I was seventeen when I first thought to myself, “I must be in love.” I was also seventeen, in a nearly simultaneous moment, when I first thought to myself, “this is not what I expected love to feel like.”
I was right, as gut instincts often are, to be confused about my frayed nerves and trembling limbs. I was overtaken by an all-consuming, conscious-altering emotion, sure. But I didn’t realize that these were also symptoms of guilt.
It’s easy to conflate obsessive concern with love. When you feel protective over someone, as if their wellbeing and happiness ought to rest on your shoulders, how else would you instinctively describe it—especially as a novice in the realm of relationships? I was nearly a senior in high school and I had already lived a lot of lives, felt a lot of feelings, but the yet-undiscovered Holy Grail was always Being In Love. That’s what everybody tells you.
I had always wanted to be in love, to give someone a tour of the locked rooms inside my head. But I had expected boys to come with keys and instead he came with an axe.
I just recently told a new friend about these experiences, and for the first time I referred to the relationship as “abusive.” It felt strange, but not wrong.
If this boy ever read what I’m writing now, I imagine he’d be shocked at best and outraged at worst. I never would have described our relationship as abusive while it was happening, and that fact has sometimes made me feel like a storyteller at best and a liar at worst: parading around a flag of fake martyrdom in order to assert my place in the Survivor Hall of Fame or earn the badge of resilience, or something like that. When I tell people about the relationship, I often get a response like “you’re so strong for dealing with that,” and I rarely feel that I deserve it.
But the important thing to remember in the aftermath of an emotionally abusive relationship is that abuse breaks your brain’s ability to create a cohesive narrative. It infects your ability to build bridges between causes and effects, effectively crumbling any blame that is not inwardly directed. Being able to call a relationship “abusive” is a step away from the guilt that your former partner lauded over you. And it’s not easy.