I was fifteen when I started dating my first boyfriend. At that time, I was in my gawky pubescent phase, short, skinny, mousy, pale with a gap in my front teeth that has never properly closed. I’d just moved up to a C cup bra, and was slowly beginning to take on a more womanly form. I wore baggy Tammy Girl jeans because I was too small for the ladies jeans department, teamed with black tank tops and tight-fitting mesh spiderweb blouses.
When I got together with this boyfriend (We’ll call him A), I couldn’t believe my luck. I was so awkward, not at all like the beautiful girls with their straightened blonde hair and perfectly manicured nails, those who paraded down the school hallway like they owned it, while I inched quietly by hoping that no one would yell an insult at me. So when A called my house to ask me out, I hung up the phone and screamed with joy. He was the first guy I’d met who made me want to kiss him – strikingly beautiful with high cheekbones, deep dark eyes, and long dark hair he wore tied back in a ponytail; a mesh of masculine and feminine beauty, he stood out from the pack.
I was with this boy for a total of four months, which began with a fluttering of butterflies in my tummy, heart pounding in my chest as he kissed me at his front door for the first time. Before long we were inseparable, speaking on the phone for an hour every night, gripped fiercely onto one another as we swayed quietly to Savage Garden’s ‘I Knew I Loved You’ when it played in a friend’s bedroom, completely unaware of our surroundings.
When Winter came, and the streets iced over, I wore stupidly clunky silver heels to a party, and A carried me across the ice in my knee-length black tutu skirt. I thought to myself that this was true romance; there was no greater love than ours. After about a month of dating, he told me he loved me, and I returned the sentiment.
Our inevitable break-up occurred when I dumped A for an older ‘cooler’ guy, who manipulated me into breaking up with A, telling me that I was beautiful and special, then later smashed my heart into a thousand tiny pieces, telling me I was ugly and stupid, leaving me lost, guilty and alone. I self-harmed in my Mum’s bathroom, slicing up my arms with razors because I thought it was what I deserved for the hurt I had caused. My school friends furthered the guilt complex I had developed by telling me that I was toxic, that the pain I had caused was irreparable, a system of beliefs that would follow me throughout my adult life.
By the time I started dating S, at the age of 18, I felt like an old hand at heartbreak. I told him of the hurt I’d experienced in the past, and we opened up to each other for the first time, exposing our past lives like open wounds. I was not cautious with my emotions in those days, and I was quick to trust and open up to a new love. I told S of the guilt I had felt in my previous short-lived relationships; I told him that I was a poisonous force, who picked boys up and then dropped them callously; that I couldn’t be trusted and was undeserving of love.
In the beginning, S did exactly the job that was required of him. He fell hard. Right away, he was more interested in me than I was interested in him. I liked that he listened to me, and I felt I could tell him anything without him using the information against me. He wasn’t beautiful like A – he was awkward, skinny and hard-looking, with russet-coloured hair and bright green eyes. I wasn’t instantly attracted to S as I had been to A, but the more time we spent together, the more I warmed to him.
We soon fell into the same habits as A and I, becoming inseparable, following each other around like lost puppies, but as we were older now, with fewer restrictions on our behaviour, the relationship was much more intense than any of my previous ones. We sat up till all hours, pouring our hearts out like there was no tomorrow, making promises of forever. I lost my virginity to S, and within a year, we were living together in a grotty little flat, determined never to spend a night apart.
Pretty soon after moving in together, the cracks began to appear. S would ditch a family event for band practice, completely suffocated by our clingy love affair, and I would get angry, asking why my family didn’t matter to him. S would shout at me for not doing the dishes, calling me all the names under the sun. I would stay out late drinking with my gay best friend, then come buzzing on the door at 5am having forgotten my keys. I had a few drunken fumbles with friends, as I was itching to get away from our suffocating relationship, and S would scream at me afterwards, repeating the same hurtful things I had told myself my whole life – that I was toxic, selfish and undeserving of love.
He kept tallies of all my mistakes, then used them as ammunition against me in our fiery screaming rows. We stopped touching each other – he would refuse to hug me if he was angry at me, telling me I wasn’t deserving of his love. If he was really angry, he would threaten me with, ‘I would hit you now if you weren’t a woman.’ It got to the point where I wasn’t allowed to go out with my friends – S would make the excuse that he didn’t like them or that they were a bad influence on me. As I had nothing in my life outside of S, I became isolated and spent my days playing video games and waiting for him to come home.
Before long, I realised I needed out, but S had done a wonderful job of convincing me that I had no friends, and needed to keep him on my good side in order to avoid ending up alone, so I was frightened to break up with him. My subconscious knew it was time for me to end the relationship, so I did the unforgivable, and had sex with a friend I found attractive. After we slept together, the friend asked me to keep it quiet, so as not to jeopardise his relationship with his girlfriend. I think part of me had believed that the friend and I might end up dating, but this was a fantasy constructed by me as an outlet from my confining and toxic relationship. In the end I told S about the indiscretion, and he threw me out of his house (by this point we were living with our parents again). When I told him I loved him, he replied, ‘No you don’t. You can’t love anybody. You’re too in love with yourself.’
Throughout my entire relationship history, a common theme had been apparent. I was 20 years old and I had not been single since the age of 15, because I was constantly seeking another human being to be my cushion, my security blanket, my saviour. I was genuinely terrified to be on my own and face up to my own insecurities, fears and destructive force of personality, so I clung to people that were wrong for me in the hopes that they would protect me from myself. The men I was dating were the worst people to counsel me through my issues, because each of them wanted to be the white knight, saving me from myself.
I was the Manic Pixie Dream Girl, oddly beautiful, adventurous, clever, bohemian, destructive, endlessly screaming ‘save me’ at the lonely clever men who passed; moreover, I made men feel good about themselves, listening for hours to their crazy ideas and engaging with them on a deep intellectual level, fucking them whenever they asked, whilst filling the role of status symbol – I was the girl they’d always dreamt of owning; smart but humble, pretty but not too pretty, brilliant but unsure, endlessly generous with compliments, love and affection, too insecure and frightened to leave. I was trapped in a cycle, being bullied by egotistical yet insecure little boys, but it was a cycle of my own making. I was doing the equivalent of standing in the fast lane with a sign reading, ‘RUN ME OVER I’M AN EASY TARGET’.
After S, I was single for a while, but this didn’t break the cycle. I entered into a deep depression and essentially moved in with my male best friend, R, who treated me like a punching bag. We developed a destructive and clinging relationship much like my previous one, except this one was (mainly) platonic. We would sit up all night drinking red wine, smoking Marlboro Lights, and indulging all of our darkest, deepest thoughts and fears. We loved each other because we were compelled to love each other. We were both selfish, broken children seeking answers, and trying to find them through each other. In the dark of the night, he would turn on me suddenly, if I said the wrong thing, and become aggressive, informing me that he was helping me through my problems, and that I should be thankful for his influence.
During this period of my life, I also began sleeping with a man called B. He enjoyed hurting me and I didn’t stop him, because I felt I was deserving of pain and abuse. R became jealous of B, and for a long time I moved between them, scared to be alone and look after myself. Being caught between two abusers was more appealing to me as a 20 year old than having to face up to my depression and insecurity on my own. The whole thing blew up when R drunkenly confessed to being in love with me in order to try and convince me to break up with B.
I removed myself from the clusterfuck with B and R, moving straight onto M, who was sweet to me in the beginning. He was the first man I’d been with since A who didn’t intentionally want to hurt me, and so I decided he was the one and things got serious quickly. Although M was not directly abusive towards me, there were a lot of problems with the relationship from the get-go. He was unreliable, often lied to avoid getting into trouble, and took no responsibility for his life. We met when we were two lost souls looking for the other one to guide us, and our relationship was founded on this lack of direction. Once I started to grow and change, we stopped having common interests, and the relationship failed to function.
We were together for four years, during which time it became apparent that M was never going to grow up, and it was time for me to get my life together and move on. I was now in my early twenties, and I’d achieved practically nothing. I’d dropped out of University, had no job, and was too socially anxious to leave the house. I was on anti-depressants, I’d made two half-hearted suicide attempts over the last five years, I’d had an eating disorder, I’d lost a lot of friends, and I didn’t even know what happiness was anymore. I’d spent so much time clinging to men to save me, and when they hadn’t been able to do so, I’d forgotten to save myself.
When I was 23, I finally decided to take some steps to improve my life. I went back to University and finished my degree, and when I’d worked up the courage, I ended my co-dependant relationship with M. I’d realised that I couldn’t keep relying on the men in my life to fix everything for me. I got a part-time job in a gift shop, and worked my butt off for two years, during which time I obtained a second Masters degree, while balancing a part-time job to pay my rent on a small flat that I shared with a friend. This was a challenging time, I cried a lot of the time, and I told myself that I’d never get through it, but I made it through, and doing so made me realise that I was strong, and capable of more than I thought possible.
In my mid-twenties, I started seeing Bob. I knew straight away that this one was different from the others. He was five years older than me, and had already gotten his life together. He had a stable job, and a nice flat which he paid for on his own. At first I was sure he would realise what a flaky, poisonous, destructive force I was, and the relationship would blow up, so I kept trying to drive him away. Despite my best efforts, Bob didn’t leave. He didn’t save me either, but he helped give me the tools I needed to save myself. We worked together as a team, and when I didn’t have the strength to fight for something, he offered support, love, understanding and patience. We have now been together for four years, and last year, we were married. Being with Bob was like learning to love all over again. Everything else felt like a trial run.
A few nights ago, I was at a party one of my few remaining school friends. She repeatedly mentioned names from my past, including friends from high school who I stopped speaking to years ago, following eighteen years of systematic bullying.
I thought of my best friend from high school, who had told me for years that I was poisonous, toxic, selfish, undeserving of love, and that eventually everyone would leave me alone. I thought of A, and how I’d dumped him with no explanation, and how I was still torturing myself for a mistake I’d made in my mid-teens. I thought of S, telling me it was impossible for me to love somebody else because I was too in love with myself. I thought of all the friends and lovers and the hurt we’d caused each other, and I choked up with guilt and insecurity; a seemingly inextricable knot formed in my stomach, and I couldn’t breathe temporarily.
When I got home that night, I confided all of my fears in Bob, about not being able to break cycles of abuse, insecurity about the people who had cut me out of their lives, and guilt over the hurt I’d caused. Then Bob said to me, ‘These people didn’t cut you out. You cut them out when you decided not to go back to the abuse.’
All of this time, I’d felt guilt over the relationships that had ended destructively, because I’d made mistakes, and hurt people, and been told repeatedly that I was a bad person. The reality of the situation was that these people had caused me hurt as well, but I was taking the blame for all of it. I’d believed that I needed to break the cycle of destroying everything I touched, that I was a damaging person who needed to learn how to love unselfishly, but in fact, I needed to break the cycle of forming relationships with bullies.
If you are caught in a cycle, you should know that you alone have the power to break it. Ending it is a frightening prospect, but coming out of the other side is like waking up, and realising that you never ever have to go back into that nightmare.