Everything terrible he did to me was supposed to be a joke. The first time I made a self-deprecating comment, he slapped me hard in the face. When I was being indecisive, he put his hands around my throat. During a phone conversation, he said that he would lock me in a box and throw me in the ocean if I ever cheated on him. I told him that his comment bothered me, and he said, “Don’t cheat on me then.”
Whenever I managed to gather my courage and confront him about the things he did, he told me he was just joking. He didn’t seem to understand that I didn’t like the way he was joking. It really wasn’t funny.
Several times during the course of our relationship, I ended up going home from his apartment and throwing up. The first time it happened was after he slapped me. I felt the nausea coming on and rushed out of his place so he wouldn’t see what I knew was about to happen. He was a smoker, so I blamed it on the cigarette smoke. And maybe it was. But the fear and anxiety that rose up in me when he slapped me, or put his hands on my neck, or made threats that weren’t enough like jokes, made my stomach turn even harder.
I found myself throwing up several more times, something that rarely happened to me, despite having a history of anxiety disorder and anxiety-related nausea. This was something new.
We were only together for six weeks. I couldn’t handle the nausea and the fear I felt around him anymore. He didn’t make me feel safe. When I broke up with him, he yelled at me. He told me he never should have trusted me or opened up to me. I kept saying I was sorry. I couldn’t make the real reason why I was leaving him come out.
You scare me.
– – –
I’d never been in any sort of abusive relationship before. I wasn’t sure this even counted as one. I felt shaken but was afraid of overreacting. After a few months, I took steps to move on. I went to a “Geeks and Nerds” singles mixer held by a Meetup group in Culver City. There, I met a very chatty, very eager guy who latched onto me for the entire night.
He decided we were meant for each other because we were both in our mid-20s, had Jewish backgrounds, loved music, and grew up on the east coast. At the end of the night, he kissed me and told me he wanted to see me again the next day. When I got home from the mixer, I spent the night curled up in my bed clutching my stomach, waves of nausea hitting me hard.
I didn’t see him again. For the next six months, at the end of every date I went on with someone I met online, I came home with a bad stomachache. It got to the point where just the thought of dating was enough to bring queasiness.
I began to see a new therapist who specialized in anxiety disorder and cognitive behavioral therapy. CBT was something that had helped me in the past. It focused on fixing distorted thought patterns and the behaviors caused by them. Anxiety had made me nauseated many times, but it had never made me throw up before. Obviously something was very wrong.
My therapist assured me that, although it would take time to recover from the trauma I’d experienced, I would eventually be able to be with someone again. She taught me meditation and breathing techniques. She trained me to think of the situation in new ways. Still, the stomachaches came. I felt like I’d resolved things in my mind, but my body wouldn’t let me date.
“Will I ever get better?” I asked her, over and over again.
“Yes,” she told me. “When you find someone you feel safe with, this will go away. But you have to work on it too. You have to retrain your mind and body not to associate men with danger.”
But I couldn’t make it stop.
– – –
Almost a year after the breakup, I went on a first date with a man named PJ. We had been in touch online for almost two years but hadn’t met in person yet. We talked now and then, each time never quite connecting, never taking it to that next step of actually meeting.
But there was something about PJ. I liked his round glasses and funny beard, the fact that he was an artist and creative, and the things he said in his profile about how he tried to always be there for people. I had a feeling that he might be someone I could trust, someone who could really care about me. I still had my worries about the anxiety and nausea, but I didn’t think he would make me feel nervous or pressured. He seemed safe.
PJ and I met up at a café halfway between his place in Redondo Beach and mine in Pasadena. We chatted for a few hours about art, writing, and Doctor Who while sipping boba teas. He was intelligent but not arrogant, laid back but energetic, interested but respectful of my boundaries. We spent the week before our second date talking online and on Skype. I shared some of my short stories and essays, and in return, he showed me his art and sent me a poem. His poem, “a wake,” was about wanting someone to see him. He wanted someone to see who he really was and then tell him not to wake up.
It was his dream, and it was my dream too. That was when I knew that we might be onto something.
– – –
On our third date, PJ and I still hadn’t kissed, and I’d yet to feel any nausea. We went to see a movie, and after holding hands in the theater, I felt the familiar flipping and churning inside of my stomach. Before, I had assured myself that it might still be a friend thing, but I couldn’t anymore.
We really liked each other. It might be something real.
I could barely eat when we got dinner. The nausea grew stronger and stronger as we wandered around a bookstore afterwards. I secretly said mantras to myself and snuck deep breaths to calm my mind and my stomach. I went into the bathroom and put peppermint oil on my wrists. That was supposed to help.
PJ could tell something was wrong. I asked if we could leave, and he drove me home. PJ was such a nice guy, and I really liked him, but my stomach still wouldn’t hear of it. It still didn’t think I was safe.
PJ pulled up in front of my house. We sat in silence for a minute. I knew that if I got out of the car then, we’d never see each other again. I’d remember the nausea I felt and it would scare me too much. I looked at PJ, and he smiled at me. Despite my stomach, I didn’t want to leave.
Tears pushed at my eyes. I put my head on his shoulder, my face against his arm, and said, “I like you.”
“I like you too,” he said, his hand gently touching my hair.
“There’s something I should tell you. I wish I didn’t have to, and I wish this wasn’t happening, but it is.”
PJ listened as I shared my story, not only about the boy who slapped me, but about my lifelong struggle with anxiety disorder as well. I found myself crying, and I apologized, but he told me not to.
“I’m really glad that you’re sharing this with me,” he said. “I want to know you.”
As I talked, the twisting in my stomach eased. PJ shared his own story with me, his story about how no one had ever truly wanted him or loved him. He said no one was patient enough to look past his long beard, Marilyn Manson t-shirts, and strange art to see who he really was. But I could see it. I could see his kindness, his hopefulness, and his caring nature.
After talking for a couple of hours in the front seat of his car, PJ kissed me. It felt so wonderful, so right. My stomach did flips, but in a good way, the best of ways. We both just needed someone to see us for more than our pasts and what we showed on the surface.
We needed each other.
Alana Saltz is a writer and editor living in Los Angeles. Her essays have appeared on Role/Reboot, Writing Forward, HelloGiggles, The Urban Dater, and more. She has an MFA in Writing from Antioch University and specializes in memoir and young adult fiction. You can visit her website at alanasaltz.com and follow her on Twitter @alanasaltz.
Featured image courtesy of Tiffany Lucero.