Abuse is a Ghost
Four months after posting this, I wrote a sequel called Healing is Other People.
Writing has, for better or worse, been my way to manifest sense out of a parade of scribbles. The brain is flaring thoughts in spite of language, not as its ally—mystical imagery has no care for its worldly supplier: how we understand what we think, how we even sometimes survive it. Thoughts can live as callously and torturously as infections, and while we can go to all kinds of therapy, forums, support groups, we still spend the day living inside a mattress, feeling the sickness take over new corners of our skull, and sometimes on the worst days we make plans.
I’d been trying to keep this as quiet as I could for a while now, living in incredible shame, guilt, and fear, but I was in an longterm, abusive relationship. It feels impossible, given I’m a six foot circus bear who eats social butterflies for lunch and she was a semi-vegan, giggling cardigan who could charm her way into flying the plane. She’d been my best friend, and I hers. For the first few months, it was wonderful—what you’d see in annoying movies—day trips, gingerbread houses, clear articulation about everything from brunch and witches to consent and boundaries. But as certain walls became negotiations became compromises became bended fences that the neighborhood kids hop when they want to play soccer—feeling as though I was losing permission to control my own body, my own thoughts, my own feelings—I began setting up intentions and means of leaving. These were occasionally stalled by her developing an illness or two that I felt personally obligated to help see her through—that once she healed there’d be a hole in her wall the exact shape of me—and whenever I leaked any indication that this didn’t resemble a partnership, that I wasn’t being treated like I was allowed to exist, she would berate me, insult me, claim that I simply didn’t understand or experience real human emotions, and after an hour or so of me apologizing and asking what I could do better, there’d be a moment of calm—even a gentle apology. The unspoken assurance that I wasn’t going anywhere kept the peace. In one of the many times when she attacked me until I was a sobbing, sniffling puddle, she bought me sunflowers (my favorite) and a Trader Joe’s dinner (my other favorite) and apologized gorgeously, assuring it would never happen again and she meant it. She was better at apologizing than she was at abusing, and that felt like a reason to not leave just yet. (That wasn't the final time, of course, but I got sunflowers.)
After almost nine months of chemical rearrangement in my head, I became unsure if my brain could dissect and reflect on reality, in full opinion that who I was was a lesser human that should be grateful for any semblance of care. I deserved this. In our final weeks together, she had gone too far repeatedly without apologizing and I practiced a break-up monologue on three car trips to her place before I finally delivered it, beleaguered with guilt that I was leaving her alone to live with herself.
The first thing you realize once you liberate yourself is that you’ve liberated yourself; you can make your own decisions, feel your own skin shedding: it’s whiplash; this moment of sunshine harbors the heartbreaking twist that you’d been living without it. Every scared thought you had was earnestly there to warn you. You go through every possibility at what you did to incur mistreatment—from the way your hair falls, to the movies you watched together, to thinking if you played piano more they wouldn’t have touched you, too mystified by your unholy talent. You're petrified to confront them, and if you’re a real lucky one they confess—they didn’t realize how much it had been affecting you, they’ll always regret what they had done to you, you should never forgive them—they remain charming and decadent with apologies. You help them move into a new place while they secretly start sleeping with your friend; you and your therapist talk extensively about whether or not you think they’d been cheating while you were together, and the pain comes from not caring if they had. They spread exhausting and oddly disprovable rumors about you to your friends while assuring you they’ve never said a bad word about you, seemingly given it’s impossible to. Leaving stopped the greatest of the songs and dances, but you stay for the encore because even after everything, you are a loving person and want to trust.
I always looked at ghosts sticking around with to-do. There was more to-do. But haunting is what’s done. Support groups say you have to tell people in your life what you’re living with, and you realize this is not one but two conversations: 1) I am being haunted, 2) you know the ghost, coincidence enough. Those who accept 1 may not love 2, so you pick your battles. Some folks just don’t believe this kind of thing. Plenty still prefer the ghost.
You ask often if the reasonable solution is to become everyone’s ghost yourself. It isn’t. Call the hotline. They're kind.
You run into old flames and remember just how wonderfully previous partners treated you—again, if you’re an especially lucky one—and realize that another partner in the future will continue that. You gloat and marinate in women telling you how wonderful you had been to them—that you are a nurturing partner and deserve that in return. You recognize the reason ghosts are such a superstition is because most never experience them. Most never feel cold claws on their legs, possessing every new and warm hand that touches them. Most never fill their lips with houseflies so the ghost’s lips can’t sneak into any new kiss from beyond. Most people do not get abused and most people do not abuse, and it’s a very admirable thing about the nature of people.
I live with a lot of anger, and fear, and confusion, and sometimes even with maybe too much recklessness for whether or not I get through this, but when I go to support groups and therapy I learn that while it’s true that ghosts can never die, your days eventually get populated with life. Like all miraculous things about being a human, healing occurs through other humans. You find folks who take care of you and you them. You find partners whose hands are so warm that you can’t even feel the claws tracing anymore. When you're alone, you look in the mirror and it’s just you again. You live, and that’s something you will always have over the dead.
I've felt a continuous guilt to tell my friend everything about who he's now dating, despite the circumstances, but it's hard to communicate that they don't look like ghosts when you meet them. They look lovely; it's not when they look like this that they've become ghosts, but when everything else looks like them. Someday, he may see her as I have, and I'll have the love in me to forgive him so we can trade ghost stories, friends again.
Until then, I'm finding love and personal forgiveness in every flower I buy myself.
And I overwhelmingly recommend Trader Joe's Chicken Shu Mai. All of this is a plug for Trader Joe's Chicken Shu Mai.