As many of you probably know, October is domestic violence awareness month. I know it's still September, but I wanted to take this opportunity to fully embrace what next month means and share something deeply personal that I haven't shared very often. (Trigger Warning: Domestic Violence)
In 2010, I was a freshman in college struggling to find myself after getting my first real taste of freedom. I'd moved 3 hours away from home to go to a college no one else in my high school had decided to attend. I had dreams of becoming a writer and was excited to join an English program that outranked those at the best universities in Georgia.
Maybe it was my own personal lust for creativity, or maybe it was just lust for the shaggy-haired boy who played guitar in his apartment breezeway, but I fell deep into infatuation with that boy after noticing him hanging around my little group of friends for a couple of weeks.
At first, we didn't share more than a few awkward smiles with each other at parties, or a quick "hey" if we happened to pass each other on campus, but it didn't take long for our shared love for music to bring us together.
This boy's smile was infectious. I didn't understand how he seemed to be so genuinely happy and upbeat ALL. THE. TIME. It was refreshing, but it honestly should have been my first red flag as I look back on everything now. (Please note that I'm NOT saying it isn't ok for someone to be a genuinely happy person, but generally speaking, healthy, well-adjusted humans still have off days and their emotions still fluctuate.)
In a couple of months or so, we were a picture-perfect happy couple. We shared laughs together, shared music, movies, and art. We even seemed to have every little thing in common (red flag number 2).
But then something weird happened...
One day, after dating for close to a year, this happy, smiling boy stopped smiling. He came over to my apartment to tell me he wasn't actually sure that he loved me; he wasn't sure he even knew what love was and maybe he'd never loved me at all.
I was devastated. Here I thought everything was fine. We didn't even fight. Ever (red flag number 3). How could we with so much in common and so much we had shared together?
The happy, smiling boy fell into my bed and sobbed. I didn't know what to do. I listened to him tell me how he felt like an impostor in his own body, how he would never amount to anything, how he'd thought about hurting himself often, how he couldn't stand to be away from his family.
Taken aback, I did my best to comfort him and he eventually calmed down....a lot. Like probably too much for someone who had just said so many horrifically sad (even morbid) things to me.
"Nevermind," he said.
"I know now that I love you," he said.
I was confused, but I decided this must be normal. This must be what real love was. After all, his massive displays of affection that followed, the flowers, the balloons, the love notes...they all meant it was love, right?
Fast forward to 2 years together and I ignored yet another red flag. He had (once again) decided he wasn't sure he had ever actually loved me. I was devastated, again, despite this having become a fairly regular occurrence. I wanted to take a break. I didn't know how to let him go, but a nagging voice inside of me was starting to tell me that maybe this wasn't what I'd thought it was after all.
I was living in a tiny studio apartment in a sketchy part of town at the time, but I knew he'd come to make up as soon as I heard knocking on my door. I looked through the peephole and couldn't see anything because something was....floating??...in front of it.
This is it, I thought.
He's going to propose.
My stomach knotted and I immediately felt sick.
PLEASE don't propose.
I opened the door to several helium balloons tied to a little Chinese takeout box filled with origami flowers, all folded with attention and care. And there was that happy, smiling boy once again.
He didn't propose (thank God). But he did tell me how much he loved me and I was sucked back into it all over again.
Another year passed with more of the same shit - the back and forth, the strange mood swings, the extreme highs and scary lows.
We had transferred schools together and found separate apartments in the same apartment complex, but something was VERY wrong.
Beyond the uncertainty about love, this boy was nothing like the one I'd met and decided I couldn't get enough of several years ago. Suddenly, he couldn't stand the way I looked. I wasn't his type anymore. I'd never been his type.
He liked blonde girls, so why couldn't I be blonde? He liked girls who were thinner than me, so why had I gotten so fat? What was wrong with my face? I looked like a bitch all the time. Why was my nose so big? Did I know that he had a mental list of my friends that he wanted to hook up with?
I was a bad person.
He was better than me.
He was smarter than me.
He was smarter than anyone.
I was untalented.
I was boring.
But he wasn't boring.
He was going to be famous.
He was going to be a writer, a photographer, a musician, a grand poet.
He was going to be every single thing I loved, appreciated, and had ever dreamed of being myself.
In fact, he'd taken an interest in writing when I excelled in creative writing courses. He'd decided photography was his thing after realizing it was something I had an eye for. He was going to be a famous artist because I had a deep love for art.
I wish I could say everything stopped there...
In the meantime, his family had turned on me. His mom made me APOLOGIZE TO THEM after learning I had been the victim of sexual assault. I was tainted and undeserving of their son or of a relationship with them. I was ruining him.
By the time all of this happened, I was so defeated and broken that I did apologize. It was all my fault. Everything. His mood swings, his increasingly violent behaviors, his abusive words. It was me. I made him do it.
I all but stopped talking to my own family. I stopped going to my classes. I stopped trying to have friendships.
I was lost and depressed and I was nothing.
Then, one January, everything exploded.
This boy, this divine being (as he liked to think of himself), broke up with me. He broke up with me and THEN told me he was going to go home and kill himself.
I was beside myself. I didn't know what to do. I followed him back to his apartment, begging him not to hurt himself. I told him I'd call his mom, I'd call the police, I'd call anyone. I just needed him not to hurt himself.
The happy, smiling boy wasn't there anymore. He was some dark, angry thing, hellbent on something sinister.
He tore down a wooden beaded door decoration I'd given him for Christmas before we'd ever started dating and smashed it with his foot before picking up one of the sharp pieces left on the floor and digging it into his leg over and over again until he was bleeding.
I tried to take it away from him and he swung at me, cutting my hand, too. He realized what he'd done and threw himself on the floor, sobbing about missing his family and wanting to die. I was bleeding, but he needed me...right?
Suddenly, he wasn't crying anymore. He was towering over me with his hands wrapped as tightly as they could be around my arms. I didn't understand why he was hurting me.
"I just want to beat the shit out of you," he growled. And then he threw me.
I got back up and made my way to the door before he came at me again and we wrestled. I guess it was adrenaline, but I somehow managed to overpower him, even though he was much taller than me. He ended up on the floor.
I went for the door again before I realized he was reaching for a pocket knife under his desk. I truly hate to think about what might've happened if I hadn't been fast enough to kick the knife away from him before I ran out of his bedroom, out of his apartment.
I sobbed as I ran all the way back to my apartment. I didn't know what to make of what had just happened and I felt so dirty, I immediately stripped off my clothes and jumped into a long, hot shower.
By the time I got out, the bruises had started to form.
I had hand prints up and down my arms, dark spots on my stomach and ribs, marks from being kicked on my legs, and my hand stung where it had been cut open.
I stood and looked at myself in the mirror for a very long time before I picked up my phone and called him...
"What have you done?" I begged an answer.
"How could you do this?"
I could hear his disgust over the phone.
"They're only bruises," he scoffed.
I'll never forget those words. Ever.
For the next few days, I withdrew even further into myself. I didn't know what to do, but I finally worked up the courage to send my best friend pictures of some of the bruises.
When I tell you that my best friend is the most incredible friend anyone could ask for, it's no exaggeration. She sat on the phone with me for hours while I bawled and told her what had happened. She didn't judge me, she didn't shame me. She just listened. And after I had said all I could think to say, she did the hardest thing for me and called my mom to tell her everything.
My mom called the police and then she called me. She and my dad were coming right away. She had known something was wrong before my best friend even talked to her.
Still in a weird place of limbo, not entirely comprehending everything that was happening and had already taken place, I called my abuser again. I told him that the police were coming (I couldn't tell you why I gave him that warning), that he was going to be in a lot of trouble, and that I wasn't the one who had called.
"My life is going to be ruined because of you!" he yelled.
"I'll never be able to get a job! How could YOU do this?!"
And that was it. That was the last time we ever spoke.
The police came to my apartment and took pictures of my bruises.
"He really got you good, didn't he?" was all one of the officers could manage.
They took my abuser to jail, but his parents drove all the way from North Carolina to bail him out. His mom still tried to blame me for everything. She denied that her son needed any kind of help and bought him the best lawyer money could buy.
The court told me there was no reason to appear at his arraignment hearing, so I didn't. I didn't know any better. That's something I will regret until I die.
I was absolutely broken to learn that all of my abuser's charges were dropped, likely because I hadn't showed up to tell my side of the story. His mugshot was never even made public.
The only justice I truly received was a copy of the police report and a restraining order that forced ME to leave the classes we'd had together on campus.
None of this is to make anyone feel sorry for me, but I feel like it's important to share stories like this so other women who have experienced the same thing or might currently be experiencing something similar know that they aren't alone.
I know it isn't always easy or doesn't always seem possible to leave before (or after) things become physical, but please just know you aren't alone in your struggles, and there are many organizations out there that will help you if you need it. Please don't ever be afraid to ask for a hand.
If you or someone you know needs help, please follow the link below for advice, resources, or even just someone to talk to.