The Black Place (1944) by Georgia O’Keeffe
I am writing to you because I am desperate, sad, lonely, and sick. My marriage has rapidly deteriorated since I decided not to accept certain things this year.
For seven years, I was in denial that I needed help. My husband was a kind, strong, thoughtful, creative, and funny man to me. I was so proud to marry a man like him. Although he also had addictions, and compulsive, dishonest, and cold tendencies, I viewed them as the vestiges of a youth he was in the process of outgrowing, a family legacy of which he was trying to escape. Any selfish behavior that didn't make sense in the context of this warm loving man I knew I discounted. I attributed all of his kind deeds to active choice and his cruel ones to passive mistakes.
I thought we were growing together in love and would beat our past. I thought we were healing from our respective abuse and angry narcissistic upbringings together. We were a team. I worked so hard to make a nice home and life for us. I went to therapy and worked on myself. I was so happy.
But slowly it dawned on me that I was the only one changing. I was the only one who spoke of functionality, sanctity, insight.
Over time, my husband began to misplace his familial anger onto me. I am no longer a loving wife who represents a rebirth and a chance at redemption. I am a controlling, judgmental, and a cruel woman. I am his enemy, a shrill and oppressive outsider who threatens his very existence. I am the woman he mocks, pisses on, hits, calls a fool, calls crazy, who he says has a victim complex. I am the person he tries to escape instead of reach out for. He only touches me when I beg and even then he is withholding. The affection is gone and so is the pleasure and joy.
I plead for understanding. He rages that he is invisible and misunderstood. I stand in the way of his darkness and he stands in the way of my light.
And now the memory of our peace and love has become the trap that keeps us here.
I cannot imagine being without my husband. But I also cannot imagine continuing as we are. I beg for conversation and healing and he sits silently avoiding eye contact.
I hate myself. I hate myself for talking compulsively to fill the dead space between his sighs because it gives the illusion of conversation. My words keep me company when I cannot bear the deafening silence and abandonment. I hate myself for yelling at my husband and insulting him when he demeans me. If I fight back after he disrespects me, then I'm in control. I'm not a victim of abuse right? I'm a feminist and I'm smart and I read and I know better. It's mutual combat then isn't it? I fight back so I'm not a victim right? Because surely I didn't marry an abuser did I? Did I? Did I?
Because fuck, if I did. Now what do I do? What the fuck do I do? My beautiful, strong, sexy, smart husband tells me I deserve his father's rage, my father's insults, and his own abandonment because I am too much. I am too much to take. I am a suffocating heavy blanket. Maybe I am.... so then what the hell do I do?
I have no family. I have no best friend. I am alone. I wrote to you because I have nobody else to write to.
I'm embarrassed. I am paralyzed. And I am depressed as hell. I think I am the one who can barely breath. I see flickering light above but I can't tell if I'm swimming towards the surface or if I drowned a long time ago.
Polly, my husband left me. I'm so alone. I have nothing left.
Dear Drowning Woman,
I’m so sorry for what you’re going through. I don’t usually publish on Fridays but I couldn’t let your letter go unanswered. The most devastating aspect of this dark moment in your life is that you're still locked into imagining that your husband might snap out of it and become the person he was before. That means your mind and heart keep returning to him.
Focusing on your husband right now like taking a rocket ship to the moon to look for a ham sandwich. You have to stop building the rocket ship. You have to stop telling him how hungry you are. You have to turn your eyes away from him completely. He’s made it clear that he’s not emotionally available anymore. He’s flipped some switch and he has no compassion for you. It’s important to take that in.
So where do you look instead?
You look around you for someone who might understand. The National Domestic Violence Hotline is a place to look if you’re feeling desperate and need to talk to a caring voice immediately. Hope Recovery offers a lot of online options for support. I’ll also open up the comments here so Ask Polly readers can offer their own stories and tell you about how they made their way out of emotionally or physically abusive or dysfunctional relationships and rebuilt their lives in the aftermath.
I would write more here but it feels inadequate in light of what you’re facing right now. Your recovery isn’t dependent on me unpacking my adjectives about the trauma of becoming emotionally reliant on someone who’s dismissive or absent or abusive. Instead, your recovery depends on leaning on people and learning to value real human connection in a new way.
More than anything else, I want you to understand that every single time you approach someone outside of your husband and tell them the truth about where you are, in spite of your embarrassment, you regain an important piece of what's gone missing. Each time you reach out, feeling fragile and lost, you relearn the joy of human connection in tiny pieces. Even though it doesn't feel like joy at all right now, even though you're so heartbroken and confused you can barely move, you're learning to be a new kind of person.
And look, you have to learn a whole new way of living. Because you need more support. You always have. You've always needed more friends and more deep human connection in your life. So this is the moment when you figure out how to get that and also figure out how to give it to people who need you. I know that sounds simple and also inadequate, but that feeling of mutual support and care in a community of people who understand you is even better than falling in love. It gives you a purpose. It sets you on firm ground. It can’t be taken away on a whim.
Falling in love often disguises itself as the answer to every problem, particularly for people who felt lonely and isolated as children. Likewise, making small connections with regular human beings — strangers, acquaintances, new friends, old friends — often disguises itself as insignificant against the backdrop of our busy lives, just noise we hear on our way somewhere else. Your job right now is to reverse those values and treasure small connections as much as you possibly can.
There are so many people out there who understand where you are. Listen to them and take what they say to heart. That’s the first step forward toward feeling whole again.
Readers, if you’ve had similar experiences or you have suggestions or ideas about how or where to seek support, please post in the comments below, which are open to everyone. This feels like a good moment to show Drowning Woman how much care and compassion are out there for her at a time when she feels like she’s all alone.
One of the most surprising things I’ve learned as an adult is that when you reach out vulnerably for help from a world that looks indifferent or even hostile to you, sometimes small miracles happen. People open their hearts to you and a new path forward appears. It’s hard to even write about it, because it sounds so absurd. But that magic is real. I’ve discovered it over and over.
Drowning Woman, keep your eyes trained on that flickering light, and keep swimming. We’re here for you.
Please share your experiences and offer your support and suggestions in the comments below. Thank you for being here!
I want to thank everyone who's taken the time to comment on this post, offer their support, and suggest resources to the letter writer. I knew that Ask Polly readers would come through, but the reaction here went far beyond my expectations. It can be really difficult to trust strangers and believe in human connection these days, so seeing so many of you rise to the occasion, share your experiences, and show your affection for a stranger really does feel like a miracle. THANK YOU. I'm so happy you're here, and so grateful that I can learn from you.
I know this seems sort of small, but this comic helped me wake up to what had been happening to me: https://the-toast.net/2015/06/01/all-the-paintings-here-agree-comic/, and it really is like waking up. One thing I had to recognize was how insidiously the emotional abuse chipped away at my ability to trust myself and my intuition. You have to relearn it, and that takes time and tiny steps. The best tiny first step I took was talking about things I genuinely liked with my friends and acquaintances. You say you don't have a best friend, but you can start with just a friend. Seeing yourself reflected back at you from people who aren't your abuser is so important, even if they don't know you very well. They don't have to know the core of you to recognize your value! That's the thing about people who aren't abusive; they just see that you're a person who's worth something. You don't have to prove it, you just are.
That's what helped me the most, to believe I wasn't what he said I was. To turn up the volume on my own narrative about myself and my life and to have it validated by people who didn't need big justifications for why I and my feelings mattered. That drowns out his skewed version of the story, which is utter bunk, by the way. You know better than he ever will who you are, and there are more people who take that at face value than you might think right now.