The night I lost my virginity was the first time my first high school boyfriend turned on me, though it wouldn’t be the last. We were all ready, had been planning for weeks, and at the last minute I got scared and said I wanted to wait. He told me calmly that no one besides him would ever want me and that if I did not “put out” he would leave me. Did I not realize how difficult I was, how much patience it took to be with me?
Those words resonated. I had heard them many times before throughout my life. They sounded true. I put out, terrified of what my life would be without him. In the end he dishonored me in every possible way. He cheated on me repeatedly, stalked me when we broke up and smashed a window in my house.
The next time it happened I was eighteen and in college. This boy and I moved in together right away. People said we reminded them of their grandparents who had been married for fifty years. People said we were perfect for each other. People said, awwww, because of how he loved me. Because my household growing up was unstable, I felt I had finally found a home. He meant everything to me.
Over time, things degenerated, beginning when he read my journal, a place that had always been sacred, where I could unleash hell if I wanted to. He began checking the odometer when I left the apartment to make sure I had only gone as far as I said. He isolated me from my friends who were almost all boys, which he hated. He insisted we shower together and hardly ever let me be alone. He demanded sex several times a day. If I said I didn’t want to, he accused me of cheating.
The controlling downward spiral was hard to define. It was incremental. It happened so slowly that it took me a while to figure out I was bound and even longer to figure out why I had allowed it to happen.
Sally Jesse Raphael saved me. It was a talk show that came on in the afternoon and one day when he was in class I watched. The subject was emotional abuse in relationships. She talked about the sex, the isolation, the fear. I had a bowl of pasta in my lap and I remember dropping the fork. I saw myself clearly for the first time in a year and understood that this situation wasn’t special. This was textbook emotional abuse.
His temper, his demands, the fact that I hadn’t written a word in my journal that wasn’t tailored to him—it all came into focus.
I left him pretty soon after that. My friend pulled up to the apartment in his mom’s minivan, I ran inside, grabbed all my clothes, shoved them into the van, and we sped off. I didn’t so much fear that my boyfriend would hurt me that day, but I never wanted to be cornered again, animal-like. I never wanted to crouch or to hide or to be anything other than I was ever again. I didn’t want to hear him say for the thousandth time the thing that had started with the first boy: that I was difficult, complicated, too much for anyone but him and that I should be grateful he was with me at all.
I am still ashamed writing this. It feels like my words dirty the page and like I will make the people who know me, who knew me then uncomfortable. But we have to talk about this stuff. It’s not just about being hit or having your life in danger. It’s also about being debased, minimized, dependent and afraid. It’s about being made to feel like less by someone who knows all your insecurities so intimately they know exactly how to work you.
If someone is not hitting you, if they’re, say, just being an asshole, it’s pretty hard to point fingers. You sit in suffocating silence. You do not want to rock the boat, lose your friends, change everything just because you can’t take a little heat. They know it’s your greatest fear to be alone and rejected, ostracized. They know you funnel your sense of self through them. They have hobbled you with their erratic adoration, with their kisses and threats, and you know it’s because there’s something inside you that is so weak it could fall prey where other, better people wouldn’t.
Back when it happened to me, I felt utterly alone and afraid to tell the people around me. We had so many mutual friends who loved not only him, but were invested in our relationship so I couldn’t talk to them.
So here are a few things you can do if you find yourself in a similar situation, if you’re having your Sally Jesse Raphael moment right now:
· Loveisrespect.org (link here) is there 24/7/365. You can call 1-866-331-9474 or text LOVEIS to 22522 to chat.
· If you’re confused about what you’re experiencing, you can read this article from Psychology Today. It’s a great resource and will help you sort through what’s going on.
· Most importantly, I wish someone had said this to me: You are not damaged goods. You are not being difficult. You are worthy of the utmost respect, of privacy, of personal space. You are not alone. You will recover.
I’m turning my attention to this issue in a big way. I’m working in my local community to make more resources available for girls in this situation. I’m also mentoring girls in writing because I know in the aftermath of leaving my relationship, it was my interests and passions, not anything external, that gave me the beginnings of a foundation. That is how I can heal.
I know now that I am rebellious, alive, and a force of nature. I always was. That is what they wanted to harness and control, for whatever reason. That is what they called “difficult.” Abusers want your light all for themselves and to hold you prisoner in your shame. Don’t let them. Fight for yourself. Be that force of nature. Be every complicated bit of yourself in all its brilliant dimension. And shine.
Need help? In the U.S., call 1-866-331-9474 or text “loveis” to 77054 for the National Dating Abuse Helpline .