Photo credit: Michael Karas
I don't recall the conversation, just the sock to my stomach. It didn't really hurt, but I gasped anyway. I was startled. It was the feeling you get when careening down a roller coaster. Your insides feel suspended, until they come crashing down. I got the wind knocked out of me. I stood on the unforgiving concrete streets of New York City, spitting out air. I also spit out any respect I had for that relationship. I just didn't know it then.
I chalked it up to drinking. She'd just had too much. I'd probably squeezed her wrist too tightly during the argument, and she'd let out a natural reaction. As we lay in bed that next morning, I asked if she remembered what had happened. She didn't. There were profuse apologies. It wouldn't happen again.
So you would think.
Arguments always started innocently enough. Then a voice would rise, followed by intense declarations of disgust.
"You loser. You waste of human flesh. I hope you kill yourself."
"Please don't say that!" I would weakly reply.
Drinking wasn't always involved. There wasn't always an excuse to blame.
Rationale and respect don't come into play in arguments, not in unhealthy and dysfunctional relationships. Pleas for mercy and mindful speech during difficult times aren't taken seriously. It all seems fruitless. It falls on deaf ears. I questioned why I continued to stay. Was it habit? Some sadistic sense of comfort? Did I think we'd change back into the people we once were? I'm not a weak person. I grew up in such a loving home. My parents have a beautiful marriage. What's wrong with me?
I used to just take the emotional manipulations and verbal and physical swipes, though those never amounted to more than a handful, like a boxer in the ring. But instead of dropping to the floor from that right hook, I'd just curl up inside myself and shrink from sight. I'd deflate out of defeat. I'd go numb.
So I thought.
There's a place where apathy and repression meet. It's like a surprise visit. You think they exist on opposite sides of the world, but somehow they end up standing next to one another, coexisting together. Their clandestine affair leaves a rage behind. All that pent-up energy needs expression. I remember turning down sex often; once my rejection caused her to kick me so hard from the bed that I struck the wall. My sex drive plummeted out of stress. I encouraged her to find that elsewhere. Who says that to their girlfriend? Instead of my usual passivity, I started to hit her three times to every blow she gave me. I knew I was stronger. I figured that would stop her. It never did.
Once we were about to head to a comedy club with my friends. We got into a fight some 15 minutes beforehand. She didn't want to go, and she didn't want me to go either. She hid my license, stashed my car keys somewhere and slowly began cleaning. She didn't say a word. I pleaded with her, suggested we talk later and encouraged her to come with me. She continued to calmly clean and remained tight-lipped. I snapped. I lunged at her throat and squeezed -- tight. To my surprise she didn't resist, or respond. She did nothing. I pulled myself off her, shaking uncontrollably and locked myself in the bathroom. I sobbed like a newborn. The line between victim and perpetrator had instantaneously blurred. No one could claim innocence now. I'd fed into the wrong behavior. While staring down at that bathroom floor, my back against the door, I sat cupping my tears. I had never been more disgusted with myself.
What's hidden behind closed doors inevitably seeps through the cracks. That vile odor of desperation and destruction wafts through the air and corrodes the foundation. The scent stings family and friends as your private life occasionally plays out in very embarrassing public displays. Your once-seemingly quaint life becomes inflated, mangled and a morbid caricature of itself. Those closest to you either are repulsed and turn their backs on you or attempt to passionately pry you out of the abyss.
I lost myself. My sanity turned insane. This wasn't me. Who was this person? The shame became overwhelming. The lengths one may take when found in a toxic relationship is shocking. It became hard to look at myself in the mirror. I was becoming someone I didn't like. I feared for my future.
Until I finally got the courage to leave.
My bitterness, sadness and disappointment over that time has since passed. While I look back with regret, that time changed me for the better. If I stood before you as an individual who had continued to perpetuate those abusive behaviors or picked partners who displayed those same tendencies, then I may not be able to say that. But that time became a defining moment for me, for it forged the being I wished to become. While it left a dark blemish on my psyche forever, that sullied stain serves as an important reminder. Moments may change us irrevocably, but that doesn't mean they have to determine who we are as people. We have a conscience, we have a soul, we have a morality that can serve as our compass during the darkest of times. We just have to choose wisely.
I've come to nurture respect like a baby bird that has to be shielded from inclement weather, kept safe in its nest from predators and fed by mouth by its loving mom. Respect is dainty. It's delicate. It has to be held with caring and compassionate arms. It can be bruised and battered so easily. It can be taken advantage of. It can be abused by a careless word spoken, a selfish act, or an abrupt punch to the stomach. The loss of respect is the death toll of a relationship. It's our job to never cross a certain line. Once you do, it's nearly impossible to return.
Photo credit: Michael Karas