I was walking down the dorm hallway at The University of Georgia, slightly drunk on college life, the change of scenery, a new relationship, and OK, a bit of rum, when the elevator doors closed. I don't remember what we were talking about, but John* grabbed my arm with his whole hand, put his face directly in front of mine and snarled, "Listen to me, or else."
The violent moment propelled me back in time. Suddenly, I wasn't with John anymore. I was with Michael* -- experiencing the three-year relationship in high school that acted as my first "love" and a call to grow-up that rocked my self confidence and separated me from my friends. The memories I had forced away hurled themselves into my conscious with rapid succession. It felt like when I was a kid in Florida being beaten down by waves that were just too big for the boogie board, like being spun round and round by a washer of seawater, and I forgot to even jerk back my arm.
"Do. You. Understand," he continued, punctuating each word with an angry squeeze. I jerked back, holding my arm, which would later turn into a constellation of fingertip bruises, and ran all the way back to my dorm in tears. After we broke up, I couldn't get the moment out of my mind. What was wrong with me? Was this what all relationships are like and I just didn't know it? I looked for funny, nice guys. Yet, my first two tries at a real relationships were strikeouts. Thinking I was clearly too immature or stupid or too bad a judge of character for the privilege of romantic companionship, I went on a dating hiatus and enrolled in therapy.
In therapy, I tried the word out loud -- "abusive." It felt weird on my tongue, used more often to describe relationships that resulted in calls to police, women tripping into doorknobs or most recently, football players knocking out their wives. It wasn't used to describe two kids in love, a connected fixture at our high school and winners of an award for the "cutest couple."
One in four women will be slapped, pushed or shoved by a partner in her lifetime. Thirteen percent experience severe physical violence. Almost half experience psychological aggression -- including the intense control of a relationship that could easily turn physically abusive. Most of this violence happens in the college or high school years. The numbers behind intimate partner violence show it to be a national epidemic, yet people don't talk about it.
I was a freshman in high school when I met Michael in class. He was loud, funny, sensitive, always smiling and running around. An athlete on the wrestling team, he had muscular arms that looked great throwing other boys on the mat or playing the many instruments with which he experimented. Our relationship felt young and crazy, driving around our Georgia town in his old beat-up car, jamming the Beatles with the windows down.
What happened next was fairly by the book, I was told in therapy. The revelation came with a packet of handouts labeled "Stop dating losers." Over the beginning of our relationship, I stopped hanging out with my friends as much. Relationships took time, and Michael wanted a lot of it. Sleepovers with my best friend became less frequent after a couple of nights spent arguing on the phone while I sat slumped on my closet floor while she slept. A group of male friends I had been close with since middle school kept their distance because they didn't like Michael's roughhousing. They just didn't understand his sense of humor, I thought. Michael liked to be at his house more and he drove us back from school, so I started seeing less of my own family as well. By junior year, I was slightly confused about who to talk to or sit with at lunch when Michael was out of school for tournaments.
The fights got more frequent and I spent more nights crying on the phone. "I don't understand what I did to make you angry," I would say. "I feel like I'm walking on eggshells." "You're such a selfish bitch, you couldn't understand," he would say. I found out what it was like to be slapped by someone twice my size. The bruises from his favorite form of violence -- biting -- showed up on my legs and arms, disguised as soccer injuries.
When he forgot my 16th birthday, it was my fault for not reminding him. I apologized and said I didn't want to talk about it anymore. As often happened, he used his strength to hold me in place while he talked, not caring if I wanted to listen. I tried to return the anger sometimes by kicking him in the leg. He'd catch my foot in midair, holding it and carrying it somewhere as I hopped desperately to keep from falling like a fish out of water.
Much of the conversation around the Ray Rice scandal and the flood of stories of sexual violence have centered around one question: Well, if it was that bad, why didn't you leave? If it was that bad, why did she marry him? It's a fair question and one I have thought about repeatedly.
I didn't leave because of Katy Perry's song "Hot n' Cold" which my mother jokingly said was about our relationship whenever she knew we were fighting. I didn't leave because I wouldn't have anyone to talk to in class, or sit with in my lunch break. I didn't leave because his mother was my teacher. I didn't leave because our families were intertwined. Because he was nice to my dog. Because we were in love. Because of the necklace he got me on our anniversary. Because of the way he ran and picked me up and spun me around if we hadn't seen each other in a while. Because of "Goodnight Sweetheart" -- the song he would sing me at night and the love songs he wrote for me, singing as his friend strummed the guitar. Because I didn't know what love was supposed to look like. Because no one talks about what goes on behind closed doors and I didn't either.
As someone who works with data in her job, I often imagine things as a graph. In therapy, I learned that a healthy relationship looks more or less like a slope and then a straight line. As you learn more about your lover and grow closer, your relationship is better and better. It begins leveling off and stays as a mostly straight line -- somewhere near comfortable, family and blissful.
An abusive relationship looks like a continued arch of "W's" going up and down and up again, just like the Katy Perry song. When it's good, it's so good -- they want to spend all their time showering you with affection. You are the only person in the world. All the love songs are about you and all the diamonds in the world wouldn't be enough to demonstrate their love. When it's bad, you spend hours crying on the floor in the bathroom. You retreat into yourself. You stare at the bruises wondering what went wrong. They apologize, but you know it's your fault too because you changed the radio station even though he told you not to, or didn't remind him about your birthday. You make up. It's better for a while until it's worse than ever.
Leaving an abusive relationship is also no simple task, and as a unmarried woman with financial independence from my lover and no kids with him, I had it easy. Although I thought about breaking up with Michael often, it took us being separated by different colleges to put the last nail in the relationship coffin. A year older, he went many hours away and our worlds separated. I talked more at school and made back my friends. He couldn't control as well from a distance.
We broke up over Christmas break that year, but it took me a year to fully break up with Michael and several years to shove him out of my life completely. Through movies and books, we're taught that persistence is how a man wins the love of his life. She doesn't like him at first, but he doesn't give up, and wins her heart.
Michael didn't give up either. Some would call it stalking, but he called it love.
Love looked like calling my phone dozens of times per day, texting me in the middle of the night, "If you don't answer, I'll call your home phone and wake your parents up." It looked like seeing my car and following it until I reached my destination. It meant posting messages to YouTube and sending them through friends. It meant having his family call me. All the love, meant nights laying awake for me. When I fell asleep, I had nightmares of him finding me at a friend's house. He had a gun and was yelling. I always woke-up before his final act of love.
When I went to college, the calls continued. I blocked him, but he called on multiple numbers. He volunteered to transfer -- anything to get back together. I made the best decision of my life and held strong. It was difficult because despite all the terrible parts, breaking up with Michael felt like a part of my heart was dying and the bruises never hurt as bad as that. My father compared my grieving to a death. It felt like death. It also felt like rebirth - an up and down graph, just like our relationship.
My story isn't special. It's by the book as the therapist said. But despite the banal quality of domestic violence, we don't talk about it. Before that day in the therapist's office, no one told me my relationship wasn't normal. Without the life experience to know what a healthy relationship looks like, young women don't know when to say enough. Texting for updates turns to not liking friends which turns to calling you names, which turns to hitting walls, which turns to shoving, and pretty soon you're hiding the bruises and don't know how to get out.
We need a nationwide conversation with young women. There's a difference between a bad relationship and an abusive one, and there's a difference between persistence and stalking. Telling my story makes me feel stupid -- stupid because I didn't leave and believed his apologies, which somehow makes it my fault too, or that would be what society would have us believe. Victim blaming means more silence though, which means grayer lines for young women who haven't heard these stories and can't recognize the common pattern of emotional turned physical abuse. My hope is that women like Miss America Kira Kazantsev continue to stand up, tell our stories and spark those conversations in high schools, colleges and around dinner tables across America.
*Names have been changed.
Need help? In the U.S., call 1-800-799-SAFE (7233) for the National Domestic Violence Hotline.