A couple of weeks ago, I got a black eye -- the third one in my life. I'd distractedly walked full-force into a glass door at a client's office. Though nothing was broken or cut, it made me reflect on the first two times my face had been bruised and how different things were now.
Twenty-four years ago, I was living with Valerie. From a young age, she'd jumped in to deflect her father's punches as he swung at her mom. Blows were typically followed by denials, apologies, or gifts, depending on the severity of the situation. I felt sorry for her and was certain I could heal or at least lessen her pain.
Deeply closeted, we did our best to disguise our relationship. That tension only contributed to what became an abusive situation. In my codependent state, I excused her sarcasm as it grew into public belittling. I rationalized her private rage even as she threw things at me: it was my fault; I shouldn't have answered her that way. When she slammed me against the door frame, cutting and bruising the side of my eye, I chastised myself. As she applied ice, her plea for forgiveness concurred: I should have walked away as she got angrier.
At school the next day, a couple of fellow teachers noticed the bruise beneath my makeup. They seemed satisfied at my excuse of running into a cupboard door. Only one looked at me with doubt, as if trying to determine whether she believed me. I almost wanted her to probe deeper so that I would be "forced" to reveal my secret. Although I could tell she knew something else had happened, she let it go, and I was left with my shame, my choice of silence validated.
The physical abuse stopped, but the emotional battering didn't. When Valerie moved out a few months later, I thought I would die, preferring the risk of abuse to the certainty of being alone. When no one knows you're together, who do you tell about the breakup?
A year later, she was back, professing undying love and deep regret over "repeating the behavior learned in childhood." I bought it, hook, line, and sinker. And sink I did. This time would be different, I was certain. Though we were still publicly closeted, we had gay friends and were open about moving in together. The promised bliss was replaced within weeks by derisive remarks that made our friends uncomfortable. If they left early, it was my fault -- I shouldn't be so sensitive; I should've laughed so that they'd have realized she was joking.
One evening, tired from working late, I opened our front door to soft music and candlelight. Classic Valerie when wanting to apologize. I walked into the living room, apprehensive but hopeful. She was on the couch. Making out. With an ex-girlfriend with whom she'd negatively compared me in the past.
As I verbally confronted them, they jumped up and tried to deny it. Instead of walking away, I stood my ground. The ex slapped me, and I slapped back. Valerie pushed me against the wall and pinned me there while they each took a punch. I broke free and ran to some friends' house a block away. Only as I wiped away tears did I realize I was bleeding.
As my friends answered the door, they reluctantly let me in. "Valerie called," they said. "We don't want to take sides." In shock, I wondered what to do, where to go. As a last resort, I called relatives who picked me up an hour later, asking inappropriate and homophobic questions.
The next morning, I went back to get my car. I froze: keyed into the door were the letters D-Y-K-E. I felt like I was driving a billboard to work. When I took the car to get it painted, sunglasses strategically hiding the cut and bruises, the shop owner shook his head, laughing: "I guess your boyfriend's ex-girlfriend must be really upset." I was so grateful for his assumption.
I hadn't thought about all that for quite some time. But as the bruise on my face swelled, memories surfaced in waves: 24 years ago, I didn't call the police. I didn't go to the emergency room. I didn't file an insurance claim. My limited attempts to tell the truth were met with a conspiracy favoring silence and reinforcing shame. I was desperately alone, and no one cared.
This time, a friend dropped his plans for the day and spent hours at the emergency room as we waited for test results. Another spent the night and woke me every few hours to make sure I was coherent. Phone calls, flowers, and texts to check on me continued for a week. Surrounded by love and concern, my pain was only physical.
Yes, the circumstances were different. Moreover, the black eye reminded me of how different my life is now.
Living in the closet prevented me from having full friendships, as my secrets were closely guarded from them (and theirs from me), as well as from the rest of the world. I was so desperate to feel connected with "someone like me," I put up with what had once seemed inconceivable. I called the few lesbians I knew "friends," but we had little more in common than our secret lives.
Today, being out has broadened that circle so exponentially that those whom I call friends -- LGBT and not -- share common values and vision for the world and love me enough to tell me the truth. They are also fiercely protective and would call me out if they thought I was allowing even a hint of disrespect from someone in my life.
It's been a long, sometimes scary journey. The first step was getting help to learn what abuse looks like and why I put up with it. The second was a gradual coming out about my sexual orientation. The third was finding a spiritual connection and expression that is based on my beliefs, not childhood traditions. Along the way, I've become part of a caring, engaged community and learned what real friendship looks like. Each step was critical in saving in my life -- physically, emotionally, and spiritually.
As I lay with an ice pack on my eye a few weeks ago, the tears I wiped away this time were of gratitude for all those who supported me in reaching this place. There were also tears of compassion for those who still struggle with wanting to leave but fear that their abuser may be right -- that they're so worthless that they're lucky to have someone put up with them; for those who feel that they must've brought it upon themselves and don't dare seek support; for those who don't know where to turn if abused by the same gender, not wanting to have to "explain the situation" and risk further rejection; for those who don't yet realize that emotional abuse is still abuse and that pain is not love.
Some 25 percent of couples -- whether LGBT or heterosexual -- face domestic violence. Yet we have fewer resources and rarely talk about it. It's time to come out of that closet too.
If you're living the numbed-out, detached life I once did, please know that there's a world beyond what you might imagine, full of joy and true connections. You deserve it, despite what you've been told. Though it feels risky and humiliating, reach out. Get help.
Or maybe you have friends around whom you feel uncomfortable, because one seems controlling or dismissive of his or her partner. Don't look away. Find out what's really going on. Get involved. Offer support. Your help may be the only invitation they'll receive to explore a happy life.
Yes, accidents happen. But abuse never should.
NOTE: while LGBT-specific resources are sadly limited in many areas, LGBT community centers and political organizations can offer a place to start. If you're unclear how to find them, take a deep breath and contact my friends at The Health Initiative, even if you don't live in Georgia. They will help you find the best resources for your geographic area.