Have you ever felt so confused, so helpless, and so filled with terror that you just checked out? I don’t mean for a moment or two while you get your bearings, I’m talking a full-on, lights-on-nobody-is-home, my-soul-just-left-the-building kind of way? I’m talking a huge part of your own personality and everything that makes you who you are disappearing and piloting your body around like a machine for years?
I was in the shower the day I felt my soul leave my body. It was after yet another nasty, knock-down-drag-out argument between myself and my then-partner. It had happened several times, and since I’d already moved thousands of miles away from the only home I’d ever known to be with her, there wasn’t much I could do to get away.
She’d been miserable for the few months she’d lived in Connecticut with me. Her health took a dive, she became agoraphobic, she started drinking to excess, and her mental health had declined so badly that I came home one day to find her blackout drunk with a knife to her gut, tears streaming down her face, heart-wrenching sobs shaking her tiny body.
It was on this night that I made the decision to quit my job, sell my car, and leave everything behind so I could get my love back to her home state. I was 30 years old at the time, but I might as well have been 12.
The title of this piece, ‘An Angel Rides With Death’ is the most accurate way I can describe the dynamic Mel* and I had. While I’m certainly no angel and Mel is not Death in human form, those were the roles we ultimately played.
You see, I’m on the autism spectrum, so I’m incredibly literal and I take things at face value. Even though I had experience being around alcoholics as a child, I really believed, with all of my heart, that her extreme behavior and drinking was entirely situational.
You see, she’d just received news that a friend who was like a brother to her had been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, and she just wanted to go back home. That was her explanation for why I came home to find her in the state I did that night.
I made what I believed was the ultimate sacrifice in one instant. I didn’t have to think about it because I loved her more than I have ever loved another living soul in my life.
In that sense, I was angelic. Incredibly naïve like a unicorn that had never before been in contact with a human being. Never knew hardship, tragedy, pain, or abuse (even though, in reality, I had experienced all of those things in spades). A person who trusted like a newborn child.
For her part, she was Death. Having faced incredible trauma at a very early age when she’d witnessed a relative commit suicide, she identified more with the dead than she ever did with the living.
Mel claimed she could hear and speak to the dead, and I believed her. She also told me that the end of the world was coming in 2012. Guess what? I believed that, too. Why? Well, it’s something I’d been told since childhood, and, although I didn’t know it at the time, I had actually been looking forward to dying my entire life, and I couldn’t wait to pass on.
So, I packed my belongings, broke my lease, quit my job, quit school, sold my car, ignored the mountains of credit card debt piling up behind me, got into a car with a reaper masquerading as the love of my life, and descended into Hell.
We’d been to her home state months prior, so I thought I knew what to expect. I knew the house, I’d met her family, and I’d had a couple conversations with her friends. I played with cute dogs, and I saw an opportunity to start a quieter, more relaxed life in the country. When I was there for our brief vacation, I didn’t ever want to leave, so, making the snap decision to move back there with her wasn’t difficult at all.
The first night I was there, I had the best sleep of my life. I was starting life over, and I was home. Or, so I thought.
It took only three days for the mask to fall away entirely. The person I’d ridden with for hours, the person who promised me love, support, friendship, and a fresh start vanished, and a new and horrifying visage took its place.
She’d bought a gun. I couldn’t for the life of me understand why. She had diagnosed mental illnesses, so there was no way she would have been allowed to do so legally. Anyway, what did she need it for? What was going on?
As I sat there on the carpet asking her these questions, looking up at her with genuine confusion, she just sneered at me. It was a look I’d never seen before that moment but would come to know very well in the years to come.
This person was a complete stranger to me. On most days, while I stayed home, trapped in the house with no money, no car, and no friends, she went out with her buddies to get high and drink herself into a stupor.
If I was lucky, she’d come home, puke and pass out. If I wasn’t so lucky, she’d find me in whatever corner I was trying to disappear into and lay into me with verbal abuse and gaslighting techniques for hours until I was a sobbing, disoriented mess.
I tried reasoning with her, pleading with her, and even going to counseling with her. I hid alcohol, I hid guns, I called her friends screaming at them as though it was somehow their fault she was behaving the way she was. I tried to treat her mental illnesses with dietary changes and supplements (which she did try but never stuck to).
I did everything in my power to get “her” back, but, what I wouldn’t understand until much later was that the person I’d fallen madly in love with didn’t exist. It was all an act, a carefully constructed personality designed to make me feel what I felt, so I would leave everything behind, get in that car, and become her personal trapped companion.
Despite the fact that I was doing all this to try to calm things down and “save” our relationship, I had checked out of it very early on. Before I stepped into the shower and out of my body that day, we’d fought about the gun.
She’d been carrying it on her while pacing around the house, talking in different voices, calling me horrible names, and saying disgusting things about me. She said she regretted that I’d ever moved in with her and told me to “get out” in a growling tone. I took her 100 percent literally, and panic shot through me like a knife.
“Get out?!” I had nowhere to go! I had no car, no job, no money, no nothing! Was I going to be homeless now? Just like that?
It is mortifying to me to admit how I responded to that incredible fear, but, as I mentioned before, I am on the autism spectrum. I had a meltdown of epic proportions. The kind of meltdown I hadn’t experienced since childhood.
I sobbed, screamed, shook, hyperventilated, and slammed my forehead repeatedly into the wall of our bedroom. I literally had no control over myself at all. It was as though I was outside of myself watching what I was doing but powerless to stop it.
The entire time I was doing this, Mel just sat on the bed, her eyes cold as ice, her lips curled into a vicious sneer.
During one lucid moment, I frantically begged her to help me, to stop me. I was hurting myself so badly, and I could not make myself stop. She just laughed, shook her head, and walked out of the room.
At some point, I managed to crawl to the phone and call my aunt. I told her what happened as best I could. I told her that my partner had told me to “get out” and that I was scared I’d be homeless, but I left out the gun part, the weird voices part, and, of course, the part where I’d beaten my own head to a bruised pulp.
All of a sudden, as if a switch had been flipped, Mel came running back into our room, shushed me, held me close, and spoke in a soothing voice.
“I didn’t mean any of those things I said,” she cooed. “I was just mad.”
It was her voice again. Her postures. Her gestures. She was back! I was so relieved and scared and confused at the same time. She was back! Had it all been in my head? What had I done to myself? What was wrong with me?
I hung up with my aunt, and Mel and I went outside and took photos together. We were very careful to keep my bruised forehead out of the shots, and they actually are some of the best pictures of us ever taken.
As soon as I posted them on Facebook, she wanted to make love, but I couldn’t get into it. My body and my soul were rejecting her, even though my brain kept trying to tell me everything was fine. She felt it and immediately turned on me.
Afterward, I got into the shower, and I felt myself slip away, down the drain, out through the steam. I was gone. I’d gotten out the only way I’d known how.
Could I have called my family and told them that I made the biggest mistake of my life? That I was living with a monster? Maybe. But at the time, I didn’t see it as an option. I was mortified. I couldn’t even grasp the full horror of what I’d just done to myself, the position I’d put myself in, and I refused to. I simply checked out and that lived that way for five more years.
Three of those years were spent with her. Did we have good times? Of course. There were moments of pure joy and happiness together. There were cuddles, and watching movies, and driving around in her car. There were the few times we went out dancing. The one time I took her to see her favorite artist in concert, and, a few years later, when she did the same for me.
But those times were few and far in between. They didn’t last long.
Besides, those memories aren’t the ones that still haunt my dreams on a nightly basis.
Night of the Hunter
It was 3 AM, and, as usual, I had no idea where she was. I was in the shower when I heard her come home. Immediately, terror gripped my insides, and I prayed she would just collapse into bed and leave me alone.
But I heard the bathroom door open and a growling noise filled the room. I heard the toilet seat shift, and when I chanced a peek out from behind the curtain, her eyes locked onto mine.
She was muttering to herself, growling, and ripping into the wall with her left hand, pulling out chunks of plaster while glaring at me like a hungry demon.
I slunk out of the shower, avoided further eye contact, and got into bed. I’d already hidden her gun in one of my knee-high boots under the bed. (Oddly, she’d requested that I do so if she “ever got blackout drunk again”.)
But that night, she wanted the gun. She kept saying she needed to protect us from the neighbors. When I wouldn’t respond to her, she jumped on the bed, jumped on my body, pulled my earplug out of my ear, yanked the covers off of me, and spit in my face while calling me a “whore” repeatedly in a whispering, growling voice.
That was the first night I defended myself. After playing dead and praying silently for over 30 minutes, I finally got up and took a swing at her. Considering I’m nearly blind without my glasses, I’m surprised it connected.
She reeled back with a folding table and came at me. I was ready. I couldn’t ignore and I couldn’t run, so I had to fight.
She must have seen something in my eyes because she backed down. Soon, she passed out.
The next morning, she left me a sweet voicemail about how she was running around doing errands and would be home soon. She came home wondering where the bruise on her cheek came from. Once again, she had no memory of the night before, and I was the one left explaining.
In her eyes, I became the abuser.
“Is It Santa Clause Time?”
I don’t remember exactly what started this particular incident, but I know it involved alcohol and maybe a fight she’d been in with a friend. She had the gun and was running around the house with it, inside and outside. I tried to talk her down, but I couldn’t get through to her.
Eventually, she disappeared into the woods, and I had to call the police. They put her in the ambulance and strapped her down. I rode behind them to the hospital, watching through the back window as her frenzied eyes darted all around, her upper lip curling like a person possessed. The medics seemed shocked by this, but I’d seen that facial expression so many times, it barely registered anymore.
Her blood alcohol level was about twice the legal limit, and, when it wore off, she was herself again, talking to me, being very childlike and sweet.
There was a moment when I curled up with her in the big chair they had out for visitors, and she looked up at me, half-asleep and almost completely out of it.
Her naturally big eyes searched mine and she asked in a high, timid voice, “Is it Santa Clause time?”
My heart snapped in half. I can hardly see the screen for sobbing right now. In that moment, she was just a broken child, confused and scared like me, wondering what day it was, what time it was, when Christmas was, and when the end of the world was coming. She wanted it to come soon. So did I.
The Longest 20 Minutes of My Life
After the incident at the hospital, where Mel ended up staying for a week, her mother told me that if I ever called the police on her daughter again, she would kick me out of the house.
Remember, I had no money and no car. Yes, I was allowed to work a part-time job, but that money was never really mine. As soon as it came in, it was spent on household items. Saving for a car was never really an option, either, even though I tried desperately to do it.
One night, we were out at a bar. At this point, I had just started drinking along with her because I knew I couldn’t stop her. I spaced out my drinks, but she guzzled them back, and, as usual, the demon came out to play once she’d had a few shots of hard liquor.
When we got home, I wasn’t expecting a fight. She seemed like she was ready to pass out. But, somehow, she got hold of that gun again, and when I turned around, she had it cocked to her temple and was threatening to blow her brains out.
I stopped breathing, and I just stared at her in mute shock. Eventually, I found my voice and tried to talk her down, but I can’t remember anything I said. Not one word. I just remember that for 20 minutes, my brain went through every imaginable horror it could think of.
How would I explain this to her mother? Shouldn’t I call the police? But, I can’t, I was told not to. Could I reach the phone in time? Could I reach her in time? What will it look like when her brains are all over the wall? Will she miss? Will she die right away? How am I going to explain…
Eventually, she put the gun down, still cocked, curled into bed and cried, and I wrapped myself around her, holding her until she fell asleep. All I remember thinking was, “This is my new normal now”.
The next day, she remembered nothing. She had no idea why the gun was cocked and was too scared to shoot it or un-cock it herself, so she had a friend come over and do it.
That friend, by the way, is the very same one she was crying about that night she had the knife to her gut. Turns out, he never did have cancer. When she casually mentioned this to me the first week I was there, it felt like an iceberg had crashed into my gut. Incredulous, I’d confronted her about it, but she simply and calmly said, “It was your choice to move here”.
The truth was, this friend had pancreatitis and was slowly drinking himself to death (which he succeeded in doing less than a year later), but the word “cancer” is a much more effective way to get a naive, autistic woman to follow you anywhere, don’t you think?
The Aftermath – My Body Comes Home and My Brain Gets Diagnosed
Please don’t ask me why I didn’t “just leave”. If you’ve never been in a mind-bending abusive relationship filled with manipulation, alcohol, mental illness, and drugs, then you don’t get a say. It’s that simple.
I would have said the same thing before it happened to me. In fact, I’d HAD said the same thing in the past to a close friend of mine.
But, the truth is, you do not know what you’ll do until you’re in the situation. Autism aside, mental illness aside, perfectly reasonable and mentally healthy individuals with no developmental disorders get into these kinds of relationships all the time, and it nearly kills them.
I’m not using the fact that I’m on the spectrum as an excuse, just an explanation as to why I didn’t see some of the more obvious signs, and, most importantly, why I didn’t know myself well enough to know I could never have handled the move I made even under the best of circumstances.
After nearly three years of this torment, I did leave. The end was just as much of a horrific mess as the relationship itself, and I don’t think it will serve me to rehash any of it here.
Suffice it to say, another woman was involved, but she was, by far, the least of our problems. As a matter of fact, today I view her as the woman who saved my life, although I hated her at the time.
My aunt came and picked me up. I took what few belongings I could carry in boxes into her SUV, and she drove me home. She let me live with her and my uncle for a year.
It took me another year to completely lose my mind. To finally bend and break under all the pressure I’d been under since birth (I had a very traumatic childhood) not to mention all I’d been through with Mel.
I was in the hospital for a total of five weeks in 2014. I got diagnosed with PTSD, traumatic brain injury (TBI), which my doctor believes occurred in childhood, not from hitting my head into the wall that day, OCD, and autism spectrum disorder.
Sliding Butt-First Back Into My Body
Before I had my breakdown, I went on a spontaneous January hike with my cousin. It was the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever done. There we were, hiking up a mountain while the terrain got more and more slippery. We just kept going, plunging ahead and enjoying the day.
When we got to the top, we literally had no choice but to slide back down the packed ice on our butts so we wouldn’t slip and get hurt.
We were halfway down the mountain when my soul came slamming back into my body. I wasn’t expecting it, and it certainly didn’t give me any kind of warning. I got tired all of a sudden, and I sat down to rest.
Suddenly, it’s as though someone had taken cotton out of my ears and everything came into crystal-sharp focus. I could see each individual icicle, I could feel the ground beneath my rear, the sun was so bright against the snow, it hurt my eyes. I felt the cold air moving in and out of my lungs and my cheeks were burning.
Tears fell from my eyes, slipping down my reddened cheeks, and I broke into a wide grin. I looked at my cousin with unclouded eyes and said, “I’m back”.
I’d come home. Not just my body, but my mind and heart, too. It was the first time I’d felt myself in my body in five years, and, it was only then that I knew I had been gone.
The Path Moving Forward
I may have come back on that cold January day, but I went away again plenty of times after that. I never could seem to stay in my body, but, after my breakdown, I learned that this is one of the many symptoms of PTSD, and it’s something I’ve learned to live with.
I did many things when I came home before I landed in the hospital. I became a Reiki master, I had Reiki done on me, I dated a shaman for a short while (that turned out to be a disaster of a relationship, too, but that person did accelerate my growth by at least a year or two in the few months we were together), I lost my mind, found myself, became a practicing Christian, got the myriad diagnoses I’d desperately needed since childhood, started taking medication, and began intensive one-on-one and group therapy.
Is life perfect now? Oh, dear God, no. Far from it. Life is vastly different from what it was when I started this strange and terrifying journey seven years ago. I’m a completely different person.
Gone is the naive and innocent person I was. As a matter of fact, I’m rather cynical and paranoid these days, but I still have my sense of humor. I also have my blog, my friends, my family, and my faith.
I’ve come to love the new me. I literally needed to lose my mind to find myself, and now I’m right here in all my naked, vulnerable, imperfect glory.
You Have the Power to Take Your Life Back
I’m no longer afraid to talk about what I survived. In fact, I’m compelled. There are people still out there in similar situations, and they’ve either checked out completely or simply think there is no hope.
There is hope. You are not crazy. You are being emotionally abused. Even if your partner doesn’t lay a finger on you, that person can literally drive you insane with words alone.
I’m sharing my story to let you know you’re not alone. You are valid and important. No matter what you’ve been told, no matter how long you’ve been beaten down, YOU ARE STILL IN THERE!
Fight your way back to the surface. Take back your power, say “enough is enough”, and do anything and everything you can to find freedom again.
Because all of us, each and every single survivor, we’ll be right here waiting for you when you get back.
*Not her real name.