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How Traveling Europe Saved My Life

Updated: Mar 30, 2021

I was encouraged to apply to study abroad by a guy I was head over heels for. I romanticized the idea, I was going to have the opportunity to explore the French countryside with my boyfriend, someone who said all the right things and made himself seem like the perfect match, but everything wasn’t as it seemed.

Emotional abuse can sneak up on a person. Little things that I took as shyness or him being a private person were really, after months of reflecting, an attempt to isolate and change my perception of the truth. Some days he was distant, he would ignore my messages or blow off plans. I shook it off. He still liked me, but he told me I was overbearing and I internalized that. I tried not to question when he vanished off the face of the earth, or when he wouldn’t talk to me all day, even though we sat next to each other in class. Some days he couldn’t stop telling me how amazing I was, how I was perfect. Those were good days. They gave me the highs I needed to get through the bad days, and the bad days outnumbered the good. I’d get texts calling me awful, selfish, possessive. I’d read them aloud to my best friend in tears. She would tell me not to reply, not to keep seeing him, but I didn’t listen. I knew him, and he wasn’t like this.

I felt insane. How could he tell me one day I’m amazing and the next treat me like dirt? I couldn’t process it. So when he told me he wasn’t going to study abroad after all, I felt a sense of relief. Maybe he would be nicer to me if he didn’t see me for a few months. Maybe he would miss me. Doesn’t absence make the heart grow fonder? But he was bitter about it and couldn’t be supportive and excited for me.

He broke up with me via text a couple of months before I flew out. I was shattered. I mentioned the breakup to his best friend, she told me she didn’t even know we were dating. After 4 months of seeing each other, I was shocked. I was his dirty secret and I think he liked it that way. I was there to comfort him when he wanted, fuck him when he wanted, but he didn’t have to treat me with respect. He knew I would keep coming back, holding on to the small sprinkles of kindness he would give me. I know now he kept the details of our relationship secret because he was afraid someone stronger than me would point out his toxic behavior.

Even though we were broken up, we still saw each other. We were still sleeping together, doing all the things a couple would do without the label and without his friends knowing. It was then that he decided to tell me he was in love with me. That kept me going. For some reason, I thought if he loved me, we would be okay. But his love was short-lived. He would yell at me, call me terrible names, or ignore me for a few days. I found myself apologizing for things I didn’t do, apologizing for how he felt, for his emotions and reactions. He had a way of snapping at me and making me apologize and comfort him because he felt like a bad person for raising his voice.

Lacoste, France | Maddy Sutka

By the time the spring semester ended, we decided we should just be friends, but the relationship was still unhealthy. I got my first therapist through a subscription healthcare service, and while I could only afford it for a couple of months, she did tell me I had to set boundaries with him. He encouraged this, but when I told him my first boundary was I needed him to text me first when he was ready to try and rebuild our friendship, he told me he couldn’t do it. By the time I landed in France that summer, virtually all communication between us stopped. I knew he was jealous that I was there while he was in the States, but it hurt that he couldn’t be happy for me. Even though I was in a new country experiencing new things, my mind was still back in the states. I couldn’t stop overthinking our last conversations. Everything made me think of him, and I didn’t want to be reminded. I had trouble making friends at first. I felt weird, awkward, and unlikable. My confidence was destroyed from being someone’s secret for so long. If the one person in my life who knew everything about me was ashamed to be associated with me, why would anyone else be different? I was embarrassed of myself for not being funny enough or pretty enough or charismatic enough, and I know that insecurity was painted on my face.

I was good at hiding how sad I was. I posted photos on Instagram, talked to my family over video chat, and was bubbly in class, but at night when everyone else was out with friends, I often spent time by myself. I would find corners in the library, I found secret places to watch the stars, I found ways to get away from everyone else. I was internalizing everything people said to me and took everything personally. I felt like I deserved to be sad. Happiness was for people who are loved, and pretty, and not alone. I didn’t feel like any of those things. I would have nightmares every night, and while I still have nightmares often, these ones were graphic and disturbing. I would subconsciously dig my fingernails into my wrist when I was sad, not even realizing that I was bleeding until it was too late. I was concerned that I didn’t really feel the pain, but not concerned enough to tell anyone about it.

I remember my lowest point. I was depressed, anxious, and suicidal. I was sitting on the edge of a wall in this small little French village, hating myself for feeling this way. How could I be sad when I was surrounded by such beauty? I felt selfish and terrible. I felt alone. I considered how easy it would be to slip off the wall to the cobblestone road two stories below. I probably wouldn’t die, but I wanted to feel something. Instead, I posted a sad Snapchat story and tried not to cry. Only then did my ex reach out. He made sure I was safe, but then told me I should be medicated, told me I was unstable. It felt like a punch in the gut. The person I used to talk down from suicidal thoughts or call at 2 am just to coax him out of a panic attack couldn’t offer me the same support. Or he just wasn’t willing to. I was disappointed but not surprised. He finished by saying if I needed to talk, he was there, and I took him up on it. I sent him a long message, relaying my thoughts, my feelings, my fears. He never replied.

Lacoste Lavender Fields | Maddy Sutka

I was angry at myself for being vulnerable with him. I felt like it was my fault, I was too much, I shouldn’t have confided in him. I tried to throw myself into the program. My fear of not connecting with people changed. Not only was I making friends, but I was making lifelong friends, people who I still talk to today. I had a support system that helped me realize that he didn’t have control over me anymore. I began to see my own worth and value as a friend and a person.

Knowing I had a circle of people who had my back, I felt like I was in control of my own life. I would enjoy the time I spent alone. I would get up to watch the sunrise and write. I would buy a can of Coke at the only shop in town and drink it by the lavender field before class. When we visited Paris, I spent hours wandering the streets by myself. I even navigated the metro with a dead phone and no sense of where I was. I was beginning to feel empowered, but it wasn’t until the 10 days after the program ended that I truly found my strength.

Those days were filled with solo travel. I stayed in 4 different cities and spent 4 nights in hostels. The rest of my travel was done overnight. I slept on planes, trains, and buses. I met a lot of different people, often creepy men who really just wanted to know what I was doing traveling by myself. At times it was scary, especially at night. I was spat on by a homeless man in Marseille, stalked by a man in Switzerland, and harassed by men in Amsterdam, but I felt strong. I got through every instance of uncertainty and fear by myself. I proved I could survive and that there were good people, strangers, who would let me sit with them, who would let me borrow their phone, or would let me pretend to know them so a man would stop talking to me. At a time I felt so lost, seeing the good in other people gave me hope.

Mt. Pilatus in Switzerland | Maddy Sutka

Over these days, I spent a lot of time alone. I’m not super outgoing, so I didn’t meet people at my hostels. I barely spent time in them. I spent the day on the streets, walking the cities, taking photos, and trying new foods. I had a lot of time to reflect, stuck with my own thoughts, and surrounded by people speaking a language I didn’t know. I was rebuilding myself slowly, becoming more confident every day. I took a cable car up a mountain in Switzerland in the rain. Almost no one else was there. I remember breathing in the cool mountain air and crying because I was so happy. I ate a space cake in Amsterdam and did a canal tour. I talked to no one else on the boat, but I didn’t feel alone. I ate churros on the beach in Barcelona and collected sea glass. I ordered water in Spanish in a bus depot and felt capable for the first time in months, even though I know I spoke the language poorly. Finally, I met up with my best friend in Madrid, tired from 8 days of travel and only 4 days of sleep. But I was happy. We drank tinto de verano and ate tapas, and I felt whole.

I started to fall in love with not only my life but myself. I muted the boy on social media. I started to focus on myself and my needs, something I hadn’t done in months. I journaled and learned about myself. I’ve dated since then, but I realize I’m so happy being single. I enjoy my freedom, my courage, and my own company. I’m proud of myself for surviving that relationship, and while I know my mental health still has good and bad days, I know I’m strong enough to survive and ask for help when I need it.

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