As someone who was in an abusive relationship, I know abuse is more than he said she said.
Abuse isn’t black and white. It’s more like splattered black and blue shades that mix as they drip towards the edge of the frame.
Like a Jackson Pollack painting, abuse appears as chaos. It’s an object of our gaze that only gains meaning once we subject it to our collective interpretations. With some readings more logical and balanced than others.
I learned the hard way that abusers are more than villains or hooded figures in the back alleyways of our minds. I learned that even the people you love, and see in the light of day, can seriously traumatize you.
Smart, kind, manipulative, and unstable people – they’re all hues of men, women, and so on.
An abuser may “love” their victims, and a victim may “love” their abusers too. But within those tinges of love, a victim – and even an abuser – may love the other while simultaneously wanting to die. Sometimes we rest inside a conscious or subconscious that’s an illusion, or an allusion to a nightmare. A dream where you want to move, but you’re stuck, and you can’t fight or take flight no matter how hard you try.
Both victim and abuser might avoid asking for help from friends, family, or mental health professionals – out of fear. They might worry about how the people in their lives, or on the internet, will react to their subjective version of the relationship.
I know how many years I kept silent, and I know how the shame felt as it slid down my throat and through my blood like the toxic waters of the East River.
“How could someone you love be a sexual abuser?” I thought over and over and over as we dated for almost two years.
“This is just your life,” I convinced myself, “this doesn’t happen to men… you could’ve stopped her… it’s your fault… if you say anything they’ll call you a liar… and you have to protect her… she didn’t mean to hurt you… she loves you… and you love her…”
I can only imagine what the hell was going on in her mind, and sometimes I wonder, “Does she know how much pain I was in?”
Almost a year ago, I started to write down my traumatic relationship narrative. But after several drafts, I gave up for a couple of months because I decided in therapy to hold off. I’d tell my story when I was ready.
I was pretty sick with PTSD, consisting of regular panic attacks where random triggers sent me into flashbacks from when my girlfriend sexually assaulted me towards the beginning of our relationship. It was a living nightmare, and every day, I’d relive how I’d push my soul down. I’d remember how she taught me, through her own narrative of being sexually assaulted, that she had done to me what was done to her.
She taught me what abuse was — both literally and figuratively. How could I ask her if sexual assault had happened to me, too? How could I tell her that according to her own definition she’d sexually assaulted me?
“What if I’m wrong?” I’d think over and over. “Why risk saying something over nothing?”
But it wasn’t nothing. And the pain was real even though it was in mostly in my head — and my heart, my lungs, and my soul.
Later, when I’d hear our favorite song, You Make My Dreams Come True, I’d have a flashback, a nightmare coming true when I’d walk down the street.
I felt so alone.
The day before my birthday, my best friend, who was one of the only people I told about my trauma, sent me a story written by Sara Kabakov. It was about her abusive relationship with some famous rabbi that I had never heard of.
I had just pulled into the driveway of my parent’s house, who I was visiting for my birthday, and I read her article. Soon, the cell phone light illuminated my crying face.
The dead engine ticked as the cold air entered it. My tears were like drops of traumatic stress and shame that leaked out of me like blackened, salt-melted snow.
I remembered a passage that I’d read the previous night.
“Many people need desperately to receive this message,” explains Kurt Vonnegut in Timequake on why he writes what he writes. “I feel and think much as you do, care about many of the things you care about, although most people do not care about them. You are not alone.”
And so it goes.
A long time ago…
I exit the subway station, where a single working elevator lifts costumed New Yorkers from the stuffy-hell of the One train. I see a guy in a kilt and a fake arrow through his heart step on a discarded candy wrapper. The plastic crackles under his shoe on this chilly Halloween night, and I wrap my stop-sign-red coat around my body as a blurry picture of me buying my ex-girlfriend her favorite candy bar flashes behind my eyes.
I see a skinny kid on the screen inside my head. He’s inside a crowded bodega, stocked with snacks and grey matter, and he looks for a Peanut Butter Twix bar. Then I realize the kid’s me — the star of my memory-stained film.
I remember how I thought I was Indiana Jones because I’d gone on a quest to find a real-life manifestation of our love. In reality, I’d just bought her mass-produced chocolate, peanut butter, and cookie. Two brittle wafers shaped like the letter “I.”
When I snap back to reality, I notice some crushed Solo cups near a yellow plastic bag pinned under an empty Vodka bottle, and my neurons run from the tidal wave behind them — but it’s too late. The weight of when she’d blackout, hookup with strangers, and drown my soul in her booze crashes down in my mind.
Gallons of acid-reflux swish around inside me while her self-destructive behaviors and refusal to get treatment gives me heartburn.
Meanwhile, a breeze frees the yellow plastic bag from under the heavy bottle, and I remember the scene in American Beauty where Wes Bentley’s creepy character shows Kevin Spacey’s daughter a video of a floating plastic bag.
“This bag was just dancing with me,” the character tells a fictional girl. “Like a little kid begging me to play with it. For fifteen minutes.”
My bag looks like this flimsy thing with plastic feathers — a sweetness in the gale — while a slight wind tries to lift me from the weight of my past abusive relationship.
“That’s the day I realized that there was this entire life behind things, and this incredibly benevolent force wanted me to know there was no reason to be afraid,” creepy Bentley says inside the Oscar-winning film. “Video’s a poor excuse, I know. But it helps me remember… I need to remember…”
When I look away from my plastic bag, I see my ex-girlfriend — and in whatever the hell the negative version of serendipity is, she heads towards me with her new boyfriend wrapped around her arm. She’s dressed as a zombie in my eyes.
I remember how her blue eyes would suspend my disbelief, and would give me faith in the shape of cosmic wholeness — until our love story broke into the real-life chaos told in the moonlight and urban smog between us.
After she stops at an apartment building a few feet away from me, my heart fast-forwards and my palms cover themselves in a layer of sweat. The time she touched me after I said no, after I said I wasn’t ready — it all comes back.
I had wanted to wait until we got married, like I kept telling her, so I asked her to stop. I wouldn’t consent, but she kept insisting — told me she needed it as she pulled my naked body towards her. I said no again, but as my arms rubbed against the tattered couch in that supply-room filled with an old drum-set and rusted symbols, I realized I couldn’t move. Why did I take off my clothes? I don’t remember. I felt like a passenger in my own body, and if I close my eyes now — I can hear my voice as I feel her thin, but powerful arms around my waist.
“No, no, no,” I hear as I watch her push me into her. It’s less like a movie, and more like a twisted, fun-house mirror — reflective memories distorting reality.
I think about how I broke-down, and cried in my room after she left. I wanted to forget how she forced me to penetrate her.
She cried the second it was over, and claimed she did an awful thing and wanted to die. So I immediately forgave her, and I saved her by pretending nothing had happened — choosing love over pain.
Little did I know, my life would get stranger than any fiction I could possibly create.
When we make eye contact on the street, my anxiety feels like a sheriff who’s out of bullets as his dystopian town is overrun by the undead.
“She’s just another zombie,” I tell myself as she looks at me behind a thin layer of make-up and pretend blood. “She can’t devour my heart again,” I whisper… as I rewind again.
A couple walks into a costume store downtown, and laughs at Ronald Reagan and Marilyn Monroe’s plastic-wrapped faces on the shelf.
As I rewatch our second date, I pity my past because — in a twist of dramatic irony — I know what comes next, but all I can do is remember.
I remember when she told me how her dad smacked her toddler-face after she flushed his bible down the toilet. I couldn’t look away, and then she told me how her mom left her — as a little kid — at Target. I had slipped into her past, and had started to drown while all her pain sunk in.
“How could she forget her kid at a Target?” I’d ruminate. “Were the employees, in their faded red shirts and khakis, meant to act as makeshift babysitters while her mom went off to see the man who’d become husband number four?”
Or was it four and five? I don’t remember, and sometimes I wonder, “What’s fact, fiction, or both?”
When her mood would suddenly change, the dynamic light in her eyes turned static and she’d shut down like an unplugged television. She wouldn’t let me in, and she’d instead give me the silent treatment. Her feelings expressed as white noise.
“I must’ve done something wrong,” I’d imagine, “I need to know what, so I can fix this.”
But she’d tell me to leave her alone, and call all me a jerk for trying to fix her.
“I want to help,” I’d say, “tell me what to do, and I’ll do it.”
“Just leave me alone, you don’t get it!” She’d yell, and after I left, the separation anxiety would write horrible narratives in my head.
“What if she hurts herself?” I’d wonder, and the night her old roommate died of suicide due to a struggle with depression would replay in my mind.
In bed, she cried and made me promise to never leave her, so I brought her close till our heartbeats combined. I held her all night, let her tears wash over me, and I tried to understand how someone could experience so much pain without dying.
The sun set along the highway as we drove to visit her dad. She told me, if it wasn’t for me she probably would have killed herself.
After that, I worried about everything I said to her because I believed if I told her that I wasn’t in the mood for sex, or I tried to break up with her — she’d kill herself. And I could not let that happen. She’d already been through enough, so I had to give her a happy ending.
I was obsessed with saving her. But I was only an amateur writer. I wasn’t a superhero, or even a psychological professional. I was so confused.
Towards the end, I wanted to die. It was in the context of what would happen if she cheated on me again, and my death seemed like the easiest plot device.
“This must be my fault,” I thought and continued to have sex with her as I attempted to rewrite how she forced me to lose my virginity. An act I was told would cut me off from my connection with God. To Karat (“to cut off”) my soul from the ineffable because of premarital sex.
“This is love,” I thought. “And love isn’t abuse. I did something wrong. This pain is my punishment. I could’ve stopped her.”
I had sought control by telling myself stories. And by trying to escape from my victimhood and my confusion, I’d slowly cut myself off from humanity with a delusion.
After she cheated again, I saw something reflected in my pool of tears. A fresh page sat in front of me, and it was time to start another draft of myself. It was time to mend my broken strings — to adapt, and pick myself up.
When my obsessions about how she might hurt herself stopped narrating my life, and I started to call my first sexual experience for what it was, sexual assault by someone who loved me, I began to rebuild my destroyed soul with therapy, hard work, and medication.
Eventually, I started to realize there was another way to reinterpret the world.
And as her new boyfriend, who’d become her fiancé, stands in front of me, I wonder if she’ll eat his heart too. And as the zombie and her man creep forward, I compulsively consider what to do.
I want to be brave. I want to fight the zombie who was once the person I loved, and I think about how in all of the zombie shows, those who can’t check their emotions, to blow the blood thirsty creatures away, usually end up getting bitten, and become zombies too.
I muster the courage to say hello, making sure to keep my face expressionless — trying to prove to her that I’m not scared of her anymore. But I am — although I’m happy to be scared instead of terrified. I’m happy to be human.
“Yoooooo,” she laughs, rolls her eyes, and walks into her silent supporting-character’s building.
As I walk the last few blocks back to my apartment, I appreciate how I’m dressed as myself, and I realize how proud I am of my character development — how I got knocked down, but got up without blowing any zombies — or masked humans mistaken as zombies — away.
“Sometimes there’s so much beauty in the world,” goes a line I believe in from American Beauty. “I feel like I can’t take it, and my heart is just going to cave in.”
I hope openly talking about my trauma might help you in your own special way because I believe in you and want to hear your story if you find the safety to share.
I have never met Sara Kabakov and Marc Gafni. But I know that Sara has done a lot for people like me, or us, by sharing her story. Thank you so much, Sara.
I recommend, Marc, if you really want to do the right thing in line with the Torah, maybe take your own advice and publicly or privately express deep remorse through an act of teshuvah (repentance), because you know that not acknowledging the pain of a fellow human is in violation of Jewish Orthodox law.
To cite the sage Hillel, “That which is hateful to you, do not do unto another. This is the whole Torah. The rest is commentary — [and now] go study.”
For more information or to get help, go to The National Domestic Violence Hotline or call 1-800-799-SAFE (7233), Text START to 741741 (Crisis Text Line), or call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-8255. I hear you, and you are not alone.
Oren creates digital art and narratives.Contact him or follow him on Twitter if you’d like to contribute towards his new interdisciplinary project that explores the connection between puns, machine learning, empathy, and mental illness.
This story "What It’s Like to Experience Sexual Abuse as a Man" was written by Oren Herschander.