A Surprising Number of Things Elton John and I Have in Common 

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0 of them are playing the piano.

When I saw the trailer for Rocketman, I instantly knew I’d see the movie when it hit theaters. In the mid nineties, my mother and I would trek from our small village of Seville, Ohio into the “big city” of Medina to do grocery shopping. Our soundtrack, more often than not, was Elton John’s Greatest Hits, a 1992 CD with Elton’s top songs from 1970 to 1974. This early start meant that I have loved Elton John from the time I was very small and have continued being a fan throughout my life. So I was extremely excited to see his story on the big screen, especially considering that I hadn’t put much time into getting to know the man behind the music. 

Here is the list of things I knew about Elton John before I saw Rocketman: 

  1. Elton John is gay 
  2. Elton John plays the piano 
  3. Elton John wears costumes and big glasses and rhinestones 
  4. Elton John is the MVP of Disney soundtracks, save for Phil Collins because Tarzan was 100% a gift 

Spoilers Ahead! 

The opening scene of Rocketman follows Elton walking down a long hallway in full costume dressed as a sequin-adorned devil. He bursts through the door… into a group meeting at a rehab center. After some questions about his childhood, which he insists was very happy, we see flashbacks to Young Elton who was emotionally abused by both of his parents.

The first interaction between Elton and his mother was her chastising him, saying “You’re late and I’ve had to throw your dinner in the bin” (I’m paraphrasing). This smacks of the time my mother told my sister that if she wasn’t home by 5 she couldn’t come on a car ride to drop me off at dad’s for the weekend — we passed her walking home at 5:01 and she was running for the car and crying. Mom didn’t stop. Or the time my sister and I ate popsicles while putting away groceries only to have our mother deny us a promised trip to the movies because we hadn’t finished our chores before eating them. 

Denied affection and love altogether by his father, and only conditionally loved by his mother, Elton John wanted nothing but to be loved as a child. Through the grace of one blood relative who cared, his grandmother, he was encouraged to take piano lessons and cultivate his love of music. Even as an adult, Elton was still searching for his father’s approval and his mother’s love. 

Now’s where it starts getting a little freaky. Well, it’s not so freaky. But I, too, was emotionally abused as a child and adult by my parents. Conditional love and constant striving for attention and validation was the name of my childhood and young adult game. I only cut my parents out of my life at age 30. So right away, Rocketman had me hooked because of this parallel between my own story and that of an artist I had adored my whole life. 

Saturday Night

Elton ages on screen through a choreographed sequence of “Saturday Night’s Alright For Fighting,” and this was the sequence in the film that first made me actually cry instead of just tear up. This song was my favorite to sing along with my mom in the car, and the juxtaposition of the upbeat song, the happy memories, and the truth of my emotionally abusive upbringing was overwhelming. Those memories of my mother are happy, and warm, and comforting. I loved listening to Elton John in the car with my mom. But my mother didn’t love me. And the grief of that was tangible while I watched this sequence in Rocketman. 

Elton’s mother was watching him perform. But did she care? Was she proud? My mother came to my choir concerts. But did she care? Was she proud? 

A Name Change 

Born Reginald Dwight, Elton desired a bit of a name change for his musical career. He borrowed both names, Elton and John, from bandmates. While in Rocketman, he appears to take inspiration from a photo of John Lennon, a fact check indicates that was more of a cinematic liberty than true historical fact. Which is a bummer, because if Elton John had selected his surname based on a favorite celebrity, that would be one more thing we have in common. 

As I left an abusive marriage (a nearly seven year relationship) and came to terms with my own abusive upbringing in childhood, I opted to select a completely new name rather than keep my married name or revert to my birth name. I chose Fisher, because without Carrie Fisher’s advocacy for mental health and medication, I likely would not have gone on the antidepressants that helped me see the abuse for what it was. Lexapro got me out of an abusive marriage. And Carrie got me on Lexapro. 

Serendipitous Encounters 

I was so happy to fact check and find out that Elton and lyricist Bernie Taupin actually did meet through complete serendipity. Elton said he couldn’t write lyrics, so a studio exec handed him a sealed envelope from a stack of songwriting applications. Inside were Bernie’s words. The duo hit it off and have been working together ever since. 

Here’s where this completely rocks my world: I have imposter syndrome. I feel like my writing career is a fluke. That my published book is a fluke. That an agent reaching out to me and a publishing company picking me up as an author are flukes. I’ve made jokes time and time again that Twitter got me a book deal and it was all a complete accident. 

But I’d never say that Elton John was an accident. And this guy happened to get a random pile of lyrics from someone whose words were perfect. 

You could say that it was by chance that Elton and Bernie met up and made music together. But the fact that Bernie writes good lyrics and Elton plays mad piano and can sing with such talent and conviction… that is not by chance. 

Just like my writing is not by chance. I may have had some good luck, some good things happen, some serendipity in the modern age. But I’m not an accident. 

Abusive Relationships 

Speaking of careers and the people who help them along, let’s talk about Elton’s manager and first boyfriend, John Reid. Doing a bit of research about the couple, it didn’t happen exactly as portrayed in Rocketman. In the biopic, Reid seems much more cunning and out for power from the get-go, when in reality, the two were lovers who lived together before becoming professionally entwined. Additionally, Reid has even said that he wasn’t particularly enthused about being Elton John’s manager at first. 

Over time, the couple broke up but Reid continued to manage Elton’s career and accounts until a falling out and a court case over financial issues. Reid also reportedly had a terrible temper and had a string of assaults, punching and slapping people when he was angry. 

Across several moments in the movie, Reid’s obsessive control of Elton’s career was extremely triggering for me. My abuser took credit for my writing career, because he introduced me to my first freelance client. But just as it’s no accident or fluke that I ended up published, it was no fluke that my writing was good enough to pay for. If I was a shit writer, that connection would have done no good. My abuser spent years undermining my confidence in my own work because he so often took credit for turning me into the writer I was. 

Queer As Hell 

Elton John came out as bisexual in 1976 and married his wife Renate Blauel in 1984. The couple divorced in 1988 as Elton came to terms with his identity as a gay man, and he is happily married to David Furnish since becoming a couple in 2005.

In the movie, when Elton comes out to his mother, she responds, “You’ll never be loved properly.” I do not doubt that his mother said these words to him at some point, if not when he came out. The words of my parents in our final conversations are as clear in my mind as they were on the days they happened. And they hurt. “You’re a sweet girl. Fucked up in the head, but sweet,” were some of the words my dad said to me in our second to last meeting. “You’ll have to explain what you mean by abuse, because that’s a strong word and can tarnish a man’s reputation” were some of his words the last time I saw him in person. 

The end credits roll in Rocketman with a photo of Elton and David and a caption that Elton is finally being loved properly. I will admit that I got a little teary-eyed.

I honestly don’t even know if my parents know I’m queer or not. I do know that they’ve both taught me about conditional love. My mom raised me telling me I’d never get a boyfriend if I ate like a pig, and she shamed my body at every opportunity. She had me on a diet by age 12 and is a huge factor in my decades-long battle with disordered eating. And I no longer care what she thinks of me, just like I hope Elton has long given up caring what his mother thought of him. 

Healing the Inner Child 

In an emotional and, yes, pretty cheesy finale, Elton hugs his inner child as a symbol of his healing now that he is in rehab. Earlier in the film, Young Elton asks his father, “When are you going to hug me?” but his father does not hug, touch, or hold Elton. In fact, Elton visits his father later in his life and sees his father holding and being physically affectionate with his new and improved sons in his new and improved family, which is such a moment of pure emotional pain from the film that it still affects me when I think about it. So at the movie’s close, the inner child appears in Elton’s mind and asks, “When are you going to hug me?” Cue me, crying like a baby, because Elton drops to his knees and grabs the child version of himself in an embrace that is nothing but unconditional love. (Pause, I need a moment). 

Healing my inner child, as hokey as it sounds, has been a huge part of my trauma healing. In EMDR therapy (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing), I target specific traumatic thoughts, such as “I am not allowed to rest,” and the therapy process allows me to associate memories with the thought. Memories attached to this target thought include my mother saying we were worthless for not cleaning, being punished with excessive chores, and generally not being allowed to sleep in or take a sick day from school when we didn’t feel well. If you had time to lean, you had time to clean. Removing the belief that I can only rest when everything productive has been finished has been a game changer for my mental and physical health. 

Long Story Short 

I bought some rhinestone-studded eyeglasses because we all deserve to be fabulous. Do something awesome today, and do something amazing for the child version of yourself. 

 

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Can emotional abuse be sexual abuse?

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A black and white image of a woman covering her face with one hand and looking downcast. Her dark hair covers her shoulders and part of her face. Photo by Juan Pablo Arenas via Pexels

I got divorced last May, and in the midst of Justin Timberlake memes and shorts weather and anticipating my upcoming book launch, the anniversary of my divorce date looms near. And I am still mad at my abuser, which is frustrating because I thought I would have overcome all my trauma in a neat, tidy package by now.

The more I process out loud, in therapy and in online support groups and in conversations with my friends and in posts to my social media, the more the shadowy puzzle pieces of the seven years I spent with him click into place and are illuminated for what they really were.

It was not “irreconcilable differences.” It wasn’t “communication issues.” It wasn’t anything like that. He orchestrated our relationship, and my submission, from day one, and unpacking that level of abuse feels like a punch in the gut. It wasn’t love, it wasn’t happiness, it wasn’t anything I thought it was. I was preyed on, targeted, groomed, and controlled, and when I left, he was so angry about it that his entire facade fell apart.

I was scared of him for years, and went to therapy to figure out what about ME was wrong, was preventing me from trusting him, was causing these conflicts and doubts in my head about our relationship. I wish I could hold my former self and tell her that there was nothing wrong with her, and that the reason she didn’t trust him was because it wasn’t safe to.

When I first left him, I knew that he had been manipulative. I caught on to the cycles of treating me nicely, lots of sex and affection, lots of praise… followed by reminding me I was a lot of work, difficult to be with, and that he was the only one who would love me like that, whenever I expressed an interest in, say, sex without him watching porn the whole time.

When I was upset or doubtful about our relationship, he would say things like, “How can you think so little of me? There is a version of me in your head that you’re upset with that’s not the real me.” And I would go to therapy and ask what I could do to not be so anxious and distrustful. I wanted to be a good wife.

When mental abusers use sex to control

There are so many facets of our relationship that I’ve become more clear about since leaving. But the one that recently gobsmacked me is the sexual aspect of his control.

When I moved into his house, our sex life disappeared overnight. He always had a good reason. First he was upset about his divorce being final, then he was stressed at work, then he was not sleeping well, etc. And I was patient, and reassured him I loved him, and waited for him to feel better, for our drives to sync back up like they had when we had been dating.

According to him, me talking about our mismatched sex drives was pressuring him, me asking him to not fantasize about group sex or watch porn while we had sex was shaming his fantasies, and me suggesting we table the idea of getting pregnant while we worked on our issues was a slap in his face and the assertion that if I wasn’t sure NOW, we may as well never try.

He started Viagra to help things along, insisting that he had the mental desire for sex but just had some physical issues with the execution of it. He took 1/4 of a Viagra before bed, with the hopes that it would “be in his system” when he woke up and he could have sex with me in the morning. Spoilers: This is not how Viagra works.

Other reasons we did not have sex included:

  • He hadn’t slept well
  • He didn’t want to prevent me from my morning workout routine
  • He didn’t like evening sex, only morning sex (but see #1)
  • He felt I was punishing him by not providing (unreciprocated) oral sex

Finally, desperately, in an attempt to not totally screw up my life by having an affair to satisfy my carnal desires, I sat him down, told him I loved him, told him that I did not want to pressure him into sex, and asked if we could open our relationship.

He absolutely blew up in fury. He said things like:

  • If you get pregnant and it’s not mine, your options are abortion or divorce.
  • If you get pregnant in the next six months, even if we don’t open the relationship, I will demand a paternity test.
  • How could you risk our marriage by getting pregnant with another man’s baby?
  • How can I trust that you will use condoms?
  • For fuck’s sake, you should have had an affair.
  • You know this means I would be able to have another partner too.

He kept me awake past midnight, demanding to know why I had dared to ask him for this. I told him, “I can’t have this conversation right now, I am so tired and I need to sleep,” and he said, “You’d better wake the hell up then.” He wouldn’t let me end the conversation. Finally I said, “I guess I didn’t think it through,” and that was the only thing that made him relent and forgive me.

To my knowledge, he remains convinced that I was already seeing someone else when I left. The introspection it would take for him to realize that he pushed me to a breaking point with his sexual manipulation tactics is never going to happen.

After a year of distance from being in this day to day minefield of affection, I realize now that he had no issues having sex with me when he needed me to feel better about our relationship. When I was in my lowest lows, he managed to rise to the occasion. This was such a pattern that, when I finally told him I was leaving, one of his legitimate grasps at the straws of our relationship was, “Did our weekend of great sex confuse you?” To be clear, our “weekend of great sex” consisted of me setting a five minute timer for oral sex, asking him to continue after my five minutes was up, and then him telling me that I didn’t understand limits and boundaries, and this was another reason we couldn’t open the relationship. Because if I couldn’t be satisfied with five minutes of lukewarm cunnilingus, how could I be satisfied by protected sex with a new partner?

Realizing I was used

This part, the realizing that our sex life was never a fun and spicy time of physical affection and mutual desire, but rather a means to keep me on my short leash and happy about it… feels disgusting. I feel used, I feel dirty, I feel gross.

I struggle to call it sexual abuse. I don’t know if it qualifies.

But if I had known? If I had known that I was consenting to sex for the sole purpose of making my brain trauma-bond to the good times so the bad times seemed less painful? If I had known that sex was being used as a weapon to keep me in line, denied when I wasn’t performing my wifely duties of shutting up and looking pretty but freely given when I was at the end of my rope? I would have left him years earlier. And that feels awful.

You aren’t alone

In the year since I left my abuser, I’ve been sharing stories from survivors on my blog. Sometimes they’re mine. Sometimes they’re not. But I share them, and I continue to speak out loud about my experiences, because there is power in the story. For anyone reading this who has felt used, abused, and controlled… you aren’t alone. And you can be okay.

For help identifying or leaving an abusive relationship, please contact the Domestic Violence Hotline. 1-800-799-7233

 

 

 

 

Emotional exhaustion is as real as physical exhaustion

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Photo by Abbie Bernet on Unsplash

This week is full of anniversaries for me.

In 2012, my first divorce was finalized on March 19.

In 2018, I began the process of leaving my second marriage on March 17.

In 2018, my stepdad died just after 1:00am on March 22 and it was the first time I had seen or spoken to my mother in fourteen months.

In 2018, I last saw my mom on March 24.

In 2018, my ex-husband berated and harassed me via text message, Facebook messenger, and phone calls on March 20, March 26, and March 27.

In 2018, the last time I pet the five cats I left behind was March 27.

In 2018, I packed and moved all of my belongings in a matter of days, moving into a new apartment on my own on March 27.

At some point around this timeline last year, I also saw my dad for the last time in person. He came to visit me after I moved out but wanted me to explain the ways I was abused before he would believe me. I had no patience for this and stopped returning his calls.

I think my body remembers all this trauma, sadness, and honestly hard ass work.

I have been nothing short of exhausted all week. I even emailed my boss that I’d have to work in the evening on Tuesday so that I could take a nap during my normal work hours. (Props to me for not forcing myself to work when I seriously had no spoons).

When I say all this to my friends and ask why I am so tired, they remind me that emotional exhaustion is as hard on the body as physical exhaustion.

I’ve been focusing on rest for the past month and a half. I try to get nine hours of sleep each night. I take baths almost daily to relax my muscles so my legs don’t hurt. I eat what I crave and no longer restrict myself, which has really opened up a lot of space in my brain that used to be filled with arbitrary rules and self-loathing.

It’s all happening at once, so fast, and I am tired.

I am, without a doubt, healthier and happier than I was a year ago. But I was also running on fumes, and my body remembers. I wasn’t taking the time to process any of my emotions then, because I needed to haul ass and survive. And I have done more than survive.

I have been unapologetically running my mouth about my abuse, my experiences, my loss, and my grief. For a year. They are mine, they belong to me, and if the people who mistreated me are upset about their portrayal in my story, they should have thought of that before they hurt me. I own everything that happened to me, and it is my right to share it.

So I share it.

Another driving force behind my continued storytelling about abuse and the self love that grew from my own personal forest fire is the fact that countless people have let me know that my story has helped them realize they were in toxic relationships too. They have left abusers, they have done the impossible.

The more we talk about it, the more we help others see that they can do it too.

But damn, I am tired.

 

The realities of financial abuse

We’re at a point in society in 2018 where I feel confident people can acknowledge that abuse isn’t just physical. Mental and emotional abuse (through control, negligence, gaslighting, and other manipulations and mind games), sexual abuse, and financial abuse may not leave visible bruises but leave a lasting impression on their victims and survivors. Survivors of abuse often have complex post-traumatic stress disorder (C-PTSD), but I’m not a doctor so don’t necessarily take my word for it.

What I can tell you is that I reached out to my social network to ask for examples of financial abuse from their own pasts and I was overwhelmed by the stories they shared with me.

It is financially abusive to neglect practical life issues in a way that requires your partner to compensate for them. Whether it’s paying a $25.00 parking ticket because you can’t be bothered to put enough quarters in the meter, or it’s paying $150 for unplanned groceries when the freezer is already stocked, or it’s cancelling income-generating work commitments to handle everyday crises, or it’s simply deploying emotional, social and logistical resources to solve practical problems to a degree that sabotages your partner’s health and well-being, it is abusive.

-Elle


My ex bullied and pressured me into having a credit card saying I must build a score. I didn’t want one but he pushed for months. When I had one, his pressure for me to buy one of or pay for half of tons of needless shit was relentless. I made minimum wage and he was bullying me to pay for half of DVDs I told him I didn’t want. Half of new couches I didn’t want. So on and so forth. It really made it hard to leave because I couldn’t make it as easily on my own now, and guess who was on me to pay those cards off. But after him I never took on another card and treated debt like bondage and while he didn’t teach me shit, I taught me a lot through that and now I teach others.

-Rosemary


My significant other used to take pride in having amazing hiding spots. On more than one occasion, I found money hidden throughout the house or his car. Once, we needed diapers and had zero money. I open up his glove box and find $20 hidden in there. I was livid because here I am freaking out about buying our child diapers and he has this money hidden. That he “forgot” about because he “put it up for a rainy day.” Well, I don’t know what’s more rainy than needing diapers for your child.

On a more long term occasion, he took over the finances and never told me anything. Where the money went, what bills we had paid, and when I asked to do a budget, he was always too busy. He told me every pay day how much money I could spend, and it was my responsibility to stay within that limit.

– Bianca


While we were separated he was still financially supporting me while I went to school. One night I asked him to not slam my door and he responded “who pays for your right to use that door?”

I applied for child support the next day.

After I filed for child support, he drained our bank account. Two months in a row. The first month I had been able to pull out money for my rent before he attempted to take out all of the money, his transaction bounced and he swore it was an accident, the second month we both did the transactions at the same time, over drafting the account $1500. He has been avoiding service and cut us off financially until it is court ordered, while he draws out the process as long as possible.

-Stephanie


My ex was laid off for about six months and was receiving unemployment at a decent rate because he his job paid really well. I had been saving up money for a trip we were taking, which we postponed in order to cash flow our budget while he looked for a job. The problem was that he wouldn’t talk to me about making a budget. ‘There isn’t a point in making a budget when I don’t even have a job,’ was his response when I wanted to take a look at the finances. All the bills got paid and we didn’t incur any debt during his six month stint of unemployment, but the housework was still all my responsibility and he continued spending at his previous levels while my savings account dwindled to keep him from using credit cards. He routinely used my belief in being debt-free as a way to leverage my extra cash flow to meet financial goals while he never had to be accountable for his own finances.

-Katie


My ex intentionally overdrafted my bank account by $600. He’d spend every dime I earned even if it meant I couldn’t buy necessities for myself or my daughter. He made me get a collateral loan on my car to pay his legal fees, then turned around and revealed he had $1200 stashed in the air vent in our room. He spent it on a mattress and an xbox, both of which he sold shortly after. He bought expensive items on credit in my name then didn’t pay. He pawned my engagement ring. He would sell anything I owned that had any value.

-Anne


My first live-in boyfriend used to spend all of his money (he made at least twice as much as I did ) on fast food and who knows what else and I had to work two jobs while going to school full time to make the bills. I didn’t have food for myself for a week because of that. Thank God one of my jobs was at a restaurant so I at least had one employee meal.

-Gen


Not every story of financial abuse is from a romantic partner. Many family relationships are also tainted by financial control, withholding, and abuses.

When I fled my father’s house because of all the yelling and etc, he took away my emergency credit card, which was in my name but for which he held the main account—because I didn’t have credit yet, being 18. He called me on my friend’s landline (I had fled to my college roommate’s house) to tell me that it was time for me to learn to be “responsible.” I had never failed to pay it off each month, so it was obviously about control and not any kind of lesson in financial responsibility.

-Martha


The woman who raised me for the worst parts of my childhood is a millionaire. Her money has always been of the ways she controls others. She’ll buy anyone close to her anything, but it’s a deal with the Devil. When I was struggling, she offered to buy me a car. I was desperate and picked out a $3000 used car. She took me to the dealer and picked out a brand new Ford Explorer. It was nice, all the bells and whistles. I sat down in the driver’s seat and I remembered another Explorer she’d bought, 12 years prior.
For my ex brother in law and all of the strings that came with it, how he danced like a monkey because she financed it in both of their names and how she eventually let it get repossessed because he wouldn’t dance like a monkey anymore.

I left the dealer without a car. The bus never felt more like freedom.

-Sherry


You mean like when my mom got pissed at me for losing my virginity and forced me to quit my job and closed out my checking account, pocketing the money from it? What about when I was required to pay for a car (and insurance, etc) that I was only sometimes allowed to use and had to share with my mom? What about when they threatened to report that car stolen if I left in it when they were berating me, since it wasn’t in my name even though I’d paid for it for a year and a half? They also threatened to make me lose my scholarships that I had through the district by transferring me to another one for the last 3 months of my senior year, because they were pissed at me for losing my virginity. I went to everyone I could think of at the school for all of this, and no one did jack shit to help me.

-Brianna


I used to help a WAHM in high school and I would hide all of the money I got from that and when I was gone my mom would search my room to find my new hiding places and steal my money. I also couldn’t have a bank account because she would have 100% access to it since I was a minor. I had to ask the lady I was helping to just keep the money then I would tell her what I needed/wanted to use it for. I had to spend birthday/Christmas money right away or it was gone.

-Gen


My aunt funded the difference between living on campus and living off campus for my college. My junior year of college my mother told me my aunt had changed her mind and would no longer fund college expenses. She also told me I was not welcome to stay with family and thus I would have to withdraw from college. I called my college finance office in tears ready to withdraw. They found a handful of scholarships for me to make up the difference and I was able to stay in college.

Years later, my aunt asked why I stopped sending thank you cards after my sophomore year for the college expenses. It turns out my mother pocketed $6,000 total over two years that my aunt had given her to pay my college bills.

This is the most egregious of several similar stories.

-Anonymous

Other readers shared stories of witnessing financial abuse, if not experiencing it directly themselves, as a result of divorce.

My dad lied and got primary custody of us and used to give us, as kids, handwritten invoices to give my mom for “her half” of things. He would nickel and dime her down to the penny for things like “three packs of pens for school” and “6 spiral bound notebooks.” When I refused, he made my brother (who is developmentally delayed) do it. I finally screamed, ‘Use a stamp or walk out to the car during pickup because I’m not going to keep being your mule and neither is my brother’ around age 15 and he finally stopped. The worst part was he was incapable of seeing what an asshole it made him. Like, he cried when I yelled at him. “I could have taken so much more I’ve been so nice” …he was horrified that I thought this was so villainous.

-Rae


My bio-dad would take me shopping with my three half-siblings and step mom, and he’d buy those kids things and not me. If I questioned it, he’d say it’s because he paid my mom child support already, so he wasn’t spending any other money on me.

-Leila

These survivors share their stories in the hopes that sharing and educating others about the realities of financial abuse can help others recognize and escape abusive relationships.

For help identifying or leaving an abusive relationship, please contact the Domestic Violence Hotline. 1-800-799-7233

http://www.thehotline.org/

The life changing magic of trauma

If you’re familiar with Marie Kondo’s The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up, you know that her method of simplifying requires you to get all of one type of item together (clothing, books, toiletries, papers, whatever), touch each and every one, and decide if it gives you joy before deciding whether or not to keep it in your life.

I’ve come to realize that moving on from trauma has similarities. For me, being minimalist isn’t just about having fewer possessions. In fact, it’s not really about possessions at all. Minimalism is about letting go of the excess in order to focus on the things that let you live your authentic and most joyous life. And being a minimalist also means letting go of people, relationships, and obligations that don’t bring you joy (or that actively reduce your joy).

I’ve recently left an emotionally abusive relationship and I have been processing many of my experiences on my personal Facebook page, sharing with friends and family who only saw the pretty picture I shared for public consumption, showing them what my actual experience was like behind the mask. I didn’t even understand myself that I was living in an emotionally traumatic relationship until I began prioritizing my mental health.

At first, I shared because it was cathartic. It was validating. It was community. So many women reached out to me, via comments or private messages, to thank me for sharing my story. They shared their own. I’ve seen a ripple effect of women beginning to publicly share their own stories of leaving abusive relationships, and even women realizing their relationships are traumatic without them ever realizing it consciously before. Sharing stories has power.

I’ve come to realize that I’m also sharing my story because I have to touch it. I have to pick up the years in my hands, turn them over, look at the rough spots and the pretty spots and decide that it’s okay to let go of the happily ever after I thought I’d found. Even amidst good memories of laughter and comfort and companionship, I can sift through these experiences and realize that they don’t add joy.

What makes this process a little more difficult than admitting you don’t wear an old dress anymore is that a lot of the good memories involved in a traumatic or abusive relationship were just lies and manipulation. Charm. Part of the cycle.

The good times happened in a pattern, after I’d gotten upset at the inequalities in our relationship, after some inane multi-day discussion about something that shouldn’t have been a fight, after I called out a double standard. Suddenly things were better again, he’d treat me to a nice dinner out, we’d have sex that weekend, and our normal easy life was back. Until it wasn’t.

Every day I unearth memories through this new lens, and I see that what I once thought was sweet was actually possessive, what I once thought was supportive was actually controlling, what I once thought was misunderstanding was actually covert and deliberate gaslighting. It’s exhausting. But I have to touch it all to let it go. Hiding it and never thinking about it will just extend the amount of time it eats away at me, but by being so open and honest about my experiences, I’ve found that I feel less and less grief, anger, and resentment. I’ve touched it, realized it brings me nothing positive (aside from the power to tell my story), and let it go.

I don’t say these things to romanticize trauma or say that everything happens for a reason. But for me in particular, sharing my story has been cathartic. Touching the trauma has helped me set it aside. And opening up about my experiences has helped me realize that finding what I do want out of life includes a good amount of leaving behind what I surely don’t. 

To quote my beloved Space Mom, Carrie Fisher, “Sometimes you can only find Heaven by slowly backing away from Hell.”

 

An open letter to my abuser’s ex wife

Hello.

I am not sure if you care to hear from me, or indeed if you even know who I am. I’m the woman your husband left you for. And I am deeply sorry, on so many levels.

When I met him, he was in an open relationship with permission to play and “get his needs met,” because you no longer wanted to have sex with him. You wanted things “don’t ask don’t tell” because you didn’t like the details. I don’t know if this is true.

When I met him, he said if your comfort levels changed at all about the open relationship, it would be game over for non-monogamy and he would stop dating outside partners. I do not believe this to be true, given what eventually happened and that he disclosed other infidelities he committed during his marriage to you.

When I met him, he spun me a tale of being neglected at home, living with you as a friend and roommate without any passion. He told me that you two once went to a party and the hostess put her hand on his shoulder — and he flinched, because it had been so long since he had been touched. I do not know if this is true.

When I met him, he was turning 41 and I was 23.

Within days of meeting him, he told me he had never felt this way about anyone, and that he realized he wanted to be with me forever, that we were fated to be together. Within a month, we had matching tattoos and promise rings and we’d exchanged short words about how much we meant to each other. And because I was only 23, and because I was in a dying relationship myself, and because I want to save people who feel broken, I fell for it all.

And I am so sorry.

I waited for him. I believed we were destined for each other.

Your husband told me he wanted to be with me but just needed time to end your marriage with the least amount of pain for you. He said he owed it to you. He said so many things about how cold you were to him, how you were disgusted by sex with him, how you used to want children with him but one day told him “Not with you,” when he asked if you still wanted kids.

He told me he had given up on his health and on ever hoping for a better relationship because he had no reason to hope for anything more.

He told me he once yelled at you over buying the wrong kind of printer paper.

He told me he finally decided your marriage was over when you suggested letting one of the cats live outside. (That cat still pees on everything). When I once yelled at this cat for peeing on a curtain I had JUST put on the floor while I reinstalled the curtain rod, he told me I reminded him of you. He said it just to hurt me. Comparing me to you was immensely effective in controlling my behavior.

He used to watch me cry, while I wondered if he’d ever really be with me, wondering how long I could possibly wait for him. Wondering why I was doing this to myself. But I waited because we were MEANT to be together.

When I finally packed up all his things and told him to call me when he got divorced, he told me that if I was with anyone else while I waited for him, we couldn’t be together. And wouldn’t you know it, I continued to wait for him. He told me he needed to see how my story ended and he couldn’t bear to not be a part of it.

I waited for him for two years.

I moved into your home the day before your divorce was final. I told him that he’d never have to feel alone in that house again. Little did I know that I’d be the one feeling alone in that house.

Despite our passionate affair, once I moved in, the sex all but stopped. Always with good reason — stress about the divorce, stress about his job, not sleeping well, not feeling well. Always a good reason. And I couldn’t help but wonder, if he needed an open relationship to get his needs met so badly, why is it that once he had a partner with a sex drive, he no longer wanted sex? It took me many years to learn that the needs he had were not sexual. They were control, power, and adoration.

I want you to know that none of it was your fault. Whatever parts of his story were true — if you were cold, distant, and lonely at home, it was not because of some failing on your part. You were not a bad wife. You are not a bad person. He did not cheat because of you.

You were tired. So you started doing things for yourself. You started running and losing weight. You found things that made you happy, outside of him. He did not like this. He did not like it when I did it either. When I cut my sugar intake, he’d buy me a candy bar. When I wanted to run longer races, he insisted I see a doctor for a physical despite never having a running injury.

When you stopped worshiping him, he went and found outside supply for his needs. He found many women in the meantime, but then he found me. And I’m sorry for both of us that he did.

He told me on many occasions that I talked too much about my exes. He said this to me so many times that I actually started keeping notes on how often I mentioned them. And it turns out that I really didn’t talk about exes much… but he did. Because of how much he built up insecurity around exes, I always felt compared to them when he did discuss them. If me talking about exes was a bad thing, why wasn’t it bad for him to do? It must have been something inherently wrong with me, right?

If he did this to you too, I’m sorry. If you knew about me and he used me to rattle your security and confidence, I’m sorry. If he talked about his infidelities or past lovers or any other outside partners to keep you under control, I am sorry. You are not someone who can be controlled. You are strong.

I am sure it hurt immensely when he ended your marriage. You were together for over 13 years. He was everything to you. You didn’t understand why he was discarding you. But that’s what it was. The cycle of psychological abuse includes this pattern: idealize, devalue, discard. When you met, it was all rainbows and sunshine, right? And then over time your confidence was degraded, you had to try harder to keep him happy, and somehow his happiness ended up hinging on whether or not you were chipper and pleased to serve him, I bet.

(Did he refuse to eat what you cooked if you prepared food while upset?)

I imagine that having a few outside partners helped him get a fresh hit of adoration now and then, and he was happy enough to go home to you. But I was a gooey caramel-filled chocolate bar for him, the perfect storm of insecurity, childhood trauma, a need for validation, and an eagerness to do whatever anyone wanted because I was too afraid to say no and lose somebody. He knew if he got me he could have me forever. And so you were sacrificed, because you no longer doled out worship. He didn’t deserve that adoration — he never did.

I spent over six years with him, almost seven.

I tried to leave once. I told him he was manipulative and abusive. He feigned shock, cried with me, apologized deeply and profusely for not only treating me that way but also not noticing how unhappy I had become. He promised change. Nothing changed.

Two years later I left for real. And his story about me is not the truth. Which makes me understand that his stories about you are probably also not the truth.

I’m sorry I believed him.

I am sorry I was part of your pain.

But I am not sorry you got away.

 

 

 

Breaking the silence of parental emotional abuse

Trigger Warning: Emotional abuse. Cancer. Loss. 

Breaking the silence

May is tough for me. It’s tough at work, because I have spent the last several years in marketing for a crib mattress company and a greenhouse. It’s tough on social media, because all the ads and posts are about how to honor the woman who gave you everything. It’s tough on my mental state, because I have to realize again and again that I was raised by an emotionally abusive mother.

This is not something I have talked about publicly, because protecting the secrets is deeply ingrained in people who have experienced emotional abuse and trauma. When a book-on-CD at the library caught my eye, “Will I Ever Be Good Enough? Healing the Daughters of Narcissistic Mothers,” I hid the case in my car so no one would see. I did the same with “Toxic Parents” later. No one could see me doubt my upbringing. No one could know.

Unpacking a traumatic childhood is a lot of work. I’ve realized I don’t have very many memories of my home life from roughly age 6-12, and the positive memories I do have are from school.

It’s hard to piece together enough evidence to convince myself and others that I was abused, because emotional abuse is like “death by a thousand cuts.” Any one example on its own can be brushed off as a rough patch or a bad day. There aren’t bruises or scars I can point to in order to show you where and how I was hurt. The behavioral responses from emotional trauma develop over time amidst issues like depression, anxiety, and complex PTSD.

I started seeing a therapist when I was 14 after I started writing in my diary about wanting to die. Mom thought the therapist was indulging me and that there was nothing actually wrong besides routine teenage angst. I went until age 28 before being diagnosed with not only anxiety but severe anxiety.

The messages I had ingrained into my head from puberty onward were things like:

“No one is going to want to date you if you eat like a pig.”

“I’m going to put a tape recorder in your pockets on dates so I can see if you eat so sloppy.”

“That isn’t flattering on you.”

“Your inhaler is a placebo, you just need to lose weight.”

The criticism of my appearance, coupled with forcing me to eat a restrictive diet from a young age, led to a very unhealthy relationship with food and my body. It has taken decades for me to love my body, even though it’s fat. I’ve also finally found my own sense of style and I dress for myself in a way that makes me feel good and happy. I wear form fitting clothing as a fat woman, much to the hisses of fat shamers on the internet (and probably mom). I have stopped hiding behind baggy clothing.

Other messages I internalized were about laziness and cleanliness:

“If you have time to lean, you have time to clean.”

“Lazy, worthless, good for nothing kids.” (Said while kicking dirty clothes on the floor).

If momma was cleaning, everybody was cleaning. Well, the girls were. My sister and I were treated differently by mom but both were expected to maintain a robust schedule of chores and housekeeping. Laziness was not an option, and my worth was tied up in what I looked like and how well I could keep a house clean.

Chronically low self-esteem led me to marry the first man I ever dated, because I didn’t expect anyone to ever love me, let alone want to have sex with me. The second time she met him, my mom told me that she knew I’d marry him. When we got engaged, she told me he wasn’t good enough for me. I married him anyway. And I divorced him.

I lived with my mother and stepdad (her live-in partner, they weren’t married, but I considered him a parent) for six months after the divorce. We got along pretty great. I paid my rent in chores and job applications and was able to move out into my own place quickly. She and I remained in close contact for several years, while I heavily identified with the “mother knows best” train of thought. After all — she knew my ex husband wasn’t right for me and I should have listened.

After living on my own for 18 months, I moved in with the man who would become my second husband. We hadn’t always planned on getting married. Both divorced once already, we were wary of marriage and thought we might just live together long-term and have a life without legal documentation. I told my mom this over lunch.

“So… S and I are thinking we might not get married.”

“Oh, good. You were settling.”

I explained that we were still planning on living a life together, just not marrying. We got through lunch and I continued a relationship with her. Then I started reading the books and realizing that she had a huge control over my psyche and mental well-being. Her voice was a broken record in my head, pointing out all my faults and failures. I started to pull back.

My husband and I were engaged in April 2016 and after Mother’s Day went by with just a “Happy Mother’s Day” text from me and no gift or visit, I was talking to mom on the phone one day on my way home from work. She told me that she had started a project and was writing each of her children a letter, and she started with my sister, the youngest, and would work backwards. She told me this supposedly to make sure I wouldn’t get jealous if my sister mentioned her letter to me. Then she told me she was upset with me because I didn’t do anything for Mother’s Day and because I wasn’t involving her in my wedding planning. I told her I had pulled back to work through a lot of my childhood issues and she pulled out her favorite refrain:

It’s in the past, I don’t understand why it still bothers you so much.”

At a loss for how to explain that trauma doesn’t just dissolve because it happened a long time ago, I made plans to go wedding shopping with her and things were relatively fine. Post-wedding, she confessed that my stepdad had to talk her into getting us a gift because she had wanted to just send a “Happy wedding” text, in response to my “Happy Mother’s Day” text.

I recall coming to their house one day and sitting down with my stepdad to explain that my issues were with my mother, not with him. And that I didn’t hate her, I just needed space. He listened, he understood. I felt better knowing I had told him a little piece of my truth.

After the wedding in August things were relatively calm, aside from the fact that really any time I spent with her, I’d come home and end up picking a fight with my husband over something. We came to the conclusion that my mom was getting into my head and I was bringing home doubts about him and our marriage.

I chose to stay home for Thanksgiving, partly out of not wanting to deal with the obligation and partly out of wanting to plan and create my own vegan meal and not just eat some sides and desserts I made myself while everyone else ate “normal things.” I also didn’t want to see my brother, whom I had cut contact with for various reasons.

“Yeah, that’s what I thought.”

Her snarky response aside, my husband and I had a nice quiet vegan Thanksgiving. Christmas was another story.

My sister came to town and we set off to mom’s for Christmas morning, knowing we’d have to see our brother and deal with the general unease of family gatherings. My husband actually stayed home, because he had hurt himself falling on some ice and wasn’t up for a day out and about. Mom mentioned to me that she had mailed a lot of my sister’s presents to her already, so I shouldn’t be worried if I had more presents than she did. We had roughly the same amount of presents. Also we were 28 and 24, and gift jealousy was about a decade too late to be a thing.

We got through Christmas and returned to our lives, and then on January 22, 2017 I finally had enough.

This story still seems to petty to me, but it was the moment I finally saw through everything and finally realized nothing would change and that her effect on my life had been there forever and was not something I could overcome in her presence. So I am being completely honest and telling the real story of what made me cease contact with my mother.

I asked what we were going to do for my birthday in April. Her response: “Well, what did you do for mine?”

In this moment, I realized every aspect of the love, affection, and validation I had ever gotten from my mother had been a transaction. What did I do to earn that love? What did I do to earn a treat, to earn a break, to earn a hug?

I stopped speaking to her the next day, without explanation, without ceremony, without premeditation. I simply decided I couldn’t keep her in my life.

This may not make sense to readers. I don’t write this to make sense. I write because it helps me and because breaking my silence helps me.

I went without contact until February 28, 2018.

Unbeknownst to my mother (at least, I think so), I had reached out to my stepdad a few times in 2017. I sent him a card addressed with my left hand from a PO box, so she wouldn’t know it was from me. I explained that I needed to not speak to her, but I didn’t want to lose him. I offered to buy him lunch.

He called me and said that he’d love to get lunch. I cried with relief. He said he’d call the next time he had a job out near where I worked.

We spoke a few more times, about once every few months. I sent a Father’s Day gift, he thanked me. I’d call him or text him if my car was acting funny, he’d give me advice. I called him when I hit a deer and totaled my car, he called back to check on me a few days later. I texted him when I started a new job. We were still trying to coordinate those lunch plans.

At the end of February, our furnace was acting weird and the house wasn’t heating. I called my stepdad and didn’t hear back. The next day I texted him and received a response from my mother instead.

“[Stepdad] is sick and can not help you at the present time. Unfortunately. He stopped working and is unable to drive”

“He says try turning off and back on”

“Okay thank you.”

“Is he okay?”

“He has lung cancer.”

“Getting chemo treatment. Is on oxygen 24/7.”

“How long has he been sick”

“December 2nd he was diagnosed at the ER”

Between my mom and stepdad, there are six adult children. Four of them knew about the cancer. My sister and I were not told. It became apparent as we spoke to the rest of the siblings that we were deliberately not told. For three months he had been dealing with cancer, and we were not told.

My sister called mom and was told that our stepdad specifically wanted me to not know, because if my mom wasn’t in my life, he couldn’t be either. My sister reported this to me gravely and sadly, and my response genuinely shocked her: “I don’t believe that, that is not true.” It hadn’t occurred to her that our mother would lie.

My sister came to visit him and she actually caught him on a good day. He was alert. She asked him if he wanted to see me and he said yes, he did. She told him what mom said, that he hadn’t wanted to see me. He looked surprised.

We expected him to be stable for a year or more, but complications arose and he ended up hospitalized with fluid in a lung. It looked bad. My sister told me when my mom left the hospital and I was able to go see him. He was sleeping. He woke up briefly and asked how I was doing before he drifted back to sleep. I stayed for a couple hours and went home again. He was able to leave ICU.

A couple days later, things were bad again. My sister got a call that he wasn’t expected to make it through the night. She told mom that I would be coming. Mom said that was fine. I was able to see him that night, though he wasn’t aware or alert. I held his hand. I whispered to him, joking that this was a pretty extreme way to get my mom and I back in a room together. I almost remember him smiling.

Eventually the decision was made to take him off the machines. It was time. We waited, surrounded by family, and eventually my sister and I had to leave. We could no longer bear to be there. And he passed moments after we left. I think he was waiting. I don’t think he wanted us to see.

We attended a family funeral at mom’s house that weekend. Things were flawlessly normal. We talked, joked, acted like always. It was very jarring to know that we hadn’t spoken in so long and could still put the masks back on. I did not feel comfortable.

After the funeral, I went right back to no contact. Every day I think about calling her to see if she’s okay. Every day I think about sending her a gift or a card. I think about stopping by the house. I think about reaching out, knowing she is in pain.

But she leveraged a human life in a grudge against me. She kept me from someone I loved, on purpose. I never got to see him in a way he deserved to be remembered. My last memories of him are sick and weak in a hospital bed.

I do not forgive her. And I do not have to.