Learning to become whole again

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Finding the courage to end her toxic relationship, DIVYA RAO* began the anguished journey to recovery

I put my shaking fingers to my scalp and run them through my hair. They emerge, clutching several strands of my hair between them. I stare at them through clouded eyes, hot tears running down my face. Backing me into a corner, he had punctuated every insult with a sharp tug at my hair. It hurt, but it didn’t hit home until I saw the hair in my hand.

I momentarily leave my body and look at myself, like in a movie. There I am, standing in the corner, my entire being dissolving in tears while I hold strands of my hair, ripped from my scalp, in my hands. Desperately, I think, how did this become me?

I stand in front of the stove, resolute and determined. No, I say to him. I can’t do this anymore. You’re crazy, something is wrong with you. It’s like someone flicks a switch and you become a monster. Get counselling. I can’t stay with you anymore.

“Please,” he says softly and earnestly, turning me around. “No one knows me like you do. No one understands me. Don’t give up on me.” But my mind is made up. It feels like everything in my life has come together in a genius stroke of singularity to lead to this one moment. Every cell in my body is united and I finally understand the phrase ‘I feel it in my bones’. Unwaveringly I say, “It’s over.”

But it’s not. How can it be? I live with him. My visa is linked to his. I’m studying, and have a loan to repay. Plus, I quit a great job in India to be with him. And I now work in a call centre, a job I am painfully overqualified for. It all seems so unforgivingly futile now. And overwhelming. It gnaws at me unrelentingly and consumes all my thinking. I sleep. A lot.

He wakes me by tearing the doona off me, and accuses me of not giving him the right PIN code to the bank card he had borrowed off me. In a frenzy he tears my top and jeans clean off me and shakes me, demanding an answer. Not satisfied with my denial, he then picks up the oil heater and holds it above his head, threatening to drop it on himself if I don’t confess that I purposefully gave him the wrong PIN. To insult and embarrass him. Accusal and denial play out in an endless cycle, in what seems like an alternate reality. Please let this be a nightmare.

It’s not.

Morning comes and I wake up, my consciousness seared by the events of the previous night. My eyes feel like they’re filled with sand, and my head feels woozy. I look at him snoring next to me. I look at my arm, marked purple by his fingers. I take out my camera and take a photo. Let me never forget this, I pray.

I call the immigration department to find out what my options are. What happens if I leave? We are in a de-facto relationship, so my leaving doesn’t impact my visa status. Small mercies. Our Australian residency comes through, and I’m relieved. We party to celebrate and he holds my head gently as I throw up in a bin.

Life continues. It is a toxic mix of tenderness and rage, laughter and suspicion, love and hatred. Almost everything I do is suspect. What I wear, the hours I work and study, the fact that I choose to do my nails on a Sunday evening. Apparently I’m trying to impress my manager at work, who is also apparently conspiring to break us up by sending me away on business trips. I point out that he had similar suspicions about my 50-year-old economics lecturer in India, and almost every man who’s ever been in my life, but logic and reason are blunt tools in my ever shrinking arsenal. Even the timing of me blow-drying my hair is suspect and is always to look good for others, not him. Everything is a conspiracy, and he’s the victim. I’m terrified of the web of paranoia he is capable of spinning. The incomprehension I experience is dizzying.

I’ve only been living with him a year and I’ve gone from being deliriously happy to weary, hurt and betrayed. After one of our many blowups, I shake my head til I’m dizzy to make sure I’m not dreaming. I’m sobbing inconsolably when I stop mid sob, in horror, to wonder if this is a self fulfilling prophecy. This is my worst nightmare come true; have I somehow caused this just by fearing it?

Everything around me feels like a lie. I look at everything through the prism of my betrayal. I see a happy couple cross the road and I scoff at them. “He probably goes home and beats her up,” I think. I wonder at my new-found cynicism and then it dawns on me: I’ve started believing all relationships are like mine. Meanwhile, the violence is escalating. We have another fight, and this time he pins me to our bed and puts his hands around my neck. It’s the most direct threat to my life he’s made so far. In that moment, lying there completely terrified and out of control, I decide that I will leave.

I start looking for an apartment. When I tell him, he offers to help me furnish it. I find an apartment. The night before I move, I announce in bed that I’ll be leaving the next day. Somehow, he already seems to know. I sleep in a state of half consciousness, as if switching off completely is somehow dangerous. I wake up and pack two suitcases as he waits in the living room. My cab arrives and it’s time to say goodbye. I feel reckless and powerful. I want to spitefully say, “I don’t love you anymore”, but that’s a mean thing to say. Instead I simply say goodbye, and wish him the best of luck. I walk out of the front door and end seven and a half years of us. Him and me. Over. I feel free, and I tingle with excitement. I’m exhilarated.

It doesn’t last long. The euphoria from breaking free turns into a desperate grieving. I’m like an addict quitting cold turkey. He has been a part of most of my adult life and now, he’s gone. And no part of me can cope with this sudden loss. I don’t regret my decision, not even for a second, but I feel like I’ve lost a part of me. I go from never smoking to chain smoking at home at night. I am punishing myself. For everything. For having suffered, for having stayed, and now that we have parted, for grieving. The smoking is a control mechanism. I can’t feel better, but I damn well can feel worse. So I surrender. To being disgusted by the rancid taste of every cigarette. To self-hatred for smoking even though I loathe it. To being trapped in a state of nicotine fuelled consciousness where my time with him plays like an endless movie over and over and over again. My mind starts playing tricks on me. I left because he was destroying me, yet I can only see images of love, laughter and, joy. I force myself to think of the anguish and the horror. My memory is the only witness to my abuse and I cannot have it change sides. I cling to the violence, the slurs, the vitriol. It keeps me sane. I must remember, that’s the only thing I have.

It overwhelms me. I think about death, and the relief it would bring. I feel hazy, as though constantly in the midst of a fog. I go to watch a rock band perform and fall asleep whilst on my feet, with speakers blaring uncomfortably loudly around me. Something’s dreadfully wrong. I look up depression and score 9/10 in an online test. Major depression, it says. Seek medical advice. I go to the doctor and she puts me on medication.

A year passes, and the medication helps. The sleepless nights, the exhaustion and the eight kilos it has caused me to put on seem worth it. My mother knows what happened and is supportive. My best friend calls me every week to help me get over it. But memories that torment me are never far away. There are still days I can’t get out of bed, still a dullness I can’t shake. There are days and nights I sob endlessly. I date a wonderful, intelligent, kind man who restores my faith in men. But I’m not ready for another man, and we’re both devastated.

Two years later, my doctor advises me to slowly go off my medication. I’m terrified that I’ll go backwards, back to feeling like a suicidal zombie. But I feel better. I have a new job, new friends, and pursue things that I love. I think about why I stayed, and why it took me more than seven years to realise that he was toxic. It was because I wanted to help. He had witnessed and experienced abuse for years and it broke my heart. I desperately wanted to make him feel loved.

I ignored all the warning signs. I knew exactly what they were, and they terrified me from the beginning. Why I ignored them, I still don’t know; maybe I hoped he would change. I stayed because no one knew what I was going through. Perhaps if I confided in someone, they would have told me something was seriously wrong with our relationship. But I had no one to talk to. He desecrated everything that was sacred to me. My parents and friends were the target of so much venom that I stopped calling them. I felt like a traitor; the easiest way to avoid guilt was to avoid contact. So I was all alone in a new country, dependent on him for a visa, attempting to start life afresh. But I wasn’t going to wait till he broke my jaw. I waited way too long, but at least I got out. I’m not whole but at least it is over.

Three years later I’m sitting on a tram on a glorious autumn day, heading home after meeting friends for lunch. Humming a tune, I catch my reflection in the window and I smile at myself. I realise it’s the first time I’ve smiled to myself since I left him. I feel like myself again. I’m brimming with energy, enthusiasm and optimism, ready for whatever life throws at me. Because if I can deal with the shit I’ve been through, I can deal with anything. And it feels bloody fantastic. It’s taken me a long, long time, but I am whole again.

*Not her real name

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