I Faked Panic Attacks So My Boyfriend Would Stop Bullying Me

Slammed between passionate fights and eerie calm, I stopped being able to identify where reality ended and performance began. I became who I pretended to be: sensitive, desperate, and insecure.
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Marian Schembari
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Slammed between passionate fights and eerie calm, I stopped being able to identify where reality ended and performance began. I became who I pretended to be: sensitive, desperate, and insecure.

Once a month, for as long as we’ve been married, I dream that my brand-new husband has turned into my childhood boyfriend.

The boyfriend, Tommy*, and I kissed for the first time in eighth grade during a game of truth or dare. I couldn’t believe he like-liked me back.

In high school, we went to prom and studied for our SATs. We lost our virginity, complete with candles and Boyz II Men (forgive me, this was the early 2000s). I helped write his college application, and he taught me how to drive a stick shift. Putting aside my dream to attend New York University, I applied with him to a small school in the South and was thrilled when we were both accepted. Before we left, we were voted cutest couple in our high school yearbook.

During my 2005 high school graduation.

During my 2005 high school graduation.

For a while, everything was perfect. We were finally alone, away from curfews and parents’ schedules. We could have sleepovers! We were so adult! So when he became a little more overprotective in college, discouraging me from hanging out with classmates who drank too much or were apparently “checking me out,” it was just because he loved me. Right?

One afternoon, sometime during the second semester of our freshman year, Tom had seen my thong peeking out over my jeans in class. He wasn't happy. With all the confidence of a burgeoning gender studies major, I told him I was a grown woman and could wear whatever I wanted.

“So you want people to see your underwear?” he spat.

“That’s not what I said,” I answered, rolling my eyes.

“You said you wanted to wear clothes that showed off your thong.”

“No,” I said. “I just meant that you aren’t in charge of what I wear.”

His favorite argument strategy was to avoid directly responding to anything I said. It was crazy-making, but effective. Unable to get through to him, I placated instead.

“I know you’re just looking out for me, babe,” I said, rubbing his arm. “But I promise I can take care of myself. It’s just a little underwear. You’re probably the only one who noticed it showing.”

“You don’t know how guys think,” he said, shaking me off. “One of the guys told me he could see up your skirt in the cafeteria. They’re all talking about it now.” His tone was calculated to shut down any argument, to overwhelm my objections with confidence, as if his statement was obvious rather than offensive. As if it were perfectly natural to police his girlfriend’s attire. As if I didn’t have a right to dress myself.

Suddenly — and not for the first time — my frustration at being infantilized and unheard came toward me in a wild rage.

“You never listen to me!”

I felt powerless, so I did the only thing I knew could snap him out of his detached disapproval. I crawled off the bed and lowered myself to the cool floor, letting my quiet whimpers tumble into heaving sobs. I started to hyperventilate, curling into a ball and wailing like a war widow. I knew if I could hold out long enough, he’d save me. He always did.

I don’t remember when I discovered this tactic. Probably during another fight I couldn’t win. At first, it took the barest glimmer of a tear to bring him back to me, but over time he built up immunity and I’d lie gasping on the floor for half an hour before he’d apologize for lashing out.

Thirty minutes into this particular production, he softened, climbing down from his perch to get on the ground with me.

“Shhhhh,” he whispered. “It’s okay, I’ve got you.” He spooned me from behind and brushed my hair away from damp skin.

By the time we reconciled, I didn’t care who’d started it — I just wanted it to be over. I didn’t question our behavior. The high of our reunion blurred the edges of the truth.

The rest of the day was a tender bruise. We spoke to each other reverently, tiptoeing around conversations that might lead to another fight, holding hands like teenagers, all grippy palms and caressing thumbs.

But afterwards, alone, all I felt was shame. I had manipulated him into apologizing. Again. Only a sick person would do such a thing. I was clearly crazy, and it was only a matter of time before he stopped loving me because of it. Why couldn’t I have stood my ground without resorting to tears? Or remembered to wear different pants?

Earlier that year, Tommy had seen a picture of me holding a red Solo cup online. Furious, he looked deep into my eyes and said, “I can’t believe you got drunk. What else did you do that night, huh?”

Not wanting my roommate to think I’d let a guy talk to me like that, I said, “Don’t be dramatic. We’re in college; it’s not a big deal. Plus, I had a few drinks, I didn’t get drunk.”

He stormed out of my room, slamming the door hard enough to rattle the window. I immediately realized my mistake: I should have apologized. Or lied, saying the cup held juice. That night I called him over and over, but he wouldn’t answer. For six months he gave me the silent treatment, only letting me in for make-up sex before reverting to silence again the next day.

So when I found myself crying on the floor of his dorm (or in the passenger seat of his car, or in my childhood bedroom, or on the campus lawn), I knew I risked losing him completely if I fought back. That sick churning of dread while I waited for forgiveness by the phone was far worse than forcing myself to cry a little louder. My submission eased his anger. His pity banished the distant person he turned into when I did something wrong.

Slammed between passionate fights and eerie calm, I stopped being able to identify where reality ended and performance began. I became who I pretended to be: sensitive, desperate, and insecure.

By the end, my only desire was to keep the man who used to be the boy I had loved at 13. I dressed in long skirts and conservative tops. I didn’t go to campus parties or sustain outside relationships. Old friends emailed occasionally. “Where are you?” they asked, wondering why I’d stopped getting in touch. “Is everything okay?”

When Tommy and I finally broke up during our sophomore year, he immediately started dating someone else, but continued sleeping with me. She was just a friend, he said. It was me he really loved. Sometimes I pretended to believe him. It was a small campus, and I knew who she was. If you squinted, she even looked a little like me. Facebook had recently launched newsfeed, and I tried to avoid photos of her as I obsessed over whether my sort-of-ex maybe-dating my doppelgänger was the ultimate compliment or a devastating indictment of my failings. Either way, every few days he’d show up at my dorm, weeping, begging to be let in. I always did. He always left again.

I knew the deterioration of our relationship had been my fault. If I’d been more composed and independent, more conservative and demure, Tommy wouldn’t have wanted anyone but me. Whatever I’d been doing wasn’t enough. Someone else had been better. With someone else, he could be kind.

Ten years and many therapy sessions later, I more or less recognize the cycle of abuse. But I worry that I’m still caught in it. In the years since college ended, I’ve found myself easily dissolving into tears, questioning whether I’m performing pain so I can be sure it’s heard.

Last October, I married Elliot.

Elliot and me (and Homer, the dog) walking back down the aisle at our wedding last October.

Elliot and me (and Homer, the dog) walking back down the aisle at our wedding last October.

Elliot, who wiggles his eyebrows when I show a little skin. Elliot, who believes me when I say I love him. Elliot, who finds me wrapped in our duvet after I’ve had a tough day. “You having a lot of feelings today?” he teases, teaming up with our enormous Samoyed to coax me out of a blanket cave. When he does, it sinks in a little deeper that love doesn’t need to be manipulated.

On bad days, I know Elliot adores me, but I wonder how long it can possibly last. I suspect that pleading, desperate, submissive girl is still in there. That if he senses her, it will drive him to play her counterpart, and become Tom.

Terrified by my dreams, I turn to Elliot and ask, “Do you love me? Under what circumstances would you leave? Is it annoying that I ask you this all the time?”

For now, I’m lucky. Elliot is still Elliot. He turns to me and says, “Of course. Never. Ask me every day.”

* Name has been changed.