Trigger/content warning: This post discusses sexual abuse, assault, and death.
Twenty-One. Just a number on the spectrum of infinity.
In August of this year, I will have known my husband for twenty-one years.
We were just a couple of kids (teens) when we met. I was a few inches taller and a year and a half older – I’m still a year and a half older, but now he’s the one who’s a few inches taller and those kids we were seem like they existed in a different lifetime.
A few months after we met, his father died suddenly of a heart attack. He was the one to perform CPR until the paramedics arrived, but his dad was already gone. It was the month before Christmas, five months after my now-husband’s sixteenth birthday. The impact of this event on his young psyche rippled through the years, affecting his thought processes and beliefs about his own inadequacies well into adulthood.
Three years after we met, my own father died after an eight-month battle with lung cancer. He died one month after my twentieth birthday and four days after he and my mom’s thirtieth wedding anniversary.
My now-husband's mom “adopted” my sister and I, giving us respite and a safe place when our own home-life was difficult to bear. She would often call us her adopted daughters and showed us that family is about so much more than blood relation. In those early years, after his father’s passing but before mine, we clung to each other like life preservers. Him, a broken boy whose greatest friend and mentor had his life cut short too soon, and me, a broken girl who nearly ended her life the year before because she hated herself so thoroughly.
We were just kids, trying to survive in our own ways, holding onto each other in the hope that we might survive together. People started calling us the three musketeers – my sister, myself, my now-husband. We did everything together, went everywhere together. He would come to the "farm" to help us with chores so we could go to the beach or movies, or play soccer. We were friends long before we were lovers. And we were lovers, then exes, long before we were married.
His mom is the person who helped me find the first therapist to begin dealing with the trauma of childhood sexual abuse, then the trauma of my father’s death. My husband was the person who encouraged me to keep going, because he was going too, working through the trauma of his father’s death.
Even at a young age, I was physically attracted to him, but as the years progressed, that attraction built between us. Leaving the bounds of friendship, we flirted with it, played with it, played with each other, loved each other, but we were still just a couple of kids.
We went away to college and stayed “friends”, fighting our attraction, lying to ourselves and others, for why I can’t say – other than we were terrified of admitting more between us and losing the precious friendship we had. I dated other guys while he looked on. He talked about other girls while I leant my ear, all the while knowing and denying we were the ones we really wanted.
Life passed on, day by day as life does, and somewhere along the way, the boy I knew grew to be a man. He’d grown physically, my husband is a beautiful man (seriously, people tell me this all the time), but he’d grown mentally and emotionally as well. He worked hard to overcome so many challenges and move toward the person he wanted to be, to have the life he wanted to have. I worked hard too, but felt so inadequate. Always like he deserved so much better than me – not because of anything he ever said or did, because I was always his best friend, the person he wanted to spend time with above all others, but because of who he was, who he was becoming, because of my own self-doubt and insecurity.
Then, one hot July night, I was raped by an unknown assailant and as I died inside, I reverted to the conditioned response from years of childhood abuse and shut down. I told no one. I went home, showered, crawled into bed, and woke the next morning to go to work. I don’t remember the days and weeks that passed until I learned I was pregnant. I hadn't been sexually active for months at the time of my assault and certainly not after. I don’t remember interactions with family or friends. I kept doing my job, kept going through the motions on autopilot. I remember sitting in the grass at a park on a beautiful day to make the appointment. I went to the clinic for the abortion and they couldn't give me any drugs because I drove myself there. I just turned myself off while the proceedure was done, drove myself home when it was over, and went back to work the next day. I'd thrown a steel door between myself and what happened and “moved on” with my life.
Only I didn’t move on.
We stayed friends, my now-husband and I. I spent Thanksgivings and Christmases with his family, still spent time with him, eventually returned to my "normal" self, but when he asked me one day if I would date him – seriously date him because I was the woman he wanted to be with and he was sorry he’d wasted so much time fucking around, I cracked. I told him he shouldn't want me, he couldn't want me, he could do better, he deserved better. Perplexed and confused, he asked why. It was then that I told him the thing I’d been holding onto for a few years at that point and I watched him break before my eyes. He wept at my feet before going into his closet to scream and rage – not at me, at the thing that had been done, and when he composed himself, he came back to me and held me like he could absorb me into himself. I remember feeling like it would have been easier if he'd told me I was right, he did deserve better, if he'd let me go.
But that's not what happened. He told me it didn’t matter, it didn’t change anything. He loved me, he always loved me and we could work through it. He would be there for me because by my side is where he always wanted to be. He asked me if I would talk to a professional and I agreed. But it was too much.
All that unconditional love and support was too much for all the years I’d shoved and stuffed away. We dated for three months before I just couldn’t handle the insanity swirling around in my head. The damn had been breached and I was drowning, ignoring the life-rafts he tried so desperately to throw my way. I started going out, drinking, partying, spending time with people who cared nothing for me, only what I had to give. All the while he loved me. He loved me and worked tirelessly to help me while I pulled him in and pushed him away and pulled him in again - until the day he told me he couldn’t do it anymore. He removed himself from my life with the clear directive that his door and his arms were open if I chose to change my course.
It took some time, but I did. In another abusive relationship and a world of hurt, I lay in bed one night beside a man I hated and decided that no matter what it took, I was going to do differently. My future would not be defined by my past anymore. So I sought help. I spent hundreds of hours and oceans of tears working intensively with a therapist to reshape my worldview, the view of my world and myself. I started down the path of becoming the person I wanted to be and seeing myself in a light I previously thought was impossible.
My sister and his mom were with me through it all. They never left my side (metaphorically because we lived in different cities), even though it strained them to keep up their relationships with my now-husband and me at the same time. I don’t know how they did it – not talking to him about me, not talking to me about him, loving us both equally, but they are incredible, strong women who I’m so blessed to have in my life.
When I contacted my now-husband and asked if he would see me, if we could talk, I had a year of weekly, sometimes bi-weekly, therapy sessions under my belt.
He agreed to meet me at the office of my therapist, and for the next three months, that was our only point of contact. We met at her office every other week and hashed out anything and everything. He asked questions of me I knew he didn't want the answers to and I watched him hold himself together at some of them. He later told me he did it because he was testing me. He needed to know if I was going to decide it was “too hard” again, or if I was truly committed to the new MO I'd chosen.
After those three months, we continued our bi-monthly sessions, but he started having lunch with me afterward. I was in LA and he was in OC, so he would have lunch with me, then drive home. It was slow and awkward at times, but we started building our relationship as totally different people - even though we were the same at our cores.
After a few months, he asked me at one session why I’d contacted him. What was I looking for from what we were doing?
I told him with a dry mouth and my heart beating out of my chest that I wanted to marry him. I’d always wanted that, I was just too scared, too hurt, too insecure, too much of so many things that I couldn’t accept myself as good enough for him. I had no idea what he would say or do – if he would say, no way, after everything I put him through and the time that had passed, or if he would say he didn’t want that from me anymore, but I’d been working on my courage, so I said it. He gave me no response except a nod and a thoughtful, “hmm” and left it at that.
We took the next few months very slowly. He was understandably cautious, watching me very closely, even when I wasn’t aware of it. I don’t mean in a stalkerish way, but he was talking to his mom, talking to my sister, getting their input and feedback – and they weren’t telling me! He left my statement hanging between us, but we kept meeting. I kept showing up because I was determined to do differently, no matter what his answer was in the end.
We did get married – yay! After months of counseling and seeing each other on weekends, which by the way, sex was completely off the table during this time. From the first day he agreed to meet me at my therapist’s office until our wedding night, we abstained from sexual activity. We kissed and cuddled, but very purposefully (and sometimes painfully) held other sexual activity out of the equation. We already knew we could have great sex – that had happened for years during the time we were “friends”, but we wanted to build our relationship around a new foundation and I was still working through my own issues tied to sex, so it was out.
On the beautiful spring day that I walked toward him in my wedding gown with a small group of people closest to us looking on, I cried like a baby, walking toward my future, leaving a wrecked and painful past behind me. I told myself I wouldn’t, but I couldn’t stop the flood of emotion that hit me when I saw him standing there, waiting for me with all the love I’d ever hoped for shining in his eyes. Despite everything, he gazed at me as if I was his whole world and he was mine. He still does.
So, it’s been twenty-one years and several lifetimes that I’ve known the man I call my Husband. For five of those years, we’ve been married, and when people ooh and awe over us because yes, we’re that couple that holds hands ALL THE DAMN TIME, and kiss and stare at each other with doe eyes, and they say “oh, you newly-weds are so cute”. I smile at him and lean in because they don’t know. They don’t know we’re not just another adorable young couple, in love, blind to the rest of the world. No, we’re an adorable youngish couple, more in love every day, but our bond is one forged in fire, hardened and held together by something stronger than the two of us.
We still see our therapist, just to check in, do a "state of the union", at least once a quarter. I still see her once every couple of months for the same reason. I'm not a good communicator - SO much better than I used to be and better all the time - but not good at talking about things that bother me, so she helps me flush out things that need flushing. She helped my Husband and I write our contract, our constitution - the rules that we wanted to govern our relationship before we entered marriage together. One of those things was that I would continue to seek professional help for my mental and emotional health. It's a requirement I'm more than happy to adhere to because it's a major thing that's enabled me to be where I am today.
Twenty-One. Just a number on the spectrum of infinity, but I want twenty-one more with the love of my life, and twenty-one more after that, and twenty - well, you get the picture.