“I’m so sorry for sending you back there, Leroy.” Khethiwe, my therapist, had a look of pure remorse on her round beige face after I’d told her how my trip back to my mother’s home had gone.
“It’s okay. You had no way of knowing that’s how things would go down,” I said with a tired sigh. I was forcing myself to attend these bi-monthly sessions even though they left me feeling exhausted each time.
“Really, I was hoping that after all this time she would be able to embrace you as her child; that her love for you would override whatever else she felt about your sexuality.”
“Sometimes I think it’s not my sexuality she hates but me. I think I remind her too much of my father,” I said.
“Did you know him, your father?”
“Barely. My mother was single for most of my life. I’m the youngest of four children and the only girl. When I came along I think my mother was hoping I would be a deviation from the constant reminder of my dad she saw in the faces and personalities of my brothers. But I guess I was more like him than not? I don’t know. I’ve spent a lot of time trying to make sense of my mother’s hatred but I never arrive at any kind of conclusive explanation for it.”
“Why do you think that is, Leroy?”
“Maybe it’s not supposed to make sense? A mother isn’t supposed to hate her kid.” I whispered.
“And yet, they sometimes do. And many, many times there’s a reason behind it. Sometimes, yes, they resent their children because they remind them of deadbeat or abusive spouses. Sometimes they experience postpartum depression and never have a chance to heal it so it festers because life doesn’t get any easier the older children become. And other times, bigotry becomes such an important part of who they are; of their moral code that it drives painful wedges between them and their children. Your mother’s reasons might be a combination of all of these factors.”
“Why is it so important for me to figure out why my mother hates me?” I demanded.
“Because I think having an explanation for her abuse will help you realize that none of it was your fault,” she said calmly. I felt a lump form in my throat. I couldn’t explain why those particular words affected me in a way nothing else she had said to me had. She looked at me as though she understood exactly the kind of effect her words were having on me. “It wasn’t your fault. I think you’ve been walking around your whole life carrying the pain of your mother’s abuse as some kind of punishment for something you had done. But you’ve done nothing wrong. You did nothing to deserve the way she treated you. She chose to make you a target of her own pain and rage. And we are probably never going to help her find the root of her pain or figure out why she chose to channel it through you. But we will start to internalize the fact that none of it was your fault.”
I looked away from Khethiwe. I felt my face crumple up as hot tears worked their way out of my eyes and down my cheeks.
“Now, acknowledging that what happened to you as a child was not your fault is one matter. The other matter, about how you have treated your lovers in the past; that is something you have to take complete responsibility for.”
The heaviness of my crying subsided a bit. I didn’t understand why she always insisted on bringing my exes up in our sessions. I’d brought them up once; Laika, specifically, to let her know that I was going to be seeing her because my ex had suggested I get help. I hadn’t liked the way she’d looked at me when I said that or the line of questioning that subsequently followed her strange little shrink’s frown.
“Describe the nature of your relationship with your ex? Not in terms of whether or not you were sexual partners, I won’t patronize you; but tell me what your relationship was like? Was it toxic? What led to your break up? What role did you play in things ending?”
I had been tempted to leave her office and never attempt therapy again after that tiny interrogation but she hadn’t pressed me too much when I gave her a series of half-answers. But our sessions always seemed to come back to the topic of my exes and it was beginning to irk me.
“I don’t understand why you keep bringing up my exes,” I said evenly.
“Because I believe the pain you’ve been trying to work through with me has led you to do unpleasant things to the people you’ve been closest to and I think that’s something you need to work through too.”
“But, why? I could just work through my mommy issues and the rest will automatically sort itself out, no?” I asked, a knot of uneasiness forming in my stomach.
“I’m afraid it doesn’t work that way. If you don’t confront your demons head on, and this includes behavioral patterns that are harmful, they’ll just continue to wreak havoc on your life.”
The calm, neutral tone she used when responding to my questions was throwing me off somewhat. I was beginning to feel less afraid about broaching the subject of my exes with her.
“Fine,” I said, taking a deep breath. “We can talk about my past relationships,” I declared.
“Alright. Do you want to start by describing to me, in detail, what your relationships were like? Were you happy in them? Did you ever experience any insecurity? Things like that.”
“In the beginning, dating girls was wonderful. I was always so excited about having a crush on someone. I liked buying them things and seeing them smile when I told them they were beautiful. I prided myself on being very romantic. I was charming. I made them little mix-tapes of R&B songs about love. The sexual stuff was fun in the beginning too. I liked how it felt to kiss girls and to make them feel good the way I sometimes myself feel good.”
“You keep speaking of this being ‘in the beginning’, when and how did things change?”
I was lost in my memories about the past. I stood up from the armchair I was seated in and walked towards the window of her spacious and neat office.
“Things started changing when I realized that I was developing romantic feelings for my best friend Malaika. At that point; her, Latoya and I were like sisters. We did everything together and shared everything. I loved those girls like they were my family. They were my family. That sort of intensified when Laika and I became a couple. We were perfect together. We were the same height and had the exact same skin color. We fit perfectly in the bedroom too. Suddenly sex was more exciting than it had ever been before. I was so happy. We both were. At least that’s what I thought. Then one day she came to me to tell me that she had fallen for some other girl. I felt as though she was taking my happiness away from me then; stealing something from me that was rightfully mine,” my chest was pounding with the anger and pain I’d felt when Laika had informed me about Nomsa.
“You felt that she was stealing your happiness which was your relationship with her, yes?”
“No. My happiness was her. You don’t understand how much I loved her. She was my world; my everything. I guess I was a little bit obsessed with her. She made me feel like a whole person. I knew who I was when I was with her. I was a good, strong, sexy and smart somebody when I was with her because she saw me as all of those things. When she said that she wanted to leave me, I,” my throat tightened suddenly. It was difficult to breathe, let alone speak. But it needed to be said. Maybe if I said it out loud to someone other than the people who had been present for it; I wouldn’t feel so sick with shame anymore. “When Laika told me that she wanted to leave me, it felt as though something broke in my head. I felt as though my world was coming to an end. I felt like dying. I’d felt that way before, you know? What with the shit my mother had put me through. But this time, it felt much more urgent. When I heard her tell our friend Toya that Nomsa made her ‘happy’ I lost it. I grabbed a knife in Toya’s kitchen and slit my wrist.”
I waited for Khethiwe to gasp, to cuss at me, to kick me out and inform me that she’d be recommending me to someone else for these sessions. But she looked at me with an expressionless face and continued the steady nodding that served to encourage me to carry on speaking.
“I passed out at the sight of my blood. And I woke up in hospital. When I came back Laika hugged me and kissed me but the way she looked at me wasn’t the same as before. Before that had happened she looked at me as though she was overjoyed that I existed. After it happened she looked at me as though she was sad that I hadn’t died. I was angry with her for not still loving me the way she had before. I was angry that she had given up on me and just stopped loving me and started loving someone else, out of the blue. A few months after I hurt myself in Toya’s kitchen, Toya called me out while we were having tea at this café on campus. She was angry at me and trying to get me to let Laika go. I felt that feeling again; as though being alive wasn’t worth it anymore because this person I loved had stopped loving me. I broke my tea cup and cut myself again; in front of other people.
“Toya lost all patience with me that day and just walked out of that café and out of our lives. I was mad at her too, for the longest time. She had abandoned me the way my mother had. That was the thing I feared the most and it happened. I knew it would only be a matter of time before Laika did the same. But she stayed for three whole years more. I was afraid that she would leave me and I wanted it to happen quickly so my heart could just break already. I pushed her away but pulled her back in by doing everything for her. I didn’t know what I wanted. I felt repulsive and pathetic. But I couldn’t help myself. I wasn’t ready to lose her, even though I knew leaving her would be the loving thing to do. I allowed other people to think of her as being the problem in the relationship. She drank a lot. She cheated a lot. She had public outbursts. This one time, shortly before we broke up for good, on New Year’s Eve, I slapped her in front of a house full of people. I didn’t hit her often, but I pushed her around a lot; pulled her roughly, manhandled her basically.”
“Would you describe your behavior in that relationship as abusive?”
The neutral tone she used to ask that question was so disarming; I found it impossible to respond with anything but the absolute truth.
“Yes.” I whispered. Truth or no truth I was still very ashamed about how I had treated Laika.
“Do you understand why you treated her in those ways?” she probed.
“Not really? I guess I just wanted her to stay with me. And I was angry at her for not wanting to be with me as much as I wanted to be with her.”
“So, you felt entitled to her?”
“Not entitled. Not like, she had to be with me, but…” my voice trailed off. I wanted to ask Khethiwe why it was wrong to feel I deserved to be loved as much as I had loved; to feel like I was owed some reciprocity for what I had given to Malaika. But I kept my mouth shut because something told me those weren’t the right things to say.
“You felt as though you deserved her loyalty because you had been loyal to her. And when she showed you that she could no longer be loyal to you; you tried to make her pay for her betrayal?” she posed her thoughts as questions but I knew she was just telling me about myself. “There is definitely a link between your relationship with your mother and how you treated your ex. Your mother was cruel to you and you knew you didn’t deserve it and you kept trying to be a good child to her; trying to earn her love even when you knew you wouldn’t get it back. You played out the same pattern with your girlfriend. You knew that she no longer loved you but you kept fighting for a love you knew was no longer there. On the surface it may seem as though you were trying to retain her love; to make her love you back. But in reality you were pushing her away to keep reliving your mother’s abandonment because that is how you’d come to define love.”
I could only gape at her.
“It’s not enough to retrace your actions and surface emotions when you were harming yourself and your ex under the guise of wanting to keep that relationship intact. You have to learn to understand the way your brain has been wired by your mother’s abuse. How that abuse shaped the choices you’ve made in your adult relationships. Perhaps you really did feel like no longer being alive when your ex first told you that she was in love with someone else. Heartbreak can be devastating. But making her stay with you, and harming yourself again when your friend was holding you accountable? That was not about devastation. That was about control. I can imagine you’ve gone through most of your life feeling out of control; as though there are very few circumstances that you could control. You threatening death every time your friend and ex didn’t do something you liked was you trying to control them. We’re going to have to internalize the idea that we cannot control what other people do. And that even if we lose the people we love, we can be strong enough to go on living, without them.”
“You don’t understand how much I loved those girls. Laika and Toya were my life,” I murmured. I understood parts of her psycho-babble but I needed her to understand that my friendship with those two girls wasn’t some frivolous friendship. They were my life line. I had no one else. When they had both disappeared from my life, I was miserable and lost. It took almost two years for me to find someone I could trust enough to be intimate with after Laika. And that relationship ended as abruptly as it had begun.
“I understand that you loved them immensely. I’m not negating that at all. I just need you to understand that your behavior towards them wasn’t about conveying or displaying love. You were in another relationship shortly before we started our sessions together, no?”
“Yeah. With Thando,” I divulged, my body instantly heating up in anger at the memory of that particular ex.
“Tell me about that relationship.”
“Wow. Thando was…” I clenched my jaw and took a steadying breath. My body was beginning to tremble slightly. “Being with Thando was like being at war. All the time. We fought from the beginning of our relationship till the very end. Verbally, physically, the whole nine. She just rubbed me up the wrong way. She saw the scars on my wrist and teased me about suicide; told me to kill myself. I pressed her buttons too. She hated when I ignored her so I’d not respond to her messages and not take any of her calls for days, till she was seething with rage. And we’d fight and have clichéd make-up sex. We were about ready to kill each other when we broke up. And when we finally parted ways I felt as though I had actually loved her and I was sad that things had gone down the way they had between us.”
“Do you genuinely believe that you loved her, Leroy?”
“I mean,” I pondered her question.
“You sound like you barely liked her. How can you love someone you don’t even like? And why would you treat someone you love the way you treated her?”
“I guess; I didn’t love her?”
“I don’t think you did. But the most important thing I’m trying to get you to see here is that there are similarities between your relationship with her and the one you had with Malaika and the one you had with your mother. It’s the same pattern played out in different degrees of fucked up. You prolong situations that are volatile and which make you unhappy. You make your partners unhappy to fulfill your expectation of abandonment. And I’m not saying that you weren’t hurt by your mother. I’m not saying that that trauma wasn’t real or valid. But I am saying that you’ve never truly dealt with it. You’ve just replayed it over and over again because you’ve told yourself that there are no alternatives.”
“Do you think I’ll ever find alternatives, doc?” I asked quietly. “The way you make me sound; it sounds like I’m already too fucked up to hope for anything different. Like my life will always be without love and difficult.”
“You will only find alternatives when you decide to be a different person. When you stop expecting people to hurt you and learn that you can survive it when your relationships with people change. I’m not promising you a happily ever after. But I’m suggesting that if we keep working through your trauma wiring; then maybe we can shift the way you feel about yourself.”
“I’d like some alternatives, doc. I-I’ll stick around and do the work. Just tell me what I need to do, where to start,” I said, suddenly optimistic about my sessions with her.
“You’ve already started, Leroy. You came to see me,” her gap-toothed smile filled her round face and softened her cold, brown therapist-eyes. I was glad I had overcome my shame and fear and come in to see her. I was going to be okay.
February 14th, 2018
Lindiwe adjusted my jacket collar as we walked into the Mug n’ Bean in Greenstone mall. She looked beautiful in the black, pink and white floral dress that exposed her tattoo-covered arms and gently swung around her ample curves. I pressed a hand on the small of her back as one of the restaurant staff members directed us to a table for two in the deep interior of the place. I saw a few heads turn and stare at her as we walked past. She was strikingly beautiful with her midnight black skin and large black eyes and completely bald head. I grinned in spite of myself when I was seated opposite her at the table we’d been assigned.
“Gosh, you’re gorgeous,” I breathed, reaching a hand across the table to gently caress one of hers.
“We need to talk, Leroy,” she said. Her expression was serious. And a little sad. My heart sank. I prepared myself for bad news and envisioned a weekend of tears and junk food and Netflix and some babysitting if Laika or Toya were open to bringing their kids to my place. It had been almost two years since my sessions with Khethiwe had come to an end but I still remembered all of the mechanisms she had given me on how to deal with distressing situations. Instead of getting overwhelmed in the moment; she’d taught me to imagine moping about it for a few days, to envisage things that would be comforting and soothing so I could remember that I would be okay. That I wouldn’t be stuck in that particular moment of pain forever. Lindiwe was a woman I enjoyed being with immensely. We’d been friends for about a year before I felt confident enough to ask her out and we’d been in a relationship for just as long. We were happy. She made me laugh and was gentle with me. She was one of the smartest people I had ever met and the things she sometimes said made me feel like my brain was growing stronger just from listening to her even when I didn’t immediately know exactly what she meant. Losing her would be hard. Okay, so perhaps I would need a week of tears and junk food and Netflix. Maybe I could spend a week at either Laika or Toya’s homes, if their spouses were open to that.
“Leroy, are you listening to me?” Lindiwe was looking at me with irritation creasing her smooth brow.
“Sorry, I missed that, could you repeat it please?” I murmured, trying to calm the panicked thudding of my heart.
“I was saying I got a very strange call from one of your best friends the other day. The one with a husband and two daughters?” Lindiwe had met Laika and Toya a handful of times in the time that we’d known each other. She was fond of them and wished she could have spent more time with them but I was weary of integrating her into our tight family-like unit before I was sure that she and I would be serious.
“Malaika?” I asked, her full name feeling strange to my mouth.
“Yeah, her. I don’t really know what the history is between the two of you? But she was kind of warning me about you? She said that I shouldn’t be fooled by how good things were right now and that you had a history of being violent with your partners. She advised me to leave you.”
I gulped, my chest tightening in rage. How could Laika do this?
“How long ago was this?” I asked.
“A few days ago. I wanted to wait to tell you about it face to face. Was she telling the truth? Have you been violent to your partners before?” Lindiwe looked on the verge of tears.
“I,” I opened my mouth but couldn’t get anymore words than that out of it.
“Leroy? You know what I’ve been through. Why would you not tell me something like that? Why would you lie to me?”
“I didn’t lie,” I whispered desperately.
“You not telling me is like you lying to me. Especially because of what I’ve been through in my previous relationships. Why didn’t you just tell me?”
“Because that shit happened a long, long time ago, Lindiwe. I didn’t think it mattered anymore. I’ve been going to therapy and everything. Please, you have to believe me. I’d never hurt you that way,” I hated the pleading tone my voice had taken on but I refused to lose this woman for some shit I had already amended. I still couldn’t believe that Laika had stepped out of the woodwork to do something like this.
“I’m sorry. I can’t be with someone who lies about something like that. If you had really healed, you would have no trouble being transparent about it,” she murmured, a tear coursing down her cheek.
Before I could stop myself I grabbed a hold of one of her heavily bangled wrists.
“Please, Lindiwe. Please don’t leave me,” I said, through gritted teeth. The alarm and fear in her eyes made me loosen my grip. I let my hands fall limply on my lap. She was looking at me as though trying to figure out who I was, tears pouring silently down her face.
“Jesus. I was starting to fall in love with you,” she whispered. Before I could say anything else to her; she stood up from the table and hurried out of the restaurant.
I was stunned by the pain that I felt in my chest. I wanted to run after Lindiwe but I knew that would be the wrong thing to do. The same way finding and confronting Laika would be. We had been getting along just fine the past few years; I had no idea that she still saw me as someone capable of hurting people. She had allowed me into her home countless times. Her husband and I knew each other and got along as well as people who loved the same woman could get along. None of this made any sense to me. It just hurt. I sat in that booth in the back of the restaurant and allowed myself to cry. Perhaps it had been a mistake to seek Laika out after all these years. She would always see me as someone who had systematically stripped away her sense of reality; as someone who had manipulated and cajoled her into staying with them despite her desperately wanting to leave. It was selfish of me to assume she could stomach having me around; that she could love and trust me still after everything I had put her through. I thought about the woman she had met while we were together in university. The older med student. Nomsa. I never forgot her name. Perhaps this was about her? Revenge for how I’d prevented her from being with someone she felt made her happy?
I heard Khethiwe’s voice in my head then; as clearly as if she was in the restaurant with me.
“This isn’t about revenge or even hatred, Leroy. Lindiwe was right. If you had truly healed, you would have no trouble being transparent about who you are. Laika was just doing what would have been done one way or another. Forcing you to confront how far along your journey of healing you really are. I’m not saying you don’t deserve happiness and love. I’m not even saying you can’t ever be with Lindiwe. But I am saying that your decisions have long lasting repercussions. And this work will never truly be finished. There will always be another layer to unpack. There will always be more healing to be done. You will always have to prove yourself worthy of people’s trust. You will always have to earn it afresh, each time someone opens themselves up to you.”
I prickled with shame remembering the way I had grabbed onto Lindiwe’s wrist when she’d said she couldn’t be with me.
“Forgive yourself. Get passed the shame and commit to doing better next time,” Khethiwe’s voice coaxed gently.
I wiped at my face and stood up from the table Lindiwe had just left. I felt weak from the ache in my heart but I forced myself to picture my warm bed in my apartment; I pictured my Macbook propped up among my snacks, the screen displaying my favorite series. I saw myself crying through the pain, writing in my accountability journal and committing to being better. In a while, if I felt I could contribute positively to her life, I would reach out to Lindiwe again. I would apologize for not being transparent and offer transparency. I would allow myself to be guided by what she was open to receive from me. If she told me ‘no, leave me alone,’ I would force myself not to contact her again. I would accept her decision and move on. I would call Khethiwe again and see if we couldn’t resume our sessions together. I would reach out to Laika when my anger at her had subsided. I wasn’t yet sure what I would say to her, but I knew that we had to have a conversation of some sort at some point, about what had just transpired. I’d probably call Toya too; it would be interesting to hear what she had to say about all of this. But first, I had to find my old copy of Tracy Chapman’s Let It Rain album. I needed to remember how all of this had started, nearly 15 years ago and forgive myself for the fateful decision I had made in my friend’s kitchen.
“Let it rain,
Let it flood these streets,
Wash me away
To where it makes no difference who I am
Or what the future holds
When I don’t know,
Give me hope, that help is coming
When I need it most.” – Tracy Chapman, ‘Let it Rain’ (2002)
Read the entire series of these stories under #LetItRainSeries, published every Wednesday. For all the articles and pieces on #QueeringTheCloak (our series on abuse and violence in queer women communities) click here.
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