The pain just won't end

I lived with an abusive girlfriend for over a year. Now I'm free, but the fear and sadness just won't go away.

Published March 24, 2003 8:15PM (EST)

Dear Cary,

I'm 24 and I live in fear and I have no idea how to change it. Last summer I escaped from an abusive girlfriend I lived with for over a year. I still have flashbacks, really intrusive memories of some of the most intense moments, hitting, yelling. It's been over a year and I still have a constant sadness, a constant doubt I can't conquer. I've changed my life immensely since then. I got myself back in shape, I reimmersed myself in school and work and I'm more active now than I've ever been. In short I've done everything I've read I need to do to get past something like this.

But it hasn't helped. I have an enormous desire to meet people, to be outgoing, but I can't break past the fear. I haven't had the nerve to approach women, and when I've been approached I feel like I'm falling apart. I find myself behind a wall I can't break, fearing the impression I leave on people I meet, fearing they will see through my facade of confidence, see that I am an illusion of a person. I speak candidly with family on occasion, but it's rare. The relationship between my best friend and me has become superficial, still strong, but I fear telling him about my depression, or more than small details of my old relationship, knowing how weak it will make me look.

Even though I'm doing more with my life now than I ever have before, I feel more alone right now than I've ever been. Does time heal wounds like this? What can I do to ease the fear?

No Clever Sign-off

Dear No Clever,

Time does heal wounds like this. But it takes a lot longer than you expect it to. Just when you think it should be getting better, it seems like it's getting worse. It keeps getting worse for a while. You fight it at first but eventually you resign yourself to a lifetime of misery. You figure that can't last long. But it does. It keeps getting worse. Eventually you get used to walking around in a twisted way like some character in a Francis Bacon painting. And gradually it seems to let up, as though you and your suffering had reached equilibrium, and you think, Aha, you've accepted it, there's grace in the world, it's starting to let up.

You relax and take a serene walk in the evening and it jumps on you from behind and wraps its scaly arms around your chest and squeezes your breath out. You think, Hey, I thought we were done. "You should have gotten a receipt," it says. And there's this metallic laughter. You feel this cold breath on your neck as it says, What round is this? I forget. So you figure, I guess it's going to do what it's going to do, and accepting it didn't really work, and neither did fighting back, so you figure maybe you can just put it out of your mind, and concentrate on other things.

And struggling to put it out of your mind magnifies its effect. By this time you're almost dead; you're spending your waking hours crawling on the floor of your little apartment, barely breathing. It hurts to talk. Your ribs are bruised from the squeezing. Trying to concentrate on other things hasn't helped, so you try to really accept it this time, to pray to it, visualize it, meditate on it, and you're almost there but then as you're visualizing it and trying to love it it spits in your face and the spittle runs down your cheek. Now it's personal. So you struggle against it again but this time you're so weakened that you collapse in exhaustion and spend days lying on the floor in a kind of emotional coma. You lose a lot of weight. On the advice of friends, you go to therapy. And that seems to help. Crying seems to help. For a day. But then you wake up on the second day after a good therapy session and it's sitting on your chest taking a big warm shit.

It's like taking a beating from a psychopath. There's nothing you can do. It's addicted to beating your ass. Since it's addicted now, it feels like a victim too. It wants you to feel sorry for it. It's thinking about going into recovery, but meanwhile it just keeps beating your ass in a kind of halfhearted way that's almost insulting. It claims that it's actually painful for it to keep beating your ass, but it can't stop. It hints that it's your fault it keeps beating your ass.

And that, too, goes on for longer than you expected.

If that doesn't sound comforting, well, what can I do? It does end. How do I know? Guess what? That guy lying next to you on the floor, taking the blows right there with you, that's me.

So what's the trick? There is no trick. You just lie there and lie there and one day you get up and it's gone. It just got bored with you and left without even saying goodbye.

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Want more advice from Cary? Read Friday's column.

By Cary Tennis

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