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He must have been suffering.
He never told me this, no one ever mentioned he was in pain. I just know now, from 50 years of living, what I didn’t understand at 20 years old—people who are hurting, hurt others.
When I first met him, he told me he had won me in a poker game. Long after I knew him, I wondered if a wiser girl would have known to run, right then. Maybe she would have known that she was just a pawn in a competition with his friends. She would have seen his manipulation, and how he orchestrated and then intimidated the other men into staying far away.
His words were cruel and demeaning to most everyone, even to his close friends. This was just his way; dominating people through insults and making jokes at their expense. He rolled his eyes when people spoke, and he made faces behind their backs. But, for the woman he was honing in on, he was charming. He sent her bouquets of red roses, left chocolates and teddy bears by her door, and he brought her chicken noodle soup in the middle of a blizzard.
He did all this for me, in the beginning.
We were together for a while, yet I don’t have one beautiful memory of us. I may have erased them, but I doubt that. It is more likely that they never existed. I think it is more telling what he and I never said and never did. The naturalness of two people falling in love. The late-night talks, stroking of each other’s hair, listening to music arm in arm, or taking long walks hand in hand. They never happened.
He did, however, teach me to place my heart in the hands of those who are worthy of my love, and only those who are capable of receiving love. He taught me to use discernment.
Even so, finding a true appreciation for him is difficult. Instead, I chide him for his criticisms and for the harsh tone he used when he spoke to me. I listened when he said my backside was too big, my hair a disastrous mess, and my legs were heinously short. His words, however misguided, stayed with me, no matter how much I tried to shake them.
I hold him accountable for ruining a young girls’ first encounter with love and stomping on her self-worth. But, I forgive him, too. For I know now that if he could have shown himself love, then he would have shared that with me. I know that if he spoke kindly to himself, he would have done the same for others.
I haven’t forgotten the stalking, him showing up uninvited to the places I went, and the break-ins to my apartment in the middle of the night. He’d curl himself up into a little ball, tears streaming down his face, begging me to stay with him whenever I tried to end things. Nor have I forgotten the pleading and his profession of love, which I mistook as devotion. I will never forget how I would heave at night and sweat through my clothes from the torment I felt—for hurting him and for fear of his retaliation.
I think back on the phone call that set me free. It was my best friend on the other end who lived in a different city. She devised a plan for me to stay with her. I actually listened for the first time to what I never wanted to hear, and I looked at everything I didn’t want to see. I was not a victim, and by not standing my ground, I had encouraged him to humiliate and control me. My friends’ words, her sensibility, I can still hear them now: “It is enough.”
I packed my clothes in my backpack and slowly unzipped the soft rooftop on my 1988 black Jeep Wrangler. My foot hit the gas, the wind blew wildly through my doors, and I broke free.
My story is about learning to let go. It is about listening to our body when it no longer wants to sing or dance or laugh. There comes a time when we all must know we deserve to feel loved beyond limits. I wish that for him, too.
Yes, it is about self-respect and courage, but mostly, it is about honoring the sacredness that lives within our own heart.