How I Learned to Value Myself Despite Being in a Toxic Relationship
On a February night in my senior year of high school, one of my classmates hosted a get-together at his house.
Not long after arriving, I found myself in conversation with a girl named Sara.
She came from a posh suburb in London and had just moved to my town the year before. I knew of her because the first guy she dated at my school was in one of my classes. His name was Rob and he smoked cigarettes, wore a leather jacket, and idolized Jim Morrison.
A text from Helen who was a classmate of mine popped up. Sara glanced at my screen and then back at me.
“You can do better,” she said, clearly believing Helen and I were romantically involved.
“Oh yeah? How’s that?” I asked, before leaning in.
After a couple of hours of rotating between laughing, kissing, and talking, Sara said she had to head home. As I joined my friends with a smile on my face, I realized I hadn’t asked her for her number and sprinted after her.
She was still on the lawn when I handed her my phone to enter her information.
“Text me sometime,” she said.
I kissed her again and returned to the party.
The First Crack
Anticipation hung in the air the following couple of weeks, and despite the grey, wintry skies and snow-covered landscapes, the world seemed rich and full of life.
Sara and I began texting more regularly and finally set up a date.
When I got to her house to pick her up, she asked me to meet her parents, so I greeted the Mister and Missus before heading out. I can’t recall where we went that night, but I reckon it was a success because I saw Sara more frequently after that, and as our time together increased, so did our affection for one another.
In typical teenager fashion, we were holding hands and staring into each other’s eyes only a month later, and even saying “I love you” shortly after that.
I thought the natural next step was a relationship, so I asked her to be my girlfriend while we were parked in her driveway one evening.
“I can’t,” she replied.
My mouth got dry.
I asked what the difference was between what we were already doing and being official.
She pointed out that in less than five months, we’d leave for college. My school was in Miami and hers was in Connecticut, so we’d have to do long-distance to make it work. She wanted a fresh start and wasn’t willing to start college with a boyfriend, she said.
I didn’t want to lose her, so I agreed to keep seeing her even though it wouldn’t lead to anything serious.
What initially came with Sara’s refusal to be in a relationship was secrecy and confusion.
To prevent the entire school from thinking we were official, she said we couldn’t show affection in public. This wasn’t a problem because we rarely saw each other at school, except for one time when I bumped into her in the hallway in early March. To my surprise, she kissed me and scurried away.
I spent the rest of that day floating from class to class like one of the ghosts in Harry Potter. Because Sara had broken her rule of public affection, I reasoned that she must’ve changed her mind about us not being together.
That night, I asked her what that kiss meant for us, and her answer was brief.
“I don’t know, but I shouldn’t have done it.”
Patience Pays Off
Every spring, there is a carnival a few towns away. I asked Sara if she wanted to go with me and to my delight, she agreed. Another public event, I thought!
We did all the typical activities like eating sweets, hopping on rides, and walking around aimlessly, but the night was over before I realized it, and as we were on our way to the parking lot, I offered her a ride back to her house.
No thanks, she was going to meet up with her friends, she said.
On the drive home, I felt pleased with my decision to continue seeing her.
Why had I even been so worked up in her driveway a few weeks back?
The next day I saw her in person, and she had never looked prettier.
Becoming a couple was inevitable and the distance wouldn’t even be an issue. I would visit her in Connecticut once per semester and she could come down to see me whenever she wanted to escape the cold. We would figure it out.
I remember she was less bubbly than usual, so I asked her what was wrong.
She opened her mouth, hesitated, and began again.
“I loved spending last night with you,” she said, “but it felt like we were in a relationship.”
“Yeah, wasn’t it great?” I thought.
After the carnival, she admitted she met up with Jake, one of her ex-boyfriends.
“We had sex.”
I couldn’t understand what I was hearing. Usually, something going well was a positive thing, and I had never seen a team lose a game for playing too well.
Through my loud sobs and gasps, it’s unlikely that I eloquently (or even coherently) expressed why it’d hurt me that she had sex with someone else. I tried to explain that people who say I love you to each other don’t do that, but as the words left my mouth, I felt dizzier than I had on the carnival rides.
How could I continue seeing her knowing that I was opening myself up to this amount of pain? It wasn’t fair. Why would she tell me she loved me and then have sex with someone else?
Despite every warning in my head, I kept seeing her.
I tried to keep busy at my restaurant job by rushing over to tables and removing dirty dishes and glasses, but my imagination worked furiously in the background, forcing me to dark places at every idle moment.
Sara was going to junior prom that night with another guy. Nathan, a junior with a steroidy physique had asked her to be his date and she said yes.
When I questioned her about it, she reminded me that we weren’t in a relationship, putting the argument to rest.
I knew she was right and that I had let it go, but when the day finally approached, I couldn’t keep my mind off it. The seconds crawled by, and I imagined where she was each time I checked the clock.
6:15 pm: They’re probably taking photos right now at someone’s parent’s house.
7:00 pm: They should be arriving at the school.
8:06 pm: They’re dancing and he’s holding her. Maybe they’ve already kissed.
8:42 pm: They’re looking into each other’s eyes.
9:30 pm: The music is winding down and party buses are queuing up.
10:12 pm: They’re on their way to an afterparty.
11:05 pm: Anything could be happening.
11:12 pm: Don’t think about it.
11:22 pm: C’mon seriously, stop.
11:31 pm: I’m sure nothing’s happening. It’s all in your head.
11:45 pm: Maybe she’s already leaving to go home. Yeah, she’s probably tired.
11:46 pm: But then why hasn’t she texted me yet?
I got off work just after midnight, still smelling like the kitchen, so I rolled the window down and let the spring air fill my lungs as I drove through my sleepy town.
Sometime after I got home, Sara reached out saying we could maybe meet up but didn’t provide an exact time. I texted, then called, but she didn’t answer.
So, I stayed up, and around 3 am, she asked me to pick her up from the parking lot of a nearby private school.
We sat in the car talking and her breath stunk of liquor.
I homed in on the question crumpled under my tongue.
“Did you do anything with Nathan?”
“Yes, we had sex,” she said.
My car’s interior spun and a dramatization of the two of them played before my eyes.
I did the only thing I could to make the pain stop, I closed my eyes and kissed her.
Less than a month later, Sara and I went to our senior prom together.
We decided to take my 1990 Chrysler Lebaron instead of a limo that night, and my best friend, Gus, and I drummed along to 6 Feet from the Edge by Creed, which blared from my speakers as we arrived at the swanky restaurant.
When we got back to my house to pick up alcohol for the afterparty, Sara and I started bickering about something.
I placed a garbage bag full of cold beer behind my car and walked around to the driver’s side door to pop the trunk, but as I reached for the handle, our disagreement escalated. So, I sat down for a moment to face her, and as my temper flared, I forgot what I had been doing and threw the car into reverse.
It took a moment for us all to process what had happened, and when it hit us we shared in a moment of defeated silence.
That was the only alcohol we could get our hands on as high schoolers, and as the garbage bag oozed white foam in front of my headlights, Sara and I started squabbling again.
The Class Party
Sara and I got into another nasty argument on the night of our class graduation party, so we headed to Jessica’s house separately.
I was still fuming when she arrived, so I ignored her completely, hoping she’d come over to me, but she didn’t. We occupied the same space for a while, pretending the other was invisible, before migrating to different areas entirely.
However, once I’d had a few drinks, my anger dissipated, and I wanted to make up with her. I found her speaking to Lucas, who happened to be best friends with Jake, Sara’s ex. Jake wasn’t there that night because he was a year older than us and not invited.
As I got into earshot of them, Lucas confessed to Sara that he wished he’d “chosen” her over his girlfriend because he had always “loved” her.
I stepped closer and gave Sara a look as if to say, “Well, that’s awkward, right? Why don’t we get out of here and talk?”
But Sara was still in fight mode.
She glanced in my direction and turned back to let him continue showering her with affection.
Lucas’s lack of interest in my presence was not as subtle. He screamed at me to “get the fuck away” which I did after a moment’s pause.
My search for Sara resumed sometime after that and I visited the spots I had seen her earlier in the night. She wasn’t in the garage near the beer pong table, nor was she outside where she had been earlier with Lukas. I called her phone, but there was bad cell reception, and I couldn’t get through.
After canvassing the house, I wandered to the front yard, which was nestled next to a small, wooded area. There were no lights or music, and the air was crisp and clear. My problems seemed far away.
I noticed my friend Jon standing on his own near the porch and asked him if he’d seen Sara. He suggested I look in the garage.
Just as I was about to do another round of the party, I heard metal clanging in the distance.
Panic washed over Jon’s face, and I followed his eyes as they darted over my shoulder and into the woods behind me.
I made out two shapes emerging from behind a tree.
There was a guy with long hair pulling his pants up and fastening his belt and a girl wearing a romper skipping ahead of him.
It was Rob and Sara.
Because it was dark, neither noticed me as I collapsed onto the lawn. For nearly half an hour, I wept hysterically as Jon comforted me.
When I’d finally wiped the last tears from my eyes, I found Sara (this time with ease) and told her I’d seen “everything.” She brushed me off with annoyance, saying she didn’t know what I was talking about, but her demeanor suddenly changed when I told her I’d seen what she did with Rob.
Her eyes went wide, as I announced it was over between us.
I stormed out of the party and marched down the driveway, while she chased after me, pleading for me to talk to her.
She said her friend Matt would drive me and we could talk in the backseat on the way.
The least she could do was give me a ride home. It would take me more than an hour to walk back to my place, and Matt chimed in that he was happy to give me a lift.
I acquiesced and climbed into the station wagon. Sara scooted next to me and stroked my hair. During that seven-minute car ride, I screamed at her repeatedly for breaking my heart.
On one hand, it felt nice to see she was sad to lose me, but on the other, I had accepted these terms in the first place. But that’s not to say she wasn’t at fault.
She wanted to have a boyfriend who loved her unconditionally while still enjoying the benefits of being single. On more than one occasion, she told me the thought of me doing things with other people hurt her too much to think about. But when I said the same, she would reply that we weren’t in a relationship.
Although she had done things with other people since we started talking in February, this night was different. I had never witnessed her have sex with someone else, which led me to foolishly believe there was a certain honor code between us where we would never do things with other people while in the same place.
In hindsight, it was the reason I tried spending so much time with her during senior year. I was afraid she might have sex with other people if I wasn’t there, so I dragged myself to parties even when I wanted to stay home.
As the station wagon pulled up to my house, I tore off my seatbelt and bolted to my front door. Sara ran after me, and we stood there shouting at each other while Matt waited in the car. After a few minutes, she told me she’d come back in the morning.
The Big Low
I’d spent hours sobbing into my pillow and wishing the roof of the house would collapse on me to end my suffering. I forced myself to sleep to avoid thoughts from the night before.
I heard the gravel crunch under the taxi’s tires, and Sara was already walking up my driveway by the time I looked out the window. I made my way to the living room without looking in the mirror.
“Can I come in?” she asked when I answered the door.
She followed me to my room, and we sat on my unkempt bed.
She told me that what she’d done with Rob didn’t mean anything and that she was just drunk.
Tears dripped down my face again in silence as we sat for a couple of moments without talking.
Sara was the only person who could hurt me this deeply but also the only person who could bring me back to baseline happiness. Her love was a poisonous antidote and I wanted to escape to a world where everything was alright between us.
I knew that I had to make a decision.
In our typical post-fight routine, we had sex, and the moment it ended, I told her to go home.
I went back to crying loudly.
Freshman and Sophomore Year of College
I wish I could say I began the healing process just as I was entering my freshman year of college, but a few days after the graduation party, we saw each other again and things returned to normal.
Well, except that my attitude toward her had changed.
Up to graduation, I remained faithful to Sara, hoping that we’d become a couple. But her actions with Rob opened my eyes, and I discarded this as an unrealistic outcome.
So, I started meeting girls at parties, on the beach, anywhere really, to take my mind off things. This was also when my weed habit, which had been practically non-existent, picked up. I started smoking weed every day to numb the pain, and while it didn’t offer me any lasting satisfaction, it was a welcome distraction.
By the time autumn fell upon us, my life was in shambles–I hated that Sara was so far away and despised my new college even though I had only just arrived.
Sara and I spoke on the phone multiple times per week and each conversation followed a similar format. It would start with talking about how our day was going, saying we missed each other, and then I would ask her what she had done the night before.
Even though it made me queasy, I would always probe for more details, and Sara would overshare because if there was ever something she was generous with, it was details.
I came to dread Thursdays because I knew she had three solid nights of going out in a row ahead of her and it seemed like every time she went out, she had sex with someone else.
I can still remember the names of guys she hooked up with at parties even though I never met them. And in the fall of sophomore year, we stopped talking because she had a boyfriend who was on the football team.
One night during her winter break, she cheated on him with me, and I remember her offhand remark that he was tall and didn’t “know his strength sometimes.”
I also saw other girls during that time, but it took a while to get comfortable with it.
When Sara and I were on speaking terms, we were “in love” and I’d stop texting girls, but then things would end between us, as they always did, and we’d cut off contact for days or weeks at a time. But eventually, one of us would reach out to rekindle things.
Whether we liked it or not, our lives were deeply intertwined and despite the toxic nature of our relationship, her dad had become somewhat like a father figure to me. I sensed that he viewed me as his adopted son since he only had daughters.
Given our strong rapport, it’s safe to say that Sara hadn’t mentioned the bad stuff to her dad. Sometimes, he’d asked me to work at his tech installation company with him, and we even saw Interstellar together.
Sara’s parents said I was welcome to come over anytime to watch Arsenal matches, which I did sometimes even when Sara and I weren’t really on good terms.
Sara’s nickname on my phone was “Poison.” I changed it sometime in 2014 because I wanted to remind myself how I felt when I was with her.
The name comes from American football.
When you’re on offense, you can kick the ball through the goalposts to score three points or kick it downfield to give possession to the other team.
When you’re the receiving team who’s catching the kick, the ball is “live” the minute it touches anyone on your team. If the kicking team touches the ball first, it’s “dead” meaning it stays wherever it was touched, and that’s where the other team’s offense would start its drive.
However, if the receiving team drops the ball while trying to field it, the kicking team can recover it because it’s live.
To avoid risky situations, it’s common for receiving teams to shout “poison!” or something similar to notify players who are near the ball that they should stay away from the area. Better to do that than to force a turnover.
As time went on, I wanted to stay away from Poison more and more.
During Sara’s first three years at college, I visited her a handful of times.
We saw concerts on her campus, attended parties, and went out to dinner, but I always felt like the “home guy” who belonged to a different world.
The beginning of Sara’s fourth year was different, I suspect because she’d had many flings by then, and as cheesy as it sounds, I think she finally realized what she’d had all along. She wanted to be my girlfriend.
After all these years, the pain, fear, and misery weren’t in vain, and all I’d had to do was wait to get the outcome I’d prayed for.
When I was finally given the choice, “I can’t” was all that came out of my mouth.
I wasn’t trying to hurt her, it’s just that I had grown more self-assured and no longer relied on her to feel good. I had transferred colleges twice and was in the process of doing it again, which meant I’d be starting over at my fourth school. Forcing myself outside of my comfort zone so often had given me newfound confidence and the tides had turned. Now the power imbalance swung in my favor instead of hers.
In 2015, I got into the University of Michigan as a transfer junior, although I should’ve been graduating.
I was casually dating someone at the time, and the week before I was going to leave, Sara texted me. We hadn’t spoken to each other in nearly five months, but we met at a beach, which was neutral territory, and she hopped into my car when I got there.
For reasons I don’t understand, I seduced her and felt repulsed the entire time. After it was over, I promised myself never to do it again, and we stopped talking.
I landed a job at Google in New York City a couple of months earlier and was settling in quite smoothly.
“Happy Thursday” read the text lingering on my screen. There wasn’t a name attached to it, but I recognized the number, and it sent chills down my spine.
It was Sara.
I impulsively agreed to grab a drink with her but got cold feet as the afternoon wore on and shot her a text saying that it wasn’t a good idea.
“C’mon, we can meet at the bar directly next to your office,” she said.
I remember confiding in a coworker, unsure of what I should do, but eventually made my way to The Daily.
Sara was standing out front wearing a smile. I quickly noticed she’d slimmed down a bit, but I found her appearance ghoulsome.
Yes, I just made that word up, and it means creepy like if you found an old, dusty doll on your bed as you were getting ready to turn in for the night.
We went inside and our conversation picked up as we danced around the elephant in the room. She asked how life was and I told her about my job.
“See? I always knew you could do it!” she said.
I think she was already drinking before I saw her because she playfully slapped my face a couple of times. The third time she slapped me because I forgot which fashion brand she said she was working for.
There was still a light mood between us, and she took most of what I said as banter.
Guiding the conversation back to “us,” she told me she had a boyfriend, but wanted me to know she was still in love with me.
She told me she would break up with him and be my girlfriend.
“Don’t you still love me?” she asked.
“No, I don’t.”
“How’s Lillian?” she changed the subject quickly.
Lillian was my girlfriend during my senior year of college. We had already broken up a month earlier when I moved to New York, but I didn’t want Sara to think there was any chance that something would happen.
“Do you love her?” she asked.
“Well, then why don’t you fucking marry her!”
Tears welled up in her eyes, and she downed the rest of her drink. Then she grabbed mine and started chugging it before I wrestled it back from her and returned it to my coaster.
She slapped me in the face, this time harder than before and the bartender came over to ask if everything was ok.
He was looking at her when he asked, and she nodded that it was.
I gave a speech that I hadn’t realized I’d been preparing since I was seventeen.
I told her that the four years we spent together were some of the most painful years of my life and that I’d been forced to choose between the relationship and my self-respect for so long that I’d forgotten who I was.
But now there was no way I was going to throw away my life for someone who never respected me.
I paid for my drink and left the bar.