Trigger warning: this blog post contains references of emotional manipulation.
September 2013. I dragged my overpacked suitcase from London Bridge for 20 minutes in the pouring rain to my sister’s house. The wheels had snapped off somewhere along Bermondsey Street, so I basically was just dragging a 30kg box full of interview clothes, shoes, and essentials to start my new life in London. I looked up at the 3-storey Victorian townhouse. It was an 8-bedroom house-share full of early twentysomethings starting out in their professional careers. The walls were crumbling, and the dirty dishes were stacked high in the kitchen, but it instantly felt like home – even if I was living in my sister’s bed.
Including a small stint in East London, I would go on to spend the next two years living in this house (albeit with my own bedroom.) It was in this house that my sister lived, and then subsequently my brother, where I met some of my closest friends today. Those first couple years hold some of my fondest memories, with house parties, festivals, Notting Hill Carnivals, dates, ‘movie and duvet’ nights, sleepovers, and hangovers. Where our different pockets of friends from house-shares and university fused together to create memories and friendships that will last a lifetime. It’s been seven years since I first fell in love with London; the people, the opportunities, and the endless possibilities.
After a few weeks of applications and interviews I finally secured a job in marketing and product presentation at a reputable company. I was proud of myself for having the courage to start a new life and wanted to move on from everything that was a part of my old one, including any romantic involvement with Caleb. The new dating app, Tinder, was picking up in popularity and I decided to give it a go. This is how I met Reggie. We matched on the app and he asked me out on what would be my first ever dating app date.
So, on one cold, winter evening at the end of November I headed to the Southbank Christmas market to meet Reggie. I nervously hovered outside the National Theatre until I saw a tall guy with dark hair and light eyes approach me, smiling. I was instantly attracted to him. We quickly hit it off and were soon ambling down the Southbank laughing and flirting, mulled wine in hand. We headed across the river to Gordon’s Wine Bar and perched on an outside barrel, where we shared a bottle of red wine. I was giddy with the sheer romance of it all, the fairy lights, the Christmas spirit, and the insanely sexy man who couldn’t stop grinning at me, telling me how lovely I was. Damn I should have moved to London sooner.
Once we finished our wine we headed back over the river. Walking along Hungerford Bridge, Reggie casually mocked me for something which made me laugh and then promptly caused me to start coughing. I leant on the railing whilst I spluttered, and Reggie gently patted my back. I turned to apologise for my outburst, only to see Reggie smiling at me with a certain look in his eye. I swallowed. He leant in, one hand cupping my lower back, the other behind my neck and started to kiss me. I swooned inside. It was like something straight out of a romantic movie, and we were the leading characters locked in a passionate embrace in the middle of the bridge. We eventually broke away, grinning sheepishly at each other. Reggie then walked me back to Waterloo where I was staying over at a friend’s house. I got ready for bed that night in a dream like state. It had been the most perfect first date.
The following few weeks passed in a blissful blur. For our second date we went ice skating at Winter Wonderland, complete with falling on my arse and being scooped up into Reggie’s arms for second rom-com style kiss (foot flick with shoe blade pointing precariously in the air.) For our third date we snuggled by the fire in one of the oldest pubs in London and when it came to closing time, I subtly suggested going back to his flat (a toothbrush and spare pair of knickers already packed discreetly in my handbag.) One date even ended with Reggie picking me up and swinging me around amidst a water foundation display in Mayfair. I felt like I was living in a movie; I was Bridget Jones, and he was my Mark Darcy!
On our fifth date whilst sat outside snuggling under patio heaters at a pizzeria, Reggie leant over the table, took hold of my hands, and asked me to be his girlfriend. He went on to say how wonderful I was, and that it just felt right. I was surprised of course, we’d only been dating a couple weeks but nonetheless, I was over the moon. My housemates teased me about how it was so soon, but I just considered myself lucky, it was almost too good to be true…
I was so happy (or so I thought). I was living the fairy-tale. Boy meets girl, boy is crazy about girl, girl is delirious with infatuation and promptly comes off anti-depressants because she has finally found the antidote to cure her sadness! This was all nonsense of course. Fairy-tales are not reality and investing all your future happiness within one person is not advisable, and likely a sure recipe for disaster. But I was (and still am to a certain extent) a hopeless romantic and being so young and naïve; I let myself get swept up in this supposed whirlwind romance. Within the few short weeks leading up to Christmas Reggie had become my everything. Until all of a sudden, he wasn’t.
January 2014. I came back to London after the Christmas break and since Reggie had spent New Year’s Eve out of the city, I was desperately looking forward to seeing him again. He had been a bit distant over the last week or so, but I put it down to him being busy catching up with family and friends back at home. Besides, we’d spent a perfectly lovely day together before each going home, so I didn’t look too much into it. But three days into the new year I hadn’t heard from Reggie and he had been ignoring my messages. At first, I told myself that he must just be busy and then I began to worry, what if something had happened to him? By the fourth day I decided to drop by his flat in Oval to see if he was back in London.
Reggie answered the doorbell on the first ring and looked shocked to find me (his supposed girlfriend) on his doorstep. Aside from the shock he looked perfectly well.
“Oh, you’re here… why haven’t you answered any of my messages?” I asked him.
“Er…why don’t you come inside” he said opening up the door.
I followed him into the kitchen where he made us both a cup of tea. He was trying to act normal, but I could tell something was off.
“I didn’t know you were back in London… is everything OK?” I tentatively asked.
“Yeah… just been a bit busy y’know,” he shrugged.
“Oh, right” I replied, biting my lip. “I missed you…” I said, raising my eyes to meet his. I couldn’t fathom why he was acting so weird. Surely, he could see I was starting to get upset.
“Yeah, you too,” Reggie replied, looking away from me.
My gut instinct kicked in and my stomach started to churn.
“Look, if something’s up you can tell me… that’s what girlfriends are for” I added meekly.
Reggie sighed and sat down at the table. “Look, Jess, I think maybe now isn’t a good time for me to have a girlfriend” he said staring into his cup of tea.
“But… but you were the one who asked me?! I replied, incredulously. “I don’t understand… if something has happened you can tell me.”
“Nothing has happened. I just think I should be alone right now.”
“But I don’t understand… what has changed, Reggie? We were absolutely fine when we last saw each other not even two weeks ago! … If you just talk to me…”
“I think you should go now, Jess”, he cut across me.
I blinked dumbly in shock. Why was he acting so differently? This person wasn’t the same guy I was developing feelings for before Christmas. I nodded, picked up my coat and bag and left his flat. I managed to walk all of 200 yards down the street before sitting on the curb and breaking down into shuddering sobs. I caught my breath and roughly wiped my mascara streaked cheeks. I picked up my phone to call my dad, in what would be the first in many breakup calls he would receive from me over the coming few years.
The following weeks after my breakup with Reggie I would come home from work each day and climb straight into bed where I’d sleep the whole evening through to morning. The intense lethargy was so extreme that I couldn’t even go to a friend’s house for pre-drinks without ‘napping’ on their sofa whilst people drank around me, carefully tucking me in with blankets. I couldn’t explain the absolute sadness that seemed to engulf my whole being. Surely this wasn’t normal? People didn’t just feel this kind of grief at the end of a six-week long relationship?! Two months ago, I hadn’t even known that Reggie existed for God’s sake! So why did I feel this low… what was wrong with me?
I went to the doctors and my GP advised me that I had come of my anti-depressants too soon. They usually suggest gradually being weaned off them over six months even after you feel well again. By simply just stopping taking my pills I had effectively gone cold turkey. What I was feeling was an acute relapse of depression, which had been triggered by the end of my relationship with Reggie. I started taking my pills again and promised to gradually lower the dosage over time, but that still didn’t explain Reggie’s behaviour. I couldn’t understand how someone could be so vehemently into you one week and then turn completely cold and indifferent towards you the next. It felt so cruel. I convinced myself that it was something that I had done. Maybe I had misread the signals? Maybe I had been too needy? Maybe… I just wasn’t lovable enough.
The reality is, and I wouldn’t know this until years later, is that I had in fact been ‘love bombed.’ Oh, it’s a thing, people! Love bombing is a form of emotional manipulation where someone (usually someone you’ve just met) overwhelms you with loving words, actions, and gestures which may at first seem ‘too good to be true’ – and it usually is. At first victims of love bombing can romanticise the situation and confuse it with notions such as ‘it was meant to be’ or ‘love at first sight’, but in reality, the love bomber is a master manipulator, taking advantage of your love language in order to hold power over you. Love bombers are quite often narcissists, who struggle with true emotional intimacy and are more interested in holding power over someone or having the upper hand in a relationship.
Reggie was your textbook love bomber. He laid it on thick to begin with, saying all the right things and making all the right gestures. Carefully spinning his manipulative web, and pulling me in closer, like a preying spider sensing a vulnerable fly. And just when he had me where he wanted me, he switched. Reggie’s initial charm began to dissolve, he became distant and less attentive. When I look back on my brief relationship with Reggie there were a multitude of red flags. In hindsight, I remembered that he seemed to get pleasure out of deliberately ignoring me or putting me down. At the time I was emotionally vulnerable, and his approach was very subtle and therefore all the more dangerous. He had an artful way of insulting me, followed by a compliment, so that I always had to double guess myself if I should be offended or not. This type of manipulation is commonly known as ‘negging’, more details of which you can read on my sister’s blog: Dear Men, Quit Negging Me.
Reggie would make elitist comments to ‘playfully’ put me down, teasing me that I’d attended a former polytechnic university, whilst he himself had attended a Red Brick university. He would constantly patronise me, asking me about work and then casually dismissing my response as if it was trivial. And when we had sex, his whole demeanour would change. During, he seemed enthusiastic, maybe even a little too enthusiastic, biting my neck just that bit too hard. But afterwards when I’d try to cuddle, he’d push me off or roll away. One time just before Christmas I was over his flat and we were in the middle of having sex when Reggie asked if he could take photos of me on his new camera. I said yes thinking it would be something fun and sexy we could do together. But it wasn’t. Reggie would ask me to pause in a position, take a photograph and then look at the picture and laugh at the position of my body or the expression on my face. This wasn’t about having fun together; this was about humiliating me. Afterwards I got dressed feeling ugly and ashamed, whilst Reggie occasionally flicked through the camera reel sniggering to himself.
For years afterwards Reggie would occasionally crop up (usually when I’d just broken up with someone). He’d message out the blue saying something like he’d come across my dating profile on whichever app, and would I like to catch up over a drink. Reggie was a master in emotional manipulation and in the beginning I’d stupidly take him up on his offers to meet. Nothing would ever happen but I’m sure my just agreeing to meet him no doubt massaged his ego and gave him some form of control. I also think there was an element of trauma bonding. This is when a victim of emotional abuse forms an attachment to their abuser. The abuser typically uses cycles of abuse and then some form of reward to keep you trapped psychologically and emotionally. This would explain the intermittent times where Reggie would shower me with attention and affection and then all of sudden could turn cold and make a cruel, negging comment at my expense. I fortunately (if you can say that at all) only experienced this for a few weeks but many others can experience this kind of abuse for years as it can be extremely difficult to break a trauma bond.
Until the last time a couple years ago, when Dennis had just broken up with me, and Reggie got in touch again (I swear men have some kind of sixth sense!). I initially agreed to meet for a drink. But the day before I was sat at my desk and my phone flashed up with a message from Reggie making some ‘funny’ (patronising) comment about my job. God he was such a dick. And then the penny finally dropped. Why would I meet up with someone who had only ever made me feel bad about myself? Any encounters with Reggie had only ever served him and never me. I promptly messaged back to cancel our drinks – quite frankly, he could go fuck himself as far I was concerned. I made the decision there and then to never entertain Reggie and his ego again.
February 2014. It had been a couple of months since Reggie had broken things off with me, and he had already got a new girlfriend *rolls eyes*… and even though I still felt incredibly sad about the situation my friends urged me to try dating again, at least as a distraction. So, on one cold evening in February I sat on my sister’s bed after work and re-downloaded the Tinder app to my phone. I re-enabled my profile, and a few matches filled my inbox from the intervening three months. At the top of the inbox was a message from an attractive, Australian guy. Seb. It read: “30 seconds ago I matched with you, and my life changed forever.” Those infamous first words.