I used to drift away in daydreams of beauty and motion. I’d see myself with my eyes closed, my face tilted toward the sun, and my arms spread wide. Fields of wildflowers, endless blue skies, dashed yellow lines on chunky asphalt disappearing beneath wandering tires. Color and light and laughter. It felt like destiny. And then I’d open my eyes and come crashing back to reality. It had gotten harder and harder to pretend. The practiced smile I pasted on my face every morning had become less convincing, and the stuff of my daydreams seemed farther from my reach with every hour that passed - as though time was a train and I, the passenger who had missed her stop and was helplessly carried away from where she wanted to be. With every day that passed, I felt less like myself and more like decay; as though my soul was rotting within me, a pile of wet leaves going to slime where my spirit should have been. I knew I wasn’t happy; but I also couldn’t begin to fathom how I could change any of it.
Life was hard and I was weary. I was in a relationship with a man who was controlling, manipulative, and emotionally and physically abusive, and living with him felt like a perpetual roller coaster ride. Up, down, left, right - I was jerked along in whatever direction he felt like moving at the time, and all I could do was hold on and hope we didn’t go off the rails. I had an ever-present sense that I had lost control entirely; that no part of my life was actually up to me.
Some days were lovely; these were the days in which I remembered why I’d fallen for him in the first place. I’d feel that first flush of love again and vow to stick it out - I just had to be more patient, more understanding, tidier, less selfish, better. Other days - well, to say they were terrible would be a gross understatement. Each morning when I woke up, I would have no idea which kind of day it would be, and so I spent my life walking on eggshells, a bundle of anxiety and nerves.
Why didn’t you just leave? If I had a dollar for every time I’ve been asked that question, I’d be a rich woman indeed. The cycle of abuse is a deep and twisted one; for simplicity’s sake, I’ll just say here that it boiled down to the fact that I loved him, that we often did have good times together, and that I was so embroiled in his manipulations that, for a long time, I believed I was mostly to blame for his abusive behavior. If I’d known then what I know now, life would have been much, much different. But alas.
Ever since I was a child, I’d dreamed of a creative life. I could see it, clear as day, in that film reel that played when I closed my eyes. This is how it’s supposed to be. I wanted to write, to sing, to take photographs, to share my vision with the world. There was a little flame that would burn within me sometimes, a pilot light of inspiration, and I’d try to run with it. But I was met with obstacles at every turn.
My partner expressed outright disdain for my dreams, largely because he believed they’d never make me any money - and to him, money was king. I’ll never forget the day I told him, shyly and proudly, that I wanted to write a book. He responded by asking me who my favorite authors were. When I gave him a few names, he Googled them to prove to me that they all had college educations and that I was clearly unfit to even make the attempt. “Why would you waste all that time writing a book - time you could spend doing useful things - when you know damn well no one would ever publish it?”
I stopped mentioning my creative visions to him after that. I’d grown almost ashamed of them -as though they were purely indulgent and self-serving, and no good could ever come of them. As though having the audacity to dream made me horribly, appallingly selfish.
Then, there were the obstacles I laid across my own path, without even fully realizing I was doing so.
The main thing standing in my way? I was scared. Fear had become a constant; an underlying current, perpetually pulling at me from beneath the surface of the everyday, tugging at my sleeve as if to say, “Hey, remember me?” I equal parts loved my partner, and feared him. I was afraid to leave him, and I was afraid to stay. Most of all, I was afraid to set off into the world without him, only to realize that he’d been right all along and that my dreams of a creative life really were just unrealistic and self-indulgent delusions of grandeur.
It was far safer to wonder if I could have that kind of life, after all, than to be faced with the concrete evidence that I couldn’t.
During the last four of those nine years I was with him, I tried to leave. Dozens of times, I tried. I’d pack my car - sometimes of my own volition, sometimes at his insistence - drive away, and spend the night in a cheap motel, telling myself I was done for good, but all the while knowing that all it would take to bring me back would be one phone call from him. Upon hearing his voice, I'd be sobbing, begging him to give me another chance. Though every fiber of my being was crying out against it - you're so close, don't go back now - I was helpless. Like an addict to the drug. I’m done this time, I swear.
So many motels, so many cities. So many midnight check-ins with weary clerks who had clearly been asleep until I’d roused them with the front desk bell. So many of them clocking my tear-streaked and swollen face, regarding me as just another hot mess who didn’t have anywhere else to go. I was always far too upset to sleep, so I would smoke pack after pack of cigarettes through trembling fingers, nauseous from a combination of exhaustion, hunger and nicotine, feeling simultaneously numb and excruciatingly raw - as though all the deepest, blackest emptiness the world had ever known was concentrated in a rancid little stone inside me, poisoning me from the inside out. The size of an atom, and the weight of a black hole.
I rarely stayed in the same motel twice, but after a while, they all felt the same. Each one made me despise myself more. Each standard-issue patterned comforter, each tiny bar of generic soap, each pillow I laid my head on before turning around and going back to my shitty little life - they all reeked of yet another failure to break free. It was getting harder and harder to stomach.
All throughout my twenties, I had been working in fine-dining restaurants as a server, bartender, manager, or some combination of the three. The money was decent, considering I didn’t have a degree, and for a long time, I hadn’t minded it. As I neared thirty, however, I couldn’t shake the nagging feeling that I needed to be doing something more with my life. I didn’t want to get stuck in restaurants forever. I wanted stable hours and free weekends. I wanted business cards with my name on them. I wanted a career - not just a job.
So in the autumn of 2013, I decided to leave the restaurant industry and get a job in an office. Any office - it didn’t matter where. I just knew I needed some basic clerical experience before I could expect to be taken seriously as a career-minded individual. So after an extensive search, I finally found someplace that would hire me without any experience, albeit for just $10 an hour - a company specializing in retail installment finance. Not the most scintillating work, for sure - but to sit at a desk and work at a computer thrilled me. It wasn’t the job itself - it was the fact that I finally felt like I was doing something with my life. That this was a stepping stone to bigger and better things.
At first, my partner was supportive of the transition. He wanted me to be happy, he said. But I’d only been at the new job a couple of weeks when he did one of those Jekyll and Hyde about-faces I was all too familiar with. He became suddenly obsessed with the fact that I’d taken a pay cut to accept a “shitty, meaningless corporate job.” He berated me; he told me I was stupid and immature and stubborn, that I didn’t know what I was doing.
As I mentioned before, money was of the utmost importance to him. As long as I’d known him, he viewed himself as an entrepreneur. I once admired his determination never to work for anyone else. But as the years wore on and the revenue from his business kept getting funneled right back into itself, with none left over for rent, bills, or groceries, he steadfastly refused to get even a part-time job to help keep us afloat. He’d told me, more than once, that it was my duty to go out and work and make the money for us - and since I could make the most money in restaurants, he’d often reminded me, it would be pointless to do anything else. And for nearly a decade, I had done it. I had dutifully handed over my nightly tips - tens of thousands of dollars over the years, and I had nothing to show for it.
The day finally came that he issued me an ultimatum: quit my job and go back to working in restaurants, or we were through. As though I was utterly useless to him if I wasn’t bringing in at least $40,000 a year.
I told myself I’d quit. That it wasn’t really that big of a deal anyway. It was just a job. There would be others. So what if I ended up in restaurants the rest of my life? Worse things had happened. I fully intended to go in to work the next Monday and hand in my resignation, in order to keep the peace at home.
On Sunday, the day before I’d planned to give my notice, something happened. We were at home, and we started arguing. As far as fights went, this was actually fairly tame - a relatively normal couple’s spat that by all means could have been quickly forgotten. It was nothing like the knock-down, drag-out sessions we frequently had - the kind that went on for hours and sometimes culminated in violence. I always assumed that it would have to be something like that - something really intense, something that would leave me bruised and battered - that would finally make me leave.
I don’t know what was different about that day. But during the minor argument we had, I found myself growing inexplicably, overwhelmingly angry. The phrase seeing red suddenly made sense - because it was physically happening to me. I felt like a human volcano, with molten lava bubbling just beneath the surface. And I realized, suddenly, how unlike me that was. I’ve never had angry tendencies - and I didn’t want to start.
This is not how I want to be.
As soon as that thought formed, the storm within me quieted, and one thing stood out, clear as day: I can’t quit my job.
I cannot explain the ferocity with which this realization appeared; it came roaring out of the blue and hit me, square between the eyes. That job felt like my lifeline. Yes, it was a dull, low-paying desk job - but something was telling me that it was so much more. That it was the first plank of the bridge that would help me cross over to a better life. I don’t know how I knew; I just knew.
Quitting, then, would be forsaking my own future - subjugating my own hopes and dreams once more, and for what?
For someone who knew how important this was to me, yet couldn’t - wouldn’t - bring himself to give a damn about my happiness.
And there it was: the source of my anger.
Before the moment of clarity could slip away like vapor on the wind, I picked up the phone and dialed my mother.
Forty minutes later, my father’s pickup was pulling into the driveway, and I, through a haze of tears and disbelief, was loading my belongings into it. And then we were pulling away, while my partner stood in the driveway, barefoot in the cold, tears in his eyes. I watched his silhouette in the rearview mirror until the blur of my tears caused him to vanish from the picture.
I wanted to throw up.
I wish I could give myself more credit, but let me be clear; I fully understand that the only reason I didn't go back was because my father was operating the vehicle. I would have turned around if I could; I felt like a caged animal, clawing the walls in a desperate attempt to go back.
Back to what? I kept asking myself. It didn’t help.
Those first few days that I stayed at my parents’ house felt like some kind of awful half-dream in which I was drifting through a parallel universe - a place that looked so achingly familiar, but was backwards and upside down. I commuted to work, leaving before dawn now that I lived over an hour away. I was tense and distracted, but at least work gave me something to focus on for eight hours out of the day.
The other sixteen hours - those were rough. He kept calling me. I hadn’t the heart to ignore him, and often I’d find myself engaged in the types of conversations we always used to have in person: basically him telling me all the ways in which I’d fucked up, but that I was lucky, because he’d decided to let me have another chance.
In the past, that had worked - multiple times. Now, things were different. I was different. Perhaps it was the distance - even a few days apart had the effect of loosening his hold over me.
So I did what I’d never done before: I told him I didn’t know if I wanted the “chance” he’d so graciously decided to offer me. I told him I needed time to think, and that in order to do so, I couldn’t speak with him for a while. I needed to be left alone.
He kept on calling for a few days. Ignoring the phone would cause my stomach to knot with guilt and anxiety every time, but I stayed strong. Eventually, he stopped calling.
Something strange was happening. I began noticing it slowly - I’d started doing nice things for myself without even realizing it. I took myself out for dinner; tucked away in a corner booth with a good book, a glass of wine, and a steaming plate of carbonara in front of me, I felt almost content. I met my colleagues for post-work happy hours and didn’t feel guilty that I wasn’t at home cleaning the bathroom instead. I looked up people in my hometown that I’d lost touch with, started going out more, and made new friends. And on weekends, sometimes I’d spend entire afternoons in my sweatpants, binge-watching Buffy the Vampire Slayer with a bowl of popcorn in my lap and a bottle of wine beside me - and nobody yelled at me for being lazy and useless. Tentatively, I realized it was . . . glorious. I may have been nearly thirty and living with my parents again - but for the first time in my adult life, I actually felt . . . free.
That’s not to say I was exactly happy. I was still existing in limbo, quite unsure of who I was or what I was supposed to be doing. I still felt perpetually haunted; I was constantly jumpy, as though any minute now, he’d leap around the corner and catch me in the act of enjoying myself.
But it was a start.
Almost two months after I’d moved to my parents’, I went to a friend’s Christmas party, not expecting to see him - but to my surprise, there he was. Simply being in his presence, it was as though the lights in the room suddenly dimmed and all the freedom and possibility that had emerged in my life began to shrink. I had the sense that I was standing on the precipice between the old life and the new - and pushed together like that, the contrast between the two was striking. There was still no doubt in my mind or in my heart that I loved him. But along with that knowledge was something else: the realization that my life had been more genuine, authentic and empowering in the time since I’d left than it had been even one time in the nine years we were together.
He asked if we could talk outside. I followed him onto the back porch.
He said he loved me and he missed me and he hadn’t even realized how important I was to him until I was gone. I was his soul mate, he said - he’d never love anyone the way he loved me. He promised to change. He recited a list of many of his transgressions and apologized, sincerely, for each one. He said he knew he'd been terrible to me, but that he was determined to change. He wanted me to come home. He begged me to come home. He got down on his knees and wept.
I ached for him, from some primal, visceral place deep in my gut. I knew he genuinely believed the things he was saying - at the moment. The problem was, I’d heard them before. And now, I’d had a glimpse of life without all the pressure and tension and anxiety and fear. I was beginning to learn what it was like to just be me - and I realized in that moment, as he knelt before me in the snow, that I couldn’t go back to him. I’d passed the point of no return.
So as my heart broke into an infinite amount of pieces that will never entirely collect together again, I told him no, and I walked away.
It was the hardest thing I'd ever done.
I sobbed on the drive home. Sobbed. Twice I had to pull over because I couldn’t see the road through my torrential downpour of tears. I felt like I was dying. And when I arrived home, though I’m not proud of it, I basically crawled into bed with a whiskey bottle and stayed there for a few days. The wound had opened all over again. I’d smashed his heart to smithereens, and no matter how much I hated all the terrible things he’d done, I still loved him so much - the last thing I wanted was to cause him pain. I was wild with grief and guilt; I suspected it would never get better. That I’d spend the rest of my life feeling like I was about to either throw up or burst into tears or possibly both.
But to my surprise . . . life kept on going. Winter became spring and the sun began to shine a little brighter. My heart had finally begun to let go - to heal. Tentatively, I began asking myself what I wanted out of life - an inquiry that had been out of the question six months previously.
Unsurprisingly, most of the answers were creative. I wanted to keep a blog. I wanted to write a book. I wanted to sing and play guitar and write songs and record an album. The voice was loud and clear, and for the first time in my life, I began to pursue my own fulfillment. Over the spring and summer, I immersed myself in creativity - writing and making music as though my life depended on it.
Looking back, perhaps it did; I was still dealing with a wretched cocktail of emotions, and sometimes the creative outlet felt like my only release from them all. The ups and downs were intense. I had nightmares - terrible dreams in which someone meant to harm me. I’d wake up shaking and crying, with actual physical pain where the assailant in my dream had struck me. I occasionally sank into really dark places, and in these moments I would feel the whole range of negative emotion. Anger at my ex for treating me so poorly, and anger at myself for allowing it. Sadness that things couldn’t have turned out differently. Shame for staying for so long. Guilt for leaving. It was a very volatile and confusing time, emotionally speaking. But even as low as the lows were, I clung to one simple fact: as bad as I’m feeling now, if I was still with him, chances are I’d be feeling even worse.
Almost a year after I’d left, I used the experience I’d gotten at my office job to land a much better position as marketing director for a local mortgage company. It came with a significant pay raise, a mere ten-minute commute, a boss who treated me like a competent human being (imagine that!), more flexibility than I’d ever thought possible, lots of room for advancement, and the ability to use my creativity and think outside the box. I’d wanted this job so badly, and when the call came, I jumped up and down and ran circles around the house and thanked my lucky stars that I hadn’t given up the desk job my ex had loathed so much - because I’d been right. It had gotten me to a better place.
After nearly a decade of being told how useless and flawed I was, my confidence was finally returning to me, and I started expanding my boundaries by doing things I never would have considered before. I submitted some of my writing to a local arts and entertainment magazine, which culminated in an offer to freelance for them. I signed up for National Novel Writing Month and won the challenge by writing 50,000 words in thirty days. I wrote songs ferociously and played and sang them over and over, until my fingers felt bruised from the strings of my guitar and my throat went hoarse - and I then approached a local recording studio and began work on a solo album. I began penning heated editorials about social injustices against women, minorities, and the LGBT community - many of which were submitted to and eventually published by the Huffington Post. Suddenly, I was a published writer - the thing my ex had told me I’d never be.
Authenticity had become very important to me. I’d spent so many years trying to be someone I wasn’t in order to make someone else happy. Now, I was determined to never let that happen again. I made it a point to make myself more vulnerable - to be more open and honest and unguarded, and to present myself unapologetically. I also worked on cultivating friendships with the kind of women who empowered and inspired me - the kind of women I wanted to be like. Never before had I experienced friendship that ran so deep, and it thrilled me.
It was my own personal renaissance - as though I was making up for lost time by trying to fill my life to capacity with all of the things I loved most. There was no one to tell me I was doing it wrong, or that I was wasting my time, or that I should be on a different path altogether. For the first time in my life, the voice inside was all I had to go on - and as it turned out, it was all I’d ever needed. Because out of the blue one day, realization struck me: I love my life, I love what I do, I love how I’m doing it, and I love who I am.
I cried that day - and unlike all the tears I’d shed in the previous months and years, these were tears of pure, unbridled joy. I’d always thought happiness was based on a certain set of conditions. I’d have to be rich, successful, charming, charismatic, and exotically beautiful, with a body worthy of the Victoria’s Secret catalog . . .
I realized that day that I was none of those things.
I was only me - authentically, unapologetically me. It turns out that’s all I really needed, all along.
Today, I am sharing my life with a wonderful man who treats me with more kindness and respect than I ever dared to imagine, and when he looks at me, I feel like the most beautiful, captivating woman in the world. He accepts me as I am and believes in me fully, and I know now that this is the way love should be.
I have a supportive, empowering network of friends and family who now know me very well, indeed - because I have opened up and let them in. I have a best friend who has encouraged me through tough times, engaged in late-night heated drunken rants about the patriarchy, let me cry in her arms, and made me laugh so hard I nearly peed myself.
I have a budding creative empire that I spent years designing in my head, never thinking it would actually come to fruition. I have an arsenal of songs, and a voice with which to sing them. I have a business license with my name on it and clients who pay me to do what I love most. I have confidence. I have joy. I have gratitude. I have the knowledge that I am fortunate, resilient, and brave.
I have faith, however crazy, that I will make it in this great, wide, confusing, fabulous world of ours.
I have my dreams . . . and it wasn’t until I began to believe in them that they returned the favor by beginning to come true.