Better Man (Pearl Jam)

I recently watched the limited Netflix series “Maid”. While I thoroughly enjoyed the incredibly well told, well acted series and recognize the importance of stories like this being told, getting a broad audience, and inciting discussion, it also brought up a part of my own story that I generally keep tucked away because it’s wrought with hurt, shame and disappointment in my younger self. I saw my younger self in the main character, Alex, in so many ways.

For much of my life I’ve struggled with self-esteem issues. Like many of us, my worst behaviors stem from my self doubt and insecurities. As a pre-teen and teen I had voices telling me I was fat, ugly, stupid and weird. Part of me believed this and part of me wavered. I mistakenly took the attention of boys as validation that I was lovable but boys who kissed you weren’t all looking for love or for girlfriends, so the attention that initially rose me up, plummeted me back to those voices telling me I wasn’t good enough.

My first boyfriend broke up with me because I cut my long hair short (!) as I delved more into the punk rock scene, leaving me uncertain of what I had ever meant to him. My next boyfriend, who made me feel loved and seen, cheated on me during a school ski trip we were on together, breaking my young heart and leaving me feeling utterly undesirable. And so on. None of it’s earth-shattering or truly devastating but it played against my fragile self-esteem and we were not openly discussing self-esteem or mental health in the early eighties. We weren’t seeing therapists or telling our parents or friends how we felt about ourselves.

My outer self had good friends, lots of interests and did pretty well in school. My inner self had self-doubt, insecurities and self-loathing, but no one really knew that part of me. That part of me made bad decisions, hoping for validation. I am certain I was not that different from most teenagers, and we grew up, became more accepting and understanding of ourselves and moved into adulthood relatively unscathed. I had a few other significant relationships that were happy and healthy and ended without impact, leaving the friendship in tact.

Until in my late 20’s when I met him. He made me feel like I was the most amazing woman he’d ever met. I felt loved, wanted, needed and safe. We quickly fell into an intense relationship, moving into together (him into my house) and melding our lives together. He had a young child from a previous relationship, who spent time with us. It felt overwhelming but (at first) in a good way.

This is me in the thick of it – what you don’t see is him next to me (I cut him out) or the hopelessness I felt most of the time.

And then it didn’t. As I became more comfortable with the relationship and all that came with it, the more the praise, appreciation and kindness were pulled away, making way for him to take control of me, of my money (I worked a steady, salaried job and he was a day worker who started to prefer not to work unless it was a job that would take him out of town for a few days), my movement (it got so that I rarely saw my friends, only socializing with him or with his chosen friends with him), and my self-esteem (instead of compliments, he started emphasizing my flaws and insecurities). He threatened to leave me as he drained my bank account to support his social life, child and more . We shared my car so he’d drop me off and pick me up from work, often leaving me waiting for him to return (pre-cell phones) and without a car during weekends. He assured me no one else would ever want me, so I should be happy that he did. He blamed me for his inability find work or hold jobs. When he did work “away” jobs, he cheated on me. When I felt my lowest, he’d give me crumbs to keep me holding on to him. I was trapped both by him and by my own destruct from the way he broke my confidence, value and soul.

I was no longer financially independent, and started carrying debt to support us. We lived in my house, so I didn’t feel like I could leave and I didn’t feel like I could get him to willingly leave. I didn’t have access to my car most of the time, often leaving me feeling stranded. I didn’t see my friends or family much and felt too ashamed to talk to about what was happening to me. He worked every insecurity I ever had and broke me. I put on a good face. I showed up to work every day, smiled like a good girl and played nicely.

Sadly, no one seemed to notice. No one recognized the signs. The people most likely to notice didn’t see me enough or I avoided the conversation. I was so devastated by where my life had landed and felt shame and guilt for having brought it on myself. I invited him! I welcomed him! Most of the people I was around those days were his friends, who could care less how I was treated or how I felt. I supported their drinking and late nights. I fed them and provided a place to crash when they had no where else to go. I took care of his son when he couldn’t be bothered. I never felt more alone than when I was his girlfriend.

I didn’t notice it happening until I was well into the throes of his abuse. The changes from doting boyfriend to abusive boyfriend are subtle at first. The truth is, I wouldn’t have called it abuse back then. He never physically hurt me. Towards the end, I sensed that was coming though. His anger eventually lead him to throw things past my cowering body, or punch walls behind my head. I knew it would happen and somewhere in my mind I had drawn the line at that. I finally mustered the strength to break up with him. I left his stuff outside when was on a job and changed the locks. It worked for a bit. Like most people who suffer abuse of any sort, I returned to scene of the crime.

He wooed me briefly with pleas for forgiveness and showers of love and devotion. We dated again for a short time, but the abusive tendencies returned (as I should have known) pretty quickly and I had the strength to end it for good. I’m proud to say that I’ve never laid on eyes on him again.

It took a lot of time for me to find myself after that. I had no idea who I was anymore outside of that relationship. Dating sounded terrifying. I needed to get to a place where I could trust myself to make good choices. I threw myself into work and built a solid career that involved a lot of international travel, both of which help me build new confidence, acceptance and value to my life. I made new friends who had nothing to do with my life with him, who helped me to see myself as a worthy, bright, cared for and caring friend. I wrote a lot to sort through how I felt about what I’d been through and tried to understand how I let it happen. I worked to get my finances straightened out and to just enjoy my life again. To breathe again.

I am blessed that this experience was just a chapter in my book of life. It wasn’t a pattern. It was an eye-opening, devastating chapter that led me to make some needed changes, to work to better understand myself and to find acceptance of myself. I’ve made a lot of strides in doing so, but I recognize that I will always be a work in progress, and that’s okay. I still falter, am occasionally reactive out of insecurity, and sometimes suffer from self-doubt, but I see it now and I make effort to be gentler and kinder to myself and to others, and try to cop to my bad behavior.

I was blessed to meet my husband when I was a much healthier self in my early thirties. We’ve been together for almost 24 years (married for almost 22). He sees me for all that I am, the good, the bad and everything in between. We each carry our own baggage, and understand that we have to work together to keep our relationship thriving. It’s worth every effort even though it does shine light on things neither of us is proud of, but in some ways that’s what keeps us both in balance, as a couple, and as individuals.

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