A Birthday Party No One Else Was Invited To

Note: this piece includes discussion of an abusive relationship


Dear Casey: I was riding a bus home to Maine the other day after a protest against climate change and the person behind me had the same cell phone ring that I had when we were together. I got chills every time I heard those few ascending, twinkly, notes. That bus had a bathroom, the gross kind where waste is flushed away to some ambiguous location no one wants to think about and there’s no sink — just little, individually wrapped, disinfectant hand wipes that make your fingers feel cold and tingly. I went to that bus bathroom six times during that ride to avoid hearing that cell phone ring and feeling those chills it gave me.

I lied to Casey about my age. I still feel guilty about that. It was a stupid lie because I only made myself ten days older than I actually was. I lied because my birthday was the day before our first date and I didn’t want her to feel weird. Also I didn’t want to feel weird, but I sort of ruined that for myself by panicking, lying about my age and making myself ten days older than I actually was.

Dear Casey: There’s so much about our relationship that I thought was normal. You were my first so I trusted your version of reality. I didn’t know not to. How do you learn what’s normal? There are lots of things my parents never taught me, like how to talk about wine, and that I should eat yogurt when I’m on antibiotics, and how to stand up for myself.

Casey was one of the co-editors of our campus’s most self-indulgent comedy magazine. Author of the brilliant moniker “Queen LaQueefah,” no one could write a vaginally relevant pun like her. She secretly loved her depression. She reveled in the loneliness it afforded her, thick and rich as red velvet cake at a birthday party no one else was invited to. On the day her doctor changed her prescription from Zoloft to lithium Casey crawled from her confinement of covers to tell me, “I’m scared I might stop being sad.” But I was depressed too, and I got that.

She was a sarcastic junior writing a comic about great American “cliterature,” and I was a nerdy, silent freshman who hadn’t come far from middle school health class when I passed out on the day we put a condom on a banana.

Dear Casey: Your queef puns weren’t that funny.

Casey and I slept in her basement, our personal Plato’s cave of denial and darkness. I feel stupid and pretentious having written that.

Casey and I slept in her basement. She had an old pullout couch that came off of a street corner somewhere. Every night the springs would dig into my back. She referred to this charming setup as the sex dungeon. The characterization still makes me uncomfortable.

Casey and I slept in her basement. There was a tiny window towards the ceiling, so it wasn’t completely dark. I spent so much time in that basement that fall, I could practically watch the grass dying.

I don’t understand why people hurt each other. I don’t understand why I put up with things as long as I did. I don’t understand why I gave up so quickly.

Casey and I drew up a relationship contract “together” at her “suggestion.” Most of it seems harmless. For instance:

“Members of the relationship should realize that there is in fact a “too far” for puns. (That means you.) (Offenders will be treated to chocolate ice cream.)” And “If a member of the relationship says they’re literally dead, they are probably lying. The literally dead do not talk.”

But then comes this:

“Members of the relationship must not be creepy as shit. Or they can be. Whatever works. Amendment: Turning the volume up to really loud while ‘skype sleeping’ to listen to someone breathe is not creepy as shit.”

This was our first attempt at a conversation around boundaries, but was indicative of how the conversation would go in general.

“Please don’t be weird, Casey.”
“No don’t worry, it’s not weird!”
“Ok.”

The first time someone described Casey as having “stalkerish” tendencies, I defended her. For the most part though, I didn’t talk about it. I figured the way she was always so interested in where I was and what I was doing could conceivably be described as affectionate. I didn’t talk about how one night, two months into dating, while I was marinating in the same four pop songs and smell of warm carbs that permeated the bagel shop where I worked, she stayed in my vision for hours. I asked her to please leave, told her I didn’t want to hang out, pleaded that now was not a good time. At three am when my shift ended, I told her I was going to sleep. “But I waited for you!” she raged. I didn’t talk about things like that. I sensed that something was wrong, and I didn’t want people to tell me so. If I acknowledged something was wrong, I would have to do something about it. Eventually though, it didn’t matter, because eventually I didn’t have anyone left to talk to.

Casey’s off-campus house was full of misfit-y artist types. I talked about starting a band with Max. Natalie was going to be a famous Shakespearean actress. I think Sam had a crush on me. I liked the community and I liked the attention. Maybe that’s why I stayed. On the day after Halloween we all went to CVS and ran through the bright black and orange colored aisles selecting bags and bags of discounted candy. “I LOVE capitalism!” I joked. “Supply and demand, baby!” We swore our bounty would last for months, but I don’t think anyone was surprised when the cauldron we used to house the collection of sugar and artificial food dye was more or less empty by the end of the week. I still sort of smile when I think about that night, what it felt like the first time I felt like a part of a community. Casey’s off-campus house full of misfit-y artist types found our relationship impossibly cute. I wanted to be a misfit-y artist type and I did not want to let the others down.

We did Secret Santa too. Somewhere, I still have a small wind-up lavender hedgehog.

I keep hearing these buzzwords, “move on,” “work through,” “let go,” but I’m not sure what that means other than that maybe someday I won’t feel the need to think about this all the time. Some days are like that. It depends on the season.

When I told my friend that I had an appointment at the Boston Area Rape Crisis Center he said, “Oh cool! You volunteer there?” My therapist there said sometimes it helps to have something physical to play with during the session, but my hands smelled like play dough for the rest of the day and I couldn’t get the green out from under my fingernails. I felt marked as a member of a group I wasn’t even sure I was a part of.

I told my therapist that I was in a relationship with someone who was suicidal and though I didn’t feel safe around her, I was scared that if I tried to break up with her she would kill herself. My therapist said that she too had been in a relationship with someone who was suicidal. “What did you do?” I asked, excited and desperate for answers. “Oh, I married him,” she chirped.

I stopped going to therapy.

One night, through tears that wormed their way between the buttons of my flip phone, I told Casey that if I succumbed to her insistence and came over, it would be because I didn’t know how to say no anymore. I told her I would hate her for it. I asked her if she wanted that. She told me to meet her behind my dorm so she could pick me up and bring me to her house. I don’t know why I went, but I do know that when I did, it was myself that I hated.

I want something to blame. I want to blame the patriarchy, but Casey is female. I want to blame Casey, but I still can’t really blame her either. She was broken. We both were. It’s so easy to be broken in this broken world, lacking as it is in gentleness, with so few to teach us a healthy vision of normal. I can’t blame Casey, so who is there left to blame? Don’t answer that.

Dear Casey: I know I couldn’t help you.

Dear Casey: Why couldn’t I help you?

Early in our relationship, I wrote Casey a love song to play on my twangy, broken e string, yard sale guitar. Amongst other things, the song rhymed “gay men” with “food that’s Indian.” It was actually a falling in like song, but I can see how that could get confusing. I wanted to love Casey, but mostly I just loved rhyming.

Dear Casey: Have you always been good at being in control? When one night, after I finally, reluctantly, had sex with you, and you said, “Maybe I should get mad at you more often,” was that a joke, or an awakening? Were you joking when you asked to marry me after we’d known each other for two months? Were you joking when you asked if I’d play “For the Widows in Paradise” by Sufjan Steven at your funeral? I can’t really bring myself to hate that song. The banjo is so beautiful.

My therapist told me that people in abusive relationships sometimes have a hard time trusting their grasp on reality, which I guess explains why thinking about that time in my life is like trying to remember a dream after I’ve woken up. I lie between worlds, grasping at shards of memories, hoping to force things into making sense. Did I give consent, or not? How often? Did she really cut me off from all other relationships? Did I really agree that yeah, that seemed healthy? What the hell happened? I read my journals from those months like a detective, scouring a crime scene for evidence. My adolescent insights grow increasingly ambivalent, until they crescendo to a telling silence.

Dear Casey: I’m sorry.
Dear Casey: I’m not sorry.
Dear Casey: fuck you.

Lithium is a chemical element of atomic number 3, a soft silvery metal. It is the lightest of the alkali metals. There’s something poetic about the hesitancy trapped in its syllables. Lithium, um, um. Lithium carbonate is a salt and is sometimes used as a mood stabilizing drug, but it doesn’t work if you don’t take it. Casey loved her depression. Maybe that’s why she didn’t take it. After all, she had her jokes. After all, she had me.

Dear Casey: I still believe you deserve love. Of course I believe you deserve love. But you contained an emptiness that left you always wanting more than I could ever give. Who can give that much? No for real, I’m asking. Where will you find love now? How could I give it, but who could give it if not me?

My mother told me that she thought she’d been assaulted by a neighbor when she was younger. She says she doesn’t really remember and she doesn’t really want to. It’s strange that abuse is both so normalized, and so surrounded in shame. When I think of Casey, I feel so alone, but I also feel disturbingly numb. It’s just a part of life; who am I to make a fuss? I make jokes instead.

My mother thinks her subconscious is protecting her. I guess we forget in defense, but I think it would be nice to remember. I want clarity. I want to feel like someday I could be in control again. Like I could break some cycle of pain that my mother, and I, and maybe all of humanity is trapped in. Maybe we could all get together and and invent a healthy normal. Maybe we could write out a list of rules for how to be and how to love. Maybe they could rhyme.

Casey and I broke up every night for a week, maybe two. She’d cry, then I’d cry, then it’d be a big cry fest and I’d sleep over. Waltham was one of those Not Safe neighborhoods and the walk home was long. Staying for one more night just made sense. I kept thinking I could parrot back something I’d read on the internet or corral my pain into penetrating poetry she could no longer deny and Casey would finally see me. I’d be absolved of my insanity, and she’d hold me and whisper “I’m sorry,” only this time she’d finally, finally mean it.

Casey and I broke up every night for a week, maybe two. I have no idea why I believed her when night after night she told me, “This is the last time.”

Dear Casey: It was a revelation when my roommate told me I didn’t have to pick up the phone when you called. When you kept calling.

The day I stopped answering Casey’s calls I messaged one of her misfit-y artist roommates on Facebook, “I’m worried about Casey, have you talked with her?” He told me she was fine. About a week later Casey texted me from the hospital, or maybe after she was released. “You’re a real prick,” she said. “You can’t abandon people like that. You should have known better. This is what happens.” My phone received texts in 100 character increments. The ringtone sounded for several minutes on end while her accusatory rampage was delivered fragment by fragment. After that text, I started going to therapy again.

The relationship only lasted about six months. That’s is another thing I feel insecure about. If I really wanted to make a big deal about this, shouldn’t I have suffered longer?

We met up once after she was released from the hospital. “I’m doing better.” She told me. “I’ve been working with my group, and I know I treated you poorly.” I probably minimized this admission. “But it’s not like you were perfect either,” she added. Of course I hadn’t been. I was 18. The next fall we both signed up for Economics 101. She waited after class one day and held the door for me, “I think it would really help me get back in the swing of things if we spent time together again.” She offered. “Uh, maybe…” I replied, and promptly dropped Economics 101. Who needs Economics anyway.

I told my new therapist that I felt broken. He wrote the word broken on a tissue and underlined the letters ok. “It’s ‘ok’ to feel ‘broken,’” he told me, leaning in with kind, empty eyes.

Sometimes I think I’d like to be the one vapidly nodding behind a clipboard. I’ve never taken a psychology class, but I did study English, so I’m still basically an expert on the human condition, just a different dead white man’s version than whichever dead white man people read in Psych 101. I want to offer support in a tangible way. Even my bad therapists have given me a space to talk. I could be someone’s useless, frustrating, inadequate, once a week, lifesaver. But maybe I’m still just looking for ways to answer my own questions.

I don’t know why people hurt each other. We all need compassion, we all need love. Shouldn’t it be easy to share those things?

Casey is married now, so that’s a trip. Like any good millennial I have spent many a late night stalking her on social media. It is a relief that when I google her I am no longer checking for obituaries. Now, I search her newly hyphenated name, click through smiling engagement photos and wonder, does she control her new partner like she did to me? Does her new partner ever give up on saying no and fake an orgasm to get the whole thing over with as quickly as possible? Is she on the right medication now? Does she take it? Is she happy? Do we get to move on?

I’m trying to change the stories I tell myself. I’m trying to treat myself with the same compassion I treat those whose stories I hear in speak outs or read on the internet. I would never victim blame those people. I would never rationalize the behavior of their abusers. I would tell those people that their experiences are their own and whatever they feel is valid, they should never let anyone question their experiences. I would hug them and hold them until they knew that though they have always had the strength to hold themselves on their own, they don’t have to. But first, I would ask for consent.

When were together, Casey would hoard me in her basement like the protagonist of some sort of teen vampire movie. She’d get mad if I asked to hang out with friends, or do my homework, or sleep in my own bed that wasn’t a pullout couch. After we broke up and I suddenly had a life, hours of time that were gloriously my own, I decided I wanted to do things that mattered. I became an activist fighting against climate change. I wanted to help people, but when it came to Casey, there was nothing I could do. When it came to one person, one relationship, there was always going to be nothing I could do and it’s hard to accept that. When it comes to Casey, I have to learn to accept that.

Casey and I slept in the basement. In the months following our relationship I continued to spend time in basements — church basements where I and the inklings of a new community, Students for a Just and Stable Future, would gather to eat lentils and scheme for the revolution. We were a strange tangle of unshaven legs, patched up jean jackets and asymmetrical haircuts. One day we did an exercise where we had to finish the sentence “If you really knew me you’d know…” as honestly as we could. “If you really knew me,” I began, “You’d know that it’s hard for me to get close to people. You’d know that I’ve forgotten how to trust, that I’m scared of taking up too much space. If you really knew me you’d know that I see the pain in the world and I’m not sure anything I do about it will ever be enough to feel ok.”

Months passed. People joined and left the group. We held trainings and potlucks where we talked about white privilege and ukulele chords. We planned an action where I watched my friends dance in the streets in appreciation of the sunshine. We planned an action where I watched my friends get handcuffed and bussed off to jail. Casey texted to apologize, texted to try to meet up, texted to get my attention, eventually stopped texting. Months passed.

One spring day, I found myself in a different city, in a different church basement, surrounded by people who’d gone from friendly strangers to allies from allies to co-conspirators, and co conspirators to family. Clumped in groups of three on the floor, we did the same questioning exercise.

If you really knew me you would know that I still don’t know how to prioritize myself, that I’m prone to burning out from neglecting my own needs in favor of some Greater Good, that I still get scared that nothing I do will ever be enough, but I am part of a community who teaches me every day that I am not alone. I can be empowered as an individual and look outside of myself for strength. I’m finding my place as part of a long tradition of fighters. We do not fight because we’re afraid, but because we see the pain and daily fall in love with world anyway. If you really knew me, you’d know that I’m proud of my community, I’m proud of myself. If you really knew me you’d know that I’m learning how to be ok.

Dear Abbie: Be gentle with yourself.
Dear Abbie: Trust yourself.
Dear Abbie: Keep going.

Abbie Goldberg works in Boston as a community organizer for disability justice. She enjoys Friday night shabbat services, writing leftist musicals, and crying in public places.

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