I’m going to keep it short, as this part is long enough. As always, a trigger warning for anyone who is sensitive to topics surrounding toxic relationships, abuse, mental health, self-harm, suicide and all that jazz… Now let’s wrap up this story.
BIDING MY TIME
It’s September, 2007. Ben and I have been married for almost a year and a half, and for at least half of that time, I’ve been plotting my escape. Don’t even tell me how horrible that sounds, I feel like enough of a cunt already. But it’s my reality, and it’s one that I can only escape by shaking up in the wacko basket from time to time. People think it’s solely my own brain that keeps getting the better of me, but truth be told, it’s the situation with Ben that’s been pushing me over the edge.
For as long as I’ve been scheming, it doesn’t seem to me like I’ve made any progress. I mean, there’s still nothing on the horizon that looks even remotely like a viable future. I’m not quite sure what I’m even fighting for, to be honest. I feel stuck, having yet to find solutions to all the dilemma’s I keep getting tangled up in whenever I try to conjure up a plan. I’m still working minimum wage at the supermarket and spending the majority of my time either at therapy, in hospital, or zombie-ing around in a self-destructive haze. I still haven’t figured out where to go or what to do when I leave him. I know my old bedroom is still vacant, but moving back in with my family is something I’m trying to block from my mind. I have yet to come to terms with it being my only option.
My therapist aside, I haven’t even spoken to another soul about what’s going on, and I’m quite convinced that no one has a clue. Cause I’m oblivious like that. In fact, I’m quite sure that when they find out, they’ll either assume that I’m the one at fault and tell me to clean up my own mess, or they’ll just think I’m a complete moron and laugh at me behind my back.
I started my new outpatient treatment a month ago. We’re slowly trying to figure out some practical matters like health benefits, but progress is slow. They’ve also booked me in for a family therapy session in a few weeks. They pushed me into it under the pretense that involving family is a crucial and thus compulsory part of therapy. I have my reservations, which they know, and although resistance is futile, I haven’t given up on trying to talk them out of it. Which is why I still haven’t told my parents anything. They’ll receive the official invitation soon enough. For now, ignorance is bliss.
All that I’ve shared with my mother at this point is that I’m on anti-depressants, and that’s only because she saw me take them. I kept the explanation vague, downplaying it, not really giving her anything else to go on. I’m playing my favorite game: ignoring it until it goes away.
When the family session eventually does roll around, my therapists want me to spill the beans. All of them. The depression, the self-harm, the whole wanting to die thing…And I think it’s a horrible idea. I already know how this is going to go, and I’m utterly terrified. Because in my family, we do not rock the boat. We do not air out our dirty laundry. We don’t do the whole ‘sharing your feelings’ and ‘talking about your problems’ thing, because feelings and uncomfortable conversations are scary. We don’t touch that stuff. Not with a ten-foot pole. Yet here I am, kicking up the dirt, and I don’t think it’s going to be appreciated. I don’t think my therapists understand that.
It’s not that I’m afraid they’ll be angry. It’s actually quite the opposite. I’m already anticipating the uncomfortable tension in the air as they fumble their way through trying to display a normal amount of care, concern and understanding. And all the while, I’ll be gritting my teeth in suspense, waiting to hear what they really think once we all leave the room and close the car doors.
We’ll leave the room all smiles, making polite conversation about some random topic as I eat myself up from the inside out, waiting anxiously for the other shoe to drop. They’ll think I’m just making a big deal out of nothing, putting on a big dramatic show for attention. I can already hear it in my mind: “What was that all about”, they’ll say. “Come on, don’t be ridiculous. Man up and quit complaining. What on earth do you have to be depressed, tired, sad or anxious about? You’re just being lazy and selfish. You shouldn’t feel that way because <insert logic here>. Are you saying it’s our fault? You’re making us look bad in front of all these people. Just stop it.”
We’ll pretend it doesn’t exist, because it shouldn’t. We’ll sweep it under the rug, just like everything else. And that empty feeling of dismissal and rejection, combined with the anticipation of a future bomb dropping, is so much more scary and painful than anger could ever be.
So no, I’m not looking forward to that session. The only consolation is that my therapists will be there to guide us through, and apparently that’s better than taking it on myself. Not that I think they’ll be of any help, but it seems I don’t have a choice. So, if you don’t mind, I’m going to bask in the bliss of my family’s ignorance for a little while longer while I work up the courage to have this conversation. Until them, I’m biding my time.
MAKING A BREAK FOR IT
Ben is sitting at my desk, shaking profusely as he glares intensely at the screen. His eyes shoot back and forth, mouse scrolling down as he speed-reads each line I’ve written.
I don’t remember exactly how we got here. I know we were having a conversation, possibly even a minor argument. It’s hard to tell these days, as almost every interaction we have somehow spirals into some kind of dispute. Whatever it was, I guess the moment finally came that I saw my chance and lunged for the door, so to speak.
At some point during that conversation, we landed on the topic of my mental health and how it was impacting our relationship. Ben was explaining how my depression and self-harm were affecting him, and in the same breath he mentioned how he sometimes wondered if we might be better off splitting up. It didn’t sound like he actually saw it as an option. It sounded more like an exploration, or possibly even a half-hearted threat. A threat in the sense that he was alluding to leaving me if I didn’t get my shit together, as if that might somehow scare me straight.
What Ben didn’t realize, though, was that for the first time…he was actually playing into my hand. For so long, I’d been waiting for the perfect moment to make my escape. I’d been wishing that Ben would just fall out of love with me, so that he wouldn’t mind if I left. Or that he would just leave me instead. Hell, for the lack of a stronger incentive, I’d even started fantasizing that he’d just do something heinous. Something bad enough to justify divorcing him. If only he would just hit me, commit a crime, cheat on me…anything, really. As long as it was bad enough to set me free and wash my hands clean of all the guilt that was festering inside me. And after months spent hoping and praying for a free pass, this half-hearted remark of his seemed like a gift from the gods. As though freedom was being handed to me on a silver platter. To the desperate, caged girl that was held hostage inside me, his words sounded a lot like rattling keys. And without thinking twice, I lunged for them.
“I think you might be right. Maybe we should split up.”
I looked up at Ben’s panic-stricken features, the conversation skidding to a halt as he was forced to process this unexpected turn of events. My legs felt weak and my heart pounded heavily behind my ribs, almost like I was physically making a break for it. Just about as quickly as the ball was dropped, Ben picked it back up and began to backpedal, sputtering something about getting couple’s therapy. He had this pleading look on his face, and through my mind flashed the memory of our last ground-zero fight. I had been so ready to walk out the door that day, and yet, somehow, he had convinced me to stay. And just look where it got me. I could not and would not allow that to happen again.
In my mind’s eye, I saw what I could only describe as a kaleidoscope full of flashbacks and flashforwards, the agony of the past years flooding my system as images of an equally bleak future flashed before my eyes. The bitter truth was that if I didn’t take this opportunity and leave while I had the chance, I would most certainly die. I was already withering away on the inside, and it was only a matter of time before I took matters into my own hands and finished the job. And for all the time I’d spent convincing myself that I didn’t care and that I wanted to die anyway, it seemed that that caged girl inside of me still had a surprisingly strong dose of survival instinct left, and she was now clawing her way out. And she wasn’t leaving anything to chance; she knew it was time to burn bridges.
Ben’s plea hurtled towards me like a handful of barbs, ready to lodge into my exposed skin. There was no time to pull on my armor, if I wanted to walk out of this conversation a free woman, I had to come in with the big guns. Now.
“No, couples therapy isn’t going to fix this,” I choked out, shaking my head as I leapt up from the sofa. Leaving no room for Ben to get a foot in the door, adrenaline took over and my shaky legs strode across the room to my desk. Both my heart and my mind were racing as I flicked on my computer screen and pulled up my hidden diaries, swallowing hard as my shaking hands keyed in the password. There was a moment’s hesitation, but it seemed that my both my heart and my mind finally agreed on what I had to do. The sound of a double click pierced the silence, and the letter of confession that I’d written for my therapist, promptly filled the screen. Although I couldn’t remember exactly what I’d written all those months ago, I knew the content was damning. Painful as it would be for him to read, it would be effective. I needed Ben to understand how ‘over’ we really were, and I had to be sure that there was no coming back from this. This was the point of no return. Steadying myself as I stepped back from the desk, I beckoned him over.
Each second of silence that passed, drove my heartrate further through the roof. My feet nailed to the ground, I watched his eyes shoot back and forth across the page, his jaw tightening more and more as he scrolled further down. His body started trembling at some point, and I couldn’t tell whether he was scared, hurt, or very, very angry and about to explode.
Eventually, about half way through the document, he got to the part that I feared the most. As if the knife hadn’t already been driven deep enough, this would surely twist it.
“He’s a perfectly nice guy. And someone else could be really happy with him, as he could with her. But he’s with me. Someone who hides behind a fake smile and feeds him excuses every time he wants more than a friendly kiss or cuddle. Someone who lies to his face every time he asks her if she still loves him, or if she still finds him attractive. Someone who makes mean jokes about him, that she secretly means. Someone who is secretly annoyed with so many things that he does, and so many of his traits, quirks and characteristics. Things that she wouldn’t mind so much if she wasn’t stuck with them. Someone who feels disgust at his naked body before her, or lying beside her in bed. Someone who clenches her teeth and closes her eyes, waiting for him to finish…”
Watching his hand grip the mouse tighter and tighter, his knuckles going white as he read though my confession, I closed my eyes for a second, raggedly exhaled, and waited…
All of a sudden, Ben shot up out of his seat, the chair almost toppling over backwards as he got to his feet. I took a quick step backwards, clearing his path as various scenarios crossed my mind.
Would he come for me? Would he start a fight? Would he up and leave? Would he break down?
Anything was possible.
Bile rose in my throat as panic, pain, guilt and regret washed over me. Had it really been necessary to put him through that? Was there really no kinder, more humane way to get my point across? Could I really not just have told him that I wanted out, and left?
And yet, how many times over the past 4,5 years had I tried to voice my concerns, my needs, my boundaries, all to no avail? How many times had I already tried to get out, only to become more tangled up in this twisted web? They say desperate needs call for desperate measures, and this indiscretion of mine had been years in the making. I’d just come to a point where I had no other choice but to say “screw tact”, and throw everything I had left on the table. I did what I had to do. But if all that was true, why did I still feel like the biggest piece of shit on the planet?
My breath snagged in my throat as I turned and watched Ben storming past me and out of the house, slamming the door behind him. I listened to his heavy footfalls on the metal staircase as he ran out into the street, and I heard the lock to his bike snap open. And then, silence.
I stood there for what felt like forever, frozen in place, shaking in my Dr Martins. Somehow, I just couldn’t process what was happening and figure out what to do next. And so, I just stood there. For all the months of preparation that had gone into the whole exit-plan, I hadn’t really given this part much thought. Ben may well have left, but I had no idea where to go from here. I didn’t know where he’d run off to, or if and when he’d return. Should I stay? Should I start packing? Should I go after him? At what point do I contact him, so that we figure out all the practical aspects involved in separation? I had no clue…
I wandered over to the couch, dropped down and let out the breath I’d been holding. And then I broke down. I’d wanted to escape so badly, so why did I feel like I was dying?
I must have been sitting there, sobbing uncontrollably for at least twenty minutes before I heard heavy footsteps charging up the stairs and the front door swinging open. Fear gripped my heart for a split second, half expecting an enraged Ben to come storming back in to take control of the situation. But when I looked up, I was surprised to see not Ben, but my parents striding toward me with anguished, tear-stricken faces. Fear morphed into confusion as I took in their emotional entrance and quickly attempted to unravel the mystery of how they’d known to come, and how much they knew. I certainly hadn’t told them anything, so, quite frankly, whatever they knew, they knew too much.
As it turned out, after Ben stormed out of the house, he called my parents and told them that I had broken up with him and that they should probably go to me before I hurt myself. He then told them all about my struggles with self-harm, depression and suicidal ideation. Now I know that a lot of you will see this as an admirable thing, like he was just looking out for me. But here’s the thing: if Ben really only intended to ensure that I was safe, he could have just told them we were splitting up, and asked them to go to me. That would have been enough information, and I could have taken it from there. But that’s not what happened.
Instead, he took my rejection and without missing a beat, grasped for my biggest, scariest, most sensitive and most securely hidden secret, and without my knowledge or consent, outed me in front of the very people that I was the most afraid of being vulnerable with. I don’t know about you, but that sounds less like caring and more like revenge, to me. Another act of passive aggression.
His actions felt like an incredible breach of my trust and privacy, especially since he was well aware that our family session was only three weeks away. There was a reason I’d kept all this stuff from my family for so long. And given our family dynamic and the sensitivity of the matter, it made the most sense to have a hard conversation like that under the guidance of trained professionals. He knew this. Yet, when Ben intervened, he took that opportunity away from me, potentially creating an even more damaging situation in the process. It says a lot about our relationship; the fact that the last thing he did at the end of our marriage, was to yank my autonomy away from me. You know, just one more time. For old time’s sake. And I still haven’t forgiven him for that one.
Although my parents’ response to the situation was pretty supportive, I wasn’t happy about the way they’d found out and I felt very uncomfortable and vulnerable having it all out in the open.
I don’t remember exactly what happened when my parents came charging in on the fateful afternoon, nor do I remember how the conversation ended. I do remember that I was an emotional wreck, yet numb at the same time. There was a lot of crying, and I remember my mother asking me if I wanted a hug, to which I agreed. To my mum, that was a pretty big deal. I also remember a strong sense of relief radiating from her. That makes sense, looking back. My mother had never been keen on my relationship, but she’d kept quiet about it because she knew that I wouldn’t have listened anyway. When she received the news that we were splitting up, of course, she was relieved. And, still quite oblivious to the full extent of my issues, she hoped that the separation would kick off my healing and that the sun would soon be shining again. I suppose I kinda hoped so, too. But I was running on 20+ years’ worth of trauma responses and pent-up emotions, so obviously, that assumption fell under the category: “Well ain’t that cute…but it’s wrong!”
Granted, leaving Ben was a good move. And it would have been a step in the right direction, had I actually taken a new direction. But I did not. I was literally moving back into the situation that I had been so desperate to escape, less than two short years earlier. Once again, I was jumping out of the frying pan and into the fire, and it was a recipe for disaster. But it was the only option I had, and so I could only paint a smile on my face and keep going. So, that’s what I did.
DISCOUNT ON DIVORCE
Over the next week or two following the big bang, I worked with my parents to fix up my old bedroom as fast as possible and move all my stuff back in. It was important to me that I really turn it into my own little space where I could feel at home and comfortable. I craved space, I craved a place where I could hide away from the world and be alone, a space where I could just be me.
I picked out my own colors, then after we’d taken care of wallpapering, painting and putting in a new floor, I bought some lovely furniture on marketplace and at the local thrift store. I actually still own the rug and the little Chinese cabinet to this day; I still love them. Then, after everything had been fixed up, my father and I hooked up the trailer and went to pick up the rest of my stuff.
In the meantime, Ben had been staying with his parents, sleeping on an inflatable mattress on the kitchen floor until I was done moving out. Ben and I were still in contact almost daily, in part because we had a lot of practical stuff to figure out, but also out of habit. I didn’t have anyone else to turn to, and neither did he. We had been the center of each other’s world for so long, it somehow made the most sense to just talk to each other throughout these hard times.
It was a weird dynamic, though. I felt like I had a responsibility towards him, to be his rock. I had to be the calm, strong, down to earth one who let him rant and rage as much as he needed to, in hopes that one day he’d heal and move past all this and we could just be friends again. After all, I was the one who had torn his life apart. The least I could do was help him to fix the damage.
As much as our split hurt initially, I bounced back pretty quickly. This makes since given the fact that it was my choice, and I’d had months to prepare, process and grieve before actually going through with it. For Ben, the whole thing came like a bolt from the blue. So, naturally, it was a lot harder for him, and it took a lot longer for him to process.
Once I’d fully moved all my stuff out and taken up residence with my family, Ben moved back into our little coal shed. He called me in tears the very same day, distraught over how empty and quiet the place was without me. For the first couple of weeks, we spoke almost daily. He’d usually call me about something practical, and then about half way through the call, he’d get really upset about the fact that I didn’t seem to be hurting as much as him. Or he’d weep about how lonely he was. Or he would cry that the boys living across the canal, friends of my brothers, were making fun of him and he wanted me to ask them to stop. There was always something, and I would always patiently listen to him weep, rant and rave for however long it took. Then, once it was all out of his system, we’d hang up, and I’d just go about my day. I was glad that I could still be there for him and do something for him, and that he let me, despite everything. I was equally glad that now, I was no longer bound to him and his moods bore no consequences to me. Now, I could just hang up the phone, let it slide off me and get on with my life. I was feeling more and more confident about my decision by the day, it was like I was finally getting myself back. I missed him, but in the way that you’d miss a best friend, and I hoped that we could maintain a friendship after it was all behind us.
The moment came that we had to take care of all the formal stuff. You may remember how quick and easy we sailed through the wedding preparations, and well, we flew through the divorce process in a similar fashion.
Ben’s father worked at a notary office. This had one big advantage for us: we could get a discount on our divorce fee. And since we were married without joint ownership of goods, most of the legal shit wasn’t even relevant to us. We also agreed very quickly on who got what, and we sat on his living room floor with a pair of dice to decide on the rest. Furthermore, I declined my right to partner alimony because I didn’t see how it would be fair to take money from him, and I didn’t want to cause extra hassle. Quite frankly, we’d already figured everything out. The only thing our solicitor had to do, was sign some papers. Given how easy we made everything, the fee couldn’t be that bad, right? Well…wrong. If you look at the bill, you’d think they served our coffee in golden cups or something. But no, legal stuff is just expensive, even if you do most of the work yourself.
After our divorce was finalized, I told Ben that I really wanted to remain friends with him, but that I understood if it would be too painful for him. I let him know that I’d give him space for as long as he needed it, and that he only had to call or text, if and when he was ready.
After that, we didn’t speak for weeks. I felt the most horribly tug in my chest, a huge fear that I’d ruined everything and lost the only one I had. But I waited patiently, because I didn’t want to push him further away. It had to be his decision, and he had a lot to work through to get there.
I’m aware that this sounds insane. I mean, I was in an abusive relationship that I’d wanted to get out of for so long, and now that I was free, I wanted him back in my life. But you have to understand; not only was I still very unaware of how abusive our relationship really was, but we had been so enmeshed that untangling him from my life seemed virtually impossible. He was everything to me, my world revolved around him. I had lost myself a long time ago, and without him, there was just a gaping hole in my soul and in my life. I didn’t know how else to fill that void.
My birthday rolled around in October, and I just couldn’t wait any longer. I had an excuse to at least give him a little nudge, so I invited him. His response to my e-mail was rather short and catty, and he told me that he didn’t want to come while anyone else was there, but he agreed to meet up with me for coffee. That first meeting was really awkward, Ben acting short and distant, and me on eggshells, just like the good old times I suppose.
From that moment on, we saw more of each other. We eventually had a weekly coffee-date every Thursday morning. I’d walk up the road towards his house, and he’d walk towards mine. We’d meet half way, and stroll down to a local café and do a coffee & catch-up. We were texting again, and we sometimes went places together. When Ben’s grandfather went to hospital and eventually passed away, I was there with him. When his grandmother was ill, I went along to visit. Ben even gifted me a trip to Movie World, which was a lot of fun until Ben started and argument on the way back, about – I shit you not – my brother’s outfits on our wedding day. Apparently, they weren’t fancy enough and he thought it was humiliating. Go figure.
Our relationship was still…weird. But it didn’t bother me as much, because I wasn’t tied to him anymore. I didn’t have to deal with it every day. I got the benefits without the burdens. And in that time, especially since things weren’t going well at home, I was really glad to have a friend to talk to. Because even after all this time, and even now that I was ‘free’, I still had great difficulty making or maintaining connections with people. My social network was still very distant and limited. Ben had been all I had for so long, even divorce couldn’t change that, apparently.
THE BEGINNING OF THE END
After my divorce, everyone sort of expected my mental health to bounce back and for everything to be fine. Yeah, spoiler alert, that didn’t happen. Things actually got a lot worse, and rather quickly, too. That makes sense in retrospect, but it didn’t make sense to us all at the time.
Granted, I was no longer self-injuring as much, but that’s only because I couldn’t sneak out of the house at night to go to A&E anymore. Anyone who understands unhealthy coping mechanisms will know that if you block one out without dealing with the underlying issues, you just end up playing whack-a-mole with a whole bunch of other, equally destructive methods. So, yeah, I ended up developing a serious eating disorder. My depression got worse, my suicidal tendencies got worse, I spent another few weeks on a crisis ward and landed myself in day-treatment after I’d run out of therapy options. Quite frankly, by the end of 2008, both my family and I were out our wits end. And that’s when Tyler – a good friend who I met over the internet – came up with an idea that probably saved my life. He asked me to move in with him in Leiden, so that I could follow in inpatient treatment course in that area. And I didn’t really have anything to lose, so I went.
I remember meeting up with Ben on one of our Thursday-morning-coffee-walks, and breaking the news to him. When I told him that I was moving, he was utterly devastated. He was sad that I was leaving him behind, all alone, and moving on without him. I told him that he was welcome to visit, and I hoped that we could keep our friendship intact even while I wasn’t living around the corner anymore. In fact, I was quite sure that we could do that. We’d been through so much already, and we were still best friends despite everything. What difference would 70 kilometers make, right?
After I moved to Leiden, we remained in contact via text and phone. He came over to visit once or twice, and we went to a festival together. He told me about his life, and about someone he’d met and was now dating. I was really happy to see him moving on with his life, at last. And still, I was sure that we’d be able to maintain our strong friendship throughout.
Then, after a few weeks, the line went silent. At first, I thought it was a fluke. Maybe he’d just been busy, or lost my number. So, I texted him instead, but there was no response. I still didn’t think much of it, and I just kept waiting a few days before trying again. But after a few weeks, it became painfully clear that Ben was avoiding me on purpose. I had been cut off. Discarded.
My best friend in the whole world. Someone I’d been with for so long, and overcome so much with…gone. I knew that his new girlfriend had been somewhat uncomfortable with our history, so I can only assume that she asked him to stop talking to me. I don’t know if that’s true, though. All I know is, if Ben would have told me that he wanted to move on with his life and break contact with me, I would have been hurt, but I would have understood. I’d have accepted it, and there’d have been closure. But he didn’t say a thing. He just disappeared, from one day to the next.
And that absolutely tore me apart. It broke my heart, and it made me feel so worthless. I cried many tears over that, and spent so many hours coiling with pent up rage, unable to sleep from all the feelings coursing through my veins that had nowhere to go. I was pissed, I was hurt, but every message I sent out, just smacked into a brick wall. I think ignoring someone, is probably one of the worst things you can do to them. And I would have much rather just had him chew me up and spit me out, than discard me and pretend that I didn’t exist. It’s a good thing I was already in therapy at the time, because otherwise I would have needed it for sure.
I ran into Ben once, years later. I was walking down the street during a festival in Alkmaar, and he was suddenly walking towards me. His eyes met mine, and he immediately looked away and ducked into an alleyway. His parents ran into my parents on occasion in the supermarket, and there were no hard feelings. But whenever Ben ran into my parents himself, they’d greet him and he’d just awkwardly duck away. I even discovered a few years later, that he’d been telling people things about me that weren’t true. He’d been telling people that I had gotten sick from reading too many books about eating disorders and such. It’s almost as though he perceives our divorce as a personal failure, and he needs to shift the blame. It’s easier to blame it on me, and tell people that I was just crazy, I guess. To me, it just smells like cowardice.
I was heartbroken for so long, grieving the loss of my best friend. Then, I was angry. Every time I was reminded that he was being (and had been) an asshole and he was blocking my ability to tell him, I fell apart. For the longest time, I wanted to just show up unannounced at a place that I knew he’d be, and force him to look me in the eye. And in all honesty, sometimes, that little spark of rage still pops up. You can do a lot to me, and I’ll take it. I’ll get over it. Whatever. But do not treat me like I don’t exist. Especially if you plan to tell people lies about me at the same time.
Today, I see a coward. A see a very, very sick individual and I genuinely hope that he’d bettered himself and found happiness in the end. I know that he’s married with children now, and he owed it to them to be a better man.
As for me…I think that my relationship with my father had already shaped the way I see and experience relationships long before Ben came along, but Ben certainly hitched a ride on those unhealthy patterns, consolidated them and added a few more to the mix. And all this has certainly colored my relationship with myself, and the relationships I had with others after that. Suffice to say, all of that’s still complicated. For now, I’m happily single without all those complications.
Boundaries are strange things. For the longest time, boundaries were a mystical and foreign concept to me as I’d been conditioned not to have them. Very convenient for those in your life who want to use you as a pawn in their own games, you know. As I’ve learned over the past few years, boundaries should kind of work like the guardrails along the highway. Those guardrails are hard boundaries, but you don’t want to get so far as to crash into them all the time. That will wreck your car. That’s why there are bumpy lines on the road that you can feel and hear when you drive over them, warning you that you’re getting close to the rail and you need to steer back before you actually bash into it.
When setting and holding boundaries, the best time to speak up or take action is when you feel those bumpy lines. That’s when you still have control over the wheel, and it’s way easier to get back on the road. If you wait too long, you’ll just spend your life scraping the guardrail, inevitably crashing into or smashing through it all the time. So basically, you start when the issue is still small enough to get a handle on, so that the problem doesn’t get to the point where you’ve lost control.
Kind of like that awkward situation where you don’t know someone’s name, but you’ve spoken or hung out so many times that it’s too late to ask them. Or when you’ve already said yes to so many things that you feel like you can’t just start saying no, or back out now.
Until I was well into my thirties, I had no idea that those metaphorical bumpy lines were a thing. I couldn’t really feel them, and I certainly didn’t know that they could signal the best time to take action while I still could. I always just kept going until I smashed into the guardrails, time and time again. I ignored signals or let things slide until I was in way too deep and I found myself stuck, tangled, my only option being to keep going until I eventually crashed and everything fell apart. That’s when I’d escape and start over, vow to do it differently, and proceed to repeat the cycle.
Reading everything I’ve just disclosed about my relationship with Ben, you may very well be wondering ‘why did you do along with this stuff’ or ‘why on earth didn’t you just leave’. There’s no straightforward, clear-cut answer to that question, but I’ve gained a lot of insight over the years as to what factors went into my choices and behaviour. The weird thing is, up until a few months ago I could look back on the whole relationship and see that it was toxic and unhealthy, but in more of a ‘gee, weren’t we young and stupid, but we can laugh about it now’ kind of way. But now that I’m sitting here sifting through all my memories, writing them down and seeing it all from a helicopter view…there’s this bigger picture staring me in the face, and I find myself thinking…wait, what?!
I look back at everything that occurred, everything I swallowed and accepted, everything that I did out of either love, fear or habit, and I’m inclined to blame myself. We were both there, and I didn’t take enough of my own responsibility. But as I sift through all the memories and fragments of information that I’ve raked together from all the corners of my mind, I’m starting to wonder, how much responsibility could I realistically have taken?
When this began, I was sixteen years old. And although I never looked at myself that way, I was still a kid. I made poor choices and I blame myself for that, but for the lack of a fully developed prefrontal cortex, realistically, mistakes and poor choices were to be expected. And with both a history of sexual abuse, having been bullied relentlessly for years and -unbeknownst to me at the time- having been dealing with narcissistic abuse and a toxic home situation my whole life, I was a hell of a lot more vulnerable than I’d like to admit. There’s a saying that goes: if you’re wearing rose tinted glasses, red flags just look like flags. I was definitely wearing rose tinted glasses, infatuated as I was. But I was also wearing glasses tainted by the abuse I’d encountered in my life. The abnormal experiences that had formed ‘my normal’, rendered my glasses scarlet and made it very hard for me to distinguish the regular flags from the red ones.
Ben, on the other hand, was twenty-three. He was an adult. A full-fledged, grown-ass adult. It still feels wrong to say this, but realistically, he should have known better. He should have done better. He took advantage of me and the situation I was in. I certainly see those red flags now, and that shit was pretty damn fucked up.
Here we are again. Picking up where I left off, just after my wedding. Once again, pretty big trigger warning here for anyone who is sensitive to topics surrounding toxic relationships, abuse, mental health, self-harm, suicide and all that jazz…
Obviously, you don’t have to read all this stuff. If you’re still here with me as I trudge through this cesspool of ‘wow, that was so much more fucked up than I remember’, thanks for sticking around. I appreciate you!
So, there I was. Nineteen years old, barely of age, and within the span of three months I’d moved out of my family home, shacked up with Ben and taken his name. Hyphenated with my own surname of course, because I was emancipated like that. I was supposed to be living the dream, but I found myself stuck in a nightmare that nobody else could see and I felt completely and utterly alone.
It seemed that in my rush to escape one shitty situation, yearning to leave behind my past, my own demons and my dysfunctional family…I’d jumped out of the frying pan and into the fire. Great!
By the time I moved in with Ben, I’d been struggling with my mental health for a hot minute.
To me, my descent into depression came out of the blue – pun intended – but looking back, it was a storm just waiting to happen. Just imagine holding a beachball under water. It’s quite a struggle. The harder you push it down, the harder the ball pushes back and the more tired you get. Inevitably, the moment will come when the ball slips your hands and comes shooting up through the surface. And if you’re unlucky, it’ll smack you right in the face on its way out. The same thing was going on with me.
I wasn’t exactly aware of it, but I’d been holding multiple beachballs underwater for longer than I could remember. Second thought, maybe they weren’t beachballs, maybe they were turds. Swimming around in the sewer of my subconscious, was all the shit I’d experienced throughout my short life. And it was fine down there, so long as I had enough structure and control in my life to keep it all under the water. But when I left school and I no longer had the structure and the security of timetables, expectations, study careers and grades to focus on, everything suddenly blew wide open and the turd shaped beachballs slipped my grasp, blasting through the surface and smacking me in the fece-…face. And as if that wasn’t enough, I’d just gotten myself tangled up in yet another shitty situation. That just made everything infinitely worse.
As I mentioned, when I first stated showing symptoms, Ben was really understanding and supportive. But as time went on, it seemed that Ben saw my depression mainly as an inconvenience to him and an insult to his ego. If I loved him enough, I wouldn’t be depressed. He saw it as his job to save me, or fix me and the fact that he couldn’t manage that, humiliated him. Which would explain why, after our divorce, he told people that I was crazy and that I’d caused my own illness by reading too many books on the subject. He was trying to cover his own ass.
I had seen my GP a few months earlier, but when he offered to refer me to a therapist, I told him that I wanted to wait until I’d moved out because I didn’t want my parents to know. I did tell Ben that I intended to go into therapy, and he wasn’t as supportive as I thought he’d be. Reluctantly, he asked me if it was really was necessary. He didn’t think depression was a real thing; I just had to get out and do more fun things. The fact that I didn’t enjoy anything anymore, didn’t occur to him.
Ben also admitted that he was afraid therapy would change me, and that it would cause us to grow apart. I assured him that wouldn’t happen, but deep down I hoped that it would. Maybe, if I changed enough for Ben to fall out of love with me, he wouldn’t mind if I left him. Or maybe, he would leave me first and I wouldn’t even have to be the one to make the decision. Wouldn’t that be grand.
So, once I moved out, I gave my GP the go ahead. I ended up being referred to the GGZ, because that’s all I could afford under my insurance. In retrospect, they were far from equipped to recognize what was going on with me, let alone treat it. And honestly, I wasn’t ready either.
When I started therapy, Ben was asked to take part in a support group for people who had a loved one dealing with depression. They wanted to provide him with support, tools and information.
He went to one session and read through the first chapter of the information packet they gave him, before deciding that depression was bullshit and this course just turned you into an enabler. He quit the course and instead, he pushed me into booking a Centre Parks vacation with him, made me pay for half of it and dragged me on a trip that I didn’t want to go on. Then, when we got back, he asked me if I’d had fun, and when I replied with an honest ‘not really’, he got very upset with me and told me that I wasn’t even trying to get better.
I remember another situation in which Ben and I had been invited over to hang out with some of his friends In Utrecht. I didn’t really feel up to it and I asked Ben if he could go alone so that I could get some rest, but he pressured me until I agreed. I was studying nursing in Amsterdam at the time, and Ben planned to come to Amsterdam after my classes so that we could catch a train to Utrecht from there. However, fate had it that I felt really sick that day and when I got on the train to the central station, I ended up running to the rancid train bathroom and throwing up. I then called Ben and hesitantly told him that I was going home because I was sick. His reply was a curt: “How do you know?”
When I told him that I’d just thrown up, he said “Ok” in the way that you’d say ‘fine’ when it’s clearly anything but fine, and then he hung up on me. When he came home late that night and climbed into bed with me, he didn’t check in or ask how I was feeling. Instead, he turned his back and ignored me until he fell asleep. So yeah, very, very supportive and understanding, as you can tell.
I didn’t click with my first therapist; I didn’t feel seen or heard, she didn’t seem to like her job and we didn’t agree on the course of action. She wanted me to work on my social skills, and I didn’t see the point of social skills in the afterlife. She convinced me to join her CBT group, which I thought was utterly pointless, but I was too much of a push-over to decline. I have a lot to say about CBT, but it’s not relevant to this blog so I’ll just hold back. Suffice to say, it made my predicament worsen, very rapidly. I sank deeper and deeper, and my suicidal thoughts ran rampant. The fact that the very thing that was supposed to be helping me, was not, made me feel so desperate, frustrated and hopeless that I quickly developed a new coping mechanism: self-injury.
I kept this hidden from everyone, including Ben. The only person I told, was my therapist. During out last CBT group session, I handed her a letter in which I explained that I was doing worse, and requested to try medication and switch to a different therapist. She didn’t respond to any of it. It wasn’t until two talking sessions later that I finally had the guts to confront her, and have her refer me to someone else. Thankfully, my next therapist was awesome. Looking back, she couldn’t really help me either, her limited training was no match for the CPTSD I didn’t know I had, but at the very least, I felt like I had someone I could turn to. And I clung to her for dear life.
I never really said much in those sessions, and when I did, I kept secrets and spoke in riddles. To be fair, I didn’t really have the self-awareness or the vocabulary to express everything that was going on inside me either. I’m sure that all this made it really hard for her to help me in any way, but to be honest, I think she did the most important thing she could have done for me in that time: she was there. She was my safe space, only for me, holding no connections to anyone I knew. I savoured those sessions. She was an oasis in the desert. And after months of feeding her titbits of information and beating around the bush, I finally trusted her enough to confess the secret that was weighing me down: I didn’t love Ben. I immediately followed up that statement by telling her that there was nothing she or I could do, I’d resigned to my fate. There was no way in hell that I was breaking his heart, and I had no place else to go anyway. I mean, what has I supposed to do, go back to living with my dysfunctional family?
It didn’t seem so big once I’d said it out loud, but it still didn’t take away from the fact that I was stuck between a rock and a hard place, and I needed help to get out.
In the meantime, Ben and I were long out of our honeymoon phase and things were getting more miserable and toxic by the day. I’d stopped talking to him about how I felt or what I was going through, because I couldn’t cope with way he dismissed and guilt-tripped me over it. Whenever Ben caught wind of my struggles, he somehow always managed to make it about him. And I simply didn’t have the energy to placate and console him, when I was already fighting battles of my own. So, I just tried to act normal and keep a smile in my face. The only times that I could drop the mask and gasp for air, were when I was home alone, or when I escaped the house, taking my car our for a drive and pulling into an empty parking lot for some time alone. That’s when I could let my demons out.
Only a few months into our marriage, things were getting out of hand. I was swallowing my feelings down with food and resorting to self-harm more and more often just to cope. It still baffles me to this day, how it could have gone unnoticed for so long considering the extremes that I went to. But then again, I know how insidious these things can be, and how sneaky people get when they’re desperate. And boy, I was desperate.
Ben worked evenings and often didn’t get home until midnight, so that explains how I could get away with multiple A&E visits a week. And I was very inventive when it came to hiding the scars, bandages and stitches. For instance, coming out of the shower, I would drape a towel over my arm and nonchalantly get dressed behind our big red fauteuil, making a point out of casually flashing as much clean skin as I could, so as not to raise suspicion. I also put our silly cat obsession to use, by acquiring a pair of sweatbands with cats stitched on them and refusing to take them off, because “meow”. Which is perfectly sound reasoning, I you ask Ben. And whenever we were intimate, I made sure the lights were off and tried to keep my long-sleeved pyjama top on. I killed two birds with one stone with that one, because by making sure that he got off quickly, it didn’t have to go any further than that and I got to keep my clothes on, thus hiding my body. Obviously, that didn’t always work, in which case I had to make sure that the bandages and the prickly stitches stayed under the covers and didn’t touch his skin. It took some acrobatics, but I made it work.
I don’t remember how or when Ben eventually found out, but when he did, he was horrified. He hadn’t realized that I was doing so badly, which makes sense given the happy act I always put on around him, and he asked me why I didn’t just talk to him, as though he’d forgotten how he shut me down in the past. But he wasn’t so much empathetic as he was pissed and humiliated. Angry that I was putting him through this, doing such a horrendous thing instead of just trying to get better. And humiliated because my apparent craziness would make people think he wasn’t a good husband. He demanded that I stop, which was obviously a promise that I couldn’t make.
If you know anything about self-injury, you hopefully understand it’s a coping mechanism. Unfortunately, Ben didn’t see it that way. He seemed to think that it was something I could control; something that I was doing on purpose, just to get to him or to make him look bad. It was the most bizarre situation, because I was the one going through it, but somehow, I always ended up being the one to console and comfort him in the midst of my own crisis. And it was like that every single time. Ben kept a close eye on me, but my need for release inevitably always built up to a point where I could no longer avoid it, and so I just learned to accept Ben’s reaction as a part of the deal.
Once Ben found out about my habit, we ended up in what I can only describe as a game of cat and mouse. Ben eventually began to recognize the hospital smell on me after I’d been to A&E, so I would race home to shower and re-bandage my wounds before he got home. That worked until he started subtly touching my arm every night after getting into bed, checking it for bandages.
I clearly remember the last time I went to the A&E, as it was…traumatic. It wasn’t the last time I ever hurt myself, but it was the last big incident like that. I’m not going to go into too much detail, but I spent over three hours in the waiting room only to be treated by someone who clearly felt that people with self-inflicted injuries don’t deserve compassion, humane care or proper pain relief. That’s all I’m going to say about that. I left the place in pain and in tears, which was a rude awakening from my usual numbness and the endorphin high that self-injury brought me. When I looked at my watch, I realized that Ben would be home before I got back, and I panicked. If he came home and saw that I wasn’t there, he’d freak out. And if I came waltzing in, all bandaged up like that, he would have my head. We were already at our breaking point. This would surely send him over the edge, and I didn’t want to find out what he would do. I was terrified that he’d explode, and I was equally scared that he’d tell my parents which would open a whole other can of worms. There was only one thing left for me to do: get down on my knees and submit to him. Metaphorically speaking, of course. And so, before he could get home and find me gone, I called him. I called him in tears and told him everything, promising him that I didn’t want to do this anymore. And he forgave me.
I never went to the A&E again after that. But as I said before, it wasn’t the last time I self-harmed. Because, well, I still had to survive. So, I just had to get more creative. I turned to blood-letting, the needles leaving little to no visible evidence but still providing me with the physical effects that helped to distract from the emotional pain I was in. I started overdosing on over the counter medication that made me drowsy, but they also caused muscle spasms which resulted in me kicking Ben in my sleep. That was a little too obvious, so again, I had to come up with something else.
Whenever Ben discovered I’d hurt myself again, he would get so mad at me that I’d have to placate him until he finally dissolved into tears. Then, I would hold him, stroke his hair and whisper it-will-be-okays in his ear until he eventually fell asleep and I could breathe a sigh of relief, letting the mask slip from my face and falling back into my own pit of despair. It was an exhausting game, and I wished that I didn’t have to play it. Quite frankly, I wished that everyone -but mostly Ben- would just leave me alone and let me go. I couldn’t take it anymore. I fantasised about death on the daily, and those suicidal thoughts took me to the brink on several occasions. Somehow, I had myself convinced that if I could just make everyone understand that I really didn’t mind being dead, they’d all be fine with it. They might be sad for a while, but surely, they’d eventually move on with their lives. I carried a suicide note around with me for that exact reason. But whenever it came down to it, it was always the thought of the pain I’d be causing my loved ones that pulled me back off the ledge and pushed me to call my therapist. This resulted in my being committed to the psych ward on several occasions, to keep me safe and give me some space to breathe. It didn’t fix anything, but at least I was alive.
Need I further clarify that I was very, very ill?
While all this was happening, I was slowly beginning to open up to my therapist. I still had a hard time vocalizing whatever was going on inside, so we had this agreement where I’d write things down throughout the week, then she’d read them during the session and ask me questions about it to get a conversation going. It was in one of those letters that I first opened up about my marriage, disclosing the fact that I was unhappy and immediately backpedaling with a long list of reasons why I couldn’t possibly leave. I did my best to convince her that discussing it further would be a pointless waste of time, because as far as I was concerned my fate was sealed and we’d have to work around it. Surprise, surprise, she did not agree. She didn’t push the matter though, yet. We just kept going about our sessions the way we always had. Even without the marital issues, lord knows that there was plenty of shit floating around in the cesspool of my subconscious that also needed addressing, so we had enough to do anyway. But somehow, along the way, the sneaky little shrew of a therapist figured out exactly which issues to work through in order to create some wiggle room in my mind. And eventually, I hesitantly admitted out loud that I wanted out. But I didn’t know how, so I’d need her help.
Once I’d said it out loud, there was no taking it back. And although I wasn’t ready or able to just up and leave, it did open up space to imagine a future different from the one I was currently facing. Slowly but surely, I began to take small steps to untangle and distance myself from Ben. It started inside my head, just by daring to acknowledge that I had thoughts of my own that weren’t necessarily in line with his. And after a while, I began to say some of them out loud. I started to push back and allow myself to be annoyed or frustrated with him. I acknowledged to myself that I was not in love with him, and that he often disgusted me. I acknowledged that I didn’t like who I was when I was with him. I entered a phase that can only be described as some kind of belated puberty, or a rebellion. This pushback didn’t go unnoticed by Ben, our arguments becoming more frequent by the day. I suppose his fear that my going into therapy would drive us apart, was coming true.
I remember my turning point as clear as day. In true rebellious adolescent form, it involved a piercing. A labret, to be exact. I’d wanted it for ages, but Ben wouldn’t let me get it and he told me that he thought it would look like a wart on my chin. Weeks passed and I guess he got tired of how much I talked about it, because he eventually proposed a compromise where I could show him a list of piercings I liked, and he’d tell me which one I could get. He didn’t mind a simple ear piercing, so I ended up getting a tragus. But although I liked it just fine, it just didn’t hit the spot. No shit: it wasn’t what I really wanted. It’s like when you’re craving chocolate and you try to avoid it by substituting a whole bunch of other stuff, only to eventually cave and have the chocolate anyway. You would’ve eaten less if you’d just had the chocolate in the first place and been satisfied. That labret was my chocolate, it just kept calling to me and I couldn’t let it go. And so, one day when I was in town with a friend, we passed the piercing studio a couple of times until my brain finally went: you know what? Fuck it! Ben already controlled so many aspects of my life. He influenced my thoughts and actions, decided who I spent time with, how I spent my money…and I was sick of it. It was time that I took back my body, and my life. So, I went in. I got the piercing. I dealt with the fallout afterwards, and I ignored the way Ben constantly referred to my ‘wart’. In fact, he didn’t realise it, but every time he said that, he was only reminding me of how I was taking back my power, and that ‘wart on my face’ was proof.
Planning to leave someone isn’t easy, especially when you’re trying to keep it all secret while you’re making the necessary preparations. Although I hadn’t decided on a date or anything, there was a lot that I had to figure out beforehand as I waited for the right moment. Not that there is ever a right moment for such a thing, but I guess some moments are the lesser evil in this situation.
In the meantime, my therapist had come to the conclusion that she didn’t have the tools to help me any further, and she referred me to a day treatment facility with a group for young adults. It was a multi-disciplinary out-patient treatment that spanned two full days a week. Yeah, it was pretty intense. If brains had bandwidth, therapy alone hogged the majority of mine. Dealing with struggles and tension in my relationship along with the ongoing battles in my mind took up the rest, so energy and time were a scarcity. That raised the first of many speedbumps in plotting my escape, as my own part-time minimum-wage supermarket job wasn’t going to pay for my divorce, let alone allow me to move out and support myself financially.
Unfortunately, it wasn’t as simple as increasing my hours, as I was already out of bandwidth with everything else that was going on. Thankfully, we had a module in therapy that was dedicated solely to practical matters, and with input from my therapists and group members I found out that I was likely to be eligible for health benefits. They also told me that there were probably certain things that I needed to keep in mind legally, and they advised me to seek out a specific free legal office that could take me through the steps. The problem there was the that Ben hardly ever left my side and I didn’t want to raise suspicions, especially if there were going to be letters or phone-calls coming in that could trigger him to ask questions.
In order to keep everything inconspicuous, I involved Ben in as many steps as possible. You know, “the closer you are to danger, the further you are from harm”, for us LOTR nerds out there. I figured that if I was open about big stuff, it would divert his attention from the details. And so, I was very open with Ben about my wanting to apply for health benefits, and I explained it to him in a way that made perfect sense to him. I mean, why wouldn’t you take money that you were entitled to?
It was such an odd feeling, sitting in a cubicle at the legal office, explaining my situation to the lady across from me as I occasionally glanced over at Ben in the waiting area and hoped that he didn’t realize we were talking about him. It was nerve wracking and I felt guilt tugging at my heart, but at the same time, I felt strangely…defiant. He didn’t know it yet, but there was an uprising underway. And this time, there wasn’t anything he could do to tie me back down.
I eventually did put in my application for benefits, but things like that take a long time to be processed. That was a bummer, but an even bigger anxiety inducing realization was coming to the conclusion that even if they approved me, it wasn’t going to be enough to rent a place of my own any time soon, if I could even find one. This was a huge setback for me, because I knew that the only other viable option in my situation was to move back in with my parents. You know, the very place I was trying to escape from in the first place. Out of the frying pan, into the fire, and straight back into the frying pan again. It seemed like I was getting burned left and right with every step I took in life, and I couldn’t seem to escape that blistering cycle.
Needless to say, all this came as a huge blow to that small, fragile part of me that was still trying to fight while every other part had already given up hope. The future looked bleak, and the seeming inescapability of my fate morphed into one of the worst bouts of suicidal tendencies I’d ever had. I had my letter ready, carrying it around everywhere with me, in the back pocket of my handbag. At some point, I even sent an internet friend of mine an email with a list of all the people I wanted her to contact and all the accounts I wanted her to delete once I was gone. Obviously, she didn’t agree with that and she called my therapist when I refused to do so, resulting in yet another admission to the crisis ward. No surprise there.
Here’s a small, translated excerpt from the diary I was keeping for therapy at the time:
I felt alright yesterday. Today, I felt myself sinking. I tried to pull myself up again, I swear, but it’s like I’m trapped in quicksand and today I sank neck-deep. All I could do was gasp for air.
The school day wasn’t even over yet, I had a few hours to go. But during that hour in the lecture hall, I just lost myself. It was like I’d become a marionette, the monster in me pulling the strings. On my notepad, I made a last little drawing for Ben and I wrote underneath it: “I love you, Ben. I’m sorry…Go on.”
Then, I took my time gathering my belongings and putting on my coat. While my classmates hurried to our next lecture, I walked in a completely different direction. I took the stairs and put my headphones on. I left the building, stepping out into the rain. Then, I texted Ben that I loved him and I switched my phone off. Tears were streaming down my cheeks, my vision went blurry, I couldn’t see anything other than the ground beneath my feet and the mist in my head.
People hurried past me and looked at me, but I didn’t care anymore who could see me. I walked across the bridge and stepped onto the grass, staring at the fence in front of me. Behind that fence, there are train tracks. Every so many minutes, another train comes tearing by. The school’s windows rattle in their panes every time.
And then, I stopped. I looked back at the school, and then back to the fence. Back at the school once again. At the people who saw me walk by, wondering what on earth I was doing there. My knees gave out and I fell to the ground. I just sat there in the wet grass, sobbing with my head in my hands. I can’t do this. Not now. Not today.
I pulled myself up off the ground, and ran back into the school as fast as I could. Over the bridge. Through the puddles. Through the revolving door. Up the stairs and into the classroom where the lecture had just begun. I dumped my bag onto the floor, and with my back towards the others I quickly wiped the tears from my eyes with the sleeve of my vest. As nonchalantly as I could, I sat down on the only empty chair left in the circle as I tried to ignore the questioning looks. “Are you ready?” the teacher asks….”Yeah, sure, go ahead.”
Let this be like giving birth. Two steps forward, one step back…
So yeah, I wasn’t doing well. Something had to give, and fast. But although I was taking steps, I was still without a plan. How do you decide how or when to tell someone you’re leaving them? And moreover, how do you do that with someone you’re completely enmeshed with?
I was beginning to understand that there would never be a good time, and it was going to be messy either way. I might just have to rip off the band-aid. Fast. Because my demons were gaining on me.
To be continued…
We meet again. I’m just going to jump right back into it, picking up where I left off. If you haven’t the foggiest idea as to what I’m going on about, you might want to scroll back and read parts 1 and 2 first. Once again, a big trigger warning here, especially if you’re sensitive to topics surrounding toxic relationships, abuse, mental health, self-harm, suicide and all that jazz…
About three years into our relationship, we starting talking about moving in together. Freshly nineteen, I’d been longing to get out on my own for as long as I could remember. I’d graduated highschool two years earlier and I was working minimum wage at the supermarket while I tried and tried again to get admitted to the midwives training academy. Ben had successfully set up choirs in four different cities, gaining more members each season. He was well on his way to making a decent, stable living and at twenty-six it was about time that he left the nest. All things considered; it made sense that if we were moving out, we might as well do it together.
It was around this time that my mental health started going downhill. Long story short, you can only repress shit for so long and apparently, I’d come to a point where my subconscious was no longer able to keep it all under lock and key. Not that I was even aware that’s what I’d been doing. All I knew was that I could be feeling perfectly fine one minute and ready to jump off a cliff the next.
Not all days were that dramatic, though. Most days, I didn’t really feel much of anything at all. I felt no zest for life, not in the present nor regarding the future, whether it be with or without Ben. There was neither pleasure nor pain, everything was grey and I was just going through the motions. I didn’t even realize how numb I was until I found myself boiling over again.
My moods confused the hell out of me. They would come up out of nowhere, and disappear as quickly as they came. Whenever I spiralled to a place so dark and desperate that drastic measures crossed my mind, I scared myself enough to consider seeking professional help. I’d have the number ready in my phone, only to wake up the next morning feeling perfectly fine, unable to comprehend how I’d ever felt so bad. The only reminder of yesterday’s madness was a lingering sense of shame, and relief that I hadn’t actually called anyone. After all, clearly there wasn’t anything wrong with me. They could only have concluded that I was being overly dramatic, faking it for attention. I had a good life and no reason to feel depressed, I just had to pull myself together and be grateful for the life and love that I had been blessed with.
With regard to my relationship with Ben, I was secretly having doubts. My feelings for him weren’t as strong as they had once been. Sometimes they even seemed to disappear completely. In fact, there were times when I felt trapped and everything about him seemed to repulse and irritate me. But then again, we had good times, too. And when times were good, they were great. However doubtful I was of my relationship; my self-doubt was always bigger. Especially now that my feelings were so fickle and unpredictable. It made it really hard to figure out what to do, because I felt like I couldn’t trust myself, or my judgement. Whenever I considered breaking up with him, I was terrified that my brain was playing tricks on me again and I’d regret my decision when I felt better.
Furthermore, even if I was sure of my decision, leaving Ben would be complicated. Our lives were intertwined on more levels than I could count, making it hard to even imagine life without him.
For starters, Ben and I had been together for a long time, our relationship spanning some of the most formative years of my life. Developmentally speaking, this was the time in which I should have been discovering who I was and building up a life of my own. Instead, I did my discovering and growing up within the scaffolding of a deeply enmeshed relationship. My life was fully merged with his, and I had virtually no clue who I was on my own. Losing Ben felt like the equivalent of losing a vital part of myself, and that prospect was incredibly daunting.
Another concern that prodded at me, was a social one. I expect most of you have probably experienced the awkwardness of navigating your social life after a break up. Dividing up friends like you’re dividing your shared cd-collection, figuring out what belongs to whom…it’s a hot mess. And what about the mutual friends, the in laws, the people who pick sides…Drama, guaranteed.
But that wasn’t the only thing on my mind. You see, I didn’t even really have a social life of my own anymore. That was partly my own doing; my social awkwardness and anxiety often held me back from making and maintaining connections. At least when I was still in school, I got to see my friends every day. But after graduation, with a lack of initiative from my side, many friendships fell apart or faded to the background. At the same time, Ben had done a pretty good job of isolating me from my own social network and claiming me for himself. After a while, my social life was Ben’s social life. We were always together, a package deal, mostly socializing within his own group of friends, family, colleagues and acquaintances. To them, we were this inseparable, dynamic duo. People would rave about how special it was that we could sing and make music together, telling us how lucky we were to have found one another. And so, whenever I toyed with the idea of breaking up, I felt lonely, guilty and ashamed in advance. I was scared of how people would react and what they would think of me. At the very least, I could rest assured that many people would disappear from my life along with him, effectively rendering me completely alone.
And there was more. Ben often told me how much he loved me and how he couldn’t live without me. Whether I was in love with him or not, I cared about him deeply and I didn’t want to break his heart. I remembered what he told me about his previous break-up, and if he ever harmed himself because of me and my selfish decision, I wouldn’t be able to live with myself.
Let’s not forget, this was my first serious relationship. I had no example of what a healthy relationship looked like, so I thought that this was just the way it worked and it was as good as it was ever going to get. Why would I go through the trouble of breaking up and finding someone else (if I even could), only to pour all my energy into building a new relationship that would ultimately be just like this one. It didn’t make sense to me. I didn’t want anyone else. I wanted Ben, or no one.
All in all, at the cusp of this huge change in our lives, I had to decide whether I wanted to jump into it together with Ben or not, and I didn’t take that decision lightly. In fact, in my mind, it had nothing to do with what I wanted. There was too much at stake, and after tallying up the scores I came to the conclusion that if I left, everything would fall apart, whereas if I stayed, the only one that could potentially fall apart was me. And that was a sacrifice I was willing to make.
Looking back, my gut knew perfectly well what was going on, consistently warning me for years that something wasn’t right and that I should get out. In in turn was consistently gaslighting myself, doubting, ignoring and dismissing my feelings whilst trying to overrule them with my brain. Anyone want to take a wild guess as to where I learned that?
Usually, every time those pesky doubts bubbled up, I pushed them aside and trudged on. But when we started talking about moving in together, everything was thrown inside a pressure cooker. On one hand, I was hoping and praying that my unruly heart would finally give in to my love for Ben, so that we could just skip off into the sunset and have our happily ever after. Also, living at home was negatively impacting my mental health and my dark moods were negatively impacting my relationship. I could only assume that if moving out made me feel better, I’d also feel better about my relationship. And so, I prayed that moving in together would help that process along.
On the other hand, I was internally freaking out over the prospect of binding myself to Ben even further. After all, if I moved in with him, there was no turning back. I had already decided that I couldn’t break his heart. And because things weren’t going well at home, now that I’d caught wind of an opportunity to escape that suffocating environment, it awoke a burning desire in me to get the hell out. And there was no way in hell that I could return to my family home after having tased the peace and the freedom that came with being out on my own.
Knowing what a big, serious decision it was, I finally plucked up the courage to talk to Ben about my concerns. He was shocked at first, until he eventually admitted that he’d been struggling with some doubts as well. But, as he said, he loved me so much that he had decided that none of that mattered, and he was sure that we could work it out. The fact that he was so certain of his love for me, made me feel intensely guilty for the way my own feelings flickered on and off all the time. But what really broke my heart, was when he started crying and said: “I actually wanted to ask you something in Paris, but now I don’t dare.” The second he uttered those words, I just shut down and started bawling my eyes out. We had a trip to Paris planned for New Years, and it was obvious what he meant. Ben wanted to propose.
There was something flattering and affirming about that. I mean, if I stayed, I could rest assured that there would always be someone there to love me and take care of me. And I longed for that, so badly. But at the same time, Ben’s confession made me feel awful. Here was this great guy who loved me more than anything, who was so sure about us that he was willing to accept my flaws, work through our rough patches and commit to me for the rest of our lives. And here I was, struggling to reciprocate that same level of affection for him. Hell, I even thought about leaving him almost on a daily basis. What kind of monster was I?
Somewhere deep inside of me, locked in a cage submerged in the depths of my unconscious mind, a little girl was frantically rattling the bars and thrashing around, her tiny voice begging me to get out while I still could, and set us free. But I just couldn’t do it. Not without being a right cunt, leaving my adoring man for no good reason (because feelings don’t count as reasons, duh…) and tearing him apart in the process, only to end up alone. The way I figured; if Ben loved me that much, how much of a sacrifice was it really, to pretend a little in order to match him and spare his heart. As long as he was happy and his heart still whole, I could live with feeling less for him than he did for me…At least I didn’t have to lose my best friend, and I’d enjoy certainty. Yeah, I could take one for the team. And so, looking up at him through my tears, I breathed ‘I want to marry you too, one day’.
And so, it came about that Ben and I agreed to move in together, and our house hunt began. We took this very seriously, skimming the listings in the paper each week and weighing the pros and cons for each place before we picked which ones to apply for. We calculated exactly what we could afford and how we’d split the costs fairly, taking into account our respective incomes and expenses. We responded to adds week after week, only to be disappointed each time. We simply hadn’t been on the waiting list long enough to qualify for social housing, and all of the private listings were much too expensive.
But we got lucky. One day, purely by coincidence, an acquaintance of my mother showed up at the door and whilst chatting about something or another, she mentioned that she had a small studio apartment available and was looking for a new tenant. Technically, it was only built to house one person. But she invited us over to check it out anyway, and of course, we bit.
Ben and I fell in love with the place instantly, it was so…us. Granted, it was tiny, but it was so cosy and charming. Situated on a little quay alongside a canal, hidden behind the townhouses at the end of the village, it was so quiet you could hear the birds chirp in the morning but you were still just minutes away from the town bustle. The apartment was a century old converted coal shed, the walls painted a shade of Bordeaux red and the wooden beams black. Everything screamed “A GOTH LIVES HERE!” and I could already see myself lounging on my very own sofa in the dimly lit living area, drinking tea, eating chips and watching Gilmore Girls while I waited for hubby to come home.
There was a small kitchen, an even smaller bathroom with an eye-hight window in the shower (sticking your head out into the sunshine while you shower…don’t knock it ‘till you try it!) and the doors on the alcove had two little heart-shaped holes that came together when the doors closed. It was absolutely perfect. The place got me so excited that all my doubts melted like snow in spring and I couldn’t bear the thought of anyone else snatching it up while we mulled things over.
Thankfully, Ben agreed and we called them back the same day to make arrangements.
We planned to move after our trip to Paris, which left us exactly two weeks to get everything sorted. However, during the process of planning and decorating, we ran into some…difficulties.
You see, upon measuring everything up and trying to solve the puzzle of how to fit two people’s belongings and their basic necessities into this one tiny living space, our priorities did not line up. Case in point, Ben’s comic book collection. Being a huge spiderman fan, he owned numerous meter-long boxes of comic books and he was adamant that he keep them all on display in the living room.
Now, I wasn’t necessarily opposed to having a superhero-shrine in the house, but given the tight space we were working with, I would’ve rather dedicated that space to more important things. You know, like making sure we both had adequate workspace, a place to sit, and enough space to move around without bumping into or climbing over stuff all the time. Which was exactly the reason that I’d assigned most of my non-daily-use stuff to the attic. However, when I talked to Ben about it, I may just as well have been asking him to chop his arm off, because he was not having it.
This tiny little mosquito turned into an elephant in no time at all, leading to a huge argument that almost ended our relationship. I know it was a ridiculously childish thing to argue about. But for me it wasn’t about the comic books or even about the floorspace. It was about the way he was responding to me during what should have been a perfectly normal deliberation between adults.
The first time I unsuspectingly tried to open a conversation with Ben about it, I showed him the floorplan and suggested that it might be best to keep them in the attic. Or, if the display was the most important part, we could build shelving for them in the hall. Ben, however, was not open to the discussion at all. In fact, he immediately dug his heels into the sand and upped his demand: not only his comics, but also his entire collection of at least 50 black binders of sheet music, simply couldn’t be placed anywhere other than in the living room. No matter how many reasons or alternatives I brought to the table, Ben wouldn’t budge. Instead, he just snapped at me and went straight into cold-shoulder mode, shutting down the conversation and refusing to talk about it any further.
Over the following days, whenever I tried to have a decorating-related chat with him, he’d tell me he was busy and proceed to ignore me. He may as well have stuck his fingers in his ears and exclaimed “LALALALA, I CAN’T HEAR YOU”, it was same damn thing. Miraculously, though, he did somehow find the time within his busy schedule to write me an extensive email in which he stated that if he couldn’t have his comic books, he’d rather not move in with me at all. In which case, he’d rather have me move into the place alone and he’d just stay with me on the weekends. Of course, I couldn’t afford the rent on my own and Ben knew this. He was purposely putting me on the spot, just to get his way.
To me, the whole situation was utterly absurd and it triggered me immensely. It bothered me that I could never bring up an issue without it being turned into a huge drama. And somehow, it was always my fault. No matter how careful I tried to be. Within less than three days, my practical and perfectly reasonable request had escalated to an argument that resulted in a text message from Ben, stating that he “wasn’t so sure about everything anymore” and that “we need to talk”. It didn’t feel fair; his response was childish, disproportionate and out of place. Aside from the fact that the words ‘we need to talk’ would give just about anyone a heart attack, Ben was basically telling me that he’d rather sleep in a room full of comic books, than with the young woman he’d been ready to propose to just a week ago. I was perplexed, and something inside me said that it was time to put my foot down. Either that, or it was time to make a choice…should I stay, or should I go?
Ben texted me that if I wanted to speak to him, I’d have to come to his place because he didn’t want to leave the house. I was at work at the time, so I told him I’d be over later as my mind worked a mile a minute running through scenarios and trying to figure out what to say or do. Part of me was in a panic, trying to come up with a way to patch things up and make it work. The other part was screaming at the top of her lungs that this was my chance to get out.
Eventually, after hours of see-sawing, I made up my mind. The way I saw it, Ben had clearly indicated that given the choice, he would pick his comic books over me. But he was also triggered and under a lot of stress, so I would go to his house and hear him out first. I’d try to have an open and honest conversation with him, and if he still wasn’t willing to compromise, then I’d take a hint. That would be a sign that it was time to choose me, and leave. As I thought it through, that tiny little part of me that was locked in a cage somewhere deep down realized that this might be it. Her heart thrummed wildly as she saw her freedom dangling in front of her, just out of reach. But I wasn’t ready to throw everything away just yet. I had to make sure I’d tried everything else, first.
This brings us to what Christopher Titus would refer to as the Armageddon fight. The Ground-Zero fight. The fight where you’re at Home Depot the next morning, asking them if that’s all the spackle they have.
I left work with my legs shaking and my mind racing. When I arrived at his parent’s place, I found him slumped over the kitchen table, dressed in his ratty, old, pale blue bathrobe, his mother stroking his back as he dramatically wailed and sobbed, his foot with ingrown toenail soaking in a tub of suds. I remember a split second of disgust breaching my system as I took it all in. He looked utterly pathetic and part of me just wanted to tell him to grow the hell up. But of course, I didn’t. Instead, I composed myself, sat down next to him and proceeded to comfort him until he was eventually willing to follow me upstairs to his bedroom and talk.
I asked him what was wrong. He told me that he was stressed out. Something happened at work the night before, and combined with the whole apartment situation, he was just overwhelmed and starting to doubt everything. He explained that I often said things that made him feel bad, and whenever that happened, his feelings for me dampened. Those feelings usually came right back whenever we did something nice together. But this time, those feelings hadn’t returned.
Upon hearing this, my heart fell into panic mode and all I heard on repeat was: this is it, it’s over. By now, we were both crying. The pain I felt at the prospect of losing him was horrendous, like something inside me was dying. And that feeling was quickly weakening my resolve. If it all felt this awful already, I wasn’t so sure that I should be leaving him at all. I’d come here with the intention to stand my ground, but now that everything seemed to be falling apart and we were crying in each other’s arms, I wasn’t sure about any of it anymore. Maybe I really was just being petty and selfish, and I was about to make the biggest mistake of my life over some stupid comic books. If it was that important to him, maybe I should calm down and let him have his wish.
The thought of the comic books snapped me back into reality, reminding me what I’d came to do. I had to ask. I had to know where I stood, and make a decision. And so, swallowing thickly, I asked about what he’d said in his e-mail. Unfortunately, or fortunately depending on how you look at it, Ben’s opinion had not changed since then. If he couldn’t have his comic books, I wasn’t letting him be himself and he didn’t want to move in with me.
At this point, my heart was beating out of my chest. This was what I’d been anticipating. I’d made a decision and rehearsed my response beforehand, now all I had to do was stand my ground and see it through. Adrenalin coursed through my veins and my voice quivered as I choked out my response: “Ok, if that’s your final decision, then this is goodbye. I’m going to find someone who has more respect for me than that.”
No sooner had the words left my lips, and the screaming began. As I moved to get off the bed, Ben began wailing and screaming incoherently at the top of his lungs. I couldn’t understand what he was saying, but the sheer volume along with the redness of his face and the flailing of his arms sent me into a panic as I scrambled to get my shoes on. The second I stood up and turned to say goodbye, Ben flung himself across the bed and grabbed hold of my legs. I stood there trembling as Ben lay on his stomach and locked his arms around the backs of my knees, crying uncontrollably and begging me not to go. Suddenly, I heard someone thumping up the stairs and seconds later both his parents burst into the room, stumbling over each other as they cried out for us to calm down. Ben immediately began to scream at them to leave us alone and get the hell out, and I just stood there, frozen in place, staring down at him. My heart was pounding uncontrollably, my chest was heaving, my whole body was buzzing and I wanted to leave, but…I couldn’t move. I guess my mind took ‘standing my ground’ a bit too literally. I don’t even remember exactly what happened next, other than that his parents left and we must have made up at some point.
The next thing I remember, is cycling back home and noticing this distinct split feeling. On the outside, I was smiling and my brain was feeding me relief over the fact that I still had Ben and I was still going to be moving into that lovely apartment with him. But there was another part of me that I was fighting really hard to ignore. That girl in the cage who kept telling me that I should have run. I had my chance to escape, and I blew it. Now I was stuck, and there was no turning back.
She couldn’t possibly be right, could she?
ARC DE TRIOMPHE
After our fight, Ben and I seemed closer than ever. We’d worked out our differences, we were happily buying furniture and making plans, and we were looking forward to our trip to Paris. The girl in the cage stirred from time to time, but I kept her under lock and key. After all, I’d been faced with the ultimate choice, and I’d made the decision to stay. As a woman of my word, that was it. There were no take-backsies and if there was any part of me that didn’t agree, she’d just have to suck it up and make it work. I’d made my bed, now I must lie in it.
A few days into the new year, Ben and I got on the Thalys and left for Paris. While we were gone, my father was going to put together a new bed in the alcove and custom build us a closet and a bookcase so that we’d be ready to move in upon our return.
We spent a couple of days exploring all the main tourist attractions, visiting Disneyland and even having our portrait drawn together at Place du Tertre. One day, after we’d spent hours roaming the city and wandering around the Louvre, I was so tired that I was nauseous. I asked Ben if we could skip the Arc de Triomphe and head back to the hotel for an early night in, but Ben disagreed. He was adamant that we keep going, and in the back of my mind I had an inkling he was up to something.
Evening had fallen as we left the underground and climbed up the stairs out into the dark. It was cold and there were tiny little snowflakes dancing through the air as Ben put his arm around me and steered me towards the centre of the Arc. Once we were there, Ben took both my hands into his and stared into my eyes. My stomach instantly dropped. This was it. It was happening. In the middle of a strange city, just the two of us, a few days left alone together and with nowhere else to go…He was going to pop the question. I looked at him and it occurred to me that there was no possible way I could get out of this. Knowing how well Ben took rejection, there was no way in hell I was going to risk saying no to him whilst alone in a strange city hundreds of miles away from home. Not only that, but my rejection would simply break him. I couldn’t do that to him. It was my fault that I’d let it get this far, and now I had to see it through and deal with the consequences.
All the options and scenarios swam through my head as Ben stood before me with my hands in his. I knew what I was getting into, and I knew that I didn’t have a choice. And so, my brain worked to find whatever creative mind-trick it could come up with to make peace with what I was about to do. I was going to have to marry someone that I didn’t want to marry, and my brain needed to find a way to make it ok. To justify my decision and help me make it through. Ironically, I found my survival in thinking of death. You see, depressed as I already was, I didn’t expect to live very long. So, why on earth would I break his heart if I could let him have this and just stick it out until my inevitable death.
Indeed, there was only one viable option and I just had to accept my fate. And so, when Ben asked me to marry him...I took a deep breath and choked out: “Yes, of course.”
Ben was ecstatic. He took me out to Buffalo Grill to celebrate, which might not sound like the most romantic option but honestly, that’s the only place that would serve dinner at a reasonable hour. Sitting across from me in that leather booth, Ben grinned from ear to ear and told me that he was completely in love with me again. I forced a smile and nodded, shoving a chunk of steak into my mouth to avoid talking and giving myself away.
The rest of our trip passed in a blur. I felt trapped, wanting to escape but frozen in place. I stood on the Eiffel Tower and wondered what it would be like to just jump. There was no way out of this, I felt, other than death. And maybe, that was the best way to go about it. Ben would never have to know how I really felt about him. He could live the rest of his life thinking that I’d loved him, but that my own demons had gotten the better of me. There’d be no damage to his own ego, while I got to go free. It was a sick way to think, but quite frankly, I was sick. Much more so than I realized at the time. And all the while, Ben floated through the days on his pink cloud, oblivious to it all. We went to a souvenir shop and bought little picture frames for our portrait, planning to give one to each of our parents as we broke the news.
Upon returning home, the next big shock awaited me.
I ran up to my bedroom hoping to retreat from the world for a moment. But when I pushed open the door, I was horrified to find my room completely empty. In an attempt to be helpful, my parents had packed all my belongings and taken them to my new apartment while I was away. They didn’t have any boxes, so they’d put all my stuff into garbage bags and piled them all up in the middle of my new living room. Everything had been randomly thrown in together, so my belongings were all mixed up and I couldn’t find a thing. Some stuff had even been damaged along the way. Although I understood that my pragmatic parents meant well, I was absolutely devastated. I felt like they just wanted to get rid of me as quickly as possible. And not only that; my bedroom, my safe space, the place I’d always locked myself up in to hide from the world, was gone. It had been torn away from me, right when I needed it more than ever. I hadn’t even gotten to say goodbye and I had nowhere else to go. After all, my new place was a shared space and it wasn’t even ready yet. I felt completely and utterly lost.
I did my absolute best to pull the place together as quickly as humanly possible, but quite frankly, I never did manage to recreate the safety of my own little sanctuary. Even when it was done.
The closest I came to finding a new safe space, was my car. And that car would soon become vital, my only solace, along with an internet forum that I frequented.
The first couple of months living together, actually went surprisingly well. It really seemed that we’d set aside our differences and grown closer, we were working with each other and hadn’t had any big arguments since ground zero. In fact, we were so lovey-dovey that you’d think we’d already entered the honeymoon phase before even tying the knot. This sparked some hope within me, that maybe we were meant for each other after all. Maybe Ben had changed, and maybe my heart had finally given in and switched the love back on. Maybe…things were going to be ok.
Back from Paris, it was time to break the big news to our parents. We set up coffee dates with them all under the guise of having so much to talk about after our trip. We popped in with my future in-laws first, where Ben gave them a small parcel. Once they’d torn off the wrapping paper to uncover the little portrait of us, Ben made his grand announcement. His parents were ecstatic, and Ben just seemed so proud. It broke my heart to see them all so happy, knowing that it was all built on sand. The guilt crept further into my bones as I imagined what would happen if any of them ever found out that I didn’t feel the same, and I confirmed myself in my supposition that my own wants and needs simply weren’t worth all the pain they’d cause if I decided to honour them. It was my own fault for letting it come this far, and quite frankly, I could never have what I wanted anyway. I just wasn’t worth it. The best course of action was to resign to at least making sure that everyone else was happy, for as long as I possibly could. And so, trying my very best to match the joviality in the room, I put on my mask and hoped to God that I was doing a good enough job.
After draining their coffee pot, Ben and I left his parent’s place and moved on to mine. It was my turn to speak, and I wasn’t looking forward to it. Not that I was afraid of how they’d react, it was just that…when you’re stuck in a situation that you’re ashamed and unhappy about, obviously you’d rather not shout it from the rooftops. Drawing all this attention to our ‘happy news’ and dragging in so many people along the way, only made me feel more trapped and ashamed. It was like rubbing salt into an open wound. It felt like my life was snowballing and I wanted to dig my heels into the ground and make it stop, but I knew I couldn’t.
We sat down on the sofa across from my parents making small talk, my tongue thick and dry and my heart pounding to an uneven beat in my chest. Time was ticking by and we were running out of banter, I could feel Ben’s impatient glances burning a hole into the side of my head. I knew damn well that I couldn’t avoid it forever, but I just couldn’t get the words out of my mouth and I worried that I wouldn’t be able to force out the right emotions either. I felt like I had walked right into a bear trap. I couldn’t exactly refuse, or ask Ben to take over. That would blow my cover and simultaneously blow the top off pandora’s box. I had to do something. So, I took yet another deep breath and hoped that my creative brain would crop up with a solution on the spot.
Well, boy did she come through. Apparently, she decided that the only way to avoid all the land-mines in this hot mess of a situation would be to strategically plant the news within a bout of verbal diarrhoea and hope that someone else would take the bait, taking the announcement out of my hands. In practice, that went a little like this:
“Yeah, so first we walked around the city for a while and got a bag of pain au chocolat at the supermarket because they didn’t have normal bread isn’t that weird and then we went to the Louvre and saw the Mona Lisa which was much smaller than you’d expect and then after that we went to the Arc de Triomphe and Ben proposed to me and I said yes and then we walked past the Moulin Rouge and went out to dinner in a grill restaurant which was-“
“Wait, back up, what did you just say?”
“Huh? Which part?”
“You guys are getting married!?”
Aaaand que me falling into a fit of giggles until the penny dropped and the others joined in, making it seem as though I’d intentionally come up with this quirky way to surprise them, just like you’d do with a cute pregnancy announcement. Once the awkward laughter fizzled out, I handed them the little parcel with the portrait and my flustered parents congratulated us. I could tell that they were taken aback and trying to cover up their reservations, and I was thankful that they kept quiet. The thing is, they knew how stubborn I could be. They probably understood that if they said anything, it would drive me even further into Ben’s arms just trying to prove them wrong. So, once the portrait was up on the windowsill, we continued to exchange pleasantries and ignore the elephant in the room. It was done, the news was out, everything and everyone was still intact and I even got away with not having to make an actual announcement. End scene.
Once the news was out, it was time to start planning. Now, I know that some girls start planning their wedding day from birth and go full bridezilla for their perfect, magical day. Yeah, I’m not one of those girls. Shocker. Not only had I never really given it any thought, but I wasn’t exactly excited about this wedding to begin with. In fact, the more I was forced to think about it, and the more people we involved, the more horrible I felt. But I knew how much it meant to Ben, and since the only thing I wanted for myself was to get through the whole thing unscathed, I decided I’d put all my focus on making sure that Ben was happy. In an attempt to compensate for my apparent inability to reciprocate his feelings for me, the least I could do was let him have this. It would be his day; he’d have the time of his life and he’d have all those happy memories to hold close if I eventually left this earth. I know, what a bundle of joy, right?
So, we set the date for April 7th, which was only three months away. Ben wanted a small wedding in our hometown, and I was all up for that. In fact, I was perfectly willing to give up the reigns and let him organize the whole thing in whatever way he saw fit. Quite frankly, any way in which I could keep a low profile, avoid the fuss and get it over with as quickly as possible was fine by me. But with everyone congratulating me, and asking me how excited I was all the time, guilt was gnawing at me. I felt a lot of pressure to put on a happy face and enjoy the process. I mean, come on. I had a man who loved me to bits, and I didn’t even have the decency to at least try to muster a little enthusiasm for our wedding day? What kind of monster was I...
I think the most fun I had in our preparation, was coming up with a playlist for the party. I took great pleasure in imagining his non-expecting vanilla parents being swallowed up by a mosh pit on the dancefloor. It certainly wouldn’t be the first dance they were expecting to see.
Anyway, we decided on this cute little historical courthouse in town for the ceremony, and we booked the town café around the corner from our house for the reception. Our theme would be somewhat alternative, everything in black and red, including our outfits. The invites had a big red rose on the front, which would match my bouquet on the day. I asked a close friend if she’d arrange for her horses to bring us to the courthouse in their black carriage, and I invited another close friend to come dress shopping with me. Of course, this goth wouldn’t be caught dead wearing white and I sure as hell wasn’t going to book a bunch of awkward appointments and spend a fortune on a dress that I could only wear once in my life. No, I found my dress at my favourite alternative clothing store. It was an Adderlass gothic dress, black denim with white pinstripes, shoulder straps with buckles and a lace up bodice showing off an unholy amount of skin and cleavage, even with my modest handful. And what did it cost, you might ask, to offend the almighty God in the face of our Holy union? Why, no more than 185 measly euros. What a deal, right?
Our ring appointment went off without a hitch, I remember the cheery jeweller being all amazed at how in tune we were, and how quickly we made our decision. The same went for picking out invites, creating the guest list and deliberating with the registrar who would be marrying us. We just seemed to float through the whole process. Of course, that’s no real surprise given how numb and compliant I was; I just agreed and went along with everything. That’ll speed any process along.
I guess it’s no wonder that Ben was so happy and in love with me again after our rough patch either; I had become an extension of himself, and he couldn’t exactly disagree with that, now, could he.
THE BIG DAY
If I had a penny for every time some random person asked me if I was nervous for the big day, I needn’t have been so worried about the divorce lawyer’s fee. By the time April rolled around, I was so sick of that question that I was almost glad the day had finally come. Too bad I didn’t realize that the question was about to be replaced by an equally annoying avalanche of people asking me how it felt to be a married woman. Don’t get me wrong, it was all well-meant and very sweet…but every question that rubbed my predicament in my face and forced me to plaster on another fake smile, just added insult to injury. I just wanted to face my fate, get it over with and forget about it, for as far as possible of course.
You know how I wanted to keep the whole getting-married-thing as low profile as possible? Yeah, well, that did not go as planned as my upcoming wedding kinda ended up making the papers. It was a full-on article, I shit you not, complete with a picture of me in my wedding dress, standing next to my bike with the big newspaper bags on the back. Thing was, I’d been delivering the daily newspaper at the butt-crack of dawn for many years at that point, and my wedding day would be no exception. I’d just get up a little earlier and complete my route before heading off to get my make-up done. Apparently, that story was funny and intriguing enough to warrant a commending piece in the newspapers the day before. And not only that, but I believe my mum actually also dropped notes in all the mailboxes on my route, telling people about it. Effectively, this meant that literally every household on my route knew about my wedding, and all of these lovely people were sweet enough to stick congratulatory notes and cards to their mailboxes that day. The fact that this was supposed to be a sweet surprise, putting me in the spotlight on my special day…made me feel like the biggest piece of shit on the planet. I’m talking over 100 Courics, for sure. Randy Marsh, I’m coming for you.
To me, each and every note was just another reminder of what an idiot I was, jumping into the biggest mistake of my life with my eyes wide open and being that selfish, horrible bitch leading everyone on. Everyone was being so nice, involved, enthusiastic…surely if they found out they were pouring all this effort and kindness into a freaking fraud, they’d never forgive me. I couldn’t even forgive myself…
Looking back, guilt is one of the main things that got me so deep into this mess into the first place, and held me hostage there. Which makes sense, because again, I’d been conditioned that way. My father used emotional blackmail and guilt-tripping to keep me under his control since I was little. I’d been called selfish so many times that I felt guilty for as little as my own existence, terrified that I really was the horrible person he seemed to believe I was. I spent my whole life desperately trying to disprove that, but in the end, people pleasing and lack of boundaries often got me tangled up in compromising situations with the exact opposite result. Unfortunately, I’d never been taught that setting boundaries or being honest about my feelings were actually very compassionate things to do, for both parties. Somehow, by trying so hard to keep Ben happy, I had become the selfish, dishonest, ungrateful person I feared I was, and I just kept dragging more people in. I was convinced that the only way to make up for it, was to finish what I started. To sacrifice myself, my happiness and my future for Ben and everyone else who needed to believe the charade. For this reason, I would literally have rather died than told anyone the truth.
April rolled around and the day came that I would sign my life away. Or as some call it, my wedding day. I wondered how I’d get through the day, and I now know how I did it: dissociation. I was completely numb and disconnected, floating somewhere outside my body. To me, it was just another Friday and I was going through the motions, feeling nothing, but trying to play the part none the less. I woke up before sunrise in what was left of my old bedroom, pulling on an old tracksuit and hitting the streets for my paper route When I got back, I sat and read the paper with a cup of tea at the kitchen table before going back upstairs for a shower. I longed to get back into bed and hide under the covers, but I had to pop over to the make-up stylist down the road before slapping on this weird sticky bra and getting into my black dress. My uncle arrived early, as we’d asked him to be our photographer. After taking what seemed like hundreds of pictures of me with my family in various combinations, our dog Mickey kindly alerted us that the doorbell had indeed rung and that there were two huge beasts a.k.a. horses standing in front of the house. Ben had arrived. It was time to go.
To be honest, the whole day went by in a blur. I remember the pain in my face from having to consciously force out emotions that weren’t there. My cheeks burned from the fake smile I kept plastered on, and my head felt like it was about to explode. I remember the pangs of anxiety, guilt and awkwardness every time anything or anyone referred to ‘our love’, because every little thing required me to squeeze out yet another convincing act with just the right words and just the right amount of joy and excitement to back them up. I was tired, my energy and my patience were wearing thin and my facial muscles weren’t trained for such a marathon. I could only hope for this day to come to an end before I ran out of steam. The end of the day wouldn’t take me out of the woods though, I still had a honeymoon to survive…
Oh yes, the honeymoon. As much as I’d like to spill some hot tea about what objectively should have been the most romantic experience of my life…I can’t. Literally. There’s a honeymoon shaped hole in my memory, I have virtually no recollection of anything that happened on that trip.
I can tell you what I do remember. While brainstorming ideas, Ben proposed that we keep it simple and book a short weekend trip to Maastricht. I immediately latched on to that plan because aside from the fact that I wasn’t interested in drinking poolside cocktails at some boring, lavish resort that we couldn’t afford, I also dreaded spending so much time alone with him, on each other’s lip, dealing with all the inevitable expectations of being newlywed. I knew what was expected of me, and I knew I wouldn’t be able to keep up the act for a full-length vacation without throwing myself out of a window at some point. Of course, I didn’t tell Ben that. I simply agreed that Maastricht was lovely and that staying close to home would fit the theme of our simple, down-to-earth wedding.
So, Maastricht it was. The party wasn’t even over yet when we left, grabbing our weekend bags and pulling our coats on over our wedding clothes. The remaining visitors waved us off as we piled into my father’s car for him to drop us off at the train station. It was a 3+ hour journey to our destination, plus a transfer to the hotel. Enough time for me stress out over the upcoming wedding night, trying to come up with the most kind and inconspicuous ways to get out of sleeping with him. Maybe I could tell him that I was too tired. No, that wouldn’t work, I already knew from experience how he’d respond to that and I didn’t have to energy to deal with him getting into a funk. Maybe I could convince him to take a nice bath before bed, and pretend to fall asleep while waiting for him. Or maybe I could pull myself together, stop being a cunt and just do it. Dozens of scenarios crossed my mind, and by the time we arrived at the hotel, I was terrified. I knew I had to either act my way through it, or act my way out of it. I just didn’t know if I could.
When we arrived, I stood in front of the tall building and gazed up at the windows, imagining what it would be like to jump. The pressure was on, and I needed something to keep me going. My brain understood the assignment, reassuring me that the emergency exit was always slightly ajar in case I needed it. I had to know that there was a way out. By blowing off steam through the secret valve of suicidal ideation, I could survive. And so, pulling my suitcase through the revolving door, we stepped up to the reception desk to collect our card key. I remember getting to the hotel room and opening the door, pulling off my coat and sighing a breath of relief as I finally freed my bosom from that horribly uncomfortable contraption of a sticky bra. Seriously, who invented that?! Never again.
And that’s it. That’s all I remember. I have no idea what happened, what we did or where we went during that weekend. I don’t know if we argued or had fun, I don’t know where or what we ate, I don’t know what attractions we visited, I don’t even know if we consummated the wedding, it’s all blank. I have no recollection of any of it. My first memory after getting to the hotel room, is coming back home and finding our alcove looking like a Mc Donald’s ball pit, filled to the brim by balloons courtesy of Ben’s friends who had secretly made a copy of our house key before we left. That was sweet, and a rather amusing distraction to come home to. Other than that, I was just glad to be back home and I hoped that everything would settle down and get back to normal soon.
To be continued....
Isn’t it interesting how you can go through life for years and years under the presumption that something is either perfectly normal, or possibly a tad unhealthy but ‘hey, we all go through that from time to time’, only to look back at it one day and think…wait, what?!
In the previous part of this blog, I told you a bit about the start of my relationship with Ben and I allured to some shady-ass shit that eventually went on behind the scenes. I think now would be a good time to preface future parts of this blog with a trigger warning, because there will be some subject matter that I can imagine not everyone is going to be comfortable reading about. If you’re sensitive to topics that include abuse, either mental, sexual or physical, please take care. Same goes for topics surrounding mental health, self-harm, suicide, etc.
Some parts have been really hard to write, let alone share. I’ve written about things that I’ve never disclosed to anyone, or at least not in detail, and it includes some sensitive and fucked up stuff, so please just keep that in mind.
Anywho, I guess I’ll just pick up where I left off, with the gradual discovery that Ben wasn’t really the person I thought he was from the beginning of our relationship…
Ben was a very sensitive guy, which was something I initially liked about him. He felt deeply, and he could be so sweet, caring and understanding. I once ran off to his house after a stand-off with my father. I was so hurt and full of pent-up frustration that I’d developed a horrible stress-headache and by the time I made it to Ben’s place, all I could stand do was curl into a ball on his bed with my eyes closed. I was of no use to him at that point, but he spent the next four hours stroking my back and softly reading to me from a random novel that he’d plucked off the shelf. The novel was Jurassic Park…but still. When I finally felt better and I was ready to go home, I realized that it had gotten cold and I was only wearing a thin t-shirt. So, he gave me one of his vests for the short bike-ride home.
His sensitivity, however, was paired with a fragile ego and a big sense of pride, rendering it very, very easy to unintentionally step on his toes or hurt his feelings. That would have been less of an issue had we been able to communicate about it, but his go-to response was to either get mad, or to shut down and sulk for hours to days on end. He’d get short with me, give me the silent treatment or the cold shoulder and refuse to tell me what was wrong until I’d dragged it out of him and done enough to make up for it. And mind you, it didn’t even have to be me who’d slighted him. It could just as easily have been something or someone else, but I’d sure as hell be the one paying for it. I didn’t have all that much insight into my own trauma responses at the time, but in hindsight this clearly triggered me to repeat the patterns that I’d learned with my own upbringing. Terrified of losing love, I turned to freezing and pleasing. Shutting down my own needs, emotions and opinions in favour of doing all that I could to appease him, I kept him, but I began to lose myself.
To give you an example, there was a situation involving a talent show. My dad had spotted an advert about it in the paper, to which Ben and I decided that it would be fun if we both signed up. At the time, Ben was a professional vocalist/vocal coach, and I had very limited experience onstage. My singing experience was mainly limited to my bedroom as my band hadn’t really taken off yet, and the only voice lessons I’d ever had were the ones that Ben gave me. All things considered, it was no surprise that Ben won that round and was placed for the finals that would take place a few weeks later. I wasn’t bothered at all, I had fun and I agreed that Ben had done a better job than I had. But ben wasn’t comfortable with the situation, and the next day he emailed the organisation to ask if I could be placed instead, since he felt it wasn’t fair that he -a professional- had won against me -an amateur. The organisation declined, and I decided to try again in the next round because I enjoyed the experience. Funnily enough, I won that round, so we both ended up in the finals together. We battled it out, had a great time, and in the end…I won first place, with Ben coming in second. In the moment, he was very supportive and enthusiastic about it. But I was apprehensive, and with good reason; the second we left the venue and got into the car, his mood flipped. He went entirely silent and stared out the window during the ride home. Feeling a storm brewing, I tried to downplay my own victory, be extra nice and divert his attention. When we got home, I told him I was tired and begged him to come to bed with me, but he insisted on unpacking my prize (a brand-new DVD-player) first. When we finally went upstairs, he stopped talking to me, got into bed and turned his back towards me. In the days that followed, he only spoke in two-word sentences and ignored me as much as he could. Days later, he ended up coming over and crying in my arms about how it wasn't fair how hard he had to work for everything, only to be beat by a ‘bloody amateur’ -me.
Over time, I became an expert on dodging sensitive topics and reading his body language. We could be in the middle of a chat with friends and he’d be outwardly jovial, but by the way his jaw ticked I could already tell that someone had said something that didn’t sit well with him and he was cooking up a storm inside. My stomach would knot with anticipation, knowing that he’d be throwing a tantrum or sulking like a three-year-old once we were alone, and that it would cost me hours and hours of placating and consoling him before I finally had my boyfriend back.
After a while, I dreaded being around others with Ben. I was already walking on eggshells and with other people added to the mix it was just too hard to control all the variables. I guess you could say I was regulating his emotions for him, just like I’d been conditioned to do at home.
Given the whole ‘us against the world’ narrative that was woven tightly into the fibres of our relationship, all of this didn’t really bother me in the beginning. I felt like I’d been tasked with a special mission; to prove to Ben that not everyone was out to get him. If he learned to trust me, he’d eventually heal the wounds of his past and we would skip off into the sunset. Oh yes, I totally fell face first into the bottomless pit that is the I-can-fix-him cliche. I really believed that things would get better with time. Spoiler alert: they did not.
Hand in hand with his insecurity came his neediness. Like most couples, we spent those first few months unable to keep our hands off each other and wanting nothing more than to be together constantly. But when the time came to loosen grip and come up for air, I noticed that symbiosis was Ben’s default setting. Ben clung to me much more than I felt comfortable with. At first it was kind of cute, but it soon got old. Not only did he want to do virtually everything together, but he also took great offence if I ever declined or wanted to do something alone or with my own friends. He’d beg and whine until I gave in, starting an argument or giving me the cold shoulder for days if I didn’t. And he’d always text or call multiple times if I did go out, getting irritated or sulky with me if I didn’t respond as quickly or extensively as he’d like.
Ben required more undivided attention then I could reasonably provide, especially given my own need for space to recharge and reconnect with myself. I remember our first camping trip, me reading a magazine with Ben sat next to me on the airbed. He was pretty meticulous about staying on top of our expenses during that trip, and so I’d asked his permission to buy that magazine with my own money, which is kinda weird, but whatever. Anyway, as I sat there reading, Ben would keep slipping his hand underneath the booklet and whacking it out of my hands as he nagged “Hey, hello, hey, heyyyy…”. You know, like that scene with Stewie and Lois in Family Guy. It was done jokingly, but if I would have kept reading, it for sure would have ended in a fight. This is so illustrative of his incessant hunger for my undivided attention and his need to satiate that hunger immediately.
I remember a situation regarding concert tickets to The Who, one of Ben’s favourite bands. He’d bought two tickets without consulting me first, and asked me if I wanted to join him after the fact. I declined, as wasn’t really my thing and I knew he had friends who would enjoy it more than I would. Ben was not amused, and after unsuccessfully trying to win me over, he stalked off angrily and refused to talk to me for the rest of the day. Weeks later, on the day of the concert, he asked again. He hadn’t bothered to try anyone else yet. Apparently, he’d just assumed that if he waited until there was enough pressure, I’d eventually cave. But by then, we were already a few years into our relationship and I was starting to push back. When I declined yet again, he started sulking about how he didn’t have many friends or know anyone with the same taste in music. He couldn’t possibly go alone and I’d be ruining his only chance to see his favourite band if I didn’t come with him.
I stood firm in my decision, and gave him some ideas for people he could ask. Eventually, with no other options left, he called a friend who was really excited to go. Refusing to look at me,
he said to his friend with a sneer that was clearly directed at me: “I might as well stay at your place then, because there’s no point in going home tonight.” When he hung up and I asked him: “Will you text and let me know if you decide to stay over?”, his face turned to stone and he stormed out.
Now, I’m someone who needs a lot of space just to function. Ben was my polar opposite in that, clingy and in constant need of reassurance. After a while, it was like a dance where he would grasp for me and I would pull back, triggering him to grab on even tighter. And with him holding on to me so tightly, it meant that I couldn’t find the space to breathe, think or feel anymore. I felt like I was being swallowed whole, but it all happened so gradually that I didn’t realise I’d lost myself until it was too late. It also meant that I became even more isolated than I already was, my own social connections diminishing as my world revolved more and more around him, and his life.
Ben had big emotions, and when it came to anger, he could go from 0 to 100 in the blink of an eye. Looking back, there had been tip-offs when we first started dating. I just didn’t think much of them at the time. I remember meeting up with him in a rehearsal studio at the conservatory about three weeks after we first met. He took the cd-player out of its nook in the wall and showed me a giant boot-shaped dent in the metal casing, laughingly explaining that when the device wasn’t working properly, he’d gotten so frustrated that he yanked it from the wall, placed it on the ground and stomped on it. Afterwards, he’d carefully put it back in place so that no one would notice the damage until he was long gone. He told the story in such a funny way that I laughed along with him.
To be fair, who hasn’t contemplated thrusting some unruly device out the window at some point?
I also remember him telling me that once, as a teen, he’d gotten so angry that he started smashing up the house and his parents ended up calling the cops on him. He cried when he told me, and I felt awful for him. Knowing his parents and some of his history with them, I could understand what had potentially caused him to snap like that. And how horrible a feeling it must be to have your parents turn on you like that. I really felt for him. I didn’t think it was something that could happen again. He was regretful and ashamed. And I was his girlfriend. I wasn’t the one who’d hurt him, or pushed him to that point. He would never direct his aggression at me, right?
Yeah, here’s a plot twist so big it’ll give you a whiplash. You never saw this coming, right?
As understanding, calm, sweet and gallant as he could be, after a few months, his other side began to shine through and it popped up more and more often over time.
Ben could be extremely attached to his views, however unfounded, short-sighted or black and white. Now, I’m not saying that I was always right, at all. But I appreciate a good conversation in which there’s mutual respect and space to explore the different angles. What bothered me the most in discussions with Ben, was that if I presented a contradicting idea or added food for thought, he’d often laugh at me, act condescending or talk down to me. Suddenly, I was just a naïve little girl and whatever I was bringing to the table was the most ridiculous thing he’d ever heard.
Both Ben and I were incredibly stubborn. When we were on the same page, that brought us closer together as we merged and pushed away from the rest of the world. But when we disagreed, there was drama. Ben had a habit of making things personal, probably as a means to protect himself when things touched on his own insecurities. If I tried to talk about my feelings, or any issues we ran into along the way, he’d instantly feel attacked and instigate an argument.
For instance, in the start-up phase of his business, we saw much less of each other. And when we were together, Ben was on the phone constantly. It didn’t matter where we were or what we were doing, if his phone rang, he’d drop everything and he’d be off. Although I understood very well how important it was for him to be reachable in this phase of building up his business, I also really missed my man. But when I tried to communicate this with him, not even expecting a solution but solely wanting to share how I felt, he immediately went on the defence and shot me down. And of course, that earned me a couple of days of silent treatment.
It didn’t have to be something big, though. Maybe I’d asked him to help with the dishes. Or maybe I wasn’t available to drive down to the train station to bring him his forgotten wallet, or wait at the station for two hours in the middle of the night after getting back from a long workday, just so that he could ride home with me. Maybe he had been blasting the same cd on repeat over our living-room speakers for the past three weeks, and I’d proposed that we listen to something else that day. Or maybe I wasn’t in the mood to be intimate with him. Whatever it was, he was quick to take it personally and get defensive, starting huge arguments over nothing, hanging up on me or shutting me out for days.
Ben had a habit of resorting to passive aggression when he felt slighted or didn’t get his way. Even if something or someone else was the culprit, or if he was in a bad mood for whatever reason, he would take it out on me. The aforementioned cold shoulder and silent treatment were a common occurrence. Sometimes, though, the aggression was not so passive. Although he never hit me, he could get very loud and there many situations in which he no longer had his anger under control. He often broke things in the process. Once, for example, in the middle of the night, I was jolted out of my sleep by the sound of glass smashing to smithereens against the door of our alcove. I damn near had a heart attack, and when I saw his bedside lamp laying in pieces on the floor, I frantically asked him what had happened, to which he exclaimed: “I couldn’t find my hair tie.”
I also clearly remember a discussion with Ben about household chores. When we moved in together, I took on the majority of the housekeeping. We simply fell into that pattern because Ben was used to his mother doing everything. And so, I would clean the entire house each week, and the only thing I asked of him was that he occasionally help to dry the dishes that I was washing, and that he’d take out the garbage when the can was full. However, he’d sometimes leave it for far too long, up until a point where trash would be stacked up on the floor next to the bin, or it would be crawling with maggots. Needless to say, this bothered me. Just like it annoyed me to wake up in the morning to find the kitchen counter that I’d just cleaned, covered in cracker crumbs and wine stains he’d left behind after his midnight snack. Apparently, opening a conversation with him about this was a bad move, as he quickly got so mad that he launched a bowl across the room whilst yelling: “And don’t you dare think that this conversation will change anything!”
Throwing things was a bit of a theme. In another situation, I’d come home from a long day at work and found Ben sitting at his computer, as he was working from home that day. Walking in to the room, I greeted him and he ignored me completely. I noticed that he hadn’t started dinner yet although it was his turn that day, but given his apparent mood, I chose not to ask about it just yet. After a while, having put away my stuff and changed my clothes, I carefully inquired about his plans for dinner. I would have gladly started on it if he’d have told me what he had in mind or what was going on, but he ignored me again, so I sat down at my own computer and did some homework. About an hour later, I decided to ask about dinner again, but he still didn’t so much as acknowledge my presence, let alone answer my question. Then, after about 15 minutes, he angrily got up out of his chair and demanded “Well?! What do you want to eat then?!”. Caught of guard, I said “Ehhhh” and he shot back with “Well?!”. I took a deep breath, replying with “Hey, calm down, you’ve been ignoring me for over an hour, you can’t expect me to have an answer ready in a split second”, to which he got so angry that he flung a stack of cutlery across the room and stormed out. I then got up and left to have dinner at a friend’s house. When I got home a few hours later, he was in a total frenzy and his parents were there comforting him. He wailed that he’d been searching everywhere for me and that he was scared I’d gone and hurt myself. He'd called my parents, his parents, my friends (apparently not my best friend), he’d even called the hospital. Then, the rest of the evening, he was as sweet as ever and he pretended that nothing had ever happened.
Here’s another example that’s still fresh in my mind. We’d been dating for almost a year when we decided to go on holiday together. We’d both just graduated, and I couldn’t wait to claim my freedom. I had taken up a summer job at a cosmetics factory alongside my paper route, both of which I hated with a passion, but my parents didn’t want me hanging around the house all day and they were of the mind that I didn’t need a holiday (“Tired? You’re too young to be tired”). At the same time, Ben was setting up his own business as a choir director. In an attempt to attract new participants, we decided to go on a two-week busking tour. We’d travel to three relevant cities, pitching our tent at a nearby campsite and then we’d spend our days playing songs on the streets while handing out flyers and simultaneously earning back our camping expenses.
Obviously, we had to prepare a repertory. Now, I’m a pretty quick study when it comes to vocals. I’ll hear something once, and be singing along to it before the song is even over. Ben, on the other hand, usually needed much more repetition. For weeks leading up to this trip, every minute we spent together was dedicated to practice. There was no space for anything else, and after weeks and weeks of running the same songs over, and over, and over…I started getting pretty sick of it.
One day, after a long, boring day at the factory production line, I went over to Ben’s place in hopes of sharing some quality time. Ben proposed a run-through of our repertory, and I reluctantly obliged. Sitting on his bed, I sang my way through each of the songs until we’d finally reached the end of the list. But to my annoyance, Ben immediately circled back around and started strumming the intro to the first song, prompting a second run-through. In my frustration, I sighed heavily and fell back onto my pillow. Before I even realized what was happening, Ben shot up out of his chair, cried out something incoherent and smashed the guitar onto the ground next to my head. I was so startled that in a reflex I curled up into a foetal position, covered my head with my hands and began shaking and hyperventilating. This, in turn, snapped him back into saviour mode as he crawled up beside me on the bed and started to console me, apologizing and telling me that we’d go to my parents and tell them I needed a day off from my job because I was clearly overstressed. He then proceeded to cry over his broken guitar…I shit you not.
Full disclosure, I certainly wasn’t perfect either. Aside from the level of maturity you can realistically expect from someone who’s still going through puberty, I didn’t exactly have healthy examples to base my relationships and interactions on. I had plenty of emotional baggage of my own and in such instances, Ben and I brought out the worst in each other. Inevitably, resentment brewed under the waterline, only to rear up later in the ugliest ways. Ben mastered passive-aggression, but I was a pretty good contender. After all, I’d learned from the best. We both spoke that language fluently, and it was a familiar pattern that we dragged each other into.
Over time, I learned that voicing my own thoughts, needs or feelings was a risky thing to do, and more often than not, utterly ineffective. There was a leak in the boat, so much energy draining away through walking on eggshells, trying to find non-triggering ways to communicate, absorbing constant blows and repairing each inevitable rift that was torn. If I wanted to be heard or get my needs met, I had to find less exhausting and less damaging ways. I had to get creative. This led to some very strange, yet interesting habits between us.
To give you an idea, after a few months together, we almost exclusively talked to each other in a child-like voice and we often communicated through meows. Yes, you read that right. Meows. We even had this weird shared obsession with all things cat-related. And I’m not even a cat person...
I have no idea exactly how or when this began and who started it. It likely started out as a joke, or with one of us trying to be cute. But I soon found that it had some kind of a buffer-effect, making it easier for us to say things to each other without setting the other person off. It’s like when you want to say something that someone could take offense to, and so you use a quote instead. That way, it’s not really you who said it, and somehow, that just goes over easier. But as you can imagine, there’s only so much you can say in a kiddy voice and after a while I really missed the real conversations. I felt increasingly frustrated and lonely. I did carefully bring it up at some point, to which he agreed that although it felt so safe and comfortable to talk that way, we should probably give it a rest. That resolution didn’t last long, though. We were back at it in no time.
By now you may be thinking, why on earth did you go along with all this. Why not just leave?
That’s always a complicated question, but I’m aware of quite a few contributing factors. As I stated before, a lot of these patterns and behaviours that you might consider red flags, were my normal. I grew up with dysfunctionality all around, so my idea of a healthy relationship was severely skewed. If my current relationship was as good as it was going to get, why would I give it up?
Also, my own childhood trauma had me convinced that I was inherently wrong, flawed and undesirable. I was unconsciously terrified of abandonment or loss of connection and my experience was that exerting my own will, opinions or needs often resulted in the threat of abandonment. I was conditioned to respond to any type of conflict or disagreement by assuming that I was in the wrong and that I had to repair the connection by any means necessary, before I was cast out. Ben showed toxic patterns of behaviour that were very similar to the way my father treated me, and it triggered me to respond in the way I’d been conditioned to.
Furthermore, let’s not forget that there were also good times. In the beginning, things were amazing. And although things got more difficult and toxic with time, we still had our moments. We had fun, we still had shared interests and inside jokes, and Ben could still be very sweet and caring.
When times were good, I’d forget how bad things could get and assume that we’d fixed the issue.
I’ve been debating whether or not I should share this, given the sensitivity of the topic. To be honest, I’m mostly scared. Scared of what people will choose to do with this information, scared of what Ben would do if this somehow got back to him, scared of what people will think of me for the way I did (or didn’t) handle the situation and scared of being seen as complicit and somehow being held responsible. It still baffles me that I didn’t just up and leave when I found out, but looking back, there were so many factors that contributed to my staying as long as I did, swallowing his story, his rationalizations, his downplaying and his promises. Loving him, trusting him, wanting to protect him.
I’d never heard of grooming back then, but looking back with everything I know now, it’s plausible that that’s what was going on.
This is hard to talk about. But here goes.
Somewhere along the line, Ben confided in me that he was interested in younger girls. As in, much younger. I’m talking girls in early puberty, or blossoming flowers as he called them. He told me that I was technically too old for him in terms of what he found attractive, but he’d consciously favoured emotional connection over physical attraction. After all, he understood perfectly well that ethically and legally, he could never date a thirteen-year-old and he never would.
The way Ben explained it to me, he’d been dealt an incredibly cruel hand and it weighed him down every day of his life. His brain was pushing thoughts and feelings on him that he didn’t want to have, and evoking desires for something that he despised. Something he couldn’t and wouldn’t ever act on, meaning that he’d have to suppress and hide a part of himself for the rest of his life so as to avoid doing harm. And living in a constant fear of being exposed and lynched, just for his existence. Because even if he hadn’t actually done anything, he’d still be cast out and his life would be over. Ben felt ashamed and alone, he didn’t even dare to talk to a therapist for fear of being judged at the very least, exposed and reported at worst. So, in a nutshell, no matter which route he chose, there was pain on every path. Either for himself, those around him, or both. He’d be on his guard forever, never being himself entirely, and he’d never feel completely fulfilled. Not without becoming the monster he feared, and then he’d either destroy himself, or the world would do it for him.
Ben explained some of the things that he did in order to keep his desires in check without having to act on them in real life. He liked to use materials that were already in existence and that he was convinced were not abusive or exploitative. For example, he’d once made a video recording of a tv-commercial about a nudist campsite, showing a split second of naked girls running across the screen. And there were movies that he liked, such as Blue Lagoon, Pretty Baby, Lolita and Thirteen.
I’m sure that while reading this, alarm bells must be going off in your head. And I’d always expected the same of myself, especially given my own history with childhood sexual abuse. You’d
think that I would see a massive red flag like that and make a run for it. Yet, though I was absolutely taken aback by this new information, the thoughts and feelings it evoked in me were so much more layered and complicated than you’d expect. First of all, when we’re taught about abuse, and when abuse, abusers or sexual predators are portrayed in the news or in other media, it all looks so clear-cut, blatantly obvious and black & white. But somehow, when Ben told me his story, it’s didn’t look black and white at all. Maybe it was the way he we telling it, along with the point in time and the nature and dynamic of our relationship. Maybe I was just blinded by infatuation, or biased by my own life experiences. Maybe it was all of those things. Either way, this thing that should have been straightforward black and white, was this weird shade of grey that I didn’t know what to do with.
But I knew Ben, and I loved him. And so, I trusted and believed him when he assured me that he’d never act on those desires. He showed insight, morals, shame, pain…and he seemed genuinely determined and committed to leading a normal life, managing his affliction with grace and ratio so as never to cross the line. Let me tell you, never in my life had I expected to hear something like this and feel compassion…but looking at it from the perspective he’d just painted out for me, I could only imagine how difficult and painful it must be for him to live like that, and my heart ached for him.
So, Ben had just opened himself up to me entirely, entrusting me with his deepest, darkest secret and his worst fears. Effectively, he’d just placed his life in my hands and given me the power to determine his fate. After all, if I did spill the beans, his life would be over. And yet, somehow, he had enough faith in the strength of our love and he’d deemed me trustworthy, understanding and open-minded enough to be utterly vulnerable with me and hand me that power. I’ll be honest with you, that made me feel pretty special. He must have thought that the sun shone out of my ass to trust me with something so huge.
Considering how understanding and accepting Ben had been of me with all my flaws, I felt like I owed it to him to return the favour and hold space for the massive burden he was carrying. The least I could do, was give him that same level of trust that he apparently had in me. I wanted to be the person he needed me to be, and help him be the best version of himself despite the odds. I did not want to be one of those people who would automatically nail him to the cross, just for existing. After all, he hadn’t done anything wrong, other than being born with a brain that plagued him with unwanted thoughts. Ben needed someone to confide in, to help him carry this burden and keep him on the right track. And being the only one in the loop, I was the only person in his life who could fulfil that role. I had to be the one to see the best in him; a great guy with a good heart, holding his morals firmly in place as he honourably carried that heavy cross he’d been forced to bear.
Eventually, from this confusing grey soup, I concluded that as long as he kept his promise, we were in the clear and I would continue to be there for him, support him and protect him. At the same time, I knew what people would think of him, and I feared that they condemn my acceptance of him. We both knew the world would destroy him if people found out, and they’d probably take me down too, by association. And so, I kept my lips tightly sealed and I stood by him.
Having a shared secret, fell in place perfectly within that ‘us against the world’ thing we had going on. Now that we were sharing this burden together, it was like our bond was tighter than ever.
Don’t get me wrong, I understood that Ben’s predicament was a problem, and why. But at the same time, I was convinced that Ben was different. After all, he had insight, and he’d made a vow. Also,
his attraction to minors could actually be a direct result of the abuse he himself had experienced, more like a projection or a trauma response, and I couldn’t possibly blame him for that, could I?
Clearly, my adolescent self had yet to learn that blame and responsibility are two different things, and that boundaries and compassion are not mutually exclusive.
Anyhow, over time, Ben became more comfortable with sharing his thoughts and feelings with me. Boundaries were pushed, inching forward so gradually that just like the frog in the boiling pot of water, I didn’t realize at the time how fucked up things really were. Now let me be very clear, to the best of my knowledge, Ben never acted out. Unless of course…you count me. After all, I was still a minor, and a pretty young looking one at that. It’s not entirely outside the realm of possibilities that Ben found me and figured that I was the closest he could get to acting out his fantasies without getting in trouble. And if that indeed is the case, it sure changes the meaning and the validity of his promise. All that being said; whatever way you look at it, boundaries were definitely pushed and the further I sank into that relationship, the blurrier the lines became.
For example, Ben had initially told me about the existing material that he ‘used’, but I found out later that he actually did visit certain websites, and that he had some of his favourite pictures printed out and stashed in a plastic bag under his mattress. Granted, he still wasn’t physically acting out his desires, but we all know that children are harmed in order to create those pictures. Even his favourite ones, which he justified as being pictures that didn’t show abuse. He didn’t like that stuff, he said. He was only interested in pictures of girls who looked happy, healthy and who seemed to be enjoying themselves. At some point, he even shared his favourite pictures with me, almost in the way that a giddy schoolchild would show you their Pokémon card collection.
I wasn’t comfortable with this, but being as shitty as I was with boundaries back then, I had no idea how to handle the situation. I mean, I’d already accepted so much in my mission to prove my love and devotion to him and live up to the trust he’d placed in me, I couldn’t just change my mind and decide that I was no longer ok with a part of him that I’d previously accepted. I’d encouraged him to be himself and requested that he always be open and honest with me, and now that he was finally doing it, I couldn’t just backpedal because I didn’t like what I saw. That wouldn’t be fair. Or at least, that’s what I told myself. As long as he wasn’t breaking his vow, I had no reasonable excuse to go back on my own promise to stand by him. And I couldn’t ask him to stop doing what he needed to do in order to keep his demons at bay, and somehow still expect him to keep his vow. Even just imagining bringing this up with him, I could already hear the inevitable argument in my mind and feel the guilt and anxiety creeping into my bones. And so, again, I stayed as neutral as I could and I kept my mouth shut.
After a while, Ben carefully proposed watching some of his favourite movies together. To me, they were just movies. But to him, they were porn. And watching them with me was basically foreplay. This was yet another one of those things where technically, he wasn’t really doing anything wrong and he hadn’t broken his promise. After all, we were just watching a movie together. He just happened to enjoy that movie a lot. Yet, to me it also felt icky and uncomfortable. But once again, I didn’t want to trigger him, and it wasn’t a big enough deal to call him out on it, whatever ‘it’ was.
So, I let it go.
At some point, Ben introduced me to a friend who had a girlfriend my age. He actually had quite a few male friends with younger girlfriends and I remember being surprised and somewhat intrigued by this, since as someone with an interest in older guys, I had never managed to find one who was interested in me before. But now, with Ben pointing them out to me, I could only conclude that I just hadn’t been looking in the right places. There were so many that I wondered where they’d been hiding all this time, but maybe I’d have done better to ask myself why they had been hiding.
Anyway, Ben introduced me to Peter and his girlfriend Anne, and after chatting back and forth for a while, we befriended each other. Soon thereafter, one of the guys (I can’t remember which) proposed that we have a double-date via the webcam, if you catch my drift. In all honesty, I didn’t actually find either of them attractive, but I wasn’t opposed to the idea either. I was curious, and it was kind of exciting to be doing something I probably shouldn’t, given my age. At seventeen, I thought I was pretty grown-up and I wanted others to see me that way as well. I wanted people to take me seriously and treat me like an adult. So, I would gladly take any opportunity to do something that was reserved for adults and flip off anyone who told me I was “too young”. I know, real mature.
After that webcam-session, Peter would approach me privately over MSN on numerous occasions, semi-jokingly asking me if I was in the mood to turn on my webcam again, just for him. Thankfully, we were miles apart and communicating through text on a screen, I because of that, I had no problem rejecting him. I wasn’t interested, I thought his advances were awkward and kinda gross, and I wondered why he was asking me for sexual favours while he had a girlfriend of his own right there. When I told Ben about it, he just sort of laughed it off and called Peter a weirdo.
At the time, I didn’t think much of this whole situation. In my mind, I was old and wise enough to consent and I knew what I was getting into. Well, sort of. I was inexperienced and it was all pretty awkward and nerve-wrecking, but I was also curious and excited. I didn’t think it could do any harm, I hadn’t questioned either of their intentions and I hadn’t considered the risks or possible consequences. All I can say is, I’m glad that I did have the mind to say no when more was asked of me than I was willing to give, and I’m glad that Ben didn’t push the matter any further.
Another memory that pops up as I write this, is that at some point during the time we were married, Ben had a crush on a younger friend of mine. This girl lived in our neighbourhood, and as Ben later told me, he’d felt things for her and her younger sister for quite a few years. He’d never acted on those feelings, just shoving them all down and hiding them away, but when we hit a rough patch in our relationship, some form of escapism took hold and that crush began to grow. The way he confessed it to me, it was just a meaningless crush like any other. The only obvious difference, of course, being that it was a twenty-six-year-old man who was infatuated with a sixteen-year-old girl who he’d been eyeballing since she was a pre-teen.
He’d been trying to find non-creepy ways to befriend her for years, so when he found out that we actually knew each other, he pretty much used me as a way in. You know, like how a random dude adding you on MSN would be creepy, but if it was ‘your friend’s husband’, it was not weird at all. The same went for inviting her over to hang out with the both of us. I don’t think he had any intentions of making a move on her, it was more like he was trying to satiate his obsession by taking whatever he could legally and morally get. Just being around her and being friendly with her were the metaphorical breadcrumbs that he settled for.
When Ben confessed this crush to me, my response was rather flat. Aside from the fact that I was trying to be calm, rational and understanding about it the way I always did, the fact that I was doped up on medication at the time probably didn’t help. I wasn’t surprised or angry. I didn’t act jealous or freak out and I wasn’t concerned. I knew it wouldn’t lead anywhere, so I figured that the best thing I could do was just let it blow over. I guess my response caught Ben off guard, though. He’d expected me to flip my shit, and when I didn’t, he flipped on me instead. He was deeply offended. To him, the fact that I didn’t get mad was just proof that I didn’t love him enough. And you can bet your ass that he held that over my head for weeks as I scrambled to patch things up again.
At this point in our relationship, I wasn’t happy with everything that was going on, but I also felt like having gone along with so much already, if I started to protest, he would fight me on it. And not only that, but if I told anyone about what was going on, I was sure that I’d receive an equal part of the blame and I’d been considered complicit. After all, I chose to stay. I protected him. I enabled him. I even took part in some of his undertakings, like when he showed me those pictures or when we had that webcam date with Peter. If I really disagreed with all this, and if I was a good person with good morals, I would have left the second I found out and possibly even reported him, right?
So, in a way, I was no longer just protecting Ben, I was also protecting myself.
When it comes to intimacy in our relationship, there were some things that I look back on now that were definitely not ok. Now let me state for the record, the first time Ben and I ended up sleeping together, he was a perfect gentleman about asking for consent, and I gave it willingly. But I soon learned that Ben’s difficulty handling rejection in daily life, also translated into the bedroom. When you’re in an intimate relationship with someone, no matter how crazy you are about them, you’re bound to encounter moments when you’re just not in the mood. Whatever the reason may be. Now, throughout that early can’t-keep-your-hands-off-each-other stage, there were no issues. We didn’t run into problems until a few months later, when the initial craziness tapered off and we settled into calmer waters. Ben was quite a kinaesthetic bloke, always wanting to physically be with me, holding hands, cuddling, and his sex-drive was a lot higher than mine. And then there’s me; I’m not a very physical person at all, I don’t really like to be touched very much and although I’ll take your hand if it makes you feel better, I’ll also drop it at the first chance I get because all that touchy-feely business just makes me squirm. As for my libido, ever fickle and usually on the backburner, it was no match for Ben’s. Especially when my mental health took a nose-dive, my libido following suit and my anti-depressants stripping me of whatever little bit was left.
The thing is, if we were walking around town with Ben’s hand in mine, and I eventually let go, it would hurt his feelings. Same thing if he wanted to kiss or cuddle and I eventually disengaged.
If Ben tried to initiate sex and I wasn’t in the mood to be intimate, he’d get frustrated and cross with me. He’d angrily turn away from me and lay there quietly sulking until I’d grovelled long enough to make it up to him. I felt like there was always a pressure on me to be available to him, and to enjoy myself or at least pretend to, so as not to hurt his feelings. But the pressure made me dread those intimate moments even more, and combined with my depression and my dwindling contentment with the relationship, my interest for being physically intimate with Ben soon dropped below zero.
But I couldn’t just keep pushing Ben away, as that only made him grasp for me even more. And no matter how carefully I went about rejecting his advances, it always led to drama.
After a while, it got to a point where I just didn’t have the energy to deal with that anymore, it was easier to just go along with it. And so, sometimes, I’d just lay there and let him do his thing. Or I’d try to get it over with quickly by pleasuring him first. I pretended to be enjoying myself, though as dark as it was in our alcove, he couldn’t see my face anyway so he was none the wiser.
I clearly remember one of the last times, because it’s carved into my brain. Laying there in pitch blackness with Ben hunched over me. I felt like he noticed that I wasn’t really responding to his advances, I wasn’t really feeling it and that it wasn’t going to be a mutual thing that night. And so, he stopped trying and just rolled over on top of me instead, letting me finish the job. I robotically went through the motions and the second he was done, he wiped me down, rolled off me and fell soundly asleep. And I just lay there in the dark, tears rolling down my cheeks, quietly frozen in place so as to make sure that he didn’t see or hear me.
Ben was none the wiser, or at least, that’s what I assumed for a long time. Sometimes I think it was unfair of me, because he didn’t know. But when I really think about it, I realize that he knew a hell of a lot more than I give him credit for. He just chose to dismiss that information. After all, I had communicated with him that I wasn’t in the mood, on numerous occasions. Initially, at least. I only stopped communicating with him after my first dozen messages had been dismissed and he’d guilt-tripped me until I gave in. I stopped communicating when it had been made discouraging enough to do so, and when the space for being open, honest and vulnerable with him, no longer felt safe. And that was his doing. He’d worn me down until I no longer pushed back. It was easier to give him what he wanted and keep quiet about it.
Clearly, neither of us had heard of ongoing consent…
To be continued....
So, it’s been a while since I’ve written. That doesn’t mean I’ve been standing still, of course. I just haven’t had the time, or the clarity of mind to put anything on paper.
Although I’m finally starting to find some ground beneath my feet these days, it’s like there’s still this continuous process running in the background where I’m subconsciously sifting through the contents of my brain and putting every little thing up for revaluation.
Discovering that tiny yet critical piece of the puzzle; finding out what I now know about my father, blew apart everything I thought I knew. And even though it’s been three years, pennies still drop every day. Old memories, experiences, beliefs and conclusions pop up in my mind and are held up to the light of this new information, and it changes everything. It’s like I’m being reconfigured, slowly and meticulously.
Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about my past relationship with my ex-husband. It was a long time ago, but with how my perspective has changed, I feel the need to unload some of that stuff. And since I have this space here, I might as well…right?
Nineteen-year-olds are complete idiots.
Of course, no nineteen-year-old would agree with that statement and I’m 100% sure my adolescent ass would have taken great offence at it. But just between us adults, we can totally smell that typical post-pubescent cocktail of naïve know-it-all-ness and misplaced bullheadedness from a mile away, right? Hey, we’re all adolescence-alumni here, I’m sure we can laugh about it now. In fact, please do me a favour and tell me the funniest, most stupid thing you did when you’d finally made it through puberty and had yourself convinced that you’d mastered life.
Fine, I’ll go first: I got hitched.
Yes indeed, at the ripe old age of nineteen, I thought it would be a swell idea to ignore my better judgement and tie the knot with my boyfriend of three years…I know, right?
To be fair, though, I am grossly oversimplifying the situation. It wasn’t just a case of this naïve, stubborn young adult trying to put her parents in line for a coronary. There were a lot of complicating factors at play and although I’m making light of it now, it wasn’t so funny at the time.
Up until recently, if you asked me about my marriage, I would have told you that we were just too young and immature. I understood that our relationship was unhealthy, but more like in a silly, look-how- young-and-naive-we-were kind of way. We both had our issues and we were both very insecure. It was us against the world and we tried to save each other, which we all know is a fantastic foundation for a happy, healthy relationship. Cough.
However, now that I find myself exploring all these situations in the light of more recent insights, I find myself thinking: Wait a minute...what was going on here?!
So, when I was 16, I met this guy. For privacy’s sake, let’s call him Ben. We met online via MSN profiles, as one did in the early 2000’s, and after chatting back and forth for a while we met up for egg-salad sandwiches at the HEMA one afternoon while I was out shopping with my friends. Oh yes, it was every bit as romantic as it sounds. Admit it, you’re totally jealous.
At that age, I’d never had a serious boy- or girlfriend before and I couldn’t imagine anyone being interested in me like that. Years of bullying and abuse had rendered me socially awkward, anxious and ‘mature for my age’, or as they call it today: traumatized. I had a hard time connecting with people my age, or relating to other human beings in general. So, when it came to casting a line out into the dating pool…no thanks, I think I’ll pass.
Secretly, though, I did long to find someone who knew me through and through, and loved and accepted me anyway. I fantasized about a knight in shining armour who would whisk me away from the world in which I felt so out of place. Ideally, this fantasy person would also magically know my every thought, need and emotion without me having to say a word, and they’d appear and disappear with the snap of my fingers. Because lord knew I was bloody awful at communicating my needs and setting boundaries, and as much as I longed for closeness, I also balked at the nearest sign of intimacy or vulnerability. So, logically, if I somehow managed to find myself an omnipotent, mind-reading wizard, I wouldn’t have to do either of those things. Problem solved.
The odds weren’t in my favour on that front, though. And so, it came to pass that at sixteen years old, I’d already pretty much resigned to being alone for the rest of my life. Unless, of course, Orlando Bloom magically turned up on my doorstep…
But then the day came that I opened the spam folder in my Hotmail account and stumbled upon a message that would change my life. All of a sudden there was this sweet, cool guy with long blonde hair and a leather jacket, a musician, six years older than myself …and by some miracle, he was interested in me. We had long, deep MSN conversations for hours each day, sometimes into the wee hours of the morning. I’d never felt such a connection before. We soon discovered that we lived in the same town, we had mutual friends and we’d unwittingly crossed paths on various occasions. It seemed as though the stars were bringing us together, and I just couldn’t believe my luck.
On a Sunday afternoon near the end of summer break, Ben took me to the Amsterdam parade for our first official date. I never really went out and I didn’t leave my tiny little world often, let alone by myself. Quite frankly, I’d never even used public transport before, bar one train ride with my mum. The whole experience felt so liberating; it touched a desire in me that I’d had since I was a little girl: to grow up as fast as possible, get out on my own and live my own life. Ben was giving me a taste of the freedom that I so longed for.
I specifically remember cycling to the train station together, because my bike broke down. Something was dragging, making it very hard to generate speed without busting a lung. I worried that we’d miss our train, when Ben suddenly placed his hand on my back and proceeded to propel me forward for the remaining 4km, stating with a smile: “Don’t worry, I don’t mind cycling for two.”
We made it there on time, and as we stood and watched the street artists, he put his arm around me and I felt butterflies explode throughout my stomach. Then again, I was so nervous I suppose it could also have been an oncoming bout of explosive diarrhoea. I was quiet and shy, and internally I beat myself up for not being more fun and sociable. Ben was really nice to me though.
Thankfully, I did make it home without shitting myself, though my insides were so twisted that I couldn’t even stomach the dessert that my parents had left in the fridge for me for when I got back. I was so overwhelmed, utterly infatuated and scared shitless…
I left on a school excursion the very next day and although I was very excited about it before, I was now horrified at the idea of being away for an entire week without internet access. I brought my old brick of a Motorola so that we could keep in touch via text, but having never really used a cell-phone for social purposes, I didn’t even think to bring a charger. This ultimately led to a massive cliff-hanger type situation as the battery died just after Ben asked me whether he should interpret my aloofness the other day as disinterest.
Crap! What if he thought I’d ghosted him, or lost interest? What if he lost interest in me? What if someone else came along and snatched him up while I was gone? My heart pounded in my throat as I used my last percent of battery-power to look up his number and jot it down. And then I ran off to beg my friend to let me borrow her phone. Being the awesome wing-woman she was, she handed it over wilfully and peered over my shoulder as I typed, deleted, typed and deleted until I’d found the perfect words to convey that I was interested, but scared. He responded with relief and understanding, and we agreed to see each other again as soon as possible.
Things moved pretty quickly after that first date.
With my Nokia 3310 stashed in my pencil case, we’d shoot text messages back and forth as I yawned my way through my highschool chemistry classes. My MSN status was a billboard for cryptic hints towards my feelings for him, because in the good old’ Messenger days, there was no better way to catch your crush’s attention than to bombard your entire social network with cringy status notifications as you repeatedly logged on and off in hopes that they’d see it.
Throughout the week, I’d email him letters and poems from my Hotmail account and he’d answer in sweet notes and song lyrics. Friday afternoons, I’d meet up with him at the conservatory where he studied and we’d duck into the rehearsal studio. While practicing assignments, he’d play on the grand piano and sing me Aerosmith songs as I stood there drooling over this awesome, long haired, rockstar. Ok, ok, musical theatre student. The only straight bloke in the entire department, actually, and just look who managed to bag him. Besides, he owned leather pants and performed in a rock band for a while before we met, so just let me have this one, ok?
So anyway, as time went on, my crush on Ben continued to grow. But at the same time, so did my hesitance. Part of me wanted nothing more than to romantically and dramatically collapse into his arms, but I was also terrified of attachment and equally terrified that I’d frighten him off. Every time I went to see him, I resolved to just get over myself and kiss him. But I always chickened out. So, for the first few weeks, we played push and pull as I wrestled with my conflicting feelings and he repeatedly assured me: “Don’t worry, I can be patient. You’re worth it.”
Dude, I can totally hear you dry heaving, can I offer you a little sick bag over there?
About three weeks after we met, Ben had this major audition coming up and he was feeling a bit under the weather. Having recently completed a Reiki course, I offered to give him a treatment in hopes that it’d make him feel better. He also had to braid his hair for the occasion, but he didn’t know how. So, obviously, being the absolute girly-girl (…) that I am, I offered to help him out.
Well, I can assure you that out of all the talents I hold in my possession, styling hair isn’t one of them. Yet somehow, my wonky braiding skills turned out the be the very thing that ended up sealing the deal. Ben was sat on the leather sofa in front of me as I leaned over him and dragged my brush through his golden locks. Upon finishing my work of art, I placed my hands on top of his head for the Reiki session I’d promised, when he suddenly turned around to face me. Before I knew it, his lips met mine and every ounce of fear or resistance I had left in me, dissipated.
From that moment on, we were officially a couple and practically inseparable. When he left for Germany to audition, I waited outside his house early in the morning to see him off. We texted non-stop whenever we were apart, and we we’d meet up whenever we were free. Since we were both in our final year with our respective studies, we were both very busy but we’d always find ways to combine our obligations with our time spent together. For example, I’d run lines and sing duets with him, and we’d tag along to each other’s rehearsals and performances. While he was sat at the computer in his bedroom writing his thesis, I’d be perched on his bed, studying for my finals.
Given the fact that Ben was so much older than I was, a whole new world opened up to me. I’d always felt out of place amongst my peers, but hanging out with Ben unlocked the door to the adult world and although I was embarrassed to be such a rookie, I found myself feeling like I finally belonged. I was enthralled with all these new places and experiences, finding them so much more interesting and significant than the stuff that I was expected to care about at my age. Granted, Ben wasn’t as independent and mature as I’d initially expected him to be; he still lived at home, he didn’t know how to drive, cook or sew a button back onto his shirt, his mother gave him his vitamin tablets every day and sometimes he’d catch me off guard with naïve or childish ideas and behaviour. But he was still miles ahead of the people I normally surrounded myself with, and it was a relief.
Through Ben I met many interesting new people, most of them quite a bit older than I. They all welcomed me with open arms and treated me as an equal, our interactions and conversations a breath of fresh air compared to the teenage drama that I encountered on a daily basis.
Sometimes, Ben would cycle over to pick me up from school and my classmates would tease, squealing: Hey, your hairy old man is here! But I didn’t care what anybody thought. I felt special, like I belonged to an exclusive club and I knew something they didn’t. I just smiled, and ignored them.
When Ben and I met, I was surprised at how much we had a lot in common. Not only did we live in the same town; we’d gone to the same primary school, he had performed in a show with my best friend’s mother, we had many mutual interests and we shared quite a few life experiences. We bonded over music in particular, but we also shared the experience of being ‘different’ amongst our peers and we’d both been through some shit. We talked a lot about our experiences, and for the first time in my life, I really felt heard and understood. That was completely new to me.
I told him about some of the abuse and the bullying I’d endured throughout my childhood, and he told me about a painful break up with his previous girlfriend. He’d been so crazy about her that he’d given her a ring for their one-year anniversary, but she dumped him soon after. He was so devastated that he came home and grabbed a knife from the kitchen drawer, contemplating suicide.
He also told me about a few other experiences and shared some secrets with me that will come into play later on, suffice to say they made a big impact on his life and I felt for him. I felt honoured that he’d entrusted me with those things, and I was certain that he needed me as much as I needed him.
A few months into our relationship, I began struggling more and more with depressive episodes. One evening, I’d joined Ben to his choir rehearsal and throughout the evening I found myself being increasingly plagued by flashbacks and particularly dark feelings. As we cycled home from the station, I grew more and more quiet until I eventually started crying. Ben pulled me over and asked me what was wrong. When I told him about the memories, he took my face into his hands and told me that nobody should ever have treated me like that and that I deserved better. It felt so good to finally be able to share my world with someone, and have someone care about me like that.
We both had our issues with ‘the world’, I guess, and in sharing our deepest secrets, fears and dreams, we turned to each other and clung on for dear life. He’d tell me that I had healed him and he couldn’t live without me. I felt that way too, as though he’d taken away the emptiness I’d always felt inside and made me whole. We soon fell into this “us against the world” kind of dynamic which, in retrospect, is kind of a red flag right there. We quickly became symbiotic to an unhealthy degree, but I was so infatuated that anyone who doubted us was automatically categorized as part of the world that we were rejecting. I truly believed that I’d found my soulmate, and I felt compelled to prove to everyone how real it was, even when the cracks began to appear.
The first six months of our relationship, I was on cloud nine. Utterly smitten with my knight in shining armour, we did everything together. We had fun, shared joy and sorrow and we looked out for each other. Ben was the one I ran to when things got rough at home, or when my mind got the better of me. He made me feel special, seen, safe and loved. He had given me a taste of the life that I wanted to have; a life that was my own, free from the invisible shackles that bound me to the guilt, the unspoken rules and the expectations that my family imposed on me. A life free from the past that clung to my bones and dragged me under from time to time. And free from the loneliness that I’d buried deep inside myself, where I could pretend that it didn’t exist. With Ben at my side, I didn’t have to deal with my social anxiety because I had found the only person that mattered. And I didn’t have to fear the future out in that big, scary world that I didn’t feel equipped or prepared for. We could face that world together.
Before Ben, all of that stuff was a quiet but constant hum in the back of my mind. Occasionally it would get a little too loud, and I’d shove it back down to a place where I could ignore it and get on with my life. I avoided intimacy and genuine connection, feeling most safe when I was alone and taking care of my own needs. That way, I didn’t have to rely on anyone or face any of my unresolved trauma. But now that I’d opened myself up to Ben, somehow the floodgates had opened and I couldn’t close them again, even if I wanted to. I couldn’t go back to the way I’d lived before.
On our six-month anniversary, Ben presented me with a ring. It was gold and white gold, with a little diamond set into the intricate design. I was so flattered by this gesture that the fact that the ring used to belong to his ex-girlfriend, didn’t bother me at all. It even fit me perfectly, almost like it was a sign or something. I guess you could say I now have a different interpretation of what that ‘sign’ was. But at the time, I really believed that we were made for each other.
Soon after that milestone, however, things began to change. Once we’d moved through the initial lovey-dovey phase and the butterflies began to die down, I started noticing little things that bothered me, or that didn’t seem quite right. But it all happened so slowly and subtly that it threw me off kilter, questioning the accuracy and validity of my own feelings and observations. After all, it just spiralled out of control with time. I should’ve taken my feelings and doubts seriously, but I was young, stubborn and in the proud possession of some nifty, pink tinted glasses that conveniently turned all those pesky red flags into…just flags.
The first time I had feelings of doubt surrounding our relationship, which was actually not long after the six-month mark, I was absolutely horrified. A jolt of guilt, shame and terror slammed through my chest and I shut those feelings down as fast as I could. After all, the unnamed gods had graced me with an unimaginable gift; someone who loved me for who I was, despite my inherent undesirability. And now my feelings for him were waning?! What the hell was wrong with me?!
Ben loved me, I loved him, we were perfect for each other and if I was stupid enough to ruin it, it would be my own fault if I was alone forever. This was a one-time offer, take it or leave it.
I was terrified of my own feelings, or the lack thereof, and I did everything I could to hide them from myself, Ben and the rest of the world. Whenever I found myself feeling hurt, bothered or annoyed by something he’d said or done, I shoved it down. Every time I noticed that I didn’t feel as much for him as he apparently did for me, I turned to rationalization in hopes that my brain could eventually convince my heart. I held on for dear life, and it would eventually cost me dearly.
In retrospect, this response makes a lot of sense. I was raised in a household where feelings were a no-go and conflict or uncomfortable topics were avoided at all costs. My narcissistic father had no tolerance for thoughts, needs, feelings or opinions that challenged his own, conditioning me to question myself at every turn and do everything within my power to maintain the status quo. He also taught me that thoughts or feelings were only valid if you could back them up with proof; rock solid rational reasoning and iron clad arguments. With all this guilt, shame, self-loathing and -doubt constantly snapping at my heels, I was easily thrown off course and my incessant fear of losing love drove me to do things that I didn’t really stand for at all. In my relationship with Ben, it’s obvious to me now that I was falling into and recreating patterns that I was familiar with.
One of the first things that attracted me to Ben, was the fact that he was older than me. That may sound strange, but as I said before, I didn’t really mesh well with my peers. We were on a different wave length, had different life experiences, values and interests. Thus, with Ben being six years older than myself, I had certain expectations regarding his level of maturity, his lifestyle, his behaviour, etc... You see, in my sixteen-year-old mind, twenty-three meant that you had it together and you knew what the hell you were doing. Yeah, I know, I now look back at that assumption and laugh my ass off, but you have to understand my frame of reference. My mum was twenty-three when she had me, and she had four kids before she turned thirty. So, in my mind, anyone above the age of twenty was a full-fledged adult with a house, a car, a job…and who generally had their shit together. Hence my surprise when I learned that Ben had none of those things.
Granted, he was a musical theatre major in line for graduation, but he didn’t have a clue what he actually wanted to do with his life. He didn’t know how he was going to make a living and he’d basically given up on theatre already when he was turned down for that big audition. He was still living with his parents and didn’t have a driver’s license, nor the intention to get one. He didn’t know how to cook or do laundry, and his mum still laid out his vitamins and reminded him to take them every day. Now, of course, these are superficial things that I quickly brushed aside as I got to know him better. But as time went on, I began to see other indications that Ben was by far not as mature as I thought. In fact, I gradually discovered many more ways in which he wasn’t at all the person I thought he was at the beginning of our relationship....
To be continued.
At the end of my previous blog, I mentioned that I had the feeling that my escape plan had gone a little too well, and I was just waiting for the other shoe to drop. Well, if ever I needed more proof that a gut-feeling is always right…
I also mentioned that at the time, I had no intention of removing my father from my life entirely; I was all for finding a way to have a somewhat normal relationship with him, although in retrospect it’s probably a bit naïve to think that it’s even possible to have a healthy relationship with a pathological narcissist who sees no fault in their ways.
After leaving NLPro, I thought I’d be ok. I thought we’d be ok. Clearly, it wasn’t the end of the story, otherwise I wouldn’t be sitting here writing another part to this already insanely long tale. So, what changed…?
THE STRAP BOX FLYER
Have you ever heard the story of the Strap Box Flyer?
I hadn’t thought of it in years, but after I began to see my father for who he was, a short story that my primary school teacher once read to me, randomly popped back into my mind. I’ll try to give you the cliff notes version, but the last time I heard it was at least 25 years ago, so bear with me…
The story is about a bloke called Giffen, who everyone thought was slightly mad, but he was interesting so they watched him anyway. Giffen had invented an absurdly strong glue, the only catch being that the glue only worked for four hours. Wanting to sell it anyway, Giffen travelled to various towns and told everyone how amazing it was, selling them the special glue and making sure that he was long gone before anyone discovered that they had been duped. One day, while on the road, he met an inventor who had created a flying machine he called a Strap Box Flyer. Giffen was intrigued, and when the inventor invited him for a test flight, Giffen secretly decided that he was going to try to steal the machine. So, mid-air after a few hours of flying around, Giffen was about to fly off when the inventor told him: “I only made two, but I gave you the best one, built with your special glue”.
To which the machine suddenly began to creak and grind, until it fell apart and Giffen came crashing down to the ground. Karma, bitch…
I guess it’s not all that strange that this story came to mind; it may as well have been about my father. And it sort of describes how life felt for me after I figured out what was going on. It was like my life had been put together with the glue my father sold me, and now it was suddenly falling apart at the seams. And since I wasn’t sure which parts of my personality, my world view and my life were being held together by that glue, I couldn’t predict whatever would be the next thing to come crashing down. I suppose the best way I could describe it, is that I went through a kind of existential crisis. Unable to distinguish which of my memories were real, which of my thoughts, feelings, habits, or opinions were my own and which of them had been unwittingly and unwillingly engrained into my system through years of manipulation and abuse, I no longer knew who I was. Quite like the hero in a good vs. evil movie who discovers that they have a dark side, I often asked myself whether that meant that I was actually a bad person, and I found myself wondering how I could possibly trust myself, let alone anyone else.
For a long time, the events that occurred left me feeling numb. Stunned at how the rug had been pulled out from underneath me, I felt unsafe in the world and in myself. I felt utterly lost. Occasionally, I’d awaken from that stupor only to be engulfed by a tsunami of emotions. Old wounds that I’d worked so hard to heal were torn open and trauma that I wasn’t even aware existed began to (re)surface. Oscillating between numbness and complete flooding, my old suicidal thoughts were back with a vengeance and they were having a field day. Suffice to say, I was having a hard time.
Never the less, I put on a brave face to the outside world and forced myself to keep going. To be honest, I wanted nothing more than to curl up and hide from everyone and everything, or at the very least just give it all a rest until I’d taken the time to process and get back on my feet. But I couldn’t do that; there were bills to be paid, and now that everything had fallen away, I had to do anything within my power to regroup, reroute and survive. There was simply no time to waste on moping around. I also felt an immense pressure to succeed. To show everyone, myself and my father included, that I could make it with or without his help.
And so, I dove into getting Soulfire off the ground, working my ass off to create something from almost nothing. I continued coaching and drawing new clients in, I created and organized a buttload of workshops, struck up partnerships, wrote articles and posts online, forced myself to get out there and network… From the outside, you’d think I was motivated as fuck and doing well. But on the inside, I was really struggling. Soulfire had become like a minefield riddled with triggers, and working on what had once been my dream had become a tremendous source of anxiety and inner turmoil. As hard as I tried to convince myself that this was what I had to do, and what I wanted to do, it didn’t feel right anymore. My heart was no longer in it, but I wasn’t ready to let it go just yet.
There were many factors, both practical and emotional, that kept me stuck between a rock and a hard place. Trapped in a cycle of feeling uncomfortable with what I was doing, wanting to be honest and authentic, and yet forcing myself to do those things anyway.
For starters, I was completely marinated in shame. I was ashamed of how gullible and naïve I’d been, despite all the warning signs. I’d made some pretty bold choices and worked very hard to ignore all the doubts and convince everyone of how excited and confident I was about the whole plan. And now look where I’d ended up…I could already feel their I-told-you-so’s hanging over my head.
Even more so, I was ashamed of the things I’d said and done under my father’s watch, my blind faith in his knowledge, skill and intentions leading me to act and present myself in ways that didn’t always fall in line with my values. Taking recent insights into account, I looked at my life and wondered how much bullshit I’d internalized and reproduced over the years without even knowing it. There was a good chance I’d made a complete fool of myself, which was bad enough, but what if was actually hurting people without realizing it?
Considering how much influence my father had had on me, the setup of my business and the development of my skills, that wasn’t entirely unthinkable. I’d been faking it till I made it, just like he said, doing things I was unsure of and taking many of his tips and tricks to heart. And up until now, he’d always been there to back me up and to convince me I was doing fine. But now that I knew who was talking, I doubted myself more than ever. Sure, I was certified and all, but hey, so was my father, so apparently that wasn’t a good measure of character or competence.
My insecurities had me worried that I was doing more harm than good, or that I’d eventually do something wrong and get called out and shunned for it. At the same time, given the state of my own life and my mental health, I didn’t feel like the right person to be helping others to get their shit together. I was doing the best I could to practice what I preached, but I mostly felt like a fraud. And to make matters worse, I found myself getting triggered by my clients and their input, which is not a healthy place to work from. Both coaching and training required me to be grounded, unbiased, open and authentic. But in the midst of my own trauma response, I couldn’t be any of those things, even with the smallest query. All this should have been enough reason for me to stop working for a while until I figured stuff out, but at the same time, what else was I supposed to do?
I really wanted to take a step back and rest. I wanted to talk about what was going on, find support, take the time to process this shit, heal and move on. But aside from the fact that I literally couldn’t afford to miss any work, I was also terrified of what the consequences might be if I opened my mouth. Painfully aware of the stigma around having issues of your own when you work in the mental health field, I was scared that I’d be judged for how horrid I felt and how badly I was coping, and mostly for not being able to solve this myself. That certainly wouldn’t be good advertising. Not that I even wanted to draw in more clients at this point; I felt guilty enough for continuing to work for my own selfish needs, despite my doubts surrounding my capabilities. But somehow, after having lost so much already and without a viable alternative in place, I was stubbornly clinging for dear life to what was left of the hopes and dreams I’d started out with.
Other people’s opinions aside, the main thing that kept me silent was the fear of my father. If I suddenly closed Soulfire, albeit temporarily, people would start asking questions. And I wanted so badly to tell people what had happened, for so many reasons. I was carrying the weight of the world on my shoulders, swallowing down all the pain he’d caused and keeping everything to myself. Not to mention, it killed me to see people still going to my father for help, while I knew how much harm he could do. I wanted to scream the truth, but I was gagged. I was terrified of what he might do if he found out that I’d been talking. Our status quo was precarious and I didn’t dare awaken any sleeping dogs. So, I kept my mouth shut, and I kept trudging on.
Rationally, I really believed that what had happened was fundamental and important. A paradigm shift for which I’d be better off in the long run, after I’d processed it all and resolved the practical issues, of course. But emotionally, I felt like I was staring death in the eyes, day after day.
OH HELL NO
As December edged closer and closer, that feeling of apprehension gnawing at my gut grew stronger. Things seemed peaceful, but I knew from experience that the weather could change at the drop of a hat and it had been a little too quiet for far too long. If I could make it through to January without waking the dragon, I was pretty sure I’d be home safe. But that meant I still had about two months on the clock in which I had to keep the boat steady; I had a few outstanding tasks left with NLPro, and lord knew that I needed those payments to bridge the gap until we got back from New Zealand and I was free to get myself a new job. Not to mention, we still had to make it through four weeks on each other’s lip and I was determined to make that trip worthwhile, which wouldn’t happen if we were at each other’s throats.
So, for the next couple of weeks I pushed on, walking on eggshells so as not to disturb the peace, and honestly, I thought I was doing a pretty good job. My father and I seemed to be on good terms, though I admit I had been limiting our interactions and keeping it very superficial. Things with Soulfire also seemed to be getting better. I was getting back on my feet, and with new people, plans and prospects, I was starting to have a little more faith in my ability to climb out of the pit.
As for our upcoming trip…For the longest time, I’d been afraid that it wouldn’t happen. After all, my father didn’t have the best track record when it came to keeping promises. It wouldn’t be the first time that he invited me and hyped me up, only for something to get in the way later on. In fact, in 2018 he even had me clear my agenda and pick out our tickets so that he could book them, only to text me the next morning that he’d decided to take my mother instead. Granted, we already had our tickets booked for this upcoming trip, but with everything that had happened over the past year, I was still a little apprehensive.
Anyhow, with our date of departure drawing near, we’d been working out our itinerary. There were a few specific things that I really wanted to do, which I booked and paid for myself. But for the most part, I just was just excited to be there. I was most excited about mundane things like hearing people talk in that recognizable accent, seeing our old houses and going to the supermarket. My father took care of the other stuff as promised, booking a rental car and all the accommodations on his credit card. He went for the non-refundable option so that our bookings were fixed, not even bothering with cancellation insurance. He saw no reason for it; he was certain that we’d be going, no matter what. My mum later convinced him to get that insurance after all, but he didn’t tell me that.
The idea of spending four weeks alone with my father did make me a little nervous, but as our plans filled out and our departure drew closer, I was actually starting to see it as an opportunity to put our differences aside, have a good time together and maybe even do some bonding. And as our itinerary took form and I could picture it in my mind, I started to loosen up and I even dared to start looking forward to it. In fact, I clung to a vision of myself celebrating Christmas on the beach under a Pohutukawa tree. I clung to it for dear life, because after everything I’d already lost and all the stress and pain that I’d been through over the past year, I needed just one good thing that made it at least semi-worthwhile.
Quitting school seemed like the worst decision I’d ever made, but at least I could see the summer in my homeland, which I wouldn’t have been able to do if I were still teaching. So, there was that, and for now, it was enough.
My last stand-in training date for NLPro approaching, I was yearning to tie up those loose ends and move on. As I thought about how I was about to regain my independence and rebuild my life, I noticed that I was starting to feel a bit lighter. I planned to start off by looking for a simple job, so that I could support myself financially as I further built up my own practice. Sure, I was well aware that it wasn’t going to be easy, but this was no time to lay down and give up. I had no choice but to believe in myself and make it work. Well, we all know murphy, and murphy had other plans.
Around half way through November, my brother and I met up with John to discuss the possibilities for a business partnership. Although he couldn’t afford to offer me a paid position as an assistant trainer, he was willing to mentor me somewhat and eventually refer specific clients to me.
It was a great opportunity, though I was really nervous about it, too. I trusted and valued John, and I knew that he wouldn’t bullshit me. Which is exactly why he scared me so much; it was a lot to lose if I fucked it up. As you may recall, I had many doubts about my capabilities since I’d found out about my father. Hell, I even doubted my own character. And working with an expert in the field who had seen through all of my crap from day one, meant that there was no room for faking or hiding. It meant putting myself in an incredibly vulnerable position, in order to learn and grow. That excited me, but it also scared me to death. I was worried that I’d accidentally show how my father had rubbed off on me. If I exhibited pieces of him, would I be cast out, written off?
Those fears don’t exactly give John much credit for his ability to see me for me, which he’d clearly already done in my favor, but let’s not forget that PTSD doesn’t really listen to rational thought.
Anyway, we also struck up a deal that if my brother and I promoted his training courses in my workshops, we’d receive a commission for each new client that signed up. I’d previously had a similar deal with my father, although he never actually paid us in the end; he usually claimed that he already knew the clients before we brought them in. Obviously, I’d stopped referring people to my father a long time ago, as I couldn’t endorse his practices and I just didn’t feel comfortable with it.
My clients often asked me for advice on where to take their next training, and I’d been sending them John’s way for quite some time as I fully supported his work and I wanted to be sure that they had the best possible experience. Also, most of my clients were located in our area, so it just made more sense. Of course, I didn’t tell my father that, for fear of repercussions. But since I was almost free from NLPro and he had given me his blessing to start venturing out, I didn’t think he had any reason to hold it against me. And if he did eventually kick up a fuss, I could always make it about location. John provided us with goodie bags and flyers to hand out, and I was really glad to be on board with him. I could now officially refer clients to a place that I was proud to be affiliated with, and our deal would help me out substantially in time. Although I was nervous, I was also really excited and hopeful that things might actually work out for the best after all.
But then, about two weeks later, on the evening before that last training date, I received a message that made my heart drop. Omitting any details, my father sent me a vague text in which he mentioned that he’d gotten some bad news, and that our trip might be in trouble.
As you can imagine, I immediately went into stress-mode and wanted to know more, but he wouldn’t answer any of my questions. So, I waited in agony for another day or two, but still no news. Every time I asked about it, he dodged the topic. I was getting more and more nervous as the date of departure drew closer and I still didn’t have any information as to what action I may need to take. Eventually, I couldn’t take the tension anymore and I asked my mum if she knew what was going on.
And she dropped a bombshell: my father had lost his appeal in the long-running court case over his bankruptcy, and he now had to pay a massive sum of money. He’d always assumed that he’d win the case, going for appeal after appeal every time things didn’t go his way, but this time it seemed like the end of the road. And right now, he wasn’t even allowed to leave the country.
Hearing this, I panicked. Although our tickets were paid for, virtually everything else had been booked by non-refundable deferred payment. And as far as I knew, there was no cancellation insurance. Meaning; whether we went or not, someone was going to have to pay up. And with both our names on those bookings, if my father was indeed bankrupt, my broke and jobless ass would be the next in line to fulfill our obligations. Weighing out my options, it looked like I was screwed either way and I had only two weeks left on the clock to come up with a viable solution. The weirdest part was that with everything that was at stake and with time being of the essence, he still hadn’t told me what was going on himself. It was almost as though he didn’t want me to find a solution.
So, without telling him that I already knew, I asked him again what was going on. I suppose I wanted to see how long he was planning to drag this out, because it was starting to feel like he was keeping me in the dark on purpose. It had been three days since his original message, and we were supposed to be leaving thirteen days later. So, I pushed a little harder. Finally, he cracked and spilled the beans, blurting out that he couldn’t go and I needed to find someone else.
You’d think I might have felt bad for him, but by now I was just plain pissed off. His current predicament was his own fault, but it seemed that he wanted to drag us all down with him. All this time, he’d refused to tell me anything and he probably would’ve kept that up until the last minute, leaving me with too little time to sort it out. And the possibility of losing the one thing that had been keeping me going all this time, was only a small drop in the tsunami of rage that I felt. What’s worse was that he was clearly willing to risk dragging me into debt along with him, ruining my life all over again without even giving it a second thought. By now, he’d already taken so much from me that I simply wasn’t willing to let him steal this last little glimmer of hope as well. I was prepared to fight for it, but I knew that I had to be tactful about it.
Once I’d gotten my bearings, I got back to him so that we could calmly discuss our options. I can’t say I was surprised at how he flipped back into savior-mode, promising me that he was willing to go above and beyond to make it possible for me to go anyway. Looking back, I think he was fully aware that I couldn’t afford to go alone and that his ticket was non-transferrable, but none the less he told me that if I could find another travel partner, he’d gladly transfer his ticket to them. So, I told him that I’d try to find someone who was willing to split the cost, and I asked him to check with the booking agency whether his ticket was transferrable, which he agreed to do.
Two days later, I found my youngest brother ready to jump in. He was even willing to pay for the transfer fee, as long as he got a definitive answer from my father within a few days. That way, he could still make arrangements for time off work. It was a win-win situation; my brother and I could go to New Zealand, we’d split the costs between us, none of our bookings would go to waste and my father would be absolved of all costs apart from the original ticket, saving us both any unnecessary debt. However, when I told him the good news, he still hadn’t sorted it out. Frustrated, I hopped onto google myself, found all the necessary info and steps to be taken, passed on the information to my father and even sent him a link to the exact page where he could take care of it…but he didn’t. Instead, he deflected with a guilt-trip, whining: “Do you really expect me to pay for everything, now that I’m not going? I’m in severe financial trouble right now and it really hurts that you’re asking me for money instead of asking me how I am.”
Remaining factual, I reminded him that I was going to be paying my half of the travel expenses and my brother had offered to pay for the transfer fee along with his half. The only money that he would actually lose, was the non-refundable ticket itself which he had already paid for months ago, when he decided against getting a cancellation insurance. To me, it seemed like the best-case scenario in a shitty situation. But my father wasn’t done with me yet.
What ensued was a tantrum that looked a lot like an alligator in a death-roll, as he clamped down and jerked me around, pummeling me from all angles with every manipulation tactic he could muster in a frantic attempt to regain control. One minute he’d talk down to me in a condescending tone as though I ware an unruly adolescent, the next he’d be sulking about how we were casting him out and I needed to let him in. Then, switching positions yet again, he’d point the finger and exclaim that we both had our part in this fucked up situation and I needed to own up to my faults, followed by putting on his cape a few seconds later and presenting himself as the hero who was willing to do absolutely anything and everything to give me what I wanted and make me happy.
It was a sad and infuriating shitshow that would have rattled me, had I not recently learned to recognize each maneuver for what it was and see through this bullshit. Sure, he was dead serious, but I’d already come to a point where I’d rather laugh than cry about it, and from my new detached point of view it was actually quite hilarious. My father, unaware of this shift in me, was still swinging around like a shadow-boxer and arrogantly counting his points without actually checking to see if his punches had landed at all. As he kept switching back and forth between victim, hero and prosecutor rolls, I did nothing other than textually ‘smile and nod’ without throwing him any bones whatsoever.
My friend, who just so happened to be over at my house that evening, read along with the messages and saw the whole thing play out in real-time as we shook our heads in disbelief and bewilderment.
Eventually, my father had apparently convinced himself that he’d accomplished his mission, signing off with some cheesy, covertly gloating and condescending statement about how he was glad that we’d talked it out and come to an understanding. Staring at the screen of my phone, all I could do was roll my eyes and laugh at the irony and the sheer what-the-fuck-ness of the whole situation. His lack of empathy and social intelligence rendered him blind to the fact that his tactics had failed, as he had read my disengagement and sarcasm as genuine agreement. It seemed that this time, the tables had turned and the manipulator himself had been fooled.
Anyhow, since my father was still refusing to look into the ticket transfer, I eventually took matters into my own hands and contacted the agency. Unfortunately, it turned out to be a no-go; my brother couldn’t come along and I had to find another solution. Honestly, I considered giving up and cancelling, anxiety raging through my system as I thought about all the complicated and scary things I’d have to do if I decided to travel alone. Not to mention the fact that with what little savings I had, I was still around two grand short. But deep down, I knew that I had to go, no matter what.
You see, this trip to New Zealand was no longer a mere consolation for everything I’d been through, nor was it just a cool holiday or a trip down memory lane. It had quickly become so much more than that. For my own health and safety, I needed to extract myself from the situation I was in, leave my environment and distance myself from my father as far as I possibly could. I had to escape in order to breathe, process and plan my next move. And not only that; I felt like I was on the cusp of a personal breakthrough. My upbringing had left me feeling chronically unequipped to handle life in this big scary world, which often held me back in life and left me vulnerable to people with less than honorable intentions. I needed to get out there on my own and face my fears, thus proving to myself that I was my own person, capable of living my own life and fending for myself without my dad there to swoop in and save me. I had to break free, and it was now or never.
So, scared shitless and motivated as fuck, I was doing everything I could to figure something out. But with just 1.5 weeks left on the clock and still no viable solution in sight, my chances weren’t looking too rosy. None of my attempts to scrape together the necessary funds had been particularly fruitful, and although I wasn’t planning to throw in the towel just yet, I was feeling pretty desperate when I confided in a friend who proposed that I set up a Crowdfunding campaign.
Initially, I brushed the idea aside as I was certain that it would piss people off. And I couldn’t blame them. I mean, considering the fact that I still couldn’t tell anyone exactly what was going on, all people would see was a context-less campaign that looked a hell of a lot like I was just randomly begging for holiday money. It wasn’t a good look, and considering the large amount of cash needed and the limited time available, I didn’t think it would work anyway. Why would it?
But you know what they say: desperate needs call for desperate measures. It was ten days before take-off, all my other efforts had been to no avail and at this point I had nothing left to lose. Swallowing my pride, I decided that it was time to ask my network for help. It was a long shot, but it was at least worth a try. And so, I began to write a campaign description, typing and deleting, typing, deleting, and typing some more until I had finally put together a carefully composed statement that provided enough context to convey my desperation without incriminating my father and potentially detonating the bomb that was still there, silently hanging over me. My hands were literally shaking as I clicked the upload button and watched it go live, expecting an avalanche of offended, berating comments to descend upon me at any minute…but to my astonishment, that’s not what happened.
Aside from one snarky comment which was quickly neutralized by a friend’s reply, help was flooding in from all angles in the form of supportive comments, link sharing and countless donations of all sizes. I was absolutely flabbergasted. Even people I hadn’t spoken to in years and people from whom I’d least expected it, were coming through for me. It warmed my heart to realize that I wasn’t as alone as I always felt. Amazingly, within less than 24 hours I had almost reached my goal!
In an interesting turn of events, my father, previously having shown no interest whatsoever in following through on his noble promise to ‘do anything he could to make sure that I could still go’, suddenly felt compelled to jump on the bandwagon before it was too late. Too late for the knight to make a grand gesture that would help to polish up his shining armor, I mean. Because despite all his efforts to keep me under his thumb, it was starting to look like I was actually going to be fine without him. And for someone with a savior-complex and an intense need to be liked, admired and needed in order to maintain an image and some semblance of control, we can’t have that now, can we…
Out of nowhere, my father popped up offering me an exorbitant sum of money that would essentially top off the Crowdfund. Given his current predicament, his offer was quite ridiculous, not to mention a tad suspicious. When I asked him about it, he just shrugged it off and said that he’d use the NLPro credit card, which was now registered to Amanda. My suspicion growing, I asked whether
Amanda had consented to this, which she had not. But my father was certain that she’d be fine with it. Naturally, I declined and told him to discuss it with her first. Judging by the discrete donation that showed up on my page later, she must have managed to talk some sense into him, thankfully.
None the less, it was a pretty weird situation considering his previous disinterest and refusal to cooperate. To me, it looked a lot like he’d been hit by panic stations. He’d clapped the dust off his hands and walked away from the ravage he’d created, marking the spot where he’d left me behind so that he could return at the perfect time to publicly pull me out from under the rubble, like a hero.
But he’d underestimated me, and by the time he noticed me climbing out, other people had already arrived on the scene and he was no longer needed; I was almost there. He saw me slipping through his fingers, along with the narrative he’d been trying to create. And with his nice-guy image wearing thin, he was suddenly willing to spring into action and take drastic measures to reinstate his position. And apparently, he was even willing to screw over his partner to achieve that. Either way, I was glad that I’d managed to avoid getting reeled back in to that co-dependent trap. I’d ignored the bait and warded him off without stirring up any drama, effectively taking another step towards my freedom.
No more than 48 hours after posting the campaign, tears of gratitude sprung into my eyes as I stared at my computer screen in utter disbelief: my Crowdfund had been successful, I’d reached my goal and then some. I couldn’t believe what was happening, and I sat there in silence with my jaw on the floor as my heart beat right out of my chest and I allowed the emotions to wash over me.
I guess my father was equally surprised that I’d pulled it off, immediately getting on social media to post a sickeningly sweet sob-story in which he expressed his undying gratitude to everyone who’d helped his beautiful daughter while he was incapacitated. It was a shrill contrast with the way he’d been acting and speaking to me throughout the entire ordeal, it reeked of damage control and I really had to bite my tongue as I watched people take the bait. Comments flowed in asking him what had happened, sending him hugs and kisses and even offering to donate extra money if that meant that he could go with me. Internally, I was screaming ‘NoOoOoOo!!!’, bile rising in my throat as all the emotions I’d repressed and all the crap I’d swallowed tried to force their way out into the open.
But as much as I wanted to call him out on his bullshit and expose his behavior, I kept my mouth tightly shut. I wasn’t in the clear yet. Still in close proximity to the bomb, I was terrified that I’d trip the switch before I’d made my way out of the nuke blast zone.
So instead, I chose to ignore him and focus on the positives: I was going to New Zealand! And I was going alone, yet supported by all the people in my life that cared about me. People who had my back, even when I couldn’t tell them what was going on. I felt warm and fuzzy with gratitude, a sparkle in my eye as I thought about the life-changing adventure that I was about to undertake.
THE LAST STRAW
I should have known the storm was coming when the clouds appeared. I felt it in the air, something was up. Counting down the days until my departure, I’d kept myself busy taking care of everything that still needed to be arranged now that I was heading out on my own. I’d gone out to buy a daypack and sunglasses, gotten my international driver’s license, taken care of insurance and made sure that I had all my documents in order. The thought alone that I’d be navigating unknown roads in a foreign place, driving a strange car whilst somehow remembering to stay on the left-hand side of the road…it scared the living shit out of me, but there was no turning back now. I was about to flex my wings and discover what I could do if there was nobody there for me to hide behind, and nobody to hold me back. Everything was looking good, but somehow, I still couldn’t quite believe or trust that it was really happening. It just wasn’t sinking in, and I couldn’t seem to shake the ominous feeling that something was about to go horribly, horribly wrong.
My last week at home, things remained uneventful and I almost thought I’d made it through to gauntlet unscathed. But just three days before departure, I opened my mailbox on my phone and saw an email from my father, addressed to both me, my youngest brother and John. My gaze fixed on the screen as my heart immediately leapt into my throat and I froze, contemplating whether or not I was going to open it. My brother didn’t leave me much time to think about it, though, almost giving me a heart attack when my phone suddenly started buzzing in my hand. The second I picked up, he exclaimed: “Have you seen it yet? Don’t read it. Just bin it.”
I steadied myself as my brother proceeded to explain what had happened. Earlier that day, he’d had a talk with my father. He’d asked all the questions that had been bugging him, requested the truth, and was taken by surprise when my father showed himself willing to oblige. They spent quite some time talking out their beef in what seemed to be an open and honest conversation, and after a while, my brother had gathered enough faith in the honorability of my father’s intentions to conclude that it was only fair if he reciprocated with full disclosure. And so, he told him about our new partnership with John. That turned out to be a big mistake.
Initially, my father’s reaction was very calm and reasonable. It didn’t seem to bother him at all. But no more than a few hours after they’d hugged it out and parted ways, the three of us were bombarded with an epic four-page rant in which he completely exploded and shredded us to bits.
Apparently, when he realized that he was no longer the center of my universe and he’d lost control over me as his pawn, the mask slipped and he effectively blew his own cover by breaking out into a full-blown narcissistic temper tantrum. It wasn’t pretty, but it was pretty damn telling and if I’d had any remaining doubts about my decision to step away, this told me exactly what I needed to know.
My father was clearly trying to elicit a reaction, but I refused to let him hoover me back in to a drama triangle with him. And so, I decided to take my brothers advice and leave the email unread.
I archived it for documentation purposes, but not before I’d run it past my coach and had her check if there was anything that required immediate action on my part. After all, a cat in the narrow can be dangerous, and I didn’t trust him one bit. If for example he’d threatened to sue me, harm me, hurt himself or cancel both our plane tickets out of spite, I needed to know about it.
After looking it over and sifting through all the bullshit, my coach reported back to me with the cliff-notes version and assured me that there was nothing in there to be taken to heart. Just a lot of emotional blackmail, finger pointing, blame shifting and self-pity, along with a laughable attempt to pit us all against one another. Long story short, he was accusing John of brainwashing his children and turning them against him out of jealousy, he made my brother out to be naïve and dishonest, and he was accusing me of being a selfish bitch who had only used him for money. And he himself, he was the poor, innocent, loving father whose only fault was that he’d been too trusting, leading others to use him for his kindness. He’d only ever loved us and wanted the best for his family, but we’d all screwed him over and ruined his life. Woe. Is. Me.
Lashing out like an animal backed into a corner, he was practically foaming at the mouth, loudly hissing and snapping with the intention to intimidate and scare me back into line. And if he couldn’t control me directly, he could at least get to me through the people around me, which is probably why he dragged John into this as well. Unfortunately, my father’s outburst did result in John backing out of our partnership, knocking me back substantially and uprooting my future yet again. I did understand John’s decision, though. I mean, imagine you were just starting a new relationship with someone and their crazy ex suddenly showed up on your doorstep with a baseball bat…you’d probably back out, too. Even if there had been potential, it wouldn’t be worth losing your livelihood over, right?
If indeed it was my father’s intention to scare me shitless, his tactic was working. My legs were wobbly, my hands were shaking and I was utterly terrified. But no matter how scared I was, I refused to play the game and this time, I wasn’t going to budge. I’d probably read the email somewhere down the line as my curiosity would likely get the better of me, but for now I needed to keep a level head in order to avoid getting swept up in the chaos that he was intentionally creating.
And so, taking a deep breath, I tucked the email out of sight and sat down to contemplate the best course of action. I could just sit back and wait to see what would happen, or I could put on my big girl pants and pluck up the courage to take the reins and stand up for myself.
Call me crazy, but deep down I still harbored the silent hope that if I offered him a chance to redeem himself, he’d take it. As his daughter, I just couldn’t wrap my brain around how he was able to treat own flesh and blood like a pawn, a mere possession that served only to further his own self-interests. I didn’t understand how he could tear me down, cast me aside and watch me struggle with the damage he’d caused, all without showing even the faintest mark of genuine regret or empathy.
Surely, if I approached him with kindness and understanding, we could figure this out. If I modelled healthier boundaries and communication, maybe he would pick up on it and eventually follow suit. And then maybe, just maybe, we could still fix this. But as much as I wanted to give him another chance, I was no longer willing to jeopardize my own welfare in the process. I still wanted a relationship with my father, but not at the expense of my wellbeing. And so, I decided that my olive branch would have to be accompanied by a very clear, firm set of boundaries. Should he choose not to respect them, it’d be my responsibility to hold up my end of the bargain by taking a step back.
And I wasn’t going to wait for him to come to me. If ever there was a time to get into the driver seat and take charge of my life, this was it. So, before I could chicken out, I whipped out my phone.
After taking a deep breath and planting my feel firmly on the ground, I contacted my father and let him know that I’d received his message, though I had chosen not to read it. Staying neutral, I explained as calmly as I could that I had considered that the wisest course of action, since his words had been written in anger after hearing only one side of the story, and he may have said things he’d regret later. I also reminded him of a conversation we’d had recently, about his tendency to jump to conclusions and run with them. At the time, he’d asked me to give him a heads up if I noticed him falling into that pattern, so that we could improve our communication. And so, I let him know that this was me giving him the signal, and offering an opportunity to work it out. Then, I asked him if there was something going on that he wanted to talk to me about. His reply: “Read the mail, I’m done listening to your bullshit. Take a real good look in the mirror.”
Not wanting to give it up right then and there, I took a moment to regroup and answered: “I’m not sure what’s going on, but the behavior you’re showing right now is not ok for me. I’m not going to read the email, as you’re running with your interpretation of one persons’ side of the story. The way you’re lashing out towards me, isn’t acceptable. So, I’m going to take a step back for now. My door isn’t closed, I still love you, I just need to take care of myself as well. I hope you understand and I hope that we can talk about this properly later on, when everything has died down a bit.”
I’m going to take some creative liberty in the translation of his Dutch messages, but his reply didn’t leave much room for interpretation, meaning something along the lines of: “Go fuck yourself, I’m pissed”. Not wanting to get dragged into slinging mud, I responded only to the latter portion of the sentence, telling him: “That’s ok, just don’t burn all your bridges in the middle of it. Love you.”
He must have noticed that his attempts to get a rise out of me, weren’t really getting him the reaction that he was hoping for, and in what seemed to be a ditch attempt to draw me out, he replied: “Then read the mail…if what your brother says is true…you both sold me out…you betrayed and used me…your brother was very clear about that…didn’t leave much room for interpretation…I have never been so angry in my life…I’ve been used.” By the way, if you’re wondering what’s with all the ellipses, your guess is as good as mine. For some reason, my father always types like he’s reciting a dramatic monologue in a soap opera whilst suffering an exceptionally wheezy asthma attack.
By now, it was quite clear to me that there was no getting through to him in this state, and I was not looking to serve as his punching bag, so I decided to round up the conversation. I told him: “Sounds like there’s a lot going on. I’m bummed that you didn’t come to me first, instead of drawing your own conclusions. That hurts me, too. I understand that you’re angry. Even if I’m not exactly sure what’s going on right now. And you can be angry, that’s totally fine. What’s not ok, is the way you’re choosing to act this out on us. So, I’m going to take my distance for now. We’ll talk about it some other time, when it has all died down. Take care Dad.”
He replied with: “Forget it. I’m so fucking angry and disappointed…you have no idea. And you’re choosing not to deal with it. So, forget it...” and I signed off with: “Ok, take care.”
My heart beating out of my chest, I finally exhaled and put my phone away. The frightened child in me was feeling overwhelmed by the urge to get straight back on the phone and start doing anything within my power to placate him and bring back the peace. But it was too late for that, and as uncomfortable and scary as this whole situation was, I couldn’t just unsee what I’d seen and go back to playing by the rules of his game. Right now, the status quo breaking apart, my father was on a warpath and I was the unfortunate bugger on the receiving end of his rage. There was no point in fighting it; in war, there are no winners. Frankly, the best thing I could do for either of us, was hold my ground, protect my boundaries and try to prevent further escalation while I let it run its course.
And in that, I had succeeded, which was a first for me. That was something to be proud of in itself!
As one could expect, my father didn’t stay away for long. Looking back, I shouldn’t have been surprised. After all, I knew this game like the back of my hand; if one approach doesn’t get you what you want, just switch it up until you find an angle that works. And if you get called out on any of your bullshit, just pretend it never happened. Needless to say, when my father popped back into my text messages the next morning, he was courteous, controlled and sweet as pie:
“Hey Caro, sorry I overreacted. I’m still really mad and angry but I should have handled this differently. I don’t want you to get on that plane while we’re fighting. You do have a lot of explaining to do, because the facts that your brother laid on the table really hit me like a bullet to the chest.”
Unable to gage whether he was genuinely remorseful or just changing up his approach, I replied as neutrally as I could, but held my ground all the same:
“Morning Dad. Thank you. As far as I’m concerned, we’re not fighting. I understand that you’re angry and hurt, that’s totally ok. At the same time, I see you lashing out in your anger while being blind to the damage you’re causing along the way. Your emotions are valid, it’s your behavior that’s not ok. I refuse to step into that drama triangle with you, since we both know that there are no winners there. There’s just a lot of damage being inflicted, and connection being broken. I don’t want that for myself, or for you. I want to communicate with you as equals, and that’s why I’ll step back when that isn’t possible. If I were standing in the pit with a bucking bronco, I’d go and stand behind the fence for a while. That’s safer and fairer to both parties. I also hope that you understand that this behavior contributes to my not feeling safe or free to share things with you. I have learned a lot over the years about my own boundaries and how to maintain them. I get that that can be hard for you, just know that it’s not “against” you, it’s just “for” me. And indirectly, it’s also for you. Because if I protect my boundaries, I can hold space for the both of us to be who we are. Like I said, I still love you. Even when I don’t accept an aspect of your behavior. And I hope that we can talk about this like adults somewhere down the line, when everything has calmed. Take care of yourself, I love you.”
We exchanged a few more superficial pleasantries before I eventually put my phone away, but it was with mixed feelings. My response had been very calm and rational, but on the inside, I felt torn. I’d basically just promised him that after my return, we would talk and hopefully make up. Part of me still hoped that we could work it out, and part of me even felt obligated to do so. After all, he was still my father and rationally I believed that that’s what I was meant to do. Or supposed to want. But somewhere deep down, yelling at the top of her lungs from a distance so far that I could barely make out what she was saying, a part of me was screaming: I’m done!
My gut, my heart and my brain clearly all had different opinions on the matter. But it would take a while longer for all that to process.
THE GREAT ESCAPE
On December 16th 2019, I finally boarded the plane and left for my homeland. Up until the very last second, my anxiety had been through the roof. Even after making it through security, safely boarding the aircraft and looking around to confirm that the people sitting on either side of me were in fact not my father, it wasn’t until we were actually up in the air and sailing through the clouds that I could finally draw a deep breath and drop some of that weight from my shoulders.
In those last couple of days before departure, I’d been absolutely terrified that my father would go into another frenzy and do something awful. I conjured up all kinds of disastrous scenarios in my head, such as arriving at the airport, only to discover that my father had secretly cancelled the tickets. I imagined him showing up at the airport to come along after all, or simply to verbally assault me in public. Not that he’d jeopardize his reputation like that, he prefers the covert route. Never the less, I couldn’t really relax until I was up in the air and far, far away from him.
On the other side of the world, alone with myself and with space to breathe, I finally began to process what had happened. And along the way, I came to some important realizations. For the past 33 years, I’d been the metaphorical frog in a pot of water, slowly being boiled alive. Now that I had removed myself from the pot, I was looking back and suddenly realizing how hot the water had actually been. Although I hadn’t really noticed while I was in the middle of it, I was severely burned.
During my first week in New Zealand, I sent out postcards to everybody, including my father.
My brain was still holding on to the notion that I had to reconcile with him when I got home. But as more time passed and more pennies dropped, I came to the conclusion that I didn’t want to get back into the pot and allow that boiling water to harm me any further.
I spent a lot of time just wandering through the forests, pondering and processing. The voice that shouted that I was done, became clearer. My father had gone much too far, and I’d allowed it to go on for far too long. He’d been violating my boundaries over and over for the past 33 years, and it was enough. This whole situation had been the final straw, it was time to do what was right for me.
Taking into consideration my father’s lack of insight and his unwillingness or inability to take responsibility for his behavior, I could not trust him to treat me better in the future. After all, he saw no wrong in his ways and he had proven this over and over. And so, it was up to me to finally do for myself what my younger self never got the chance to do: stand up for myself, and choose me.
I made the decision that I would not tolerate any more of his abuse; so long as he continued to cross my boundaries and cause harm without holding himself accountable or showing any change, I would keep my distance. That meant ending our relationship for the foreseeable future. And since previous vulnerable conversations had only ever resulted more manipulation and damage, I decided against having a “final conversation”, as that would only do more harm than good. Besides, despite what my father had always taught me to believe, I didn’t owe him anything.
And so, I solidified my decision: no more. It’s over. I’m out. I won’t contact him upon return, I’m breaking all contact indefinitely and moving on with my life. Silently closing off communication may seem cold or unfair, but it’s no worse than having a ground-zero type battle with someone who knows exactly what they did and refuses to acknowledge it. I was no longer willing to put myself in harm’s way, nor was I under any obligation to do so. I deserved better than that.
As a child, a teen and even as a young adult I remember hearing about people who weren’t speaking to their parents. I never understood that, and I even remember having conversations with people in which I tried to convince them to make amends. In retrospect, I don’t know if I ever really agreed with that, I was mainly repeating what I always heard society preach: blood is thicker than water and family goes above everything else, no matter what. Just think, how often do we condone toxic behavior from someone just because they happen to share a few genes with us, and how often do we tell people to let shit slide because ‘they’re still your family, you only get one and you’ll regret pushing them away once they’re no longer around.
I don’t subscribe to that notion anymore. If someone is consistently hurtful and damaging to your (mental) health and shows no intention to take responsibility for that, let alone change it…why on earth would you keep them around? Blood is no excuse; abuse is unacceptable either way.
Anyway, for the next four weeks I was on the other side of the world, experiencing what it was like to be my own person. I was learning to stand up for myself, and without anyone with me to hide behind, I was forced to do things I was afraid to do and I discovered that I was capable of a hell of a lot more than I’d always believed I was. Far away from the influence of anyone else’s thoughts or opinions on the matter, I was taking the time to reconnect with myself. Doing whatever I wanted to do, resting whenever I felt the need, feeling my feelings and learning to trust myself again. It was an amazing experience with all its ups and downs, and I valued every second of it.
THE HOME STRETCH
The decision to break contact with my father was by no means an easy one, let alone ‘the easy way out’. I felt completely broken inside, torn between what needed to be done for my own wellbeing and what my parental loyalty and conditioned guilt were telling me to do. I knew that the hardest part was yet to come, both practically and emotionally, and it was tempting to just try to fix everything and run back into that false security of what I knew. But as much as I just wanted to crawl into a ball and hide, I knew that giving up or turning back was not an option. So, I had to push on and create a life and a support network that didn’t include my father, and I had to get started right away.
Each day, I took some time off from being a tourist and took my laptop to a local coffeeshop while I prepared my resume and looked for job openings. After all, my father wouldn’t be paying out my last invoice with NLPro and he’d also blocked off my plans with John. There was nothing coming in, I’d poured the last of my savings into New Zealand and I knew that rent would be due by the time I got back. I had to find a job, and fast. So, my last week in New Zealand, I stayed in a tent at an old friends’ place and I sat in her back yard sending out job applications almost daily.
Just a few days before heading back home, I got a reply from an organic supermarket, inviting me for a job interview in the week after my return. So, I was feeling a little better about my prospects as the time came around that I pack up my gear and got ready for the long journey home.
I remember my last morning in New Zealand like it was yesterday. Everything inside me was screaming not to go, as I didn’t know what would be waiting for me when I got home. My future was one giant void, and here I was forcing myself to dive into it.
The plane took off and instantly, I was overcome by grief and terror. Tears were streaming over my face as I looked out the window, watching the trees and the familiar landscape grow smaller and smaller. People probably thought that I was afraid of flying, but in reality, I was terrified of going home. All I could think was that my life had fallen apart and I was about to leave this beautiful place far away from it all and return to ground-zero, not knowing what I would find, how I would make it through or where I was going to end up…
In the movies, this is usually where they end the story. There’s a shitty situation and some dramatic climax, the protagonist escapes and it’s all smiles and smooth sailing from there. Well, in reality, the hardest part doesn’t come until after all that. It’s out of the frying pan, and into the fire.
The entire framework of my life, my understanding of the world, people, myself…all of it had been flipped over, demolished, wiped out and scattered around. I’d have to rebuild this bitch from the ground up, and it wasn’t going to be easy. In fact, we’re over two years down the line and I’m still struggling with the aftermath. Quite frankly, it’s been hell, and in many ways, it still is. But I suppose that’s another story for another day…
We’ve all experienced it, that phenomenon where your day is going too well and you don’t trust it until finally, some shit goes down. According to Urban Dictionary, that shit is what we call “The Fuckening”.
In my previous blogs, I told you a little bit about my past, setting off with a period in which things were going exceptionally well and providing some background on my life and my family history. Later down the line, you’ll find out how that is relevant to the story. Just like I did.
I continued with some of the events leading up to the fuckening. I did leave you on a bit of a cliffhanger, though. Sorry about that, I swear it was for readability’s sake. As you may have noticed by now, it’s quite a long story and by dividing it into segments and themes, I’m trying to bring some order into the chaos for the both of us. For now, I’d like to pick up where I left off, around the time that my parent’s 37 years of marriage came to an end…
Oh, and obviously, once again, some names have been altered for privacy’s sake.
Anyone here ever inform their children of their upcoming divorce via email?
Yeah, it was a new to me too but apparently to my father, this is a thing. Let’s just say, the divorce itself didn’t surprise me all that much, but the way in which it was communicated to us, was…odd.
A few weeks after the dinner-of-doom, my father sent us a long, rambling email informing us that he and my mother had decided to separate, but that they would continue living together for the time being. For context, you should know that they already officially divorced a few years earlier, for legal and financial reasons following the bankruptcy of my dad’s previous business. The way they put it at the time, their divorce was done entirely out of love and trust and they were still in a committed relationship with one another. This relevance of this fact will become clear later on.
For my mum, though, my father’s sudden change of heart came like a bolt from the blue. Although he continued to deny his thing with Amanda, maintaining that she had nothing to do with it, he’d never been happy and that their marriage never worked anyway, it was obviously quite the coincidence that he just so happened to bring all this to the table after Amanda entered the scene.
Personally, I wasn’t surprised nor bothered by their separation. In my honest opinion, they probably should have done it years ago. Growing up, I often felt a strange kind of tension between them, and I remember wondering why they were together in the first place. Not that they fought or anything, aside from the usual bickering of a married couple. On the contrary, it was more like there was something missing, though I couldn’t put my finger on what.
What’s more, I was so done with all the drama and glad that the cat was finally out of the bag. I was tired of seeing my mother hurt and confused, wondering what she’d done wrong and how she could win him back when he had clearly already discarded her. I was tired of my father jerking us around, saying and doing hurtful things and leading my mother on as he avoided making a decision. And I was especially tired of being the piggy in the middle, a position I’d somehow ended up in since the whole dessert-spoon debacle. For weeks on end, I received countless texts, emails and tearful phone calls from them both as they poured their hearts out, asking me for advice and support as the situation dragged on. I guess you could say, difficulty with boundaries was a bit of a family ailment.
My father often called me to complain about his marital issues, making subtly demeaning passes at my mother as he tried to explain why his affair made sense and why his relationship with my mother was doomed anyway. But for some reason, despite the fact that he already seemed to have made up his mind about leaving, he just kept pussyfooting around and causing more damage along the way. Presenting himself as a noble knight, he told me he was staying with his wife out of ‘respect for the mother of his children’ and out of ‘concern that she couldn’t hack it alone’. But at the same time, while my mother was more than prepared to make an effort to repair and improve their relationship, my father rejected any bids for connection and told her that ‘she was no longer his wife’, ‘it had never been good’ and ‘trying to fix it was no use, as he’d already tried everything’.
My father also called me in distress every time someone else, usually one of my brothers, wasn’t taking his crap. Venting his disappointment in them, he’d complain that they ‘just didn’t get it’ and ‘nobody was listening to his side of the story’, then he’d thank me for being so understanding and roll over onto his back, tearfully asking me if I was still ok with him. Sometimes, he’d ask me to talk to them for him, to bring them around. Looking back, this looks a lot like damage control to me. He knew that things were not going according to his plan, and this was his ditch attempt to control the narrative by means of emotional manipulation, triangulation and fragmented communication.
During the time that all this was going on, I was already spread pretty thin. I was in the home stretch of my final academic year, working hard on finishing up, waves of grief washing over me as my last day drew closer. I didn’t have the mental capacity to deal with whiney, dramatic phone calls between classes, especially since our conversations always came down to the same thing. Time and time again, I told him kindly but firmly that no matter what decision he chose to make, people were going to be hurt and angry. Drawing it out wasn’t going to prevent that, if anything it would actually make it worse. He needed to cut the crap, take responsibility, make a damn decision and own it.
So quite frankly, when they finally cut the cord, I was happy to see them setting each other free and I felt they’d both be better off. In fact, I was looking forward to seeing my mother blossom.
As for the aforementioned email, it was just cringeworthy and aggravating. Written like a lengthy monologue for a broody, self-sacrificing knight in a romantic drama, it missed the mark entirely. You see, my brothers and I had already made it very clear that we that we were fine with the separation. We could even understand and come to forgive the affair. But we’d also explained to him that we were angry and hurt by the way he bowed and scraped to save his neck, lying to our faces and beating around the bush, emotionally manipulating us and treating us like crap rather than just owning up to his shit and holding himself accountable. Unfortunately, he didn’t take this to heart. Instead, he did exactly what we told him not to do. He deflected, and geared the entire email towards our dismay, anger and lack of understanding over the divorce. It was gross and insulting, the way he nobly begged us not to worry about him and to take care of our poor, fragile mother instead, dramatically stating that ‘he simply had to do what was best for the both of them and he hoped that someday we’d understand, and we could find it in our hearts to forgive him.’
What’s that sound? Oh, sorry, that’s just me dry-heaving in the corner.
Here’s a pro-tip: if you ever plan to cheat on your partner, you might want to refrain from letting your children use your PC if you have push-notifications enabled. That way, you will not only decrease the chance of accidentally blowing your cover, but you’ll also save your kids the hassle of scrubbing their eyeballs in hopes of unseeing things that they simply don’t want mental imagery of.
And on that note, let’s just say that my brothers had found good reason to confront my father with undeniable evidence and demand that he stop pussyfooting around and tell the truth. Because it’s one thing to do something stupid or hurtful, but it’s a whole other level of assholery to continue the behavior and not even have the balls to own your shit. My brothers had had more than enough of his bullshit, and they were enraged by how he was treating my mother. Something had to give.
And so, they set an ultimatum, asking him to get together with the whole family, cut the crap and finally talk about it all in an open and honest conversation. An intervention, if you will.
Prior to the date we had planned, my father texted me some sob story, asking me if I was still okay with him, since nobody else was willing to understand and they seemed intent on casting him out.
He then asked me for advice on how to deal with the upcoming talk. In retrospect, I think he was collecting information on what we wanted to hear so he could make his act as plausible as possible. But still wanting to see the best in my him, I helped him out none the less. I remember telling him that although I did not agree with his behavior, he was still my father and I loved him. I explained to him that he needed to drop the charade and stop trying to save his ass. He seemed to think that our feelings and opinions were indicative of a lack of information, and so he constantly tried to bowl us over with more information which only pissed us off even more. My advice was; come from a place of vulnerability, stop overintellectualizing and show how you feel, tell the truth and own your shit.
Well, the evening of the ‘intervention’ came around, and it was as though he’d followed my advice to a tee, almost like a script. His body tight with anxiety as he walked in and sat down, sighing deeply as he laid all his cards on the table, apologized and then proceeded to bawl his eyes out. My youngest brother asked for the truth about Amanda, wanting to know when it had started and what his plans were. He confessed that it had started around May, which later turned out to be a lie, and he told us that he intended to continue on with their ‘relationship’. Following this information, my brother immediately announced his resignation from NLPro.
I thought about it and decided to stick around a bit longer, hoping I could find a way to make it work between us. I’ll be honest with you; I had never seen my father so open and vulnerable before and I really believed that we were having some kind of breakthrough. That gave me hope. Afterwards, he hugged all of us and I remember telling him ‘Well done’. He told me that he was so scared he’d lost us, and I remember saying: “Well, you already have me. You may be an idiot, but you’re my idiot.”
Unfortunately, the breakthrough was short lived if it was a breakthrough at all. I received multiple phone calls from my father that week, requesting advice from my end. It felt as though he was trying to flatter me or keep me close, which would make sense considering I was apparently the only one of his children still willing to see past his bullshit. He had to keep me on his side, I guess.
He had probably also noticed that I was having a hard time getting though our training days now that he’d promoted Amanda to assistant trainer alongside myself. I’d come in to work feeling fine, and then half way through the morning I’d be completely drained with a whole weekend still left on the clock. There were so many triggers to navigate. The way they were both sickeningly nice to me, made my skin crawl. It was hard seeing them together, and even harder to ignore their flirty behavior, while I was also still terrified that the other clients would notice it and all hell would break loose. I still felt that their ‘relationship’ was ethically unsound, and unhealthy for the both of them.
And it took so much restraint and numbing on my end, just to refrain from opening my mouth and calling him out every time he spouted bullshit or put on his fake guru-like persona. All the while, I was still running around doing damage control for all the balls he dropped, trying to make sure that our clients got the quality they deserved while trying to keep our reputations, careers and our own relationship intact at the same time.
It was gnawing at me, continuing to work in a place where I felt unsafe and where I didn’t agree with what was going on. But I had no place else to go just yet; I had yet to find an alternative that would safeguard the roof over my head and give me some kind of perspective for the future. After all, I’d just given up everything to be here, so I was about to be left with absolutely nothing.
Also, the idea of cutting myself loose from my father terrified me. I was scared of what he might do if he realized that I was ‘rejecting’ him and his practices, or if God forbid, I made him ‘look bad’ by telling people the truth of why I’d left. After all, there would be questions. So yeah, plucking up the courage to leave was going to take some time and careful planning, I wasn’t ready. At the same time, staying was killing me slowly and I didn’t know how much longer I could keep it up.
As time passed, Amanda’s roll in the company became bigger and bigger. She had already joined me as a training assistant and now my father had decided to make her his full-blown business partner. He was pushing her forward and including her in virtually every business venture there was, but although I felt cast aside, I figured I couldn’t complain since I was the one that kept holding him off and keeping my business separate from his. It was only fair that he should move on, right?
Never the less, I was beginning to feel like a third wheel and it seemed a hell of a lot like I was being ignored or discarded on purpose. My input or corrections were no longer appreciated as he seemed to be getting more annoyed with me, his responses crasser by the day. He would also ‘forget’ to keep me in the loop with important business matters like altered or cancelled training dates and locations, leading to embarrassing and frustrating situations for me.
For example, there was a situation with a professional photoshoot that we had done for the website, back when my brother was still on the team. It was a whole big thing, including a make-up artist and the whole shebang. After my brother backed out, we obviously had to re-do the shoot. My father planned a new date together with Amanda, but didn’t ask me when I was available. He also conveniently forgot to inform me that we’d be doing things differently this time. And so, after going through the trouble of cancelling my own plans so that I could be there, I showed up with my bare face and a similar outfit to the last shoot, only to find Amanda and my father had already done their make-up beforehand, and they were wearing a completely different style of outfit to my own. I felt so embarrassed and left out, it was hard to pretend to be a team for the pictures.
It wasn’t just business that impacted me, though. As a daughter, I simply missed my father. I hadn’t spoken to him one-on-one in ages, because he was always joined at the hip with Amanda and I never got to see him in anything other than his guru-persona anymore.
Coping with working at NLPro was becoming harder and harder for me, constantly having to manage my own triggers and feelings around the situation whilst trying to function as normal. It was draining me, I felt down and heavy whenever I entered the building and it was preventing me from being my best self, both as a trainer and as myself. Feeling ashamed and guilty towards both my father and our clients, I eventually got to a point where I just couldn’t do it anymore.
Gathering all my courage, I pulled my father aside one day and confessed: “If you’re really planning to continue down this road with Amanda, then I don’t know if I can cope with that. I’ll give it a little while longer to see if I can make it work, but if I continue to feel this horrible, I’m going to have to leave.” I don’t know what I was expecting or hoping for, but the way my father responded felt like a punch to the gut. Although he did his best to conjure up a soft expression, there was an emptiness behind it, and his words rolled so casually off his tongue that it was almost like he’d had them parked there for ages, waiting for the moment that he could finally say them out loud: “I’m sorry you feel that way and we’d like it if you stayed, but I’m going to keep doing what I’m doing.”
And just like that, my own father, who I’d always thought I was close with, effectively chose his midlife-crisis fling over his own daughter, despite seeing the pain she was clearly in. After having just coaxed me out of the life I’d built up for myself, dragging my hesitant ass out into the middle of nowhere with a common dream and the promise to always have my back, he was just going to leave me there without so much as a second thought. The sheer nonchalance with which he discarded me, was a knife to my back. I felt so abandoned, and though I couldn’t quite place the feeling, somehow it felt but all too familiar.
Then, somewhere in July, only a week or two before my time at school was up, I was at my parent’s place, upstairs in the guest room as I tried to unwind after a long day of training. My father walked into the room with tears in his eyes, stood in front of me and begged: “I’m so sorry for not realizing what a difficult position I put you in, especially when you’re already going through such an emotional time yourself. I should have been more thoughtful, and I’m sorry. Can you forgive me?”
I was completely bowled over, and replied: “Listen, it’s ok. I’m an adult and I’m responsible for how I do my life. I’m the one who chose to stay, and it is still my choice whether I continue with this situation or not. But for the love of God, I’m begging you, please be careful how you proceed. I understand that you and Amanda may have developed feelings for each other, you’ve both just come out of long-term relationships and on top of that it’s actually really common for romantic feelings to develop within a therapeutic setting. But even if there’s a small chance that it’s the real thing, there’s a much bigger chance that it’s not. What you’re doing right now is really unethical, and the right thing would be to break contact, distance yourselves from each other and wait it out for a few months. If the feelings are real, they will still be there by then. And if it turns out they aren’t, well, then you won’t have risked your business, your reputation and your family for a fling.”
I told him that I was afraid it would be a huge scandal and damage us both if our clients and found out, not to mention how Amanda’s husband would react. I expected he’d be on a warpath to tear us down, which I would have understood completely. I mean, you don’t go to relationship therapy only to watch the therapist run off with your wife. My father replied: “Oh but he already knows, and he’s fine with it. He said that he knew from day one that he’d already lost her.” I was baffled, and to this day I still don’t know if that was the truth, or whether he was just trying to save his ass again.
Never the less, my father thanked me for my advice, my understanding and for letting him make his own decisions. He promised me with tears in his eyes that he was being careful and would take it slowly. I believed him, which is why what happened the next day was another kick in the gut.
Half way through another long day of training, we’d just finished an exercise and everyone was sitting in a big circle in the middle of the room, casually discussing their findings as they awaited further instruction. Sitting at my desk off to the side, I cast my gaze across the group and noticed my father approaching the front of the room with an odd look on his face. Avoiding me entirely, his eyes met with Amanda’s across the room (she was a participant in this particular training) and clearing his throat, he directed himself towards the group and announced that there was something he wanted to share with them. I had no idea what was going on, but as I watched his body language shift to his fake-vulnerability-mode, my heart started pounding and my gut clenched in anticipation. Then, after he’d buttered them all up, he finally cut to the chase and announced to the entire group that he and Amanda were now in a serious relationship.
I was utterly gob smacked. After our little heart to heart the night before, I was hopeful that he’d gained some insight and would be making smarter decisions henceforth, keeping everything on the down low for the time being. But in less than 12 hours’ time, he had gone from making a teary-eyed promise to take it slow, straight on through to nailing down a serious relationship. Never mind taking a break to explore his feelings, never mind casually dating for a while, and never mind telling his loved ones about it before making a cringy, formal announcement to his entire client base. With his own oblivious daughter sitting right there, mind you.
Awkward congratulations began to tumble from people’s lips, both Amanda and my father avoiding my gaze as they mingled with the group and engaged in weird, cheerful banter. My insides churning, I sat frozen in place fighting off the urge to scream my lungs out and slap some sense into them all. I felt so incredibly betrayed and abandoned, I couldn’t believe the charade I was witnessing and I couldn’t understand how everyone was just shrugging and going along with it. I heard someone ask about his wife, by my father told them (as he’d apparently also told Amanda) that they divorced ages ago. Which is technically true, but also not the full story. I ached to open my mouth and scream the truth, but it seemed that I was the only one who had a problem and I was afraid they’d see me as a bitter, unreasonable child. So, numbing myself from the inside out, I planted my mask firmly on my face and tried as best as I could to make it through the day.
Unfortunately, things became infinitely worse when later that day, we received the message that my New Zealand nana had passed away. Already numb, I sat there with my grief and watched my father slip back into another vulnerability act, sharing the news with the group only to bask in their attention, compassion and admiration for his willingness to stay and complete the training just for them. I wanted to tear the place down, by I remained silent and swallowed it all down, as usual…
With no further need to be discrete, my father really laid it on in the weeks that followed. Watching him act exaggeratedly lovey-dovey for everyone to see, becoming someone I didn’t know as he amplified his new charming, fun-loving, youthful persona and switched to the sole use of the pronoun ‘we’ as if he and Amanda had suddenly merged into one, I felt like I had lost him for good. Getting him alone became damn near impossible; he was always with Amanda, and if I tried to set up a date for some quality father-daughter time, he’d only agree if Amanda could join us. I’d often decline because being around them together was still painful for me, but effectively, this meant that I never really saw or spoke to my father anymore outside of work. And if I ever did get him alone, it felt like I was speaking to a figment of the person I once knew. His new persona was fully catered to his new catch, and no matter how hard I tried to connect with the man I knew somewhere beneath that fluffed up exterior, the road had been blocked. My father was nowhere to be found.
In the weeks that followed, I continued to come in to work as I internally struggled with my feelings and searched feverishly for some kind of solution. Even so much as being around my father was triggering, let alone if Amanda was around. There was a potent mixture of grief, rage and terror festering beneath my skin and I didn’t know how to deal with it. Quitting wasn’t an option just yet, since I no longer had school to provide me with a tribe and an income. Not only was my father the one keeping a roof over my head, his business was also the road to my future as it was helping me generate clients, gain experience and build a name for myself in the field.
I felt trapped. Working there was taking a massive toll on me, having to function normally whilst constantly managing my own emotions and triggers, careful not to be too open or authentic for fear of saying too much. Coming home completely drained and with a massive headache at the end of each day, I knew I couldn’t go on like this. But I had nowhere else to turn as of yet, and all I could do was force myself into auto-pilot to keep going on. But at the end of October, something finally pushed me over the edge in terms of seeking help and making a decision.
A year earlier, I’d been to a seminar with Robert Dilts. I’d had such an amazing time that I immediately signed up for the next edition, and tipped my father and brother to tag along. By the time the next seminar rolled around in the fall of 2019, my brother was no longer a part of NLPro.
But I still went, and so did my father…with Amanda in my brother’s place.
The seminar was held in a beautiful area somewhere in the middle of the country, at a hotel in the middle of a forest. It had been organized by another NLP training institute, called IEP. What’s relevant to know, is that my father was no stranger there. You see, about a year prior, my father was taking his trainers training at the NLP Academie and about half way through, he had a messy falling out with the trainer and ended up quitting. After my tip about this seminar, he’d looked into IEP and contacted the trainers, seeking to complete his training with them. After his certification, he put me forward to do the same, even offering to pay for it if I would agree to teach more courses for NLPro. Knowing that I wanted to use the skills within my own growing business, I didn’t want to be bound or indebted to my father and I politely declined, signing up on my own accord instead. And so, my father signed Amanda up in my place. Anyway, what it comes down to is that although I knew these people vaguely from the previous seminar, my father was already in cahoots with them and couldn’t wait to introduce them all to his new girlfriend.
A week before the seminar, I celebrated my 33rd birthday. My father didn’t show up, texting me that it was probably better if he didn’t come and promising me that we’d set up a separate date to celebrate together. Since we were both staying in the same hotel for the seminar, I sort of hoped that he would take the opportunity to make good on that promise. After all, we hadn’t had a good heart to heart since Amanda had entered the scene and I really missed him, which I’d expressed to him many times. I didn’t even know where he was currently living, as he’d moved out and Amanda had pretty much moved straight in with him. Granted, he’d invited me over for dinner at ‘our house’ at some point and I had declined, but I had been very clear in letting him know that I’d gladly come over if it was just us. He didn’t respond to that, though.
Unfortunately, it was wishful thinking on my end. As per usual, the pair spent the entirety of the three days stuck together as though they were intent on shoving their happy relationship down my throat. Although I’d expressed my desire to spend some time with my father alone and indicated that being around them together was very difficult and painful for me, he made absolutely no effort to show some sensitivity towards my feelings. On our first day there, they plopped down next to me in the conference room and acted overly chatty and casual as I sank further and further into my seat.
And to make matters worse, we were then placed in the same break out groups to discuss personal matters and practice interventions on one another. The following days, I made sure to show up early and pick my seat more carefully, surrounding myself by other people and leaving nothing to chance. Later on, they showed up together and cheerfully struck up conversations that always happened to be within earshot, reciting their glossed over version of events. It enraged me, hearing old friends and new acquaintances swallow the story and gush over the glowing lovebirds as I thought of the pain and destruction that he’d caused. But I had to stuff it all down as making a scene would only make things worse.
I tried to avoid them as much as possible, still hoping that my father would find a moment to spend some time with me. How hard could it be, realistically, to tell his girlfriend: ‘Hey, are you good entertaining yourself for an hour or two while I go out and have a little walk & talk with my kid?”
But instead, they would seek me out in the breakfast hall each morning and pull up an extra chair to my table for two, acting like nothing was wrong and making casual conversation as a lump formed in my throat and I hurried to finish my coffee so I could leave. With the hotel surrounded by a beautiful forest, I often made my escape amongst the trees for some space and some fresh air. But even as a roamed the grounds trying to recuperate and ground myself, I constantly ran into them on the same route. There was no escape, and I felt more awful by the day.
As much as I had looked forward to the seminar beforehand, I was having a horrible time. It was like there was a huge black cloud hanging over me that just kept growing and growing. I couldn’t concentrate, I felt drained, anxious, depressed and utterly hopeless. Even as I went on long walks in the beautiful autumn scenery, all I could do was bawl my eyes out with no relief. Something ominous was pressing down on me, and I couldn’t quite put my finger on it. All I knew, was that I was in way over my head, and I needed help. It was time to take responsibility for my own part, meaning: either get help with processing my own issues so that I can maintain my job and my relationship with my father without destroying myself in the process…or find a safe way out, without losing everything.
And so, on the last evening in the hotel, sitting on the edge of my bed, I took a deep breath and tapped out a text to the one person I trusted to treat this situation with discretion, integrity, skill and compassion: “Hey John, can you coach me through something? There’s a lot going on, and I get the feeling that I’m way over my head…”
To my surprise, John was already expecting me. Apparently, my brother had recently been to see him about the exact same thing and it was clear that some kind of shit was about to go down. We set up an appointment for later that week and I sighed a breath of relief. We’d sort this out.
At the end of the last day of the seminar, I remember grabbing my gear and speed-walking out to the car, fully intending to leave that very second. But after dumping my bags into the boot, I found myself standing outside an open car door, frozen in indecision as I tried to figure out whether or not I should go back to say goodbye to my father. Exhausted and hurt, I felt compelled to speed off without saying a word, but I stopped myself at the last moment in a conundrum. Was I really going to act out my anger and disappointment by leaving without saying goodbye? He was still my father, after all, and I loved him. I reigned myself in, convincing myself that if something were to happen to him, I would regret having been so petty. Besides, I didn’t want to be the one to put our relationship on the line just because I was feeling hurt. I just needed to grow up, right?
And so, I turned back, elbowing my way through the crowd and finding my father in a jovial conversation with an old friend, completely oblivious to what had just played out in the parking lot. I hugged him and told him that I loved him, nodded a quick goodbye to Amanda and headed back out to start the long drive home. Little did I know that the next time I saw my father would be the last.
THE CAT’S OUT OF THE BAG
It’s funny how the world as you know it can seem to fall apart, yet come together at the same time. Throughout my life I’d often had a nagging feeling that something wasn’t right, and over the past year and a half, a sinkhole had opened up. As more and more signs breached the surface, my loyal brain had been working overtime to explain them away or block them out entirely. But now I had reached a point where I couldn’t deny it any longer; my father was not who I thought he was.
After coming home from the seminar, I called my younger brother. In that conversation, putting the pieces of the puzzle together with our family history, our combined experiences and the things he’d already discussed with John, the penny finally dropped: my father is a pathological narcissist.
Obviously, it wasn’t an easy conversation to have, nor was it a fun realization. Everything I thought I knew was imploding around me, but it simultaneously felt like everything was falling into place. When I showed up for my appointment with John later that week, the info wasn’t new to me anymore, but the sole fact that I was finally being seen in everything I’d gone through, and validated in all the things I had picked up and explained away over the years, was incredibly impactful. Even more so considering the fact that it was coming from someone who knew his shit; an expert in the field of analytic profiling, who had been working with us long enough to have seen every fucked-up pattern play out before his eyes.
Nervously walking into his office and shifting in my seat, my eyes darted around the room before finally making eye contact with John, and before I even knew what was happening, the dam broke and I burst into tears of relief, repeating over and over: “It wasn’t just me, it wasn’t just me…”
Because all these years I had been convinced that I was the crazy one, the selfish bitch, the bad guy, the one who was inherently flawed and had to fight for love, and for her right to exist. But after the façade fell away, I knew that I wasn’t imagining things and it wasn’t my fault.
Sifting through a tangled web of emotions, thoughts and memories that flooded my body and mind, the pieces were falling into place. I’d never consciously allowed myself to feel what I really felt in relation to my father, always pushing it away and telling myself I was wrong. But as my gaze turned rigid and my body began to tremble, I was quickly becoming painfully aware of how afraid I was of him, and I was even more terrified of what he’d do if he discovered that I’d figured him out.
Realizing that our working together could only end in disaster, it became apparent that I had to find a way out of his clutches and become independent as soon as possible. And seeing the extent of the damage that our toxic relationship had inflicted on me over the years, given his complete lack of insight and accountability, it was clear that he’d only continue to cause harm if I didn’t take a step back and hold extremely firm boundaries moving forward. At the same time, I knew that making my escape from NLPro and from our enmeshed relationship would be an incredibly delicate operation. Our lives were intertwined on so many levels, one wrong move and his repercussions could tear my life apart beyond repair. If I were careless with my timing or approach, I could be bankrupt and on the streets in the blink of an eye and before I’d even had the chance to find or create an alternative, he would most certainly launch a smear campaign so potent that I could kiss my future plans, hopes and dreams goodbye. I knew what he was capable of, both from first- and second-hand experience, and this time, I did not want to be caught on the receiving end. And so, that afternoon, John helped me lay out my options and figure out the best route to take.
My plan carefully mapped out in my brain, I was both hopeful and scared to death. At this point, I did not intend to remove him from my life entirely, I just wanted to untangle myself from him, get out on my own two feet and find a way to have some kind of safe, functional relationship with him. But although I knew that this was the best thing that I could possibly do for myself, I felt apprehensive of the great, empty unknown ahead of me.
Keep in mind that my father intentionally created our bond to be heavily enmeshed and I’d felt that I needed him for my survival from a very young age. The foundation had been laid down in early childhood; the outside world was a big, scary place and my father was always there to ‘rescue’ me, never mind that he was often the one who’d tripped me up in the first place. He fronted as my biggest cheerleader, but in reality, he was more like the peppy team captain who would hype me up only to secretly sabotage my routine so that I’d crash before I reached the top of the pyramid, undermining my confidence and thus keeping the vicious cycle in place.
And now he had inserted himself into my future plans, hopes and dreams, making himself an integral part of them while prying me away from my own life. I’d given up everything to be on board with him; my job, my own income, a large portion of my social network and even my opportunity to have a baby in the near future, which I’d postponed in order to set up shop first. But now that I saw the truth, I had to cut loose from it all and venture out into that big scary world with nowhere else to go and nobody to fall back on. It was so tempting to shove everything back down the hatch, pretend nothing had ever happened and carry on as always…but I couldn’t unsee it anymore. So, I had to pull myself together and get moving.
Step one of operation get-the-fuck-out proved to be quite a challenge; I wanted to talk to my father in private, but it was exceptionally hard to pry him away from his counterpart since they had all but merged into the same person. Thankfully, he still owed me a belated birthday celebration and after I proposed a date and deflected his adamant offers to hit up a fancy restaurant, I managed to convince him to come over to my house. I promised to make pancakes and he suggested we work out our New Zealand itinerary over lunch, since December was around the corner.
Jumping at the slightest sound, I nervously waited for the doorbell to ring. He was running late and I was beginning to worry that he’d flaked on me, meaning I’d have to push the whole thing forward and marinate in my anxiety until I could finally get this over with and move on with my life.
By the time he finally arrived, twenty minutes late, I was already a nervous wreck. My heart beat right out of my chest as he hugged me awkwardly and made his way into my living room. But I kept it together, retreating to the stove to prepare lunch and making light chit-chat until we eventually sat down at the table together, each with our own stack of sweet-smelling banana pancakes.
Naturally, the conversation soon steered towards business and I took this as my chance to carefully nudge towards the matter at hand. Making sure to stay as neutral and as close to myself as possible, I reminded him of how I’d recently agreed to stay at NLPro for a while longer to see how it went. I explained to him that it was proving to be harder on me that I’d expected, the situation with him and Amanda triggering some deep-seated issues and past pain within myself and leading me to conclude that leaving NLPro would probably the wisest course of action for my own wellbeing.
What followed was a conversation in which my father shifted back and forth between savior, victim and perpetrator roles so quickly and seamlessly that he almost had me lost in the convolution of it all. The savior asked me about my struggles, listening and nodding until he found something to latch onto for the old bait-n-switch: the second I honestly expressed my pain over his recent actions, he feigned surprise and confusion, then randomly and inexplicably dragged my ex-husband into the mix. If your head is spinning, that’s the whole point: it’s a mindfuck. In the past, I would have lost track as he further muddied the waters to hide the truth, deflect from his shortcomings and avoid being held accountable. But now, I knew what to expect, I recognized the patterns and I managed to shake the confusion before it got the chance to take root.
As the conversation went on, that oddly familiar sense of abandonment that my father often triggered in me, slowly began to make sense. You see, throughout life, my experience had been that my own thoughts, needs and opinions could only exist at the expense of my connection with others.
Remembering the many arguments and discussions I’d had with my father over the years, I felt that old familiar terror or having to choose between losing myself, or losing love. There was no room for the both of us to exist simultaneously, he raised me in his image and whenever it came down to it, I always chose to abandon myself and give him free rein. But things were about to change.
Being careful to stay close to myself and avoid pointing fingers, I got back on track, calmly telling him that his actions had really hurt me. He was clearly caught off guard when he noticed that his usual tactic hadn’t taken effect, swiftly redirecting his approach toward rationalizing and glossing over everything that had happened. Then, when I didn’t respond to that either, he promptly hopped on the pity train, complaining that I hadn’t been talking to him and everyone was shutting him out.
My next move may not have been the smartest considering his inability to empathize, but something inside of me still hoped that if I was open and honest, maybe he would be, too. I wanted to believe that there was someone there behind all the smoke and mirrors, and deep down I hoped that if I reached out and told him what was bothering me, he’d be willing to take my hand and work on fixing this mess together. And so, giving it one last chance, I responded to his complaint by telling him why I’d been closing myself off: “When I tell you how I feel, the way you respond feels dismissive. When you avoid the painful stuff and ignore, rationalize or gloss over my experience, I feel like I’m not being seen and heard and that only hurts me more. That’s why I often keep things to myself.”
Ironically, his response to this statement was to do exactly what I just told him not to do, exclaiming that ‘he didn’t do that’, and that I was ‘getting him all wrong’. And when I pointed this out to him, the crocodile tears appeared as he cried: “I don’t know what you want from me, am I such a bad person for not wanting to hurt anyone?”
Protesting that we weren’t giving him a chance and we were pushing him away, he wailed: “Everyone has an opinion on what I’m doing, and I don’t understand why now that I’m finally feeling happy and alive again, everyone has to hold it against me”. Feeling the irritation bubble up inside of me, I held my tongue and ignored the bait. By now, I knew enough.
I had thrown him a bone, opened up to him and provided a chance for us to connect, reflect and make amends. Not all was lost, I still hoped that we could mend that ever-growing rift between us. But instead of taking the hand I was offering him, he made sure to pull out all the stops in saving his own ass and succeeded in making everything about him within a matter of seconds. He’d shown me exactly who he was: an emotionally immature man who was not willing nor capable of self-reflection or change. He’d effectively confirmed that I was making the right choice by leaving.
And so, with a deep sigh of resignation, I leaned back in my chair and watched the show. For the first time, I was no longer engaging with his attempts to reel me in or get a reaction out of me. It was almost funny in a sad kind of way, watching him squirm and flail about as it gradually began to dawn on him that he was no longer in control. Not over me, nor over the situation. Trying every trick in the book as he frantically grasped at the reigns, I ignored his hooks and responded with the same sentence over and over: “We both have personal issues to work on, and that’s ok.”
Running out of steam, he eventually calmed down and fell back into his nice-guy routine, which I can only assume was a last-ditch attempt to salvage whatever was left of his image and his influence. Admitting that the situation at work wasn’t healthy for me and he’d noticed that I’d been having a hard time, he agreed that it was probably best if I left, even though he ‘missed me’ and he was ‘afraid of losing me’. Of course, if that were true, he had a pretty fucked up way of showing it. But I held my tongue once again as I felt the hurt and the anger build up inside of me. Instead, I told him that I’d finish the tasks I’d already promised to do and make a clean break from NLPro after that.
When he offered to continue paying me, I assumed that there were strings attached, if only it being that he could uphold his good-guy image and maintain some form of dependence, a kind of influence in my life. A finger in the pie, if you will. With this in the back of my mind, I told him that as much as I appreciated the offer, I didn’t feel comfortable accepting money for something that I was no longer doing. But he insisted that he help me out, considering my situation was a direct result of his indiscretion. And so, we made a deal: I would complete the tasks that had already been planned, including a training that I was going to fill in while he and Amanda were on a business trip, and he’d continue to pay my monthly invoices until we got back from New Zealand and I’d found a new job.
Keeping it light-hearted as the conversation ran at its end, I told him that even though I was pissed and sad, he was still my dad and I loved him. And now we knew that we were better off as father and daughter rather than business partners. Offering him a smile, he asked me: “What now?” and I replied with a grin that we should start working on our itinerary for New Zealand. December was approaching fast, after all, and we had a lot of planning to do. Ironically, he hadn’t brought the necessary documents despite the fact that it was the whole reason he’d agreed to come over in the first place, so we had to take a rain check on that one.
When my father finally walked out the door, I waved him goodbye and sighed a deep breath of relief. I’d done it: I stood up for myself, did what I needed to do and got the both of us through it unscathed. My father and I were still on good terms, he was still acting normal and could stay a part of my life, albeit at a safe distance. I was free from NLPro, I wasn’t suddenly homeless or penniless and I had my father’s blessing to go out and find something new. All in all, it was the best outcome I could have wished for. Especially since we were about to spend four weeks holed up together on the other side of the world. Can you imagine how awkward that would have been, otherwise?
Weirdly, a part of me also felt confused and guilty after he left. You see, during the time that he sat in front of me crying, I was surprised to notice that I felt irritated rather than compassionate, despite the fact that I usually feel someone else’s grief to the point where I can hardly hold back from bursting into tears myself. It made me wonder if maybe I really was a selfish, horrible person.
It wasn’t until the next day when the realization hit me: the reason I didn’t feel his grief, was because it wasn’t grief at all. It was self-pity. He’d just been trying to manipulate me again, and he’d almost succeeded. Thankfully this time, I figured it out before I got ensnared again.
I was happy and relieved that we could both turn towards the future and move on without any drama or bad blood between us. But at the same time, there was something ominous looming in the back of my mind, like part of me was silently waiting for the other shoe to drop. The whole thing had gone a little too well, and I was worried that he’d just been holding back. Something was bound to come round and bite me in the ass…
To be continued…
This story is turning out to be a lot longer than I’d expected, but I will say that it’s doing me some good to get it all out on paper. As I get further into the thick of it, it’s becoming harder to see the forest for the trees and it’s taking me a lot longer to untangle everything and catch a coherent train of thought. I guess that means we’re getting to the hard part.
In this part, I’ll be talking about the events leading up to the aforementioned fucktastrophy of 2019. If you’re an observant reader, maybe you’ll be better than I was at spotting the red flags along the way. It’ll be like a fun little game, or something. Maybe I should hand out prizes…
Quick disclaimer; since the story involves people other than myself, I have changed a few names for privacy reasons. If you recognize any of the people mentioned, I respectfully ask that you keep that knowledge to yourself.
Anyway, let’s get on with it.
As I mentioned previously, my father and I commenced NLP training in the spring of 2016 and as our respective dreams began crystallizing into goals and plans, our shared enthusiasm soon had us exploring various ideas for collaboration. When my father then decided to leave his current occupation and start his own practice only a few short months into our initial training, I may have had my concerns, but I can’t say I was surprised. I mean, when it comes to his tendency to latch on to whatever piques his interest, the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree. And when my father sees something he wants, he goes straight for the gold. I suppose I’m like that too, but my approach is generally more reserved; I like to have everything figured out before I venture to try it and I can be quite the perfectionist, whereas he is a master of bluff who swears by the ‘fake it until you make it’ route. I did admire his guts and perseverance, but I felt no desire to trade places.
My father and I were taking different roads to Rome; he was on the bullet train, I was taking the scenic route, and we had basically agreed to travel together wherever our paths crossed and our itineraries allowed it. We touched base often and since our relationship had improved so much over time, I thought we’d reached a point of mutual understanding and respect. That being said, when my dad hops on that train, he tends to get tunnel vision, often dragging those standing along the side into the backdraft as he charges through anything and everything in his way.
From the very beginning of our journey, my father coaxed me to quit my job and become a fully-fledged entrepreneur, just like him. NLPro was growing, and he wanted nothing more than to include me in his endeavors. He presented it as a win-win situation for us both, a father-daughter Dream Team building an empire, changing the world and helping people all at the same time.
Latching on to my ambitions, he would poke and prod, push and pull, joke and nag, bait and hook…and he had countless aces up his sleeve. He would put me forward for exciting assignments and opportunities, talk me up to everyone around him, and refer clients to me that seemed to fit my target group. He even hired me as a training assistant for his workshops and began to pay me for my efforts so that I could afford to rent my first office space. He would glorify life as an entrepreneur, boasting freedom, adventure, fulfillment and more money than you would ever earn working for a boss. Quite an interesting stance considering he was still dealing with the aftermath of his previous bankruptcy, but hey, optimism and entrepreneurial spirit are strong with this one. And in all honesty, he did manage to get me curious, excited even. He made me feel like my hopes and dreams were all within reach, if I would just take a leap of faith. And he would be there to catch me if I fell.
I was still hesitant though. My plans and wishes clear in my mind, I was on a vastly different timeline. Not to mention I already had enough on my plate combining that with my training and my career. So, despite my father’s goading, I continued steadily en route. Picking up occasional gigs with NLPro, I took my sweet time deepening my skills and building up my own practice while maintaining a certain level of stability in my life. I was in no rush at all, if I ever wanted to make the switch to full-time coaching and entrepreneurship, it would be a slow transition over many years. And every time my father reopened the discussion, I held my ground and kindly reminded him of that.
The collaboration with my father actually seemed like the perfect learning experience, not just for my coaching, training and business skills, but for my personal development as well. I was still learning to hold boundaries and express my needs, and my dad’s fanaticism often put me to the test. For example, I’d often find myself having to pace him when he’d gotten ahead of himself and made plans, promises or decisions on my behalf without consulting me first, or when he had set me up with assignments and clients that didn’t suit me or that I wasn’t ready for. Every time he pushed too hard, crossed a line or took things a little too far, I’d remind him that I appreciated his support and then I’d kindly but firmly show him where he ended and where I began. It could be frustrating and tiring at times, but I kept reminding myself that he meant well and that it was good practice for me.
Most of the time, he’d then apologize and say that he was only thinking of me and trying to help. He’d scoff at those who chose to work for a boss and question my preference for the stability of a regular job, telling me that I was meant for greater things and giving me the feeling that I had something to prove. Or he’d chuckle and ask when I was finally going to let go of my insecurities and dive in, but he did take a step back and let it go. As kind or supportive as he came across, I also felt a strange, subtly condescending or contemptuous undertow that I couldn’t quite put my finger on. I felt this nagging urge to pull back and run, whilst also wanting to lean in and make him proud. Those contradictory feelings confused me, and I wondered if my own issues were just having me on and I was imagining things. Guilty as I felt for doubting someone who clearly wanted the best for me, I decided to ignore my concerns for the benefit of the greater good and carry on.
Something happened, though, down the line that began to weaken my resolve.
As I mentioned earlier, I was working part-time as a biology teacher. I loved my job and my school, and I loved my team even more. I felt at home there and I was grateful that I’d managed to land that job, since it was the school that I had set my heart on during my second-year internship and chances were slim that I’d find a position there at all.
That being said, it wasn’t perfect. Not that any job is. My main frustration was the education system itself. With all the rules and regulations, I often felt like I was expected to do my job with my hands tied behind my back. That cost a lot of energy and sometimes it got the better of me. I cursed it at times, but I loved it none the less.
Anyway, that year, just like every year I had a performance interview. It was mostly fine, but one piece of critique in particular really packed a punch. Basically, my introversion led some people to question my involvement, or how much I cared. Well, considering how much I loved that school and all the people in it, and considering how hard I’d been working on myself and my relationships, that really hit me where it hurt the most. I had grown and changed a lot, and it stung to feel like my efforts were not being seen or appreciated. They also wanted me to show more of myself, step up to the forefront and take more initiative. I’d been called a ‘silent force’ in the past, but now I felt like I was being measured by my capacity for small talk and it sounded like my hard work only mattered if it was done in the spotlight, while I was at my best taking care of equally important shit backstage.
Up until then, I thought I was in a place where I was appreciated and accepted for who I was. But now I felt like an imposter about to be discovered, as if they had seen me for something I wasn’t and now they were trying to squeeze something out of me that wasn’t there. An old familiar feeling washed over me, hollow and afraid as I awaited being unmasked and discarded. I felt like I had lost them already, the bitter taste of their disappointment in me hanging in the air as I concluded that I could never please them just by being myself. The only way I could fix it, was by pretending to be someone I wasn’t. And that’s something I was no longer prepared to do.
I knew they wouldn’t fire me over it, but the thought of staying somewhere I felt unwanted was much worse. Suddenly, I felt very alone and cut off from what I had considered to be my ‘tribe’. I was absolutely devastated, and I’m sure this weighed in on my decisions later down the line.
THE LAST ACE
It’s obvious to me now, as I read back through my thoughts and feelings at the time of the interview, that I was not in an adult state of mind at the time. The overwhelming feelings of shame, hopelessness, abandonment and despair do not line up with what was factually happening in that moment. Rather, they were remnants of the past that had come rushing to the surface the second I felt a hint of disapproval or rejection. At the time, I didn’t know anything about complex PTSD and the existence of emotional flashbacks, nor was I aware of my triggers. I was being transported back to the way I felt as a child, but I was feeling those intense feelings in the here and now, so I responded to them as such.
Either way, the performance interview really hit hard and as all those feelings continued to simmer in the aftermath, I figured I should probably talk to someone about it. You know, like normal people do. Coming from a family where we avoided problems and emotions, I wasn’t really used to being vulnerable with others and the idea alone made me really uncomfortable. But I had been told by many a therapist over the years that learning to open up and share the load would be good for me. And honestly, having only ever learned to bottle everything up and deal with shit by myself, my descent into self-destruction as a young adult wasn’t really all that surprising and it makes sense that learning to connect, trust and ask others for help was a vital part of my recovery. This is something that I was (and am) still working on, and on that day, starting with a parent seemed like a safe bet.
So, as unnatural and uncomfortable as it felt, I confided in my father, telling him what had happened and how upset I was about the whole ordeal. Looking back, I think this was probably one of the biggest mistakes of my life and you’ll soon understand why. My father took this information and ran with it, using it to drive a wedge between me and the parts of my life that were standing in the way of my full availability to him and his cause. And I fell for it.
Validating me in how hurt, rejected and frustrated I felt, he told me that this was simply a sign that I had outgrown the system and it was time to move on. It was time to stop ‘living in fear’ as he called it, I just had to take the dive and start making my dreams come true. And all it took, was to quit my job and get out on my own. I’d be free, never again having to push a square peg into a round hole as I tried to fit in where I didn’t belong. I’d achieve great things while doing what I loved, and I’d have only myself to answer to. And hey, since I’d be making big bucks and organizing my own time, I’d finally be free to do all those things I’d dreamed of doing but never got round to. I’d be living life on my own terms, and he would be there every step of the way to support me. I had to admit, it all sounded awfully tempting and as I began to mull it over in my mind, the hurt began to evaporate.
Seeing the internal conflict arise in me, he pulled out one last big, shiny ace from his sleeve: “Hey, wanna come to New Zealand? My treat…”
Now, for those of you who are a little confused as to where the hell that came from and why it packed such a massive punch, here’s the deal: I’m basically a kiwi. My family immigrated to New Zealand when I was three, moving back to the Netherlands just a few days short of my 12th birthday. Having spent roughly nine years going to school, playing, getting to know the world around me and growing up in the land of the long white cloud, Aotearoa is my second home. That being said, I didn’t really give it much thought when I boarded the plane to Amsterdam in October 1998. I saw it as an exciting adventure and being the social outcast I was, I figured I had nothing to lose and a fresh new start on the other side of the globe was a godsend. I hadn’t really considered that I was leaving my home behind, nor was I aware of the impact that it would have on me.
The longing to go back, grew over time. My own fading memories tugged at my curiosity as I wondered what I would recognize, and what had changed over the years. At the same time, I felt a strange sense of emptiness as though I had unwittingly left a part of myself behind that I needed to reconnect with. Unfortunately, travelling back to New Zealand hadn’t been possible for me all those years. My father had invited me along a few times before, but those plans somehow always fell through. Going by myself wasn’t an option either, since I was always either flat broke, tied down by work, terrified to go alone, or all of the above. But now, with this big, fat, shiny ace…my father had effectively wiped all those obstacles off the table. I’d stood my ground for so long, but suddenly I found myself about to topple over the edge.
A few days later, I approached my father for tips if I were to -hypothetically- quite my job, and he pounced. No sooner had I uttered the words, and we were sitting around the table together writing up a plan of action. He had promised me a while ago that he’d help me write a solid business plan and help me figure out everything from administration, finances and insurance to all the rules, regulations, what pension plan I’d need and what kind of a timeline I should keep in mind. Nervous and excited to start creating some order in the chaos, I was curious to see how this might work out. But as glad as I was to have my father light the way, I left feeling rather deflated and somehow more lost than when we’d started. I had asked a ton of questions, but somehow all his answers remained vague and implied that I was making way too big a deal out of it.
Eventually, I went home with a piece of paper reading nothing more than a few training dates and a quick calculation of how many coaching clients I’d need in order to make a basic living. It was by no means the formal business plan that I was expecting, nor had I learned anything about the ins and outs of business. But no matter how or what I asked him, he remained nonchalant and told me that he didn’t even have most of those things worked out himself. He didn’t have a pension plan; he planned to sell his house when he got old, and he’d live off that. He didn’t have unemployment or disability insurance, and he only set a quarter of his income aside for taxes instead of the advised third because with all the tax deductions, he figured he’d never have to cough up that much anyway.
He told me to let it go, take a leap of faith and learn to embrace the adventure; he’d back me up. All this made me very nervous, but his face had often given away his contempt for those who liked to play it safe and I didn’t want him to see me that way. I wanted to show him that I could be brave, confident and adventurous. I wanted him to be proud of me. I suppose, deep down, I was afraid of losing love. So, as terrified and unsatisfied as I was, I trusted him.
After that conversation, things suddenly started moving very, very fast. Personally, I wasn’t in a hurry. I hadn’t made a definitive decision yet, but even if I had, I’d still have to complete the academic year at work. I had months to go, so I was taking the time to process and figure it all out. For my father however, things couldn’t move quickly enough. At least a few times a week, he’d call, text or email me regarding some new development, job or client that he wanted me to partake in.
At one point, we were at a concert together and just before the curtain went up, he sprung on me that he was setting up an online agenda on his website so that our clients could automatically book appointment with us. Instantly freaking out internally, I spent the entire concert zoned out as I frantically tried to come up with a way to respectfully decline. You see, I highly value my own time and autonomy. I don’t ever want anyone else controlling my schedule for me, and I had also made it very clear that I was starting my own business, separate from his and in my own area, and he could hire me freelance. I was supposed to hold the reigns, but I felt like I was already being swallowed up.
In the weeks that followed, I continued to hold off, only taking on occasional small tasks that I could combine with my busy schedule. But it felt as though the fact that I still had my own life was just a hinderance to him, even though he acted as though he was doing it all for me. Whenever I rejected him, he would point to my ambitions and say: “Ok, but the sooner the better, for you...”
Adding to the pressure was my growing desire to have children. I reasoned that if I was going to leave school, I’d either have to do it now or wait another twenty years. Leaving now would give me a good two or three years to get my business off the ground and create a strong foundation for me to support a family. And since I didn’t think it wise to leave a stable job for a new small business while caring for a child, if I decided to wait, I’d have to stick with school for at least another eighteen years. Considering the situation at school, I didn’t think I’d be able to hold out that long.
So, the pressure grew as time passed and it began to feel like waiting any longer was just a stay of execution. Maybe my father was right, maybe these were all signs that it was finally time to take that leap of faith.
CUTTING THE CORD
In January of 2019, I finally cut the cord: I walked into my superior’s office and told her that I was leaving at the end of that academic year. I was terrified, yet exhilarated at the same time.
It wasn’t an easy decision to make and, in all honesty, I still felt torn about it. Scared of the great unknown and heartbroken over leaving something so familiar and dear to me, my head was working overtime to convince my heart that it was all for the best. I told everyone that I was letting go of something good in order to make room for something even better, hoping that if I repeated those words often enough, I’d come to believe them myself.
Hiding my worries and uncertainty, I hoped that my father would be proud of me for finally stepping up and becoming the ballsy, optimistic person he always wanted me to be. But when I told him the news, his response caught me completely off guard. My jubilation faded quickly as his previously breezy and encouraging attitude flipped 180 degrees and he turned dead serious.
I broke the news by referring to our trip to New Zealand, which we had planned for that upcoming December. But instead of excitement, he responded with: “Well you can’t exactly leave for a few weeks now that you no longer have a job and a stable income.” He then proceeded to list all of the things I needed to start worrying about: my budget, business plan, insurances, coaching clients…all the things that I’d asked his advice on before, and that he’d always brushed aside.
He emphasized that he was willing to help, but that I was solely responsible for my choices and their consequences. I’d done exactly what he’d told me to do, and now, all of a sudden, he was saying: “Don’t make any decisions unless you’re absolutely certain that you have everything figured out, dependence isn’t going to get you anywhere.” To my horror, he even suggested I quit teaching group fitness classes. The gym, my passion, my outlet and practically my second home, was the only thing I had left that was entirely my own, not to mention my only remaining source of income. Giving that up seemed like a ridiculously stupid thing to do, but he was dead serious.
I was absolutely flabbergasted, his new approach a polar opposite to the angle he’d been maintaining the past few years. Preaching ‘fake it till you make it’, pushing me into things I wasn’t always ready for, making decisions on my behalf, offering to help me out financially or otherwise, condescending hesitance or caution, making it all seem so easy and telling me not to make such a big deal out of it. I had been under the impression that he wanted to see me step up and take the dive, but now that I had finally gone and done it, he seemed to want the opposite. This unexpected new angle freaked me out, but since I’d already passed the point of no return, I pushed back my fear and told myself it was fine. He was testing me, and now I needed to show everyone what I was made of.
IGNORING RED FLAGS
As I’m writing all this down, I see so many red flags whipping around in the storm that I can practically feel them slapping my face. You might be wondering how on earth I didn’t notice them before, and to be honest I spent quite a while mulling over that question myself.
Here’s the thing: you can’t see red flags if you’re wearing red tinted glasses, and I saw the world through a lens that had been colored by my father’s shenanigans from a very young age. Thus, I wasn’t seeing anything out of the ordinary and if any warning signs did reach my subconscious, they were quickly neutralized by the fact that I’d been conditioned not to trust my own intuition. And let’s not forget that kids are notoriously loyal to their parents, even as adults. I wanted to see the best in my father, just as any daughter would. All in all, it’s a lot like that metaphor of the frog sitting in the pot of water as it gradually gets hotter. It took a long time for me to notice the heat.
Throughout 2017-2018, I probably spent more time with my father than I ever had in my life. We were in training together, we became business partners, taught workshops and eventually full training courses together, I even spent weekends over at my parent’s place to limit my commute.
At first, everything was really exciting and fun, which boosted my confidence and motivated me to seriously consider doing it full-time. But over time, I started noticing things that unsettled me. As we worked together more closely, I began to see things that didn’t quite add up. Small things that by themselves could easily be ignored or brushed off as a misunderstanding, a mistake or a silly little quirk. But as time went on, these things piled up and slowly, the cracks began to appear. It’s hard to explain exactly what I saw, since the individual puzzle pieces are so small and scattered. But for the sake of illustration, I’ll give you a few examples.
His website stated that he had over 20 years of experience and that our trainings were fully accredited. This wasn’t true. I was worried that we wouldn’t be able to meet expectations and we’d be handing out invalid certificates, but whenever I voiced my concerns, he dismissed me. He told me that the IANLP had already completed their audit on NLPro, and they just kept forgetting to list us on their website. This seemed odd to me, since he wasn’t even officially certified as a trainer yet. There was no way. But whenever I questioned him further, he just waved it aside and told me not to worry.
In another situation, he asked me to edit the course material he was writing. Going through the pages, I couldn’t help but notice that the vast majority of it was a simple copy-paste from several internet pages and from our trainer’s own training manual. Not wanting to be a dick about it, I asked him whether it was intentional and if he’d asked for permission, since the material was copyrighted. He acted very surprised, saying he didn’t know what I was talking about and he’d worked especially hard to write everything in his own words. I was flabbergasted, since the plagiarism was so blatantly obvious that he couldn’t possibly deny it. But he maintained that I was mistaken, and I let it go.
This was a common theme: if he received critical questions, he’d either dismiss them, beat around the bush or just lie. His communication was always indirect, giving everyone different pieces or versions of the story and keeping people separated so that the full picture never came into view.
Another example. After a workshop, an enthusiastic participant inquired about our training options. My father presented our upcoming NLP Practitioner and Hypnosis courses as though he’d been doing them for years, when in fact this was going to be our trial run. He wasn’t even certified yet, nor did we have our training dates, location and course materials ready.
She told him about her desire to start her own small business, and he promised we’d help her with that, too. “I have a lot of experience, and so does Carolien. You can ask her anything. You can trust us!” he said, with a smile. I stood there feeling incredibly awkward, since he’d just lied to her face and made her a promise on my behalf that I knew I couldn’t live up to. If I failed, it would make us both look bad. It could ruin both of our reputations and careers. But it would make us look equally bad if I called him out on the spot. So, I kept my mouth shut and pulled him aside afterwards. He shrugged it off as a business tactic, and when I asked him to let me speak for myself in the future, he agreed. I was proud of myself for setting a boundary and I was certain that if I continued to do so, we’d be fine. But these things happened more and more down the line.
Another thing I noticed, was that he was like a chameleon. Around others, he’d step into some kind of ‘guru’ mode, presenting himself as superior and all-knowing, yet humble and relatable. He’d bluff his way through, telling inspirational life stories that were either exaggerations or flat out lies. Initially, I assumed that he did this just to illustrate a point, which I can understand. But it made me feel increasingly awkward, especially when he dragged me into it and made me play along.
He acted overly friendly, helpful and jovial with everyone, continuing to laugh and talk on the way out after training, but he’d switch it off the second we got into the car to drive home. That switch was especially confusing; we’d be in full conversation one minute and then suddenly I’d get nothing more than a disinterested “hmm” out of him, leaving me to wonder what I’d done wrong.
As his assistant, I spent most of my time sitting at a desk at the back of the room, where I could oversee everything and jump in when needed. I loved it at first; it felt really good when I could help out or contribute something useful to the lesson. However, it became increasingly stressful as more and more of my time was spent correcting his mistakes or filling in the gaps whilst trying not to step on his ego or damage our reputation in the process.
My father seemed more concerned with his image than with the safety and validity of what he was teaching. He loved to be seen as the most knowledgeable person in the room, he’d rather lie than admit that he didn’t know something. A master in bluff, he could be incredibly convincing while spreading information that was false or incomplete, sometimes leading to very sticky situations. But even then, he seldom owned up to his mistakes. Instead, he’d try to convince everyone he was right, blame it on someone else, or he'd just make it seem like the mistake was intentional. I shit you not, even that cliché statement ‘I was just checking to see if you were paying attention’ was deployed.
It frustrated and worried me that these people trusted my father blindly, and he handled it so carelessly. At the very least, they were receiving false information. But worst-case scenario, they could get hurt during training, or they could be learning inadequate skills and hurting others when putting them to practice somewhere down the line. And as if that wasn’t bad enough; now that my name was linked to NLPro, if my father did ever take the fall, he’d effectively drag me and my future down with him. And so, I was constantly alert as I frantically tried to intercept any balls he dropped.
If I caught him out, his response depended on whether he could reasonably talk his way out of it. If I was within my area of expertise, he’d be more inclined to chuckle, thank me, and weave my contribution into the lesson. If not, he’d tell me I was wrong and point out that he was ahead of me in training and I’d probably just misunderstood or missed that particular subject. As you can imagine, this caused a lot of confusion and self-doubt on my end.
Never the less, I didn’t see malintent in my father’s behavior. I assumed that he meant well, even though his execution wasn’t always up to par. But that’s why we made such a good team; my qualities and expertise overlapped where he fell short and vice versa. So, when I got annoyed or frustrated, or when I got the feeling that something wasn’t quite right, I told myself that I was being mean, nit-picky or arrogant. It wasn’t my job to judge him for the balls he dropped, it was my job to catch them. Our results were a combined effort, after all. And he’d do the same for me. Besides, I didn’t plan to stay forever. I had my own dreams, my own business (Soulfire) was slowly coming off the ground, and one day I’d be ready to fly out on my own. In the meantime, I’d just make it work.
THE DESSERT SPOON
By the time 2019 rolled around, I wasn’t the only one to notice that something weird was going on. His questionable behavior becoming more overt by the day, it soon took all the cognitive dissonance that I could muster just to be able to keep giving him the benefit of the doubt. But with the stakes so high, I suppose my subconscious had good reason to stay in denial for as long as I did.
Up until then, all the puzzle pieces that presented themselves to me had been inconspicuous or open to multiple interpretations. But what happened in January 2019 is still etched into my brain as the moment that the façade began to waver and pennies began to drop.
With NLPro growing steadily, my father decided to expand our team. My mother took care of administration, my youngest brother completed his own NLP training and joined us as a coach and training assistant, and a young woman we’ll call Amanda was recruited for marketing and social media. Initially a coaching client, Amanda had been seeing my father for relationship therapy with her husband, and they both took part in our NLP Practitioner training. That’s how I knew her, too.
Although I’d noticed that my father was very friendly with her, I didn’t think much of it. I was used to seeing him in guru-mode, exerting his charisma and being overly amical with everyone, and I knew him to be a little…oblivious, or tone-deaf at times. Nowadays I wonder if he was just playing dumb all those years, but at the time I was convinced that although he acted like an idiot sometimes, it was innocent. My mother and my brother weren’t too sure though, and they voiced their concerns more than once. I suppose that from my biased standpoint, I didn’t see what was happening right under my nose. Until of course, the evening came that my father took us all out for a celebratory business-dinner and proceeded to hand-feed Amanda whipped cream from his dessert spoon.
Yet even after walking out ahead of his wife and kids to the restaurant, arm in arm with a giggling, stiletto clad Amanda, choosing his seat beside her at the dinner table and performing this peculiar mating ritual right in front of our eyes, he seemed surprised by our dismay upon returning home. My mother was hurt, my brother was pissed, I was confused…yet my father maintained that he and Amanda were just friends and we all needed to stop overreacting.
Although he didn’t understand the problem, he agreed to distance himself from her and keep their interactions professional. Yet lo and behold, just a few evenings later, Amanda called him from a gas station in the middle of nowhere, where she’d been left behind by her husband after an argument. It was late, he’d only just returned home and scarfed down his dinner, but before he’d even told my mum about his day, he leapt off the couch and started the car. Jumping to the rescue, he picked Amanda up and took her home with him, consoling her as she wept on my parents’ sofa.
To her credit, my mother kept her cool, though needless to say she was not amused. My brother on the other hand, ever protective of our mother, didn’t even try to hide his feelings on the matter as he completely went off at my father.
To them, it was clear as day that something unsavory was going on. But for me, through the lens of my loyalty bias, I didn’t see it yet. Looking back, I feel so stupid that I actually jumped into the crossfire to protect him. I took on a mediating role as I tried to keep the peace and restore the status quo, assuring everyone that he was just overdoing it with the nice-guy gig, blissfully unaware of how he came off. I desperately tried to convince everyone that it was just big misunderstanding. But over time, things got weirder and weirder until they became impossible to deny, even for me.
Before Amanda had completed her training under my fathers’ wing, the quality of which is up for debate, he had already promoted her to the position of assistant trainer. She always showed up early and they were attached at the hip for the rest of the day. I could hardly even get a word in, he dismissed me entirely. He was an entirely different person around her, acting goofy as though he were trying to dial down his age, regurgitating cliché motivational quotes that he didn’t actually live by, developing a sudden taste for her go-to beverage, fresh ginger tea, and uploading sentimental Facebook posts about his dead parents despite having basically shunned them in the past. It seemed as though he was mirroring her, drawing her in, and she fell hard for it.
Although he maintained that their relationship was strictly professional, they eventually got sloppy. Their constant flirting was nauseating and uncomfortable to watch, and with so many other clients around, I was terrified that they’d soon be caught in the act. They didn’t seem too bothered though, my father at some point even sitting down right next to me at lunch while playing footsy with Amanda under the table. Not wanting to draw attention to the matter, I held my tongue until I could get him alone. But when I asked him to stop flirting in front of everyone, he put on the most innocent face he could muster and replied: “What are you talking about? I'm not doing anything.”
At some point, a mutual acquaintance in his office building told me that she regularly saw them slip into his office together and place the flip-over in front of the window, hiding their faces but leaving a view of their legs standing…suspiciously close together, as she put it. They were not leaving much up to imagination, but even then, I hoped that it wasn’t what it looked like.
Maybe I just didn’t want to see it. I mean, think about it. My own father, my partner in crime and the man I’d just entrusted my entire future to, seemed to be having an affair with his coaching client. A young woman just two months older than myself, with plenty of issues of her own, who had initially been seeing him for relationship therapy, of all things. Granted, my dad is not a registered therapist so it technically isn’t illegal. But it’s definitely frowned upon, and for good reason; general grossness aside, there’s an undeniable power imbalance at play there. It’s just not ok.
What’s more, if people found out, it’d ruin his reputation and credibility in the field, risking the future of his own business as well as tainting mine by association. If he took the fall for this, he’d drag me down with him. Having just quit my job, I was financially dependent on NLPro. And aiming to build up my own career in the field, both my future and my dreams were on the line along with the roof over my head. My father didn’t seem bothered by this at all. In fact, he seemed perfectly aware of his leverage over me as his behavior became more erratic by the day and he didn’t even really bother to mask it anymore. Whether it be cockiness, sloppiness or just plain assholery, I think he assumed that with so much to lose, I’d keep my mouth shut and take whatever he threw at me.
Furthermore, the way he held himself throughout the situation was beyond hurtful to those closest to him. He treated his family like a cast-off doormat, shoving his own wife and children aside for the high of others’ attention and adoration. Dancing around the truth and beating around the bush, he continued to drag the whole thing out as he frantically evaded any form of accountability.
But still, even with this situation added to the list of questionability surrounding his person, nothing in me assumed malintent. Sure, he had some issues and he’d done some stupid things, but hey, we’re all human and we all make mistakes. Hurt and angry as I was, I still believed that my dad was a good person at heart and we’d eventually figure this out, just like everything else.
I guess I still hadn’t clicked enough puzzle pieces together to see the full picture. But that day was coming closer, looming on the horizon like a flock of birds heading straight for the blades of a windmill.
I didn’t know it yet, but the shit was about to hit the fan…
We meet again. Welcome back.
In my previous blog, I talked about some of the important life changes I made in 2021 and let you in on how I’ve been doing lately with my mental health. There have been massive changes all-round, and I still have some explaining to do in terms of how all that came to be.
I mentioned the fact that c-PTSD, which I was recently diagnosed with, finds its roots in repeated and prolonged trauma, often starting in early childhood. I also referred to the great fucktastrophy of 2019, but had not yet gotten around to telling you what that exactly entails.
It’s a long story full of plot twists, segways, interwoven storyline, smoke and mirrors; I’m still in the process of untangling the confusing chaos myself, and finally writing it all down is just another way in which I’m slowly putting the pieces of the puzzle together as I process and move on. So, if you’re along for the ride, buckle up, buttercup…it’s going to be a wild one.
In order to understand what happened and why it had such a huge impact, you need to know a little more about me and my history. Let me start with a bit of a back story….
SETTING THE SCENE
Rewind back to 2016 for a second, to my 30th birthday.
I brought all my old bands back together and organized a giant jam session just for the occasion, inviting everyone I cared about to join us. It was a memorable evening involving some pretty epic shit, including but not limited to a guitarist in a fur coat and a giraffe legging, and my dreadlocks somehow getting tangled in the guitar strings at one point. I still think of that night often, it meant so much to me. When I walked into that venue, hung up the balloons, welcomed my guests, climbed onto the stage and sang my lungs out for four hours straight, I wasn’t just celebrating my birthday, I was celebrating that I was finally alive.
As you know, I’ve had my struggles in the past and dealt with depression, anxiety, self-injury and eating disorders for over a decade. After roaming the mental healthcare system for many years without sustainable results, I’d almost resigned to “just learning to live with it”, since that’s what I was repeatedly told by the countless professionals who couldn’t figure out what to do with me.
It was pure grace that I met my coach when I did, leading me to discover a vastly different approach that actually worked for me. With her support, I embarked upon a challenging journey as I took full responsibility for my own health and happiness. Working incredibly hard on myself, I faced my demons, challenged my limiting beliefs, healed old wounds, built and strengthened relationships, learned new tools, got my life on track and I was finally standing on my own two feet. I had secured my dream job teaching biology at a school that I absolutely loved, I’d gathered a tribe of wonderful people around me, created a nice little home for myself and I was finally living life to the fullest.
Although I knew there was still work to be done, I really believed that the dog days were finally over and I had come out the other end a stronger and better version of myself. For the first time in my life, I was fully alive, healthy and happy. Genuinely happy.
HOPES AND DREAMS
My recovery left me feeling equal parts euphoria and sheer outrage. I mean, not only had I just spent a decade of my life needlessly suffering, wandering through a broken system and unaware that there were other options…but there were so many others out there still doing that same thing!
Now that I was aware that there were better, more effective options, I wanted to learn more so I could continue to heal and grow, and learn to help others as well. After all, I had navigated that dark labyrinth, I knew it like the back of my hand and now I also knew the way out. I simply could not -in good conscience- just happily skip off into the sunset and keep that knowledge all to myself.
One of the methods my coach used was Neuro Linguistic Programming. I already had some prior experience, since I’d briefly worked with an NLP coach in the past and I’d minored in coaching during my Batchelor’s degree. But now I also had this profound personal experience with it and the results were so spectacular that I was excited to learn the methods for myself. After all, up until then practically the whole world had been trying to convince me that my mental health – or rather, the lack thereof – was a life sentence and there was nothing anyone could do to change that. And just look at me now! That shit’s golden, and I felt compelled to pay it forward.
I saw myself helping those who, like me, found themselves struggling and spinning in circles in the psychiatric system, believing that they would never recover simply because the conventional route did not meet their needs. I even hoped to one day develop more effective treatment methods, train therapists and make this type of healthcare more accessible.
Obviously, I didn’t plan to achieve all this overnight, or even over a decade for that matter.
It was more of a long-term passion project that I wanted to do alongside my teaching job. Although that may seem impractical to some, that’s just how I roll. I love having projects alongside a steady job. The stable income provides me with the freedom to authentically go all-out on my passions.
Take my work at the gym, for example: since I’m freelance and not financially dependent on it, I’m free to choose which classes I teach and when. That way, I can fully focus on the ones that suit me best or that are most important to me, and leave the rest for someone else. Honestly, it doesn’t even feel like work. It’s more like a paid hobby and it gives me more energy than it costs.
So, I wanted to approach coaching the same way. Money out of the way, I’d focus fully on the clients that best fit my target-group and take enough time to expand my skills and knowledge. Ever better: I could help people for free or at low cost, thus lowering the threshold for people who couldn’t afford ‘alternative’ help. I didn’t have a timeline in mind, but I was keen as mustard!
MAKING IT HAPPEN
You probably haven’t noticed this about me – insert sarcasm - but I’m one of those people with a ridiculously large collection of hobbies and a broad scope of interests. And once I latch on to something, there is no holding back. I’m going to dive in and immerse myself entirely, because half-assed does not exist when it comes to the things that I’m passionate about.
So, once I had my sights set on learning to coach and changing the mental health game, I couldn’t wait to start paving the way. My first step was finding the right trainer, and I knew that the person who had trained my own coach just so happened to be one of the best in his field. Wanting to acquaint myself first, I scooted on over to his website and scrolled through all of the options for shorter experience workshops. They all seemed equally interesting, so I just signed up for the next one on the agenda: Analytic Profiling.
Then, later that week, I spontaneously invited my father to tag along. It’s actually kinda funny how that happened. Over at my parent’s place for dinner, I walked in on two of my brothers arguing with one another as my father unsuccessfully tried to mediate by imposing his solution on them without actually listening to their needs. Having observed the situation, we later struck up a conversation about the patterns I’d seen and I offered some ideas for a more effective approach. Now, that may sound like a bit of a weird topic of conversation between a father and his kids, so for context I should add that my father and I have many common interests, and as a businessman and a total geek for logic and analysis, he was quite open to discuss communication strategies with me, especially since it could benefit him in the future.
Anyway, my analysis must have piqued his interest as he asked me where I’d been learning that stuff. So, telling him about my own coaching trajectory and my ambitions, I invited him to come along to the workshop. Knowing for sure he’d absolutely love it, I thought it would be a cool father-daughter activity. And if it ended up being beneficial to our personal development and our family dynamic, then that would be an added bonus.
Initially, my father was a little hesitant. He argued that he’d tried before, but he could never seem to find a trainer that was ‘far enough above him to teach him anything new’. Eventually, I managed to convince him that if he really was interested and if finding a trainer was the bottleneck, a one-day workshop would be a great way to test the waters. Nothing ventured, nothing gained.
And so that next Friday, we showed up at the venue together and spent the day learning all about the fascinating world of micro-expressions and body language. We had an absolute blast and lo and behold, my father was so enthusiastic that he enrolled for two training courses on the spot.
I was extremely keen to participate myself but I couldn’t afford the tuition just yet and I was pretty bummed about the prospect of having to wait a few more years. You can imagine my elation when I was offered the opportunity to participate at a discount, so that my father and I could do the NLP Practitioner training together!
Looking back, I’m sure that the trainer saw something happening that very first day at the workshop and had good reason to train me alongside my father. I wasn’t aware of it then, but would provide me with tools and insight that would come to be of vital importance in the near future and for that I’m eternally grateful. But at the time, I was simply thrilled to get started on what turned out to be a life-changing journey that continued on through many more courses, including NLP Master Practitioner and Master Coach of Strategic Intervention. I had a dream, and I was making it happen!
My father and I commenced our training together in the spring of 2016. It was an exciting time, I was completely obsessed with everything new I was learning as I put my skills to practice and spent every spare minute devouring books, videos and every scrap of knowledge I could add to that.
And if you thought I was fanatic, wait ‘till you hear about my dad. He raced ahead as he always does, and within just a few months he decided to pull a 180, leave his current occupation and start his own coaching and training business. Business cards were printed, a website was set up and his first clients were hauled in all before he had even completed his first course. He was soon well underway with huge plans and aspirations, and the most exciting part was: he wanted me to be a part of it!
My father’s new business, NLPro, expanded quickly alongside his ever-growing ambitions. Considering my own aspirations, it didn’t take long for us to start collaboratively fantasizing about future endeavors. My father planned to continue expanding his business with coaching, workshops and training in personal development as I planned to carefully start coaching alongside my teaching job, working to build a foundation from which I could impact the mental health system in the future.
Although we both followed a different timeline and approach, there was enough common ground for us to consider joining forces, combining my personal experience and teaching skills with his boldness and entrepreneurial experience. We could refer clients to one another, develop and teach new training courses…we’d be having fun and making an impact at the same time!
As this project was so close to my heart, I really wanted to take my time and do it right. It was an exciting yet daunting prospect, as it required my venturing out into vastly unknown terrain and putting myself out there. As a lone wolf who doesn’t enjoy networking or asking for help, I had to let go of my primary instinct to do everything by myself. But for a cause so important to me, I was willing to set aside my hesitance and accept that collaboration was essential to making it work. Considering the relationship I had with my father, I concluded that if I was going to take the dive and trust someone to hold my best interest at heart, my own dad was my safest bet.
They say that first-born daughters always look like a female version of their dad. Well, my younger father had long hair, leather pants and a rock band and I swear that if you photoshop my teenage face on that mental image, you wouldn’t be able to tell the difference.
My father and I have a lot in common, not just in looks. For instance, we’re both thinkers, cerebral and analytical. We get high on learning, information our drug of choice and book collections bursting out of their seams as we consume facts and theory as though our lives depend on it. We’re fast learners with an extensive and ever-growing array of hobbies and interests; whatever we dive into, we’re immersed in no time at all and we aim to master it quickly and proficiently.
We are also both incredibly creative and share a passion for music, which is probably what we bonded over the most. We both sing and play various instruments, took part in musical theatre, visited many concerts, played together at parties and family gatherings and even formed a band for a while. That was our gig, pun intended. He was prouder of my talents and achievements than I was, and just loved showing me off to anyone willing to listen, no matter how awkward I felt about it.
With so much in common, it makes sense that I naturally leaned more towards him. I was a real daddy’s girl and I thought the sun shone out of his ass. He was so smart, charming and resilient, there was nothing he didn’t know or couldn’t do. Everybody seemed to love him, and the few who didn’t were either jealous or threatened by him. Craving his approval, I wanted to be just like him.
Looking back though, I wonder if I really was that close to my dad, or rather to the image of him that I’d created in my mind. You see, my father wasn’t really around much during my childhood. I was hardly aware of it at the time, but he was always either at work or out somewhere chasing his latest passion. If it wasn’t band rehearsal, he was training search dogs or dangling under a helicopter whilst on a Search and Rescue mission in the New Zealand bush.
It was easy to hold up an illusion of him as the coolest dad ever, and to view my mother as the ‘bad cop’ who always spoiled the fun. After all, my mother bore the brunt of our upbringing and my father was more of a superficial presence who fixed things, brought gifts and told cool stories.
My mum basically raised four kids on her own. Five, if you count my father. She tells me that she simply accepted that my father was the kind of person who, brilliant as he was, needed to be left free to do his thing. So, she cleared the path for him. Working from home, my mum held down the fort, taking on an extra job at the supermarket in the early hours of the morning just to keep a roof over our heads when business was slow. She was also the voice of reason whenever my dad’s ideas, plans or promises became too risky or fantastical. My mother was the stable factor in our household.
My dad could be quite a whirlwind; extremely ambitious, and often impulsive, careless and full of hot air. He always had some new plan or idea that he was convinced would make it big, and it always leaned on the premise “fake it ‘till you make it”. Refusing to acknowledge risks or failure, he never bothered to be cautious or prepare for potential problems. He just went for it, and he’d figure it out along the way, no safety net required.
Although his bravado and optimism often got him very far, very fast…it did come at a price. He took his chances and often enough this led him to great heights, but the knife cuts both ways. Things didn’t always go according to plan, leaving a trail of destruction that was somehow always someone else’s fault and someone else’s job to clean up. But no matter what, he was always quick get up, dust himself off and move on. It was one of the things I admired most about him, though I didn’t realize until much later that he could never have done it without my mum. She picked up the slack, she was the safety net. If anyone was taken for granted, it was definitely her.
Personally, I had a bit of a complicated relationship with my mother. For the longest time, I subconsciously assumed she didn’t like me very much. Looking back, we just didn’t understand each other very well and we often got our wires crossed. As a baby, I had bad digestive issues and I didn’t like to be held. Whenever she tried to cuddle me, I pushed her away. This left her feeling insecure, wondering if she was doing something wrong. Sensing her hesitation, I assumed that I must be faulty and we both ended up feeling some kind of unspoken rejection from one another.
My mum can also be pretty high-strung, which in my young brain translated itself to the conclusion that I needed to take care of myself, and protect her. Que the development of a hyper-independent miniature adult who preferred to be left to her own devices, as if I wasn’t stubborn enough to begin with. Both being very precise, strong willed and wanting things a certain particular way, our personalities just clashed. Thankfully, we get along a lot better these days.
To the outside world, I’m pretty sure we looked like a perfectly normal, happy family. And for the most part, we were. I mean, we were an odd bunch for sure but we hardly ever fought, we loved each other and we had our good times. But of course, every family has their ow problems and we were no exception to the rule.
My parents had their own struggles resulting from their own histories respectively, and in our household, we simply didn’t do vulnerability. We connected and communicated on a superficial level as we each co-existed on our own little islands, and difficult conversations, feelings and conflict were avoided like the plague; you just had to suck it up. Generally, we dealt with the hard stuff by ignoring, downplaying or rationalizing it and focusing solely on practical solutions.
Children aren’t born with the ability to navigate and regulate their own emotions; this is something we learn from our primary caretakers. Parents obviously do the best they can with the skills and knowledge that they have at their disposal, but their approach doesn’t always match the child’s needs. I can’t speak for my brothers, but personally, I felt like I couldn’t turn to my family for support if I was going through something difficult. I didn’t learn to regulate or navigate my emotions, needs and boundaries, in a healthy way; instead, I developed a whole myriad of unhealthy coping mechanisms along the way. Because unfortunately, I did experience some hard shit throughout my childhood that I could have used some help processing.
Our family immigrated twice, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it definitely comes with its challenges. And for years, we lived in an unsafe neighborhood where it wasn’t at all unusual for the neighbors to slash our tires, smash our windows with empty beer bottles in the middle of the night or burgle our house while we were out for a swim. There was always tension under the radar, amplified by the fact that my parents both worked their asses off but could barely make ends meet.
Although they tried to hide it from us, I remember waking up one night to the sound of my parents crying in the next room, and suddenly being very aware: if even my dad is worried, we must really be in trouble. Aside from the struggles we had as a family, there were also things going on in my own life that I didn’t quite know how to handle. I was bullied relentlessly at school but I quickly learned not to come home upset, as I was told to either ignore it, or toughen up. I also experienced repeated sexual abuse at the hands of our next-door neighbor, which ended up in a court case and the whole shebang. Unfortunately, the emotional support and guidance that I needed was not up for grabs and I came up with my own creative, make-shift solutions such as dissociation, bottling things up, moving into my head, people pleasing, perfectionism and avoiding authentic connection. Those solutions got me through when I needed them, but obviously they weren’t exactly adequate for the long haul.
My relationship with my father was complex; as much as I loved and admired him, there was quite a flipside. There were certain patterns in his behavior that impacted me, our relationship and our family dynamic dramatically, and caused a lot of harm over the years.
To me, my father was a very confusing man. The things that he said and did, and the way he presented himself, didn’t seem to line up with how I felt when I was around him. He could be very controlling and manipulative, though in a subtle way that was practically invisible to the naked eye. On the surface, he was always a kind, charming paragon of politeness, reason, and understanding and because of that, it took me many years to figure out what was happening in the undertow.
A remnant of his own upbringing, my father often used guilt or emotional blackmail to bend me to his will. I was often told I was selfish, and from a young age he instilled in me his own version of the ‘emotional bank account’. Effectively, this meant that everything had strings attached. If I did something wrong or refused to do what he asked, he only needed to remind me of everything he’d done for me and hint at how my decision may affect our relationship the future, that would win me over. And if not, threatening ‘what will everybody think’ was a very effective way scare me straight.
As you can imagine, it wasn’t easy setting boundaries or communicating needs and feelings with him; he simply didn’t accept or acknowledge what didn’t suit him. Over the years, all this took on a life of its own in my brain as literally any social interaction became a transaction and I felt like I was in permanent debt. If someone so much as smiled at me on the street, I felt guilty. Hell, I even felt bad if I gave someone a gift or did them a favor, because by doing something for them, it could potentially make them feel guilty, and I felt bad for putting them in that position.
To my father, the notion that different views and opinions can co-exist, was foreign despite the Covey principles preached. He lived in a very black and white world; it’s either win or lose, you or me, and there’s only room for one truth. Thus, if our worlds ever collided, his primary objective was to make sure that his own world remained intact, and he would stop at nothing to achieve that.
As a child, I quickly learned that my feelings, experiences or needs were only valid if I could rationally back them up. The only way to create space for my own existence was to provide a rock-solid logical argument or an appealing lure to get the other person on board. To this day, I still feel compelled to over-explain everything and question myself all the time, not to mention my knee-jerk reaction to immediately try to win over anyone who has a different opinion from my own before I lose my right to exist. I don’t like that about myself, and it takes a conscious effort to work around it.
Discussions with my father were a mind-fuck of epic proportion, I often left conversations feeling drained, confused and empty. Smart and quick witted as he was, he’d have you buried under an avalanche of information and trapped in his web of logic in no time. He was incredibly convincing and persuasive, yet also freakishly good at conjuring guilt and shame from the crevices of your mind. And the most mind-boggling of it all, was that his calm and rational good-guy exterior never faltered.
During conflict, I felt immobilized. His tactics ensnared me like vines wrapping around my limbs, his calm demeanor making it so that I couldn’t possibly express myself without looking like the bad guy, or like a crazy, irrational drama queen. And so, internally, I was screaming to be heard as I thrashed around and hurtled myself against the bars of a sound-proof cage, breaking my bones with the sheer force of my own frustration. Conflict always tore me up inside, because if I chose myself, it would inevitably result in disconnection from the other person, but choosing to comply would lead to disconnection from myself. I had to choose between two evils and I usually ended up choosing the latter, thus learning to sacrifice my authentic self in order to receive love and acceptance. Conflict still terrifies me, although it’s really the loneliness and the pain of the disconnect that I’m afraid of.
My father was also very achievement-oriented and could be extremely critical. I assume his intention was to help me grow and improve, but keen as I was on earning his approval, his pushing caused a lot of frustration and performance anxiety on my end.
I remember being twelve years old and signing up for a talent competition. My dad was probably more excited than I was, and he made it his mission to see me win. Devising a makeshift microphone stand out of an oar attached upside-down to a chair and a microphone duct taped to the handle, he had me rehearse my song over and over for weeks, adding props and choreography, videotaping me and reviewing my performance dozens of times. Unsurprisingly, I eventually got sick of it and I told him I wanted to continue on my own. My father got incredibly angry and argued that I’d never win if I didn’t stick with his plan. When I replied that I just wanted to have fun and I didn’t care if I won, he yelled: “That’s ridiculous, no one does these things for fun. You’re either in it to win it, or you’re out”. When I disagreed, he exclaimed: “Well, don’t come crying to me when you lose!” When I ended up winning second place, he was the first to brag about my achievement, though.
I also clearly remember an incident following my first parent-teacher conference at high-school after moving to the Netherlands. Considering the fact that I’d just moved half way around the world, learned a new language and adjusted to a completely different education system, I was quite proud of my results, as was my mentor. Coming home expecting a pat on the head, you can imagine my shock and bewilderment when I was suddenly standing with my back pressed to the fridge as my father got up in my face and began loudly reprimanding me for not trying hard enough.
My father was very intelligent, but he had a hard time meeting people at their level of understanding. He loved to help out, but to be honest, his help often left me feeling more insecure and bewildered than I felt beforehand. I will say that I quickly learned never to ask him for help with my homework as having him explain math to my dyscalculic brain was a recipe for disaster. His last attempt ended with me in tears of frustration and him yelling in my face: “Oh come on, you’re not even trying! You’re just pretending to be a moron!”
Accepting help from my father was a precarious thing. His love of teaching and helping others may seem like a noble cause, but I often got the impression that it had more to do with his need to be needed, or to be seen as special and interesting. An opportunity to showcase how good, smart, nice and helpful he was. The way he pressured me, led me to believe that my success was very important to him. And it was, especially when others were watching; he loved to show me off. But the way he helped me often set me up for failure, for example by giving me incomplete, vague or incorrect information, feeding my insecurities and pushing me into the deep end before I was ready, eventually leading to my defeat along with the inevitable blows to my self-confidence. It was almost as though he wanted me successful and independent in public, but he also needed me to fail and be dependent on him behind the scenes. I walked a tightrope trying to balance the two.
What I learned from all this, was that lacking a certain skill or piece of information was not acceptable. And so, I would avoid or run from situations, bluff my way through, anything to avoid asking for help or admitting incompetence. I mastered figuring things out for myself, always keeping my eyes and ears open to pick up missing puzzle pieces. Any venture had to be done right the first time, and it had to look easy. I lived in a constant fear of being unmasked, ridiculed and cast out, an imposter amongst all these people who knew what they were doing.
I had adapted myself to observe and learn quickly, making me as independent as possible. I didn't want to need anyone. Yet the constant anxiety simultaneously kept me tethered to my dad. I was unknowingly under his control, convinced that I needed him to help me navigate this big scary world. I felt helpless, so ignorant about the ways of the world and yet unpermitted to make mistakes or to ask for help. I felt paralyzed, and his 'support' was the medicine that I kept taking, believing that it was helping me while it was actually what was paralyzing me in the first place.
My father described our relationship as close and special, and I always said the same. Yet deep down, I felt as though I didn’t really know him at all. He was like a chameleon, morphing into a different person around everyone he met. His demeanor, stories, interests and opinions changed along with whoever he was talking to and who was around to hear it, and went flat when they left.
He had a way of fluffing and hyping things up, making them seem more important or special than they were. Making promises he didn’t or couldn’t keep and grand gestures that seemed out of place, I’d often come away feeling awkward or disappointed, and then I’d scold myself for being so ungrateful. I even remember accusing myself of setting him up for failure by setting my expectations too high, or not expressing myself clearly enough. He was only doing his best; I needn’t be so mean.
I often wondered why I felt so awkward, subdued and on edge around him. I didn’t get why I felt scared, why I didn’t trust him and why I didn’t feel safe even though he was such a loving and supportive father. I assumed it was my own fault and I felt horribly guilty about that, so outwardly I did all that I could to ignore and counteract it. I trusted him and let him in because I felt like I was supposed to, even when my gut protested.
There were always little things, whether it be the bluff, the white lies, the unkept promises or the overly-enthusiastic pushing of boundaries, but I always brushed them off as quirks, assuming that my dad had his heart in the right place. I loved him all the same.
When I got into NLP, I slowly started seeing all these patterns. Sure, I’d gained some basic insight from the few family therapy sessions we’d had all those years ago, but only to the extent that I was aware there was some unhealthy shit going on. This time around, I was really bringing it all out into the light and exploring it in depth. And since my father and I were both in that training, I figured it was time to have an open and honest conversation with him about these patterns, and about how his behavior had affected me over the years. He responded surprisingly well, acknowledging that he had a tendency to be manipulative and opening up about his own childhood and how it had shaped him. He seemed to be gaining a lot of insight and he was really committed to changing toxic patterns and improving his relationships. I even saw him taking steps and making big changes as the training went on, which felt really good and which strengthened my trust in him. As time went by, we grew closer and our relationship stronger as did my faith in our future collaborations.
Little did I know that my entire life and everything I thought I knew was about to be flipped upside down, torn to shreds and burned to the ground…
To be continued.
Isn’t it weird how time can seem to pass in the blink of an eye, yet simultaneously feel as though many lifetimes have gone by?
Throughout 2015 and 2016, I wrote down my struggles, strides and victories, sharing with you my journey of healing, recovery and growth. I left off with my last blog ‘2016: Stardust & Duct tape’, though I was by no means “done”, nor was I under any pretense that my life would be smooth sailing from then on. But I was on the right track and I was in a really good place.
If you are at all acquainted with Murphy’s Law, you’re probably expecting a curve ball at this point. Yeah, so was I. But let me tell you, out of all the unexpected that you learn to expect…this particular curve ball was more like a rogue wrecking ball doused in gasoline and set to ignite.
For a long time, I’ve been feeling the urge to write it all down and get it out of my system. But I was so entangled in bewilderment and confusion that I simply couldn’t find the words, and I didn’t want to kick up a fuss. Part of me was terrified that speaking out would lead to ramifications. So, I held my tongue, but in doing so…I also held myself hostage.
And I’m done with that.
So here we are…
SO, HOW AM I NOW?
I’ve noticed over the years that how well I’m doing tends to be inversely proportional to how well I take that question, and I’d say that right now I handle the topic about just as well as the Wicked Witch of the West handles the rain. Meaning, I avoid it like the plague. So yeah, nah, I’m going to be perfectly honest with you here as there’s no point in denying it: I’m not feeling well.
Times are tough, though they have been tougher. And yeah, I’m tough too, but I have my limits and those have been heavily tested over the past three years. I’d like to share what’s been going on and just how I got to this point, but it’s hard to know where to begin. So, I suppose I’ll just start in the present and work my way back from there.
STATING THE OBVIOUS
So, we can all agree that 2020 was a bitch, right? I think I can safely assume that we’re on the same page there. I don’t know about you, but personally I spent that shitshow pouring every last bit of my energy into treading water as I tried to stay afloat. Since going with the flow was basically the only option we had, I let the waves come and go as I focused solely on keeping my head above the water until the storm would eventually pass. Obviously, that didn’t go as planned or expected.
When the clock struck midnight that New Year’s Eve, I probably wasn’t the only one who toasted to the wishful thought that 2021 would be better: it would be our ticket out. But alas, it pretty quickly proved to be more of a sequel, as covid numbers peaked again and we were launched into yet another round of lockdowns and restrictions.
Thanks to a very well trained and extremely stubborn built-in auto-pilot function, I did a pretty good job of at least making it seem like I was keeping it together. However, by the time the July lockdown of 2021 was being deliberated, I wasn’t so sure I could steer clear of a complete mental breakdown anymore. The people around me were dropping like flies, falling apart at the seams and burning out. I felt the same inside, but as exasperated as I felt, I had to keep going.
In practical terms, I had already lost so much income that I was scared of ending up on the streets. Coincidentally and thankfully, about a month before shit went down, a totally unrelated situation (which I’ll talk more about later) forced me to take a job in a supermarket which effectively turned me into an essential worker.
Minimum wage kept me coughing up my rent during lockdown, though the job did come at a price. Working a dead-end job in a toxic work environment caused a level of stress that I wouldn’t have accepted had I had anywhere else to go. But jobs were hard to come by and after a while it also became apparent that my own business wasn’t going to survive; I had to give up my office and close my practice for good in order to avoid going bust. So, in terms of career or income, the future was looking bleak. I didn’t like where I was, but I had no place else to go and I couldn’t afford to stop what I was doing just yet.
Mentally, the situation in the world was just as much of an onslaught: the stress of losing my income, my business and my sense of autonomy, along with the effects of isolation, losing the things that made life worthwhile or enjoyable and the lack of perspective as the goalpost was shifted over and over again. And with the government act like an overbearing, toxic parent I felt coddled, gaslit, controlled, triangulated and guilt-tripped. With everyone so strung out, nobody seemed capable of having an open, adult conversation anymore; no matter what your opinion, you could be sure that if you opened your mouth, someone else would attack or ostracize you for it. The constant tension in the air and the ever-growing level of polarization and social control was extremely overwhelming.
What’s more, logic was nowhere to be found, thus there was no way to predict what would happen next or when any of this would come to an end. And usually, when times are tough, I escape in my own mind with fantasies about fleeing to a far-away place. But with the entire world involved, even those thoughts were quickly blocked off. I felt trapped, and that drove me crazy. It triggered feelings and memories of things that I did not want to be reminded of.
The past three years have been hell. I have yet to tell you was happening in my private life, but I don’t think I need to explain that the pandemic made things exponentially worse. That cocktail has kept me oscillating between complete numbness and extreme waves of frustration, grief and anxiety for the past few years now. It’s quite the joyride, let me tell you.
You probably wouldn’t tell just by looking at me, though. I tend to freeze under stress, which outwardly looks like I’m perfectly calm and collected amidst the storm. Internally, I may very well be burning to the ground, running around in circles with my arms flapping above my head as I scream bloody murder. Honestly, since about half way through 2020 the only thing that’s been keeping me sane is thinking of death. Reminding myself that there’s an escape rope, reduces the need to escape.
Now before you balk at that, let me clarify that in my brain thoughts of death are a pretty common occurrence at any given time. They’ve been there as long as I can remember and I’ve long since learned to embrace them, as they come from an allied part of me with an important message. Those thoughts generally don’t mean that I want to die. It’s quite the opposite: I want to live, just not like this. I have learned to interpret them as a warning sign that I’m living against my own truth, a signal that there’s something going on that needs to be addressed and resolved. So, in reality those thoughts serve a function to keep me safe and whole. Though I agree their way of communicating is a little…unconventional.
Anyway, what I mean to say is that my exterior doesn’t always accurately mirror what’s going on inside. In all honesty, I’m really struggling at the moment and I have been for quite a while.
I’ve gathered some really valuable tools over the years and I’ve been using them at full force. I’m incredibly grateful for them; they get me a long way and I’m pretty sure I would have been much worse off without them. But at this point, it’s like I’m trying to empty the ocean with a thimble.
I recently came to a point where I realized that I’m in way over my head with it all, and it’s time to ask for help. I may have a pretty decent tool-box, but sometimes you need an objective set of eyes and an extra pair of hands. After all, if I were the world’s best surgeon and I broke my back in an accident, I wouldn’t operate on myself either. It was time to admit that I was down for the count and I needed to call back-up. More on that later.
REBUILDING FROM GROUND ZERO
If you know me personally or if you follow me on socials, you may have noticed that I made some pretty significant life changes in 2021. My surname changed, my job, my house…What can I say, after the great global constipation that was 2020, I certainly didn’t waste any time!
It’s starting to sound like I’m about to slap you in the face with an aesthetic picture of some avocado toast, captioned with a vague inspirational quote about raising your vibration and creating your best life. Good thing I’m not a fan of avocado toast, because I’d make a pretty lousy influencer with this one. I can assure you it wasn’t all that motivated or motivating at all.
Despite the magnitude of the steps that I took in 2021, I did not have a specific goal or vision in sight. I wasn’t really feeling much of anything at all, to be honest. The reality is quite bland: after about a year of drifting with the current, I concluded that without an end in sight I had no choice but to change strategies. As Winston Churchill said: “If you’re going through hell, keep going”. After all, you wouldn’t want to stay in hell. There you go, there’s your quote.
But yeah, I guess I just realized that if I didn’t start swimming soon, I was going to end up drifting too far from shore to find my way back. The options were ‘sink or swim’, and since I wasn’t ready to drown just yet, I felt obligated to pick the latter.
By January 2021, I was running on empty and desperately trying to find even the tiniest drop of fuel to keep me going. Options were very limited, so I had to be creative. I took that quite literally when I started scrapbooking just so that I could physically flip through the pages and remind myself of the things that I loved, whenever my mind went dark and my ability to visualize them failed me.
What started out as a collection of random collages, ended up turning into a list of short-term wishes and goals for the year and I noticed that it helped perk me up whenever I felt hopeless and grey. Some of the items were small and silly, like doing the sour candy challenge or trying a particular foreign breakfast cereal. Those things made me smile and were relatively easy to achieve, giving me the added sense of accomplishment and satisfaction that comes from crossing things off a list. And we all know I’m a sucker for that.
Eventually, though, I added a couple of really big things to the list. When I wrote them down, I didn’t even think they were attainable. They were complicated, expensive or required decisions or actions by other people…and they definitely did not meet the criteria of smart goal-setting. But by dubbing my items ‘wishes’ instead of ‘goals’, I had found a loophole in my brain that allowed me to add anything that felt good to fantasize about or look forward to, without feeling demotivated by an unreasonably high bar or the possibility that I wouldn’t cross it off that year. Without the pressure, I felt free to explore my desires, grasp opportunities and take any possible action on my part. Nothing ventured, nothing gained. As it turned out, that approach worked wonders for me. By the end of the year, I’d managed to complete about 90% of the list including every single big “crazy” thing on it.
The first ‘big one’ I hauled in, was a new teaching job. I escaped from the supermarket in July and started at my new school at the end of August. It’s hard to start over and I’m exhausted, but it’s good to be back in the classroom, and my colleagues are absolutely fantastic. It’s nice to have some perspective again, as well as a stable income. The latter also made it possible to tick off the next big thing: a ‘new’ car, as my old one was on its dying breath. The week before school started, I bought a cool black Opel Astra with a damn good sound system, making my commute a lot more enjoyable.
No sooner had I finished celebrating those achievements when the next opportunity came crashing into my already full agenda; I was growing out of my tiny apartment, and I wanted to move. When I saw a nice two-bedroom maisonette with a garden on the social housing site, I applied for it knowing full and well that I hadn’t been on the waiting list long enough to be allegeable. Somehow, I got extremely lucky. The house belonged to the same housing corporation as my apartment, which gave me priority over the other respondents. And so, amidst the chaos of my first few school weeks, I found myself amidst even more chaos with all the painting, packing and moving as well. Worth it!
The last big thing on the list had actually been a work in progress since the end of 2020. I’d applied to have my surname changed, for reasons that I’ll get into later. The process is long, tedious, expensive and emotional, so when I checked the mail at my old apartment after having dropped off a few boxes at my new place, my heart leapt into my chest as I recognized the envelope. I sat on the floor as I opened the letter, and burst into tears of relief when I read the verdict: request approved.
What followed was a whole period of bureaucratic chaos as I had to renew all of my documents, accounts and registrations. But I can’t tell you how good it feels to finally see my new name on the mail, or to be called from a waiting-room as “Mevr. Roozendaal”.
If you were to ask me whether I’m happy or proud of what the things I achieved, I’d say yes. But it would be a rational answer, as I’m not really feeling it yet. For the majority of 2020, I managed to keep myself convinced that my declining mental health was situational and that it would get better after all this was over and I had gotten my life back on track. It’s what I needed to tell myself in order to keep moving. But deep down, I knew that it would be a little more complicated than that.
Things are still pretty chaotic now, but chances are that once things settle down and I have everything sorted, I’m going to be met with a tidal wave of unprocessed shit that I’ve been holding back all this time. Although I took care of the most pressing practical issues and things are actually looking up, I feel like emotionally I haven’t quite caught up yet.
Last December, I was at a birthday party standing at the table under the disco light whilst sipping at wine and chomping on cucumber sticks. My brother and his girlfriend were there, and we rolled into a conversation about how recent events were affecting us. Just before the pandemic hit, our family had been through something awful and we were both still dealing with the aftermath.
I was trying to convey to them how I’d been feeling lately, which was really hard. The best way I could describe it, was that it feels as though something fundamental inside me has broken. It feels like I’ve lost myself. Like that last little fragment of innocence that I had managed to keep intact all those years despite everything that I went through, has finally shattered.
Now hear me out…I know I’ve never exactly been a bundle of joy and I’m certainly not the most optimistic, confident or trusting person you’ll ever meet. I’ve always considered myself to be rather cynical and given my life experiences, that does kinda make sense. The thing is, even in my darkest times, I felt like there was always a little spark hiding in there somewhere. However small, there was always a part of me that saw the good in life and in people, and that believed everything would be alright in the end. Last time I wrote, I actually thought that I had made it there.
But since the great fucktastrophy of 2019-2020, something really changed significantly. Sometimes I don’t even recognize myself or the life that I’m living. And it doesn’t really compare to anything I’ve experienced before either, which is quite an achievement in itself given the broad spectrum of mental health stuff I’ve experienced over the years. Sometimes it concerns me, but at the same time it’s like I can’t be bothered to care.
For example; I didn’t even think I could get more cynical, given my starting point. Yeah, turns out, I was wrong about that. I also feel like I’ve become even less trusting than before, both towards myself and others. I see danger and toxicity everywhere I look, and sometimes I can’t see the forest for the trees. I’m constantly asking myself: are there really that many shitty people in the world, or am I just more aware of it now? Maybe I’m biased, paranoid or just imagining things.
Don’t even ask me how many times I’ve retrieved my wallet or keys from the refrigerator lately, as my brain is foggy and my memory a sieve. Sometimes, my thoughts are interjected with jarring images and clips of awful things, my brain just randomly sprinkling them around like glitter. Halloween-glitter, if that’s even a thing.
For example, I’ll be in my car and suddenly I’ll see a horrific accident flashing before my eyes. When I pass someone in the park as I’m walking my dog, or when someone comes to my house to pick something up, I see the most brutal scenarios flash before my eyes in which I’m being overpowered, assaulted or even killed. I’m fully aware that these thoughts are not real and out of proportion, which is why I let them float on by as I just go about business as usual, but it’s not the most helpful contribution to my mental state.
My nervous system seems to be on high alert at all times, especially around other people. One certain look or tone of voice, a nearby disagreement or conflict (even if it doesn’t involve me), a sudden movement or a loud noise such as shouting or laughter; anything can send me into overdrive within a split second. My pulse spikes and I can hear my heart pounding in my ears as my face begins to flush and my legs go wobbly. It feels as though my internal organs have turned into cold, gravelly concrete that scratches my insides as my stomach knots up and my mouth goes dry. Then, my mind begins to spiral, taking me to dark places that don’t make any sense when I try to match them with the actual situation in front of me. At times like these, all I can do is breathe and wait for it to pass.
As you can probably imagine, I’m triggered a lot throughout the day considering there’s no shortage of people, loud noises and conflict in the world as is. Even more so when you work in a building full of boisterous teens four days a week. I’m already overstimulated by the time the first coffee-break rolls around and I’m in a constant state of exhaustion.
Just getting out of bed in the morning, being a functional adult and making it through the day is a challenge in itself. Currently, living feels like I’m navigating my way across a minefield, performing triage on my wounds as I go along. It’s a full-time job on top of the jobs I already have.
I put my remaining energy into the things that are strictly necessary, leaving me so overdrawn that I have no energy or motivation left to do anything else. Even brushing my teeth or cooking is a whole undertaking; you don’t know how many times I’ve resorted to eating cereal for dinner just because opening a bag of frozen vegetables –ironically bought for convenience – seems too much of a hassle.
Lately, I’ve been isolating myself more and more, physically and mentally. This leaves me feeling lonely and longing for deep connection, but at the same time I feel so intensely vulnerable and social interactions are so draining that I’d rather be left alone. So, I keep everyone at an arm’s length, no matter how kind or understanding they seem. Anything to ward off the intense feelings of anxiety, guilt and shame that are triggered whenever I let someone slip past my defenses and they get just a little too close. Ironically, I’m more afraid of the people I like than the people I don’t.
My need to retract and recharge has far exceeded my natural introverted tendencies. And well, that makes sense; with my body and mind repeatedly going haywire throughout the day and with me actively working to defuse that time and time again while continuing to function as normal, it’s a massive drain on my energy reserves.
I tried to come up with an analogy that might make this easier to understand, and I guess you could compare it to having an extreme sunburn. You might normally be cool with having people around, you might even be someone who enjoys physical touch. But if your skin is red and blistering and the layers underneath are exposed, it’s going to be searing with pain if someone even so much as looks at it, let alone touches it. No matter the person or the approach, you would yelp, jerk back or push them away before they even came close. And that’s me right now; so severely burned that it hurts to even be looked at. Nothing personal, but I’m going to keep my distance if you don’t mind.
Mood-wise, I’m on a rollercoaster that loops back and forth between extreme emotions and complete numbness. I don’t feel much of anything most of the time, just this continuous static that leaves me feeling bland, flat and grey as I go through the daily motions. It’s only when I’m triggered or when my frozen state thaws out, that I’m suddenly engulfed by overwhelming waves of anxiety, rage and grief. In an instant, I’m flooded by the intense urge to escape as impending doom closes in on me and I’m certain the world is about to end. Then, a split second later I’m hit with the realization that I’m an adult who simply has to function in that moment; there’s nowhere to run and resistance is futile. My brain registers the distress and deadpans: “Well, that’s no use, is it…” as it flicks a switch that flings me straight back into a frozen state, leaving me to act on auto-pilot.
I wouldn’t say that I’m depressed, despite the fact that it feels similar. When everything is just ‘meh’ and you can’t find enjoyment in the things that you used to love, it’s easy to draw that conclusion. But with all I’ve learned over the years about trauma and the intricate workings of the nervous system, I’m fully aware that I’m currently stuck in a fight-flight-freeze cycle and I’m living in survival mode. Don’t get me wrong, that system is a fantastic adaptation that’s doing exactly what it was made to do. Survival mode is a wonderful thing to have access to when you need it, and lord knows I needed it. But I also know that there’s a time and a place for it; it’s not a way of life and it’s not sustainable in the long run. There has to be a release at some point.
The 2019-shitshow, which I’ll get into later, reopened many old wounds, some of which I’d worked long and hard to heal and some that I didn’t even know existed in the first place. It also tore countless new, deep gashes into my system that effectively shredded apart my sense of self and my understanding of everything I thought I knew. Survival-mode was simply needed to keep me going until I could reach safety, and I did this knowing full and well that there would eventually be a time in the future when I’d come to a halt, settle back into my body and begin to process everything.
Looking at my life now, it seems that that time has come. I have salvaged what I could from the rubble, picked up the pieces and put my life back together as best I could. But now that I’ve finally made it to safety it seems that my body and mind are not getting the message.
Every now and then, I begin to thaw out a little and I can feel something stirring beneath the surface, reminding me that there’s a buttload of unprocessed shit to plow through and I have a long way to go. I’m quite factual about it here, but I can tell you I’m not looking forward to it. It’s like I’m going through a painful medical procedure under local anesthetic, acting tough and joking around as I watch it happen, all the while knowing that this is going to hurt like hell when the drugs wear off…
At the risk of sounding like I’ve been hit with the self-pity stick, I’ve got to be honest here and confess that I sometimes get really frustrated and sad over the unfairness of it all. Sometimes, it feels like I’m back at square one even though I rationally know that’s not true. It can be hard not to feel dejected, having worked so hard to recover and to rebuild my life only to have my hard-earned health and happiness torn away from me again a few short years later, by none other than the one person who should have cared the most for my wellbeing. And not only that, but to find that they planted and watered the very seeds of my struggles to begin with.
I want so badly to reach a point in my life where I can just settle down and cruise for a while. It doesn’t seem fair; I didn’t ask for any of this and it’s not even my mess to clean up…but here I am. Wallowing in the why and the woe isn’t going to get me anywhere though. I still believe that I’m responsible for my own healing, even if the wound wasn’t my fault. And I will do everything within my power to do just that. But that doesn’t keep me from cursing this fuckery from time to time.
CALLING IN REINFORCEMENT
Last summer, I started toying with the idea of going back into therapy. I was reluctant, since I haven’t had the best experience with the conventional route in the past. But a lot has changed since then. Nowadays, I take a lot more responsibility for my own process and I have a better idea of what I need, so I thought I could at least give it another chance.
Scouring the internet for the best options, I quickly discovered that the methods and approach I’m leaning towards are not covered by my insurance. That discouraged me and I gave up looking for a while, hoping that I would just start feeling better with time. Did I put my blinkers on and ignore the problem? Damn right, I did. For old time’s sake, you know?
It didn’t last long though, as my nervous system was not planning to let me forget. As time went by, I just felt worse and worse. It got to a point where I knew: I can’t go on like this. If I don’t do something now, this is going to get really ugly, really fast. I realize that I’m not equipped to deal with this oncoming tsunami on my own, I need to call in reinforcement. So, I took to the interwebs once more as I resumed my search for a somewhat unconventional therapist within in a conventional system. It wasn’t easy, but I eventually found someone who I think can help get me back on track and after three months on the waiting list, I finally made my way into her office.
Now as you may know, I have a lot to say about labels and mental health diagnoses. Suffice to say: I’m not a fan. And before people start bringing out torches and pitchforks, I’m not trying to invalidate anyone’s pain, struggles or experiences. Those are absolutely real and valid.
Personally, my concern lies in how these labels come to be in the first place; most psychiatric diagnoses are a descriptive collection of symptoms that have been lumped together based upon the assumption that they have a common core or origin, but that’s pretty hard to prove. In fact, bringing all these criteria together and slapping a name on them is a highly arbitrary process and that has a lot of drawbacks.
A diagnosis can certainly be useful if it gives you info about the cause or the most effective treatment for the issue, but with a descriptive diagnosis that’s just not the case. And don’t even get me started on the ramshackle diagnostic process and the self-fulfilling prophecy that can come from attributing more value to a label than it’s worth.
Of course, a diagnosis can have its benefits. It can open doors to treatment and resources; it can be really helpful to feel that your experience is being validated and giving it a name is a lot easier in communication. In my opinion, a diagnosis is fine if it helps you, just keep in mind where you want to go and don’t focus so much on the label that you lose sight of the person underneath. I’m glad that I am aware of that myself, and I’m glad that I found a therapist who has a similar mindset.
All that being said, I did end up with a diagnosis. For legal and insurance purposes, when you start treatment it’s just part of the deal. I’ll be honest with you though; when I eventually heard the verdict, I felt oddly relieved and validated. Because after having spent so many frustrating years of my life cycling through the psychiatric system, being slapped with countless incorrect diagnoses and working my way through a fuckton of fruitless medications and therapies, it turns out that I was right all along. There is something identifiable going on in my body and my brain, I’m not just making this up and it didn’t just come out of nowhere. And better yet; there are treatments for it.
After taking my full history, reviewing my symptoms and going through all my previous treatments and diagnoses, my therapist looked at me and all but face-palmed as she told me: “I don’t know how they’ve managed to miss this all these years, but this is textbook PTSD.”
My therapist diagnosed me with Complex Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, although I would rather call it a response than a disorder. After all, my system is doing exactly what it was made to do and it served its purpose very well; I survived. I just have yet to complete the cycle. It’s that simple, just not necessarily that easy, unfortunately.
If you don’t know what c-PTSD is, it’s basically a variant of PTSD that includes many of the same symptoms, along with a couple of additional ones. PTSD is a condition that involves a set of mental, physical and behavioral reactions following a traumatic event. The main difference with c-PTSD lies in the duration and the frequency of the trauma. PTSD stems from one or several singular events, while c-PTSD is the result of repeated trauma over a prolonged period of time, often starting in early childhood.
Common symptoms of both variants include re-living the event (e.g., flashbacks, nightmares, intrusive distressing thoughts, memories and feelings), avoiding reminders of the event, negative changes in thinking and mood, being in a constant state of high-alert and physical reactions like dizziness or palpitations. When it comes to complex PTSD, there are additional symptoms such as difficulty regulating emotions, a negative view of self, others and the world, intense feelings of shame, guilt or failure, difficulties with interpersonal relationships, detachment and dissociation.
It's not unusual for people with unprocessed trauma to experience other mental health problems as well, such as depression, anxiety or unhealthy coping mechanisms like addiction, self-harm or eating disorders. Gee, does that sound familiar?
Now, I can already hear you thinking: if this started in all the way back in early childhood, how was it not an issue before? And the answer is: it was. I’ve had plenty of issues with my (mental) health over the years, but it was never recognized or diagnosed for what it was.
There are two main reasons for this. First of all, back when I first started therapy in 2006, there wasn’t as much information on the effects of trauma and how it manifests. A lot of research has been done since then, and is still being done now. But it takes a while for these findings to seep through into general practice. The second reason, is that I was missing a crucial piece of information about my life that could have made things clear a lot sooner. That puzzle-piece didn’t show up until I was 33, so it wasn’t until then that the penny dropped and everything started falling into place.
So, what now?
As I mentioned before, this is all still so fresh and new that I’ve only just begun to uncover the full extent of everything that has happened and what truths lie underneath all the confusion. Writing everything down is one way in which I’m starting to untangle everything and put the pieces of the puzzle together as I process and move on.
I realize that I still have not told you exactly what happened, and I may be putting it off a bit. It’s a lot to go over, and I’m untangling it as I go along. I hope you will bear with me, there. Since this blog is already ten pages long and I haven’t even started yet, I suppose that will be another story for another day…In the meantime, if you’ve actually read all that and stuck by me throughout, I just want to say: Thank you.
Until next time.
These are the blogs that I have not shared openly with the greater public