Your Ex Was An Asshole, Not A “Sociopath” — On Emotional Abuse And Dating Someone With Mental Illness

Your Ex Was An Asshole, Not A "Sociopath" -- On Emotional Abuse And Dating Someone With Mental Illness

My ex-boyfriend is the worst person I’ve ever known.

A lot of people say that — or some derivative of it — I suppose. But I find myself almost offended when girls say that their boyfriends were “sociopaths” for not calling back when they said they would, or even for cheating. A refusal to communicate and a betrayal of your trust certainly make for a shitty boyfriend — and those things may have long-lasting effects on you. But those things don’t mean your ex was a psychopath, a sociopath, or a sufferer of some other type of all-encompassing personality disorder.

My ex was.

He was never officially diagnosed with borderline personality disorder. That specific diagnosis is just what I — along with some others who are fairly educated on mental illness and were once close to him — have hypothesized to be the case. But what I can say without a shadow of a doubt, is that my dealings with him eventually went beyond the realm of normal boyfriend-girlfriend arguments, and his treatment of me went beyond the realm of a dude who’s just an asshole. By the end of our three-and-a-half-year relationship, I was absolutely enduring intense emotional and verbal abuse as part of my daily life, with a few “close calls” on physical abuse, and one rape. Looking back, I am dreadfully and fearfully confident, that I was about six months away from getting my ass beat.

How Did This Even Happen?

It’s hard for me now to remember how I felt in the beginning. It’s hard for me to remember why I first fell for him or what about him seemed wonderful. But I do know a few things. He was older, and that was exciting, but it made way for a natural power dynamic — where I took his words to mean more than they should have. I was new to the city, and he was supportive of me emotionally, and that was the only comfort I had when my friends and family were thousands of miles away. Having no other confidants nearby made me rely on him — need him. And he seemed interested in me in a way that no one had in a long time. He wanted me around all the time. He wanted to talk to me about everything. He wanted to check in with each other at every moment. And what I now see as controlling and insecure, at the time made me feel like I was finally spending time with someone who really liked me.

The beginning of our relationship was, for the most part, the same as the beginning of any relationship. I wanted to impress him all the time. I got butterflies every time I talked to him. And I just felt happy when he was near. Of course, we fought sometimes, like any couple does. But it wasn’t until about four months in that something truly shocked and upset me.

We were in bed one morning, giggling over nothing, or everything, when he pinched my thigh, seemingly out of nowhere.

“You know you would be really hot, but uhhhh, why is this here?”

All the color left my face as I realized he was grabbing a dimple in my leg — one that had first appeared when I was about 14 years old, dancing 18 hours a week, and that I’d since accepted was just always going to be a part of my body.

That is supposed to be something we both ignore until one of us dies, I thought.

Sensing my discomfort when I didn’t say anything he added, “I’m not going to pretend it’s invisible to make you feel better about yourself.”

I was in disbelief. I ignored him for a day or two after that, until he texted me and had made reservations for the two of us at a restaurant I’d been dying to try. He didn’t mention his cruel words, but the evening was so great that I thought it was silly to throw away all our time together for one shitty comment.

Of course, it wasn’t one shitty comment. From that point forward, comments about my physical appearance progressively became more and more frequent. He constantly told me I needed to lose weight or wear more makeup. I had such potential that I was just throwing away by leaving the house looking like a boy.

“How can you leave the house looking so tired. You’re not thin enough to pull off heroin chic.”

“You’re showing too much leg in those shorts. And I know it’s because you think you look good, but…you don’t. I don’t want you to be embarrassed.”

The thing is, an insult doesn’t sting as much if you don’t believe it — but it was as if he’d carefully jotted down the things I was insecure about and confirmed them to me. It was truly terrible to hear the things you don’t like about yourself repeated back to you. But it began to feel like your best friend telling you an outfit makes you look fat. While it hurts, I thought, at least he was being honest. I could handle it. It was just shallow stuff that didn’t matter — we still had a great connection. He got me. And that wasn’t worth giving up.

It went on like this until about eight months in, when I remember something truly not sitting right with me — that at my core felt like an irreconcilable incompatibility when he saw a picture of a guy I dated briefly in college and took to my sorority formal, a black man, which as I quickly learned, was a problem. How, he wondered, could I have possibly kept this from him for so long? He told me he just learned his dream girl was tainted, and he was humiliated that I was broadcasting this for the world to see.

And I was appalled.

We fought for days. I was enraged. I was disgusted. And I was hurt. I couldn’t understand how someone whose opinions I respected and who felt so close to me in so many ways could think like this. He insisted I “apologize” for my past, which continued to infuriate me. I had to change his opinion. I had to make him see how ignorant his views were for so many reasons. I refused to accept that someone I cared for so deeply could, frankly, be a bigot.

But while that argument subsided temporarily, his opinions continued to take their toll on me. That wouldn’t be the last time we’d fight about my formal date, or literally any other “progressive” issue. He had a problem with me hanging around some of my friends who were “bad influences,” namely gay men and sexually open women. None of this was natural, he said. Women weren’t designed to have a lot of partners. Studies had been done! Women with a lot of sex partners were more likely to be depressed — straight from the journal of his fucked up brain. These friends of mine normalized that behavior. And my vehement defense of them was a character flaw, because in truth, the real problem with me was simple:

I was a whore.

I had slept with nine men before I’d met my ex, and each one of them contributed in helping to “ruin” me. My having a sexual past was the reason we could never be together, really. His logic was flawed, but over time, it became hard for me to remember how to argue with him. He had an answer for everything. He claimed we were soulmates. And that any other man I’d been with was an indiscretion — because whether I knew him or not, we were already soulmates. So every time I slept with someone else, I was cheating. He asked me insane questions like how many times I’d slept with my ex-boyfriend, and how many guys did I not only sleep with, but “make come.” If I didn’t want to answer, I had something to hide. “My imagination is worse than whatever it could be,” he’d say. “Just tell me.”

And when I threw out a number that sounded reasonable just to make the conversation end, he’d respond with “Oh, only 15? You’ve only let 15 dudes jizz on you? So just, like, a whole football team? No big deal, right?”

I was an embarrassment. The way I talked about sex was the reason he could never introduce me to his mother. The fact that I ever deigned to initiate sex between us, was just further proof that I wasn’t “the kind of girl” you marry. He couldn’t ever commit to me, fully. Because I was to him, what I was to the rest of them — “Nothing more than a fuckdoll. I could never marry someone like you.”

At 24 years old, with my friends starting to begin their forevers, marriage became the carrot he’d dangle in front of me. It was his major manipulation tool. If I’d just give up part of myself and become who he was asking me to be, I’d have what I wanted. Full commitment. Full love. A ring. A wedding. Children. And a happily ever after. The older I got, the longer we were together, the better it worked. I loved him. I was older than I was yesterday. It would be easier to just fix us than find someone new, I thought. And he knew this, and reminded me every day that finding someone new would be an impossibility. No one would be as rich as he was. No one would be as funny as he was. No one else would put up with how I looked, and how I talked, and who I was like he would. So don’t bother trying. Just fix this. Just fix me.

Why The Fuck Did I Stay So Long?

At this point, everything sounds pretty terrible about him. Because it was. And I’ve found myself wondering, so many times why I stayed with him so long.

Simply put? I loved him. I don’t know how or why. He didn’t have redeeming qualities. But love isn’t something that just happens. It grows over time. Our love seed was planted during a time when everything was exciting, and it grew, despite the many obstacles in its way, even though they ended up being detrimental to my mental health.

And as low as the lows were, the highs were so high. In truth, I began to feel like a junkie for his love in every sense of the word. I’d endure the misery of the “hangover” that was the bad times, because no one else, by that time, had ever made me feel so euphoric. Our time together was pure bliss. I felt safe with him. I felt at peace. I felt happy. The good times felt better than the good times with any normal person.

I’ve come to wonder — to realize — this is only because they were in contrast to the bad times. Like when you finally pee after holding it in for awhile. It’s not really that it feels so good. It’s that it just feels so good to make the hurting stop. But at the time, nothing could beat that feeling.

I eventually began to separate the two different “versions” of him. There was this wonderful person in there that I’d fallen in love with. He was kind, and he was funny, and he was thoughtful. He spoiled me with lavish dinners, and gifts, and compliments. And he made me feel like I was incredible, and beautiful, and needed. This was the real him, I thought. And the real him wasn’t responsible for the horrible things he said and did to me. The real him loved me. The “bad guy” was someone else.

The bad guy was this person who was sick — battling demons. He didn’t like to divulge the inner workings of his mind — his insecurities, his emotions, and his fears. But he shared them with me, because he trusted me. Because he loved me. And even as an excuse to apologize for his behavior. He was fighting a mental illness, anger issues, and eventually substance abuse and addiction. And I was there to help him. How could I abandon this man who loved me and whom I loved? How could I abandon any sick person when I was their entire support system?

This eventually became his second manipulation tool — how much he needed me.

He made me feel guilty for blaming him for lashing out at me. He couldn’t control it. It was his anxiety. His depression. His drugs that made him act the way he did. He was going to get help this time, but he needed me to help him through it. He needed my support. He couldn’t stand to be without me. And perhaps he wouldn’t, he told me. Without me, in fact, he had no reason left to live. If I didn’t care about what leaving would do to me and my future, surely at least I’d care what it would do to his.

He threatened suicide several times, and I couldn’t bare the thought that my leaving him would be what drove him to actually go through with hurting myself. I begged him to get professional help, and he refused. And so I was all he had. And I couldn’t take the only support he had away from him when he was so sick. Even if that meant it was hard for me. I could be strong for the both of us.

Until I couldn’t.

Things Never Got Better, They Only Got Worse

The last year of our relationship was one of the worst of my life. As my ex got sicker, his treatment of me got worse and his behavior began to get violent. He was high all the time. And when he wasn’t, he was crashing from his three-week benders. He’d pass out for days at a time. He became impossible to reach and even more impossible to reason with.

His verbal abuse of me — the insults — got meaner and meaner, while his emotional abuse — the manipulation — got so intense that they began to distort my reality, a phenomenon known as gaslighting.

I don’t consider myself, generally, to be a person who backs down. And throughout our relationship, I never apologized for my past. Or for my friendships. Or for my opinions. But eventually, I began to wonder if he was right about everything.

Maybe I was a dirty whore who didn’t deserve love. Maybe every man really did feel that way. Maybe my “number” was something to be ashamed of, and maybe my sexuality in general was something I should try to suppress. Maybe some of my friends were bad influences on me, and maybe I should start hanging out with people who were “good.” Maybe I should start wearing cardigans, and stop wearing super high heels. Maybe I wasn’t pretty. Or thin. Or outgoing. Or fun in a crowd.

Maybe I was “nothing but a n*****-banging fuckdoll.”

I logically still fought everything he said. In my heart and my soul, I knew they couldn’t be true. I knew that the wonderful people in my life were still wonderful. And that sexual liberation was a good thing. But EVERY single thing I read from an internet troll, or a bigot, or anyone confirmed that other people felt the same way he did. And for the first time in my life, I cared. And I felt disgusting for caring what hateful people thought. But I did.

I tiptoed around everything I said to him. I was constantly afraid I’d set him off with a joke or a comment about the world. I went to PRIDE that year with my best friend, a gay man, and lied to my ex about where I was. I stopped mentioning the friends he didn’t like. And I deleted those pictures of my formal date.

Nothing was worse than the fights these things would cause had I not started changing my life to fit his needs — even sticking up for my beliefs. And in everything he did, making me question my beliefs and reality, making me act against what I’d always known was right, was the worst thing of them all.

Still, I continued to forgive him every single day.

Through the nightly phone calls between 2:00 and 5:00 in the morning that came because he was awake, fucked up, and needed to berate me for some reason or another, I forgave him. Through the times he grabbed my arms or physically restrained me as he yelled to remind me that he had complete control over me should he need it, I forgave him. Through the time he sat with his gun on the table, just to remind me he had it, I forgave him. Through the time he actually hit me repeatedly, and played it off as “rough sex that got out of hand because he was fucked up,” I forgave him — hell, I believed him. And through the time I laid, bent over his bed motionless and crying in pain as he told me “stop, I’m almost done,” I forgave him.

I felt like a shell of myself. I wasn’t this person. I’m not quiet, or timid, or demure. I don’t fit the mold of what I’ve always been told a victim of abuse — of any kind — would be. I am funny, and loud, and bubbly, and bright. I’m kind of a firecracker — sometimes even a high-maintenance bitch. Yet here I was, miserable, and doing anything I could to appease a man I “loved.” I couldn’t understand myself. When would enough be enough? Why couldn’t I just. fucking. leave. I felt pathetic and embarrassed at my lack of strength. I kept falling through what I thought was rock bottom — what I thought would surely be enough to make me finally go — and getting lower.

But one day, I didn’t.

When Enough Was Finally Enough

It’s not logical. It’s not some catastrophic event that finally did it for me. It was a fucking pumpkin patch.

I’d planned a day trip for us several weeks in advance and was looking forward to a day filled of boyfriend activities. Pumpkin picking. Horseback riding. Scarecrow stuffing. A corn maze. The works. I couldn’t get a hold of him the entire weekend. I called him all day Friday. All day Saturday. And finally, Sunday, at 3:30 pm, he called me back. Our trip was ruined. The pumpkin patch was 45 minutes away, and it closed in an hour and a half.

And I just cried. And I cried, and I cried and I cried. Because he always did this to me. He skipped every important event ever in my life. He skipped all my birthdays. He skipped my friend’s wedding. He skipped lunch with my mom, and then dinner with my mom, and then breakfast with my mom, and then lunch with my mom for three whole days. He skipped my performance the first time I did stand-up. He skipped concerts, and dinners, and the circus. But the pumpkin patch was it. He hit me with the last excuse I’d ever hear:

“I had a last-minute fishing trip come up and we didn’t have service out on the lake. It really concerns me that you’re so inflexible that you’re going ballistic over a change of plans.”

It finally occurred to me that nothing about our relationship was ever going to change. He didn’t care how he made me feel. He cared how I made him feel. I existed to make him happy, and what he did to me in the process was irrelevant.

I hung up the phone and cried the rest of the day. And the next day, I talked to his friends and his family — all of whom had been concerned for the past year, but too afraid to say anything — and worked on setting up an intervention. He needed help, and I couldn’t be the one to give it to him any more.

Unfortunately, he refused the professional help we offered to him, which looking back, I can’t say is surprising. He didn’t even seem to care that his loved ones were concerned. In fact, he was mad at me for “putting the thought that he might need help into their heads.” But seeing his dismissal of his loved ones, and finally being able to talk about the toll his mental illness had taken on me was all I needed. I walked out of his home that day and never saw him again.

The Aftermath

That was a year and a half ago. Since then, I’ve gone through a wide range of emotions. I was plagued with guilt for a really long time. I walked out on him at the same time as his friends did. And soon after, he lost his job. And nothing could shake the feeling that the downward spiral of his life was, in part, my fault. I felt worried about him for a long time. But not worried enough to change my mind.

I can’t say I didn’t have some close calls. I talked to him sometimes. And I missed him all the time. I tried to throw myself back into dating to distract myself from the fact that even though I’d just essentially escaped something, I was still mourning a breakup. But worse, because I was coming to terms with the fact that the “version” of my ex that I’d fallen in love with didn’t even exist any more.

But the more I tried to throw myself into other relationships, the more I realized I wasn’t ready for one. I was broken and damaged at that point. Everything he said and did to me was still weighing on me. I was terrified of meeting another guy like him. I was afraid to even kiss my dates for fear they’d think I was a whore. I just couldn’t have someone say that to me again. I found myself getting way too drunk on my dates, and eventually talking about my ex in some sort of twisted search for validation that they weren’t like him. I ended up crying every time. And then I was angry — that he could still affect me so deeply and ruin my relationships when he wasn’t even around.

It was eight months before I trusted a man enough to sleep with him without fearing that he’d just be another “notch on my belt” — another detriment to me as a woman. I’m happy to say that man truly was my ex’s opposite in every sense of the word. He was open, and sexual, and liberated, and kind of a hippie, to be honest. We dated for several months, and he re-taught me that men can be understanding, and kind, and appreciate women. He told me I was beautiful, and it wasn’t a manipulation tool. He showed up when he said he would and communicated with my properly when something was amiss. And while he wasn’t my forever, I can honestly say he changed my life. I will forever be thankful for him and credit him with helping to build me back up from zero.

And now? I can’t say I’ve yet reached a place that I don’t give a fuck at all. I don’t think about my him all the time any more — or even most of the time — but he will always be a blemish on the course of my life. He’ll always be someone I have to remember when I think about how I became who I am today. And now that the dust has settled, and the smoke has cleared, and I’m no longer blinded by a strange combination of manipulation and love… I truly hate him for it.

Don’t get me wrong. I like my life again. I finally feel happy. I have incredible friends who I feel connected to in my soul. They love me and helped me to remember the person I was before my ex — the person I loved being. When I date, it’s people who have shown they care about me more in a short period of time than he ever did in our three years together, and I finally feel like I’m being treated how I deserve to be treated. I know what I want and what I absolutely refuse to accept, and I will never go back on that again.

But as for him? He’s still the worst person I’ve ever known. You don’t need to be treated badly to know how to feel good. You don’t need to go through abuse to know how to be loved. I don’t feel stronger because I was broken. I feel lucky because I didn’t stay broken.

And so, your boyfriend might have been an asshole. He might have been a fuckboy. He might have been a really selfish, dishonest, mean, terrible, terrible person. But unless he was actually a sociopath, don’t say that he was.

Image via Shutterstock

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