How I Found Self-Worth in a Pool of Maggots and Left the Man I Loved

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"I'm going to destroy everything," Seamus hissed at me as I climbed into my friend's car to leave the home we shared. The cops had already come and gone, saying that one of us had to leave for the night. Because Seamus refused and I had been drinking, I packed a bag and called a friend. I had known that our relationship would end badly, but it was hard to believe it was ending like this.

When I first started dating Seamus, I was constantly over the moon. We had fiery chemistry, and similar backgrounds—his was also a childhood marred by sexual abuse and he'd also studied sociology and women's studies. Our conversations were meaningful, I felt almost inherently understood, and he was incredibly attentive and romantic. On one of our first dates, I was miserable with horrible cramps at a sushi bar. While we waited to be seated, he ordered three glasses of delicious hot sake: one for me, one for him, and one that he pressed firmly into the small of my aching back.

I was bowled over by such a thoughtful gesture. I could never have believed that, three years later, he'd be roaring obscenities at me as he chased me through our house, past pictures hung with care and a vase full of dried flowers from a birthday bouquet. I couldn't have imagined him touching me any way other than tenderly—much less pushing me roughly into the bathroom, leaving bruises on my arms as he shook me and screamed that I was a whore.

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Of course, at that point, I also never would have imagined that I'd want to end our relationship. Seamus was so charismatic and intense at the beginning; he showered me with cards, flowers, presents large and small. He called, texted, and chatted me throughout the day, often popping by my house or job "just because." This was sweet, and then it became disruptive and overbearing. He would show up while I was on strict deadlines, or appear unannounced and uninvited on girls' nights out. At the office, he would stand like a sentinel, frowning whenever I talked to male colleagues. Later, he'd tell me it was obvious they all wanted to fuck me, a sentiment I considered both preposterous and mildly flattering.

I chalked his behavior up to social ineptitude and a jealous streak, both of which I thought were manageable until the night he woke me at 2 a.m. in a rage, shoving my phone in my face. "What is this?" he demanded. His face looked eerily misshapen in light of my phone. It took me a second to wake up and register what was going on: he had taken my phone while I was sleeping and gone through all my messages, settling on a months-old one from an ex as "proof" that I was cheating on him. I felt furious at him for invading my privacy, and for the false accusation.

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When I told him he was wrong, he exploded, hurling insults at me. It took hours to calm him down. While he reluctantly accepted I hadn't cheated on him, he refused to admit he'd been wrong to go through my private things. I'd had nothing to hide, but now I was scared that anything he found would be misconstrued. After that, I took to either keeping my phone on my person at all times or hiding it where he'd never find it: behind books on the bookshelf, inside shoes in the back of the closet.

Seamus, after that, started saying that love was work—and while I knew that to be true, I was unaccustomed to working quite so hard. He couldn't seem to understand my desire for a girls' night or a solo date with my best friend. He seemed to take offense to anyone else meeting any of my emotional needs, saying he wanted to meet all of my needs because he was truly committed to me and our relationship. His jealousy seeped through onto even the least threatening of my relationships—so much so that I began limiting my contact with my friends while he was around. If I had even a brief text or phone discussion in his presence, he acted angry or wounded, saying I was not giving him the attention he, as my supportive partner, deserved. My other relationships lived in whatever pockets of alone time I could squirrel away.

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I believed I had a stable and permanent love that simply needed some tweaking, and I maintained that belief for years. But when I discovered that he was hacking into my email and Facebook and reading my journal (which coincided with his complaint that his therapist of several years had advised him that he wasn't stable enough to be in a relationship), I decided to end things.

And there was another reason I wanted to leave him—a growing one. His name was Hank.

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I'd met Hank a few years prior, but I never got to know him until he began playing bass in the band I sang in. He was funny, kind, gentle, and ridiculously attractive. Though I tried valiantly to ignore it, our attraction was instant. Band practice was one of the few places Seamus didn't often go because it conflicted with his work schedule, so it was a reprieve from my daily life.

As our feelings for each other grew, Hank told me in no uncertain terms that he wanted to be with me. He also told me that, even if I didn't want to be with him, I didn't have to live the way I'd been living with Seamus: resigned, joyless, scared.

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Things came to a head one day. We wound up making out like teenagers. Exhilarated but consumed by guilt, I planned to break up with Seamus the following night.

I texted my best friend about it, excitedly sharing the details. Even though I was in the habit of erasing all texts, no matter how innocuous, I saved these, along with several from Hank to re-read and savor. I resented the years I'd spent erasing all records of my private conversations. These were my texts, and they were hot and thrilling and dear to me; I would save them if I wanted to.

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The night I planned to end things, I was too anxious to eat. The glass of wine I had to take the edge off while I waited for Seamus to come home turned into two bottles. After texting my friend and Hank for one last bit of moral support, I fell asleep on the couch in a wine-stained t-shirt, clutching my phone like a rosary. I woke up to a start to Seamus looming over me, his face twisted into a menacing sneer as he snatched my phone away.

Knowing that this time I'd actually given him a reason to be angry kicked my fear into overdrive. I darted into the street. He followed, screaming at me that I was a snake who deserved to have my head snapped off. I ran back and forth along our street, keeping at least one car between us, fearful that he'd drag me up the steps of the porch and back into the house if he got his hands on me. As the cops pulled up, Seamus' demeanor transformed into one sparkling with calm, respectful contrition. He explained that we were having a lover's quarrel and I was drunk. Seemingly unconcerned, they explained one of us had to leave for the night and waited while I called a friend for a ride. The police waited with Seamus outside until she arrived, during which time I packed a quick bag and tried to calm down.

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I stayed with my friend during the following week while he moved out of my house. I hoped that as my bruises faded, his rancor would too, but each day there was a deluge of baleful texts and emails. I tried to ignore them and just make arrangements to divide our things and settle our mutual bills. Even though things had ended horribly, I wanted to respect and honor what we had been before everything had gone to hell, but he wasn't having it. He refused to pay his half of the bills and swore he would take back everything he'd ever given me.

When I returned home, I discovered he'd made good on his promises and then some. The place was in shambles—there was garbage all over the porch and inside the house, deep scratches in the hardwood floors, and rotting food on the counters and in the fridge. As I feared, my closet and jewelry box had been all but emptied, including things I'd had before we'd even met—most notably, a beautiful vintage butterscotch colored suede coat my daddy had given my mama before they were married. But as I climbed into bed, it dawned on me that it was the first time in years I wasn't afraid of what might happen to me if I fell asleep before he did.

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I awoke the next morning weary but hopeful. I was ready to clean and reclaim my house, put my life back together. Working my way from my bedroom in the back of the house to the front porch, I cleaned each room as I went. I saw specters of us in happier times as I collected the trash and debris: slow-dancing in the hallway, cooking supper together in the kitchen, wrapping presents in the living room. My heart felt leaden.

After I finished with the inside of the house, I made my way out onto the front porch. There were bottles and mail circulars crumbled in corners, plastic wrap on the walls. As I surveyed the trash scattered about, making a plan for how to tackle things most efficiently, I noticed that the longest wall seemed to be moving. Curious, I leaned closer to inspect it before shrieking and pulling back in horror.

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Hundreds of fat, slimy maggots were writhing across the walls of my bungalow's beautiful brick porch, spilling onto the floor like lemmings jumping off cliffs where they aggressively advanced toward my front door. As I looked around my porch in disbelief at the countless luminous, oily white bodies convulsing in the morning sun, I realized that Seamus had carefully smoothed out the wrinkles in the wrappers of his deli meats and meticulously stretched them along the longest walls of my porch to bake for a week in the scorching July heat.

Steeling myself, I grabbed my rubber gloves, a trash bag, a bottle of bleach, a broom and dustpan, and the water hose and set out to rid my porch of the revolting onslaught. I put the gloves on and frenetically doused the entire porch with bleach. As I let the bleach permeate the brick and the maggots, I felt bitterly sad as I thought about this relationship's dire culmination: maggots all over my fucking porch.

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I methodically collected the wrappers, dripping with bleach and wriggling maggots, and shoved them into the trash bag. Even though I had on gloves, I could feel their warm, slippery bodies touching me, and my stomach gurgled and cramped uncomfortably. I swept the maggots up into a jiggling pile and then dumped them into the trash bag before turning on the hose to rinse the bleach and any straggling larvae off the porch and into the street.

Maybe it was the fumes from the bleach, maybe it was the blinding and beautiful sun, but as I worked, my anger and sadness slowly began to dissipate. I had no reason to be shocked by his actions, after three years of false accusations that turned into screaming arguments and then tearful apologies. He had locked me into the home office and threatened to let my dogs loose in the neighborhood. He'd revealed his true nature to me a long time ago. I'd seen it, but couldn't believe the thing I thought was love didn't really exist. I believed a commitment from someone else was better and safer than one I could give myself. I desperately needed to believe that I was lovable, and loved, by someone. Anyone.

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As I watched the water erase the slimy muck, I felt a similar kind of sense of ablution. Seamus had intended for these maggots to be his sinister swan song, a blight on me and the home I loved. But instead, I saw those maggots as emblems of who I was with him: complaisant, accommodating. Most importantly, they were a reminder that I was ready to do more than crawl blindly. The end of that relationship, along with the renewed commitment to valuing myself, was bigger gift than I could ever have imagined. I stepped off of my newly cleaned porch believing that wading through a pool of maggots was a meager price to pay for freedom.

All names in the piece have been changed.

A bona fide country girl, Brook Bolen is the redheaded, Southern, femme, vegan, gentile version of Larry David. She in lives in the heart of the Dirty South with her handsome husband, sweet pitbull son, and magical toddler daughter. When she's not cooking, eating, or gardening, Brook dreams longingly of sleep and the mountains from whence she comes.

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Illustration by Tara Jacoby.

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