DUEL BETWEEN POVERTY AND PRIDE
“My people, which are called by my name, shall humble themselves and pray. That I will hear them from heaven and forgive their sins, and will heal their lands.2 Chronicles 7:14
I moved to East Hampton, NY in the middle of the school year, but I was not enrolled in any school or social activities. The only person I met who was anywhere near my own age was an aspiring chef who worked at the local bagel store. I was 17 and he was 28.
He was tall and skinny with sandy blonde hair and a goat tee. He loved tattoos and his sleeves were almost fully inked. I still hadn’t learned the lesson that I should be careful with strangers. Turns out they only look whimsical.
I always was good at making new friends.
He was the kind of guy who already had a dealer. He was the kind of guy who could score you anything you wanted. He was the kind of guy blind dogs barked at.
I spent my free time that spring and the following summer hanging out with him. The next fall I started at a fancy private school.
Their motto was “know thy self in order to serve”.
I would not fully grasp the irony of someone with identity issues attending this institution at this stage of her life until many years later. And it is one of my greatest regrets that I wasn’t emotionally capable of taking advantage of such an incredible opportunity. I feel as though it was wasted on me.
I felt like a fish out of water the moment I pulled into the school parking lot. The cars that lined the lot came in many models and various colors, but there were only two makes – Range Rover and BMW.
As students entered the building they removed their shoes and placed them into cubby holes built into wooden benches and adorned simple school-issued slippers like those worn in the far east. I was originally concerned my feet would be cold in the winter, but soon discovered that the Wellness Building had heated floors.
The school day began with breakfast served in the café followed by morning meditation in lieu of morning assembly. It was very Zen.
They tried to create a state of calm, but the student body buzzed about with a type of sophistication I had only seen in movies. Trust fund babies talked about labels like Prada and Gucci the same way kids back home talked about dirt bikes and paint ball guns.
Growing up one of my friend’s parents owned a farm where we used to play capture the flag. Here the students’ parents included a billionaire business tycoon, a former supermodel and a famous musician who was always in a New York State of Mind. A student in the graduating class above me would later go on to marry a Kardashian.
I was most definitely not in Kansas anymore.
At school I was friendly to everyone, but had a hard time really connecting to anyone. In the beginning they all wanted to be friends with me. One of the “it girls” even told me I was “in” and I could become a cheerleader. I ran. In the opposite direction. Fast.
This still breaks my heart a little bit, because part of the overly built swimmer inside of me had secretly always wanted to be a peppy cheerleader – and all I had to do in that moment was say yes.
Was this self-sabotage? Low self-esteem? Did I not think I was good enough to be friends with people like this? Perhaps a little. G-d knows the truth of who we are and how we are covered up.
But, she wasn’t sweet like the captain of the cheerleading squad back home, who once loaned me her old prom dress so I could feel like a princess and go to the dance. This girl had an air of superiority about her that my soul couldn’t stomach.
By the end of the year the other kids would tease me whenever I talked about an experience from work. I got my working papers at the age of fourteen and started working two jobs in the summer to earn enough spending money for the year. They went to summer camp and bummed around Europe. They didn’t understand me. I didn’t understand them. They would say, “How have you had this many jobs? Dear G-d are you thirty?”
Pioneering self-esteem researcher Morris Rosenberg asserted that nothing is more stressful than lacking the secure anchor of self-esteem. My low self-esteem led to a string of toxic relationships, exaggerated stress levels and deflated mood. Mostly, I just couldn’t enjoy myself.
I spent my nights in the basement apartment of a house near the bagel shop with guys in their late twenties. That’s where I was most comfortable and where I felt like I belonged.
The first time I caught the bagel boys snorting cocaine it scared me. I ran out of the bedroom, through the living room, up the stairs, flung open the Bilco doors and was halfway across the driveway to my car when one of them grabbed my arm.
This drug was a step too far, even for me at this stage. I wanted to run away. I knew I should run away. I had something to run away from. But, I had nothing to run towards. I was lonely. And the thing I was searching for most of all was acceptance, in any format.
He convinced me to come back into the house and I found myself standing over a mirror with lines laid out. I couldn’t bring myself to do one, so one of the guys told me to open my mouth. He had me lick his finger, he dabbed it in a line of cocaine and spread it across my upper gum.
“Whether we fall by ambition, blood or lust, like diamonds we are cut with our own dust.”John Webster
Things rolled downhill with great speed and I started skipping school. I got caught. My parents had a very reasonable response and I was grounded.
By this time, I was eighteen years old and couldn’t imagine that many drug-free days in a row. I packed a bag, called a cab and moved in with my 29-year-old boyfriend.
We shared a one-car-garage that had been converted into a studio apartment. I took a job waiting tables at a local restaurant to help pay my share of the bills. I kept attending the same fancy private school. Thankfully, I received breakfast and lunch at school and dinner at work. In those days, we never ran out of cigarettes and we never had any food.
A rickety old ladder was propped against one of the walls and we used it to access a small sleeping loft. I had managed to drag an old mattress from a folding sofa up there and suppose I had grown accustomed to sleeping on a mattress on the floor at this point. It felt normal to me.
My boyfriend had a drinking problem and there were always at least twelve empty beers cans littered around the bed up there. Some he used as ashtrays. I was always the first one to fall asleep at night and often times I’d wake-up a few hours later to a lit cigarette hitting my hip. He said he used to fall asleep with them. He always said it was an accident.
At the time I never questioned it, but today whenever I catch sight of the scar on my hip from all those brushes with lit cigarettes I wonder if he did it on purpose. If he just enjoyed waking me up that way as some sort of nighttime ritual. Perhaps I was just a toy he liked to play with sometimes.
My shame spiral continued on a solid downward trajectory.
The self-loathing I lived in was a reflection of the darkness I felt from the depths of my soul. But, pain is just another prison and I wanted to be a free man. And where there is a will, there is a way.
What I didn’t realize the first time I put that pipe to my lip and hit the rock was that I purchased this freedom by selling my soul. I doubt it would have made a difference. Sometimes you just have to choose between the monster and the devil.
Do you know what feels even better than being in control? Letting go of it…
The first time you go there it’s the most dangerous place you’ve ever been, but it isn’t long before it becomes the safest and most comforting place to be … for a whole five to fifteen minutes.
People who smoke crack tend to congregate inside a house to partake in this ritual. These houses all share certain similarities. The curtains are always drawn, there is always an ashtray you don’t empty to save the ashes, you can always find an empty aluminum can, the radio never has an antenna and there is rarely ever any toilet paper.
In these circumstances, poverty and pride are engaged in a never-ending duel until one kills the other. Once your pride is dead and buried, you may enter.
I wasn’t alive on December 7, 1941. For me, March 17, 2003, is the day that will live in infamy.
I was waiting tables at the restaurant and we had just installed our first micros machine. The special that evening was corned beef and cabbage. I had a single four-top and was going home with $6 in tips. I had spent most of that night sitting in a booth with one of the other waiters doing crossword puzzles and watching the news.
Two stories dominated the cycle that evening. George W. Bush was President and the conflict in Iraq had just begun. And Elizabeth Smart had been found a few days earlier and reunited with her family. Her story seemed strangely relatable to me and I found it comforting to know that she got to go home. The way she smiled and took comfort in the loving embrace of her family was reaffirming. I thought that she was lucky to have someone to hold onto.
My boyfriend was the chef in the kitchen that night and there was a Mexican woman working with him preparing the salads and desserts. They had started wrapping up the mise en place with shrink wrap and putting things in the walk-in. We were all hoping to leave the second the restaurant closed. But, five minutes before that was scheduled to happen a couple was seated in my section.
One of them ordered a salad and the other a cup of soup. They both ordered the special. I put the order into the micros machine, picked up their drinks at the bar and served them and went into the kitchen to retrieve their salads.
When I stepped into the kitchen I saw two steaming hot plates of corned beef and cabbage sitting in the window. I picked up the salads and told my boyfriend I needed him to keep them warm. He sneered at me that a dotted line wasn’t between the appetizers and entrees on the micros ticket. I apologized and told him the new machine must have gotten it wrong. He threw one of the plates through the window at me, I ducked and it crashed to the floor.
The Mexican woman scrambled to the ground to start cleaning it up and I snapped at her to leave it and let him clean it up. I felt bad for my overly harsh tone. I put one of the salad plates on my forearm and bent down next to her. I looked her in the eyes and tried to convey calmness and compassion with a reassuring look and gently took her hand in mine.
I stood up and led her out of the kitchen with me. I walked towards the bar and motioned for her to sit on a stool at the end and gave the bartender a nod. I’m not sure if he had heard the plate crash or not, but he had a knowing look, fixed the woman a glass of water and came over to keep her company while I served the salads.
When they finished their salads I cleared the plates and walked towards the kitchen. I discarded them at the empty dishwasher station and picked two plates of corned beef and cabbage up out of the window. The remnants of the shattered glass had been removed and he stood quietly behind the line. I picked up the plates and walked back out without saying a word.
The other waiter cleared their plates for me as I went to print their check. The entire staff was eager to finish this table, close-up and go home for the night. The shattered glass may have disappeared, but the wreckage still clung to the air.
I walked back into the kitchen to confront him for the ride home. I hoped I was going to be able to convince him to let me drive. When he was in a mood like this he liked to play games in the car. He’d rant at me and want me to admit that it was my fault he was upset and treating me this way. He’d drive fast threatening to lose control. His favorite pastime was driving straight towards the cement walls of the underpasses at high speeds. It was like a game of chicken to him.
When I walked into the kitchen and asked for the keys, he told me he didn’t have them. He said he had given his car and his cell phone to his dealer and he was waiting for him to come back. I told him he was an idiot. That the guy was going to go on a bender and he wasn’t going to see him (or his car or cell phone) again until he was finished.
I walked back into the restaurant and asked the bartender to call me a cab. My two tables that evening had produced just enough cash to pay for a ride home.
When the cab arrived he followed me outside, slid into the seat next to me and instructed the cab driver to take him to the dealer’s house. I protested. I told him the dealer wasn’t going to be there. I reminded him, we didn’t have enough cab fare to drive around all night.
When we arrived at the dealer’s house, he wasn’t home. But, my boyfriend asked me to leave him there and I was all to happy to oblige and then instructed the cab driver to take me home alone. I made it about halfway before my cell phone rang and he asked me to come back and pick him up. I obeyed.
When we got home, we both realized all too quickly that we didn’t have his car keys. No car key, no house key. He went around back, crawled in through a window and flung the front door open with such force where I was waiting that I had to jump out of the way. Our cat ran out of the house and past me before I had time to step inside the threshold.
I wish I had followed her.
He went into a rage that night. He yelled. He screamed. He chucked full beer cans at my head. Luckily, in that state he had terrible aim. I was frightened, but I didn’t leave. When he reached for a samurai sword that hung on the wall, I grabbed my phone and scurried into the loft. The moment I was up there he pulled the ladder away and taunted me that I couldn’t get down. I’ve never been so relieved in my entire life. All I could think was, and you can’t get up.
I laid in our bed face down, clutching my phone in both hands under my chest. I was crying hysterically. I was debating whether or not to call the police. I knew he would wear himself out eventually and pass out. I knew when he woke-up the next morning he would be sober and he would apology. I knew I didn’t have enough money to bail him out of jail.
The next day I went to see a friend and ask for advice. She told me I was going to have move back in with my parents. She was quite certain if I stayed in this situation any longer, he would kill me. At that age I didn’t know where else to go. And at any age, we usually pick the familiar over the good. Sometimes harsh reality is better than false hope.
My parents were traveling in Cuba, but I left a message for them at work, on both of their cells phones and sent them an email. They got the email first and told me I could go back and live with them, but that the house was being painted and the hardwood floors were being redone and they wouldn’t be home for another week. They told me to sleep in the basement since this was the only part of the house not being effected by the workmen.
If you eliminate the impossible, then whatever remains, however improbable must be the truth. The opposite of love isn’t hate. Love and hate are two horns on the same goat. The opposite of love is indifference.
But, denial is a resourceful creature always able to worm its way into your mind and maybe sometimes this takes the form of protective measures. No one wants to admit that compassion and cruelty can live side-by-side in one heart.
As in all good training, in the end it doesn’t much matter who trained whom; we all got what we wanted.
I was grateful they let me come home and even more grateful to have workmen buzzing about constantly. It gave me some company, but also some security. I didn’t know what my ex-boyfriend would do to get me back, but I didn’t feel safe.
Since that night, I’ve never felt safe again. My self-worth has never fully recovered. I try to remember that G-d is a reminder of our inherent worthiness.
According to the CDC, one in three women and one in four men have experienced some form of physical violence by an intimate partner. This includes a range of behaviors (e.g. slapping, shoving, pushing).
One in four women and one in seven men have been victims of severe physical violence (e.g. beating, burning, strangling) by an intimate partner in their lifetime.
On average, nearly 20 people per minute are physically abused by an intimate partner in the United States. During one year, this equates to more than 10 million women and men.
I focused my energy on counting down the days I had left until I got to go away to college. It felt good to be sober again and my body was recovering, but I was filled with shame from the things I had done and the things that had been done to me. I saw and heard things that no one should ever see or hear.
I prayed that G-d would submit to the darkness inside of me in order to build something out of it.
I still intended to make something of myself.
I also knew enough to know that salvation always comes at a price. I didn’t yet know the price I would have to pay for mine. The only encouraging thing I knew for certain was that I was very tough to kill.
Come back next week for Chapter Six and join us as we decide on a college and deepen our definition of narcissistic abuse.
The goal is to shed light on the current epidemic of narcissism in our country. It is also my most sincere hope that this story will help people who are survivors of abuse or suffering with mental illness to find not only solace, but salvation.
Bonus points if it also sparks a national dialogue about how the prominence of this destructive personality trait is shaping future generations, altering the fabric of our culture and impacting our society as a whole.
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