I was lying in bed getting ready for my nap when I saw him. It was a new profile picture, a rare occasion for someone who doesn’t use social media often. In the caption, he gave picture credit to a girl’s name, followed by a heart emoji. My heart sank. Though both of their profiles didn’t make a mention to a romantic relationship between them, I could see still see the bread crumbs: liking each other’s profile pictures with the heart emoji, posting flirty comments — things that he was so hesitant to do when we dated years ago.
Which is funny, because when we were together, it was so much easier for him to verbally and emotionally abuse me than to post a nice comment on my Facebook. I clicked “Unfollow all posts by [him]” and, after tossing and turning along with my thoughts, I fell asleep.
After I woke up from my nap, it felt like my discovery was a dream. He, and the rest of my routine life, was a Pacific Ocean away. I was vacationing in Vietnam, the country that my parents were born in and the country that I haven’t visited in 10 years. A party held in remembrance my great grandma, who passed away eight years ago, was about to start. Amongst family, the humid air, and beautiful tropical flora, it felt silly to worry about my ex’s life.
But I lied in bed and thought about it anyway — because he was my first love and because he was my abuser. Contradictory thoughts raced through my head: I’m over him, so why do I still feel so crappy? Is he over me? Do I feel bad for her or am I jealous of her? I hope he’s happy with her. I hope she’s happy with him. I hope he’s miserable with her. I hope she runs away.
Our first fight happened three months into our relationship. It was over something silly, but felt like it went on forever. We made up, but never addressed the underlying problem in the argument.
This is fine, I thought. Couples fight all the time. This is normal, right?
Every fight got progressively worse. He started hurling insults at me, calling me stupid and irrational. I would quickly apologize (“I’m sorry I’m so stupid. I don’t meant to be irrational. I’m sorry. I’m so stupid.”), only to have him admonish me for being so weak and not stand up to him. I came to believe I really was stupid and weak, but it was okay, because I loved him and couples fight all the time, right?
One day, after returning from a brief vacation home, he told me, “I’ve been gaslighting you.” I’ve never heard the term before so I asked him what it meant. He’d been asking his friends for advice on our relationship, and they told him that he was gaslighting me and that our relationship was toxic. He said that he’d been unknowingly manipulating me, psychologically and emotionally, to believe that I wasn’t smart, that I was irrational, that I was incapable of independent and creative thought and that all of my worth came from him.
I smiled and told him that he wouldn’t do something like that to me, and besides, we were happy. We just fight sometimes, I emphasized. He put his face in his hands and scoffed, saying that I’m so far gone that I didn’t even recognize what he was doing to me even after explaining it.
Soon after that conversation, he broke up with me. Other than the few times we hooked up afterwards, we didn’t talk much. I understood later that we broke up because, WOW, couples are NOT supposed to fight THAT often over EVERYTHING. There was, in fact, nothing normal about our fights. But I still blamed myself — I thought that I was too callous, too loud for a woman. If only I was nicer, then maybe we would’ve stayed together.
It wasn’t until two years and two relationships later that I stumbled across a series of tweets from a woman describing her experience being gaslighted by an ex. As I was reading through, I felt my stomach drop and my heart turning cold. I finally understood what had happened during our relationship and it wasn’t my fault at all. It was his. He had been emotionally abusing me.
We did talk one last time. I graduated a semester early (in the wintertime), but wanted to come back and walk the stage with my friends in the springtime. Unfortunately, I couldn’t stick around afterwards because I had just started at my new job and didn’t want to take the day off, so I told my boss I’d come right back after the event ended. On my way back, while my mom and sisters were napping in my car, he called me.
“Hey, where you at?” he casually asked, seemingly unaware that the last time we talked was mid-hook-up and I told him I didn’t want to talk to him anymore.
“I’m driving home.” My anxiety spiked as I tried to focus both on maintaining a conversation with him at the same time as driving through sprinkling rain and foggy weather.
“Ah, jeez, why didn’t you stay?” He was annoyed. I felt like I did something wrong, even though I knew I didn’t. “It’s your graduation! Who doesn’t stay for the reception afterwards?”
I’m so stupid for not staying, it is my graduation, why didn’t I stay, I bet he’s so disappointed that I didn’t stay, I bet all of my friends are so disappointed that I didn’t stay, he’s right, he’s always ri—
“No,” I physically shook the toxic thoughts out of my head. I didn’t want to stay because I needed to get back to work and, honestly, I didn’t like many people in my class anyway. Crowds freak me out. I didn’t want to stand awkwardly in the crowded plaza, waiting expectantly for people to come say hi to me. Doubting that they would. There were a thousand reasons why I didn’t want to stay, many of them flawed, but they were my reasons all the same. And he didn’t have a right to know them.
“It’s my graduation and I can choose to leave if I want to.”
“You’re ridiculous. You’ve always been so ridiculous,” he laughed, “I need to talk to you, Linh.”
What a POS to feel entitled to my time.
“Well, I’m sorry that I didn’t stay,” I bit my lip, angry and embarrassed for apologizing for doing nothing wrong, “But I didn’t want to.”
He scoffed and started admonishing me. I don’t remember what he said because I’m too busy driving through thick fog. He then hung up. I felt my hands shaking on the steering wheel. I turned on the windshield wiper after I realize that the window had become blurry from the rain. I realize it wasn’t the window that was wet, but that my eyes started tearing up. This was how I felt after every conversation we ever had throughout our relationship.
I wish I stayed and talked to him to get closure. I’m also happy that I didn’t. I don’t know what I should have done. All I knew was in that moment, while I was lying in bed in Vietnam, thinking about him moving on and dating this new unknowing girl, was that I wished our relationship had more closure than that abrupt conversation in the rain. Maybe he was going to apologize. Maybe he wanted closure too. Maybe he changed? But our last conversation was just as toxic as ever, he couldn’t have changed. But maybe…? I got dizzy thinking about all of the maybes.
Then my current boyfriend messages me, “Hey, I miss you.”
And I realized that I don’t need permission from my ex to have closure. He certainly didn’t need mine. I have moved on, there’s no way I “should” have ended things with him. The way we ended things was messy, but it was a proper ending nonetheless. I just needed to let go of his abusive hold on me and remember that I had someone who loved and respected me and with whom I could feel love without losing myself in it. I thought back to one of my first happy memories with my boyfriend. I was meeting up with some friends at a rave, but I had come early to wait in line. He didn’t want me to wait in the cold by myself so he accompanied me. He was nervous about meeting my friends, so when they were approaching, I grabbed his hand and told him it was okay, he didn’t have to be nervous. He blushed, looked away, and squeezed my hand. Later on, he would tell me that I made his heart skip a beat and he could feel his breath knocked out of him because my hand was so comforting and soft. I smile thinking about it, because he’s a really tall dude and I’m a really short girl and I made him giddy just by holding his hand. He’s so silly, gentle and loving and I love him so much.
I messaged him back telling him that I missed him too, swung my legs over the side of the bed and started walking towards the door. I could hear the Vietnamese karaoke music thumping away outside and shouts from my mom to come outside. Eat! Drink! Time to celebrate great grandma’s life and reminisce on the good times! Why should we dwell on the bad times when there’s so much to appreciate in life?
When I got outside, I sat down and I clinked a shot glass of expensive whiskey, saved for this very occasion, with my family.