Today, I’m writing with a cup of jasmine tea by my side. I just finished preparing a marinade for the lamb steaks I will cook for my roommates later, and I finally started the first chapter of “Normal People” at the recommendation of too many friends. I have gone for a leisurely run down my street and around Back Cove, enjoying the crisp fall air as it passed first through colorful trees and then through me. As I sit tucked into the far corner of the big velvet-red couch in my living room, my body radiates warmth left from my shower. Today I feel like a fully-functional human—the first time in quite a while.
I’ve started this essay a few times now, trying to figure out which path to take—how best to describe the month of ecstasy and torture I finally escaped. I ask myself if it is better to start from the beginning—where fleeting brushes of hands, knees and lips made me quake with wonder—or if this tactic only continues the secrecy and façade I created around my relationship with Mark. I’ve revised this piece of writing a dozen times, editing out flourishes which I typically use. I’m afraid of romanticizing my story with tantalizing descriptions. This isn’t a piece of fiction; I can’t beautify the trauma like Sally Rooney does in the book by my side because to do so tricks me into appreciating it. This is my life: my real, sometimes shitty, life, and I think I need to recognize the shittiness. I need to acknowledge in this essay that I do not appreciate this type of treatment. Coming to that conclusion, it must be better to start with the physical manifestation of the pain: starving myself in the final weeks, insomnia, puking in shower, a type of exhaustion that your body does not rid itself of for nearly a week.
I’ve written the ending, the truth, and so I feel like my story can now commence without the prospect of delusion. I started dating Mark at the beginning of this semester. On paper, he is the type of man I could see myself staying with for a long time. A charming actor, he grew up in a small town (like me), found himself propelled by luck to an elite school (like me) and craved a sort of stability that his childhood did not offer (like me). It was the perfectness of our union that hid the misery lying just beneath the surface—the agony he forced upon me.
To be quite honest, I’m not sure why I stayed with him once the emotional abuse registered in my brain. He often even admitted to it, I think giving me the hope that it would all end, that he was working on it. The constant control over who I was with, who I talked to and how I presented myself. The fear that I may act too “gay” in front of him—that he would call me “disgusting.” This happened twice. The late-night calls where he would ask me if I thought we should see other people, and then tell me 30 minutes later that he cared deeply about me, that he was just sad and alone and couldn’t wait to see me the next day. He told me that I had made him happy, that he no longer contemplated suicide and didn’t know what he would do without me—something I’m still trying to process. But between the “I love you”s and meeting his friends and family, I found it hard to conceptualize how Mark felt. I knew our relationship was moving at warp speed, and I expressed my hesitations about this, but I wanted so deeply for him to love me. Acknowledging the velocity at which we were flying towards a commitment I think neither of us was really ready for only made him furious. It was this, and the meticulous way in which he gave me love and withheld it as an act of punishment, that kept me closer than I probably should have ever been.
My head and my heart ache when I think about how long I let this go on. I am no stranger to abusive relationships. My biological father was both physically and emotionally abusive to my family for decades. While I know that both my past and my experience as a queer person have made me resilient in a way I wish no one ever has to be, when I finally do open myself up to a deep emotional connection I am especially vulnerable to manipulation. It is this trauma, a burden born from the lasting effects of a life which has been fucked with too much already, that I sometimes find myself relapsing into. I hide this part of me through an air of achievement, a dash of charisma and letting most people read only the abstract of my life. And this is how, even to my mother, mentors and closest friends, I convincingly made Mark’s and my relationship sublime: a gay love story worthy of its own movie on the Hallmark channel. I left out the sleepless nights, the concealer I applied under my eyes before Zoom meetings to hide the exhaustion, the vodka I drank to numb the dagger of his words when he came home tired and angry from work and the stress of thinking I was solely responsible for another human’s life.
Emotional abuse is common. Some statistics cite that nearly 90 percent of students experience it in their relationships at college. But these are only statistics. Age, economic class, race, gender, sexuality: all these categories (and more) have significant implications for the emotional abuse that is actually experienced by people. Furthermore, everyone has different reactions to emotional abuse. Some, like me, are trapped in these relationships even after they end. The day after I broke up with him, Mark posted a photo on Instagram that I had taken. In the picture, he is standing in my room in Portland, wearing my red floral shirt and looking directly at the camera: me. I was in the shower trying to change my music when I saw this and dropped my phone. I curled up in the bathtub and proceeded to puke all over myself.
Each day I am removed from the pain I feel a little more like myself. My roommates noted an obvious mile-marker yesterday when I started cooking again. And with each day I tell one or two people the truth about what was going on. It’s not easy calling loved ones to say you lied about how your life was going, even if you were in a trance. At first, they are shocked, and then they usually recognize some signs of abuse that I masterfully distracted them from during my time with “him.” I’m careful to try and use pronouns more often than the name because the name usually holds too much baggage for either of us. The most difficult part of all of this, I explain while trying to keep composure, is that I still care deeply for him. I am no expert on emotional abuse. What I can say is that I have been both emotionally and physically abused in the past, and that, personally, with emotional abuse it is always harder for me to hate the perpetrator. Physicality gives me some tangible footnote to cite my hatred from. The consistency in which emotional abuse radiates through a relationship makes it difficult to pinpoint the source of anger.
I am working on figuring out how to constructively feel about Mark, and in doing so creating a structure that hopefully keeps me safe in the future. I want so badly to hate him, but I can’t—at least not yet. Somewhere deep inside me, I can’t help but shake the feeling that the world’s hatred towards the love we felt for each other is to blame for the trauma he made me endure. I am caught in this paradox of acknowledging the complexity of queer people’s existence in this world and holding people accountable for their actions towards me. The collective suffering experienced by queer people, though obviously variable, can be known and empathized with fully only through existence within our reality. It is this enigma that I’m unsure if I’ll ever find an answer to. What I have found though, and the reason that I am using the remaining hours of this autumnal morning to write instead of enjoying the changing maple tree at the end of my street with a walk, is that emotional abuse is uniquely difficult, often silent to others and rarely spoken of. I have reminded myself, though hopefully for the last time, that the torture and excruciating grief felt after ripping yourself apart from someone you care for can eventually turn into a happiness that their existence in your life prevents.
Mitchel Jurasek is a member of the Class of 2021.