Recently, I took a trip to Iceland alone.
A single woman traveling is nothing new. Countless articles have been written about the confidence that can come from traveling solo. Often, the message is that when a woman travels alone, she really discovers herself.
When I boarded the plane it was hardly a revolutionary action. But, for me, it was a big step. A step away from the woman I’d become while in an abusive relationship and a step back towards the woman I’d once been.
Prior to my marriage I’d traveled by myself to Argentina, Jamaica, Spain, France, London, and multiple destinations in Canada and all over the United States. I’d confidently boarded planes with as little as a week’s notice and flown off to have wild adventures abroad. Mind you, being a huge art and history buff, most of my wild adventures involved museums and visiting historical sites. By 28 I’d collected several passport stamps and hoped to someday fill all the pages. And then I met my husband.
While he hadn’t traveled much outside of the U.S., he claimed that this was because he traveled extensively for work and didn’t enjoy traveling for fun alone. I found this slightly concerning but gave it a pass – after all, having the time and money to travel in the way I had is a form of privilege, and who was I to judge him if he hadn’t had that same access? And judging someone for not traveling made me feel snobbish.
During the first few years of our relationship there was a lot of larger family turmoil, he started graduate school and I was working two jobs to support us both. There was no money for travel. But about a year after our wedding I convinced him to go on a delayed honeymoon to Nice, France. It was a disaster.
It started in the airport security line. “Dena, why don’t you have your passport out yet? God, I hate traveling with inexperienced travelers.”
About two feet after entering the line, “Dena, take out your liquids now, don’t wait.” Tapping foot, angry tone.
He went on, and on, complaining loud enough for not only me but everyone around us to hear. I quickly did as he wanted, trying to shut him up and embarrassed by the looks we were getting.
It didn’t help that when I’d suggested he request a wheelchair before standing in line he’d gone off at me. My ex-husband had multiple sclerosis, and was legally disabled. As we were both in our early thirties, people often acted like Mark* was lying when he told them he was disabled and asked for help. I’d tucked the handicapped tag into my carry-on, ready to present it when requesting any needed accommodations. Wobbly on his feet, with legs that buckled without warning, Mark didn’t need a wheelchair full time. But crowds of people running to catch flights, pushing in line, or obliviously cutting in front of a guy who couldn’t stop quickly made airports a nightmare.
I tried to be sensitive to the fact that being a disabled male in a culture as rife with toxic masculinity as our own was tough, but asking for a cart or wheelchair to help us get to our gate seemed reasonable to me. Not to him.
“Stop trying to make me worse than I am, Dena. You just want me to be fully disabled, don’t you?” I’d excused his nastiness as a symptom of his fatigue, though I realize now that doing so was a form of ableism. Disabled people are responsible for their words and actions just like anyone else.
It didn’t get better. The week we spent in Nice at a boutique hotel literally steps from the beach was one of the most miserable of my life. Shortly before we’d left on our trip he’d quit his job to intern at a medical device company, so his excuse was that he was stressing about money while we were there. But I made more than enough for us to have had some fun.
Every time we went to a restaurant, he complained. I had to talk him into buying a pizza at one place, another restaurant he dragged me out of by the arm, pitching a fit about the cost the whole time.
When I’d traveled alone, I’d enjoyed myself but also secretly wished for someone with whom I could discuss the beautiful things I was seeing, the art, the buildings, and the landscape. It can be lonely to say, “Look, self, at that gorgeous brushwork and use of color. That’s really impressive, me,” when standing in front of a Degas.
We visited a few museums, each visit successively worse than the last. He refused to check out a free wheelchair in the Musée Internationale de la Perfumerie so that he could enjoy the exhibits. My attempts to call him over to look at Napoleon’s small jacket at the Musée Masséna were met with rolled eyes and huffing as he stood from the docent’s chair and walked over, glanced at it, and sat back down. I stood in front of artwork that I’d dreamed of visiting, eyes blurry with tears, married but still with no one to talk to. At one point, halfway through the week, he complained that instead we should have gone to Pittsburgh to see his family.
By the end of the trip I’d leave our hotel room and just wander around the city for hours, snapping photos and trying to deny the hot ball of pain under my ribcage. Mark lay on the hotel bed watching poorly dubbed episodes of Nip/Tuck that he couldn’t even understand. Mark had a little high school French, but I was nearly fluent after eight years of study, a minor in college and a month living in Paris when I was eighteen.
Looking back, I can see how the trip might have been triggering for him in other ways, and some of my actions probably didn’t help.
Already struggling to deal with his loss of independence, it probably was even more difficult for him to travel to a country where he didn’t speak the language and was fully dependent on me to help him meet his basic needs. My attempts to get him to use a cane must have felt like an even further denial of his masculinity, never mind that his habit of using my shoulder as a prop regularly left me black and blue.
The flight home was when it all came to a head. Due to construction in New York we had to walk outside, dragging our rolled carry-ons, and move between terminals. Again, he refused to ask for a wheelchair or cart. Mark was obviously getting tired, so I asked him to sit on a chair while I walked around and tried to find our gate.
“I don’t think so, Dena,” he bit out, with more anger than I’d ever seen from him before. I don’t even remember the details of what he went on to say, the low-voiced anger, the way he hunched over me in threat.
I’d grown up in an abusive home so I moved right into conciliatory mode, soothing him and taking all the blame upon myself.
Finally seated on our flight back to Minneapolis I drummed up the courage to ask, “So, back in the terminal…you almost hit me, didn’t you?”
He shrugged and responded, “Yes, if we hadn’t been in public I probably would have.”
That was my honeymoon. I returned nervous and on edge, with emotions swirling inside me that I couldn’t name and didn’t understand. It took me almost another five years to leave him, and I’m sad to say that the verbal abuse only escalated from that point onwards.
In an odd form of ableism on my part, I excused him from actions that I never would have tolerated from a man who wasn’t disabled. I loved him; it hurt me to watch him deteriorate. I struggled with not knowing when to intervene and help, alternately yelled at for assuming he couldn’t do something or for not jumping in to help soon enough.
The analogy often given to describe verbal abuse is that of boiling a live frog, turning up the heat slowly until they’re dead. But that’s not quite accurate. It’s more like, turn the heat up to eight, the frog threatens to jump out, so turn it back down to two. Next time you turn it up to 10 and the frog doesn’t move as quickly so you only turn it back down to four.
Until the frog - or in this case me - wakes up one day and realizes that she hasn’t been out of the country in four years. That the only vacations she’s gone on have been to visit his family in Pittsburgh. That there are no new stamps in her passport and she’s had no new adventures.
Which is why, for me, getting on a plane by myself to go to Iceland was such a big deal. I’d left him a year earlier and, true to his intermittent threats while we were married, he’d made the last year hell. He’d told me that I shouldn’t date anyone else, as I was too damaged to have a real relationship. Warned me that, if I did date, any men I took home would just ‘hit it and quit it’ once they realized how crazy I was.
Constantly, day in and day out for the eight months he refused to move out, I’d heard some version of my lack of worth as a woman and human being.
Some nights I’d lock myself in the bathroom – otherwise he’d walk in on me – and sit down in the shower huddled into a ball with my hands over my ears. The eighteen year old girl who’d once flown sixteen hours to Argentina without a backwards glance was now afraid to leave the bathroom of her own house.
When I booked the trip to Iceland it wasn’t because I wanted to become someone else or discover myself. The woman I am today is not the girl I was at eighteen, but the girl I was at eighteen could teach the woman I am today a thing or two.
No, I wasn’t trying to discover a new me, but to rediscover the old me. A bit of that spirit, the joy of learning, the willingness to bumble her way through a foreign language and order pasta for dinner when she’d meant to order pâté.
Someday I may have someone to stand beside me in a museum and complain, sotto voice, that we’ve both seen enough water lilies for one lifetime, thank you very much. Until that day, I’ll eat the pasta and pretend that’s what I really ordered, I don’t have to share dessert, and I won’t get my liquids out of my carry-on until I reach the front of the line.
* Name has been changed.