction:
“The first time I used xyz, it made all the pain go away. Every time I used after that was a desperate attempt to recreate the initial high. Even though it never worked, I could not, would not, stop chasing the high.”
I recently found this definition of addiction, and it seems to apply absolutely to our relationship:
“Addiction is a primary, chronic disease of brain reward, motivation, memory and related circuitry. Dysfunction in these circuits leads to characteristic biological, psychological, social and spiritual manifestations. This is reflected in an individual pathologically pursuing reward and/or relief by substance use and other behaviors…Addiction is characterized by inability to consistently abstain…Like other chronic diseases, addiction often involves cycles of relapse and remission. Without treatment or engagement in recovery activities, addiction is progressive and can result in disability or premature death.”
I allowed you to rewire my brain. And the resulting dysfunction kept me pathologically pursuing reward and/or relief by staying with you.
When I watch the show Intervention, I am appalled to see the depths to which addicts allow themselves to sink. Can’t they see what they’re doing? How they are methodically destroying their lives just to take one more hit?
But that was me.
In the name of “love,” I allowed myself to live on the streets and steal money from friends, family and anywhere else indiscriminately. And instead of “just leaving you” (how hard would it really have been?), I became a dancer so we could have our drugs and a place to live— and so I wouldn’t have to give your bird-murdering ass up.
Why? Why did I stay?
The truth is, I still don’t know. And that’s probably why I hate being asked that question.
I will always be in recovery from you. But while I am weak and feeble even now, there is something I’d like you to remember—something I’d like me to remember:
I may have stayed, but I also left.
I left, and I am here, and you are dead, and I have as many second chances as I need. I can be free, I can love myself, I can forgive myself, and I can move on. Because people can change, as you changed me, and now I will change myself back—into the woman I was meant to be.
Relephant, from the same author:
Author: Erica Leibrandt
Editor: Caroline Beaton