It is coming down the mountain, fear that holds you like the cold,
It wants to settle in your footprints, keep you still from where you’re going
All you think you know of losing, all you doubt of innocence,
The big sky still hangs above you. Every day just want to quit.
There’s no light you see to guide you and it scares you just to say.
And then we are like lions – nothing dares get in our way.
See your faithless sails drifting and your truth just cut apart.
And then we are like lions – we are golden in our hearts.
– Like Lions by Blind Pilot
It was a Friday. I had been out late Thursday night seeing a singer from Portland whose music I had desperately missed. I was one year, almost exactly, out from having moved back to California. I had moved to help family with the side effects of things like mental illness and addiction. It was an intense time in my life.
I had spent the spring before cleaning up the mess left behind after one of the people who had taken over my childhood home murdered someone in the basement and then burned them up in a car in a field far away from the house. My mother had been living in the house and we didn’t know where she had gone after abandoning it to strangers.
That spring, I had learned the best way to clean finger print dust off the hundred year old door trims and that you used something different than you did to get it off the bathtub ledge. I learned the best way to wrap a heavy chain link around the front gate to tell if it had been tampered with between cleaning trips.
I had learned that it was easier to use a broom and dustpan to clean the debris covering the carpeted rooms than trying to pick things up individually. My sister and I joked we would get small dustpan tattoos on the the insides of our wrists after our third day of cleaning the carpeted floors this way. A way to memorialize the horror of walking into that house day after day for weeks trying to make the house inhabitable again.
I had left Oregon, only weeks before cleaning that house, madly in love with someone new after ending a thirteen year relationship. Madly, because we barely knew each other and I had to end it when, one evening in the middle of the house cleanup, he told me on the phone that I just wasn’t giving him enough excitement. That I should sound happier to be talking to him.
I had spent that next New Year’s Eve sequestered at home making origami paper boats with things written on the white side of the paper – things I needed to let go of – like the mother I wish I had. Like loves that are too hard. I spent that New Year’s morning driving to the ocean and pushing those paper boats, one by one, out into the tide so I could watch them all sail away.
I was a few years away from forty and thought I knew how to grieve and move on. How to do it wholly and with intention so I didn’t carry it into the future.
I thought I had healed. Like it was an endpoint on a straight line.
The Friday that I met x, I had been exhausted all day at work. I wanted to go home and put on pajamas and lay on the couch. But a new friend – a friend of longtime friends – was trying hard to get me to go to see a band play.
Please, she said, I have to go and it’ll be so much more fun with you. C’monnnnnnn.
She was sober and I said ok. I should be out meeting people, I thought. I need to stop grieving and hiding out. I figured I’d be there for a few bottles of water and maybe some fun music and then I’d be able to sleep in and rest later.
This friend of longtime friends ended up being a pathological liar herself and had love bombed me before I even knew what that term was – that first half of my life where I thought folks were just honest about most things unless proven otherwise. She was very persuasive.
The show was in an industrial area in Oakland and the club was a small annex off of a larger one. I was tired and stone cold sober and one of the first things I saw when I went in was the wife of a man who had told me he was divorcing and who I’d only stopped seeing when I realized that, while they were separated, she didn’t seem to be getting the same story of them being over that I was.
Everyone in the place seemed to know each other – I had forgotten how small the punk scene was in northern California – and I had the sinking feeling she would soon know who I was if she didn’t already.
The woman we needed to give a ride home to, the whole reason we were there in the first place, said there was a woman there threatening to kick her ass over some boy drama. I made jokes about having a hair tie on my wrist to pull my hair back if shit got real. Joked that was the reason I wasn’t drinking, instead of my fatigue and solidarity with the sober friend of longtime friends.
The night felt like a comical walk on the edge of a plate. We could fall off any minute but we probably wouldn’t fall far.
This will be a funny story to tell, I thought.
About halfway through the night, standing outside, one of the women I was with introduced me to x. He was standing outside to cool off during a break between bands. He had a shoe print on the back of his white shirt from being up front near the stage and a new band shirt slung over his shoulder. He looked at me as she said my name and he reached for my left hand. I thought he was going to shake my hand, which threw me off kilter, but he held my hand, flipped it over to look at the back of my hand instead and said, no ring, huh?
I laughed and said some version of hell, no and the conversation moved on between the four or five of us standing there.
Maybe I should have been offended. I think he made some joke about whether I was going to slap him for checking. But I was distracted with everything else going on and him being a little over the top was just another layer to a weird night.
Looking back, I can see the way the exaggerated slap me is a tool to diffuse our own natural defenses. Of course I wouldn’t slap him for that. Thinking about the ridiculousness of that keeps us from doing the smaller, simpler thing like walking away.
Inside, after a while, he sidled up next to me at the back wall just across from the stage and started in with lines. I honestly can’t even remember anything specifically except he told me he’d asked the friend of longtime friends, as soon as she walked in that night, who her hot friend was. Told her introduce me.
I do remember I rolled my eyes and pretended to shovel and throw the contents over my shoulder. I did that many times in the five or ten minutes he stood there talking.
I had spent a fair amount of time at small shows, in this scene and others, and wasn’t a stranger to the dance of will you go home with me. I usually disarmed it with sarcasm unless it got scarier.
He wasn’t scary. He wasn’t pushy. He just laughed at me laughing at him and would circle back, never staying so long that I had to tell him to shove off. And he was friends with lots of people I know, it turns out, so I just found him slightly entertaining but overall kind of silly.
When we left that night, not any of the potentially threatening things having happened, us three women were going to head to a bar near home and have a drink before calling it a night. x said he was going to meet us there but didn’t show. I was relieved. I didn’t feel like being on guard any longer that night.
While we were sitting in the back patio of the bar near home, both women told me it was obvious he liked me and he was a good guy. I should give him a chance.
By the time I got home that night he had sent me a facebook friend request and a message asking me out in a very non-direct way. I answered that I wasn’t interested in dating but we could meet up sometime maybe. By Saturday night he was saying he was going to crash a girls night I was having at my house and I very clearly told him no fucking way was that happening.
But he already had me laughing – my Achilles heel – and so during the next week we had started texting constantly. He had his son all week – which was why he’d been trying to see me that Saturday night, he said – and so we couldn’t meet up for a while anyway.
Him being able to just be cute and funny in text, looking back, was key to the quick grab. It felt so low pressure to me. Nothing at stake. I told my closest friends that I was having a lot of fun just bantering but I couldn’t even remember what he looked like and had no idea if I’d even have any desire to kiss him. If there’d even be chemistry.
By the time we met up a week later for a beer down the street, looking back, I can clearly see that I wanted to like someone. I had dated the Oregon guy and thrown myself into it, partly, because the married guy was actually married and I had loved him in a deeply troubling way. After those two, the only two people I had remotely been interested in since ending my long term relationship, I felt like maybe I wouldn’t ever like anyone again. I was so exhausted with the game of it all.
But I also wanted a distraction. Short term or not. I thought I was healed enough to be ok either way. Liking someone, even a little, would mean I was over the other stuff.
The next few months were a whirlwind of constant attention and constant affirmation and kindness. Thoughtfulness. Generosity.
The constant attention and focus has the illusion of more time having passed than has – it’s an exceptionally effective tool to make you believe you know someone much better than you do.
He said all the right things.
When I said I didn’t want to rush into anything, he said ok. When I said I wasn’t going to sleep with him if he was out trolling for women and if he was, then no judgment, but happy trolling, he said I’m not trolling – I’ll wait for you.
He was, of course, trolling.
Four years later, I would see the text and message history of more than one woman he was telling to come lay with him at his house during these first couple of months.
Hedging his bets like all good abusers do.
But I trusted. I was still that person.
Projecting my own ideas and behaviors on anyone I thought was a good person.
I would never do that to someone so why would anyone else?
I’d had numerous women vouch for his integrity.
But that’s what all good abusers do, too. They keep a harem of platonic women in addition to their targets. To vouch for them. So they’ll tell other women he’s a good guy.
Their strategy is so deep and so practiced, especially by the age that x I were when we met.
The irony is not lost on me that it was a pathological liar that introduced me to the pathological liar that nearly did me in.
I saw it way faster with her, though. Closeness blurs everything. It’s like putting the paper right up near your eyes and trying to read. You’re just guessing and supposing and trusting.
For so many reasons, I was a perfect mark – not the least of which was that I really thought I wasn’t.
About a year into our relationship, x got a tiny shovel tattooed on his wrist.
It had become lore by then that all I did the night we met was pantomime shoveling his bullshit away. I thought that tattoo was funny and cute. I thought he did, too.
By the end of the relationship, I started to understand that it didn’t mean the same thing to both of us.
It was a badge for him. An inside joke for just him on what I thought I was doing versus what he was actually doing.
It was a trophy, like a cult leader branding his disciples, only he marked himself so he could always look at proof of how good he was at making a mark of me.
I missed red flags – or, more truthfully, just didn’t think they were alarming in and of themselves.
Like how fast he moved. The love bombing. The answers he had for everything.
But he also said all the right things and respected boundaries and made changes if something was hurtful or upsetting to me. Or seemed to make changes.
It was a long grift
I joined a cult of one thinking I was making a life. Making a family. Making love.
That night ten years ago started something rolling that has, literally, brought me to my knees sobbing so many times.
That one man has made me doubt, at least three times in the last ten years, whether I can make it through to another life. Whether life will always feel like a slow, impossible trudge.
When I found the lies – that long, long six months of a slow-drip realization of the magnitude of the lies.
When I ended it and saw, for the first time, the tar black eyes of him enjoying my pain. When I understood that chasing that joy meant he would hurt our child just to hurt me.
That long, long year and a half where my child would scream and writhe and hide and plead to not be in the middle of his madness as the courts emboldened him to force us both to comply.
People ask things like Why did you stay? How didn’t you know? If it’s that bad why aren’t the courts doing anything? Often they mean it kindly and harmlessly. Too many times, they don’t.
What most people don’t know to even ask about is the core-deep damage that trusting someone who only wants to hurt you does to all of your cells.
There are lots of women who don’t make it to where I am today.
They die. The abuser kills them or they slowly die on their own battling the pain of this kind of betrayal and harm.
They stay and slowly become more and more transparent until they don’t even feel they hold weight anymore.
They walk away from their children because they can hardly hold themselves up once they start to have to bear the weight of what an abuser does after you leave. They leave to save themselves so maybe one day they can come back to save their children.
Some have their children ripped from them by the courts. Because a grifter grifts everyone and courts aren’t so good at seeing the good dad grift even when it’s right there in front of them.
Some leave and end up with another grifter because attention feels really really good when you are so broken down. You start to think that you will never be whole again and how choosy can a broken person be?
When my daughter was born, I was afraid I wouldn’t be a good mother. I was afraid I would always doubt myself and feel like I wasn’t doing enough.
What happened, though, is that it felt like the lightness of my being that had lately made me feel unsure and untethered, became suddenly weighted. Right at the moment that x’s abuse was gearing up and causing me so much fear and confusion, her birth anchored me.
I could only describe it at the time like the core of my being moved from being scattered between my head and my feet and instead gathered into my belly, making me more steady, more sure, more rooted to the world and to myself
I was in awe of the difference. I was immediately grateful for it.
I know it’s part of what made me able to see x for who he is and able to hold myself up to protect us from him.
I’ve wondered if I had not decided to try for a child if I would have just stayed in his back and forth for decades, getting more and more dizzy and lightheaded and spun around.
There was a new heft to me and it had nothing to do with baby weight. It was elemental.
Another huge shift happened so slowly during the first few years post-separation.
In the middle of the worst of it, I kept thinking of forging.
I was in something that could easily go either way. I could come out stronger. Or I could break.
So many nights, for years that felt like decades, I felt like red hot metal trapped between an anvil and a hammer. Trapped in the heat and undoubtedly changing but unsure what was next or how I would be if the world ever cooled again.
Forging is a delicate process. You can come out unbreakable. Or you can shatter with the smallest touch.
Lots of people will lean on some kind of faith in all kinds of hard times.
My faith had to be my own judgment.
What x had spent nearly a decade trying to dismantle.
My own knowing.
There was no other knowing to lean on. I was an island.
Where some may have prayed to a god or recited bible passages, I prayed to whatever is out there (or in us) that I could continue to trust myself. That I could know that I was strong. That I was capable. That I could protect us.
Faith. Knowing. Trusting. Me.
The biggest loss, personally, when you’ve been grifted – whether by catfish, cult or abuser – is that you can no longer trust yourself.
That loss will break you if you can’t find a way back from it.
At this ten year mark, I know that I trust myself.
So much that I have reformed my connection to pretty much everyone in my life from the before times. So much so that I don’t question myself once it’s reached knowing – I think through, I decide and then I let that deciding settle into a knowing place.
I don’t justify. If it feels right, I explain. If not, I keep my knowing safe from people who want to undo it.
This feels solid.
Like the weight is not just in my torso anymore, but coursing through my veins and arteries. From my heart to my toes to my heart to my scalp. Not dispersed, just expanded.
I feel solid in a way I wish my younger self had been.
There is so much pain in losing a decade to someone like x. Maybe even more so that last decade before you enter the third act of life.
Those were some of my best years, physically, I used to lament. Hell, sometimes I still do.
But these? These are my knowing years. My trusting years.
And I am grateful to have gotten here no matter how late.
So thankful to have gotten here in time for my daughter to know a mother who knows. Who trusts in the right way now.
There is a flip-side of embarrassment that can threaten to go to shame when I think of the me who thought she had it together. Who bought the snake oil.
Admitting that you were gullible is hard. Harder when you thought you were too old for that nonsense. It feels like showing my soft underbelly when I have no idea who has a weapon.
The picture at the top of this post was taken less than a week after I had a miscarriage. A month before we started trying again and so about six weeks before the first miraculous multiplications were happening inside of me that brought me V.
I drank too much that night because my body was a wreck and too much was less than I expected and we got kicked out of the immersive Speakeasy show earlier than I expected when I’d ordered that last drink because, of course, that event would end like that with a fake police raid. With me running in heels, throwing hefty poker chips into my tiny clutch in the tenderloin in San Francisco as we tried to find our car in all of the confusion.
I made that face as we posed for the photo before even going into the event because it was funny and then, years later, it wasn’t funny at all.
I was trying so hard to look, to myself, like everything was alright.
I haven’t looked at this picture in a few years. What I see now is some truth pushing it’s way into focus. My knowing self wants to be smug and say see? you knew.
But my knowing self knows that I had no fucking clue.
That knowing doesn’t matter for squat anyway.
What matters now is that I didn’t let that life of lies and deception and confusion and body aches and (literal) heart aches dissolve me.
I wish I’d found this trust another way. One of any of number of other ways.
That, too, means squat, though.
What matters now is to continue living and not let this pain freeze me into place.
Ten years is a long time. But maybe a short time to have come out the other side more sturdy than before.
I can’t regret that night ten years ago. Because, well: V.
There’s always V to hold me to the necessity of how time has moved. But I’m also not thankful for what x has done to us and I never really can be.
It happened. I know that.
And I can trust myself to not need to learn that again.
Like Lions by Blind Pilot:
This song has helped me throughout so much of the grieving I’ve done in the last seven years. It came out right when I was discovering the facade my life had been and I have revisited it many, many times in the years since.