Reclaiming San Francisco

Due to a lovely fluke of scheduling giving me three days off from classes this week, as well as my lovely generous girlfriend (and her job–technically she’s up here for work), I flew into San Francisco from Los Angeles yesterday, and I’m here until Sunday.

This trip is a much needed mini-vacation before I enter the final stretch of my LAST QUARTER EVER at UCLA.  Next week I will dive back into writing endless proposals and reading papers and trying to make myself care about yet another cancer immunology paper in which they combine two established treatments and see what happens (neither cancer nor immuno are my great science loves, and I find most translational research unbearably boring. I know I shouldn’t be whining about reading the work of people who are trying to find better cancer treatments, but my cancer immunology class is KILLING me. Speaking of which, anyone have an EXCITING cancer immuno paper I can use as the basis for my proposal for class? 😛 ).  I’m not completely taking a break–this morning I finished (re-)formatting my thesis and got approval from my advisor to get it sent out to my master’s committee, and I’m also trying to get some work done on job applications and writing projects–but I am making some time to wander the city as well.

That wandering is particularly important to me because this trip, in addition to being a nice break and a lovely getaway with my partner, is also my first trip to the bay area since I abruptly stopped visiting here two years ago.

See, my ex lives in the Bay area, and I spent my first six months of grad school travelling up to see him roughly every other weekend. I actually saw relatively little of the actual city, as my ex lives south of SFO–we were largely weekend San Francisco tourists. But the fact remains that my entire experience of this city was, up until now, tainted by memories of the ex.

It probably sounds like I’m being dramatic, so let’s take a step back. I think at most I’ve mentioned my ex in passing here, so I’ll fill you in a bit.

“The ex” is the boy I started dating at 16 and finally left six years later. We started as a pretty ordinary high school couple–insecure, new to relationships, a tad bit over-dramatic. But we really did love each other. He was smart and sweet and funny and he made me feel beautiful. We were both utterly inexperienced, and we had lovely adventures trying to find hidden spots on Ball State University’s campus (where our boarding school high school was located) for our new favorite hobby: making out. There’s something magical about that time in life, and about first loves–dirty hidden stairwells will never be as romantic to anyone else as they are to teenagers in puppy-love.

Even early on, we had our issues.  I was insecure and anxious and periodically depressed, and he found my emotional issues exhausting, constantly reminding me how much WORK it was to be my boyfriend. In my view, he had issues of his own–things I was always trying to ‘fix’–but he disagreed. But we were mostly happy, at one point.

We probably should have split and gone our separate ways when we went off to college, but since we went to the same school our hand was never forced and we stayed together. And slowly our dynamic shifted… and never in a healthy fashion. Thanks in part to my parents’ disapproval of the relationship and partially due to the ex’s persecution complex, we felt like it was ‘us against the world’.  He began to see almost any friends outside of the mutual friends we had from high school as a threat to our relationship.  He began accusing me of cheating, and we almost broke up when he dug through my email and discovered that I had, in fact, had had a chance to cheat and was emailing my best friend from high school because I had been tempted and felt very guilty.

By the time we got engaged and moved to California together (though to two different cities–me to grad school in LA, him to work in SF), we were locked in an unchanging and excruciating dynamic. There were certain topics I simply avoided in order to prevent screaming fights. We had a rule about not hanging up on each other during long-distance fights… that we broke at least once a month. He regularly told me both that he loved me and couldn’t live without me…. and that I was impossible to live with and that I should be grateful that he put up with me.

The obvious question is “why did I stay”… and all I can tell you right now is that emotional abuse is an insidious force that creeps into your head and warps all of reality. One of these days, I will write a post trying to explain exactly how that happens and how it feels, but today is not that day.

Today I just want to tell you how it ended. Distance made everything in my everyday life so much better–I was free, and my social circle expanded significantly for the first time since high school–and everything in my relationship so much worse. It also afforded me concrete evidence of The Ex’s awfulness that I couldn’t explain away or hide from–I still have a particularly brutal voicemail from the middle of a fight in which he called me a “worthless whore”. And eventually, I got up the nerve to leave.

The breakup was at least as traumatizing as the relationship itself. The last time I saw him in person, he threatened to kill himself if I didn’t stay. I still called a taxi to get me to the airport, and I told him that if he really felt that way I would call him an ambulance, but I was leaving.

Even after that, he wouldn’t let me go–he called, texted, and emailed incessantly. I had to block him and then change my number because during the worst of it I literally couldn’t use my phone because it was constantly ringing or buzzing.  He fluctuated between begging for me to come back and telling me what a worthless evil whore I was. It was brutal, and all the while I was trying to go into lab and class every day and act normal.  He tried to turn our mutual friends against me, harassing them until most of them cut him off completely.

I made it, and eventually the harassment died down. I have all the emails hidden away in an account that a close friend holds the password to, in case I ever do need them to file for the restraining order that so many of my friends strongly suggested I obtain, but at this point it seems unlikely I’ll need them. I’ve been free of that toxic relationship for two damn years, and it feels amazing.

Hopefully though, that story explains to you why I feel that memories of those six years of my life are tainted by his presence in them. The end was so ugly and so bad for my mental health that I’m sure without the help of a few close friends I would have had to drop out of grad school.  Knowing that someone who claimed to love me so much was so willing to hurt me in the end makes even the happy memories strangely painful.

And until yesterday, my only memories of this city were about him.

But not anymore. Today I walked to City Lights Bookstore, a San Francisco landmark I always wanted to visit during my tourist excursions with the ex but never got to see. He wouldn’t have understood my need to go there–after all, I’ve mostly switched over to ebooks, and City Lights, while famous, is ‘just’ a bookstore.  But independent bookstores are like churches for me. They’re beautiful, inspiring, uplifting places, and even if I walk out empty-handed, I’m refreshed by my reverent moments, worshiping my the written word. They smell good, they feel right and safe.  I wanted to go, and it was entirely worth the walk and the time out of my afternoon.

And when I headed out towards the bookstore after lunch together with my girlfriend, she gave me a kiss and told me to have a great time.

It’s been a long road, undoing the twisted mess of beliefs about myself and about relationships that my experiences with the ex helped put in my head. Sometimes I feel like a silly emotional little girl for still thinking about him, two years on. But, as I try to remember, hard things are hard, and that’s okay.

And today, I get a lovely symbolic chance to celebrate just how far I’ve come.