Not all poison was bitter. Some of the deadliest poisons in the world tasted sweet; they were that much more dangerous because of it.

-Nenia Campbell

I once loved a man who was charming. An exceedingly large man, both in size, and in presence. He loomed, but he loomed with a smile.

He laughed like boulders rolling downhill, and he gave hugs that were tight and firm, enveloping. I became his friend in a smoky garage, surrounded by latex and leather and lace, by contented sighs and communal laughter. I watched him play, watched him swing his floggers and canes, paddles and whips, watched the skin turning pink or blue beneath his meaty hands.

I belonged to someone else, at the time. I was (with permission) always on the prowl, though, for tops who played in a way that could get me where I needed to go. He seemed to fit the bill, so I asked the inevitable question about the dance card, and offered myself for a spot. Negotiations followed, and the scenes we had together, then, were fun and satisfying. I felt the type of connection that, for me, must exist for play to occur.

When I found myself single, he was the one person I could count on. He became that friend who helps you remember your backbone, and your worth, in the midst of all the heightened emotions and grief that accompany the end of a long term relationship. I wasn’t looking too deeply; I was too busy being grateful that I wasn’t facing all the upheaval alone. We talked into the wee hours of the morning, and as he found himself in a breakup, cried on one another’s shoulders.

I suppose from the outside looking in, it must have been easy to see it coming, easy to see the oncoming relationship. From inside it, though, everything came as a shock – at least, it did to me. I never found my footing, before he was there. My head never stopped spinning. I never recognized he was carefully funneling my grief and loss and fear into something else. I didn’t expect to fall for him, until it had already happened.

I wasn’t entirely thoughtless. When I was trying to figure out how to survive, how to stay in my home, I didn’t consider him moving in. When he offered to do just that, he said, We’re headed in that direction, anyway. Why not save us both the trouble of having to find new roommates? It seemed sensible… and dizzying. There was a part of my mind that never once stopped shouting TOO SOON! THIS IS TOO SOON! until it had much worse things to shout about. But when you’re talking about survival, and it’s suddenly blended with romance, when the options are few and the obstacles many… sometimes choices aren’t, much. And sometimes, you’re just so goddamned tired, you’re simply glad to be able to stop for a moment, and rest. I can’t really tell you which one it was. Perhaps it was a little of both, but after some convincing, I agreed. We talked about how friends would probably think we were crazy, would likely question the decision, and he suggested how those questions should be handled. I already saw the possible holes, and though our reasons were probably very different, neither of us wanted other people pointing them out.

And he was so good to me, then. Kind, generous, patient, and understanding. He cared for me when I was recovering from seizures, which wasn’t something I’d experienced in a while. He played video games with my kids, sometimes, so that I could have a break, or a shower, or time to straighten up the house. He held my hand on the scariest day of my life, and let me squeeze his until my knuckles were white and there were imprints of my fear in his flesh. He was there while I was becoming reacquainted with myself, with the me that I was, outside of the relationship that had defined and encompassed my adulthood.

We were only together for about ten months, but they were the longest months of my life. During that time, the kind and caring person with whom I fell in love didn’t entirely disappear. Not until the very end. That’s what made it so hard. Hard to see the red flags, or the deal-breakers, for what they were. Hard to understand what was happening. Hard to recognize the game he was playing, with my life as the board, and me as a game piece.

The first time he got really angry with me, I don’t even remember what I’d done. I think it must have been something about the house. He frightened me in his flares of white-hot rage, and his icy cold silences. I tried to make it better. This became the pattern. He reacted to some small thing, and I tried to fix whatever I’d messed up. He raged, or yelled, loomed, or filled the rooms with chills and tension, and I worked harder to repair whatever thing he’d decided was wrong. Eventually, though, in an hour or a day or so, goodness would come back. He’d be stroking my hair, telling me how very much he loved me, how he’d never been this understood, this loved, this whole.

Life became this frantic loop, in which I was always trying – and failing – to predict what might set him off, what might take away the man I loved, and replace him with the most frightening and dangerous man I’d ever known. One minute, he’d be playfully helping me get over my fear of canes, by delivering swats as I folded towels. Ten minutes later, the whole house would be shaking with the fall of his feet, the slamming of doors, the roar of his rage. If I dared to disagree with him, or to point out that the degree of his rage wasn’t proportionate to the thing that started it, things escalated. If I cried, he mocked me, or told me in a threatening sneer that I needed to stop fucking crying. If I didn’t respond at all, or tried to get away, he would block me, hold me in place, and yell in my face, closer and closer, until I reacted in a way that satisfied him, which could mean quite different things on different days.

Then, we’d be off to a party together, where he treated me like a queen, and told me how proud he was to have me there at his side.

I was forever chasing the man I thought he was, the man he showed me, from the beginning. Because I could, unpredictably but inevitably, see that man, in between the bad times.

Until the end, it was never all bad. Until I stopped letting him silence me, when I knew something was wrong, stopped letting him scare me into compliance and deference when he’d crossed an obvious line, the good was still there, in between. It was the sweetener in the poison, and I drank it as long as I could stand to. I didn’t feel that I had any other choice. By the time I began to wake up to what he was doing, to what he was and what I was becoming, I was dependent on him… and he knew it.

Nothing is as black and white as we want it to be, for our convenience. If he’d been 100% monster, all of the time, I’d never have been with him in the first place. If he’d been 100% monster all of the time, once we were living together, I would have walked away much sooner. Of course, if he’d been 100% monster all of the time, he might never have been welcomed into the spaces where we got to know one another. My friends would never have become his friends. I would never have trusted him even to play. Instead, he was charming. Kind. Supportive. He could never maintain the nice, once it began to slip, but he knew how to put on a show for anyone else.

See, monsters don’t look the way we think they do, mostly because we don’t usually want to accept that we all have the potential to be them, to differing degrees. I doubt many people, even while doing harm to others, see themselves as monsters, or bad people.

villain

The man who molests children also helps mend neighbor fences, and returns baby birds to their nests. The woman who terrorizes her children also raises money for worthwhile charities. The idea that all evil looks like evil from the outside is simply childish and untrue. Evil must, on some level, leave a good impression, by its very nature. Otherwise it would never be able to cause such great harm. We would all run from it, if the dangers were evident in the beginning. If there wasn’t so much seeming goodness on the surface. And there’s really only a handful of choices between being that, and being a decent human being. We’re defined by those, like it or not.

There are still bits of that relationship I remember fondly. Inside jokes, moments of happiness, moments of learning, and of teaching. There are skills I learned, and baggage I overcame, that have served me well, moving forward in life. Because that’s the way it works, with people. Spend enough time with someone, and you will have both the skills and the scars, the nostalgia and the nightmares.

And if that someone abuses you, uses that vulnerability as a weapon, makes sport of causing you harm? The good bits don’t disappear, anymore than the abuse is negated by the decency. From the outside, maybe there’s only one side showing, but we can’t forget that everyone is someone else, when they’re alone with those closest to them. That person is closer to reality than any temporary impression they could ever put on for public consumption. Pretending we don’t know that, that we don’t recognize that the person who lives with someone knows them better than we ever could, as outsiders, or that we could ever have a clearer picture of their private life than they do, is preposterous.

Just another reason why I choose to believe the victims of abuse. Because sometimes, poison tastes sweet in small doses, but that doesn’t make it less deadly.

 

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  1. […] on my kink blog, I posted about an abusive relationship. It’s mostly grounded in personal experience, but the point is so much larger than […]

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