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Breaking Free from Toxic Love: MADlines' Story

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Rapper, poet and educator MADlines of the band FR333.  (Bijou McDaniel )

Editor’s Note: MADlines, aka Maddy Clifford, is an Oakland rapper, poet and activist, as well as an educator in the juvenile justice system. In this personal essay, she delves into her journey of learning to love herself after leaving a toxic relationship.

I have a confession to make. I’m not over it. I haven’t healed from the trauma I survived, and I haven’t fully convinced myself that I’m lovable. That realization is painful, but avoiding it would only make me susceptible to repeating my mistakes.

A story can set you free or keep you confined. The stories we learn about love, about what we deserve, speak volumes. Even as a feminist, I have internalized harmful stories about love. These concepts came at me as a child within my own home. They bombarded me at school and as I walked through the world. I was stalked by societal expectations, harassed by desire even before I grew into my adolescent body.

I was taught that it isn’t normal to be alone. “Why is a beautiful girl like you still single?” men would ask. I was taught that it is my duty to sacrifice my wellbeing for others. I was taught that it’s normal for relationships to be tiring sites where, as a woman—and, therefore, a nurturer—my job is to act as an unpaid therapist. I was taught that it’s selfish for me to demand respect, to set firm boundaries, to enjoy being in solitude.

I knew that these stories were problematic in theory, but I still fell in line. But perhaps one of the most dangerous stories I was ever taught is that physical abuse is the only abuse that matters. Trust me, it isn’t.

Breaking the Curse of a Toxic Attachment

Over a year ago, I ended a four-year relationship. I loved this person profoundly and thought that we could remain cordial. What I’d hoped would be a normal separation morphed into an unnecessarily agonizing upheaval that impacted my sense of self-worth. Every breakup is hard, but this one changed my life. I had to come face to face with the hard truth: it had never been a normal relationship to begin with.


Healing from emotional abuse is particularly challenging because there are no visible scars. Instead, there’s a voice inside your head constantly criticizing you and causing you to question your intuition. There’s a lack of focus, a fatigue like no other. There’s this horrifying realization that a person’s callous responses to how they are impacting you is a reflection of how they’ve always been. I used to believe my ex was just brutally honest. I now know that he used manipulation, sabotage and isolation tactics to break my spirit and feed his fragile ego.

Gaslighting is the process of “undermining another person’s reality by denying facts, the environment around them, or their feelings,” writes Yale psychoanalyst Robin Stern in a Vox article explaining the phenomenon. To the outside world, perpetrators may appear to be reflective, but within intimate relationships they can be persistently harmful.

Gaslighting causes victims to be “manipulated into turning against their own cognition, their emotions and who they fundamentally are as people,” writes Stern. Gaslighting can lead to severe depression, health concerns and even suicidal thoughts. To add insult to injury, men have a whole library full of stories to deny women’s pain. When they paint their ex as “crazy,” a chorus of enablers nods in agreement. Nobody talks about the psychological torture that drives a woman to her breaking point.

My initial fight or flight response to being bullied was just that—to fight. I’ve since let go of that debilitating experience. I cut off all contact with my ex. I removed the people from my life who were not rooting for me, who were determined to discredit my experience. I cultivated friendships with folks that share my core values. I stopped blaming myself, stopped telling myself that the longest relationship of my life had been an epic failure. Instead, I realized it was a curse that only I could break. I focused on learning to prioritize my wellbeing and trust my intuition.

I realized that I will never receive closure from others. Instead, I decided to seek it in myself. Instead of continuing to spiral, I chose to face my pain head on. I chose to heal through my creativity.

A Healthy Love Starts with Yourself

What the formerly incarcerated say is that, at first, freedom can seem scarier than a cell. Suddenly, the wind hits your face. Suddenly, all the mechanisms you used to conceal the truth from yourself melt away. Even trauma can have a kind of pattern to it, a consistency. The shock of breaking a harmful pattern is intense.

I went through long periods of time when I was so enraged I couldn’t see straight. But anger usually masks grief. A traumatic breakup that altered my reality became a beautiful opportunity to see the self-fulfilling prophecies I needed to break. I used to think that my love was so powerful that it could heal anyone. But this line of reasoning is dangerous.

One of the things they teach you in lifeguard training is how to approach a drowning person. People that can’t swim are fighting a losing battle with the water. They swallow buckets of it. They panic and flail, grasping at anything to keep them afloat. If you try to save them by approaching from the front they will grab you and take you down with them. Loving someone who has intense trauma and refuses to do the real work of healing from it often results in sacrificing your own peace and ability to grow. And the irony is that water is life. We all naturally float.

My self-love journey hasn’t ended. It will last a lifetime. But I know that courage is my compass. My self-preservation is a revolutionary act. In order to truly change, I began writing regularly. I started taking therapy seriously. I took up boxing, channeling my anger for self-defense. I turned to tarot to strengthen my intuition. I interpreted my dreams. I began meditating.

People noticed my aura became brighter. Although this drew new lovers to me, I didn’t start a new long-term relationship. Instead, I prioritized loving myself.


Self-love is more than spa days and weekend getaways: self-love is strenuous. Self-love can feel like a kind of death. What’s dying is a harmful story. What’s being born is an entirely new you.

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