Everything was a watery flood of grey and dim lights. It might have been drizzling, I can’t remember now. I was too busy wiping my eyes to notice at the time. The car was silent and stagnant but my body was pulsing and writhing in emotional pain. Was he sitting next to me? Did he leave? Did it matter if I was consumed with a feeling of eternal loneliness?
We never had a place to go. So I drove him around to where we could park and talk. There was always the looming threat that we’d be chased away by the police, as often happened. The parking lot of the train station allowed us to blend in for a bit. The darkness of the night covered my car like a soft blanket. But it didn’t matter what shadow we hid under. There was no hiding from ourselves.
What were we anyway? Whatever we were it was clear that things weren’t working between us. He always smelled of smoke and beer, a flavor of nostalgia that curiously drew me near. I always held my insecurities underneath my shirt and up against my chest. What held us together was never speaking about what we were.
We fell apart on a night that wasn’t different from any other. I had my own place by then. He loomed over me on a barstool miserably drinking. I tried to be playful by touching his nose. But his fuse was short. He laid his hands on me and we stumbled around the small studio apartment. I grabbed a pointed tool nearby and lunged at him. He blocked my attempt to strike. With a hot fire burning inside I shoved him out into the cold and slammed the door shut screaming that I never wanted to see him again.
How did this happen? Who was this person? This wasn’t me! I would never wind up in a situation like this. I needed answers.
I went to the bookstore searching for an explanation. Among the shelves I found a clue: Narcissism.
That seemed to describe him. But what about me? Was I off the hook? I wasn’t sure.
Within a few months I started dating again. I met an intriguing character that I could never quite put my thumb on. He wasn’t interested in dating me. He was interested in someone else. But I was going to win him over. Why was he so elusive? Why did it feel like a constant tug of war between us?
We had begun to hang out pretty regularly and often talked about the intricacies of life. We carved out a shelter from the rest of the world drinking wine at my place. Sometimes he’d sleep over and I’d dream about what our future might look like. But there was always a dark conflict between us.
One day in particular I desperately wanted to hear from him. I needed reassurance that he cared. The phone finally rang and I picked up with a piece of my mind. How could he not know I was waiting?
I quietly erupted with disdain as he tried to carry the conversation. But quickly things had turned over inside of me. I wanted to see him. What was I doing? He wasn’t going to see me if I kept on with this attitude. I started to sing-song into the phone to woo him back from the barrage I’d just carried out. I was going to win him over.
Soon my birthday came around, a day I’ve always used to pause and reflect on my life. I needed to understand why I always felt so miserable and out of control. What drew me to this guy? And why did it feel like my soul was being yanked around whenever I thought of him? Things were starting to feel like the chaos of the relationship I had just escaped from.
I couldn’t head to the book store so I searched more online about narcissism. This time one word kept coming up as I read: Borderline.
What was that? Huh… I was confused by what I was reading. I thought maybe YouTube could help me understand it a little better – the words on the webpages weren’t clicking with me. I needed to see someone’s face explaining it to me.
Here. Okay. These were real, breathing people. I think I understood now. But this was so strange… was she describing me? Was I Borderline? What did that mean? I felt like she was describing my entire life. Didn’t everyone feel this way? How did I never know this was a “thing”?
I think I had dozens of breakdowns that summer as I grappled with the implications. Was this something that could be fixed? Could I ever catch up to everyone else who had been living a “normal” life? Would I ever have a healthy relationship? Did other people notice these behaviors in me? Was it safe to talk about?
Gradually I started to learn: Self-harm. Fear of abandonment. Emotional regulation. Impulsivity. Identity.
Okay. Got it. I had to find a way to take responsibility for my emotions. I needed to start trusting myself, and trusting others too. This was going to be a lot of work. But anything would have been better than the constant devastation I was feeling.
While I struggled to understand myself I had let go of trying to win over my crush. I made the space I needed to get in touch with what I was experiencing. But that moment didn’t last for very long. Later that same year I entered into a new relationship.
This time I would talk about how I felt. This time violence from either one of us would be unacceptable. This time I would try to quiet the distrustful and destructive voice inside. And I’d be gentle and patient with myself as I learned to do things differently.
The next year my new partner and I moved in together. Life would be full of laughter and yet peppered throughout with dark spots. Despite those rough times I was dedicated to myself and to our relationship. I knew that if I just believed in us then we would always find solutions for our problems. One surprising solution came at the turn of a new year for me.
I was skeptical about it – I was never religious or deeply spiritual. But I knew I had to try new things if I wanted to keep improving my mental health and meditation was certainly new to me. With some perseverance and dedicated practice it was actually working. I could finally make choices without my emotions sweeping in and carrying me away. This was a skill I would need to get through what was waiting for me three years into our relationship.
It was lightly raining on a January afternoon but the living room was always full of light. It was a favorite place of mine to sit alone and enjoy my surroundings. I was in a calm and peaceful mood that day. I had no idea my head would soon be spinning. Then it happened.
My heart dropped and pulled the world down with it. Was I seeing this right? No! Yes. No! What? What was happening!? What happened?
Hold on. Remember the meditating. Slow your thoughts. Create some space for this.
Alright. Yes, this was really happening. He’d been seeing other people. I wasn’t being dramatic. It was right there in front of me.
Do I tell anyone? No. I can’t.
Do I tell him I know? I’ll wait. I have to process this.
What do I want? Do I have to start planning for something?
Remember what you promised yourself. I’m going to do things differently this time. I’m going to settle down and I will talk with him tomorrow. In the meantime I have to put this aside for the day and act like it hasn’t happened.
I can do this. I’ll be okay.
And I was okay. We started couples therapy. Our relationship continued for a few years longer through the cycles of the seasons. Every now and then everything would fall apart and we’d quickly pick it back up and move on. I figured this was the normal ups and downs of any relationship, maybe with a few extra bumps. Things were okay.
Until they weren’t any more.
After six years together he wanted to end things. Yeah, but he’d said that before. Why would this time be any different? Just another chapter in our story I figured…
We needed a new therapist since we’d stopped seeing the old one. I found someone we were both comfortable with. I went into therapy with the understanding that we would figure out what was going on and how we could resolve it. He saw things differently.
He consistently insisted that we break up. This wasn’t like all the other times. I’d never seen him plant his feet in the ground this way. Why would he throw all we had built together away? Why even try a new therapist if ending things was the goal? Once again I found myself flooded with questions.
Was this narcissism again? Did I somehow make the same mistake? I thought I had changed… How did I get here?
I don’t remember what we were talking about or why. I remember he was in the candle-lit room sitting next to me on the couch; with a haunting and quiet space between us. The therapist spoke a word that turned on a deep part of my brain. It was like looking through glasses for the first time and realizing I was never seeing quite right.
I didn’t fully comprehend it at first. She had mentioned it a few times before but it seemed like just another word a therapist would use. It didn’t mean anything to me.
And then the light seeped in… Oh my God! Trauma! Of course! Of course!! Why had I never considered this before? Why had no one ever mentioned it to me? This explains everything. Not just today, but my whole life! I thought I had this all figured out already and yet here I was, discovering something that had permeated all of my life once again.
I went back to the internet to get a better understanding, just as I had done after the breakup from years ago. I knew I could find more answers there.
Posttraumatic Stress Disorder. Amygdala. Dissociation.
Dissociation!! This explained why for years I hadn’t been able to concentrate! I could never understand why I was always tired and unmotivated. I thought it was a physical health condition. This was incredible!
Triggers. Hippocampus. Emotional flashbacks. Grounding. Fight, flight, or freeze. Attachment. Coregulation. Vagus nerve. Emotional abuse. Broca’s area. Neglect. Gaslighting. Boundaries. Projection. Avoidance. Thalamus. Executive functioning. Retraumatization.
The information all came rushing in. The word trauma had broken down the wall of ignorance that was keeping me from understanding who I was. My relationship unraveled in the wind and it felt like my life was coming apart. Yet somehow at the same time at 32 years old my entire life was just beginning to emerge from the soil.
Now everything had made sense. I had a context for what I’d been through.
I couldn’t remember what happened in the train station parking lot because I had been dissociating. My brain couldn’t fully take in what was happening. The information was fragmented and never stored with the rest of the memory because I was being retraumatized.
I was drawn to men who crossed over my boundaries because of attachment trauma. I didn’t know any other way to “do” a relationship. My insecurity had propelled me to seek out safety in people who appeared detached and cool like stones.
Getting closer with a partner would trigger emotional flashbacks and with them a fear that at any moment my partner was about to harm me. Moving further away from a partner left me feeling exposed and vulnerable. I was being pulled in opposite directions from an artifact of the past that was haunting my body.
I was repeating the problems in my relationships the way that trauma repeats each time it’s recalled from memory. There was nothing wrong with me. My body was playing out a survival mechanism to protect me from experiences that were once life threatening. I just needed to teach my body that things were okay now.
With knowledge and terminology I finally had a way forward.
When I’m dissociating I can ground myself. If I’m triggered I can meditate and use coping skills. I can express healthy boundaries to honor how I feel and keep a level of intimacy I’m comfortable with with other people. I can articulate experiences that I never had words for before.
When each of these relationships ended it was immensely painful. I didn’t think I could ever recover. It was tempting to dump all of my hurt and frustrating on my partners in some grand gesture of defiance and redemption. And there were silent nights when I did that. After all, my exes gave me good reasons to.
But when a relationship ends it forces you to pay attention. The things that really matter suddenly snap into focus. I knew we didn’t get to these places accidentally. The mental health issues were always there. I knew it. How could I not? I was experiencing so much pain.
But in the middle of pain an opportunity was waiting. Because of failing relationships I had the chance to discover who I was. I now have a deeper relationship with myself. I know who I am. And that makes all the pain worth it.