I'm regularly reminded that I talk too loud and interrupt. That I need to defend myself, but that I have no clue what I'm talking about. That I never inquire about other people, I just talk solely about myself, which is why I don't have friends. That I'm most attractive when I talk about my passions, but that I don't have the capacity for stimulating discussions. That I should keep my clothes on, though I rarely take them off. That I need to initiate intellectual conversations, but "not right now. You always want my attention when I'm clearly in the middle of something." That I should consider becoming a waiter, I'm too sensitive for entertainment. That my eating habits impact our growth as a couple. That I need to stop spending time with my mom. That I'm too codependent, that I don't have to sleep at the same time as you. And on and on and on.
My therapist described it as boiling a frog: if you stick a frog in water and slowly turn the heat up to a boil, the frog doesn't realize it's burning to death until it's too late. Constant criticism. Part of me started hating myself as much as he did. Essentially, I had no other choice but to respect myself enough to walk away from a 7year relationship. I remember the breakup vividly: sitting in his car, bawling my eyes out, asking if he saw some sort of future with me. Not forever, just tomorrow. I knew he didn't. He'd made that clear to me for years. Even with ample preparation and emotional support, I still surprised myself with how despondent I felt in the aftermath. I spent years trying to water a dead plant. My friends rallied around me in the days and weeks following my breakup, and I felt overwhelming love and support. Then life set back in, and all I had was me. What to do now?
Weeks prior, while we were still together, my ex had moved out of our shared living space. He hadn't told me the address, and I knew, from practice, not to ask him. He had mentioned needing his own space years prior, occasionally reminded me of this via poorly timed and weirdly communicated Facebook messages, and finally gave me no other choice but to give him an exit date. "How can I accommodate your needs while you're still here?" I'd ask. He'd give me no answer. I felt uncomfortable in my own space, so I started running away. Still, when people asked, I masterfully played the role we had cultivated: "My boyfriend and I are moving out together," I'd say nonchalantly, followed by uncomfortable, confused reactions. "So you're breaking up?" They'd ask. Rationally, I knew they were right... but I was in denial. It wasn't until a month or so after he moved out that we broke up. That's the day I finally got the address of his new apartment. That's the day he finally let me see his new place for the first and last time.
I went back to my home that evening, the same place I'd shared with my ex for four years, and felt overwhelming sadness, hatred, and exhaustion. Every piece of furniture had an association, and even with all his stuff gone, it looked the exact same. I'd paid for the furniture, it was all still here, and I felt like my body might sink into the couch forever. How did I get here?
Let's unpack this: 1. Growing up, healthy relationships were not modeled to me. 2. My introduction to sex was less than positive. 3. I had a low self-image. - So when we met, I was charmed. He delighted me with deeply fascinating conversations, entertained me with an array of talents, and cherished his time with me, or so it seemed. He struggled financially, but I didn't mind picking up the slack. When he sublet his room to live in mine rent-free, pocketing the cash from the sublet, I was happy to have him in my space and cover the utilities. I didn't see finances as a major red flag until it was too late to re-establish our financial relationship.
He'd cry over loans, I'd cover our dates. Then I'd cover trips to San Diego... and Las Vegas.. and Portland.. and nice meals, drinks and gym memberships, and then, we were living together in a townhouse owned by my parents. They generously and regularly provided us with free groceries and took us for meals as we gained our footing in Los Angeles, unaware of my financial contributions to his lifestyle. Rent was a fraction of typical rentals, and he struggled to pay. Perhaps I should have left when my dad sat him down and exclaimed, "it feels as though I'm paying you to date my daughter," but I couldn't see beyond my blinders.
I could write a trilogy on all the times I should've left. I should've left when he got too drunk at a Halloween party and threatened me while insisting on driving us home, or when he refused, the next day, to have a discussion about his dangerous behavior. Or when he walked out on me without an explanation, then said he'd let me know in a month how he's feeling. Or when he flew into a rage when I watched the Tony Awards without his pre-approval. Or when he'd denigrate me in private car rides, then expect me to wipe the tears and feign composure in front of his friends. Or when he'd yell at me for not praising his work, or accuse me of misplacing his things and venmo request me the cost... but when the person you love and live with regularly belittles you, you start to believe that maybe you are as vapid as they seem to think you are. As verbal and emotional abuse presented itself, the charming public facade remained. It was difficult for me to label it while i was experiencing it.
I was hopeful, when I saw his adoration for his friends, that he might find that adoration for me again some day. False hope breeds false hope. He was dissatisfied with me before entering the house. He wanted to move out and stay together, and asked that I keep that information to myself "or he'd break up with me"... so I did. My parents owned the place, I had a great deal on rent, I couldn't as easily up-and-leave, and I forced myself to respect his decision and whatever timeline he had in mind to make it. And thus, the topic went away, and things seemed to improve. Then six months later, i got a string of Facebook messages.
Communication is key to relationships. Most discussions turned into fights and most fights turned into character assassinations on how insufficient I was and resulted in me delicately defending myself, then taking responsibility for the list of things I'd done to wrong him. Receiving Facebook messages from your boyfriend regarding his move-out date is not the most effective form of communication. Masking it in "we should go on an international trip" does not soften the blow. I politely explained why reigniting this topic over Facebook messenger, after not mentioning it for six months, was an inappropriate way of having a mature discussion. I was on his life journey, at his disposal, ready to be disposed of at any time. Rather than face that reality, I got international work. I ran away. And whenever I went away, he became the loving attentive boyfriend I fantasized him out to be.
So I spent most of our last year either running away or trying to salvage our fragmented future. Lavish gifts, surprise parties, meals, and trips... If I felt his resentment, I escaped. I put myself in a practice of not speaking unless spoken to, and I could feel him beginning to reach out again. I left town for two and a half weeks, and treaded lightly upon my return. When he initiated the move-out conversation for a third time, again via a Facebook message, I'd had enough. I gave him an out date: end of the month. "It's been a year and a half since you initially brought up moving out!" I proclaimed. "I have not pushed you or forced you to expedite this process, but you've refused to give me any actionable steps to make you more comfortable and make us more functional during this transition. I feel scared in my own house, like I'm treading on your toes, you tell me I'm co-dependent if I try to go to bed at the same time as you, and I have no idea where you are half the time late at night or on the weekends... and you've closed the door for me to even ask you!" Step one in leaving a toxic relationship: reclaim control.
Behind closed doors, a switch turned on, and my ex's distaste for me became abundantly clear. A simple dinner discussion would snowball into a tirade on how my "eating habits negatively impact the romance," how my "relationship with my mom is too intense," and how I "need to work on being x y and z if I want to be attractive". While I oftentimes overlooked his shaming, the disgust he expressed when I touched him made it abundantly clear that there was no relationship left to salvage. After years of being demeaned, of never being good enough, smart enough, interesting enough... I faced the facts and walked away. Step two: stop romanticizing the fantasy.
It’s difficult to identify relationship abuse when the inflicted wounds are primarily invisible and the perpetrator isn't self-aware. Even more challenging is when the abuser usually has redeeming qualities, which they use to build their partner's trust to then prey upon emotional insecurities to then rebuild trust and so on and so forth. In my experience, years of conditioning had taught me to question my own reality, withdraw from friends and family, and devalue my self-worth. The daily emotional, verbal, and financial abuse I experienced in this relationship were incredibly damaging, and I refuse to minimize my experience any longer.
My journey of regaining sanity and power is continuous. I'm slowly realizing that I was not fully to blame for all possible inconveniences, conflicts, and problems, and I'm forgiving myself for not recognizing the abuse sooner. It took me a year of therapy to prep for the breakup itself, but my recovery process is just that: a process. It takes time. So what now? Well, I can't go back. But perhaps I can offer you some advice that I wish I had:
1. Your emotions and experiences are valid and real. I found it difficult to relate my experiences to my peers, many of whom had their own, relative experiences with my ex. How could they possibly understand what I was going through when all they knew about my partner was based on their personal interactions with him in an entirely different setting? They couldn't! And it wasn't my job to make them understand. What was my job? Validating my own emotions and experiences, and not judging myself for feeling one way or another.
2. Listen to your body. The trauma from an abusive relationship will sometimes manifest itself via weight loss or gain, insomnia, depression, or anxiety before the victim even recognizes the abuse they're enduring. If your body or mind starts functioning differently, take note of that. By the end of my relationship, I was twenty pounds less than I weigh today.
3. Speak up! Confide in a friend, family, therapist, anybody who is willing to listen and take you seriously. Your concerns are valid, and you are not to blame.
4. Know your worth! You are a f*cking star, and if your partner can't see your worth, or feels intimidated by your shine, then they don't deserve you!
5. And speaking of worth, it's okay to dive into your insecurities. Do it! Before your partner attempts to use those insecurities against you! Recognize what your insecurities are and strive to accept those flaws. Nobody. Is. Perfect. Not even the dumpster fire human who is making you feel shitty about those beautiful, unseen battle wounds you have from life. Those are what make you unique!
6. Don't blame yourself. You had no idea you were getting yourself into an unhealthy relationship or you wouldn't have actively chosen to be there. Forgive yourself. Normal relationship tactics don't apply to abusive situations, and whether it took you days, months, or years to recognize that your relationship wasn't normal, the point is: you did. And you walked away. Or you're currently garnering the strength to walk away. And that's what matters.
Okay, I could go on forever here.... But I'm gonna stop now, because I need to. And I have a therapy appointment. I don't want to be late! Final thought: I hope my experience helps someone. It's cliche, but it gets better, you'll get stronger, and you will be okay.
Here are some resources I've found useful in my healing process:
What It Means When A Narcissist Says I Love You
A Diary Of Toxic Love
Verbal Abuse Is Just As Bad
Types of emotional abuse
It all started in celebration: I was cast as the lead in my school show. My mom took my brother and me out to celebrate. We were perusing through Target, en route to dinner, when she received the call from my dad. I picked up her phone:
“Hey dad, guess what?!”
“Put your mom on the phone.”
“I got the lead in the musical!”
“Jennifer, put your mom on the phone.”
“Dad did you hear me?”
“Damnit Jennifer I need to speak to your mother NOW.”
“Dad’s being a dick, enjoy.” I begrudgingly handed the phone to my mom, then continued prancing through the aisles. I took my mom’s distraught reaction as theatrics, tossing snacks in our basket as she melted towards the floor.
Through sobs, my mom muttered “we need to go.”
“What’s wrong?” My brother and I persisted.
“I...I...I’ll tell you at home,” she replied, stumbling out of Target, her weight falling heavily upon our arms.
“But mom, I’m hungry!” I fought back.
“What’s going on?” My brother inquired.
We stepped on the escalator towards the parking garage when my mom grabbed both our hands. “Your cousin’s dead, she killed herself.” That’s when time stood still.
The first 24 hours, I had a difficult time processing this new reality. First I was angry: angry at the situation, angry at my cousin, angry at my grandparents and at my aunt and uncle... Angry at myself for being a brat at the mall and making it all about myself, for being a bad cousin, and on and on and on. Then I moved through to confusion, an overwhelming sense of discomfort and loneliness. Who could I talk to about this? Who could possibly understand? I lay awake staring at the ceiling. The world kept spitefully turning. It felt wrong to gift the night even one second of my sleep.
The following week, I moved through the motions. My performative public persona didn’t deceive my headmaster, who called my parents to ask why I wasn’t “over it yet.” The school weaponized the stigma of suicide, claiming that my cousin’s “selfish act” shouldn’t “effect my schooling.” With teachers refusing to reschedule my finals, my parents forced me to miss the out-of-state funeral.
My cousin’s suicide shattered my family, who sought to answer the unanswerable “whys”. “Why did she do it?” “Why is she gone?” “Why her?” “Who can we blame?” You can place a bandaid over shattered glass, it’s still broken. The collective reaction: resentment. Pointing fingers became a coping mechanism that kept us all from healing.
The impact of her loss was debilitating. If only she could see how missed she was, if only she could have ask for help, or gotten the right help, or surrounded herself with the right people. If only she could have gotten the right medication, if only, if only, if only. Thus began a cycle of questions and unsatisfactory answers.
But resentment slowly faded to resilience, and that’s when the healing began. An awareness needed to happen, that suicide is a disease, and that my cousin’s death was nobody’s fault or burden to carry.
My cousin lost her battle to a debilitating illness, one that isn’t talked about enough. Suicide is a leading cause of death in the United States, and I firmly believe that destigmatizing mental illness, and encouraging mental health care, can help reduce these mortalities.
There are innumerable contributing factors which might lead someone to feel suicidal: genetic predispositions, social or environmental issues, etc. Resources including crisis intervention or counseling, therapy, medication, and hotlines are available to help combat these demons. Instilling a sense of hope is crucial to recovery, and there are options to improve upon your current circumstances. If you need immediate help, you can reach the Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255. Don't be afraid to ask for help, someone is willing and wanting to listen, and your personal impact is far greater than you may ever recognize.
My aunt and uncle have since dedicated themselves to supporting mental health and suicide prevention initiatives, my cousin’s sister found her path in social work, and my grandparents made it their mission to reunite our family. I'm in awe of them, at the strides they've made since, at their ability to channel their loss into someone else's hope.
The night of her death, my cousin called for help at 2am, to no avail. Now, my phone stays on at all times, and my loved ones know: I'm just a phone call away, on any day, at any time.
All this to say: don't lose hope, it will get better, you can get help, and you are loved.
I pray for the day when my dog realizes that "chocolate will literally kill [her]" (Bojack Horseman).
And if looks could kill, I'd be so far into the soil I'd need a shovel to dig my way up just to re-hide my Godiva chocolates from her sneaky, teddy bear buttoned-eyes so she doesn't accidently kill herself or pull another "oh sh$@ she got into my $10 box of chocolates and turned it into an $1000 emergency vet visit".
But alas, here we are: me shoving two seven-layer bars into my mouth, feeling overwhelmingly conflicted with moments of pure elation mixed with undeniable self-loathing, as Zoe, my pint-sized maltipoo, judges my poor eating habits. She's ashamed of me. Then she forgets she's ashamed because she hates me for not sharing. It's time for the talk. I've dreaded this moment my entire life, but somebody has to tell her.
"Zoe, every time you attempt to eat something on the grass when I take you on a walk, or when I leave the room for two seconds and I find you inhaling food from who-knows-where, you cut my life by ten whole minutes. And all those small incidents add up over time, so you've essential stolen several hours of my life! If you had any consideration for me, you wouldn't be such a food snob and you'd appreciate the food I put on your table! I love you too much that it actually gives me convulsions every time you eat something that isn't dog food." Midway through my speech, Zoe drops her bag of craps, both literally and metaphorically. She struts over to her potty pad, glances over her shoulder at me, then proceeds to defecate onto the mat. Then, in an act of rebellion, before I can sprint to grab toilet paper to dispose of her disposal, Zoe places a chunk in her mouth. This begins act one of our epic chase sequence, in which I sprint after Zoe as she dodges me around the living room. The finale? She swallows. She wins. I forgive her. We cuddle.
I've created a mastermind manipulator, who uses her good looks and charm to get what she wants. It's entirely on me, I take the blame. I've spoiled her! I massage her upwards of 5 hours a day, something that sounds like a task when my boyfriend asks for a 5 minute favor, but which I forget I'm actually doing for Zoe until midway through doing it. When we go on walks, I allow Zoe to smell a singular rose bush for upwards of 10 minutes because I don't have the heart to tell her that she's taking 100x longer than most dogs and that I'm going to miss my callback for a major network tv show if she doesn't hurry up! When she whimpers, my automatic response is to sneak her small pieces of chicken and turkey under the table. And when she wants to sleep on my pillow, I curl into a ball at the foot of the bed. She gets what she wants when she wants. I treat her like a queen to compensate for all the dogs that are mistreated.. at least, that's what I tell myself.
But despite our little feuds, one thing holds true: nobody else in the entire world has ever run away from me just to get momentum for when they run back in my direction to jump in my lap and lick my face.. and I wouldn't have it any other way.
I witnessed a man squat down on a patio bench, with a euphorically cynical grin upon his face, and defecate on the front porch of privately owned property. Now it's not everyday that you see a fifty year old man, in a fedora, spreading his fecal matter on an unfortunate and unassuming household in the middle of Los Angeles… just every other day. Not quick to judge, I gave him the benefit of the doubt, attributing his unusual behavior to the new 'pay to pee' system overtaking the Los Angeles community. In several public vicinities, a toll box adorns the bathroom door, and an easy fifty cents buys you a pee. So I commend you, fedora man, for having the balls to negotiate this disillusioned system and develop your own form of free urination alleviation.
I can't decide if I love or hate Los Angeles, but one thing is certain: I haven't seen this much diversity since 'Who's Line Is It Anyway'… just kidding (that show had no diversity). But I absolutely love people- watching here, and oftentimes wonder how such an eclectic and distinctly unique set of individuals troll the Hollywood streets on the same day, at the same time. On any particular afternoon, a slightly grungy/ borderline homeless man might approach you, with pot in hand, and invite himself to dinner with you and your friends. And on said occasion, all you will consider is how this man has not been arrested for blatantly smoking pot at the busiest intersection in Hollywood. This is just another average afternoon in the Hollyhood, one filled with the uncertainty of survival, unforeseen adventures, and debauchery…
My first day as a Hollywood intern, many years ago, after being instructed to enter the office via a conveniently located doggie door at the eastbound corner of Sunset Blvd, I spent a third of my day retrieving and delivering various orders from el pollo loco for my boss and her staff. At approximately twelve thirty p.m, I, in my Jeffrey Campbell litas, walked the half mile distance down Sunset blvd to said destination, ordered exactly six chicken hard tacos and, with food in hand, strutted back to the office. After completing my service, my employer reprimanded me for neglecting to check the order; the tacos were soft, and she refused to eat this sub- par food. Minutes later, I was back on Sunset blvd, receiving cat calls while walking the route to el pollo loco once anon. And as I struggled with the el pollo loco manager for approximately five minutes, pleading with her to compensate for her error, then returning to work and receiving instructions to get a second round of food from el pollo loco, I questioned my current pointless state of existence as the in- office food retriever/ bitch.
In exchange for my time as an unpaid intern, I expected compensation in the form of knowledge. Perhaps my expectations were far too broad; I secured an entertainment- industry internship but only learned two irrelevant lessons: 1, how to walk in platforms down Sunset Boulevard without eating shit and 2, how to fend off uninvited accompaniment. On my first walk to el pollo loco, a street creep, noting that I have a "pleasant face and sick shoes," followed me from the office to el pollo loco, then waited as I ordered my food. After housing myself in the bathroom for a half hour, I exited the facility stalker free. On the second walk, a fellow, in his car, offered me a ride around town… I quickly darted off before he could snatch me up. Finally, on my third walk down Sunset Boulevard, a delusional man decided to grab at my clothing but I forcefully pushed him away. I then found sanctuary, at the outset of work, a mile down the road, just hidden behind the Chik- fil- a riot, within the nail polish section of Rite Aid.
I’ve seen every type of dick you can possibly imagine: circumcised dick, uncircumcised dick, mastebatory dick, cum dick, soft dick, hard dick, dick in a hot dog bun, you name it, I’ve seen it. I could open a museum with the amount of photos I’ve received… I assure you I won’t, for I imagine the profit margin would be slim to none. I’ve tried a multitude of tactics to prevent further dick photos, but none seem to sufficiently address the issue. In an attempt to understand the psychology, I even asked one male sender why he felt the need to send unsolicited photos. His response? Another photo. #fail
I received my first unsolicited dick picture while at a family gathering, and I often wonder if that’s the straw that broke the camel’s back.. or my grandma’s hip, because needless to say, she fell down the stairs shortly thereafter. My first instinct? Threaten the man with a string of expletives, paving the way for my grand finale: “you will hear from my lawyer.” Instead, I resisted sending a response. Okay fine, my boyfriend snatched my phone from me before I could gift the man with my vivid vocabulary. The man proceeded to ask for my age, and knowing full well that my likeness resembles that of a thirteen year old girl, my creep radar spiked and I hit that block button. This would be the first of many unsolicited dick photos I would receive on Snapchat over the next few years, and needless to say, I’ve tried every tactic to get them to stop.
Years ago, I took a foray into digital media, and I’ve since developed a dedicated social media fan base, whom I absolutely adore *@jenhearts247*. I love connecting with people around the world, but nothing shadows this delight, or ruins my afternoon, quite like when I’m waiting for a job interview, casually checking my Snapchat messages, and a crooked dick pops onto my phone screen as the interviewer swoops into the lobby to greet me… (I didn’t want to work there anyway. *tear.) Perhaps if that man had been physically present in the lobby while exposing his genitalia, then he’d be in jail and I would have a second interview. But alas, the legalities of public indecency don’t seem to apply online, and it’s unfortunate that my employment, and my eye sight, were jeopardized by this man.
I can’t be a bystander anymore so here’s a fact: sending unsolicited genitalia pictures is sexual harassment. Being a female in the public space does not give you an open invitation to send me a photo of your dick. In fact, being a female does not give you permission either! Unless I ask for a picture of your genitalia, or consent to the few men who ask first before sending their photos, then I have zero desire to see your penis! When you continuously violate and disrespect me by sending me illicit photos, I stop seeing the photo and start seeing: your lack of self worth, lack of control, lack of confidence, and lack of physical intimacy.
My recommendations to the man jacking off behind his phone camera, who’s about to click that send button to some woman he’s never met nor spoken to? Put your phone down, pull your pants up, and get outside. Perhaps if you focus more on your personality, on being a good person, you’ll find a woman who wants to see your dick in live-time. Good luck to you.
Jennifer Levinson is an LA based actress, pizza connoisseur, and fashion addict.
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