The thing about numbing yourself to bad emotions, is that you had to numb yourself to the good ones too.
After what I called our Airport Argument, my ex apologized. He claimed, as usual, that insecurity was the root of his problem and that he was going to work on it. I told him if he didn’t, then we couldn’t be in a relationship anymore. I don’t think he took me seriously, especially since I decided to put our argument and all the bad feelings I had towards him behind me and move forward. That’s what healthy relationships were about, right? Moving past conflict?
In the following weeks, I could tell something had changed in me. Something felt weird, and off. My smile didn’t reach my eyes. My laughter lacked real mirth. I didn’t take as much joy in the things that I used to. Every day felt like the San Francisco fog surrounded just me, separating me from everything, nullifying everything it touched.
My ex tried to be the charming, loving version of him again and tried to do all the things that used to bring a smile to my face. And I tried to be the excitable, cheerful version of me again and tried to be happy. But it wasn’t working. The mask he wore had slipped and I lived in my numb fog, just waiting for the mask the slip again.
I realized it was inevitable. All the good times we had were marred with bad times. At some point, all this charm and love he was extending my way would turn cold and I lived in anticipation of it, just waiting for the storm to come in. And it inevitably would. Whether it was me meeting up with friends or bringing him to meet my friends or remarking about how his name was the same as our soon-to-be landlord’s, something was always a problem. It was always something subtle that I couldn’t have possibly been aware of and simultaneously needed to be hyper aware of at all times if I truly cared about him.
I thought, if I could just get it right, if I could just be good, then maybe we would be okay. Maybe I needed to weather the storm and we would come out okay on the other side. Maybe we could get back to how it was in beginning, when it was easy and effortless and felt so good.
But no matter how much I tried, I just couldn’t get it. The storm steadily grew worse and worse. Having nowhere else to turn, I decided it was time to bring out the big guns.
I decided it was time for therapy.
In the very first few minutes of our very first session, after listening to me vent about all the arguments we had that made no sense, my therapist got right to the point.
“What are your emotional boundaries?” The old man kindly asked. “What do you consider emotional abuse?”
I couldn’t answer. I was dumbfounded. I barely had a clue that emotions could be abused. He saw me floundering for a response and decided to drop a bomb.
“To be honest, this sounds like narcissistic behavior to me.”
There it was again. The N-word that I was really afraid of. I spent the rest of the day in my usual fog but this time it was filled with confusion and denial. I felt like I had been sucker punched. There was no way. I was careful. I vetted. How did a narcissist make their way back into my life again? He couldn’t be.
Mulling over the conversation with my therapist, I spent the night alone. When I usually did that, my ex and I would talk on the phone for an hour, sometimes two before I went to bed. Sometimes it was fun, sometimes it was exhausting. That night, the last thing I wanted to do was talk to him for hours while still reeling from the conversation I had with my therapist. He’d told me multiple times before that if I ever didn’t want to talk, it was ok, he would understand. I decided to take him up on the offer and I texted him to tell him I didn’t want to talk that night. He immediately called me.
“So you don’t want to talk to me?” He accused as soon as I picked up his FaceTime.
Duh, nigga, I thought. I sighed. I knew I would be in for another argument and I just didn’t have the energy. But I tried to explain myself anyway. I tried to explain that it had been a long week/I was exhausted/I’m an introvert so I need the time to myself. Every explanation in the book I could think of, I gave it to him. I still thought that if I were as honest and open as possible, he would understand me and see that I had nothing to hide.
Of course it didn’t work.
“You don’t think I’m tired?” He ranted. “I’m exhausted too. You don’t know what I went through. You didn’t even ask me about my day.”
Something within me twisted and shifted, but I ignored it by trying to cling to what little peace I had left. I did the very thing he couldn’t do for me; I put my ego aside and gave him the benefit of the doubt.
“How was your day?” I asked.
“It doesn’t matter. You don’t even care.”
We argued for another twenty minutes before I realized it was cutting into what was supposed to be my recovery time. Promising him that not wanting to speak to him one time did not mean that I didn’t care about him anymore, I hung up. But that wasn’t enough. He sent me a flurry of texts and over the next few hours we texted back and forth, each trying to prove how the other was wrong. By the time we’d reached a resolution, I realized it was time for bed. I never even got the night to recover like I wanted.
“There’s something I need to talk to you about.” It was Monday night and we were back on FaceTime after spending a semi-normal, non-argumentative weekend together. It was semi-normal because the fog that usually surrounded me was heavier than usual. Ever since I talked to my therapist, I spent my days crying on and off and spent my nights existing in numbness, just trying not to make my ex angry. I still couldn’t decide if he was a narcissist or not, but the facts were clear: I did not feel good in this relationship.
Once the denial cleared, things started to make sense. What seemed like random arguments to me before were now arguments placed strategically to make sure my attention was always focused on him. It wasn’t a coincidence that we argued right after I saw my coworkers, or spent time with my family, or asked to be alone. It didn’t matter how much I explained myself. He wasn’t looking for explanations; he was looking for attention, good or bad. And anything that took my attention away from him was a threat to his supply. I realized that was the abuse part: trying to manipulate me into feeling guilty, ashamed, or other negative emotions just so I could remain focused solely on him was definitely abuse.
I needed to break up with him but I was afraid to do it in person. He’d told me multiple times after arguments rooted in insecurity that he was extremely afraid of me breaking up with him and I couldn’t handle seeing him react in person. Other times when he reacted badly, he’d shout at me with a crazy, maniacal look in his eye. One time he even threw my belongings on the ground. I was too afraid that breaking up with him in person would mean something worse. So FaceTime it was.
“Ok, what?” He asked. As much as he was always expecting the worst, I could tell he wasn’t prepared for me to say what I was about to.
“You know how I’ve been feeling off lately.” I started. I spent a little time beating around the bush and talking about how I felt and not what he was doing to me. “Anyway, saying all that to say…” I looked at his stony face through the screen and watched his expression carefully as I said the next words.
“I can’t… I can’t… be in this relationship anymore.”
I barely finished before he threw his head down and started sobbing. “Please… please don’t…” Was all I could hear him say.
I really didn’t want to feel the wetness in my eyes but it came anyway. As much as he terrorized me, I still really cared about him and it hurt to see him in pain. It was what I had been trying to avoid our whole relationship. But the facts were the facts. As much as I wanted him to be, he simply wasn’t good for me.
We had a long talk where he pleaded with me to stay with him but I stuck to my decision. “I knew what I was doing,” he admitted, “and I couldn’t help it. I’m sorry.”
As tears fell onto my cheeks, I knew I felt sorry too. I felt sorry that this was the only way he knew to express love. I felt sorry that he was caught up in a pattern that simply wasn’t serving him. I felt sorry that I tried to deal with it and ended up being his emotional punching bag.
And most of all, I felt sorry that we were two people who really wanted to love, but didn’t know how.