019: Lather, Rinse, Repeat

Content Warning: This post contains information about sexual assault and/or violence which may be triggering to some survivors.

"Lather, Rinse, Repeat," Jay.

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Author's note: All names changed for anonymity.

It was late July 2012 was when we matched on OKCupid. Her name was Erin. I messaged her, asking for a coffee date, because I thought that’s what one does for a first date with a girl. She challenged me, saying “No, let’s go get sushi instead. I know this place in Marshfield called Mandarin & Tokyo - is it near you?” She immediately piqued my interest with this, as it was a favorite of mine. So, on August 3rd we go on this date - we meet the parents, do dinner, and dessert. She brings me back to her empty house, and straddles me and tries to take my shirt off - I tell her no, as my heart races. But, the next day, we met up again and “Netflix and chilled”, as the kids say. I wound up getting my period during it, though, so already we’re off to a great start. 

August was us “falling in love”. Friday August 8th, she asked me to be her girlfriend. But, 5 days after she asked me out, her lovely ex, Jessie, appears on the scene - this should’ve been a red flag. Red flag #2- this is going down on the evening when I’m meeting her best friends for the first time, who are side-eyeing the fuck out of me, and constantly comparing me to said ex. August 28th was when Erin returned to UMass for the fall semester. Five days after her leaving, she told me I needed to go on a diet. So, I went out and spent $220 on groceries that she approved of, and planned a workout regiment around her demands.

September was good. I was lulled into a false sense of security in this month. She approved of my dietary progress - but I could always do better. I went to visit her the long weekend in September and met all of her friends, who all said I was so much better than Jessie. It bolstered my confidence, enough to spend the whole weekend with her and ignoring requests from my friends to get together.. But after that, it was constant “I miss you”s and “wish you were here”s - constant nagging when I couldn’t pay her enough attention.

During the 2nd week of October, Erin ignored me, saying that she “needed to think about things”, because apparently she was that troubled with our long distance relationship. I assume that she was spending that week fucking around with her ex, Jessie.  But then again, that’s just me assuming based on her social media posts, my stress, and her straight silence for seven days. After she’d taken her time to think, she decided that she wanted to give our relationship a real shot. I didn’t think about whether or not she’d been giving it a real shot before then. I came up for Halloween to reconcile. A friend of mine, Colleen, asked if I could get some time away and visit her. I refused, at the behest of my ex, who said that if Colleen was a true friend, she’d invite me up herself. This was the first of many times I’d lose a friend because they were deemed an inconvenience for my ex. 

In November, I began sacrificing a lot more for her. I skipped school for her for the first time on November 8th to come see her open mic. I was blatantly ignoring the fact that I had the flu, just to make her happy and surprise her - a surprise that was a disappointment, because of Tara. Tara was a freshman who Erin met, and took a liking to. When Tara started flirting and touching and telling her sweet nothings, she did nothing to stop it. She told me it was because she loved the attention, a thing I didn’t give her enough of. Of course, this wasn’t taking into account the nights and weekends I was working around a full time school schedule. So that was obnoxious. 

Erin makes plans to visit Jessie over Thanksgiving Break, to get “closure”. When she tells me she’s going, I immediately refuse. This girl is bad news, and I want to be there, so I ask that she plans it around my work schedule. She laughs, saying she planned it for a day when I was working so I couldn’t go, but she promised me she’d meet me at my father’s afterwards. That Friday, after meeting Jessie in Salem, Erin tells me that they met at Starbucks, got in an argument that caused her to leave, and Jessie chased her out and kissed her. She told me on my dad’s couch and I cried so loud my sister heard me upstairs. The next night, she invited me to spend the night at her fathers, so I did. She wanted to make up her insensitivity to me with a romantic evening - and it’s the first of many times I cry when she touches me.

On Sunday, after we had spent the whole weekend together, she told me that Jessie had proposed to her. After this, I told her to choose between me - the girl who would love her faithfully and unconditionally - or her - the girl who’d propose to someone while she had a girlfriend and dog at home. I told her she could think about that on her ride back to campus, and left for work. When she got back to school, she Skyped me crying, saying she chose me. 

Erin didn’t really choose me, for my full value - she chose the parts she liked, and began chipping away at the rest. Not that she hadn’t been before, oh no. She’d worn my self-esteem paper thin, and made it impossible to spend my time with anyone but her. She began her heavy work after her “choice.” If I made a plan that didn’t involve her, it was a terrible idea, and I wasn’t prioritizing her. Family vacations, New Year’s Eve - they were all about her. Morning phone calls, evening phone calls, Skyping every other day - I was on a tight schedule. But even then, she’d speak to Tara or Jessie to spite me, if I couldn’t talk to her when I was busy at work or in class. I wasn’t losing enough weight, so she had me call her from the gym. And when I lashed out? I was called abusive, told I was too aggressive, and I shouldn’t treat her like this. When I went to visit her, she’d act all sweet and apologetic. The moment I left, she’d attack my vulnerability. She convinced me to apply to transfer to UMass - to be closer to her, so we could make our relationship better - right around the time she started cheating.

At this point in our “relationship”, I was at Erin’s beck and call. Anything she needed, I would do. All I wanted was to make her happy, to gain her approval, to make sure I could give her everything. I drove back and forth, skipped classes, called out of work - all to make sure the smile on her face was because of me, because I knew there was someone else. She introduced me at one point to the other woman, to whom I was Erin’s soon to be ex-girlfriend. This was just after she’d asked if I wanted to live with her. At the end of that day, I told her I wanted to live together. She flinched as she smiled. Soon after, I found out I’d been accepted to UMass. I thought that would be enough to make her happy.

The minute I said yes to living with Erin, I essentially wrote myself off and became an accessory to her life. I quit my job, transferred schools, left my friends and family behind, and immersed myself in her world. Finding a job was impossible, and I was constantly berated for my laziness. I spiraled into a deep depression, because my routine drove me insane. I’d wake up to Erin’s work alarm, and stay in our bed as she went downstairs to Skype her other woman. Their hushed “I love you”s weren’t the best start to the day. I’d walk to town, look for a job, return with nothing, and do her laundry. She’d come home that evening, to the dinner I cooked that she didn’t like, and we’d fight, and she’d force herself onto me to “make it up to me”. Half the time, I’d cry myself to sleep as she snored soundly.

Lather, rinse, repeat.

On our one-year anniversary, she kicked me out, saying that I was lazy, with no work ethic or money skills, and that I didn’t give her enough attention in the ways she needed. She told me that it was a break, until I started school in the fall. But a week later, once I sent her flowers to apologize, she ended things, saying I would never change, and she told me that even though I needed her, she didn’t want to be there for me anymore. I head to school in the fall as a shell of myself. I didn’t know how to exist in a world without her, and she found a way to worm back into my life. I refused to sleep with her, until she told me that if I truly loved her, she’d be able to touch me as she used to. Her slick tongue knew all the words to say to get what she wanted, whether I wanted it or not. By then, it wasn’t about mutual love. It was just about how much she knew I needed her. She pulled me in closer and closer, spinning a tale of our future together, and then found that future in someone else three days later.

When she told me about her new love, I broke down, and began living in fear of her. But her new love switched to an old love and she began finding comfort in another woman’s bed. Which happened to be in my building. So, I stopped going out when I wasn’t surrounded by a group of people, unless I needed to eat. My grades plummeted, my weight dropped. She wound up stealing my clothes from the laundry at one point, and I thought I was going insane.

But by the end of the year, Erin left the school to go somewhere else. The following year, I thought I’d be safe - but she reared her ugly head yet again. I realized that what she’d done was abuse and rape. And shortly after that, a girl who I’d considered to be a friend began dating her. I saw her one more time on campus, at the final show of a play I was directing. I blacked out, but was able to perform my piece after. After that, I reverted back to constant fear. I felt trapped in the previous year, unable to leave my room and too scared to eat. Everything I saw and touched and felt was tied to her, and it was driving me insane. 

I dropped out of UMass, and took the plunge into Outpatient Treatment. I was diagnosed with PTSD. And in the year since then, my life has become very different. I’m aware of a lot more things about myself, like how I grind my teeth when I’m anxious, or how I never remember my dreams but I know I’m having night terrors. A good night’s sleep is hard to come by. If I have a drink and I lay a certain way in my girlfriend’s arms, I get lost in a flashback. Certain sounds, certain songs, all I hear is her voice saying “Be a good girl, I know you want it.” Even the sound of people’s voices make it hard to breathe, because they sound just like her.

I can’t wait for the day when I can sleep through the night, and wake up knowing I didn’t have a night terror because of her. I look forward to the day when I won’t be barraged with constant thoughts of everything she did to me, and the fear it branded me with. To be honest, though, I don’t think that fear will go away until I can pick up and move to a place where she can’t find me. I can’t say that’s a bad thing - it encourages me to adventure, and embrace other fears, like being on my own, without anyone to save my ass.

I know that I can do it, though. I’m one step away from conquering the world. If I can make it through the years of struggle I’ve faced, I can keep pushing forward. I spent a year being triggered every single day since my diagnosis - some days were better and some days were worse. But I made it out alive, and with a career, and a plan. I fucking made it. And if I can do that, I think I can beat this.

About the Art:

I made two pieces for Jay. I was glad to do so when Jay explained to me the significance of having both quotes side-by-side. Jay is actually one of my former students and is one of my favorite humans, with all the brightness she brings to the world, so knowing that she experienced so much manipulation and abuse during this relationship made my heart grow ten times bigger for her.

The quotes on the paintings are quotes from Say Anything songs “I Have Two Broad Wings And Now I’m Above You” is from “Peace Out," and “The Fear In Me Is So Fucking Strong I Want To Die” is from “Attaboy." Lead singer and songwriter for Say Anything, Max Bemis, is everything to Jay. She and I have had a number of conversations about the band and other music of the same emo/punk genre. So it was nice to create pieces that I KNEW meant a lot to her.

Side-by-side the paintings juxtapose 1. the anxiety and fear that Jay felt while living with and loving an abuser, and 2. the feeling of flying free from that abuser. And now that Jay is on her own, crushing it in life, I am glad to know she is in a much better head space and doing incredible things for her life.

With all the love, I am thankful you shared your story, Jay.