Fifteen years ago, when I was 13, I kissed a boy during a game of truth or dare. We stayed together for seven years. A lifetime when you’re a teenager. Jesus, a lifetime now.
The relationship was complex. I still don’t have the words to explain it, which is part of the problem. “Emotional abuse” is the big umbrella phrase, but emotional abuse is funny. I can’t show you scars or a hospital bill to prove my experience, which means there’s a lot of shame and embarrassment around those years. For the entirety of my teenage life I let a guy tell me what to wear, who to talk to and how to spend my time. If I didn’t behave, I’d get the silent treatment, sometimes for months at a time.
This story has followed me everywhere. He was/is a charmer and I was/am the crazy (ex)girlfriend. I don’t talk about it in public forums (like my blog – oh hai) or to mutual friends because, by default, people believe his version over mine. Welcome to your classic hysterical woman syndrome.
But last year, a few months after my wedding, I realized I wanted to take back my voice. I desperately wanted to talk about this thing that happened to me. I was smack in the middle of my career crisis, which led me to only one conclusion: I would be a writer! I started work on a memoir, churning out scenes I hoisted from the depths of my memory.
I took one scene and brought it to a writing class. It was edited and workshopped and the teacher suggested I pitch it to Modern Love, the infamous New York Times column.
I spent every day for six months working on this essay. I rewrote it after class, then hired a professional to edit it. I rewrote it again. And again. I moved to Germany and rewrote it again. I took a break to write another essay on the same relationship and sent that one to an Eat Pray Love anthology. Then I revisited it (again) and sent it to every writer and editor I knew. Earlier this month I finally finished. It is the best thing I had ever written. I sent it to Modern Love.
I’d never written a personal essay before and hadn’t expected it to be so hard. Somehow I had to capture this scary experience into 1500 words and tie it up in a neat little bow. A bow I didn’t have yet. It was therapy on steroids.
If you’ve never dug up an old relationship before, let me tell you something: It doesn’t matter how much time has passed. It’s been almost a decade since this guy, but reading through old journals made me feel like I was 19 again. My heart was breaking again.
I started dreaming about him almost every night. Dreams where my husband physically turned into him and I woke up gasping in the dark.
So when I got the email from Modern Love saying my essay wasn’t “the right fit”, my disappointment wasn’t even about my writing anymore. I was 19 and one more person didn’t believe me.
Look. I am a fledgling writer. And fledgling writers don’t usually get published on their first submission to the New York Times. This essay is the best thing I’ve ever written, but it’s not the best thing that’s ever been written. I knew Modern Love was a stretch, but this wasn’t about my writing anymore. It was about my story.
My reasons for wanting to tell it are messy and dark. Do I want to free myself from shame? Do I crave revenge? Do I want to teach young girls not to cater and cower? I don’t know, but I do know this: Emotional abuse is still abuse. And until very recently, I didn’t have the words to define what happened, but what happened defined who I was.
But no matter the reason, I worried that I was making things worse by re-reading these old journals. Entries where I wrote a letter to the universe asking to “make me a better girlfriend” so my boyfriend of seven years would be nicer to me.
It was hard not to cringe and was almost more painful to go back and re-live it.
So when a friend asked, “Why do you want to tell this story so badly?” I gave all my typical answers: That I could be a voice for abused women. That it would be healing to tell this story as an adult. That I want to be heard.
But really? I just think it’s a good story. It has everything: childhood romance, abuse, followed by woman-breaks-free-to-travel-the-world. It’s a classic.
But I’m scared it’s my only story.
One year ago, this experience helped me realize I wanted to be a writer, full-time and without apology. It freed me from a career I didn’t love and helped change my perspective.
Once again, this guy was my catalyst for escape. He gifted me with adventure.
And maybe that’s all he’s meant to do. Yes, this is a good story, but it’s not my only one. It’s not even my best.
I don’t know if I’ll keep submitting the essay or pause the memoir or put all these journals back in their box. The last thing I want is for one rejection to scare me into inaction.
But I do know – finally – this one relationship, this one work, won’t define me.
If you’re curious and want to read said essay, here it is.