It’s taken me seven years to understand that what happened wasn’t my fault. To admit to myself that this person I trusted was never who he appeared to be. To look at that time in my life and see it for what it truly was: traumatic.
It’s been seven years, but when I see someone on the street that looks like him, it still feels like it was yesterday. My stomach drops. My vision blurs. My entire body tenses. And for a split second, I feel just as small and powerless as I did all those years ago.
I’m thousands of miles away from him but I forget that, sometimes.
I’m living my domestic life with a spouse, two cats, and the sweet little downtown flat. Sometimes I repeat the address like a mantra, just to remind myself of where I am. I keep a map of San Francisco in my kitchen. I collect tattoos to irrevocably mark the passage of time, a reminder that my body is my own, now more than ever.
But sometimes, he is the fear that still exists in the in-betweens spaces.
When someone walks too quickly toward me, when there’s a loud noise I’m not expecting, or when someone touches me and the word “no” is on the tip of my tongue, but I’ve forgotten how to say it — he still lives there, quietly.
It’s a word I didn’t learn how to say until long after he was already gone, when the acronym “PTSD” was passed down to me like a generational hand-me-down that I never asked for, when a psychologist gently said to me, “Sam, that was abuse.”
It took me seven years to finally feel angry. In hindsight, I’m astonished that I was ever kind (“it’s called a trauma bond,” they say). But when the rage finally kicked in, it was a fiery force, a beautiful blaze to behold. It was the perfectly scrawled signature at the bottom of my body’s manifesto — I am mine.
I imagined the smoke billowing out, an ominous warning that could be seen all those miles away: never again will any man’s entitlement grant him access to any part of me.
I am the surface of the sun and my rage turns predators into ash.
I smother every lie beneath my heel as it falls from his mouth. The pedestal I built him is nothing more than dust now, a pitiful reminder of what it felt like when he came toppling down, when I told him, “I don’t need you.”
Pain is an extraordinary teacher. It comes in waves, but as it passes over me, the darkness is replaced with clarity.
I’ve found the courage to dive underneath, even in the face of something so remarkably vast. I’ve learned to appreciate my breath, and to trust the buoyancy and resilience of my body.
And I know now the compass of my own heart. I come back to the surface each and every time — like a magnet that’s unquestioningly pulled to survival, to life — no matter how far I drift or sink.
No narcissist’s hunger (I imagine it as a mosquito drawn to ruby red blood) has ever taken away that instinct, however quiet it became.
I still have the inner wisdom that moves me when I am fixed in place.
It was once the raft that carried me back to myself; it is now the fleet that I call on, with every ounce of dignity, earnestness, and vulnerability, all at my command. What he took from me, I replaced with unwavering loyalty to everything I am and will become. He cut me at the stem, but my roots were always strong.
I still bloomed.
The path has been messy, but beautifully wild, and I love it all the more for that. To be whole and hurting, I think, is better than being a shell or a vessel or a hungry ghost.
He was a void that we mistook for depth, depth which he sold us as romance — but in truth, his soul was hollowed out long before he found us.
Ego has an appetite, and his will never be full, no matter how many ways he rewrites the story and casts the play. The truth about control and manipulation is that, so long as you need it, your power can never come from within.
That’s why he will never have what we have, whether he knows it or not.
We can cultivate our own power. We can tend to the garden within ourselves, basking in the light of our own courage.
Pain is a teacher, and persistence is our secret wisdom that we cultivate each day that we choose to live. With time, I’ve found new ways of growing, new ways of loving. While I’m not grateful for the violation that brought me here, I cherish the resilience that has unfolded in its place.
When I see our pain replaced with collective possibility, I am in awe of us and everything we can be.
And when the darkness washes over me again, I’ll look to this light to bring me back.
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