I almost got away in the summer of 2015.
Everything changed in the span of two weeks starting Memorial weekend that year. My ex-boyfriend had hurt me in almost every way you can possibly hurt someone, and during those two weeks I either found out about it or I endured it, and things were never the same. I was never the same.
I’ll never forget my desperation on our last night in the Dominican Republic, the tail end of this two-week period. That night, he drank so much liquor as we sat in the bar after dinner, that when he stood up, he fell. He went back to our room, leaving me at the bar alone.
I was unsure of what to do. I was afraid to follow him back to the room and be alone with him, but I was afraid to be at the bar without him for too long because I knew that when I did go back to our room, he would accuse me of having met a man and gone to the man’s room.
Then, as if right on cue, a man appeared beside me. My heart began to hammer in my chest.
“I can’t talk to you,” I said.
“What?” His eyebrows creased in confusion.
“I mean, I have a boyfriend.”
“Oh,” he said, relaxing. “Did he come here with you?”
The bar was in the spacious marble lobby of the resort, which had several entrances, and my eyes were flicking back and forth between all of them. Each time my eyes fell upon the one my ex had walked through, his shape materialized for an instant then disintegrated. I felt faint.
“Yes, he did. And if he sees me talking to you, he’s going to be really upset.” I didn’t know how to stop myself from blurting out the truth. Some part of me was aware of how dramatic it sounded, but another voice inside me cried for help, for someone to notice that I was trapped in something I didn’t understand. There was a cage around me no one could see, and I had been silenced, shamed, erased, and at that moment, standing there with a man, I knew in my heart, or thought I knew that my boyfriend would try to kill me if he saw me with this man. Terror was threatening to overwhelm me.
The man’s eyes creased again, this time with concern. As soon as I saw his expression, saw human kindness, something that I’d been isolated from for the week I had been at the resort, I lost my composure and started to cry.
“I’m sorry. I have to go.” Everything was threatening to spill out now.
“Wait. Wait, are you okay?” He touched the underside of my arm, where there was a bruise in the shape of a thumbprint.
“Yes.” I swallowed, and now I knew it was too late. “Look, he cheated on me but I just found out about it. I’m only here because he said he wouldn’t move out of our apartment or let me move out unless I came here, and if he sees me talking to you, he might do worse than this.”
As I had heard my own voice, robotically speaking, what I’d said didn’t make sense even to me. What boyfriend would cheat on his girlfriend then say he wouldn’t let her leave the relationship unless she went on vacation with him, of all things? And then why go on vacation just to turn it into a nightmare? And cheating wasn’t even the half of it. Not really. And then how could I even explain how I got here, with a man like that anyway? Everything was all twisted.
So, pieces of what had happened began to come out. It was not possible to tell everything. It was too much to overwhelm someone with. But I told him there was a before and an after, that I didn’t know who he was anymore, that I’d never known him, that he’d created a false image of himself with lies. I told him I’d loved a dream and I didn’t know where that man was, but there was something cruel there now instead. And I was just so confused, I didn’t know why.
I guess I’d said enough because eventually, I stopped talking and, still with his eyes so full of concern and sympathy, he said something I’ll never forget: “He sounds like a psychopath.”
I didn’t agree. I didn’t disagree. I was instead speechless.
Sometimes people walk into your life at just the right time. His instant understanding and validation at the very little I’d been able to convey gave me enough strength to finish out the horrible night that awaited me when I returned to my room, which I did after telling the man all I had to do was make it through one more night and a plane ride and I’d be free. The man let me go.
Back at home, my ex-boyfriend did move out after the return.
I almost got away then. Almost.
There was an aftermath of extricating myself from the details of the lives we had barely started together. I had no idea what I was dealing with. I really didn’t. It would be a long, long time before I was free.
Day One Post-Unmasking and Move-Out
I shambled ghost-like through the life I had formerly inhabited, eyes staring and seeing shapes that resembled objects in the real world, but I did not occupy my body. Violated. The precision of his deception left a gaping wound, plunged with razor-sharp accuracy into every aspect of my existence, bringing to a halt both everything and nothing at the same time. He had used it to cut parts of me out and left me to die. And dying I was on the inside. Bleeding to death.
Life soldiered on. I was mute, stunned, alienated from normal people and their normal everyday activities. I was of the world, but not in it. The world itself was not real, except when it forced me to fade into it out of absolute duty or mortal danger. As I walked on autopilot to the Metro on my way to work, a blast of car horns jarred me out of my waking sleep-state and caused me to hop back onto the sidewalk. I’d almost walked right out into oncoming traffic without even noticing I was at a crosswalk.
The daze was pervasive, and when I sometimes drifted out of it for a few moments, there was a mixture of denial, acute pain like burning crimson knives, and fear. He was gone, and yet I still felt his presence everywhere. His texting, social media monitoring and requests for pictures when we were apart had been constant.
Now that he was gone, I realized just how much monitoring of my life there had been, but for some reason, I didn’t feel free. I was sure that he had his car parked somewhere in the apartment complex parking lot, ensuring I left and went to work, or I’d suddenly get the sensation that he was watching me as I walked home to make sure I came home at the regular time, alone, and wasn’t going out anywhere else.
Things went on like this and one night after work that week, when I got off the elevator in my building and turned the corner, my heart leaped into my throat when I saw that the welcome mat in front of my apartment was missing.
Is he inside the apartment? Or does he just want me to know he’s been here?
My heart pounded as I walked toward the door. I stopped when I reached it, looking at the number on it, confused (Why is that not my apartment number?) Then I realized that in my daze, I had pressed the button in the elevator for the floor I work on, not the floor I live on.
Cool air seemed to whoosh across my skin and I felt dizzy as relief almost brought me to my knees. I hurried back to the elevator and went down to the second floor. That welcome mat in front of my door had never looked as welcoming as it did at that moment.
Day Two Post Unmasking and Move-Out
“I want to get tested,” I told the nurse once I got into the examining room.
“For?” she said, looking up from the computer into which she had been typing my medical information.
I cleared my throat. “STDs.”
“Have you been exposed?”
Once again, how could I explain? I simply said: “My boyfriend cheated on me, so I don’t know.”
Anything seemed possible to me then. Anything.
“Did he tell you whether he used a condom?”
The sheer magnitude of what I didn’t know washed over me. Some people keep poking bruises to see if they still hurt, often the same people that if you say, “Don’t look!”, they have the most burning desire to look anyway.
I’m usually that kind of person. But in this case, I didn’t want to know how deep it all went. There was something inside me that said, stop. I had an idea that if I kept digging to see in what other ways he’d betrayed me, or exactly how much he was not at all who I thought he was, it would be like peeling an onion: I’d keep going and there would be nothing inside. I thought that might be enough to send me over the edge.
I felt numb, my face mask-like. “All I know is he cheated on me. We aren’t in contact anymore.”
She gave me a cup, and I wrote my name on it in blurry blue Sharpie marker in the bathroom. Afterward, she ushered me down the hall where a man drew three vials of blood. The nurse pointed me to the exit and I squinted as I walked out into the sunlight.
Several days later, the tests came back clean.
* * * * *
“I want to close the account,” I said, into the phone.
My ex and I had opened up a joint bank account for the sole purpose of paying joint bills, such as rent and utilities. We deposited our portions of each into it and then paid the bills as they came due. My fear was that he would start writing checks or using the debit card indiscriminately against the account, even though there was no money in it now because we weren’t using it anymore. It didn’t seem implausible that he would do it just to hurt me even if he had to destroy his own credit to do it. I had more to lose.
Anything seemed possible to me then. Anything.
I heard clicking on the other end. “There are two of you on the account?”
“Yes, but I can’t get in touch with ________. I don’t know where he is.” Obviously, I did know how to reach him. But for the same reasons I thought he might use the account to try to hurt me, I could not count on him to help me close it.
“I’m sorry, but since both of you are on the account, I’m going to need permission from both of you to close it.”
I’d been afraid of that. “Okay, well can you just take my name off of it then?”
The man hesitated. “I’m sorry, but since it’s currently a joint account, I’ll need to get approval from both of you to remove you and change it to an individual account.”
“Wait… so you’re saying I can’t even take my name off of it?”
“But I don’t know where he is. I don’t want to be on it anymore. I can’t remove my own name?”
“I’m sorry,” he said again.
“But…” How could I say this? “I don’t know what he might do with the account. I’m not sure he would agree to dissolve it. You’re saying I need his permission?” The very word “permission” after he’d already held the apartment over my head made me feel sick.
I thought about the absurdity of it all, trusting someone enough to move in with them, make financial decisions with them, and then having them basically turn out to have double, triple lives and be so frightened of what they might do that you have to get out of those decisions– then not being able to. But, yeah, banks have no provisions for that. That’s movie plot stuff. Isn’t it?
What the hell was I doing here? How was I going to get my life back?
“I understand, but this is just our policy about converting accounts.”
“What is this? Saudi Arabia?” I said, frustrated, and hung up.
Day Three Post Unmasking and Move-Out
Randomly, I received a text message at work from him asking if we could have dinner that night “one more time before I leave for [his country of birth].”
My heart pounded. No. Yes. But I needed to see him. I still needed him to deal with some business. In addition to the bank account, there were a couple of other items, the most significant having to do with the apartment itself, which I needed to move out of.
And I was… confused. Shell-shocked. Zombified. Leaving because if you’re not going to be here with me, there’s nothing for me here.
I still wanted an explanation. Why had he done it all? How had he been able to? He seemed conciliatory, so would I be able to get answers now? Could I keep him from getting angry?
That night he showed up at my apartment and we decided to walk to a restaurant next door. As we waited for the light to change so we could cross the street, he suddenly dug into his pocket and pulled out a handful of what looked like colorful mesh.
“Here,” he said. He stuffed it into my hand.
I opened my hand and looked at several small bags with drawstring openings. Opening the first one, I found a ribbon necklace with a black glass heart on the end and matching earrings. Another pouch held a red and silver beaded bracelet. The last one contained a silver ankle bracelet from which dangled a silver charm.
“That one’s my favorite,” he said, taking it from me and holding it up so I could see it better. “It means love… infinity…” The figure-eight infinity symbol twinkled in the sunlight.
“Anyway, I know you don’t want to be with me, but please, I hope you’ll keep these forever.” He looked away, back at the street. The light had already changed once while I’d opened the pouches. I felt a strange tightening in my chest and I struggled not to cry.
After dinner, he came back to the apartment to discuss three letters with me I needed him to sign: one closing the bank account, one ending our joint gym membership, and one stating that we were giving our 60-day notice to break our lease and move out of the apartment, as per the lease we had signed. I had listed the amount it would cost in the letter, which was substantial, and as he signed the paperwork, I asked him if he would pay half. He agreed that he would do that.
“But… is there anything… we can do?” he added.
I asked him what he meant. He wanted to try to stay together. I didn’t know what to say. Was this like what had happened with moving out and going on the trip? If I said no, would he refuse to pay his share of the money? Or worse, get angry and start threatening or yelling at me?
“I love you so much. I can’t live without you,” he added.
“But I thought you were leaving and going to [another country]?”
“I won’t if you’ll stay with me.”
I didn’t say anything, but my emotions were swirling. Who was he? The bad one or the good one? Did he love me or hate me? I couldn’t seem to think. Everything was flipped, jagged, like stained glass prisms that kept rotating in a kaleidoscope. It seemed as if every path led to darkness, but where should I find hope? I missed him and yet he didn’t exist. Yet here he was, and yet what he was asking for wasn’t possible. Yet if I said no to it, would I invite more pain on myself than what I was already experiencing or what I would endure if I didn’t?
“Look, she didn’t mean anything to me. I didn’t care about her. You’re the one I love. I only went to her when we would argue,” he said, about one of the incidents that had been the most hurtful.
“Argue. It wasn’t arguing. I only wanted to ask you about why you were lying about things and you would get mad.”
I was still so raw with everything and I started crying. His face changed and he clammed up. “If you’re going to cry, I’m just going to go home.”
I sniffed. His anger seemed dangerous given everything that had recently happened, but the more I tried to stop it, the more the tears flowed. “I can’t help it. I loved you so much. You hurt me so much. Do you expect me not to cry?”
He sat across from me, stone-faced, not looking at me. His coldness sliced me even deeper. Finally, he burst out:
“I can’t change it. You have to start a new relationship with me if you want this to work. You can’t ever talk about the past.”
I hadn’t said I wanted to start a new relationship, but I could see he was already thinking he had won. Was he going to take “no” for an answer? But if I had to be around him, how could I just pretend like nothing had happened when it felt like as if I had been violated and assaulted from the inside out. Only years later could I understand that I had been. I could barely function or think of anything else, the events too fresh. The thoughts were like tiny needles that constantly prodded me each time one of the memories sharply invaded.
“I’m sorry,” he said finally.
“For what?” I said, wiping my hands across my eyes.
Everything? Did he understand what that entailed? I wanted him to list it all out. I wanted him to show me he understood exactly what he had done, to show me he understood the gravity of it all. Instead, he held his arms out. “Come here.”
I was afraid to and didn’t move. He gestured again, so I moved closer to him and he wiped away tears each time new ones fell immediately as if he couldn’t bear to see them on my face.
“I was looking at rings today. Did you know that?”
“Yes. I still dream of marrying you.”
The thought of marrying him right then in the midst of what he had just done and in all of my confusion felt flat-out crazy. And yet the thought of him asking me was like an instant salve to my wounds that dissolved some of my pain. It made me feel as if everything bad he had done to me had been the lie, and not the other way around.
Maybe… maybe there was an explanation. Maybe he wouldn’t hurt me anymore if I could just accept what he said at face value, that he loved me.
“Let’s stop crying now and watch a movie,” he said.
We chose The Social Network, the true story of the two college friends who started Facebook together. Later, one of them double-crosses the other.
My ex seemed to admire the move, but still he said: “If you did that to me, I’d kill you and then be on a plane to [another country] before they even knew it was me.”
* * * * *
In the book Women Who Love Psychopaths (p.224-227), Sandra L. Brown writes, “Women describe the disengagement [from a relationship with a psychopath] like they have crawled out of a grave, heaving themselves onto safe ground– gasping for air that is not filled with the pathology and dichotomies of him… In fact, many of the women have the same symptoms seen in other types of conditions associated with emotional manipulation or psychological torture such as Stockholm Syndrome, cult programming, psychological warfare, coercion, mind control and trance logic thinking.”
The book then describes how psychologically they experience the same four dynamics of Stockholm Syndrome:
- She perceives a threat to her physical or psychological safety and believes he can carry out his threats.
- When he acts in kind ways or what is perceived to be kind, she repeatedly lets down her guard and sees him as human and kind.
- He is able to isolate her from outside perspectives other than indoctrination into his pathological worldview. He can distort her reality, which can become almost delusional, especially when combined with the contrast between feeling unsafe and receiving kindness from the same person.
- A perceived inability to leave. The psychopath conditions her in some way to believe that she cannot escape or he will always find her or never leave her alone.
“Too often, she has disintegrated so much that she cannot initiate the disconnection. This can happen due to several reasons. One is that the intensity of attachment is so strong that even with all the evidence of his behavior and pathology, her ‘entrancement’ in the relationship keeps her tied to him. In other relationships, the women are too impacted by Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, depression and other symptoms to be able to initiate and carry out the disengagement process which requires a level of functioning she does not currently have.”
Two months after he signed the paperwork, including the agreement to break our lease, I moved out of the apartment we had shared. My goal had been to ensure that the last of the business we needed to conduct together went smoothly and start my new life without him.
Sixty days is a long time. By then, it was too late.
* * * * *
When children learn to ride a bike, their bikes can be equipped with training wheels to allow them to get used to the sensation of riding, balancing, stopping and starting. The training wheels condition the child’s mind and body psychologically and physically to be comfortable with riding a bike. When the child gains enough confidence and the activity is no longer foreign, the wheels are removed, and the child’s mastery over the bike makes up for any loss of any benefit received from using them.
By the time I moved out into an apartment I could afford, except for work, I had been isolated from almost everyone but him, I started to get abuse amnesia, and I had become trauma-bonded to him by the intermittent kindnesses followed by the storming out and verbal abuse for having emotions or reactions to his behavior. He no longer needed an apartment, a lease contract, a bank account to hold over my head and maintain control of me. He had learned the right things to say and do to keep me just close enough. His psychological control over me was complete.
It would take me more than two years after that to finally escape, two years in which I deteriorated physically and psychologically and yet somehow still found the strength inside to save myself.
If you have a voice inside of you trying to save you, listen to it. It’s the part of you that hasn’t been poisoned by the special brand of psychological abuse that psychopaths and narcissists use to erase you.
NOTE: After returning from the Dominican Republic and the discovery of my ex-boyfriend’s multiple lives, I started to write constantly to process everything that was happening. As I sat in the apartment alone after work, isolated now from most of my friends because of the relationship, I started trying to capture what had happened and was still happening and all of my feelings on it. The details in this article come from the writing I did at that time.
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