Fallouts of a Gaslight Romance

Nine months ago, I extracted myself forcefully from the dregs of a relationship that had lasted, off and on, for two years before that. It left me a seething mass of guilt and self-hatred. He wouldn’t let go. He was stalking me and hurting himself, letting me know at every possible chance what I was making him do. How I had ruined his life. I would be threatening to call the police if he ever contacted me again, and then crying into my pillow, wondering when I had turned into such a nasty bitch, believing that I would never meet anyone to love again, believing I was incapable of love, a psychic vampire, a ruiner of lives, a breaker of the people who tried to love me. Believing I deserved every single bad thing that happened to me, because somewhere the karmic cycle had to give.

The last few months, every time I narrate this story, more frequently to myself than to anyone else, I have swung between calling him a monster and just a guy whom I happened to not get along with though we both tried too hard. He was polite, introverted, but also well-spoken and extremely sharp. Everyone who met him found him nice. His friends – largely consisting of the drunks at the local pub, whom he enabled with his own (not infinite) money when they ran out of theirs – found him nice. His ex-girlfriend – a girl whom I’d never met because she was Romanian, living back in Bucharest, and had no interest in meeting me; and whom he openly called a high-functioning psychopath – found him nice. His mother – who lived in Calcutta at the same time as I did, and also had no interest in meeting me – found him nice. Even the few of my own friends (four, to be precise) who met him briefly found him nice, although he had no interest in furthering the acquaintance.

He voted Labour. Called himself an anarchist. Called himself a feminist. Looked after me when I had chicken pox, my skin all blistered open and oozing pus; then looked after me when I was debilitated with depression, never mind that part of the depression was triggered by him. 

He didn’t want me to go anywhere without him, even to see an innocent tourist attraction in London, even to meet a friend over a cup of coffee, but refused when I asked him to come along as well. (So, basically, neither of us would go.) He was irritated when I talked about my friends. He was irritated when I talked about my writing, my studies, my family, my dreams, anything at all. He was irritated every time I expressed an opinion he didn’t feel equally strongly about, because it’s all very well to have an accomplished girlfriend, as long as her accomplishments are validated by him.  I wasn’t even entitled to have a private thought that differed from his. I wasn’t allowed to have a hobby that he didn’t find exciting (merely didn’t find exciting, not even one that he objected to). Every thought would be pried out, ceaselessly argued, endlessly yelled at, until I would give up and “see the light”, and only then we could go get dinner.

I remember so much yelling, so much yelling, so much yelling. Sometimes I would be too scared to respond to a call, yet not picking up the phone would only make matters worse, because the yelling would only escalate the next time I did pick up. Sometimes I would just zone out, cower in a corner of my brain, and let the noise wash over me. The words no longer made sense – it was all a red, bristling haze. I am the child of an abusive home. I have cowered all my life from loud noises. Sometimes people have difficulty hearing my voice in a conversation, because I have a maladjusted sense of what’s loud enough, and I always go for the lower end of the spectrum. He knew this, just as well as he knew every other bit of my life that he’d forcefully pried out.

But he was a nice guy. He cried too. He tried his hardest to keep me with him. He sent me a bouquet of roses in Calcutta for our one-year anniversary, and another in Seattle for my birthday. This second time we were actually broken up, but he never stopped trying. No other guy would do so much for me.

He was avidly against the Sad Puppies, but when I got through at Clarion West, he told me Clarion West was frivolous and, frankly, useless. Go have fun if you want to, I’d like you to get out of home and be social, but don’t expect to learn any serious writing from that kinda place. Writing is an act of rigour and self-sacrifice. Everything else is shallow self-promotion.

He had been writing a novel for ten years. That monstrous tome of self-obsession was better than anything I would ever write.

He wasn’t the traditional chauvinist. When I got sexually assaulted, he called me dramatic and delusional. Not like your average MCP who’d like to punch the face of any dude who so much glances sidelong at his girl. I should’ve known it when he called the women who had crushes on him dramatic and delusional. Called his friends’ girlfriends annoying when they were tired of nagging their good-for-nothing partners to perform the simplest household chore. Called the woman who winked at him at the pub a rapist. But, to his credit, he never called anyone a slut or a whore. A self-proclaimed feminist doesn’t do that. Fat girls, however, were just lazy and not trying hard enough to deserve nice things. (His worst insult for a woman was to call her an SJW. He yelled at me every time he suspected I might be turning into an SJW.)

He cooked for me. We never went out to eat. We were stuck for hours in the kitchen – him cooking, me keeping him company, because that was the least that I could do, even though I had deadlines, I might want to talk to someone else for a change, I might even want to do something else with him. If I so much expressed the intention, there was yelling.

The yelling, the yelling. There was nowhere to hide from it. My ears wouldn’t stop ringing, my brain wouldn’t stop reeling from the last one before he’d set off again with the next. If we were doing reasonably fine, if there was nothing immediately to yell about, he’d invent one – from the Internet, from the news, from the news five years ago. I could never recover myself well enough to smile. I could never recover myself well enough to want to have sex. (No, I don’t enjoy steamy make-up sex. I run the fuck away from a violent situation.) And then there would be more yelling, because this meant I was sexually inert, because this meant I didn’t love him enough, because I had embedded sexual dysfunctions that I was refusing to address. Yet every time we broke up and I went on to have sex with other people (after those break-ups, each of which felt final, I always, vehemently went on to have sex with other people), the sex turned out to be fun, spontaneous, an earnest and life-affirming respite.

Here I was, dysfunctional, stuck in love with this guy and absolutely without any desire for him. Why would I break up with him, why would I find another person to love, when the problem was inherently with me?

He was two years younger than me. He would grow up, if only I gave him the time.

For two years, I waited for the day I would stop wanting to spontaneously break into tears all the time, because he was such a good boyfriend otherwise. Liberal. Generous. Faithful. Holding down a prestigious job and being a responsible citizen. Genuinely interested in being with me. No one else I’d ever loved had made me so much of a priority.

No one else I’d ever loved had made me so much of a project.

By the time I finally cut him off in November, I could no longer connect with the person I had been before. I had irretrievably changed. I was living on a third continent. None of the people I regularly talked to were the same, except my mother and my best friend – a guy from college whom my ex had tried his hardest to make me quit. It is completely to this friend’s credit that he was right there to listen to me cry for three hours on the phone, at the middle of the night Indian time, on a weekday, when I called him up for the first time in nearly a year. I had quit him – disappeared from his life without notice – although at another end I was ceaselessly fighting for my right to stay friends with him, my right to talk to him, against mounting accusations of emotional unfaithfulness. I had quit my other friends too, and some of them justifiably drifted away.

I extracted myself, and the first thing that hit me was… nothing. The dark, scary void. I didn’t have any friends except that one guy. It’d been months since I stopped seeing my psychiatrist, who was by now halfway across the world. No one I knew in a vague, social sense could fathom what I’d just gone through. I couldn’t even write an article – not just about relationships, but any opinion piece about politics, sexuality, identity, not even a fucking book review, because I was no longer sure of anything I had formerly believed. I could not even copy-edit – even my sense of grammar and syntax had been blasted to its foundations. My diary entries from one day are contradictory to the next.

I tried to flirt with other people – beautiful people, who were nice to me at least at that first acquaintance – and recoiled every time they reciprocated. I remember kissing a stranger at a party, and then coming home the next day, diving under my blanket, shaking and wanting to die. I remember getting an anxiety attack and rushing to the university therapist, struggling to breathe, because a boy who reminded me of him (self-righteous, sarcastic, insistent) said he’d come to see me at a social event that I could not avoid attending. Is this PTSD? Or am I too dramatic and delusional?

I do not recognize this person. No one who has known me even a little bit at any point in my life (besides the last two years) would be able to recognize her. I was always the fighter, always the one who had a grip on her emotions, even if she didn’t have them all sorted out. I had my demons, but I always got the better of them. I externalized my fears and insecurities – the more uncertain I felt about my place in the world, the more I achieved to seal it. I always dodged romantic bullets – I’ve had my indiscretions, but never really let in anyone who felt unwholesome; I believed I had an instinct for it. I feel like I’m talking about a character from a story – none of these characteristics resonate within me any more.

I don’t know who I am any longer. I don’t trust anyone’s validation. Not my several degrees’. Not my psychotherapist’s. The least of all my own.

But of course, I broke up with a really great guy, broke his heart, messed him up. He went and had a brawl at the pub, got himself a black eye. He temporarily quit his highly desirable job. He fucked a random, collateral girl who had a crush on him, and then dumped her when she started being dramatic and delusional – and all of that is my fault. I do not deserve anyone else’s love, because I’ll break them just the same way again, because I’m inherently toxic like that.

The best thing about this entire post is that I don’t even know which parts of it I intend to be ironic. They fluctuate, just like all my other intentions, just like everything else I hold true. I’ll look at it after clicking “publish” and the only thing that will feel true is the last paragraph. Are you supposed to be laughing with me? Are you supposed to be laughing at me? Am I the villain of this entire story? I have no idea. If you try to reach out to me, I’ll probably snap your fingers off. I don’t know what I expect to achieve by posting this, except that I’ve cried my heart out as I typed these words, and I’m hoping one day my reserve of tears will run dry. And maybe when it does, eventually this fog will clear, and I don’t know what I’ll see when it does, but I’ll see something. Seeing something – any one thing – will be good enough. I’m so tired and giddy from always seeing double.