"Honey, if you ever want to get drinks with a stranger and discuss how much knowing Jake ruins lives, I'm your girl."
I had not spoken to or heard from Jake, or anyone who knew him, in over a year. In seeing his name in this private Instagram message from a woman I did not even know existed a moment ago, I just about passed out.
Around the time that I left Jake for good, I had moved apartments, got a new job, and changed my screen names. I had cut my hair and bleached it. I had no real support network and no access to mental health care. The only way I knew how to move on was to burn everything to the ground and start again.
My solitary goal for the next several months was to stay distracted at every minute. I drank well vodka out in bars, dancing until early morning with acquaintances and strangers. I drank economy jugs of cheap wine at home alone and played immersive video games for hours on end. I worked two jobs and never took a day off.
I didn't talk to a professional. I didn't write about it. I didn't deal with anything.
It never occurred to me that the truism "the past will always catch up to you" was actually, well, true and not just a recurring theme on Mad Men. I said all the things that good survivors say. "It wasn't my fault. I did nothing wrong. I still have value." But self-doubt was always there, lurking. I said all the things that good survivors say while in my head I thought, I made myself a victim. I let this happen. Was it really abuse if I kept going back for more?
But I pushed these thoughts away. I didn't talk about them. I didn't write about them. I didn't deal with anything. And for over a year, I survived. I was fine, even, in that way that you are fine when you just pretend all your problems don't exist.
Then, the past caught up to me.
I asked my friends and my mother if I should respond to this message from this woman I had never seen. My friends said, "You've worked so hard to move on." My mom said, "You don't know this girl. How can you trust her?"
True, I did not know this woman. Corinne was her name, according to Instagram. That was all my information. I did not have an answer as to why I could trust her. Maybe I couldn't. But seared into my mind was the memory of the Night I Decided to Leave Him. How scared and unprepared I was. How utterly and completely alone. I remembered the way winter arrived on the same night I stomped my way home muttering, shaking, righteously angry. Terrified at the prospect of freedom.
It didn't matter if I could trust Corinne. I knew what I was going to choose the second I read her message. When I left Jake for good and tried to explain what I had gone through over the past two years to my mother, she said to me, "If he was such a jerk to you, then why did you stay with him for so long?"
People who haven't lived it, they just don't know. They can't know. No one could be there for me, but I could be there for Corinne. And in being there for Corinne, I could also reach back in time and be there for myself.
I told Corinne yes. I would like to commiserate with her.
She described herself as "the girl who came right after" me. This would have driven me crazy if I had known it a year ago, but as it was, I felt no hurt at all. What I did feel was a growing sickness. I was not Jake's only victim like I had previously assumed. Of course I wasn't. How did it never occur to me that he would strike again? I felt stupid. I felt guilty. I felt responsible for Corinne.
I failed to warn or protect Corinne from this man, but I could be there for her now. If I could spare her a fraction of the confusion and doubt that I had lived with for so long, I had to. I knew what she needed, because I knew what I needed: someone to say, "You are not crazy."
Corinne told me that Jake had left her for a shiny, new victim. She was heartbroken. She hated that she was heartbroken. He did not deserve to break hearts. "The last year of my life has been such a shitshow," she told me.
"You're free now," I responded.
I had spent the past year and some change saying all the things that good survivors say. But it wasn't until Corinne and I compared notes, until I heard all the things he had done to me come out of someone else's mouth, that I realized I was not abused because I am exceptionally abusable. I was abused because Jake is an abuser.
Truly, it was not my fault.
Before Jake, I was never the fluffiest bunny on the block, but I used to believe in a few things. That most people are good more often than they are bad. That life brings joy more often than it brings pain. That at the end of the day we are all just trying to do better. Now, after, I am rude to strangers. I am rude to men. I don't need a full hand to count the people whose motives I can always trust.
Before, I used to say that my best quality was my sincerity. Now, after, I face the world with an affected persona. I rely on irony to put a comfortable distance between myself and the reality where others can hurt me. Where they can warp me into someone different than who I was when I met them.
Before, I believed people when they told me they loved me. Even when it was three weeks into dating, when we hardly knew each other, when anyone else could have seen it was a manipulation tactic. Now, after, I am convinced the ones who claim to care for me are mistaken or lying.
I will never forget when Corinne said to me, "I do think there is some good in him." I told her to kill that idea. I told her he was a sociopath. I told her he was evil in every thread of his being. I regret that now. I told her all of those things because they are what I had to tell myself to survive.
After meeting Corinne, I've realized it doesn't matter which of the two of us is right. It matters that she has held on to the belief that a human who does vile things is still human. I had lost that belief because I could not handle the idea of empathizing with my abuser. I could not face the reality that the man who did this to me is a man broken by his own past emotional trauma.
Things happened to him that were not his fault. Where my scar tissue is distant and mistrustful, his is vindictive and cruel. He is paying forward his own pain. In an alternate universe, I could be him, easily. In fact, the only thing keeping me from becoming my abuser is the very same empathy I long refused to extend to him.
The part of me that needs to hate him still bristles at the thought of trying to understand him. This part of me will be alive and strong for a long while, I suspect. But here is the thing. I am trying, and I never tried before. I am trying, and it hasn't killed me.
Speaking to Corinne brought me face-to-face with the monster I was outrunning and showed me that it is not as strong as I had feared it was. It is not as strong as I am. It was not even a week after meeting Corinne that I started writing again.
As I type this now, I am 32 days sober. (Knock on wood.) If I am stronger than my past abuse, then I am stronger than failure, than rejection, than addiction. Corinne has given me a gift. She has reminded me what I am capable of withstanding, of triumphing over. She has reminded me that I don't have to run away from things that are not as strong as I am.
After our first face-to-face conversation, Corinne and I made plans to meet again. "This time we'll just hang out, and we won't talk about him at all," she said. And we did. We went roller skating with a friend of hers. We went to a diner and talked.
But not about Jake. About the lives we have without him.
Other recent stories include:
Need help? In the U.S., call 1-800-799-SAFE (7233) for the National Domestic Violence Hotline.
Need help with substance abuse or mental health issues? In the U.S., call 800-662-HELP (4357) for the SAMHSA National Helpline.