I didn’t expect Netflix’s show Maid, to trigger me the way it did.
The show, based on a true story, is the story of a single mom, Alex, trying to build her own life by escaping an emotionally abusive relationship, trying to take care of a mentally ill mother, and having no qualifications, or money.
She is always steps from homelessness, battling a very flawed welfare system, and every time you think things are going to get better for her, her paper-thin foundation collapses.
Even almost 8 years after my own toxic relationship ended, I realized my emotions are raw and tender to the touch.
The show is forcing me to relook at a very difficult time in my past, perhaps with more distance, but still as much pain.
I don’t remember if it was seeing the bowl hit the wall (in my case it was two bowls shattered on the ground, and a fist denting a closet) or that inexplicable feeling of being afraid when he had never physically harmed me, that brought it all back.
Like Alex’s partner, mine was an alcoholic. Unlike the character in the show he had a proper job. He is one of the smartest men I know. Unlike the show, we didn’t share a child. I’m relieved for that, and also relieved that we never got married. We made decent money and lived in apartments, not trailers, cars, or ferry floors.
He wasn’t a bad person which is why I linger on the word “abuse.” It feels so final, so concrete.
It feels like it says he did this to me – and while to a certain extent he did, I still need to process my own role in it. Not in causing mood swings, and tempers, but in allowing myself to prolong the situation.
And it’s not like I was without my own bad behaviour. I responded in kind – perhaps not by breaking things but while there were times I would freeze and go numb, there were many times I would fight back and yell back at him.
In fact, I became the ugliest version of myself in that relationship. I was insecure and constantly off-balance. I was paranoid, anxious, and unstable. It’s fair to say I wasn’t an ideal partner back.
There are also many questions that plague me.
Why did I think I was head over heels in love? Was it love? If not, what was it? Why did I stay? What was that thing that prevented me from leaving? Even now, I can’t figure it out.
Yet Maid shows me that it’s not unusual to slip back into old habits, to stay or to go back to something you know somewhere in your gut, isn’t healthy. But you literally don’t know how to cut the cord.
Is it power dynamics? Did I feel, perhaps, that I wasn’t worth anything better? Did I feel that this was penance for how I had ended a previous relationship?
While I still can’t figure it out, I do remember four distinct feelings:
One – of walking on eggshells, not wanting to say or so the wrong thing in case it triggered an outburst.
Two – backtracking in my mind when an outburst occurred, kicking myself for being so stupid as to say or do a certain thing.
Three – knowing in my gut that it would never get better. That eventually I would have to find a way out. But not knowing how to do it.
Four – and this in most important – the feeling of relief and calm once the passing storm was over. The make up being so sweet and warm, that once again I got lulled into complacency. And maybe that right there is why I stayed.
He drank a six pack each day and then would drink liberally from the liquor cabinet. He was a functioning alcoholic – at least to my knowledge he wasn’t drunk during the day.
One night while I was at this absolutely beautiful fairytale wedding in the South of France, back in Toronto, he got so drunk he found himself on a stranger’s porch – with his glasses either broken or lost – I can’t remember which.
The irony was not lost on me.
Then there was the time I lost him at a party because he was so drunk he couldn’t process that I was looking for him to leave.
These just sound like a couple of crazy nights out – for sure. Many of us have done stupid things while drunk. But it’s a slippery slope to where those things get more and more frequent, and the behaviour becomes less and less responsible.
Another example: we were reading the Game of Thrones book together (cheesy? Oh yes). I was hooked. One day after work I really wanted to read it and he wasn’t in the mood.
I tried to persuade him, and maybe I was a little overzealous in doing so but he suddenly erupted into a fury and he ripped the book to shreds. I don’t think he was even drunk that time.
It’s hard to be with someone who has a substance abuse problem because in a way they aren’t themselves.
I’m not suggesting for one moment that we excuse bad behaviour, but the fact is alcoholism turned this person who was already hurt and damaged, into someone who caused damage.
It magnified every insecurity and wound, and every trivial issue into a massive outburst.
There was a day someone was coming to look at (and potentially but) a dresser where he had kept his passport. For safety, I had moved it somewhere else and had forgotten to tell them.
Those few minutes of initial panic where he couldn’t find his passport erupted into a full blown episode-and I was finding it hard to be screamed at for doing something that was ultimately not careless or even a mistake.
I think that might have been the day I locked myself in the bathroom because I just wanted the yelling to stop.
The thing with these situations is that our instinct to self-preserve gets dulled somehow, and we end up going back again and again, and not getting ourselves out. Little pieces of ourselves chip away. Plus there is the downtime between cycles where we lull ourselves into complacency.
There were two more things that reminded me of him during the course of the show.
First – this feeling of “us against the world.” The feeling that we were volatile but powerful together, the feeling that this thing we had was the raw pure kind of love that burned your edges in the process. That normalized a lot of what happened. And that is reflected in Alex’s relationship with Sean.
And second – and here is a small spoiler – the inability to be happy about a life decision or event, without being envious or petty.
Whether it was why a recruiter contacted me on LinkedIn, or the fact that I got to the final round of a writing job interview we both applied for, I was never at ease with certain victories.
It’s not that he never celebrated my successes. It would be very unfair of me to claim that. But a seemingly harmless thing like “hey wouldn’t it be cool if I moved to Vancouver” (where he was from) got transformed into something entirely different.
It’s not that there was no love and affection. It’s not like every day was a screaming match. That’s the thing people don’t understand when they ask why you stay. It is cyclical.
There are good days when it felt like yes, he is going to change, and it’s all going to be okay. And then something would happen and we would go through the whole thing again.
At one point in the show someone tells Alex that she should feel bad for Sean because he is suffering.
And it made me think about love and relationships. In a relationship – be it friendship or something more intimate – we are supposed to take care of each other.
But what happens when that caretaking starts to hurt you? At what point do you throw up your hands and say “I can’t make sure that you’re okay anymore.”
For me the end came when I moved out of the country. Although we were still together I think subconsciously part of my desire to move was fuelled by wanting to get away.
We ended things six months later when he inexplicably stopped talking to me for six weeks. It broke my heart, but it was for the best – and I think he knew that too.
However, a mutual friend got in touch a few years later to tell me he had been planning to commit suicide on his birthday.
He was obsessed with being a drunk mess and dying early, a fascination that began some time in early in our relationship – perhaps when his ex flew half way across the country, plonked herself in his apartment and tried her best to break us up and make him take her back.
If only the breakup strategy had worked, how different life would have been.
The suicide attempt got handled – though I don’t remember how. However, this mutual friend suspected, that he had gotten into other drugs. This I never confirmed.
The next time we talked he had managed to create chlorine gas in his apartment thanks to a combination of empty beer bottles and I’m not sure what else.
I finally sent a long message to his mother detailing my concerns and asking for her to bring him home.
Thankfully she did, though I don’t think he was happy about it.
There was even a day in between where she reached out to me because he wasn’t answering his phone. I remember sitting in the Bombay local train and calling him long distance. I can’t remember what he said but thankfully he was fine.
Now, five years later he is sober and much healthier. That sharp brain of his is being put to good use.
I can’t really verbalize what this show made me feel. It put certain things into perspective about relationships with addicts. It made me realize that what I went through wasn’t normal.
And most of all it made me feel thankful. Thankful for my current partner who is nothing like this, and has helped me learn to enjoy a stable relationship after many years.
I’m happy also that he is sober. When you care about someone, even if they hurt you, you don’t want to see bad things happen to them.
At least I don’t.
There are a lot of people who may connect to the show for different reasons – being a single mom, dealing with US welfare systems and their cracks, caring for a mentally ill family member – and that’s what makes this show so amazing and real. This was mine.
Would recommend watching this one although do so in a good head space.