CONTENT NOTE: This post contains discusses emotional and verbal abuse, self harm/suicide, and is just generally a tough read. If you aren’t up for that today (or ever), feel free to skip this one.
I am leaving him, and he is losing his mind.
He has just finished a mad rampage through his studio apartment, howling like a wounded animal and sweeping shelf after shelf of his possessions onto the floor. I dodge shards of mementos and splayed-open books as I scramble to collect my things before the taxi comes.
Finally he collapses into a chair, dejected. “How can you do this to me?”, he asks.
I shove a few more things into my suitcase, and then push it out of the way and sit across from him on the bed. I have no answers for him. The part of me that cares about his pain is shoved down deep, bound and gagged, because I am in survival mode now. Because somehow, this time, a new understanding clicked into place when he screamed, called me names, and started breaking things: it wasn’t safe to stay and have this out. If I was leaving, I needed to fucking leave. Now.
And somehow, this time, I was finally done. I didn’t have it in me to beg for forgiveness and tend his wounded ego one more fucking time. I was so fucking tired of fighting for something I didn’t even want.
So it wasn’t safe, and I had to go. It was [suddenly, wondrously] just that simple.
Now I’m sitting on the bed, feeling strangely blank as I watch him struggle to catch his breath through huffy, angry sobs. My heart races, but my mind is still. I repeat what is quickly becoming my mantra: I’m sorry, I know this hurts, but I need to go. The taxi will be here soon. I am going to leave. You can’t stop me, you can’t keep me here. This is happening. I’m sorry.
I wonder whether my voice sounds as cold as I feel.
He digs through his pocket, and I turn to fuss with my suitcase, check the taxi request for the hundredth time. It is coming, but I still have at least fifteen minutes to wait. I take a deep breath. It feels like too long, but still I tell myself: fifteen minutes, and this is over. After everything, you can handle fifteen minutes.
I turn to face him again, because my bags are packed and zipped and he is talking again, building in volume and vitriol as he picks up steam. I am faintly aware that the words should hurt, but they aren’t sinking in. All I hear is anger, desperation, fear: a blur of emotion. I feel far away. Fifteen minutes.
And then there is a glint of metal, and the world snaps back into focus. He has flicked open his pocket knife, is holding it in an outstretched hand.
I have an instant to panic: I got up the courage to leave, but now it’s too late. I should have left ages ago, should never come on this visit, should have run the second he started throwing things. Fuck.
But the moment passes, and I realize the knife isn’t for me. He is pushing up the sleeve of his hoodie to lay the blade flat against the skin of his forearm, hand shaking. He stammers something about how cutting seemed to work for me, maybe he should try it. He says he has nothing left to lose, that if I’m not here it won’t matter what happens to him.
Everything hits me at once. I’m relieved–it’s not too late. I will make it out of here just fine. I’m worried–now I have a different crisis to face. I still need him to drop the knife. I’m furious–how dare he?
But also… I’m grateful. The last sliver of doubt is gone. I am doing the right thing. There is no ambiguity here; this is a line in the sand.
I am free.
The clarity of the memory starts to fade at that point. I know I told him dispassionately that I would call an ambulance if he was seriously in danger of hurting himself, but that I was still leaving. I know he called me a heartless bitch for that, but that he also put the knife away.
And the taxi came, I got in, and was driven to the airport. I had to change my flight, which meant waiting a while, but I didn’t mind. It was quiet in the airport. I could breathe.
In the weeks that followed, the clarity that I had found when he pulled the knife often deserted me. Yes, he had been out of line, but hadn’t I pushed him over the edge? I knew he was going to be devastated, how could I have expected anything different? Maybe he was right: I was the villain here. After all, I had broken his heart.
He fed the bottomless pit of my guilt and doubt with a steady stream of texts, emails, and phone calls, though I hardly needed the help. After six years together, his critical voice was always in my head. He needed me, you see, and I had made promises. He had put up with so much to be with me–I owed him. How dare I be so selfish?
I tried hold on to stories like the one about the day I left–stories that I felt gave me the right to leave–to absolve me of my guilt. Another one was immortalized in a voicemail from a fight a few months earlier, the one where he called me, among other things, a “worthless whore.” It was a google voice message, conveniently accessible from any computer, and I’d make myself play it over and over, telling myself–see? This is what he thinks of you. You owe him nothing.
Eventually I changed my phone number and filtered his emails, after replying one last time to tell him that if he came to my apartment, as he had threatened repeatedly, I would call the police. The chaos of the immediate aftermath subsided, and I started trying to pick up the pieces.
It was a slow and grueling process. I cried alone in the bathroom at work and on the floor of my bedroom. I cried to friends and family, asked for the same reassurances over and over. I threw myself into classes and lab work, telling myself that even if I was a terrible girlfriend, my career held some value. On really bad days, I’d go read all the emails he’d sent since the last time I’d let myself look, and then cry some more. Many hours were spent in my therapist’s office.
For a long time, those horrible moments I kept returning to–the knife, the voicemail–remained my talismans. I clung to them because they helped me stay firm in my decision when I felt worthless, because I could look at them and say: even I deserve better than that. What kept eating at me though, was that those things gave me permission to leave… but they weren’t really the reason I left.
I left because he was angry, bitter, and socially isolated, and I was tired of being hated for not wanting to be those things with him.
I left because he was jealous, suspicious, and controlling, and I just wanted to be able to focus on grad school without constantly reassuring him that I wasn’t fucking someone else.
I left because I dreaded his phone calls, because I resented having to fly up to visit him on weekends, and because the thought of planning our wedding made me want to vomit.
I left for all those reasons and more, but most importantly, I left because I wanted to.
In the end, it took me over a year to begin to accept, and forgive myself, for this: I had left, entirely aware of how much I would be hurting another human being who I loved very much, because I prioritized my own happiness over his.
Today marks three full years since I left Travis.
I mark the anniversary not to dwell on the painful past, but to give myself credit for how far I have come.
I have not only forgiven myself for leaving my first love, fiancé, and high school sweetheart; I’ve also mourned the loss of the opportunities and happiness I stole from myself by not leaving him sooner.
I still find it intensely painful to hurt people I care about, but I have accepted that this is an inevitable part of loving and being loved.
I understand now that what I once told myself was “selfish” behavior is what others might call self-care, and though it may not always be immediately obvious, honoring my own needs actually is better for the people who care about me, because they want me to be happy.
I have a fulfilling social life including many intimate friendships, none of which are poisoned by secrecy or guilt.
And it’s all possible because three years ago today, I somehow managed to say, I’m sorry, but I’m leaving now.
You can’t stop me.
Edited to add: This excellent discussion of a shitty relationship over by Captain Awkward reminded me of one of the things I read while recovering from my relationship with Travis, something I found really, really helpful: Dear Sugar on why wanting to leave is reason enough. Actually, both Sugar and CA have been incredibly helpful to me in the last few years, and I’ve probably spent many more hours with them than I’ve ever spent in therapy. If you are also working on respecting and expressing your own needs and building better relationships, I HIGHLY recommend checking them out.