A friend recently said to me that at least I still have all of my memories, of my dead partner and our life together. But his statement left me feeling empty, as it doesn’t acknowledge that they aren’t all good memories; it doesn’t ask if I can feel any connection to my life with him today (which feels unbelievably distant and remote, overshadowed by a wall of grief) let alone a good or comforting one; it just assumes. But suffice to say, the memories are not a consolation to me right now, they are a puzzle I’m trying to put together in the midst of deep unprocessed pain.
One time my partner, Dew, told me about how another boyfriend of his left him and the estate after becoming ill, because he said he didn’t like being sick here. Dew implied that it was due to the poor state of health care on this island. But today I see that statement in a different light. By the time I came to live with him, the seeds for my chronic illnesses had already been planted, but they were very mild at the time. Yet every time that I brought up with Dew that I was sick or injured, he would say something insulting, condescending, or insensitive to me. It would generally become worse the longer my episode of illness lasted.
He would insist that my troubling new symptoms were just “a sign of getting old” when I was in my early twenties, call me a hypochondriac, or blame it on my vegan whole foods diet. At times he would openly laugh at and ridicule me, or just sit back and furiously correct me on all of the medical terms that I used. He had a PhD in physiology, but he took this to an extremely arrogant place when discussing medicine and health. Treating me like I was one of his students submitting a paper when I was just describing my symptoms, and becoming extremely angry from my just talking about it.
When I was bedridden with extreme, unbearable pain during my first flare-up of inflammatory bowel disease, he was livid that we couldn’t still have sex and blew up over that and due to the fact that I wasn’t able to clean my room or do my laundry while I was that sick. At the worst part of it he told me that I needed to go out and exercise if I wanted to get better; which is ridiculous, as my stomach only healed enough for me to (almost) recover my full range of movement after two and a half months of rest. It was bad enough being sick, exhausted, and demoralized, without having to put up with or try to defend myself against his attacks.
When I sought out medical attention, he complained bitterly to me about having to sit for an hour in the waiting room (as if I didn’t do that for him all the time.) He would try to but into my medical decisions and shame me for supposedly not listening to my doctors. That first flare, I was living in extreme pain and fear, but he just kept yelling at me “I don’t even know why you go to doctors!” and ranting, since it was all about him. He would talk me out of seeking further medical attention, if not openly then through subterranean means; encouraging my own reluctance. It’s true that the local clinic gave poor care and was not forthcoming with referrals to specialists, but they were not my greatest obstacle.
When I objected to his insulting behavior, Dew generally gaslighted me and denied the whole thing, but his clearest response was “well, then why do you tell me these things if you don’t like my responses?” As if we didn’t live alone together in a remote place. As if he didn’t freely talk to me about his health and his symptoms all the time while I gave him my compassionate listening. As if I didn’t have to say something to him if I wanted to see a doctor, since he was my only transportation to the doctors office. And as if we weren’t in a relationship where I could rightfully expect emotional support and kind treatment. The fact is, if I had to step over a landmine to get something I needed, I was probably going to just go without it, as that’s what I learned to do in my childhood when faced with emotional abuse and passive aggressive behavior.
Eventually I did just stop bringing up my health with him, except for in the vaguest possible terms. I listened with compassion to him talking about his own problems and resigned myself to a one sided relationship. Of course he never became a good listener himself. He would occasionally express a brief interest in my work, but quickly dismiss the subject. Days into my process of recovering my buried memories of sexual abuse, he had had his fill of that topic. For him, if it wasn’t one of his own personal interests, he couldn’t hide his dislike for hearing or talking about it. He wanted to be entertained, or listened to, and that’s pretty much it.
Therein was the contradiction, of course. If you want to keep someone as your dependant (this is what he called me, in terms of tax forms), if you want to hold power rather then empower them, if you don’t want them to have a life outside of your remote estate then you also have to take some level of responsibility for them. Not keep them as possessions who enjoy a second-class status in your life and shut out any part of them that is not convenient or fun for you.
Meanwhile, I never received a formal diagnosis or real medical assistance while he was alive, even as I grew gradually sicker over the years. I know now my symptoms were not hypochondria, but very important signs that I shouldn’t have been encouraged to just live with and ignore. Hypersensitivity to pain is a serious sign of an underlying condition, as were the digestive symptoms I continued to have which I really could not control on my own through diet, especially as I was simultaneously trying to recover from my eating disorder. For a long time I pursued various herbs and natural supplements to treat my illnesses, but most just left me worse off then I was.
It is true that over the years some things changed between us. But I have to keep in mind, that if I’m saying he changed for the better, it’s true that I changed as well, and perhaps not for the better, or to my own benefit. He could be sweet and generous at times, and he did eventually realize that he needed me just as much as I did him. Dew did make a lot of the changes that were needed to accommodate my health condition, such as no longer using pesticides or chemically fragranced products. But it was a long battle to get there, and something he resented, and blew up at me about right until the end. There was some change, but it wasn’t so deep, linear, or healing for that matter. It can’t cancel out everything that happened before, or was still happening.
I also adapted to the situation. I tried to avoid his anger the best I could. I learned to stop bringing up my needs and desires. I learned to feel guilty, like it would be a burden to make him drive me around to medical appointments, even if he softened to the idea himself at some point. I gave up hope for real change in favor of believing things had already changed enough. I ignored the evidence and believed my health had improved, too, even though I was going to bed at 4pm every day and not coping well at all.
When a ‘friend’ of ours shamed me for supposedly forcing Dew to adapt to my medical needs, when she told me that I wasn’t deserving of even the amount of kindness and concern he afforded me, it hurt deeply. But my health makes it all the more ridiculous for people like her to claim that I was an employee, not Dew’s much younger romantic partner. If I was just his servant, then I would have been fired when I went through long periods of illness and eventually couldn’t do very much. This wasn’t a job, it was a (not very good, not equal) relationship that I’m now trying to come to terms with in very difficult circumstances.