Disclaimer: I am not a survivor. I am not a therapist. I am not even sure that we are in a healthy relationship. But I am entirely sure that we love each other and that we are working on being better for one another. I am simply sharing my experience in the hopes that it proves useful for others who may find themselves in similar circumstances.
I’m going to abbreviate my partner’s name as D to help preserve his anonymity.
D and I met on OK Cupid last March. Both of us recently out of relationships and neither of us looking for anything serious. We got coffee. Conversation flowed easily and we ended up talking for hours.
We discovered that we had grown-up very close to one another in NJ, each of our fathers had worked for the same company at the same time, and we would have attended neighboring high schools, close enough to be in the same sports circuit. Except that he didn’t actually attend his districted high school. In casual conversation about what kind of music we liked, and how many siblings we each had, he mentioned that he had been sent to boarding school in upstate New York. He said that there had been an article in the New York Times about the school, which had evidently been shut down sometime after he attended. D didn’t offer much more information than that and although my curiosity was piqued, I didn’t push for additional details.
I don’t think I even made it out of the parking-lot from that first date before I had searched online and skimmed the article he had mentioned about the school. Dry tuna fish on repeat. Rocks in buckets. Kids in carpets. If you’re reading this, if you’re on this site, you are already aware. But I had been blissfully ignorant. Even with a masters degree in teaching with a focus in alternative education and a background in child psychology, I had never heard of this kind of program. I think there is a special kind of shock you experience when you simultaneously come to the understanding that not only does the troubled teen industry exist, but someone you know was forced to endure abuse within the industry. I tried to think about the man who had just spent our entire date walking on the outside of the sidewalk and opening doors for me because “his grandma always taught him to be chivalrous” being locked into a closet against his will or having to carry around a bucket of rocks. It felt surreal. I stopped trying to imagine it and texted him that I had a nice time getting coffee. I did not mention having read the article.
Our second date was at a bar and it was then I realized he didn’t have his own car and that he was presently unemployed. But he was tall and had blue eyes and a dangerous amount of charisma and so I chose to overlook what others would tell me were “obvious red flags” and wrote these things off as side effects of his recent relocation from out of state. As we sat at the bar together chatting, an older couple passed by us on their way out and said something along the lines of “have fun you lovebirds.” I was completely obsessed with him from the jump and it was obvious to the people around us. He was effortlessly “cool” in a way that I had never been. He really didn’t seem to care what anyone thought of him, while I had spent most of my life trying to minimize the parts of myself that people might judge.
We spent those first months “being in the present moment”- which meant running around Philly at 2 am looking at murals under the dim glow of the streetlights, eating spicy wings in Manhattan, and making outrageous spontaneous purchases at Goodwill to make each other laugh. There was a lot of physicality but I wasn’t sure of his emotional connection to me. I spent a lot of time wondering if he actually liked me, or if my willingness to adventure was a convenient way for him to make the days go easy. Affirmation from his friends, “Wow he really likes you” would always catch me off-guard. Does he though?
As time passed I started opening up to him more about my own life. Partially because it felt important to let him know certain things about my past as we became closer in our relationship and partially because his reactions felt very validating to me. He always responded with a level of understanding and empathy. I told him about the troubles I had with my own parents when I was a teen. On occasion he would reciprocate with program memories that always dwarfed my own experiences at home while simultaneously breaking my heart into a thousand pieces. “I was once forced to dig my own grave.” “When I wouldn’t eat what was served to me I went without food for days.” When he shared with me I would be permitted to ask one or two follow-up questions and then the door shut and the wall went back up. It was not an open topic for discussion and now, a year later- it still is not. We talk about the school only on his terms. There has never been a full unveiling to me of what happened during the three years he was there. To be honest I don’t know how much of his time there is lost to dissociation and how much is simply to painful for him to tell me. I’m working on being at peace with that. He doesn’t owe the story of his trauma to anyone. Whether or not he chooses to share with me is not reflective of his love for me or trust in me.
In hindsight, finding out from a national newspaper about his experience at “the school” was the first of many times I would learn a piece of my partner’s story from a secondary source. I started listening to podcast interviews with survivors, watched the Paris Hilton documentary, and began holding onto little bits of information from his friends who would talk more openly about their experiences in the school. On very rare occasions I will brave the topic with him directly “Do you think maybe the reason you escalate so quickly when I say I’m annoyed or frustrated with something you did, is maybe a hold-over from all the call-outs at the school?” “Maybe. I don’t want to talk about it.” Because I don’t know many other survivors I do a lot of wondering- is this a survivor “thing” or is this just him? For example he frequently virtue signals to me. He might tell me that his boss at work thanked him and told him how invaluable he is to their team. Or how his house-mate let him know how grateful she is for the things he does to help keep up their space. It’s always interesting to me when he does this because, of course, I love him for who he is to me. Is it a hold over from the program? We aren’t sure.
Even though we don’t often talk about the program directly, we do spend a significant amount of time working through the emotional baggage both of us carry. He is avoidantly attached or maybe disorganized attached to me and I am quite anxiously attached to him. We are working on cultivating security with one another and its been a process. At times, this has manifested through a cycle of me bringing up concerns I have about something, him feeling attacked or misunderstood, then me feeling frustrated leading to him completely shutting down. For example, one day I asked him to look up the cost of a gym membership for me while I was busy cooking dinner and he responded telling me to just look it up myself. I expressed annoyance that he wouldn’t do what I felt was the smallest favor for me. That disagreement escalated to him suggesting that perhaps it would be best if we went our separate ways and ended our entire relationship. When he shuts down it’s like nothing I’ve ever seen in any of my prior relationships. Alone in his room. Lights off. Blinds down. In bed. Under all the blankets. Will not talk to me. Will not allow me to sleep in the same bed as him or sometimes even to touch him at all. My initial reaction to this complete shut-down is embarrassing to recount but I’ll share it here in hopes of helping others. Because I was anxious I unlocked his door with a key, talked at him even though he wasn’t responding, and tried to hold his hand even as he flinched away from me. The second time he shut down in this way over a different argument, I pleaded with him to let me text to his ex-girlfriend. They had been together for years, she must have had the cheat-codes on how to handle this sort of reaction. I thought he was being childish and he thought I was being insane. The third time it this pattern unfolded I started to ease off the anxiety and have faith that with time, he would come back to me. And he did. Needless to say we’ve come a long way. I read a quote by Clementine Morrigan that has stuck with me “Trauma is a condition in which we experience emotional and nervous system reactions that are inappropriate to the present moment and are, instead, reflective of the past. That’s what trauma is.” Now I know to give him his space and take anything he says for the next 10 hours after shutting-down with a grain of salt while we both re-regulate. Therapy itself is a trigger word in the aftermath of the program, but that doesn’t stop me from throwing it around with relative frequency and hopefulness.
I toe a delicate balance between being defensive of him and then also venting about our struggles to my friends, to my own therapist, to anyone who gives a judgmental look when they hear about the cycles of our relationship or when I mention that we are rescheduling plans because an argument has spiraled disproportionately. I wish I could add a huge asterisk at that point in the conversation and give them a run-down of his life and what he’s been through- the pieces of his story that I know. But I remind myself that its not my story to share. He is so much more than the abuse he’s experienced and it would be doing him a disservice to use that part of his life as some sort of excuse. I know that pity is the last thing he wants. It’s not my place to talk about his past with others. And yet, somehow his story has intersected so intimately with mine. And now there are aspects of life we are both trying to figure out together in the wake of his past, and in the wake of my own.
Over the course of this past year we have experienced ups and downs just like every other relationship. He has gotten both a job and a dui, we’ve both lost our grandmothers, we have gone camping (twice), I caught covid and he somehow didn’t, and we celebrated a year full of holidays together. We’ve tried to remember to ask each other these three questions on a regular basis. How did you feel loved by me this past week? What does your upcoming week look like? How can I best love you in the week ahead? Sometimes our connection feels insanely strong. And sometimes I write long notes to him riddled with stress about how abnormal our relationship is, and how I’m tired of driving us everywhere and I don’t know if I can keep doing it, and that I don’t know what our future looks like, and am I even special to him and if I were wouldn’t he tell me everything? And then usually he bear hugs me and lays on top of me with the weight of his body like a heavy blanket and whispers in my ear that he loves me. And I say “I know.” Because I do know. Even though sometimes we can’t understand each other at all, both of us try so hard. Both of us are filled with hidden land mines but trying to navigate what it means to find security in each other. Taking turns lying on the couch with tears in our eyes being too emotional to talk and then cracking inappropriate jokes to lighten the mood.
“Next time you’re feeling down, remember life is all about perspective. I have a friend who exercises twice per day, reads three books every week, and yet complains everyday about how much he hates prison.”
I’m pretty sure it’s okay to smile at that one. He shared it with me.