Survivor Stories, Guest Post. Final Girl, Part 2

Thank you for reading part two of Final Girl’s three part series. If you missed the first one, you can find it here. *At the bottom of this post, I have linked to an article if you’re interested in reading further about the psychological effects of lying.

On Invisible Bruises:
Part II: The Lies

There are the names he called me.  And then there are the lies he told.
The two of us—we’re street artists.  We have our waking lives, and then we have our painter lives: nights when we load our cars with spray paint, caps, stencils cut from cardboard, posters rolled into tubes; nights when we creep to the lonely shed or the abandoned bar or the alley of broken bricks; nights when we wait until the coast is clear and we create in darkness the pieces nobody wants in day.
We have our identities, then we have our painter identities.  We have separate names for the art we make.  Personas.  Mine is the survivor: Final Girl.  I paint female detectives with flashlights, women praying, women crawling over glass.  His persona is the predator.  He paints girls in trouble: half-naked, bound and gagged.
The first mask he showed to me was charming.  Loving things came from his smiling mouth.  I was his dream girl; I was perfect.  He wore his sunglasses inside so he could stare at me at restaurants.  He wrote a note swearing to be my faithful partner until he died. 
We had an immediate connection made more intense, more urgent, by our secret: We did graffiti. A street artist couple.  We painted together; helped each other; shared tips, books, knives.  He held the stencil while I sprayed the paint.  He cut the text while I cut the figure.  We worked side by side, sometimes all night.  Our secret gave our relationship a hope of forever. It felt like fate.  It was such a great story.
How did it change? 
He took a phone call in front of me from a girl.  The girl was a teenage prostitute, a heroin addict in prison.  He told me he was just helping her.
He lied. 
He looked me in the eyes and lied.  He listened to my worry and lied. He lied by omission.  He lied with vagueness.  He lied with distortion.  He lashed out and lied.  
Because it wasn’t enough to lie, he had to make me doubt my judgment, perceptions, and memory; what I had seen and heard; what I knewin my bones to be true (he had paid the prostitute for sexual favors; was still paying her every month; and getting love letters from her; and taking her jailhouse phone calls, sometimes nine in one night; and calling her baby, sweetheart, promising love).  To protect himself he preyed on me.
The discrediting began, the little cracks that started to crack me.  He vilified me.  He called me judgmental, paranoid. He said it was all in my head.  He said I must be imagining things.  He made me apologize.  He made me feel shame for the shameful thing he had done.
I knew what he was doing, though I didn’t want to believe it.  I had seen it before.
On television.
In the 1944 film Gaslight, Ingrid Bergman plays an heiress emotionally tortured by her new husband.  In order to get her fortune for himself, her husband decides to have her committed to a mental institution.  There’s just one problem: She’s not insane. 
No matter.  He will make her believe she is.  He steals things and plants them in her purse, to convince her she’s a kleptomaniac.  He walks around in the attic at night, then says he doesn’t hear any footsteps.  And he turns the gaslights down, then swears to her they’re not flickering.
He tells her it’s all in her head.  He tells her she must be imagining things. He tells her she’s sick.
Psychologists use the term gaslighting to describe the emotional abuse where victims are manipulated into questioning reality.  It’s a way to control.  It’s way to dominate.
And it’s bullshit.

In the film, it takes another man, a police inspector, witnessing the wavering lights to convince the woman it’s not in her head. In my life, it took a home video: seeing the man I trusted, the man I thought I knew, the man who was supposed to be my faithful partner, fondling a teen prostitute.  I doubted my head and heart—but I had to trust my own eyes.
The lights are indeed flickering.  He did buy a young girl.  He did lie.  And lie. 
And I’m not okay.
A year of gaslighting, lies and insults and attempts to discredit my experience, to deny me reality—and I am not okay.  Not yet. It’s difficult to know what is real.  Sometimes I feel like the world is cracking.  I flinch if someone says: Trust me.
I have to focus on what I know to be true. 
I know how to shake the paint.  I know how to guide the knife.  I know how to make a shadow.  I know how to hold a stencil straight.  I know how to clear a cap.  I know how to hide my face.  I know the best times to do art.  I know the alleys where no one goes.  I know one-ply is best.  I know posters stick to metal.  I know when to switch the blades.  I know the formula for paste.  I know to make bridges.  I know throw-ups, and tags, and bombing, and pieces. 
I know what I am: a graf girl, a graf girl for life, a graf girl always, a graf girl even without the man who wanted to tattoo his painter name on my hip with letters he had cut himself, a graf girl alone.  I know who I am.

And I have to believe her. 

Final Girl is an Appalachian street artist.  Her essays have been published in Hillbilly Speaks and Bending Genre, and her art appears in many secret spaces.  You can see more examples of her work at https://www.facebook.com/Finalgirlart 


*For further reading about the damage done by persistent lying, I recommend the article, Great Betrayals in the New York Times. 
An excerpt from the article:  “Our culture may embrace the redeemed sinner, but the person victimized — not so much. Lack of control over their destiny makes people queasy. Friends often unconsciously blame the victim, asking whether the betrayed person really “knew at some level” what was going on and had just been “in denial” about it. But the betrayed are usually as savvy as the rest of us.'”

Survivor Stories, Guest Post. Final Girl, Part 1.

I’m a fan of social justice activist, the Appalachian Graffiti Artist, Final Girl. Final Girl uses graffiti, a traditionally transgressive method of communication, as a way of exposing issues of gender-related violence. I was honored when she agreed to write a three part series on emotional abuse. Please stay tuned for follow-up posts on the effects of gaslighting/lying, as well as how to reclaim a sense of self after emotional abuse.


Invisible Bruises
Part I: The Words

I took a picture of the bruises. 
They were strangely lovely.  Gray thumbprint on the inside of my wrist where he had wrenched it; ivy creep of hemorrhaging up my leg where he had kicked it; and a broken bone in my hand from where I had tried to punch him, when I finally fought back. 
That was the only time he physically assaulted me—but there were other kinds of assaults.  I have many bruises from him—but you will never see them. 
There were the times he insulted my body (too skinny), my sex drive (too high), my family, my job, my clothes, my stuttering.  There were the names he called me: bitch, douchebag, asshole, freak.
He was angry in the mornings.  He was angry at night.  He was angry because he hadn’t eaten, or had had too much or not enough coffee or sugar, or he had too much work to do, or he was annoyed by his friends or his phone, or he was tired; he was really, really tired.  And he was angry, angry at me about all these things.  Biting, sarcastic, and derogatory toward me.
I’m not sure why he directed his anger at me.  Mostly, I think, I was there.  I was there and I didn’t fight back, at least not at first.  I was there, and I think by my very presence I was a target.
And I can’t tell you why I stayed with him, because sometimes?  I still want to go back.
I know I felt needed.  I felt special; this man who hated everyone loved me.  At least, he said he loved me.  And I believed what he said.  I felt I was too sensitive, because he told me I was.  He told me I had no sense of humor.  He told me he was just kidding at the end of yet another tirade when he shoved me into a chair.  Just a joke, a joke, can’t you take a joke?
And I told myself, sure.  I told myself, hang in there.  I told myself, it’s fine, it’s fine, it’s fine.
But it wasn’t fine.
The worst part about emotional abuse is that, like the punch that will change the shape of my hand, morphing it, deforming it; the bone will never mend straight—I will never be the same.  My sense of self is altered after being with him. 
Because I believed him. 
After months of being yelled at, I begin to feel there was something wrong with me, many things.  I was too skinny.  I was judgmental.  I did want too much sex.  The sex I wanted was wrong.  I was wrong.
Emotional abuse is confusing.  It’s slippery, shifting.  It’s difficult to pin down exactly what it is.  Toward the end, I called him names too (especially asshole) and I did strike him back—or tried to. But the systematic, daily onslaught of insults, ridicule, and degradation he subjected me to is equivalent to brainwashing.
He wore me down.  He wore me down. 
After awhile, I couldn’t leave him, because who would want a freak like me?  A skinny, ugly, stupid bitch like me?
He diminished me.  He made me hide my light, and I hid my pain too.  Maybe I was quieter.  Maybe you saw less of me at parties.  Maybe you noticed my eyelids were swollen.  That was all that was visible on the outside.  On the inside, I was starting to rot, to collapse under the weight of his words. 
The splint is off my finger now, though my leg is still gray and I wince if anyone brushes it.  You will never see my other bruises, not with your eyes.  These bruises are slower to fade, the ones on the inside.  I see these invisible bruises. I feel them, and I feel, more and more each day, how wrong he was to inflict them upon me.
I’m a painter.  And while it is hard for me to make art from the experience of emotional abuse at the hands of this man, as it is hard for me to make sense of it, I took a picture of my bruises. 
I did it for myself, to swear to myself: No love, no companion is worth this.  No man (or woman) is worth me feeling worthless.  No one EVER has the right to diminish me.
I took the pictures to remind myself: Never again.  And as a promise to myself: There is love without pain.  I will find it, I tell myself; I will get stronger and stronger every day.  And then I go out to make beauty in this one.

Final Girl is an Appalachian street artist.  Her essays have been published in Hillbilly Speaks and Bending Genre, and her art appears in many secret spaces.  You can see more examples of her work at https://www.facebook.com/Finalgirlartand http://finalgirlgraf.tumblr.com

On Unpacking

I am currently in the process of packing for a move. It is a good move. My son and I are moving from our little apartment surrounded by college students into a house in the country, a house with a deck, a hammock, and a yard for playing. This house is surrounded by woods, and nice neighbors, and my son can have a real childhood there. We can have his friends over. We can have birthday parties there. For the past year, I feel as though my son’s childhood has been on pause. We have lived like transients. He has gone from one home, to another, to another, to another, and then, yet another. We are nearing the part of the year where he is going to have an extended stay with his father. I am faking cheeriness about this. “Are you excited?” I ask, with a big smile. “It’s going to be so much fun!” Meanwhile, my eyes are tearing up. I am not excited. I am worried. My ex-husband is not abusive to our son, but he is also not a good father. I recently bought the book, When Dad Hurts Mom: Helping Your Children Heal the Wounds of Witnessing Abuse. I wish I didn’t have to buy this book, but this is the life we are living, my son and I. We are in this together.

As the date looms over us where he will go to his father’s, and I will go to Idaho, my son has become more tender. He asks me, “Can I cuddle up in your bed with you? Your bed is so comfy, and I like talking to you.” This was something we used to do with his father, all three of us cuddled up in bed. Now, it is just the two of us, along with our dog Teddy. My son lays next to me with his head on my shoulder. He tells me about his day. He has become obsessed with Mother’s Day. He wants to make me breakfast. He wants to get me a present. He wants to give me surprises every day this week. He wants the day to be special for me. I find this heartbreaking because I know, that underneath all of that want, is a desire for him to ease his mother’s pain. He is maturing faster than he should have to mature. I see this every day. When I ask him for help around the house, he wants to help me. He turns off his cartoon in order to rinse the dishes while I wash. He feeds the dog before asking for his own dinner. He has none of the entitlement or selfishness that I had as a child who had two loving parents at home. I want him to be more selfish. I want that for him. I don’t want him to think of me first.

In the process of packing for the move, I’ve also had to unpack. There are boxes that I had stuffed into my closet and never opened. I am opening them now. It is a bit like sifting through rubble, so painful. Last weekend, I was so triggered by what I found that my body felt heavy. I had to crawl into bed and rest. My son crawled in next to me, not understanding what was happening, but offering comfort nonetheless.

I found this letter from my husband that I’ve been unable to throw away. He wrote it after the first time I left him. We had only been married for a year. He wrote, I was living an immoral life. I loved booze and mistreated you because of that. I was a horrible man when you met me, and I’m paying for that now. I never told you this, but I do talk to God, and I know I’ve been wrong. I’m working on forgiveness now. Don’t rush forgiving me, Honey. I need to earn it, and I want it to be right. I want our life to be perfect together.

And then this: Remember when you used to come and stay with me in my shack in the woods? I’d watch for you for hours making sure you didn’t miss the turn off of Highway 21. I remember holding you while we slept on that couch and I never felt crowded. You always fit perfectly beside me.

And this: This was how I felt the night I had to move out and sleep without you. It’s also probably how you felt about that night as well; I left you crying. I didn’t know if I could fix what I’d done to our marriage. I was so miserable, and it was my fault. I don’t blame you for what happened between us. Please Honey, if you can forgive me, please try. I don’t ever want to live without you.

And so, I forgave him. How could I not? How could I not forgive someone who wrote me such lovely words?

It was the first in a series of chances. How might things have been different if I hadn’t given him that first chance?

Because then I found my journal where I described him choking me by the neck, where I detailed the cruel things he had said to me while I gasped for air. I described these things in my journal so that I wouldn’t forget them, so that, in my memory, I wouldn’t replace his cruelty with kindness.

I also found my son’s art projects. I found first grade and kindergarten drawings of his family. He drew pictures of all of us, including both dogs, in front of our house. He no longer draws pictures of his family. Only superheroes.

I found an old planner from last year at this time. I didn’t even remember having it, yet when I opened it, every line was filled out. I was confronted with the reality of my schedule from those months in the wake of my ex-husband’s arrest. I was working 60-70 hours a week, raising our son alone, trying to get a divorce, applying to PhD programs and jobs, finding a new place to live. I coped by making to-do lists. Long, unreal to-do lists that looked unmanageable. Yet, every single item on those to-do lists was crossed off. I managed somehow.

I found my son’s first grade journal that his teacher had him keep. In it, he wrote what he was going to do on the weekend. One entry said simply this:

“I am spending this weekend with my mom. My mom will make a to-do list.”

I want to make a new to-do list, and this to-do list will have only one task, Cuddle in bed with my son.