CW: This post contains personal accounts of emotional and mental domestic abuse.
I used to scoff at people who joined cults. How could they be so gullible?
Then I survived an emotionally manipulative, gaslighting, mentally abusive relationship.
And I realized – all it takes is the right moment in time. All it takes is making enough compromises or sacrifices or justifications. All it takes is the right balance of magic and madness.
And you find yourself two years later sitting at a table in the mall food court alone, eyes literally on you as you try to process what has happened.
He was mad at something I said. Or was it something I did? Maybe it was a joke I made. It was probably something I brought up from my past. I don’t remember. What I remember is him throwing three open ketchup packets into the walkway of the food court. What I can still see is the couple walking with their toddler, each holding one hand, right towards the packets and the mess. What I remember is thinking they shouldn’t be there. The cloud of embarrassment sweeping me up out of my seat and rushing as quietly as possible towards the packets to pick them up.
They were in my hand and then I heard him scream.
“Don’t pick them up!”
I turned around half-bent, ketchup packets in my hand. He was standing there, shoulders raised, breathing like a predatory animal.
I fought against the urge to set them back down and instead ran to the nearest trashcan and threw them away.
“FUCK.” he stated.
If people hadn’t been watching before, they were now. I quietly returned to the table. I asked him not to make a scene. He flipped his plate of food onto the tray it was sitting on and stormed away.
I sat and finished my lunch. He would come back and if I wasn’t there, it would be a bigger problem.
I’d like to say that was the moment I saw the way out. But it wasn’t. It wasn’t then. It wasn’t when I tried to comfort him because he was mad that I was friendly with Ben and Josh during last weekend’s show and he shoved me off my bed. My bed.
It wasn’t when he told me I should try veganism and then refused to be near me if I ate anything that wasn’t vegan. He made me announce to the world my veganism and then made me a hypocrite when people would catch me every once and a while eating a piece of pizza or cube of cheese.
It wasn’t when he called Buffy (The Vampire Slayer) “kind of a slut” while we watched season four and I joked “If Buffy’s a slut I don’t know what I am” and he said “You’re disgusting. Why would you say that?” and wouldn’t speak to me for two days.
It wasn’t when he ruined my weekend trip with my two best friends and cousin to Okoboji because he got mad that while I was dancing in the kitchen and cooking with my friends of nearly a decade, they both slapped my ass to the beat of a Tom Jones song simultaneously.
It wasn’t the dozens of times he publicly humiliated me. Left me to explain his actions. Left me to pick up the literal and metaphorical messes he left.
It wasn’t the infatic obsession with ChemTrails or the casual mention of Holocaust denial. It wasn’t the way he assumed if I put on a skirt I wanted men to drool at me and that made me the problem, not them.
All these things made my skin crawl. Made me cry in silent corners. It’s not like I didn’t know it was all doomed. That I was in a bad situation. That I needed out. I just couldn’t see the path. I was tangled in brambles and every way I moved I was jabbed by thorns. He used to slam doors shut and stand in front of them. He blocked my exits. He was good at it.
And then, one day, he yelled at his mother. And it was the look of confusion she had staring at the back of her son that snapped me out of it.
I don’t even remember why. But we were at his parent’s house. They were eating. His dad, one of the hardest working men I’ve ever met, had come home from work for lunch, I think. We were talking to them and everything was fine. This man I’d chosen to tangle myself up with stood, like he always did, with his pelvis pushed forward and his shoulders drooping. I felt something sick in the air. Then, his mom made a joke. Not a mean one. Not a hurtful one. Just a joke. And he yelled “Fuck you” and stormed out of their house.
I stared at both of them. I think I said I was sorry.
I slowly got up and walked toward their front door. And I realized how terrified I was to walk out that door and get in that car. I wanted to stay there with them. I wanted them to protect me. I wanted them to understand I wasn’t who I seemed to be. I realized I didn’t know who I would turn to. He’d poisoned my mind about my family. He’d pulled me away from my friends. He’d somehow convinced me that acting and theatre were cheating. And I’d lost all the connections and friendships I’d had. He was all I had.
And I didn’t want him.
That was the last time I saw his parents in person. I’ve talked with his mom a couple of times since then and we’ve stayed connected. She’s remained loving, supportive, and kind. As always. As far as I know, he hasn’t spoken to them since then. I hope I’m wrong.
I didn’t leave that day. It took longer. It took my now-husband telling me if someone asked me to stop doing what I loved because that was the only way to prove I loved them, they didn’t love me. It took me reaching really, really fucking deep and finding my courage again.
We were living at my mom’s house at the time because he was working part-time at a natural grocery store while I worked a demanding six-day-a-week job in the live event industry which, shocker, didn’t really give us the boost we needed. I think a part of me wanted to stay at Mom’s. In the brief months I lived alone with him, the control was far worse. He refused to move out of Mom’s after I left him. Unless my mom kicked him out, he said he wasn’t going anywhere. He wasn’t paying any rent. He wasn’t contributing in any way. Just sleeping in our basement and taking pictures with my childhood stuffed animals and posting them online. Quoting the magic I said they used to contain. Stealing my favorite big pajama shirt. Making everyone uncomfortable. My poor mother.
When I was shopping (for my job) with my now-husband (then coworker), we stopped at mom’s house so I could grab something. I hadn’t been there in a few days – we were working on a big project and traveling a lot at the time. He pulled up as we were walking out. He grabbed the keys I’d given him to my mother’s house from his pocket, scoffed at me as he unlocked the door, and said “What a shitty person you’ve become.”
He’d said it before. And other things like it. And it had always chipped away at me. Tiny microscopic cracks in the porcelain of my self-actualization.
But I realized this time, what he was saying was “I’m mad you’re acting like yourself again.”
The only time Brendan has ever threatened physical violence on anyone since I’ve known him, was in that moment.
“That guy’s a dick.”
Oh God, I laughed!
And I knew I was free.
There was a lot about that relationship that was ugly. There was a lot of damage that was done that I can’t undo. Damage to myself I still struggle with on occasion. Damage to my relationships that, in some cases, will never be mended. It’s far easier to let connections die than it is to spark them up again. Especially because of the shame I often feel for letting them go in the first place. This relationship, unfortunately, wasn’t the last time I allowed someone to alter my truth. But I learned from it. I learned what I didn’t want. I learned what I did want.
Forcing me to be vegan, surprisingly, backfired. I am not vegan now and don’t have plans to be in the future. I appreciate the choice and, when done correctly, it can be a healthy way to live. If you are vegan or are thinking about being vegan, please do your research. Look into the supplements you’ll need. Buy some B12.
He didn’t do it right. He just ate the way normal people do, but the veganized version of it. Processed Vegan Cheese. Processed Vegan Meat. Junk food that happened to be vegan. Our diet was 90% soy. And he never seemed happy. And he never seemed satisfied. I think that is his biggest problem.
He’s always hungry.
In searching for ways to feed myself (and him) in that period of my life, I did find an appreciation for vegan and vegetarian dishes I didn’t have before. I tried restaurants I may have never gone to, like my standing favorite El Basha or the delightfully unassuming Ethiopian Restaurant. (If you’re in Omaha and don’t know these restaurants, do yourself a favor and safely order some takeout ASAP!) I bought cookbooks and devoured the internet sources I could find. Because food is my love language. To others and to myself. Nothing brings me more happiness than when someone makes that satisfactory eyes-closed, cheeks-rosied, slow-smile face upon the first bite.
I didn’t want to lose that magic in myself. It may have been my only guide sometimes in the darkest moments. Figuring out a way to still provide belly goodness.
I was lucky, very lucky in fact, to already have a vegan I loved in my life, other than this old boyfriend of mine. Someone I admired and cherished: Aunt Amy. Aunt Amy’s brand of veganism spoke far more to my soul than his did. She gave herself freedom. She was in charge. She got to make the choice about what to put in her body. And, for a long time, I didn’t. But I could feel that ability to choose when I chose to make the recipes she’d send me. I could feel some sense of being in charge when I was the one at the stove. I got to connect with my Aunt Amy more than usual in that period of my life. Discussing cooking with her during that relationship was a light in the darkness.
When I first escaped, I shunned veganism. I saw only the parts of it that are dangerous and unhealthy. I was sick of the soy rotting in my gut. But, as time marched forward, as I found myself again and I found freedom in the loving arms of Brendan who screamed from the mountaintops “Let this woman be!”, I found my way back to the things I loved about it. I’ve got a hefty handful of recipes from that time still in my rolodex (and plan to share them here and there). One of my favorites is Aunt Amy’s Eggplant Bacon. It’s easy, delicious, and would pair very nicely with my Harvest Soup for a completely vegan, completely hearty winter meal. I don’t make it because I have to anymore. I make it because I choose to. And it’s damn good.
If you are struggling in an abusive relationship (physically, mentally, emotionally, any way) please reach out for help. Reach out to me. If I know you or I don’t. Reach out to someone you trust. Just reach out. If you’re in Omaha, the Women’s Center for Advancement has a 24 hour hotline.
Aunt Amy’s Eggplant Bacon
Take your eggplant and slice it very thin lengthwise to create strips. Lay them flat on paper towels and salt them. Don’t layer the eggplant or overlap on each other. You can make tiers of paper towels with pieces on them. This sweats the eggplant. After 30 minutes, brush the eggplant pieces with olive oil and a smidge of liquid smoke. Grease a baking sheet and lay the slices flat. Salt them and cook at 400 F until they brown. They will brown in stages so watch them and flip as needed. Pull the done ones and lay them on paper bags on top of a cooling rack until they crisp up.
You can use this as a substitute for morning bacon or, even better, make delicious vegan BLTs with them.