I was too tired to win the lottery
How domestic abuse ground me to dust
The Powerball jackpot is $522 million. My phone is full of texts from the optimists in my life reminding me to grab my ticket, cross my fingers, wear my pajamas inside out, and to buy from the cashier directly (no one wins from the machines!).
I stopped at the KwikFill on the corner. I don’t look at my numbers anymore. I just insert whatever crumpled dollar bills are leftover in my car’s console and hit the quick-pick. I resist the habit of throwing the ticket into the console and slide it behind my debit card. The next time I return, I’ll scan the ticket.
Whenever a big jackpots hit the news, I remember the days when I was too tired to be a millionaire. My story is an abridged recollection of domestic abuse that will be familiar to the 30 percent of women and 25 percent of men who survive it (Centers for Disease Control, 2019). The true number is likely higher; abuse can be camouflaged even to those living it every day.
I started a relationship with the quiet, funny guy in our friend circle in 2014. He was charming, attractive, and made me laugh until my stomach hurt. A month into dating, he turned out to be a great kisser and an intimate match. My feelings developed fast and deep for him.
I was a junior at Cornell University, a three-hour drive from the Mid-Hudson Valley where my friends and family all lived and worked. We took turns making the drive each weekend, no matter how many exams or events took place before. I was running in fifth gear with a brain full of oxytocin and serotonin blasting away.
When the spring semester ended, I took a summer job near the hospital where he worked. It was a thankless special education assistant position that had nothing to do with my college program, but I felt happy. We had lunch together and had more in common with the common scenery. We could share our love for the Catskill Mountains, the fields of yellow, white, and purple flowers that grew along the highway, the patches of meadow that always had deer, and the quaint shops
His hooks began prodding my flesh in late spring, and by the summer, they poked through muscle and skin. To be clear, I thought I knew what abuse would look like. I wasn’t ignoring any warning signals. Some people never give off a red flag - more of a yellowish-orange at best. He liked to compare women to flatter them. I was thinner than his ex. I was more successful than the administrative assistant he worked with. The women in Sullivan County were so dramatic. He slowly cultivated competition for his affection by fostering each person’s insecurities. He confided secrets in quiet dates. He was a merchant of everyone’s ugly realities, but he could sell you the illusion of being perfect in his eyes.
His most acute weapon was his time. He was never on-time for anything, and when he was late, he made sure everyone knew that it was because something more important was happening. To an outsider, this may seem strange and insignificant, but when someone is an hour and a half late to a fancy dinner you anticipated for a month, it’s hard not to let your emotions capture you.
He always built me up just beforehand. Send me a picture. You look ravishing. I can’t wait to [sexy thing] to you afterward. No one has [feature] like you. He was as poetic as he was enticing. He could build a woman’s emotions up in a way that would make a Wall Street penny stocker salivate.
Then the event would come. Back then, I was early to every dinner, every drink, every party. I really meant it when I said that I couldn’t wait for each blissful moment, and the sooner we started, the more time we would have together. I would doll up for hours, carefully tend to every inch of skin and fabric, and wait. Then the texts would come.
I’m about to head out. My boss is a creep. There’s an emergency. I want to get you flowers. I just have to get gas. My mom is sick. I’ll be there in 10. My dad never shuts up. There’s another emergency. You look amazing. Sorry to keep you waiting. I’m about to head out. I have to take this call. Let me get a better table.
Each minute became more emotionally charged than the next. I stared at the revolving doors of the steak house. I watched the driveway through the living room window. I switched to a bar table that had a view of the patio. He was important, I reasoned, so it was understandable if he was late to dinner. He was going to make this up to me later, and I would forget this anxious anticipation. It wasn’t that late yet. This was my fault for not planning more time between his job and dinner. I wasn’t doing anything more important. I could wait. And wait. And wait.
Then he’d show up. He would smile and laugh a little like nothing had happened. In the beginning of our relationship, he would roll up dressed to the nines and get straight to the event. He would greet the server with his fancy drink order to go as though it was the server who was late. Most of the time, he acted completely naturally with no mention of why he was late except that it was important and it’s over, and boy, do I look great.
He does this with his friends. He builds them up, tells them how smart and underappreciated they are, and then builds extravagant plans to celebrate them. Then he ignores them. He tells one friend how no woman will ever appreciate their special humor or talents, and then he pits one friend against the other. He abuses their secrets. I heard him tell my ex that he wasn’t missing anything because the sex was pretty blah, but he was showing me the ropes. He told another friend about the party host’s foot fetish and to watch their girlfriend’s shoes. When his childhood friend left the party at 2AM after performing a magic show, he announced to the rest that Johnny Boy was going to be a loser with the same tired party tricks and dumb, clingy broads forever.
Slowly but surely, everyone who had known him from our youth no longer talked to one another. This friend was a rich boy, a pervert, and a weirdo. That friend was a sad stoner who would love anything that remembered his name. The other friend was a misogynist slut with a rich family and too many guns.
I’m a social creature, though, and they were still my friends. I insisted on spending time with our friend circle. After all, we had started dating after cultivating our friendships over years. These sad, horny weirdos were special to me. Even if he didn’t want to spend time with the group, I did.
And that was not okay.
The first time he wanted to hurt me came because I accepted a friend’s invitation to a weekend party. He’d said he was going to be too tired to attend. I was going to go, though. These were my friends who I had known for years, and I missed them. This was a mistake, because not even a year into dating, he had carefully crafted me into accessory of himself - no longer an independent member of the friend circle, but his girlfriend.
I tell you this so you can begin to understand just how exhausted I was when I drew my lottery ticket in the months before. When we talk about abuse, we tend to focus on the interactions of the abuse - gaslighting, manipulating, apologizing, etc. I seldom hear about the time in between. Abuse is exhausting. Walking on broken glass all of the time wears the mind and body out. I was socially isolated from my support network. Every single task was ten times harder and took ten times longer to complete.
That dreary November day, it was my turn to drive down. I brought my laundry and my biochemistry textbook. I stopped to fuel my precious 2003 white Mustang, my private refuge from the world, and I wanted some caffeine to wash off the exhaustion of the long drive. I had some extra crumpled dollars after the soda, and I had nowhere to put the bills, so I fed them into the lottery machine and hit the quick pick. I probably either threw the ticket with my laundry or into the car’s console, but the tiny spindle of hope that it required to do so little had spent the last of my mental energy. I drove home.
The news of someone in Middletown winning the massive jackpot reached me at Cornell. I was studying for biochemistry when the texts rolled in mom texted me. Only one person had won the jackpot. They knew that the gas station was my regular stop and that I had just visited. They desperately wanted to know - did I win?
This is where my friends and family get the most confused. I had bought the ticket, so how could I be so pessimistic about winning? If it’s just a matter of cleaning out my car and finding the ticket, what is the big deal? What was I doing right then that was more important than checking if I had won the largest jackpot ever recorded? Would you empty your car out and check your pockets for a chance at $300 million?
And, looking back, the answer is no.
I was that tired.
The exhaustion is beyond the physical burn from driving for hours on end on windy mountain highway roads. It is beyond even the mental burnout from studying too long or lacking a single day off from work. Emotional exhaustion is as real as the fatigue you feel after shoveling snow all morning.
I didn’t look for my lottery ticket because I had burned the last ounce of my hope for a better future.
Have you ever seen a bird caught in a string or a butterfly trapped in a web? The first struggle against a trap is pure survival instinct. Every animal fights without a thought. They thrash, flap, twist, turn, kick, and wiggle in every way your body can to get out. This initial struggle is the product of a dozen evolutionary panaceas that have gotten every animal out of nearly every struggle it has survived.
If that fails, the next step to escaping is craftiness and wit. The bird waits and investigates the string. The fox nudges the metal claws. Their brains are still on fire with the afterburn of adrenaline and cortisone, but every action is intentional.
The next is hope. The kitten cries out for its mother. The bird gives a few more kicks against the twine. The butterfly flaps against the web as the spider approaches. When everything else is gone, only hope will get a living thing free and alive. As their mind weighs the odds, hope gives them the last bursts of strength to struggle - to survive, no matter the odds.
When hope is lost, there is nothing left.
My abuser had slowly smothered the hope inside of me. He put me on a pedestal and made me feel incredible, beautiful, talented, and successful. He isolated me from my friends and family with charm, wit, secrets, and half-lies. He threatened me with physical violence, and I thought I deserved it. He chipped at the pedestal until I felt completely useless. No one was ever going to love me if he didn’t love me. I was a tranquilized mattress in intimate situations. I was fat. I was loud and annoying. Everyone was just too nice to tell me that they didn’t want to spend time with me. No one wanted a life with me. No one wanted to wake up next to a fat crybaby. I was expensive. I wasn’t worth the time of day.
There was no way I could have won the lottery. I didn’t deserve to win the lottery. I was always going to be his useless play thing until he was done with me. There was no point in looking for that ticket, because I wasn’t a winner. I was stupid for even wasting the ink and paper. I deserved to lose those dollars. So I didn’t look. I ignored the texts, opened the textbook back to a half-page graphic of the hemoglobin protein, and tried to get through one more week of being alive.
You know what, though? I’m glad I didn’t bring that ticket in. If I had collected all of that money, I would have married my abuser. We would have had a house together in those mountains that he hated. He would still be a welfare king; he’d lost his job at the hospital after threatening his boss and rolling in late so many times before. His violence would have escalated. He really would have killed me, just as he promised on a muggy July night in 2019. I would have truly died.
This is the trauma I relive with every news story about record-breaking lottery jackpots. This is the memory I relive with every text reminding me to pick up my lottery ticket. I fall back to the time that I was walking dead, when I was too tired to win the lottery.