PTSD: A Break-up Story

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I fell in love. Briefly. “That was three months?!” my ten-year-old said, her heart broken too. “Felt more like a year.”

Bad times can distort time, and this period was extremely intense. They say it takes twice a long as a relationship lasts to get over it, which makes me wonder how people ever get beyond, say, a twenty-year relationship. Ours was a case of condensed trauma. By three months, my emotional torture level had been reached. I became so thin I didn’t recognize my own skin, and yet, had it not been for my child’s need of me, I probably would have stayed longer in the quagmire that was supposed to be love.

It’s been over eight months since the inevitable disastrous conclusion. We think we’re over it, and then my daughter will say things like, “If I see him again, I’m going to kick him in the balls.”

We nearly did see him at the Safeway. I was heading toward the door with my shopping cart. I froze, then backed up like an opossum, hoping he wouldn’t see me. My daughter was behind me, mesmerized by her new purchase, missed seeing him entirely. Meanwhile, I was sweating and trembling, my heart pounding.

The woman with him had to be someone new, I conjectured, or he wouldn’t have been so jovial. It was 5:15, however, Miller Time, and no doubt they were heading to the beer aisle. “She was fair-haired, not the woman I’d seen him with the other two times,” I told my coworker the next day. Molly is the dark-haired girlfriend he goes to church with on Sundays, my coworker informs me. “So maybe he’s turning a new leaf,” she says.

“Or maybe he finally got medication,” I said, angered that she—the one who sat next to me for the last eight months and saw my suffering first-hand—could be so willing to believe church on Sundays was enough to counter the terrorism he inflicted upon me and my child. More like it’s a requirement for the roof over his head, I wanted to tell her. Granted, she doesn’t know every gory detail. But still!

I’ve been known to say that humans can live through anything temporarily—like concentration camps, or retail jobs at the holidays. We are resilient, but the bounce-back can take a while, or a lifetime. It’s all relative to a person’s past experiences and the level of trauma encountered. The ability to survive in a concentration camp is due to one’s will to live, Frankl summated in his survivalist memoir, “Man’s Search for Meaning.”

That’s right; I’m likening my three-month relationship to a concentration camp.

It may sound extreme, but I have to ask myself how else I could have allowed the emotional abuse that ensued. Okay, maybe not a concentration camp—perhaps it was more like Stockholm Syndrome, only I wasn’t captured. I was captive, though, because I let him move in with me. With us.

I understand now that what he really wanted was a roof over his head. Someone to feed him and house him and worship his dick so he could go out and find the real love of his life, or at least someone he liked better and might treat with respect. Someone he wouldn’t lie to about his whereabouts.

Writing about this experience has proved impossible, until now. I heard myself say the other day, “I haven’t written in a year because I lost my sense of humor.” To let this guy steal my self-worth is one thing, but to be bereft of one’s humor is to let the robber keep robbing.

What’s my part in this? (We love to blame the victim, so let’s get it over with.) A brief history: I was, when we met, a single mom of seven years; 47 with a nine-year-old. This lady was vulnerable. (My doctor called him a predator.) I will admit to a lack of trust, a lack of faith in male-kind. I was a bit closed off in the heart department after falling for a man who cheated on me multiple times with multiple partners. And, sure, I wasn’t always out there making a sincere effort to attract a mate. A year could easily pass without a flicker of male attention. I wasn’t blind to the good guys; I simply hadn’t met any. I can think of a couple of great ones, but there was never anyone I was totally into. I was not turning away Mr. Right. But let me clarify one thing: I was not desperate. Contrary to my common refrain at parties, I had not become asexual. My vagina had not closed up like a pierced ear after years with no earring. I’d had a few lovers, a few two-month affairs that dissolved with little or no injury. I had met men online or out in the world, but couldn’t find anyone I liked. It had been a decade since I last fell.

I was recovering from the death of two close friends, and I was choosing to focus on my job, which was heading into the busy season, which was where we met. In my mind, he was never an option. A temporary hire who was hoping to make it permanent,12 years younger, strong and well-built. Charming in the way charmers are. A heavy drinker. And he wore a FUCKING FEDORA.*

How did I let this man into my vagina, my bed, my home, my child’s life? I shake my head with lack of comprehension, even as I type.

I didn’t see it coming. I was side swiped.

He reminded me of my first love, physically and energetically. He hit me over the head—a caveman with a club and he knew how to use it. Coincidentally, my first husband and my second husband used a similar approach. They came on strong, said what I wanted to hear, forced me to take notice. Because here’s what I’ve learned about me: In order for a relationship to happen, it had to happen TO me. I wasn’t going to put myself out there and be rejected. I have some issues with rejection, you see.

An actively drinking alcoholic and not particularly intelligent, but we had the fire down below. That part was impossible to deny. I did try. I told him to stop flirting with me at work. “It’s not nice to tease an old lady. She might believe you,” I said. The next week, I pulled him aside, but in order to have a private conversation we had to be alone. We tried the basement, we tried the staff lounge, and we ended up in the empty third floor lobby. Later he would tell me he thought he was going to be fired right then, so no wonder he chose that moment to proclaim the depths of his affection for me. He seemed almost angry about it, like it was something he wanted to deny but couldn’t. That thing, that magnetism you feel from inside your vagina, it isn’t necessarily something people should act upon. We were both thinking with our dicks, so to speak. My goal was to shut him down, but the best I could muster was, “It’s not that it’s not mutual. It’s just that it’s not possible.”

But side swiped I was, and I became vulnerable enough to say the words I love you in a romantic context after seven-plus years of not. My defenses were so down as to be M.I.A.

I love you. I want to marry you. I want to have a baby with you. How many times did he say these words? And that was the big draw—it wasn’t just hot sex. It was that he (said he) wanted all of me. He wanted to be in my world and in my daughter’s life; he didn’t want me compartmentalized like the seven years of men before him. He was all in, for the long haul. His enthusiasm was attractive. It was also bullshit, and I should have known better.

He moved in three months after we met, but right after we became lovers. The enemy between the sheets. Well, at least he was on the nights he didn’t yell at me. Those nights I went to bed early and closed my door and he slept downstairs. “This is what basements are for,” he’d yell. He yelled a lot.

The first time it happened, he was making dinner. (He offered). I said my daughter might not like her turkey burger with onion and bleu cheese, gently proposed he make hers plain, sure to use a question mark at the end of my suggestion-clothed-as-inquiry. Whatever it was he said in reply—the way he said it— was so mean. My daughter in her decade-old wisdom, said, “He needs to apologize to you.” But I could only weep and shudder, because his yelling, his anger, his outburst over nothing—it was all too familiar. My father was a yeller, my first husband, too. I knew we were in for a bumpy ride, and somehow went along with for it.

He’d been living with us about two months the night he wanted to surprise-visit me after work. (His temporary employment there had ended the month prior.) He texted to say he’d meet me on Alder Street. I was giddy when I saw the silhouette of a tall man in a fedora walking toward me, backlit, shimmering in the darkness. But it wasn’t him. So I called him up. When he found out I’d gone all the way to the river—a mere eight blocks—he was so enraged he hung up. Later he came home drunk and proceeded to tell me—my daughter two rooms away—that I needed to wake the fuck up. So I kind of did, and I moved him out. I was feeling strong then, certain I’d made the right decision. But after he cried on the phone and swore his adoration, somehow I let him move back in a week later. He said he wanted to work on his communication skills, drink less. We were going to be so solid! My daughter was thrilled! They had their own relationship to build upon. Hopes and dreams were pinned. Oh, the things we were going to do together—as a family.

The night after he moved back in, I treated (as usual) to a movie at the second run theater. The guy who gave us our popcorn happened to be someone I knew.

“David, is it?”

“John.”

“Right! John! How are you? This is my daughter and this—” I turn around and see Shit-Face hanging back. He’s not going to be introduced to this male person whom I sort of know.

We take our beers into the theater, but he won’t sit next to me. “Did you date that guy?”

“I met him on OkCupid, but we never kissed or anything.” I reached out to take his hand, but got nothing but disdain and bile in return.

After the movie I dropped him in front of Safeway so he could pick up something, and said I’d meet him in the parking garage down below. We were in the car, right near the escalator, when he came down. He was so pissed. “I tried calling you. I was waiting upstairs. Why you always gotta be in control?” I calmly explained that if we exit via the parking garage, I can cross the busy street at the light. He was beyond what you’d call ‘quick to anger,’ and I could sense my daughter shutting down. Like I was.

It didn’t last another month.

Here’s the moment where everything turned:
I’m in my daughter’s bedroom, we’re in bed, spending our last hour of the day alone together—a promise I’d made to her when he moved in. There we are, under the covers on a mattress low to the ground, and comes barging in holding a loaf of bread in one hand, a bread tie in the other. “Why you gotta tie the bag in a knot? Then I find the bread tie in the drawer!” We cowered in a huddle while he spewed more bread-tie related nonsense—something about him buying the bread. The horrified look on my face finally caused him to retreat. Next we spoke, he cited the look on my face as the problem, not his bursting into the room, because nothing was ever his fault. I tied the bread bag in a knot, after all.

When I described such anecdotes to my new and necessary therapist, he said, “Clearly this man has a personality disorder.” I felt somewhat relieved by this news. Toward the end, I had begun sleeping with a chair in front of my bedroom door, my backpack next to me. I trembled a lot.

I managed to get him out with as little trauma to my daughter as possible. We stayed away. He stayed away. It got much worse, but she didn’t have to witness it. She witnessed the aftermath. “Mom, are you crying again?”

“I know it’s been hard, honey. I know you miss him, and that you’re disappointed.”

“No, Mom, you don’t understand. The person I love most in the world is hurting. That’s the hard part.”
I had to see the therapist. I had to take anti-depressants, for her sake.

At Safeway, I recognized his silhouette, the jaunty walk, the expressive hand gestures. The fucking fedora. The young, beautiful woman was smiling at him as they entered—from the parking garage.

I imagine yelling up at him as they ascend the escalator, “Does she know how you feel about bread ties?” I see him turn toward me in anger, unable to run down an up-escalator without looking ridiculous. His actions thwarted, his easy rage triggered, I add, “She knows about the personality disorder though, right? The alcoholism? She knows you have a girlfriend.”

Even if my daughter hadn’t been there, I probably would have done exactly as I did—retreated. And she probably wouldn’t have kicked him in the balls. We think we’re over it, but I find myself shopping elsewhere.

It’s easy to see how this thing ended. How it came to be is where I dwell. I’m embarrassed. I wish I’d done things differently, but I won’t beat myself up here on these pages. I’ve done plenty of that. I’ve apologized, I’ve done good work, and I’ve come out the other side.

My daughter has seen me down-for-the-count in love, and she’s seen me rise from the depths of heartbreak, because even if he was a shitty boyfriend, it’s still a loss—of what we thought we had and of what we dreamed it could become. I can only hope she learns from my mistakes—and that loving someone isn’t necessarily one of them.

I’ve sworn off alcoholics, but also this: I will not close down again. He cracked me open, and I intend to remain so. He broke the seal that kept me invulnerable for seven years. It took that jerk to hit me over the head so hard that some light got in, and with that, light also gets out.

*An homage to Lena Dunham and her essay “Girls and Jerks”

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