Photo by ebenette.

A cross that was never mine to bear

We sat in the car in a Starbucks parking lot for hours that night. Our relationship was over. I was sure of it. But at that time he wasn’t.

I was only passing through our hometown for a brief trip. I’d started a life in a new city a few months before. With so much distance between us, our dynamic just didn’t work. I was consumed by school, deadlines and the prospects of my future. On my busiest days I’d go hours without responding to his texts, only to be met with anger, accusations and assumptions of what I’d been doing with my time when I finally had a moment to return to my phone.

Our relationship had always been complicated. It’d been years of touch and go. Years of toxicity and emotional abuse.

We met when I was only a 19-year-old, and a naïve, immature, hopelessly romantic one at that. He was 26, and the first older man I had ever become involved with. With a foolish impression of romance, I thought the age difference meant an adult relationship could bloom and become something real.

The first time I kissed him I felt that intimate rush of emotion from the pit of my gut to the hollows of my chest. This had to be it.

At the time he was seeing someone else, but he constantly opened up to me about how unhappy he was with his current relationship. He was a broken person. He lived through a tough home life, abandoned by family and was struggling with an uncertain future. He was ambitious though, and wouldn’t allow his past to become an excuse for failure in life. That only made me ache to love him more. I wanted to fix him.

I became the kind of woman I always loathed. The other woman, a secret, deceitful, and at the end of the day, worthless. And although I knew that this was exactly what a mature, adult relationship should not be, I couldn’t stop myself.

“You came along and showed me everything I was missing,” he told me once.

But that didn’t seem to be enough to draw him closer to me. He filled my head with these words, these ideas, these fantasies that maybe if I held on long enough we would ultimately be together. That thirst kept me stretching toward the mirage of our potential romance.

Eventually he and his girlfriend broke up. Now was my opportunity, I thought. I stuck through the good and the bad, he’d notice and appreciate that. But it still wasn’t enough.

Of course it wasn’t me, it was him, he said. He wasn’t ready to let anyone else in. Not even me, the woman who persistently listened to his stories of heartbreak, pain, and sometimes, when I was lucky, his dreams.

I was devastated, but that irrationality love can cause made me stick around. For three years he would occasionally drop into my life when it was convenient for him. He would love me physically, and he would leave. And I allowed it. This time he’ll stay, I always told myself. But he never would.

During his absent times I would try my luck at seeing and dating other men, but he often wouldn’t approve. He may not have wanted me for himself, but he would detest anyone else’s attempt to give me attention. He looked down upon causal dating and had a formidable way of making me feel unworthy and promiscuous, something I still have to convince myself is false to this day.

The constant ups and downs were detrimental to my mental wellbeing. I devalued myself. I often questioned why I wasn’t good enough, and why I was always put second. What was I doing wrong? Why was I so unworthy to receive the unconditional love that I gave? I fought to fill the void by focusing my energy on other ideals like school and work. If I could be successful in those areas, maybe I would feel full.

I began to push myself out of my comfort zone. I worked long nights throughout college, studying for exceptional grades, and balanced two or three jobs simultaneously, all for self growth and to distract myself from the anguish.

Each personal triumph seemed to work at first. But I always found myself spiraling back to him. He had that power over me, no matter how much I thought I was growing stronger as a person. I feared him, because I feared losing him.

Eventually the anxiety and the need to escape turned into something more, and at 22-years-old I stumbled upon an opportunity to attend graduate school in New York City. I was leaving him for good, and it seemed like something clicked. This time he feared losing me. The thought of abandonment made him want to commit. It may have to be long distance, but I believed the happily ever-after I deserved was finally becoming a reality.

But the nightmare only continued. The weight grew to be too heavy, and the stress of juggling everything made me physically sick. I found myself having to choose between my work and my relationship in one too many scenarios, which felt a lot like making a choice between myself and someone else. The manipulation and emotional abuse persisted. After all of those years I spent in pain, feeling as if I meant less, I’d actually learned I meant so much more. I ended up choosing myself, and I folded to my career.

But the toxicity only escalated and led to that night I’d never forget.

I sat in silence in the passenger seat back in the Starbucks lot. I listened to him talk through the pain he was feeling, pain that I’d caused. A couple months had passed since I decided to officially end it. I’d started to move on and causally date. I hadn’t told him yet. But when he asked me directly, I couldn’t lie.

I watched him breakdown, tears fell from his eyes and it was almost as if he needed a second to catch his breath. Here we were again. I wasn’t allowed to move on. What was I thinking? He would never casually date. The fact that I could made me a slut. This wasn’t the first time he’d instilled that idea in my mind.

After a pause he turned to me. “I need you to unload the gun in the bag in the back,” he said sternly, holding his hand over his eyes as he spoke.

My stomach dropped. I reached in the back of the car. I’d never touched a handgun in my life, and I’d never expected to need to. Fidgeting through the bag I found the gun and struggled to unload it. I had no idea what I was doing.

He grew impatient, and angrily reached toward the backseat. He tried to grab the gun from me. We struggled. I screamed.

“STOP,” I gasped, finally unloading the magazine, relief escaping my body as I exhaled.

In that moment the world felt still. Either I was about to die or he was, or maybe both of us. I knew what his true intention was. I was the cause of his pain and he wanted that to be clear. It wasn’t the first time he made me believe this. It wasn’t the first time I’d excused it and tried to remain sympathetic to actions that were downright manipulation. But this moment, this night, was the only time it’d ever escalated to an occurrence where the outcome could’ve ended drastically different in only a matter of seconds.

I think about this night all the time. It tinged the perception of my relationships for the years that followed. It took me a long time to no longer feel fear, to no longer feel blame, to no longer feel at fault for someone’s actions that drew from something much deeper within them.

I’ve slowly regained emotional strength over the past couple of years with the help of patient and encouraging friends, and constant reminders to myself that a partner’s hardships or mindsets are not weights upon my shoulders, or reflections of my worth. At the very least, I’m finally brave enough to share this story.

Our society holds an unfortunate expectation that women should bear the emotional burden of the men in their lives, and they are often placed at fault for their partner’s pain. I would never advocate for abandoning someone during a time of need. But when the need turns into manipulation, and you find yourself being used as a crutch, as a prop, as a punching bag, that’s when it’s time to leave. It’s not your fault, your responsibility, or your cross to bear, just as it was never mine.

New York City based journalist. CUNY J-School and USC Upstate alum.