Adventure Girl takes stock of a toxic truth
‘Just now I held up the fingers of my hand to you. You saw five fingers. Do you remember that?’
O’Brien held up the fingers of his left hand, with the thumb concealed.
‘There are five fingers there. Do you see five fingers?’
And he did see them, for a fleeting instant, before the scenery of his mind changed. He saw five fingers, and there was no deformity. Then everything was normal again, and the old fear, the hatred and the bewilderment came crowding back again. But there had been a moment – he did not know how long, thirty seconds, perhaps – of luminous certainty, when each new suggestion of O’Brien’s had filled up a patch of emptiness and become absolute truth, and when two and two could have been three as easily been five, if that were what was needed. — George Orwell, Nineteen Eighty-Four.
‘For a compulsive liar, telling the truth is very awkward and uncomfortable while lying feels right.’ — The Truth About Deception.
‘Even when confronted with the cold facts, a true compulsive liar will never admit the truth. Attempts to make the person do so will result in further lying and perhaps even emotional outbursts designed to deflect attention from the lying.’ — Love to Know, Symptoms of Compulsive Liars.
It started with small things. We met and exchanged stories. He seemed open and artless, confiding a lot in a very short space of time. I opened up in return, drawn in; it was like I already knew him, or part of him, from somewhere before.
His history was touching and incredible. Perhaps too incredible. The way he spoke reminded me of a child who needs to exaggerate in order to feel special, to feel needed. The child in him spoke to the child in me.
He wasn’t much to look at: brown hair, brown eyes, generally innocuous; it was his wit which caught and held me. I guess you could say we bounced. His energy matched mine and his flirtatious banter had me wanting more.
As we spent more time together I noticed he would forget things. Things we’d done together, things he’d told me. A memory problem, he explained, from a childhood spent on Ritalin; later he blamed various injuries he’d sustained, injuries that also explained his chronic migraines and mysterious aches – symptoms I have since identified as withdrawal.
He admitted to having taken drugs in the past, but not for a long time. His medicine cabinet told another story. I quickly learned not to take anything from his ever-evolving store without examining it first – that box of ‘Panamax’ was as likely to contain OxyContin as Paracetamol.
We continued dating, exchanging more stories. I was having trouble reconciling the person he described then with the person he presented now. Trying to see the path his life had taken was virtually impossible. It wasn’t a progression, an evolution; he appeared to have been Person A at the same time as being Person B, and also Person C, when each personality was entirely incompatible. I didn’t need a timeline, I needed a Venn diagram!
Anytime I questioned him, an explanation toppled forth. Whatever the circumstance, he was always the victim; his name change (witness protection), his scattered work history (avoiding child support for a child he later ‘proved’ wasn’t his), the estranged family (responsible for his messed up childhood), the list goes on. He presented himself in one way, but behaved in another entirely. And another. And another. I joked that I would never know which ‘him’ I was going to see, but putting up with the anxiety his unpredictability caused, his extreme shifts of mood, wasn’t all that funny.
Still I stayed. He excited my imagination. He was crazy and sensitive and fun.
He was also selfish, vain, and a vindictive coward.
Over time I saw the many different faces he presented to many different people. He took care to keep his friendship groups separate. I was the exception, allowed to meet a selected few people from different circles of his life. It was enough for the cracks to become gaping holes. Stories he’d told me about them, and that they told me about him, didn’t add up. And it was little things, sometimes, things that shouldn’t even matter, like the cost of a ticket, who had said what, or where he spent his Sunday afternoon. Other lies were more significant, evidence of cheating, of misrepresenting our relationship, or the type of relationship he’d shared with others. Social networking made matters worse. I could see his interactions, his activities online: a picture at odds with his version of reality.
By now my gut was constantly screaming. A part of me knew it couldn’t last. I kept forcing fights, picking at old wounds like scabs. It wasn’t a question of whether I would leave, it was a question of when.
I could see how messed up he was, but more importantly, how messed up I was. It was as though he had this wound carved somewhere so deep in him, that was somehow so familiar in me. In his damaged psyche I found the mirror I had sought.
He threw tantrums and had violent meltdowns. I was at once repelled and drawn further in. Somehow this was fascinating. Always there was just enough to keep and hold me. It was as though he could sense when I was about to leave, and so tossed me a treat, a glimpse of the ‘him’ I knew to be in there somewhere, if only I could convince him to let it surface.
When things got too bad I would pull back, and he would say, ‘You’re the only good thing in my life.’ He had a way of making me feel that if I didn’t stay and be exactly what he wanted, another would quickly take my place. I knew no other could take his place with me.
Friends would want to know why, why did I stay? When he was at his worst, I would reply, ‘As soon as I get him to a psych, I’ll leave.’ When I was at my worst, it was, ‘I’m scared if I walk away he won’t follow.’
‘In some ways, you’re the better, more rational part of me,’ he once wrote. I know now it was partly self-hate that kept me there. Loving the worst parts in him was a way to accept those parts of me. If I could forgive the liar, the cheat, the histrionic, narcissistic, selfish, wounded, hurtful, nasty him, see those traits and love in spite of them – even because of them – I could forgive and heal those parts in me. But how could I explain this to my friends and family, that the worse he treated me, the more I loved him, when I didn’t even understand it myself?
I only knew that something was keeping me there, and that as long as I was there, I had to reconcile the fragments and the lies that simply didn’t add up. And so I went digging, trying to find independent sources that verified what I knew to be true. I needed the facts to line up, to turn my Venn diagram into something that worked.
It was dangerous and thrilling, fuelling an intense anxiety that became like a drug. I was searching to find the missing pieces that would somehow make sense of it all. I became the detective who can’t rest until the mystery is solved. He was my mystery.
Afterwards, in my shame, I confessed my discoveries. He made me feel guilty and irrational for questioning things that were patently untrue. Yet I could be holding hard evidence that proved his lies, that showed who he was and who he wasn’t, and still he would explain it away. Because in his fractured mind he could hold multiple identities, multiple realities, and believe them all. He was using Doublethink, and I was the one going insane.* This was not a mirror I could continue to see.
In my desperate refusal to leave, I developed mechanisms for dealing with his behaviour, with this ever-shifting reality. I made excuses for him, to myself, and to others. The big lies were ones he needed to tell himself, and the little ones…well, maybe I could live with those.
Now I know my anxiety wasn’t about suspicion and mistrust; I was suffering from prolonged cognitive dissonance** which doesn’t let up until the mind can reconcile or purge it. Even now, I replay rusted conversations in my mind, making an inventory of all the facts I’ve gathered, the conclusions I’ve drawn, fantasising about reaching the point where reality lines up, when I can say, ‘See? Here. THIS is the truth,’ and have everyone acknowledge it.
I was digging not to find the truth for myself, but because I needed him to tell me that he knew all along he was holding only four fingers, that I wasn’t crazy, that he drove me to act crazy, and believe it.
I needed him to say, ‘I lied.’
P.S. I got him to see a psych in the end. And he didn’t follow.
*This phenomenon can also be described as ‘Gaslighting‘. According to Wikipedia: ‘Gaslighting is a form of psychological abuse in which false information is presented to the victim with the intent of making them doubt their own memory and perception. It may simply be the denial by an abuser that previous abusive incidents ever occurred, or it could be the staging of bizarre events by the abuser with the intention of disorienting the victim.’ See also Robin Stern’s, ‘Are you in a gaslighting relationship?’, published on May 19, 2009.
**According to Wikipedia: ‘Cognitive dissonance is an uncomfortable feeling caused by holding conflicting ideas simultaneously. The theory of cognitive dissonance proposes that people have a motivational drive to reduce dissonance. They do this by changing their attitudes, beliefs, and actions… Dissonance is also reduced by justifying, blaming, and denying. It is one of the most influential and extensively studied theories in social psychology.’