Six years ago tomorrow, I got married. For a lot of people, most I dare say, this isn’t that big a deal. But it is for me.
I never wanted to get married. In fact, I said I was never getting married. Protested it. I was independent. Strong. A loner.
Truth is, though, I wasn’t. In reality, I was scared. Afraid of committing my entire life to someone and then being left or betrayed. Afraid of losing my independence, of relying on someone else and being let down. I think deep down, it wasn’t marriage that scared me, it was marrying the wrong person, and I didn’t trust my judgment to find the right person.
With good reason. Before my husband, I was in a terrible relationship. I’ve talked a bit about it before, but I didn’t tell the whole truth. The whole truth is terrifying, but I think I can finally say it. It’s hard to admit this, even now, nine years after I dumped the guy. Especially since I know my family reads my blog and there are things I haven’t told anyone except my husband and my brother. I think it needs to be said, though. There are people who need to hear it. Women, in a particular, who need to stand up for themselves. This isn’t directed at anyone specific, but at anyone who has ever let someone else take part of themselves.
The guy I dated for three years, the majority of my time in college, just about broke me. He was abusive. Mostly emotionally, telling me I was worthless and lucky to have him because no one else would ever want me. He would yell and cuss and threaten to leave. He threw things at me. Beer bottles and silverware. He’d kick his cat. He’d grab me hard enough to leave five oval bruises on each arm and shake me until I thought my head was going to fly off, until I became so dizzy I couldn’t stand.
He was an alcoholic. A couple years later I learned he’d developed a prescription drug addiction and went to rehab. I don’t know if it worked. He tried to kill himself a couple times. He always put it on me. His problems were my fault.
It suffocated me. I spent those years believing him. He ran off all of my friends. My parents thought I was just a bad roommate. I guess they thought I was selfish, that I chased my friends away. I never corrected them. It was better for them to think I was the bad person than to think I had terrible judgment. (Poor logic, I know). Part of me also feared my dad would kill the guy if he ever found out, and I didn’t want to put Daddy in that position.
I found freedom in a couple places. One, my friend Sam. We were in the same major. We started out studying together, then hanging out. I told my boyfriend I was studying, then Sam and I would go hear a band or something. Sam had this neighbor, this annoying, irritating neighbor who developed a crush on me. The guy drove me crazy, but later, I realized he sparked something within me. Confidence. Defiance. I learned my boyfriend was wrong. Other people would want me. Did want me.
I also found freedom in Paris.
My mother teaches high school and every couple years she’d take a group to Europe. For every x number of students who signed up (I don’t remember how many), the group got a free trip. So my senior year of college, a month after I turned 22, I got to go to Europe for free. It was there, in the piazzas in Florence, the train to Monaco, the shops of Nice, that I started to feel unbridled. One morning, winding through the streets of Paris, just outside Notre Dame, I realized I hadn’t bought my boyfriend a souvenir. I’d been in Europe almost ten days and hadn’t thought to get him anything. Hadn’t thought of him much at all, actually. I paid a couple Euro for a pen and ink drawing of the cathedral–one I wish I’d kept to be honest–and then forgot about the guy again. Until the plane ride home. Then the thick blanket came over my head again.
By the time I reunited with my boyfriend, the blanket became a plastic bag, killing me. Over the next month I tried to figure out a way to end it without destroying the guy. Even after all he’d put me through, I still worried about him. Isn’t that ridiculous? This was before his suicide attempts, before the pills and the rehab, but I knew how fragile he was. I still look back on that time and wonder if I should’ve said something to his family. There’s a twinge of guilt when I think I could have warned them. Not stopped it. Nothing could’ve stopped this guy’s path of destruction. But I could’ve warned his parents. His dad–who was a genuinely nice person. Realistically , though, I know it wouldn’t have mattered. They probably wouldn’t believe me. The guy had to hit bottom first, and, unfortunately, he still had a long way to fall.
The end came one night when Sam and I were listening to a band downtown. I couldn’t stand it anymore and blurted “I’m single.” I wasn’t. Not yet. But saying it aloud meant I had to do it. Sam’s neighbor had showed up, and soon as he heard I was single, he attached himself to me like a leach. Badgered me into a date. I finally agreed so he’d leave me alone, and because I felt bad saying no. Dude was irritating, but sweet. And the date actually was amazing. Awkward and uncomfortable at times–seeing as how I still had a boyfriend–but amazing.
Something clicked. For the first time in years, a guy was enamored by me. He treated me with respect and deference and made me feel special. It’s like I’d been trying to unlock a door with the wrong key and suddenly all the tumblers fell into place.
I dumped my boyfriend. It took two days. He mostly cried. Squalled like a little girl. He’d been planning to propose after my college graduation ceremony–the next day. While it hurt him terribly, I felt a rush of relief. The bag had been removed from my head and I could breathe fresh air again.
Three years later, the neighbor and I got married. He loves me and respects me and honors me more and more every day. He is the reason I’m a writer. I recently realized, with some measure of shock, that I didn’t write a single word while I dated the other guy. I’d been writing all my life and he killed the words. My husband brought them out of me again. He pushes me to be a better version of myself, but loves me where I am. He patiently discusses plot ideas and character development and sits across from me at coffee shops when I know he’d rather do something else, just so he can spend time with me while I write.
Marriage is nothing like I’d feared. It’s not always easy, but it isn’t the smothering loss of self I thought it would be.
We have this tree in our front yard, a crepe myrtle. It was huge! Way bigger than a crepe myrtle is supposed to be. In the spring, the branches would get so heavy with leaves and flowers they’d almost touch the ground. The leaves were so thick, they formed a canopy across part of the yard, almost completely blocking the sun. Last summer, Hubs and I got tired of it. We attacked the branches, hacking them with saws until only the very top remained. Air can swirl through the yard again. The sun can reach the grass. It had been stifled for years, but now it’s finally growing again.
I’m growing. And I have a wonderful man growing with me.
I’m writing all this now for a couple reasons. The ex popped up on LinkedIn the other day. I saw his profile on my screen and felt…nothing. Not the anger and pain and sadness I’ve felt for years. Not the reminder of the time I wasted on him. Just nothing. I have finally healed. The wounds he caused are still there. That pain and hurt changed me, and I will never regain the innocence and naivety that he stole. But the wounds no longer bleed, they no longer hurt. They’re scars. So small now, they’re barely visible. I still know they’re there, but you have to look closely to see them. Like the tiny white line on my knee where I gouged it on a metal ladder in middle school.
The other reason is because there are others like me. Those who let other people dictate their self-worth, who tell them they’re not good enough, that they aren’t worth love. I’m not better because my husband loves me. I’m better because he helped me learn how to love myself. Self-loathing and depression runs high in writers. I struggle with self-deprecating thoughts every day. It’s easy to let others define your sense of self-worth, especially in this business. But it’s important to distance yourself.
I am not defined by my rejection. I am not defined by my success. Other people’s opinions don’t dictate who I am inside. Even when I get down on myself, I remember, I am worth something. You are worth something. Whether you’re in an abusive situation, or you’re just depressed, or you’re drowning under the weight of rejection or criticism or bad reviews, don’t forget that. And if you’re in a bad situation: get out. Now. Don’t think about it. Free yourself. Find a support system, a kind shoulder, a group, a therapist, a friend, someone and get out. Trust me, it won’t hurt as much as you think it will, and you deserve better.
I leave you with the words of Kathryn Stockett, from the mouth of her character Aibileen Clark in “The Help”: You is kind. You is smart. You is important.
Don’t forget that.