One balmy night last August, I’m almost certain that I was roofied — by my own boyfriend.
Tony (name has been changed) had taken me out to a wine bar to celebrate an upcoming work trip to benin and he was irrationally worried about me drinking alcohol while visiting the country. He paced in his basement apartment trying to think of solution to protect me, even suggesting that he could fly down on his own and hide out in my hotel room. (There was a Vogue editor there, so that wouldn’t fly!)
He could be controlling and had many rules I had to follow to avoid conflict, both early signs of an abusive relationship. We had argued about it a few times, and I reassured him that I could hold my own. After all, I was a 35-year-old adult who had always enjoyed throwing back a few drinks with no issues.
He ignored my many texts from the bathroom, even the ones that pleaded that he take me to a hospital. One glass of wine had never even given me a buzz before, so this was beyond weird. He carried me to his car as I hung like a corpse, just like a scene out of Weekend at Bernie’s.
He referenced that night for months after, telling me I could no longer handle liquor. “We work out so much and have less body fat, so our bodies metabolize liquor too fast. You’re just like me, babe. (He was a recovering alcoholic who had seizures from just a sip of the stuff.) “You can’t drink anymore babe!” he’d said. I stopped drinking for a year after the terrifying incident, not even considering the possibility he caused it.
It wasn’t always like this. In fact, three years ago, I thought I had it all. After a toxic divorce had broken my spirit, the aftermath of anger and stress left me reeling and looking for something to fill the void of a broken family.
That empty feeling vanished the day I met Tony on Tinder.
He was so handsome, and our similarities went way beyond shared interests and being divorced with children. We had an insatiable thirst for adventure and activity, and made fitness and healthy eating a priority in our daily lives.
The first six months of our romance was perfect, filled with daily compliments and professions of love.
He confessed I made him happier than he’d ever imagined, and I fell fast and hard, quickly settling into a weekly routine of spending our every free moment together. We had never spent a weekend apart and our children from previous marriages once told us that we were a “framily,” a combination of the words “friends” and “family.”
He’d helped me recognize the signs of my youngest son’s speech delay, and helped me get rid of the 35 pounds of baby weight I’d once struggled to lose.
But the more I improved myself, the more he found new things to criticize.
His criticisms of my body were peppered with moments of love and adoration, leaving me in a constant state of confusion. I later learned that this is called love bombing and bonds a victim to his or her abuser.
After a few months of dating, it became clear that any success of mine seemed to enrage him.
I inhaled sharply one afternoon as he grabbed the back of my thigh and squeezed. “You still have fat on your legs, see!” No achievement was good enough. With every pound I lost, I also seemed to lose a little bit of his respect.
“You know, you had a nicer butt when you were fat. You should do less cardio,” he once yelled. He even knocked a fork out of my hand while out to dinner with friends. “You don’t want the rice, babe! You’re just bored,” he justified.
Nothing I did was good enough. I increasingly felt a rush of adrenaline mixed with fear whenever I was around him.
He’d once quipped that I was almost too intimidating for him, because of my height, looks and intelligence. “If you were one inch taller, you’d be too much for me,” he‘d nonchalantly said.
I had opened up to a handful of friends about Tony’s scary behavior, who encouraged me to leave him. “I’m not strong enough to leave,” I’d say. Plus: I loved him.
But then things got worse.
He would cut me down with harsh words and passive-aggressive comments. You’ve been sheltered your whole life and need to learn to make it in this big world without the help of your parents and ex-husband,” he’d say. “I’m still here because I see the good in you.”
However, I was only “good enough” for him if I managed to split myself into a million pieces trying to live up to his impossible expectations. I could do a hundred things right, and he would point out the one thing I did wrong.
He was manipulative and angry, often gaslighting me by turning every argument around on me when I stood up for myself. His love was like a carrot, and he dangled it in front of me all the time. But that carrot was a mirage.
If I wanted to be with Tony, there was a host of requirements. I had to suppress any drama in my life, talk less, gain bigger muscles while losing fat, avoid garlic, caffeine and alcohol, wear my hair in braids, and stop talking to my closest friends. “They just want to see you fail,” he’d say. “If we ever broke up, they’d flock to you because they love to see your pain.”
He was subconsciously instilling a fear of leaving him in me. Over time, I started to hear his words as my inner voice. I couldn’t make a single decision without thinking, “Would Tony agree with this?” or “Is it going to make him mad?” — the absolute worst possibility.
When something triggered him, my phone rang off the hook with insulting texts and repeated calls from him. Things like, “I don’t have to be with you. I will let you know when I’m done with you,” and, “You’re crazy, get help!!”
When I cried from the emotional pain he inflicted on me, he said I was “putting on a show or acting.”
I was more distracted than ever before, unintentionally robbing my children of the undivided attention and meaningful eye-to-eye contact that they desperately need to be emotionally and psychologically healthy and well-adjusted. Tony demanded my undivided attention all day long, and frequently threw a temper tantrum when his needs weren’t met.
He put me in an impossible position: choosing between giving my attention to my children or him.
On one particularly difficult afternoon, he admitted to being jealous of my three-year old, who was having a meltdown at a playspace when something was too loud. “He takes all of your energy and needs help with everything,” he griped.
On another occasion, he demanded my son give his daughter the emoji face happy meal toy that was rightfully his. “I don’t want to give it to her. I like it,” my seven-year-old boy pleaded.
I refused to waver when standing up for my children, and paid for it by being on the receiving end of his anger.
“Your children can’t walk or talk,” he once said, referring to my sons, one who had ADHD, the other a speech delay. “No one will stay with you long-term and take care of you except me,” he often reminded me, as he intentionally turned my precious children into a handicap of sorts. No one wanted my “baggage,” and he frequently reminded me he could find a “hot young chick with no kids” to replace me.
I struggled to stand up for myself. When I had the audacity to disagree with Tony, I was told there must be something wrong with me. If I persisted, he launched into a full-on attack of my character and physical appearance.
He frequently called me names like “loser” or “trash,” and often griped that my big mouth got me in trouble. Looking back on it, he was projecting his own lack of self-worth onto me, transferring his own feelings of self-loathing and insecurity onto me.
I kept most of what was happening to me secret, as I wasn’t ready to let go of Tony. I still loved him with my whole heart and wanted to find a way to heal both of us from the pain he inflicted. Like me, he had wounds from childhood and I didn’t want to give up on him.
As days turned into months and months turned into years, I went further down the rabbit hole. I risked “going blind just to see the light” to get even a tiny bit of the positive attention he was purposely starving me of. He withheld affection and “rewarded me for good behavior,” like a dog.
I started smoking cigarettes again, something I hadn’t done since my early twenties. I cried at the slightest criticism, and even kept the master bathroom fan on at all times as white noise. It somehow masked the cruel words that would race through my head and helped me feel calm.
I exuded toxic energy and snapped at people I loved the most. I was slowly drowning.
I didn’t recognize the face I saw in the mirror: I was a shell of my former self, walking with my shoulders withdrawn and head down, no longer able to make intelligent conversation. Breathing felt impossible. How had the strong, confident woman I used to be turned into a pile of nerves and fear?
One day, I decided I had had enough. After he had failed to celebrate a big success of mine at work and belittled me in the aftermath (You just got lucky, stop yapping about it!), I finally walked away from the person I had both loved and loathed the most in my entire life and refused to look back.
While it was incredibly difficult to let him go, my children and self-worth mattered more.
I had to face the uncomfortable truth that this abusive relationship had cost me far more than it had brought me. It was time to escape from the cloak of co-dependency that was stagnating my energy and holding me back from my true potential.
In the aftermath of the breakup, I learned facing your biggest fears can be cathartic. I realized I can survive any heartbreak, any setback, any betrayal because I’ve now faced my biggest fear — losing Tony — and I’m still existing. I learned the universe won’t offer abundant blessings until we learn to respect ourselves.
If you don’t allow space for drama, toxic energy, and abuse in your life, it cannot exist. Like a flower without water or sunlight, humans cannot grow and thrive in an unhealthy environment.
My boys and I had a kitchen dance party this week. As they made a runway for their mama out of paper towels and told me it was because I was beautiful, my eyes welled with tears and my heart swelled with a newfound joy. For now, their love is enough.