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How I Got Out of My Toxic Relationship

It’s 2:01am. And, I want to go to sleep. Truly, I do. But, my mind is mulling over the current state of affairs in the Supreme Court nominations. I spent the better part of this afternoon really listening to the testimonies of both sides.

But, let me be clear, this post has nothing to do with politics.

No, this story is about a 34-year-old female who is finding herself inside a conversation that is questioning whether or not women are truthful when it comes to explicating their experiences. And, be it good or bad, I am now finding a way to attach conscious thoughts to emotions that I felt two, five, ten years ago. Because, what is resonating with me so clearly right now is the word “embarrassed.” Women have chosen silence for fear of not being taken seriously, for fear of being wrong, for fear of saying something that the world may perceive as being different than what is actually true.

So, at 2:01am (make it 2:04am), I’m being smacked in the face by two distinct realizations.

One. We, as humans, love to create stories around how, we think, other people are receiving our humanness. These metaperceptions are generally tainted by our own view of ourselves and our inept ability to reason that no two people in this world think exactly the same way; therefore, our claim that “most people” will feel a certain way about our actions is not founded in any truth. And, worst of all, it silences us from sharing the most authentic version of ourselves and chasing our happiest state of existence because we decide the outcome of a choice before giving ourselves an opportunity to actually experience it.

Two. There is a deep running understanding in our society that men’s overall treatment of women is poor, but silently accepted. My evidence for this statement is visible in the language that most, if not all, of my male friends use when they speak of having children: “If I ever have a daughter, I’m never letting her leave the house” or “I hope I have a son so that I only have to worry about one male; if I have a daughter, then I have to worry about all males.” Yes, there is a reason for the adage of “daddy’s girl,” but I want to suggest that there is something much deeper happening here, and that depth exists because I spent 99.9% of my current life being completely unphased by such irrational statements. I smiled and I nodded because I, too, would deductively reason the same ideology. Because, gawd, yes, being a woman is really fucking hard sometimes. But, for adults to be able to verbalize that they don’t want to raise girls because they don’t want to carry those girls’ burdens, which are completely centered on how males treat them, is worthy of our analysis and attention. Most importantly, it is worthy of us doing something to change that stigma.

Side note. I have never been a man, so yes, the above comments are jaded by my own bias. And, this is not all to say that women don’t do shitty things. Because, wow, we do some crappy stuff, people. What I’m attempting to do is articulate my experience. I am trying to give a voice to my testimony. Because, for a long time, I willingly bit my tongue. Out of insecurity. Out of fear. I was in constant pursuit of affirmation that what I was experiencing was real. That I was really hurting. That my mind wasn’t playing tricks on me. And, if it were true that I was really hurting, then I wanted affirmation that I had a viable reason to hurt. That I wasn’t being soft. Or irrational. Or stupid.

So, I want to unpack a relationship from my life that, for many years, brought me a lot of shame. I want to stand here without reservation to exist only inside of this story long enough to tell it and then also to acknowledge that I was able to walk away from it a far better person for having been there.

Stephanie Kemp

Observation Point (Zion National Park)

Let’s begin. If one could earn points in dating, I’m quite convinced I would be in the negatives. I just do not have the genetic makeup or the desire to play the games that, it seems, are characteristic to successful courtship. I operate in two speeds in every facet of my life, and the same is true for people. If I like you, I will love you. If I love you, I will ride or die with you. This ladder is not exclusive to romantic relationships, and I must clarify that I am inclined to have three deep relationships in my life than to have 30 acquaintances. If given a choice, I’ll take depth over breadth. On the flipside, if I don’t like you, I will waste no time with you. Literally. Zero time. So, I repeat, I suck at dating. I fall hard. Or, I peace out quickly. And, a year ago, I would have felt a need to apologize for that. But, I have learned that an apology is altogether unnecessary. I am allowed to be this way because this way is not wrong. The other way is not right. I must simply be conscious of this quality and recognize where I am open to get hurt myself and to hurt other people.

I wish I had gleaned this awareness much earlier on in life, but I suppose this is the joy of aging. If you follow me on Instagram, then you know that I talk a lot about having been in a toxic marriage. I also talk a lot about being out of a toxic marriage. While the vulnerability piece does not intimidate me, I often find it hard to shed light on the actions. For a long time, I struggled to use words like “domestic violence” because I had convinced myself that I needed two black eyes in order to bear this cross.

I am here to tell you that you do not, in fact, have to suffer from any type of physical abuse to be a victim in your relationship. In fact, I recall many nights where I begged for a swift right hook to the face if only to make the verbal abuse end.

And, at this point, we should probably go back to the beginning. When he and I played on the same co-ed indoor soccer team, and we’d all go drink beers after our games, and he’d always offer to be my chauffer. I wasn’t in a place in my life to have a serious relationship. Without turning this into a 5000-word diatribe, I will admit that I had recently been divorced. Yes, I got married when I was freshly 21-years-old to a guy in the military who convinced me that it would be a financially smart decision (don’t do this, ladies). Our hot mess college relationship translated into a hot mess marriage, and we were divorced within the year. In all sincerity, it feels like so many lives ago that I barely even recognize it as being a part of my story, but I also know that we were incredibly immature and lacked nearly every possible tool to “make it” (as they say).

For clarification, this guy will not be referenced further, and any mention of my ex-husband will be directly related to soccer guy from the beginning of the previous paragraph.

Said soccer player was also not in a position for a relationship. He was living in Colorado for work with every intention of one day moving back to Ohio to be near his family. So, I moved to Portland for a job, and six months later he moved back to Louisville for work. I didn’t think we’d speak again (for the record, these are always the famous last words).

We didn’t speak. For about six months. But, he slowly crept back into my inbox (I’m going to age myself and point out that “sliding into the DMs” was not yet a thing). At the end of the school year (hashtag, teacher life) I moved to Kentucky. He immediately prefaced my move with the statement, “I can’t call you my girlfriend.” Perfect. Great. We’ve just been talking every day for the last six months. That makes sense. His inability to commit all along should have been the only red flag that I ever needed, but my damn diehard personality (coupled with my 20-something naiveté) would not let it go.

So, this dance continued for over two years in the Bluegrass State. I became super close with his family, and we honored the fact that they were very religious and did not believe that living together was socially acceptable. We hung out every night, but there were times when I wouldn’t stay with him, and while I believed at that point that he partied a little too hard for his own good, I wrote it off to the fact that he grew up in a strict household and never drank until he was 21-years-old.

It’s a phase, I said. It will pass, I said.

When we got married, I was really exposed to another side of him that I had only glimpsed in our dating life. And, before I even fast forward to this whole marriage status, I want to point out that I clearly felt in my heart that I was making the wrong choice the day that I walked down the aisle. Yes. Nothing sat well with me in the months leading up to this spectacle. But, I had already said yes, and the invitations were sent, and people had RSVP’d, and then, fuck, they were all sitting right there waiting for some grandiose entrance from yours truly. I didn’t want to let anyone down.

Hear that. At the cost of my own life, I created a story of what people would think about me if I backed out on such a commitment, so I followed through because I assumed that the story that they created would paint me in a negative light.

As imagined, it was never what I wanted or needed it to be. We immediately started going to counseling. Our therapist fired him because she said he had a drinking problem that she was not expertly trained to handle. He chastised me for continuing to go see someone who was dumber than him. I went to Al-Anon. I worked the twelve steps. I found a mentor. I begged him to get help.

And, again, I struggled with defining a word that carried so much weight: alcoholism. He was successful. He was well-liked. He didn’t wake up slinging booze from the side of his bedstand.

No. It was a silent fall. It was the seventh shot of Fireball at 1:37am, already eight beers deep, where his eyes would glaze over, and I would quietly hug myself on the walk home in fear of saying just one wrong thing. Because, I had learned that to fight this beast in its natural element was nothing short of a recipe for pure terror. I stopped feeling. I stopped going out altogether. I stopped drinking. Because, how can you beg someone to stop doing something that you are, in fact, doing yourself? Most importantly, I needed control of my every breathe. There was not a single moment that I could lapse on my judgment.

Because, when I lapsed, when I lost my patience or wisdom or sanity, I would unfurl every ounce of pain that was hiding under my skin. I would scream and cry out for every city street that I had ever walked home alone: Nashville, Louisville, San Diego, Cabo San Lucas, Chicago, Nasau, Denver. I can’t recall a single city we visited together that doesn’t also have a story about my 3:00am lost and lonely trek back to a hotel that I managed to find through only a decent sense of direction. And, the screaming and the crying that would seep from my pores would be met with the hatred as deep as the Devil.

Like that one night in December. After the Justin Timberlake concert. When he, at first, wouldn’t let me up the stairs to go to bed. I was actually so scared that I ran into the guest room on the first floor and hid under the flimsy covers of the bed, hugging the dog for dear life as if she could transport me anywhere but there. Unfortunately, despite childhood dreams, covers do not make one invisible. So, he came in screaming, violently pointing his finger over top of me in between my beady eyes. And, I knew I couldn’t cry. Because, I needed every ounce of my own strength to prevent a complete downward spiral into my own oblivion. And, I ran up the stairs, hoping to lock myself in our room (a tactic that I knew would fail) as he forced me into the laundry room. He stared at me with his hollow soul and silently begged for me to cower in the corner. I did not. I pleaded for him to hit me, to give physical pain to the words that were cutting into any ounce of dignity that still existed inside of me. Instead, he slid his hands around my throat. He locked my neck inside of his fingers and pressed me firmly against the wall. He reminded me of all the money that he had made, money that didn’t belong to me, while I pathetically lived in the house that only he could afford. Yes, he reminded me. And, I flung my fists with every attempt to kill until he finally let me go. The next morning, he’d apologize. Like he always did. And, I’d remember that I’m poor. And, I’d be embarrassed that I was weak. And, I’d teach myself not to feel. I’d teach myself to be invisible.

I finally stopped going out altogether. I became a recluse. I lived out the daily façade of having my life put together in my perfect neighborhood. Meanwhile, I was dead. And, for six months (that I know of), he was having an affair with a woman who worked under him. Ironically, I learned about this relationship after leaving him, which oddly brings me a small sense of joy.

I left him because of me, not him.

I looked back on my life in a single moment with him and realized that we had done nothing to grow for 365 days. We weren’t becoming better together, which translated into us not becoming better individuals. I couldn’t sit with that. I finally stopped listening to the voice that told me everyone would judge me so critically for being divorced. I knew that my fear of turning 50 and waking up to someone who caused me so much internal pain, coupled with the fact that I refused to procreate with such an individual and yet I wanted kids, meant making the harder choice between two hard choices.

In all sincerity, I often ask myself, how the hell did I get out of that mess? I’ve come to see this moment of my life a lot like a car accident. It is paradoxically fast and slow. And, I am overwhelmed by people who seek me out for guidance in this stage of life, married or not. I’ve come to believe that getting out of a toxic relationship is as gradual of a process as getting into one. And, I’m awake at what is now 2:58am, because my story matters. Christine Blasey Ford’s story matters. Your story matters. Because, it’s not okay. It was never okay.

I’ve spent over two years reintroducing myself to myself. Yes, reintroducing myself to myself. Because I wanted to be alive. I tried new things, things that I had expressed interest in but didn’t ring true when I was in the relationship, things that I ignored because he made me think that I wasn’t “that kind of person.”

I leaned on my friends and family. I learned to not make up people’s stories for them. Often times, when we are in toxic relationships, the closest people to us are fully aware of our circumstance. And, we will frequently verbalize that we need to leave or that we’re going to leave. But, we do not. Because, staying is easy. Even when it’s hard. Leaving is fucking hard. Even when it seems easy. So, if you’ve tried to leave this person before and you’ve gone back, the trust with your support system may be weak. I have learned to never underestimate your vulnerability. If you show people you want help (even if it is again), you might be surprised.

As expected, I took trips alone. Even when it was scary. Because I really knew that the only way I would be ready for another relationship would be if I were comfortable with myself first. And I had allowed that relationship to make me a version of myself that I never wanted to become again: insecure, fragile, angry.

Stephanie Kemp

Humphreys Peak (Flagstaff, Arizona)

Finally, I had to completely remove him from my life to move forward. Alcoholism is deadly. The person has to want to help him or herself. If not, there is no hope for better. It took me going through hell to really resonate with the fact that I was not responsible for him. If you are here, please hear me, I promise there is a great life waiting for you on the other side.

People sometimes ask me how I do it again. How I put myself out there. I want to get defensive about this statement

because I am extremely hypercritical of myself for being a divorcee, but I am open to the idea that they are actually softening their hearts to the fact that they think I am brave for trying again. Usually, they have also been hurt, and they have not been able to open their hearts in such a way that I feel is right for me in order to have the life that I want to have. I don’t think I’m brave. I think I just opened my eyes. I think I just committed to a life of never settling. And, I will always stay opportunistic to the idea that my match exists somewhere inside this crazy planet called Earth. If that means exposing myself to heartbreak, I’ll take feeling everything over and over again than a life of feeling nothing at all.

Stephanie is a road warrior, adventure seeker, and brand builder. She grew up in the mountains of Colorado and after spending nearly a decade between the PNW and the east coast, she’s proud to once again be calling Colorado home. Well, home for now. Stephanie recently bought an Airstream with the intention of living a more minimalistic and nomadic lifestyle. After logging over 20k miles in her car last year, chasing rock faces in the summer and powder days in the winter, she realized that life could be a hell of a lot simpler if she could carry her house with her on these adventures. In 2017, she started her own marketing agency, Sleigh Creative, to take control of her freedom. As a freelance creative director and brand strategist, she spends a lot of days playing and even more nights working. In all things, be it work or play, she seeks to inspire people to the life of never settling. You can follow along with her journey on Instagram, @by.stephanieleigh, and through her self-titled personal blog.