I told my therapist I was planning to write about what it does to your brain to be cheated on for a decade. She agreed but suggested it not be specifically about being cheated on, but rather about being exposed to trauma for a decade. I nodded my head in agreement, but in my head I was saying “Nope.”
I shut it down immediately. I wasn’t able to verbalize why I had an issue with calling it “trauma” until I got home and talked to my partner about it.
How the fuck do I justify calling ten years of infidelity trauma? I live with a veteran for fuck’s sake. I feel ridiculous saying I have trauma from a shitty marriage.
He didn’t hit me, in fact there was virtually no physical violence until his last attempts to get me to stay in the end, and even then it wasn’t extreme. So many people have had such worse experiences.
“Trauma is trauma” he said kindly to me, for the umpteenth time since my PTSD diagnosis “your trauma is just as valid and real as anyone’s. The fact that you are still in denial about it probably means you do need to write it up.”
I knew the incessant gas-lighting, verbal abuse, shaming and name calling, the lying, cheating and betrayal for ten years all congealed into this disgusting cocktail that fucked me up in many ways. What I didn’t realize, however, was how much it had affected the way my brain still responds to certain stimuli so many years later. As unaddressed, unhealed trauma tends to do, apparently.
I was 18 years old when I met my oldest son’s father. He was 21. Up until that point in my life I had a type. That type was typically tattooed troubled losers, so when I met this guy who seemed nothing like those jerks, I thought “meh, let’s give this a shot”. Looking back, I don’t think there was ever a point where I thought this dude was going to be the one.
It didn’t matter that he wasn’t a tattooed rebel who had been in and out of jail, drank a lot or did drugs, he was a toxic human. His family had money, compared to mine anyway, and I was intimidated by it from the very beginning. He caught on to that early and would continue to use it to manipulate me.
We met in August of 2001. I got knocked up on September 11, 2001, a month before my nineteenth birthday. There was not much getting to know each other before this giant life-altering occurrence.
I don’t think I will ever forget telling him I was pregnant. We lived about an hour away from each other. I was staying with my grandmother whom I had returned from Colorado to take care of, he was living with his parents. It took me about a week to even work up the nerve to tell him, and still I told him through Yahoo! Messenger, since he refused to talk to me on the phone because he was busy at a friend’s house.
At that point I didn’t really care what he thought, I just knew it was my responsibility to inform him. The exchange was pretty simple:
Me: Hey, got a min to call me?
Him: Not really. At a friends.
Me: Cool. Well, thought you would want to know that I am pregnant. Took 4 tests, all positive.
Him: We’ve got options
I logged off and cried into my grandmother’s lap about the terrible situation I had found myself in. Knocked up by an asshole who was immediately more concerned about his options than offering a kind word.
Eventually we ended up working things out – and by working things out I mean I caved because I was a broke pregnant teenager. My grandmother was in no way able to support me financially, and his family could. At that time that made sense to me. If only I could go back in time and talk to that little girl.
I had only met his parents a couple times before I ended up pregnant, and he insisted we hide it from them. They weren’t thrilled that their precious son knocked up some trailer trash chick from out of town, but they did what they do best: threw money at the problem.
They helped us get everything we needed for the baby, though his mother never let me forget how much money she spent and would bring it up at every opportunity. I wasn’t used to people spending money on me. I didn’t like it. It made me uncomfortable before she started throwing it back in my face, but after that it became something that never failed to make me sick to my stomach. She knew that and exploited it whenever she felt wronged, like someone didn’t pick up the phone quick enough when she called. “After all I’ve done for you, Nikki? You can’t even answer the phone!?” I would hear her screech to the answering machine, feeling an immense sense of guilt and shame that never went away.
During my pregnancy my grandmother’s health was rapidly declining and she passed away when I was about six months pregnant. My mother failed to let me in on the arrangements and I wasn’t informed until the day after the funeral. Six months pregnant, hormones raging and I found out the only person in the world I really loved died and I was offered absolutely no closure. I had never known such grief.
Having no other family willing to help, I had to drive the hour to my grandmother’s home an hour away and remove my things from her home, she lived in public housing so it had to be done immediately. Thankfully I brought one of his friends with me to help since the father of my unborn child couldn’t be bothered to go with me to help box up my books and clothes.
I found out later that he stayed home and had cyber-sex with his ex-girlfriend while I was doing the hardest thing I had ever done in my life. When confronted with the printed conversations, he informed me that “sometimes Yahoo! Messenger gets their dates wrong in their logs” so I was obviously mistaken. That set the theme for the next decade of my life.
With no one to tell me this wasn’t right, or that I deserved better, that I didn’t have to stay stuck with this person, it never dawned on me that I had options. Childhood neglect and abuse groomed me well to be in a miserable relationship, plus we had a child and he was always quick to remind me I couldn’t afford to take care of the baby on my own.
So I focused on my kid. I went to cosmetology school, I worked, I did everything possible to stay as far away from him as I could. All the while enduring never ending digs at my expense in front of everyone, especially his family and friends, countless affairs, and a general emotional beat down.
When I finally accepted the fact that he was on dating sites and would respond to any attention given to him by the opposite sex, I spoke up about being unhappy. We never acknowledged his affairs unless it was during an active fight. It became something that just was, something he never actually admitted to or apologized for.
His solution was I should have a girlfriend. He would bring up my past, convinced my problem was that there was something missing that he couldn’t offer me as a man. He was right, he couldn’t me offer what I needed, but it wasn’t because he was a man. It was because he was a terrible person.
But I just went with it and started trying to meet women outside of my marriage. Some I ended up friends with and he would meet them, but there was never any sexual situations that he was involved in. He wasn’t interested. It was something he ended up being able to hold over my head when confronted about one of his hidden online escapades. I was out fucking women so what was he supposed to do? He eventually had me convinced that it was my idea to date other women. I had relationships with these people, some more serious than others, but they were real for me. It was all just a novelty to him though, so when I had a falling out with one of these women, he always mocked and invalidated the situation — laughing it off as “dyke drama” most of the time.
I found myself falling into awful, self-destructive habits like checking his chat history over and over and over again, reading explicit messages for hours and hours, seeing him telling women I abandoned him and our son for drugs and alcohol. He even had one woman convinced he was going to fly her out to live with him and my child because I’d ran off and left them both. I tortured myself by reading all of it, obsessing over the words. The images. Oh, the images. Searing it all into my brain.
It got to the point where I didn’t even call him out on it anymore. He lied to my face every single time, even when presented with evidence. So I didn’t bother. It wore my self-esteem down to zilch. It must have been my fault somehow. If I wasn’t such a loser, he would have been satisfied with only me, right?
I know that now, however I spent a decade in the dark. Conversations with my mother still play through my head sometimes, she would say things like “At least he doesn’t hit you or the kid” or “It could be worse, he could be on drugs”.
I spent so much time daydreaming about him finally hitting me, wishing he would give me a legitimate excuse to leave him. As if that would have given me more leverage than the numerous affairs and years of emotional battering. Being removed from the situation for so long it is hard to remember feeling like I was obligated to stay. I would tell anyone in that predicament that they have every right to leave a miserable situation and should probably do so immediately. That no one deserves to be cheated on, lied to and betrayed on a regular basis.
I hate that I stayed so long, teaching my child that it was easier to grin and bear it, versus standing up for yourself and changing an unhappy life. No matter how scared you might be.
In July of 2011 I finally worked up the courage to leave. All it took was for him to say something mean to my son and that did it for me. It was no longer me leaving for me, it was me leaving for us — my son and I.
Less than a month later, I met my current partner. It was so quick that I hadn’t had time to deal with, or process this dramatic life change. We went into it knowing full well we probably weren’t ready for each other, but we fell so deeply in love that we just worked on it together.
When I began therapy I started learning that so many of my fears, insecurities, and worries are just feelings I am holding on to because that’s all I have ever known. It doesn’t mean I don’t trust my partner. That fact doesn’t keep my heart rate down when I feel like someone is paying extra attention to him, though. It is something I am working on and have been for some time, but over the years, certain situations, or typed phrases I’d see, became a trigger.
Getting triggered by silly, petty shit is fucking humiliating. It is one of my least favorite things in the universe. It makes me feel weak, and guilty, and ashamed that I can’t just brush some stuff off like I, and others, might feel like I should be able to. Being aware of it every single time is exhausting. Recognizing that these feelings are just the result of triggers, and not a rational response to a threat, helps me pick the feelings and thoughts apart and realize it’s not based on the present. It is purely a reaction my brain has to something similar that caused so much emotional turmoil in the past.
It is getting better. My fight or flight mode isn’t activated every day lately. I don’t find myself triggered nearly as often, but I still find it infuriating to still have physiological responses to things my rational brain knows isn’t an actual threat.
When you spend decades learning that you don’t really matter, starting as a child, and that your feelings are simply overreactions and irrational emotional bullshit, it doesn’t just go away because someone finally tells you that you do, in fact, matter. Rewiring such significant data in your brain takes a lot of time – and a lot of energy.
It is truly astounding how much we do mindlessly, subconsciously, simply out of habit. Just the other day I found myself rolling down my window the minute I got in the car and reaching for my cigarettes. I haven’t smoked cigarettes in more than 3 years, but I did smoke for 20, so naturally it became a deeply ingrained habit. Also, everytime I wear my contact lenses, I catch myself trying to push my glasses (that I am not wearing) up on my nose. Those examples may be small and seemingly insignificant, but think about what that means for your reactions to certain stimuli. Your immediate thoughts and feelings that pop up when you are triggered are often times just the result of you training your brain to do so in the past.
Using thought replacement tools and working on my self-worth is slowly helping me find a place to feel like I belong and deserve to be. It is an agonizing process, frankly, and sometimes I wonder if it is all worth it. Every once in a while though, I see a break in the clouds and feel that sunshine on my face washing the pain and fear away for just a moment. That feeling keeps me going. I think that feeling is hope.
Nikki is a photographer, writer, artist, and advocate of radical self-love. She writes about mental health, gaming, sex, and inclusivity.