Ego is a funny thing. It can buoy you in times of need but it can also raise you to dangerous heights from which to fall. Deadly, even.
I’ve had an interesting life or at least I think I have. I’ve learned over the past weeks to question most all of my self-perception and the colors of my memories. I had thought myself a self-made – and therefore heavily scarred – survivor. A man who started life as a violent borderline sociopath, emotionless and cruel, manipulative and opportunistic. A man who then found love, turned his efforts to good and heroically carried himself and his bride to redemption. Over the past month, I have found that I was, in fact, little more than a terrified, sensitive and brilliant child who became what he did to avoid the physical and psychological abuse that surrounded him and that preyed on such displays of weakness. Who saved no one but was, in fact, saved by the woman he married. And who, in fact, then victimized that woman, making her into a sacrificial lamb for his insecurities and fears. My insecurities and fears. My self-hatred and self-loathing. My own Dorian Grey portrait.
And I was oblivious to myself as both victim and beast.
Over recent years, I found myself changing, mellowing, being a little – a very little – more self-aware. Then, in writing for this site, I found that I was unexpectedly freer, that I could touch real emotion, let it flow from my fingers onto the keyboard and, with each outpouring, let more spill out. And it didn’t end with the posts but rather liberated me everywhere in my life. I felt like Pinocchio, finding flesh instead of wood. I could feel. I could see. And I could share. My family became not just an obligation and a duty but something to bask in, something to appreciate and enjoy. I began to allow myself to feel “a part” rather than “apart”. And it felt wonderful. I directed my wife to the site and loved getting her feedback… until the post in which I declared that I had saved her. And her own dam broke. It was enough.
We fought and I foolishly thought it was over the piece. I soon found out how wrong I was. When she saw that I wasn’t shutting her down or storming away, she took a chance and pushed. Thank God, she pushed. And so much came tumbling down. I was revealed to myself for what I’d been. An abuser, of spirit if not flesh. I hadn’t saved her, I had condemned her to two decades of mental torture, public humiliation, passive-aggressive crushing of her desire to do anything, to express a differing opinion, to feel good about herself. To leave.
I am grateful that she didn’t but oh, God, how I wish she had for her own sake.
All the self-hate, all the cruelty, all the destructive capability I had learned from both my family and my environment hadn’t gone away, hadn’t been left behind. It had been turned first inward and then onto her, “just punishment” for the crime of loving me, of accepting me for who and what I was. And I didn’t even register it or its effects.
Immediately after we married and moved, the disrespect started. I began spending all hours of the day and night with another woman, ignoring my wife’s growing discomfort, even when I knew that this woman wanted me. I complained to my wife that she was “letting herself go” when she was a gorgeous young woman, weighing barely more than a hundred pounds. I criticized her clothing, her makeup, her cooking, her existence. I was worse than my father had ever been – he at least tempered his pedantic, martinet behavior with manipulative passivity, unlike my perfectionist ferocity. I flirted shamelessly wherever we went, thinking of myself as simply “being charming” and not seeing the embarrassment in my wife’s eyes. And, after over a decade of this abuse and humiliation, I simply talked myself out of love with her, convincing myself that she was an unsalvageable burden, unresponsive to my years of support and unfairly holding me back. Then I used this “knowledge” to justify allowing feelings of friendship with another woman to develop into something more. The worst betrayal of all – not of body but of heart. I am ashamed to admit that it is likely only that friend’s rejection of the notion that kept me from crossing that line. Yet I told my wife I loved her, daily, despite it all.
It seems like such a tiny list. Small words, composing a small paragraph, describing a small man. But it’s just the tip of the iceberg and offers no insight into the well of suffering beneath it. The self-doubt it inspired. The isolation it inflicted. The honest and happy soul it ground into the dirt.
Since June, I have learned many truths. Hideous truths. How she would lie awake, wondering if I was coming home. How she wondered how many women I had been with since we were married. How she worried I’d give her some disease or that my hatred would translate to physical violence some day, violence she had seen wielded against others with horrific viciousness. How she resigned herself to being childless, unloved, abandoned. How my memory of shared grieving over our miscarried pregnancies conflicted with the reality of the single night we wept together and nothing further by way of support. How I once complained that she had “ruined a fun hike with her sulking” when, in fact, she’d gotten word that her aunt had died as she was walking out the door to the trail. How most every good memory was tainted with some corruption at its end. And the lies, spanning a lifetime. I have always been very good at them. Even to myself. They have protected my sanity, profited me well, kept me out of prison… and crippled my humanity, something I’ve been able to cling to only with her sacrifices.
When I wrote a first draft of this, I equivocated, splitting hairs on what I truly did and did not do. But I’m revising that because I am not plea-bargaining degrees of guilt. I have been a cheater, an abuser and a liar. The fact that I was blind to it – sometimes willingly, often not – doesn’t make me any less a monster in my own eyes. This is who stares back at me from the mirror – the man that I have offered to kill when described to me by female friends. I am “that guy”. I have been for my entire adult life, sans the past few months, apparently.
Of the awful things I have done in my life, these are the actions for which I find self-forgiveness to be… elusive. Impaled on my new found sense of empathy, I find myself weeping uncontrollably, grieving not over the pain I feel but for the suffering I have caused. I drift through my working hours, lacking focus, skipping meals. I’ve lost almost a dozen pounds in the past month. I live in constant fear of a new discovery, another transgression to acknowledge and own. It is bitter medicine but I choke it down, thinking that I’ve only had to live with it for weeks, not decades. It’s tough to wrap my brain around at times. Tougher still to hold my children and feel their love, worrying what foul lessons I may have already inadvertently taught them. Toughest to face my wife’s involuntary flinching sneer when I profess my love now. Nearly unbearable to see forgiveness in her eyes and hear her whisper, “We’ll get through this.”
I am working with a therapist now – the first time since I was a young teen – and my wife is in counseling with me, trying with me to reconcile what I am with what I was. Trying to rebuild trust. To finally have a real marriage with a real person. I cannot say what the exact outcome will be but I do know it will be real… and loving… and human. Because we both deserve at least that much.