Cathryn Berarovich is something of a renaissance sex worker; she is currently employed as a pro-domme but has held numerous interesting jobs in the industry. She usually shares her stories each Monday in Harlotry–however, for the next five weeks, she’ll be writing specifically about her experience with domestic abuse and sexual assault. Part I is here.
In the time leading up to my relationship with Stanley, I’d been cramming a lot of growing up into a very short time. While I’d been living mostly on my own since I was seventeen, I was by no means independent. When I was eighteen, I was suddenly trying to go from being a whiny, bitchy, misanthropic child who placed unrealistic demands on her mother to… a grown-up. I was financially self-sufficient and while my money-management skills left much to be desired, I was very comfortable financially and working on becoming comfortable emotionally and psychologically.
Stanley undid all my hard work. He found the holes and unpicked me, the way one would fiddle with a ladder in a pair of tights. It was easy for him, I had so many holes, and I wasn’t the only one. Our relationship was not built to last. It had been thrown together hastily, accidentally, and without care.
Stanley came to Chicago to live with me in May; by June I was seriously wondering if we’d make it to the one year mark. In July we had a disagreement–I don’t even remember what it was about. He told me he was breaking up with me. I was downtown, though I can’t for the life of me remember why, and he sent me a text message informing me not only that I wanted to end things, ostensibly because I didn’t listen to him frequently enough, but that he was perfectly fine with the idea too. The world fell out from under me. I was sure I was going to die; if I didn’t die I would certainly at least have to kill myself.
I rushed home in tears. Usually I’m far too proud to cry on the train, but this was a special occasion, and not in the joyous sense. I was still crying when I got home to find Stanley lying on the couch. I sat at his feet for an hour like a stupid, beaten dog, and bawled, full-on, ugly, red-faced, sweaty crying. Eventually, Stanley decided I had learned my lesson. He pulled me onto the couch with him, put his arms around me and told me I would be okay. I blew my nose on his shirt. He decided, in his great largess, to take me back. If I hadn’t been his before, it was settled now, my will was gone.
In retrospect I ought to have noticed that something was amiss just off the fact that we had only been together for about seven months–Stanley had already made me cry more times than all of my exes combined. However, as I’ve said before, my brain was missing. “If it doesn’t hurt,” I told myself, “it isn’t really love.”
(Image via Christopher Saunders)
The cruelties, the indignities I suffered at Stanley’s hands are innumerable. It began with his jealousy, his insults, his petty cruelty, but it certainly didn’t end there. If I were to list everything he did to me here, you would be either bored or in complete despair before I was even halfway done and this series of essays would be at least twice as long.
When my beloved cat, Marla, made her dislike of him clear, he answered her aversion with terrorization. He accused me of preferring the cat to him when I defended her habit of pissing in his shoes as normal scared-animal behavior. Eventually, when I realized he wouldn’t leave Marla alone any more than he’d stop trying to make me choose between him and the cat, I put her outside. When I came back into our apartment, crying, asking him to please see that what I had just done was for him, for us, that I had committed the unforgivable and been cruel to an animal who loved and trusted me just so that he would love me again, Stanley berated me for abandoning my cat, claiming that I would hold it against him forever (I did hold it against him, even after I found her again and sent her to live with my sister) and that he’d never asked me to do such a thing. This, at least, was somewhat true. Stanley never asked me to put my cat outside. He simply backed me into a corner where I had to choose either him or the cat and I made the wrong choice.
A few months later, on our first anniversary, he shoved me to the ground on a sidewalk in Uptown. He had instructed me to wait for him outside a convenience store and I hadn’t heard him, instead following the original plan of going to pick up my paycheck while he purchased our cigarettes for the week. When he came outside and saw that I was gone, he called me and we cleared up the confusion, or at least I thought we did.
I would, I said, meet him in front of the store after I got my money. When I got there, it was obvious Stanley had been nursing a rage during the few minutes it took me to get my money and go back to our rendezvous point. He started yelling immediately, asking me why I couldn’t ever listen to him, why I had to “run off” like that, and what did I have to hide about my boss. I tried to apologize, I even tried to reason with him, but I didn’t get very far before he came at me, giving me a push to the center of my chest. The blow took me by surprise and I fell backwards, instinctively reaching out with my hands to break my fall. I hadn’t even managed to accept the reality of what happened before Stanley had started off towards the train, leaving me half-lying on the pavement.
In my needy, unbalanced state I was more upset that my humiliation had been witnessed by the crackheads and schizophrenics who inhabit the neighborhood than I was outraged by his behavior and my bleeding hands. Like any good battered woman, though, I didn’t tell anyone what happened. I walked around for a week, hoping no-one would notice my stigmata, and when people did, I simply said I fell down. I didn’t mention how I fell down because the man who claimed to love me so very, very much had pushed me.
I had moments of near-sanity, it’s true. Shortly after the episode in Uptown, I became so sufficiently concerned about Stanley’s mental health that I emailed my mother, asking for advice. She suggested that I deliver an ultimatum: get help or get out. I didn’t follow her advice, I was too afraid, and when Stanley went into my email because he “had a feeling something was wrong” I only became more afraid. I felt invaded, I wasn’t even sure how he got into my account in the first place, but when he insisted that he was fine I didn’t want to press the issue.
Of course he was fine. It didn’t matter that he barely spoke to me unless he was screaming, or that he had all but left off looking for a job, choosing instead to play Modern Warfare 2 as the unemployment checks rolled in. Never mind that he was seriously entertaining the existence of lizard people who ran the government, rather than greeting the concept with uproarious laughter and moving on with his life. And the fact that he stormed out of my mother’s house on Christmas Eve without a single explanation, later informing me that he thought the apartment was full of black smoke? Definitely an indicator of sanity. No, Stanley was fine and fucking dandy, and I try not to be ashamed of the fact that I immediately went about convincing myself of the truth of his argument.
It sounds crazy. It was crazy. I am an intelligent woman, I knew Stanley was not sane, but to doubt him was to invite an argument, and one was already brewing. In Stanley’s eyes, asking my mother for advice was betrayal of the first degree. He never forgave my mother, refusing to even attend events at which she might be present and speaking of her in the worst possible terms at every opportunity. He never forgave me, either. In fact he brought up the way I “talked shit behind his back” every time we had a fight for the duration of our relationship. Never mind that he shouldn’t have been reading my email in the first place; when I pointed out that his snooping was a much bigger problem than anything I had said it didn’t even seem to register. I dropped it, because at least he wasn’t screaming or throwing things, but once again it was a case of my being silent when I absolutely shouldn’t have.
In the years after, he alternated between ignoring me, berating me, and showering me with fawning attention. I never knew what to expect, I was always on my toes. I’ll say this for him, life with Stanley was never boring. No, it was almost like living in a real live horror movie. I was never sure when the monster would jump out from behind this man who I forced myself to believe loved me so much. I got to a point where I blamed myself whenever anything went wrong. He would get around to it eventually; I might as well start with the apologies before they were even necessary. Not that it ever changed anything. If Stanley wanted to have a tantrum, he had a tantrum, it never mattered how much I apologized or how ridiculous I made myself in my acts of atonement. It was like living with a two year old, but a two year old could never kill you, and I began to be legitimately afraid that Stanley might kill me in a moment of fury. To this day I’m sure he would have regretted it afterwards if he had killed me, but I also know that my fear wasn’t entirely unfounded.
I was constantly apologizing for everything. There was a point when I almost felt as if I should be apologizing for existing and not long after that came a point when I was truly sorry for my existence. I wasn’t suicidal per se, but I didn’t think it would be a problem if I simply ceased to exist. I spent days in bed, not getting dressed, not going out, getting nothing done. I hoped I might disappear. Then, I thought, he’d see how good I was to him. If I was gone he’d really appreciate me.
I listened to Tom Waits’ Little Drop of Poison over and over. Maybe, I thought, I’d leave in the fall. I could leave the song playing on repeat. He’d cry, he’d see what he’d done, I thought. Somewhere in my head, though, I knew it wouldn’t be that simple. Even if I could get up the courage to leave, and I wasn’t sure I could, Stanley would never realize it was he who had driven me away. And so I stayed, convincing myself that things would get better, doing more and more elaborate mental gymnastics.
One of the most terrifying things about abuse is how it gets into your head, it turns you against yourself and all your self-preservation tactics are twisted around. They become ways of defending the abuser, not yourself. By the end of the relationship, I could rationalize almost anything away. I was suffering from an autoimmune disease of the soul.
It wasn’t the overt cruelties that caused this, it was the other things, the smaller things. He would withhold not only sex, but all affection whenever he wanted to punish me. God forbid I ever refuse sex for any reason, though. If I didn’t want to fuck him I obviously didn’t love him. If I didn’t love him I was a lying bitch who cheated and talked shit behind his back.
When I went to get an IUD, my cervix proved too small to insert it the usual way. I was still sore and somewhat bloody that night when Stanley tried to initiate sex with me, but I was afraid of what would happen if I pushed him away. Two strokes in, he stopped.
“Did you cheat on me?” he asked.
“No,” I replied. “What are you talking about?”
“You seem kind of stretched out down there.”
“I went to the gynecologist today. You knew that. They pry you open there.”
“Okay,” he said as if he didn’t believe me.
He rolled off me and went to sleep on the couch. I hadn’t done anything wrong, I’d endured quite a bit of discomfort for Stanley’s benefit, but I still felt guilty, dirty even. He was good at that.
I lost touch. I lost touch with my friends, my mind, and my body. There was a point when I realized that I was no longer sure if my orgasms were real, or if I was simply performing because to remain unmoved would damage Stanley’s fragile ego and bring his wrath down on my head. How can one be unsure of such a thing? But I was unsure of the very fabric of reality. I doubted my thoughts. I doubted physical objects. I treasured every beautiful thing I owned the way one treasures a lovely dream. I wasn’t sure if they might slip away from me one day.
Worst of all, I lost touch with my sister. Whenever I spoke to her, I could feel words collecting in the back of my throat, ugly words, words that described everything I was going through: abuse, indoctrination, gaslighting, manipulation, mental torture. I knew they were there, but I couldn’t find the key that would unlock them from the cage behind my tongue. I couldn’t say them, not to myself, not to my sister, not to my therapist.
I complained of Stanley’s cruelties, petty and not-so-petty, to my sister, to my best friend, to anyone who would listen, but I could never find the words that needed to be said: “I am no longer my own. I am a prisoner. I am afraid. I am lost. I am breaking.” I had stopped writing for the most part. Every so often I wrote something small, but mostly I didn’t write, except in my journal, where I did nothing but explain to myself that I was not a prisoner, I was not afraid, my life was perfect and I had everything.
I’m sure everyone knew there was something wrong. I know my sister did. I know my heart was in my eyes when I said, “I love him…” I did love him. But. But he terrorized me. But he terrified me. But he berated me for not sharing my feelings and belittled me when I did. I loved him, but he spat in my face when he was angry. I loved him, but I was always terrified he would hit me with one of the dishes he threw when he got angry.
I loved him, but.
This went on and on. By the beginning of our fourth year together I knew our time was running out. It was obvious that Stanley did not like the person I was becoming. He said he did, but all his actions suggested otherwise. I can’t say I blame him. I had been trying to become an adult, but I was growing the way plants grow in the dark. I had matured in many ways, but without a source of light in my life I was a twisted wreck of a woman. I was bitter, beaten down, and utterly, utterly brittle. I tried to hide it all beneath a veneer of chilly pride, but even that was unpleasant.
I had known the end was near for a while before I really started to regain my sanity. At first I wasn’t happy about it, I really did love Stanley, at least as much as any prisoner can love her captor. Within a month, though, I had not only come to accept the inevitable end of our relationship, I was actively looking forward to and planning for it. I had to find a job; that was the first step. Then I had to save money, and then I could get out.
For the first time I saw the trap I had built for myself. In my attempts to be the perfect wife, I had entirely disempowered myself. Sure, I had little jobs here and there, but they were only enough to make ends meet, not enough to support me. I was reliant on Stanley for everything, from the food in my stomach to the roof over my head. But at least now I could see things for what they were. I saw how I had trapped myself, I saw the indignities he inflicted upon me, I saw his absolute disregard for me and my quality of life, and at the heart of it, his cloying, horrible obsession with me, the thing he insisted was love. For the first time in three years I allowed myself to be truly angry at him–angry without excuses, angry without self-immolation.
I spent a month before we broke up wishing for freedom, planning for my life alone and hating Stanley with every fiber of my being.