Trigger warnings: Self injury, suicidal thoughts, emotionally abusive relationships
I hate disappointing people.
Ever since I was in elementary school, I did extremely well in school, participated in all sorts of extracurricular activities (piano, dance, theatre, violin, gymnastics, voice lessons, choir) and pretty much dominated the Best In Show awards in most categories I entered in the local county 4-H Fair.
I’m on the right, as “Kate Murphy” in Titanic: The Musical my senior year of high school
I was very dedicated to living a life pleasing to God, and I would stay up late at night in middle school worrying about if I was going to get into Heaven, and then if my family was going to get into Heaven, and then if my friends were going to get into Heaven.
I went on a mission trip with my church to Haiti when I was 14, inner-city Philly when I was 15, Toronto when I was 16, and the Dominican Republic when I was 18. And the whole time I was on them, I worried if I was being selfless enough. I worried that I was doing them for the wrong reasons, for the glorification of myself, not of God. I was tormented by my inadequacies.
On my mission trip to the Dominican Republic, 2005
When I dated my first boy, I was 17 ½ years old. He was a self-proclaimed bad boy, a punk video game nerd who loved Flogging Molly and musicals and The Matrix. He was dangerous. And I was Little Miss Perfect.
My friends nicknamed me The Purity Police.
It took me 3 months into our relationship for our first kiss, and when he tried before I was ready, I was pretty much traumatized. We broke up right before my high school graduation, and it was pretty bitter and messy, the way only first breakups can be.
Right before I began my freshman year of college, I met this boy who was part of a group of friends one of my long-time besties hung out with. We were immediately smitten.
He was cute. He was sweet and sensitive. He was silly. And he adored me. It felt amazing to be so treasured.
But on the flipside, he didn’t have aspirations to go to college, and didn’t have a job. He lived with his mom, and his parents were going through a divorce. His father was physically abusive.
And I quickly became His Everything.
He lived over half an hour from my college, and he never had money for gas, so I drove a lot back and forth to visit him. When I wasn’t with him, we spent every minute after 9 pm (free nights and weekends, thanks Verizon) on the phone together, unless I had homework. Which I always did, but it was important that I get it done before then, so we could spend time together. It was very important. He needed me.
He had completely alienated his friends. Even though he had a tight group people he had been friends with for years, he never spoke with them anymore. He didn’t need them anymore. He had me.
On the weekends, it was very important that my homework be done so I could spend as much time with him as possible at his mom’s place. Ideally, I would arrive Friday night, spend all day Saturday with him, and leave Sunday morning. But often on Sunday mornings, he would begin crying because I was leaving.
I explained to him I had a lot of homework to do.
He guilted me into staying. Finally, late into the evening, I peeled myself away from him because I had to leave. I got a C- for a final grade in my math class. I had never gotten anything lower than a B- in anything before.
I was the ghost of the theatre department. There were classmates who would see me in the halls and had no idea who I was, even though I was one of about 20 students in my class.
I didn’t participate in any of the events on campus. I was needed elsewhere. I wasn’t strong enough to say I couldn’t.
And when I tried to be strong enough, when I tried to stand my ground and tell him that I needed to stay on campus that weekend, I needed to hang up the phone and do my homework, he would cry and make me feel like complete and utter shit. He needed me.
I was such a disappointment. He was so lost without me, and here I was, being selfish, and not being there for him. He didn’t have anyone else.
I was a bad girlfriend.
I was a bad person.
I deserved to be punished.
I took an x-acto knife from my art supplies and dragged its pointed tip across my thigh…just the tiniest bit. Barely making a mark, barely drawing blood.
What was I doing?
What the fuck was I doing?
I was horrified with myself. This was self-injury, cutting. This was what I had read about, heard about, wondered why anyone would ever do such a thing to themselves. It was stupid, pointless, didn’t solve anything.
And yet I felt I needed to.
I. Needed. To be. Punished.
I put the knife away and vowed to myself that I would never do anything like that ever again.
I confessed to my boyfriend what I had done, and he freaked out. Rightfully so. He made me promise that I would never do it again.
And I did.
And I keep my promises. And sometimes that promise to this boy I adored was the only thing keeping me from doing it again.
But there would be times in which I would shriek and squeal in disgust in myself and my behavior and how I made him sad, and I would feel that familiar urge. That need to be punished. I would dig my fingernails into my wrists, my legs, my belly, tearing away at the skin, my scratches visible promises that I would do better next time, symbols of my penance.
This continued for nearly two years. The guilt, the disappointment, the suffocating dependency.
When I finally did make a friend on campus, he claimed that my friend was just pretending to be gay so he could eventually make the moves on me. He was insanely jealous.
I began to realize that he was seriously mentally unwell. He had begun to say things with more and more frequency that alarmed me. He began talking about seeing things. He began talking to these things in the dark while he was talking with me on the phone at night.
I made an appointment with a counselor on campus. By this point, I had been on antidepressants for several years already and had done well on them. I had never spoken with a professional, because the meds were doing just fine. Well. For the most part. But this had gotten to be too much for me to handle. I didn’t know what to do. I knew that it wasn’t healthy for me to be with him any longer, but I was terrified he would try to kill himself if I left him.
The counselor and I developed a plan. Even though he wasn’t a student, she was willing to see him in a session with me if I could get him to agree to it.
On the phone, I spoke with him about it.
“I’m worried about you,” I told him. “How would you feel about talking with someone about it?”
“I don’t want to talk with anyone else about it. You’re all I need.”
“I can’t be everything for you. I just can’t. Please. Will you please do this for me?”
“Can I come see you now?”
It was in the middle of the morning on a weekday. I was supposed to be headed to an art class later that day, but I had a couple free hours.
“Uhh…well, I have class later…”
“But you’re free now. I’m coming.”
And that was that. He called me while he was in his car, speeding on the expressway. He was hysterical, crying and yelling. “I need you! I only need you!”
“I can’t be the only thing in your life!” I insisted.
“Dear God, please let there be a tree, please let there be a tree, please let there be a tree…”
I was hearing him speeding, praying for something that he could run into and kill himself.
This was happening.
It was my fault.
If he died, it was going to be my fault.
He made it to campus. He didn’t know where he could park, and so, stupidly, I got in his car with him. We got about a block before he started freaking out again, and I made him pull over into the parking lot of the on-campus hotel.
He parked, and we began to talk. Around in circles, more of the same.
“I need you. You’re all I need.”
“I can’t be everything for you.”
“But I need you. You’re all I have.”
“You need to come with me for a counseling appointment.”
He got out of the car and began kicking his tires, beating at the trunk with his fists.
I got out of the car and tried to stop him. He was making a scene.
The campus police showed up moments later.
“This is my car! Everything is fine!” He shrieked.
I tried to explain the situation as clearly as I could, visibly shaken and trying to keep my hysterics under control.
By this time, the city police arrived as well.
I told them that what I was trying to do was to get him to agree to come with me and get a mental evaluation. I was concerned about him.
They told me that, because he was legally an adult, no one could force him to do anything, and he would have to agree to do so on his own.
By this time, I had called my aunt, my dad’s sister. She was a nurse, and she lived nearby. She is one of the most lovely, compassionate people I know, and has always been so supportive of me in everything. She came quickly, and tried to speak with my boyfriend, explaining in simple terms what I wanted him to do and why it was important, and it was only because we cared about him.
After who-knows-how-long, he finally agreed to come with us to the local hospital to get a mental evaluation.
He told the doctor exactly what he knew he needed to tell them. He hadn’t slept well lately, that was obviously why he wasn’t making any sense. His exhaustion must have been making him see things. He was fine. No, he wasn’t suicidal.
We left the hospital. He was beaming, knowing that everything was okay. He had “passed the test” somehow.
My aunt bought us some Taco Bell on the way back to my dorm, and she dropped him off with me. As we sat in my room and ate our food, I told him, “Well, at any rate, I’ve been talking to a counselor. And I want to keep doing it. She’s helping me figure out how to deal with things, and it’s been really helpful for me.”
He freaked out again.
“Aren’t I enough for you? I thought I was everything you needed! I need to be enough for you! You don’t need anyone else!”
“No. I can’t be everything to you, and you can’t be everything to me. That is not okay. I will keep seeing her. No matter what.”
He stormed out of my room in a rage, slamming the heavy wooden door.
I was so shaken. I had been given an emergency hotline for the campus mental health center, and I called the number.
I tried to summarize the situation the best I could, but my voice was shuddery and I was crying and I felt like my head was underwater and everything was fuzzy.
He was back. Now he was banging on the door, crying, shrieking, yelling my name. “Please let me in, I’ll do anything. I love you! I need you! Amanda! Please let me in!”
“Amanda, do you want me to call the police?” asked the woman on the other end of the phone.
“I don’t know…I don’t know…I don’t know…I love him…I don’t know…” I repeated, in a haze.
“Amanda, I can hear him. It sounds really bad. I’m calling the police. I will let you know when they’ve arrived so you can let them in.”
My boyfriend was only getting louder and more frantic on the other side of the door. More pounding. More yelling. More crying.
“Okay, Amanda, the police are there.”
The noises outside got quieter. There was an official-sounding knock on my door, and I let in an officer. My boyfriend was out of my view.
I recounted everything that had happened that day in what must have been confusing trains of thought. He already knew what happened earlier that day with our previous run-in with the city police.
“Would you like a restraining order?” he asked.
“I…I don’t know…uh…he’s my boyfriend and I love him…” I stammered.
“Do you think he would hurt you?”
“No, he’s never done anything physical ever. He’d never ever hurt me.”
The police man looked at me incredulously.
“Okay, well, how about this: I can legally ban him from this dorm. That way, you can choose to still see him, but he can’t come near here. If you need to get away, you can be protected legally.”
I agreed to that.
I told the police, per the advice of the emergency counselor, that I didn’t want to see my boyfriend or speak with him anymore that night.
My boyfriend was escorted out of the building.
I talked at length with my parents, who lived out of state. They agreed to be a liaison between me and my boyfriend. I set guidelines and conditions. I wanted to try to make our relationship work, but in order to do so, he had to set up regular counseling appointments and try to work on himself before we could speak again.
He didn’t have insurance, but through the help of my amazing parents, they put him in touch with free and low-cost mental health clinics. He started going to them. He swore it was helping, he was doing so much better, he was learning so much, he was realizing the error of his ways, he was so sorry.
And then I realized that, just like that day in the hospital in the mental health evaluation, he was telling me what I needed to hear so he could get what he wanted.
About a month after everything went down, my mom was in town. I was finishing my final self-portrait project for figure drawing, and had spent a lot of time by myself in a dark space in contemplation.
What I was working on through this time, and my reference images.
You can just feel the dark oppression.
I had just discovered the “Punk Cabaret” band The Dresden Dolls, and their song “Good Day” became my personal anthem.
“I picked up the pieces of my broken ego
I have finally made my peace as far as you and me go
But I’d love to have you up to see the place
I’d like to do more than survive I’d like to rub it in your face…..
Hey! It’s been a lovely day! Everything’s been going my way
I had so much fun today and I’m on fire
God, it’s been a lovely day!
Everything’s been going my way
Ever since you went away, hey, I’m on fire…..
I’m on fire…
I’m on fire…
So you don’t want to hear about my good day?”
–Good Day, by The Dresden Dolls
And I knew what I needed to do.
I asked my mom to come over to my dorm, and we talked things over. We made a script, of sorts. And she sat in my twin-sized bed as I lay in her lap, phone in hand, and I pushed the button to call him.
“Hello. Don’t say anything. If you say anything, I will hang up. You need to listen while I talk. I can’t do this anymore. It’s not healthy. This past month, I have done better in school and I have felt healthier and freer. I have actually met some of my classmates and spoken with them for the first time, even though I’m almost done with my second whole year of college here. I am thriving without you. I’m glad you have made some steps to try to take care of yourself, but I have realized that I can’t be a part of your life anymore. I do not want to see you ever again. I do not want to speak with you ever again. We are over. I love you and I care about you, but we are over. This is not good for me. You are not good for me.”
I forget if anything was said by him. But that was it.
I ended the call, and I cried. In my mother’s arms, on that tiny, hard dorm bed with the ugly cinderblock walls, I cried the tears of my first real broken heart.
Next week, it will be 10 years since this all happened. Since it ended.
A couple years after the events, I gathered up all of his old letters and set them on fire
The ghost of this relationship has followed me through all of my subsequent ones. I need to be in control. I need to be fiercely independent. I need to be autonomous. If I ever felt like I was losing grip, I would freak out. I had panic attacks while with other boyfriends, triggered in minuscule ways by things that had been said or done by this relationship. I would start crying hysterically and I didn’t know why, only that it somehow stemmed from him.
This boy tried Facebook friending me three years after it happened.
Four years after it happened.
He tried friending my sister five years after it happened.
His cat tried friending me six years after it happened.
His cat tried friending my sister six years after it happened.
He tried friending my sister last year. Nine years after it happened.
His ghost will not die.
His grip has finally lessened from my life in most ways.
In my marriage
I would still sometimes find myself feeling inadequate.
And I would use my fingernails
And scratch my wrists
Because I deserved to be punished.
Because I was not enough.
And I still knew that it was wrong. That it was stupid. That it didn’t accomplish anything. It was illogical.
Last summer, as I learned that my marriage was ending, I found myself in that dark place again, a blanket smothering my world, attempting to drown out any remaining light. Our marriage was ending because I couldn’t get healthy enough emotionally. I had failed our marriage. I was broken, sexually. I was a disappointment, and she wished that she had never married me.
I have never seriously contemplated suicide, but I have thought about it from time to time. And at that point, my thoughts once again drifted to thinking about how nice it would be to not have to live anymore. Life was so exhausting. I had loved and failed and lost so many times. I thought that cycle was finally broken when I met Carmen, but here I was. Once again.
I would never do it. No. I knew it would hurt everyone around me so much. But still…wouldn’t it be nice if I just…stopped living.
I dug my fingernails into my wrists, my thighs, my belly.
And then I stopped.
What was I doing?
I did not deserve to be punished.
I did not deserve to have my flesh ripped from my body.
I needed to be my own advocate once again.
I needed to claim myself as important and powerful and worthy.
I’m working on it.
What matters the most is how well you walk through the fire.