Hilary Bronwyn Gayle/courtesy of HBO

Watching Celeste On 'Big Little Lies' Helped Me Make Peace With My Own Abusive Past

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Even before I had any idea what Big Little Lies was about, I was intrigued. Anything starring Reese Witherspoon, Nicole Kidman, Shailene Woodley, and the Pacific Ocean had to be a must-watch, right? And while the show is fantastic in its Real Housewives-meets-murder-mystery-movie way, I find moments of it hard to watch because Big Little Lies' portrayal of a woman abused by her husband hits a little too close to home. Nicole Kidman as Celeste Wright and Alexander Skarsgård, her husband, Perry Wright, do a phenomenal job depicting the complicated nature of an abusive husband and his wife. Though it isn't the one-size-fits-all portrayal of what an abusive relationship looks like in reality, seeing their fights on screen each week and watching Celeste come to the slow realization that her marriage isn’t healthy has helped me come to terms with own past abusive relationship.

In case you’re happily installed under a rock somewhere and haven’t watched Big Little Lies or read the novel by Liane Moriarty, a little background (and fair warning: spoilers ahead for the show): Perry and Celeste are married with twin boys whom they struggled to conceive. The boys are in first grade. Celeste is a former lawyer turned stay-at-home mom at Perry’s urging. Perry does something important that requires him to travel often and pays enough to afford a mansion with an ocean view. While their relationship appears passionate and perfect to the outside world, Perry’s prone to violent outbursts that often elicit a violent reaction from Celeste. Usually after a violent encounter, they end up having sex that borders on violent in its intensity. After each violent episode, he’s apologetic and promises it will never happen again. The cycle of violence-passion-apology is difficult to watch, but the depth of the portrayal of the characters hit especially close to home for me.

Like Celeste and Perry, the good moments in our relationship felt magical. But Dan had a drug problem, and when he was using or in need of a fix, his temper would flare up and he often liked to take it out on me.

During Sunday night's episode "Burning Love," Perry told Celeste she's lucky he didn't kill her after she retaliated against him and accidentally broke his urethra. Spurned on by her marriage therapist, Dr. Amanda Reisman, and her realization that he's not kidding, she makes steps towards creating her own safe haven for herself and her kids by renting her own apartment. Seeing Celeste finally take steps to reclaim her independence brought back tough memories of my own realization that my relationship was no longer a safe one. I’m happily married now, with a husband who rarely raises his voice and would never lay a finger on me without my consent. We have twin 4-year-old boys and our cat enjoys sleeping on my head at night. I love Zumba and Starbucks and the biggest worry in my life right now is whether I’ll do a good job as chair of the preschool Easter Bunny breakfast this coming weekend. But my life wasn’t always this #basic.

A decade ago, in my early 20s, I dated a man named Dan*. Dan was older than me, charming, and very good at making me feel like what we had was special and unique. Like Celeste and Perry, the good moments in our relationship felt magical. But Dan had a drug problem, and when he was using or in need of a fix, his temper would flare up and he often liked to take it out on me.

Hilary Bronwyn Gayle/courtesy of HBO
I told myself that every time Dan threw something at me or gave me a bruise it was because he cared so deeply about our relationship that it was proof of his love. 'No one will ever love you as much as I do, he'd tell me after the storm was over. 'I just get scared that you’ll leave me.' And like Celeste, I believed it and shouldered what I thought was my share of the blame.

The media often portrays domestic violence situations as one dimensional. The couple is poor and uneducated; the perpetrator male; the victim weak and unwilling to stand up to her abuser. Big Little Lies shows us that isn’t always the case. Celeste is a lawyer. I was in law school. Celeste and Perry are very well off. I had my own apartment, car, and the money to shop at stores like Sephora. But most importantly, like Celeste, I fought back when Dan became physical. When he shoved me, I shoved back. When he hurt my cat, I told myself it was my fault for refusing to sign my name on the new car he wanted.

When Celeste meets alone with Dr. Reisman and is asked directly about whether she views the relationship as abusive, she refuses to accept that she's a victim. “We both become violent sometimes; I take my share of the blame,” she said. “I’m not a victim here.” And I felt the exact same way. The fact that I often hit back made me view Dan’s assaults as just a bad fight. I didn’t see myself in an abusive relationship because that wasn’t something that happened to middle-class white girls in grad school. I saw us both as equally culpable for the problems in our relationship. It didn’t occur to me until watching Big Little Lies and screaming at Celeste to wake up that I used to be her and that I realized the difference between abuse and self-defense. Had it not been for Dan getting physical with me, I may never have raised my hands to him in the first place.

Hilary Bronwyn Gayle/courtesy of HBO

Growing up on reality TV, I was led to believe that the more a couple fights, the more they care about each other. When you're in a dangerous relationship, it's easy to confuse the abuse as passion. When Celeste finally confides to Madeline that her marriage is a cycle of sex and violence, Madeline’s first instinct isn’t concern, it’s jealousy. "That's f*cked up," Madeline said, "But it's also kind of hot." I told myself that every time Dan threw something at me or gave me a bruise it was because he cared so deeply about our relationship that it was proof of his love. "No one will ever love you as much as I do," he'd tell me after the storm was over. "I just get scared that you’ll leave me.” And like Celeste, I believed it and shouldered what I thought was my share of the blame.

One of the things that’s most frustrating about watching Celeste and Perry’s relationship play out is how it’s so clear to the viewer that Celeste needs to leave to protect herself and her children, but she refuses to do so. She’s educated and presumably has access to funds to get an apartment or a hotel room, yet she stays put. We’re led to think her hesitation is her belief that Perry can change, but I'd argue part of her reluctance to see her marriage for what it really is comes from her inability to understand how she got into the situation in the first place, and her fear of what others will say. “Perhaps my self-worth is made up by how other people see me,” she reflected to Dr. Reisman in a one-on-one session on Sunday night's episode. Watching, I nodded along — once, I felt the exact same way.

Hilary Bronwyn Gayle/courtesy of HBO

Just as Celeste doesn’t tell anyone about Perry’s temper, I kept that part of Dan and our relationship hidden from friends and family. They didn’t know the exact details of what was going on, but the fact that I was avoiding them and couldn’t be away from Dan for five minutes without my phone going off — he'd demand to know where I was — made it pretty clear I wasn’t in a healthy relationship.

I see so much of myself in Celeste. Watching her relationship with Perry helps me realize I wasn’t a fool. Domestic violence comes in so many forms and happens to all socioeconomic groups. Everyone else might be hooked on the show because they’re dying to know who was killed and by whom, but I’m tuning in for the moment when Celeste finally finds her freedom.

My moment of reckoning came in help from my mom, who suspected enough to know I wasn’t safe. She said to me, “You can do what you want to yourself. It’s your choice. But you want to have children someday. Think about how you’re going to feel if he turns on them.” Her words hit home in a way all the concerned talks from my friends never did. I knew in that moment this relationship wasn’t a dramatic, passionate romance. I didn’t want a future spent walking on eggshells, always waiting for Dan's anger to emerge. I left him, and when he refused to accept my decision, eventually sought and received a restraining order. He was later arrested for violating that order, resulting in a felony charge that was enough for him to finally leave me alone. (The fact that I'd moved to another town and changed phone numbers probably helped.)

Hilary Bronwyn Gayle/courtesy of HBO

Until now, I’ve never told anyone the truth about those six months of my life — not even my husband. I was a feminist and a kickboxing instructor. My sorority sisters once voted me “The Sister We’d Hide Behind If Anyone Broke Into The House.” I still can’t believe that as educated and empowered as I believe myself to be, I stayed with Dan for as long as I did. I thought I was smarter and stronger than that.

I see so much of myself in Celeste. Watching her relationship with Perry helps me realize I wasn’t a fool. Domestic violence comes in so many forms and happens to all socioeconomic groups. Everyone else might be hooked on the show because they’re dying to know who was killed and by whom, but I’m tuning in for the moment when Celeste finally finds her freedom, just like I did.

*Name has been changed.