It’s been three and a half months since my partner of seven years passed away. I’ve experienced many cold, dark, lonely days since then. The holidays this year were not a time to celebrate, but to grieve, and somehow survive despite the pain and fresh trauma that life threw at me. As a survivor of abuse, incest, and child sex trafficking, I lost my biological family a long time ago. And today I’ve lost the one I spent years building up; my partner, our dog, and my home have been ripped away from me in rapid succession. It’s left me whiplashed, but also contemplative, and more then ready to examine what is left.
What I’ve come to realize is that there were toxic people in the life I shared with my partner, who had emotionally abused and disregarded me over a long period of time. Including my partner’s adult son, and a close friend of ours. And they didn’t stop being abusive when he died and I became more vulnerable then before. They didn’t suddenly decide to give me respect, validate my personhood or recognize my equal value. I had to demand it, and move forward with the truth regardless of their attempts to retaliate and hurt me in response.
When my partner died, he was in the closet. He admitted the reality of our relationship to almost no one, though people who really knew him could see the obvious truth. Though we weren’t married, he was family to me, he was my family. Yet after he died I found that in many of our discussions, a friend of mine kept making unprovoked statements along the lines of “well, THEY’RE the family, we were just his friends…” and when I shared my sorrow as well as physical exhaustion with her, she would say in a critical tone “oh gosh, well imagine how THEY must feel?” These were silencing statements, that really harmed and confused me in the earlier stages of my grief, despite the fact that I definitely don’t believe in comparing feelings or pain.
It also hurt me because it was like she decided from the beginning that there were sides, that I was on one side and my partner’s relatives/legal heirs were on the other. And she had chosen her side. In truth she had said things like this before, treating me like an outsider, someone who didn’t belong in my partner’s life and was driving a wedge between him and his relatives. As if she didn’t approve of our relationship, though she wouldn’t come out and say it. When I confronted her about how these statements and her withdrawal of friendship made me feel, she responded by saying “I know you THINK you had a relationship with Dew, but I don’t believe that!” She told me that I was just Dew’s employee, while she was his friend (thus in a higher position in his life then myself, and if I was less then her, I must be so much less then his relatives too.)
This level of absurd, arrogant invalidation shocked me; as if she actually thought she knew better then I what happened in private, while I only imagined things like living with him, our physical intimacy, verbal expressions of affection, and the many seasons of our life together. But I also felt empowerment, because I had stood up for myself, and that is something she could never take away or cancel out. It also helped me to realize that it hadn’t just been my own insecurity telling me all these years that people are thinking things like this; some really were. And now that my partner was dead, I wasn’t putting up with them anymore. I’m not letting anyone, not my family of origin or her tell me that my experiences, memories and feelings are not real or valid.
When my partner’s relatives came to the house after he died, we got along well, and it seemed for a time that a new page had been turned in our relationship. But I see now that wasn’t real; the truth is that when they came I was desperate, afraid, and eager to please, because I thought I would be thrown out with nothing. So I over-exerted myself, running on pure adrenaline I sought to make myself invaluable to them. But they just saw me as a source of cheap, efficient and quick labor; which given my physical and mental state, I most certainly am not. And my partner’s son was no more eager to please or even willing to accommodate me then he was in the years past.
From the very day we met, his behavior implied that he didn’t approve of my presence in my partner’s life and his house. Though he used the fact that he owned the house after my partner died to push in on me, the truth is he didn’t bother knocking back when my partner was alive, he would violate my space on his whim. Once he threw my clothes from the washing machine onto the floor and left them there so that he could do his own laundry, another time he insisted despite my objections on washing the carpet in my office with chemical carpet cleaners that made such strong and long-lasting fumes that I wasn’t able to enter my office again for over seven months without getting sick. There are many such examples, that I never received any apology for.
My partner explained to his son countless times that I have a very real medical condition; multiple chemical sensitivity, a neuro-immune, multi-system illness that causes me to experience acute pain and inflammation when coming into contact with volatile off-gassing chemicals. But he never acknowledged his father’s requests that he simply use the hypoallergenic, environmentally friendly products we provided him with that made our living environment tolerable for me. On his visits I would become sick, and have to retreat to the small cabin on the property, despite it’s lack of facilities. After my partner died and I was kept on as caretaker of the estate, he began to say things like “I don’t know about your ‘sensitivities,’ but…” when actually he knew very well about them, he just didn’t care.
Over the three months that I spent caretaking my former home, my health deteriorated rapidly, as my safe environment was gone, and I was dealing with grief as well as the stress of my precarious position and being pressured into taking on a project which I was not capable of doing. Despite my chronic fatigue and pain, I began to experience panic attacks, thinking that he would come back to the house and if I didn’t finish single-handedly building an entire business out of my partner’s artwork, I would be thrown out (even though that was not a part of our agreement.) I was right about that. When I wrote him an email saying that though I had completed a great deal of the work I had reached my limit, he didn’t respond. But when he came back, he tried to bully me into moving forward with it; he grew aggressive, and hostile; he kept making demeaning comments about me, asking insulting questions like ‘do you have fleas?’ and otherwise not listening to anything that I said, confident that he could steamroll me and get his way regardless.
Finally, without warning he decided to light an illegal trash fire 40 feet in front of the cabin where I was struggling to live. When I saw him light it he shouted that he would be “shooting off guns” as well, so I should stay in the cabin. As the smoke entered through the cracks in the doors and windows, my lungs constricted, my skin started to burn and my heart-rate increased rapidly. Thankfully I was able to call one of the only true friends that has stood by me during this entire episode, and he came to pick me up. But as I was still trying to recover at my friends house, he rang me, and started calling me names, asking me if I was ever coming back or not, saying that he had gone through my things in the cabin after I left…
At that moment I stood up for myself, I told him that just because he inherited the house does not give him the right to emotionally abuse, bully, disregard or physically attack me with smoke and chemicals. He probably wanted to provoke me at that point, to give him an excuse to throw me out, and he got what he wanted; telling me to “get the hell out of my house” before I hung up the phone. It was just a few hours before my birthday, which I would spend frantically packing my things.
People trying to invalidate my illness or my relationship, pretending that they didn’t exist, and that they hadn’t already been proven and explained to them, was enormously painful after my partners death. I was being attacked while at my lowest point. But I’ve had to ask myself today, am I someone so desperate and vulnerable that I’m willing to put up with any amount of mistreatment and abuse that people throw at me? The answer is no, that is not my state of being today, and anyone who tries to project that onto me is completely mistaken. While I’ve been experiencing a massive identity crisis, as I lost my partner, our home, and our beloved dog, that crisis is not about whether I have and deserve to be treated with equal value. I do.
During my final encounter with my partner’s son, he brought up yet again a patronizing question he had asked me many times; “why don’t you just call your family?” Asking it more then once shows how he hadn’t respected my answer, that we are estranged, and I have no biological family; that I don’t define family that way. But the real answer came to me less then a week later when the good friends I reached out to, who supported me during this whole time took me in and told me that they consider me family, and won’t throw me into the wind, like my partner’s biological family, or my own.
I don’t restrict compassion and human decency to just people that are biological relatives, or build relationships out of obligation. My partner was my family, until he died. But that is a type of family that thankfully can be rebuilt, with time.