My mother used to liken him to a game show host: always smiling, always laughing, always cracking jokes. The party didn’t start until he showed up. He bathed in the affirmation of others and would admonish those that didn’t support his delusional sense of grandeur. But like a game show host, it was almost entirely a farce — and he was really, really good at it.
I’ve spent a lot of time pondering how I got so entrenched into his life and, by extension, this version of himself that he presented to people. I never thought I’d find myself in this position, but it happened slowly, with time passing in a way that I still can’t even fully even conceptualize.
He came into my life like a tornado, from meeting to essentially moving in within a matter of weeks. We worked hard and loved hard. We moved at a relentless pace, with a fervor that never really calmed down. We lapped up big city life together. During this time, red flags flew by me without my noticing, but I guess you can’t see red flags when you’ve got rose-colored glasses on.
Over time, his grotesque underbelly revealed itself. It started infrequently and off-handedly, so subtle that I didn’t even really notice it was happening. Even looking back on it now, I question my own interpretation of those beginning moments. It’s been six years, and it’s mostly a blur, so I’ll spare you the harrowing details about his alcoholism and drunken verbal abuse.
All I know is, he was a profoundly sad and angry man, and I took the brunt of it. He often made me question my own reality, and he was intensely distrustful of my intentions and movements. He flipped on a dime, and I was always wary around him, worried I’d provoke him. I essentially spent the last year of our relationship walking on eggshells, wondering when and how hard the next axe would come down. He used to tell me, “My anger is like a storm. It’s really intense and uncomfortable but it’s over really quick. You just have to get through the storm.” So I spent the later part of our relationship wading through a near-constant storm.
It came to a head when I was scared to go home because I wasn’t sure what kind of state he would be in. He hadn’t laid a hand on me up until this point, but I knew it was only a matter of time. I had become a shell of myself. I had lost friends and any sense of autonomy. I wanted to scream at the top of my lungs that I was trapped, but I didn’t know how to describe my entrapment. Is it really entrapment if I can still walk out the door? Turns out, yes. Eventually, I hoped he would lay a hand on me because that would give me a reason to finally leave. As if his endless stream of vitriol and psychological abuse wasn’t enough, I didn’t think I deserved to leave until I had physical evidence of his mania.
The night I left was the first and last time he would lay a hand on me.
I learned to see from a mile away what kind of night we were going to have judging by the speed at which he ingested alcohol. One particular evening, he was three quarters into a bottle of tequila among friends, I already anticipated the nightmare. Doggedly determined to keep drinking, he was adamant that he make a trip to the liquor store in his inebriated state. I fought him for the car keys, and told him I would drive him. He told me in the car that if I ever leave him, it didn’t matter because he’d go and fuck my mother instead. I slapped him, and he snapped, throwing the car in park and grabbing at the keys. I fought as best as I could, but he eventually got them out of the ignition. He clawed at my neck and grabbed at my breasts; I eventually submitted, then ran away as he tore off in his car.
Stranded in a confusing suburb, I had nothing but a cellphone. I called the police and they took over an hour to get to me because I wasn’t experiencing a medical emergency. They escorted me back to the house to get a few of my things, and I left. I never saw those policemen again. They never asked me my name. They just “wanted to make sure we didn’t kill each other.”
After I left, no one believed me. Because I had been absorbed into his life, his reality, a lot of the company I kept were his friends — and every single one left with him. No one spoke to me. I began to see that he had everyone in his life duped, not just me. Even the person who initially introduced us was baffled. Him? No way. I know him! That can’t be possible.
It’s been over six years since I left him, and I still catch myself in a defensive state. The most noticeable scar I’m left with is a near-permanent brain fog, left over from spending my time with him “gray rocking” — acting unresponsive and uninteresting so that I could get through his mania quickly, with the least amount of impact. I moved through my time with him mentally turned off, in a constant state of fight-or-flight.
I’m still there, and though sometimes I come to, I often spend my time watching my life as if it’s through a screen. As if I’m an observer of my own reality and not an active participant. It manifests in weird ways, like my inability to make decisions, especially important ones. I catch myself fading in and out of conversations, trying to maintain focus, but also ensuring I’m prepared for all scenarios. It’s really exhausting, and it’s left me feeling tired all the time, from the fog itself but also from trying to explain why I’m seemingly half-in and half-out sometimes.
I also still have physical reminders of my time with him. If I think about it or dwell on it too long, my shoulders tense and I get panicky, sweaty. I’ll be mentally blue for a few days, and it’ll come out in my relationship. I can get snappy or seem uninterested, and it’s hard to explain to my current partner.
Moreover, there’s a grief that I sit with. I grieve for the person I was before him. I grieve the person that I thought he was, I grieve the beginning parts of our love. I am relieved every day that I didn’t have a child with this man, that I didn’t get legally married to him. In some ways it feels like I dodged a bullet, but in other ways it feels like I didn’t dodge it fast enough.
I am now married to a wonderful man, and we had a baby girl in July of 2019. Now that I’m a mother, I find myself fighting the urge to download my fears and insecurities onto her. Due to my previous trauma, I went through significant postpartum anxiety, and all those fight-or-flight responses I spent so long living with came rushing back.
I’m obsessive about showing my daughter what a healthy relationship looks like, what respect looks like. My husband is aware of the person I was with prior to him, but not to any excruciating detail. Despite his patience and respect, we still have communication issues. When we fight, I shut down. But not only do I shut down — I get confused about my position on our argument, and often have the impulse to say “you win,” even though he’s never shown any indication of being even remotely similar to my ex.
Over the years, the anxiety becomes less and less overwhelming unless I spend time dwelling on it. I’ve resigned myself to knowing that this trauma will always be with me. This pain will always be here, though over time it’ll become less and less painful to touch. I do sometimes have the desire to remember the good details of our relationship, the things he taught me, and the boundaries that he forced me to acknowledge for myself, but then I think, is this an extension of his abuse?
Because the truth is, even though I escaped a narcissist, his influence will never really escape me.