Content Warning: This post contains descriptions of intimate partner violence – reader discretion is advised.
I sat in a Mokpo bar with two new friends last February shooting the breeze. It was nearly sunup – our bedtimes long expired. Yet the beers flowed while the owner dropped some fresh fried potatoes on our table. The conversation shifted towards relationships.
I shared (to both my drinking buddies’ and my own surprise) that I haven’t had a girlfriend in over eight years.
“Eight years! What happened, mate?”
“I don’t know…I guess I’ve had some rough relationships in the past and it shot my confidence.”
“But without experience, you’ll never get where you want in your romantic life. I’ve had many relationships that didn’t work out – but I learned from each of them. Eight years? Seriously?”
What I was too ashamed to mention to them (or anyone for that matter), is that shy confidence only tells a sliver of the story. My reticence to date stems from the crushing weight of shame.
Because the truth is, I was a very abusive boyfriend.
I remember punching a hole in my dorm room wall when my ex insisted I wear a condom.
In fact, I remember punching countless holes in my dorm room wall like a petulant man-child when I did not get my way.
I remember flipping a table over at a school dance function after she went off to dance with other guys.
I remember verbally lashing her when she vomited violet wine-infused bile on my bed sheets.
I remember shouting almost any vile word a man can call a woman. “Slut.” “Bitch.” “Whore.”
I remember burning my wrists with cigarette butts as an act of emotional blackmail.
I remember striking her in the back with a closed fist.
I remember shoving her backwards, her head smacking my dormitory wall with a sickening thud.
Physical. Verbal. Emotional. Sexual. I slung all facets of abuse toward my former partner like traumatic lumps of coal. And I did all of it in the service of someone I was supposed to love, support, and comfort.
I’ve explored some reasons or explanations for my behavior through journaling, meditation, and group therapy sessions. But I need not say any of it.
What I did deserves no justification, explanation, or rationalization. What I did was horrible – deplorable – inhuman – unforgivable.
The person I see in those memories (and the mirror) is an indefensible monster.
Eight years. It’s been eight years.
I dropped out of college, found work experience, picked up screenwriting, re-discovered a love of reading, gave up screenwriting, transferred colleges, graduated college, found purpose as a teacher, moved to Korea, worked in a high school, changed jobs, and worked with Korean English Teachers.
I’ve made astounding strides in my physical, intellectual, and emotional development as I found refuge in the gym and the library. I’ve redefined my perspective of the world through ardent study of psychology, philosophy, self-control, emotional regulation, willpower, habit-formation, sociology, communications, and education.
In countless ways, I am a completely different person than I was at 19. I’ve grown from a boy with hair-trigger anger and depression to a functional man who sometimes receives compliments for his calm and pleasant demeanor at work.
But if I recognize any semblance of conscience, then the stones I threw in the past ultimately return to pile upon my back in twofold fashion. The weight of that past abuse rings just as loud in my ear and suffuses shame throughout my daily life.
Sometimes it manifests as a workaholic or alcoholic reputation. It arises in the vice-like grip I insist upon my personal habits and discipline – a strong aversion to feeling out of control. It declares that I am unworthy of love or acceptance.
It perches like a devil on my shoulder, whispering in the wake of any compliment.
“It means nothing. Ignore them. They don’t know the truth about you. If they did, they’d never sing your praises.”
“If they knew the truth,______” – a sinister sentence stem that transmutes any blessing into a source of guilt.
“If they knew the truth______”
“No one would befriend you.”
“No one would hire you.”
“No one would let you become a teacher.”
“No one would permit you to move to Korea.”
“No one would accept you into graduate school.”
“No one would care about you.”
“You might as well be dead.”
What is there to do? Sometimes I contemplate reaching out to my ex and writing another apology.
Yet it’s been eight years. She’s since married and starting a budding medical research career. By all outward appearances, she’s happy. While I know my past behavior had a negative impact, she seems to have found a semblance of wholeness.
How does it serve her to dredge up the past – all in the service of my own peace of mind? When does the statute of limitations expire for reaching out to make amends? When does it turn from a selfless to a selfish act?
This shame is my cross to bear. To involve her feels unfair.
But if my ex ever reads this, I hope that she- no- I hope that you realize that you did nothing wrong. And I hope you redirect and heap any lingering pain, guilt, or shame upon my shoulders where it belongs.
Let me be clear. I’m not writing this to stir sympathy. What I did is unworthy of such things.
But I’m also not ready to surrender my whole life to silence beneath a crushing boulder of shame.
And I don’t want to spend my whole life seeing violence against women as a women’s issue. If we’re to make any progress, we need to flip the narrative.
Rather than focusing on how women can avoid abuse or violence at the hands of men, how can we educate our boys in the way of emotional intelligence and healthy relationships?
It’s feels safer and easier to see relationship violence as a fringe issue perpetuated by a select few expendable monsters and psychopaths. I’m safe because I’m not “one of them.”
I write this because I know I’m not the only person stuck simmering in shame – suffocated by the withering burden of unforgivable transgression. I know I’m not the only person who feels irredeemable – in spite of any and all efforts put forth to strive toward becoming a better man.
But as Brené Brown says so often, shame loses its power amidst connection. And connection begins and ends with vulnerability. With courage.
Truth is a greatest liberator from tyrannical shame. The road to peace begins with owning but not condoning our past.
Shame thrives and multiplies in the shadows. Silence is shame’s great incubator. And on the flip side, honesty, vulnerability, and connection are shame’s mortal enemies. No environment is more inhospitable to our demons.
By sharing and owning our sources of shame with others, we can defy physics and mathematics – adding our weights together only to arise lighter on the other side of the equal sign.