(Editor’s note: Trigger warning for descriptions of emotional, physical, and sexual abuse.) A few days ago, I was browsing Facebook, bored, when I happened to come on a picture that stopped me dead in my tracks. It was a picture of a smiling man, his arm around a beautiful woman, small bouquet, suit and dress, all the trappings of a standard wedding photo. “We’re married!” it sang, evidence of another happy couple giving it a go and making a commitment to each other on their terms.
Only, the man in the photo was my ex, my very first boyfriend. This also was the same man whose emotional and eventual physical abuse left such a deep impact on my developing self that I was unable to form meaningful relationships for years, for fear that I would be hurt again. I secretly battled depression, self-harm, and anxiety over being physically touched for years even though everything seemed fine. At the time, I never thought of myself as “a victim” or as someone who had been through a sort of trauma. It took years of undoing things I had come to believe about people and really, about myself, that I amassed the clarity and hindsight to really look at the situation and realize what I had been through and how deeply it traveled with me, throughout all my personal relationships.
His photo stared at me, with the same smug look that is often burned into my brain and used to come out in the moments when I was trying to enjoy myself the most. He looked content, his wife, happy. There was nothing out of the ordinary to separate this photo from the million other wedding photos out there. There was nothing that would ever give evidence that the beautiful, happy woman he was holding around the waist was the woman he started dating after our disastrous relationship. Sometimes, I can’t help but question myself – did I imagine it? Was it really as bad as I perceive it to be? It’s questions like this that made me keep it locked away for so many years, wanting to spare myself the questioning of my intentions by confronting it, by spelling it out. I was scared someone would tell me I was wrong, that I was a liar, that I was just trying to ruin a young man’s life. I was scared no one would believe me, that I was being over dramatic or making it up.
When I was younger, I had an idea of what “abuse” looked like. I was certain that I would never find myself at the end of it and that I, unlike some of the women in my family, would never let myself end up in a situation where I would be victimized. I was strong and smart; I knew better, I was raised better. Of course, abuse, to me, was defined as the overtly violent depictions I had seen in passing in Lifetime movies or heard talked about quietly between family members; hush-hush topics that weren’t dare spoken of unless in private. Abuse was black and white, not the quietly manipulative gestures that would later define my first experience with dating, with sex, with what it meant to experience a form of abuse. It wasn’t abuse. It was something else, something nameless.
At first, it was very minor things. Bringing me home later than he was supposed to. Hiding my phone from me so I was unable to call anyone. Talking about how horrible my mother was. Didn’t I see she was trying to ruin me? He slowly separated me from the people I was closest to, helping me drive a wedge between anyone who could have ever offered me an outside perspective. I had become isolated, relying solely on him for companionship. Everyone else just didn’t care as much. They didn’t love me they way he did.
When I would try to break out and regain friendships or spend time with my family, he would threaten suicide. More than once he climbed into his car, turning on the ignition, threatening that my actions had caused him to go overboard. He would talk about how my selfishness was degrading him, how my immature actions were despicable— he just happened to love me enough to see past it all. My confidence eroded. My weight dropped. I couldn’t even understand how someone as good as him could love me.
Of course, there was sex too. At first, it was consensual and then it became less and less something I wanted. There would be times when I would say no or I don’t want to, and yet somehow I would find myself with him on top of me, watching myself from above. He would sometimes forcefully grab at me, inflicting pain. When I would yell out or say it hurt, he would only smile and tell me I was being too oversensitive, that I needed to grow up. There were other times when he would tell me how awful my body was while having sex with me, as I silently blocked out everything around me. At one point, he became transfixed on a young woman we both mutually knew, often comparing me to her, how she was much sexier than me, how he imagined her when with me, telling me the things about her that were better than myself. How he would leave me at any moment for her. My body became quiet, lying limp. Saying no became obsolete. My body was not my own.
In the book The Revolution Starts At Home, most of the contributors talk about how things start one way or another and then lead elsewhere. That people who were involved in activist communities happened to meet this person they then became romantically involved with, who wanted justice like they did, who believed in community, who were respected. Who then emotionally, sexually and physically abused them and would go back to those very same communities talking about the widespread problems of violence. He was part of a gay-straight alliance, was involved with anti-racism groups, was a leader in a multi-faith youth group that embraced lefty politics. He went to church. He was an honor student. He was a soccer star. He would then also block my path if I tried to leave. Grabbing my breast, squeezing and twisting them in public or in the car. He also began squeezing my neck anytime I would say something he didn’t like. Each time, it got harder and harder, at one point, when we were in the car together, he did it so drastically and hard that we almost swerved off the road. He moved on from my neck to my legs and arms, squeezing and twisting them when he felt like it, often leaving bright red burns that would dissipate in minutes. For years, I was terrified to have anyone touch my neck and when a hapless young guy I dated much later grabbed my neck in a moment of affection, I broke down screaming at him and he could never know why.
I don’t know the exact reason why I stayed so long. I was young, sure, but I think most of all, I was numb. Everything that I felt I had become up until that point ceased to be, as I became a walking zombie of my former self. He would push me when taunting me, as if to mock the person I had become, the incredibly fearful and insecure person. His pushing, which then became accompanied with screaming, would become more and more habitual, like a dare to get me to finally snap and be met with what would be “actual” physical violence, the type I perceived as “abuse.” That was the abuse I wouldn’t stand for.
I tried ending it many times, but was always met with fear and consequences. Our relationship finally ended with a pregnancy scare where I remember my ex looking at me and telling me that I would have to rely on him from now on, that I couldn’t get an abortion since I was only 16. I would have to drop out of school and take care of his child. We would have to get married. I would have to be saved by him, once again, as I was too incompetent to do it myself. His devious eyes bore down at me, smiling smugly, as I waited breathless on a pregnancy test. He was about to regain control. I remember sitting there thinking that I could get friends to beat me up in hopes of a miscarriage, or that I would eat something that would make me sick. I remember thinking; I will get an abortion, no matter what. I will not do this. As the stick turned into a life-saving blue, I knew that I was free. I was free to go back to a life, my life. Without even missing a beat, I ran to my mother’s beat-up Jeep that I had driven over and drove away without saying a word. I was free.
He would later say in voicemails say that he poked holes in the condom to get me pregnant, though he took it back. I do not know the truth on that matter. I erased every trace of him in my life, though to have thought he would have done the same, was naive. He would stalk me when I was out with friends, watching from his car or from mere feet away. He would call our house and hang up after several seconds. He would see me out and walk by me, bumping his body into mine as if to remind me that he was still capable making his physical presence known. He would later go on to tell every single person he knew that I was a slut, that I was a whore, that I really hurt him and was a genuinely bad person. It worked. People would chide me for this, my friends would talk about him and all I could do was silently sit with my mouth shut on what happened. My mother, bless her for hating what he did to me, would bring up how awful he was, and I could only quietly think how disappointed she would be in me if she knew the things I had let happen to me.
The release from this relationship was mind-boggling, much like I had just come up for air after being underwater so long that it hurts your lungs and you feel dizzy. It was as if my head turned back on and I became aware of everything around me again. I was alive. I wanted a life again. But those around me, who couldn’t see what had happened, were not so quick to forgive. It took my mother years to trust me again and I often denigrated that trust by acting out irrationally when I felt I needed some form of release so I wouldn’t have to deal with all the shit in my head. My friends yelled at me about how stupid I was, how they had to think about letting me back in after the hurt I had caused by ditching them. Guys that I would try to date afterwards were met with skittish and secretive behavior, always keeping them at a distance, making sure that if anyone got hurt, it would be them. I quietly dealt with depression and anxiety, never letting on that this thing that happened had somehow affected me. Nothing had really happened to me. That wasn’t abuse. How could I call it abuse when people suffered so many more awful things? Abuse was something different, something else, something that I would be foolish to consider myself as experiencing. At least, that is what I told myself for so very long.
It is now almost a decade later. My life is far from what I could have ever imagined as a terrified 15, 16-year-old. I have a partner who I undeniably love, who respects me and treats me as equal, and has listened to bits and pieces of this story with nothing but support in return. I have a family who supports everything I do, and knowing what I know now, would have supported me fully if I had ever told them the full story. While I am vulnerable as the next person, I have found in myself, found the inherent strength in myself to be able to finally deal with it, and to be able to move on, a privilege many survivors and non-survivors are unable to do. It has become like a bad dream, fading away quickly, and sometimes rising to the top.
There is a quote by Lynn Marie of The Last Straw, a site that supports those who have experienced varied degrees of abuse.
To be a survivor– first you must bleed. You bleed all that was inside of you: the pain, the memories, the fear, the wounds fusing together, the ties to what was in, all its forms. You bleed not once but several times.. And when you are empty, you either fade into a shadow or find the strength, and courage to live. When you stand up again, you are for a time, hollow– empty, like a bottle of beer lying on the street, cracked and reeking of its bitter contents. Then you fill yourself up with the new, your recreate yourself– you reform. You don’t have the same heart or mind. The way you see the world is forever changed.
As I look at this wedding picture, I feel neither fear nor sorrow, nor anger or hate. I look at this woman, who looks happy in her new marriage and hope that she has not experienced what I had. I hope her happiness is genuine, not a cover for something darker that lays below the surface, a mask over things that happen behind closed doors. I click to close out the screen window with their picture and walk away from the computer, back into my life now, back into the person I am “here.” I will not let myself return to that past unless it is on my terms. I will not let the past scare me or make my choices for me. I will get up everyday, only to do my personal best, for myself and for the betterment of others. I will tell my partner and my family that I love them as often as I can. I will show it to them at any moment. These are the actions I have come to see as the way I have to live, after years of trying to figure it all out.