The words I can never say
To my ex-wife, the mother of my children, my best friend and the one I wanted to spend my life with.
It has now been 18-months since that fateful weekend when my entire life fell apart. It has been the longest, hardest year-and-a-half I have ever experienced. I have wanted to talk to you every day; missed you every moment; cried far too many tears and dwelt too long in recrimination and regret.
But never, in all that time, have I been able to talk to you. And never have I been able to ask you that question that all survivors of abuse long to ask, the question that drives us mad in the long hours of the night. Why? Why did you do this to me?
I know you can never give me the answers I want. I’ve seen enough people break themselves as they search for solace, for acknowledgement, for anything from their abuser to indicate that they are sorry, that they understand the enormity of what they did to us, and that it was wrong. I know such a hope is futile.
I still dream about you. Nightmares, really. Three nights a week, I’m in that house again, locked up with a wild animal, knowing I’m going to die unless I get out. I wake up soaked in sweat. Those dreams aren’t the worst.
Once a week while I sleep, I try to tell you what you did to me. We’re often in a public place – a city, a park, a shopping centre – and I tell you that you destroyed me. I describe how it felt to have drinks thrown over me; to be hit; to feel so powerless that I shaved my head and grew my beard, only to have you cut it off with kitchen scissors. I explain how you took away my self-belief and my ambitions; how you taught me to hate myself; how you made me believe I deserved to be treated like dirt.
And in this dream, this weekly emptying of my heart, every single time, I hope that there will be some admission on your part, some form of empathy, some regret about what you did.
But it never comes. In the dream, as in life, you gaslight; you deny; you make excuses. When that doesn’t work, you go on the attack. ‘Well, you’re not perfect, you know! It’s your fault, really. If you didn’t make me so angry, I wouldn’t hit you.’ I wake up feeling crappy that some part of my subconscious even tried to have that conversation with you.
I know that you can never provide me with the closure that I need, so I have to speak to you without expecting an answer, in the hope that this will make me feel better and work through the grief and pain that I’m feeling. I have to speak to you without giving you the opportunity to respond, because I know the response will be filled with lies, manipulation, deflection and attack. My psyche is too fragile to stomach another barrage of false accusations that twist my words and my character into something ugly, so I will never send this letter to you. Besides, you’d only respond with your lawyers.
So I write this for myself. All the things I cannot say.
You were my wife. You were the mother of my children. You were my best friend. You should have protected me in the shelter of our home and our marriage. But instead, you exploited me and hurt me and crushed me. You treated me like a disobedient puppy that needed to be broken.
You told me you loved me even as you poured drinks over my side of the bed; you told me you loved me even as you threatened my children to get your own way; you said you couldn’t live without me as you cut me off from friends and family, read my emails, stole from my bank account, and blackmailed me into obedience. You told me you loved me as you took away everything positive in my life that didn’t revolve around you.
Hobbies? Gone. Career? Gone. Dreams? Gone. ‘If you go to that conference, I’ll abort your baby.’ You saw my health declining; you saw how depressed I was becoming; and instead of engendering sympathy, or compassion, you used it against me, to further isolate me and make me beholden to you.
You used the threat of losing my children as a weapon to keep me your slave. ‘If you don’t like it, you know where the door is, but I’ll get custody of the kids because the courts always side with the mother and my parents can afford better lawyers than you.’ You made the marital home into a prison and you used my love for my children as bars to keep me locked inside with you.
I was terrified of you. I woke up dreading what the day would bring. My constant mantra was to ask how much more I could take. When would my suffering be enough to make you happy? I did everything I could not to set you off. I tiptoed around you, trying desperately not to say or do anything that would bring your anger down upon me. But always it would come. We would be having a nice time, and suddenly you’d whip me with a wire coat hanger, and I had no idea why. I would walk away, only to have a drink thrown over me. I would leave, only to have you follow me out and continue berating me.
And yet, despite all of this, I wanted to make it work. Like in a hostage-situation, I came to identify with my jailer. I wanted us to be the family you always said you wanted us to be. Maybe then I wouldn’t be so afraid of you. But then, every time I became comfortable, or felt safe, or thought that things might be improving, you’d pull the world out from under my feet. ‘I don’t want to be in your family. I don’t want to be on your team. I don’t want to be on your side.’ I craved your validation. You gave me enough crumbs to keep me hooked. And you told me you would never let me leave.
The only way to survive the horror I found myself in was to divide you into two separate people. I took all the good parts of you and pretended that was who you really were, and I loved that person very much. I cast all the evil, violent, twisted parts of you into a different being completely distinct from you, a creature I despised.
Looking back, I realise that I was in love with something that didn’t exist, and the person that I miss is nothing more than a figment of my imagination. You were always both people, the beauty and the beast, the Jekyll and the Hyde, and in separating them out, I never knew the real you.
Not that anybody knew the real you. You were so adept at wearing masks, I wonder if you even know who you truly are. All I know is that I miss the good side of you, and I think I will always love the good side of you, and never get over losing the good side of you. But the beast inside of you can’t be ignored. I am like a moth, drawn to a flame, but to save myself from the fire, I have to go out into the darkness, alone.
If I stayed with you, I would have ended up dead. Depression, anxiety, an eating disorder, self-harm and thoughts of suicide – you caused it all. I cried to my doctor that I wanted to die because it was the only way out, the only way of escaping you. She gave me drugs and sent me home. I told another doctor that you were abusing me. He told me to do as you wanted and maybe you’d treat me better, and sent me home again. You reduced me to the point that I either had to leave or be sectioned. And still you told me you loved me and that you would never let me leave.
Even at the end, when I was down on my knees at the roadside sobbing onto the tarmac, desperate for my wife, my best friend, the one I wanted to spend my life with, I gave you another chance. I asked you to get help. I asked you to bet on our family, to keep us together, to make it work, to please try to get help, for all our sakes. To accept that you had a personality disorder; to accept the treatment you’d been offered; to work with me instead of against me. I was willing to wait. I was willing to help. I spent ten years trying to help you.
But you turned me down. Instead of getting help, you chose to throw me under the bus. You chose to deny the things that you’d done; to tell lies about me to discredit me; to set your family and their lawyers on me; to accuse me of the very things that you had done to me; and to take away my children, just as you’d always threatened. You chose this horror that our lives have become. You chose this animosity. You chose to throw away our marriage, our friendship and our family because you wouldn’t admit to what you had done.
I was willing to forgive you. I’d forgiven you for ten years already. I was desperate to forgive you. But in all the threats and blame and anger at losing your favourite toy, in all the manipulations that were to come, all you had to do was to say sorry. Just once. ‘Sorry for what I did.’ I would have come scurrying back. Even if it was false, even if it was fake, even if you didn’t mean it. You would have won.
You are the master of manipulation. How could you never even think to say sorry?
Since I left, you’ve made my life a living hell. I’ve struggled to pick up the pieces. It’s hard to put yourself back together when you’ve forgotten where everything is meant to go or what you’re even supposed to look like anymore; when your identity has been so effectively erased and subsumed beneath another person that anything you take for yourself feels wrong. I feel empty and alone, terrified of the world I find myself in, and always awaiting the next crisis you send my way – the next lie, the next baseless accusation, the next court case.
Sometimes I think of going back to you. I wouldn’t be alone; I wouldn’t miss you anymore; I could see my children every day. Sometimes I worry that it’s inevitable; that I have no choice in the matter. It is my lot in life to be your victim, so why am I still fighting to be free? All I’m doing is causing myself more pain in the long run. Simpler to give in and go back. Accept that I will always be beneath your shoe and learn to be happy there.
Such thoughts are dangerous. What is it in me that makes me crave a person who has no compunction about hurting me? Am I so badly bruised that I think it’s all I deserve? Am I happiest when I’m being beaten? Why can’t I see you for what you are – an abuser – instead of what I want you to be? Why can’t I let go of someone who attacked me in every way it’s possible to attack a person? Why do I still love you? What is wrong with me?
I know that if I went back, I would not survive a year. I know that, as hard as my life is now, it is better than the life I had with you. Yet still I miss you. And still I wonder. And still I wish that things were different. I’m heartbroken that you chose to protect yourself and your reputation instead of choosing me, us, our family. We could have made a life together. You chose to throw it away and destroy me. To destroy us both.
I wonder if you ever have regrets about what you’ve done; if somewhere, deep down in that black hole you call a heart, there’s a part of you that knows it’s your fault and that you sabotaged the best thing you had going for you and the person who would have stood beside you until the end? Or have you convinced yourself that it’s all me? That you did nothing wrong, as you’ve told everyone, and the fault was mine for leaving?
You told me on our wedding anniversary that you never thought this would ever happen; that you thought we’d be together forever. Then why didn’t you fight for me? Why didn’t you do something to stop this? All you had to do was admit to it; to say sorry; to get help. That was all I asked.
Did you ever love me? You said it often enough. Are you even capable of love? Words are cheap. How a person treats you is how they feel about you, and you showed me no compassion, no empathy, and no kindness, except as rewards for doing as I was told. So were they ever real, or simply part of the manipulation? And were the good times really that good, or did they simply seem good because the bad times were so bad and because I was doing everything in my power to make sure they were good? I don’t know. That’s the legacy you’ve left me with, the legacy of our marriage: a giant question mark.
I can’t think back on our marriage with happiness. Happy photographs are tinged with regret and sadness, and the knowledge of what was going on when the camera wasn’t looking. I watch the strong, confident person that was me shrinking into a shell of his former self, the sadness behind his smile, the desperation in his eyes. Ruined, all of it ruined.
I lost my marriage, my home, my children, my wife, my best friend. Our connection was severed like an axe falling from the sky, so suddenly and abruptly that I sometimes thought I had died and this was hell. I wish I could talk to you, but you hide behind others for fear you’ll say something that incriminates yourself. You tell lies through lawyers. You threaten me with legalese because I left. You twist everything I say to try to make me into the bad guy, and I can’t make myself vulnerable to that kind of exploitation again.
I can never tell you how much I’m grieving, because you keep telling people I’m mentally ill and not safe around the children. I can never have an honest conversation with you, because you use my words against me. I can’t share my life with you, because you’ve stalked me and harassed me since I left. You chased me off social media, forcing me to set up online under a false name so you can’t find me here.
This is what you’ve done to me, to our children, to yourself. You took away everything I ever wanted. You took away my dignity, my self-esteem, my hopes and dreams for the future. And what am I now? The shell of what was and what could have been, because of you. I’m in love with a fantasy, addicted to a drug that only causes me pain but desperate for the next hit. And you’re the only one who can make me feel better.
But you never can, and you never will. Because you can’t admit to what you did or even say sorry. And I can’t say any of this to you, because you’ll use it against me. So I’m stuck; caught between a past filled with regret and a future that I don’t want. This is what it means to be a survivor of abuse.
I can’t stop wishing that things were different. But this is the way things are, and I have to accept that the reason I’m writing this letter, and the reason I can’t send it, are the same: the person I’m writing it to is an enemy who has no qualms about destroying me. The person I would want to read it – the kind, sensitive, empathetic person I loved – was somebody I made up. The real person who would receive this letter took my love and turned it into something ugly. You took my spirit and strangled it until it was dead. You broke my heart and didn’t care. I will get no solace from you.
So I need to stop looking for it from my past and start looking to get it from myself and my future. Maybe if I can find a tiny light and a scrap of warmth out here, in the dark, cold world I find myself in, then I can finally start to put you behind me.
It has been the longest eighteen months of my life.
Your ex-husband, the father of your children, your best friend, and the one who wanted to spend his life with you