In an abusive relationship, tiptoeing around others’ feelings means sacrificing your own
“Mom, you’re drunk,” I said from my place on the floor in front of the television.
“No, I’m not,” she spat from the sofa, her sentence punctuated by a click-hiss.
“Yeah, you are,” I said, leveling my eyes at her as she raised a fresh can to her lips. The M*A*S*H intro music wrapped up for the second time, which meant it was after midnight. My mother seemed to ignore my retort, and so I turned back to watch more cynical repartee between Hawkeye and Houlihan.
I was only allowed to stay up this late on the weekends; since my father had to work on Saturday mornings, he would go to bed early while Mom and I shot the shit until the wee hours.
Many of our best conversations happened as reruns of The Golden Girls and M*A*S*H played in the background. With each can of cheap beer, and each puff from the roach that sat in the ashtray, the boa constrictor of my mother’s anxiety loosened its hold just a little bit.
Her lips loosened, too. She said things I could never believe I was hearing — confessions of her bad behavior as a teen; tales from when she and my father first met; random details from her life that I hadn’t known before. I felt uniquely able to open up to her during those times, and though I never felt comfortable enough to tell her about the big bads that had weighed upon me for the previous several years, I got closest on those Friday nights.
I was only twelve and, while I would steal my parents’ cigarettes after they went to bed and chain-smoke them in the basement, I was categorically opposed to drinking. Something about the way it affected people just didn’t sit right with me, but I couldn’t quite place my unease.
Looking back, it seems so obvious.
As we talked, and she slurped down can after can of beer, my mother would get progressively more drunk. I, on the other hand, would stay sober and be completely blindsided when her mood shifted and a peaceful, even comforting, conversation, became a shouting match.
On this particular night, it would seem that I was beginning to understand the connection between the beers and the swords that took up residence in her tongue after too many of them. She’d snapped something baseless and paranoid at me, and I’d called her out on it.
“Go to bed,” she growled behind me, as Radar came into the frame.
“No,” I said, not taking my eyes off the television.
“Go to bed.” Louder.
“No. I want to watch this. I’m not going to bed because you’re drunk. I’m going to watch the rest of this episode, and I’m not going to talk to you anymore.” I was close to yelling.
We continued on like this for a minute before I heard my father’s footsteps thundering down the hallway.
“Go to bed,” he said, glowering down at me through slits.
“No,” I said, tears of fury streaming down my face. “She’s drunk. I didn’t do anything wrong. I’m going to watch the rest of this episode. She can go to bed.”
My dad was pissed. I don’t blame him; I would have been pissed, too. I cannot stand to have my sleep interrupted — just ask anyone who’s ever shared a home with me. And my mother was his wife, and she came first — both literally and figuratively — and what I do blame him for is letting that fact dictate what happened next.
I was not a light kid. I was over a hundred pounds at the age of twelve. But that didn’t stop my father from bending down, grabbing me by one arm and one leg, and beginning to drag me down the hall and into my bedroom.
I remember nothing else from that night; I don’t even remember if my father got me all the way down the hall, or if I relented and walked myself to bed. I don’t know if that was one of the nights that I was awakened from the next bedroom by my mother’s vomiting, though that happened more than once.
After dozens of these blowups, though, finally I saw that it would always need to be me who absorbed it. No matter how awful, how nasty, how hurtful, my mother was to me, Dad would take her side in this abusive relationship and my frustration would just compound.
My mother never apologized for these arguments. Maybe she didn’t even remember having them, or maybe her memory was so skewed by her intoxication that she believed I was the one who caused them. Or maybe she avoided apologizing because an apology would have been a tacit admission that there was a problem. And in our family, if we don’t name it, it doesn’t exist.
I was sitting on the couch, reading a book, when he came home from work.
I smelled him almost before I heard him; whatever had kept him out until 3am the night before was still oozing from his pores.
“What are you doing home so early?” I asked, for no good reason. I knew already, and also I didn’t really care. We’d been living together in this one-bedroom apartment for a year by this point, but things had been circling the drain for months.
“They sent me home,” he said, tears forming in his eyes.
“Like, for good?”
“I don’t know,” he said, sniffing. He disappeared into the bathroom and the shower turned on. A few minutes later he was back again. I could no longer smell the booze from the other side of the room. Progress. But he was muttering in a way that I reckoned couldn’t be healthy.
Finally his words came into focus. “I never did anything to you,” he said.
I fought the urge to roll my eyes. I’d never done anything to him, either. He’d broken into my emails while I was out of town and gotten the idea that I was interested in getting back with the guy I’d dated before. (I wasn’t, at the time.)
I was so sick of this self-pity bullshit. This was not the happy-go-lucky, life-of-the-party guy I’d met at the local pub the previous summer. This was an unstable, mentally ill alcoholic who made up stories in his head and then spewed them at whoever would pay attention to him.
I had been tiptoeing around him for far too long in this abusive relationship, hoping that his paranoia would pass if I didn’t call it out. Today, though, I’d had enough. Today, I just needed to march right into it.
He repeated his refrain again, like I hadn’t heard him the first time. “I never did anything to you.” The tears flowed freely.
Oh, poor you, I thought, disgusted. I said, “And you’re so self-absorbed that you actually believe that.”
The air went out of the room. His already-red face turned crimson. He grabbed the closest breakable thing, hurling a drinking glass at a framed print hanging on the living-room wall a few feet from me. Both the glass and the frame shattered all over the floor, and there was now a hole through the print and into the plaster. He stared at me, eyes aflame, daring me to try and stop him.
“Get out,” I said to him.
My heart was pounding in my throat, and I stood there paralyzed for a minute, silently standing off with him, wondering what my next move should be.
I contemplated calling the police. He’d gotten a DUI a few weeks before, though, and I figured a domestic disturbance call could have pretty negative consequences if it went on his record. It would do more harm than good, I reasoned, and so I didn’t call the police.
Instead, I patted my pants pockets to be sure my car keys and cell phone were both inside, and I walked out the door.
I had stayed in this unhealthy and abusive relationship for months, like I’d stayed in so many others before it, because I didn’t value my own well-being as much as I valued the comfort of others. Following the lead I’d learned as a child, I tiptoed around issues that everyone knew were there, but no one would talk about, in an effort to keep people happy.
But I always ended up sacrificing my own happiness as a result.
When I walked out of that apartment and drove away, it was because I realized in that moment that my happiness was just as important as anyone else’s.
Thirteen years later, I still need to remind myself of this fact, each and every day.
This story was originally published on Medium.com.