by Randall S. Frederick
I was psychologically raped.
I know I’m not supposed to say that as a white male, especially when I have not been sexually assaulted. My skin color undermines anything I have to say, as does my gender, and especially my (mostly) straight sexual identity. That I identify as Christian only makes things worse, as does the fact that my attacker wasn’t male. In many ways, and at many times, I have been told my story doesn’t matter. In fact, it “cheapens,” even “takes away from other people’s stories – real people with real problems.” Apparently, I’m not a real person – which is really helpful to the recovery process.
A few years ago, I started saving money to go to therapy. I grew up in a small college town; there was never a question of where I would go if I went to college. Growing up in a small town, everyone knew everyone else’s business. Even private and confidential conversations somehow made their way back to people. Most of my friends and classmates left the bubble and never looked back. Those who stayed fell into one of two categories – the bar scene or the churchgoers. The former consisted of going to bars every Tuesday and Friday in the hopes of bedding someone much younger – this applied to all genders and preferences – and the latter did the “right” thing, watched Oprah, and shopped at The Wal-Mart just like Jesus woulda done, bless his heart. Sometimes, if you produced the right amount of repentance, you could straddle the two, but for the most part the two camps kept themselves set apart, saving each other for the infrequent wild hair with either an altar call or relapse.
I was a churchgoer. In college, I tried to do the bar scene. A friend played in a band and I would go listen to them sometimes, flirt with girls, gently bang my head and try to make out the lyrics, but the truth was that I was too “clean” to be a bad boy. I accepted my lot and began attending, then working, for four churches in a little under a decade. I went back to school, took night classes, and soon earned a second degree.
When I started dating “Elizabeth,” I began to make the shift out of my mid-20s into a nesting period of buying furniture, paying off my first car, and occasionally loaning friends money. I was happy, for the most part. Restless, but I chalked that up to transitioning from the “wild” days as a youth pastor into something more sober and serious. Ugly Christmas Sweater parties were where I could really cut loose and drink a second glass of egg nog.
And then Elizabeth and I broke up. Not the kind of polite break-up you would expect of two recently graduated educated people – she with her B.A. in Graphic Design, me with my M.A. in English – but a heightened and rushed phonecall in the middle of the night where she said “God told me we shouldn’t be together” followed by, at turns, alternating mockery, vindictiveness, apologies, then deeply and profoundly insulting abuse as she reframed every vulnerable moment from the previous three years of our relationship. “I never loved you. Never” was the warm-up. It got much worse after that. Stunned into silence, and with her yelling over me any time I interjected, when she asked what I had to say for myself after her tirade, it took everything in me to weakly say, “I’m glad I kept the receipt.”
The day we had that last conversation, I had bought an engagement ring she picked out. I had been working three jobs to save enough money to buy her exactly what she wanted, pay her rent, pay for the trips to-and-from the city where she was finishing an internship, and tuck a little more away for a honeymoon. I wanted everything to be perfect for her. She was my baby, my princess, my “sweet girl” and I was doing everything in my power to secure the future we both wanted. Not the future she wanted. Not the future I wanted. The future we wanted. We had spent the last three years of our relationship working on and ironing out all of our baggage and insecurities – her “addiction” to masturbating when we were away, my fears of abandonment, shame both from and towards our parents, all of it – and were finally in a good place. We spoke of the future often, of moving to Dallas or maybe even back to New Orleans, and then California. I had just paid for her to move from New Orleans to Dallas for a new job that November with the agreement that I would meet her there for Thanksgiving, then Christmas, then I would move there to be with her come New Years.
We loved each other.
Doted on each other.
Called or saw each other every day for three years.
Sent care packages, love letters.
She knew the codes to every card and account attached to my name, and I knew the same of her.
We lived in a fantasy world of Just Us, promising and pledging to take care of each other into old age, even if we developed Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s.
Then on November 23, 2010, she turned everything around.
I sat there, head in one hand, cellphone in the other, listening as she berated and humiliated me for being “so stupid” to buy her “a fucking ring that you probably bought at Wal-Mart, hunh?”
It was Tiffany’s on special order through a second-party broker. Six months salary from two incomes, but whatever.
With her new revelation from God, she stretched the time of this revelation to “always.” She had always known we weren’t supposed to be together. Her last words were, “I’m more of a man than you are” before the line went dead.
If you have ever had to return an engagement ring, it is one of the most humiliating experiences of your life. The sales clerk who was so happy for you just 48hrs earlier is sullen. Disappointed. Angry that they have lost their commission. Another sales clerk joins them on the other side of the glass case, hundreds of bright futures for other people twinkling right there in front of you, the joy of thousands of couples glittering all around you.
A manager is called.
In my case, a regional manager was called.
It is decided that, given all the hard work they had put into getting the ring, you can’t get the full price back. Still reeling, still defeated, still ashamed, you just went along with it. No sense in fighting back, or saying anything. You’re the loser who failed.
“She said ‘No‘? To a beautiful ring like this?”
“Well, see… I hadn’t even proposed yet…”
“Wow. You didn’t even propose. That’s terrible. You must feel kind of… wow… ” they stumble over words before recovering. “That’s terrible. I’m so sorry.”
Somehow, the money is put back on your card and you find yourself on the sidewalk of a cold November wondering, What now?
I blacked out.
For four months.
At one point, I vaguely remember my mother coming and packing my things up, putting them in storage. She insisted that I move in with her “for your own good.” I remember my father visiting us. My divorced parents discussing with me (but really, between themselves) whether their adult son should be checked into a mental ward to “rest” and “get better.” But that’s about it. Four months… gone. And when I came back, the moment I “woke up,” I got out of bed, turned on a bathroom light, and like something out of a movie was shocked – absolutely in awe- at the image that stared back at me in the mirror. I had grown a beard, lost weight, broken a tooth, and developed a severe rash on my upper chest that I still have scars from. Genuinely, and without dramatic emphasis, I will always claim that I. did. not. recognize. myself. I jumped back, convinced someone else was in the room with me and was horrified to “wake up” and see myself look so different.
That first year back, I quickly noticed the telling signs of post-traumatic stress disorder. Crowded places did not frustrate me as much as cause me to feel like I was choking. I would be driving to dates and have to talk to myself out loud in the car, saying things like, “This is okay. You’re okay. It’s just a date. It’s not a relationship. She can’t hurt you. She’s not Elizabeth. You’re better now.” Conversations about friends getting married caused me to space out immediately; a few times, I got up mid-conversation and began cooking or cleaning or anything to physically get away from all talk of marriage. I didn’t noticed at first, but friends began to point things like this out to me. “Are you listening?” A few times, one of my closest friends tried to force me to talk about Elizabeth and I would break down into hysterical sobs. The shame compounded each time – not just the phone call, not the returning the ring, but a grown man crying afresh after all this time. I stopped attending church which, given my work with churches over the preceding decade, effectively ended my career. Even now in job interviews, I find it hard to explain the career shift of a person twice my age by the time I turned 30. My mind and heart, spiritually and emotionally and in all other ways, just could not cope with what had happened.
Around six months after the broken engagement, two of her best friends contacted me. The first had been her college roommate, who apologized like everyone else and confessed that she “never knew what to make of you two” because “her stories never seemed to match up.” The second had been friends with Elizabeth since grade school. Elizabeth had been her maid of honor a month before we started dating. I began to noticed a pattern – namely, that it wasn’t just me. The second friend began to tell me several examples of how “abusive” Elizabeth had become. “It’s like she’ll do something, and then turn it around and say that you did the thing that she did. I’m not even sure what’s real when I talk to her anymore, everything is so twisted.” Elizabeth had a history of hurting the people close to her in differing degrees. The friends contacting me had been unexpected and unsolicited, but given how close the two were to her, I valued their words. “If I didn’t have [my husband], I think she might have messed me up as badly as she did you.”
After two years of therapy, I began to develop a vocabulary for All That Happened. One being that I refer to the entire Elizabeth chapter as “All That Happened.” I also began to notice that the events of that November were not entirely unprecedented. Encouraged by her two friends, I began to do the hard work of peeling back those memories and seeing them for what they were.
There was the time when Elizabeth accused me of raping her, despite – I am only mildly ashamed of this, given the context – an inability to get an erection or even feel sexual because of the exhaustion I felt from working three jobs. There was the Christmas her mother told her that she should go date her cousin and Elizabeth said she’d “think about it” in front of me. Yep. Elizabeth had previously dated her cousin and her mother felt the cousin would be a better boyfriend than me. There was the time she didn’t show up to my graduation because she “forgot.” The time she made me a pie for my birthday and proceeded to give it away to a friend, and a neighbor, and her mom, and her sister – even a slice to her Diabetic father – and became angry when I wouldn’t say “thank you.” There was the time she told my best friend’s wife at a party that she “felt bad for [her] because you’re so small-town minded.” Or the time she called from France just to say I was “psychotic” and that “the guys here are more attractive than you”, then e-mailed me a few days later as if that hadn’t happened to ask if I would pick her up from the airport. What she forgot to mention was that she had asked her mom to pick her up as well. When her mom say me waiting in the terminal, she could only fold her arms, shake her head, and angrily blurt out “She does this shit all the time. All the fucking time. I swear, I raised a little goddamn monster.”
The list goes on. And on. And on. And on.
Three years worth of a relationship gradually eroding my self-worth, self-esteem, three years of encouraging me to break off friendships, devaluing what I believed in, trying to “help” me and “fix” me into becoming “a better man” and convincing me that I was the crazy one. In hindsight, she set the stage perfectly for the phone call on Thursday, Nov. 17th, crying and demanding that I propose… only to call me “pathetic” and “the worst person I’ve ever known” on November 23, the day I bought the ring.
It took two whole years of therapy to reclaim myself. In October of last year, she sent the following e-mail:
Good Morning, old friend; now you’re wondering what in the world I popped into your inbox for out of the blue.
Where to begin? While coming to bother you after two years will not undo or change anything that has happened, there are things that I have wanted to say for some time, and that need to become verbal, regardless – not just to my immediate public but directly to the person I have hurt.
I was wrong to have treated you the way that I did upon moving to Texas, and through the turn of events thereafter.
I was wrong to have put up a wall, to think that I was free or exempt from turning around to face who/what I was turning my back on.
I was not, have not, been kind to you, not as you deserve – (not as any person deserves).
I selfishly forsook our friendship and relationship; and I can only imagine how much you have come to rightfully hate me for it.
Something you said to me, then, was “this is not how we behave.” You were right, are right. Reversal (beginning with silence, ignorance/denial) is necessary. I should not have cut myself off from the life I left in Louisiana, the way that I did, and the walls and safety nets are an illusion of security that I don’t understand anymore. They need to go. A fearful lack of feeling and having care is *not* God. It does not invite Good into the world, into people; and let me not give the impression that it’s ‘all good’ any longer. No, this is not an, “oops, I’m sorry” matter; but I have to say the words anyway. I am so sorry that my actions and words have been propellers of pain in your life.
There is much to be said, for sure, but this all most important if anything at all.
So, again, thank you for responding and happy beginnings all around. 🙂
I never responded. While I believe that people can grow, peeling back wounds and trying to hash it out was something that I had already done on my own time, without her cheap apologies. Put another way, part of me is grateful to the Universe that my abuser is able to recognize that they did something wrong, but it still falls flat. Nothing productive can come of saying, “Hey. Yeah. That’s not good enough. You didn’t just ‘put up walls,’ you destroyed the person I thought I was. I’m glad you feel better about yourself, but you left a lot of devastation. You’re a shitty human being. And I’m ashamed it took me three years to figure that out.”
My therapist recently suggested that we “come back to Elizabeth, since it’s around the holidays.” She said that she had been thinking about how much I had grown since I started, and “To put it bluntly, Elizabeth was an abusive person. A monster. You know that, right?”
“Monster,” I laughed. “That’s exactly what her mom called her.”