I talk about him openly: the abusive boyfriend I had for most of high school. I talk about how he separated me from my friends and family so well. My isolation was important to him. I talk about how he would “hug” me when he was angry in public; squeezing me so tight I felt like I might break. How he’d wrap his arm around my waist or shoulder in a similar way. From the outside it looked like affection, and if anyone could tell that his fingers were digging into my skin, they didn’t say anything. It made me feel so far away from everyone else. So alone.
I complain about the day he thought my jeans were too tight, so – when we were alone – he criticized me and grabbed the crotch of my jeans and squeezed so tight that I ached for the rest of the day. Or the time I visited my best friend at the beach and – because I’d mentioned that she was bi – he was certain I would end up in a threesome with her and her boyfriend.
He called me three times to make sure I wasn’t doing anything he didn’t want me to. He begged me to go back to my family at the hotel, to promise I wouldn’t spend time with her. He hissed insults through the phone line and, when I hung up on him, he called again. And again. And again. I turned off my cell phone, knowing I would regret it later.
Sometimes I laugh off the way he’d threatened me on the phone, or threatened to kill himself if we broke up. I always say I wish he had. It’s kind of true, but I know it would have made him a martyr to our teenage romance; our tragic love story. I also know he probably would have botched it on purpose – for sympathy and attention and to make me feel guilty. I vaguely remember him doing something like that. Still, it would have saved me a lot of pain, fear, and isolation.
It’s hard to ask an abuse victim of any kind why they stayed with their abuser, because it’s hard to answer. Love? Fear? Desperation? Guilt? It’s so hard to explain all of the bizarre feelings that come along with being someone who hurts you. The excuses I told myself so often were internalized over time, so I could almost convince myself that it was all true.
I can’t say I didn’t think I could do better, or that he was just misunderstood or needed love. I was a teenager. He said he loved me and that was important – that was what mattered. I still thought Romeo and Juliet was a love story. That fighting and persevering somehow made our relationship more real, as if it meant we care more, or something. It didn’t help that I thrive on emotional drama, though this all might have been how it started. I used to pick fights with my now-husband just because I could.
I think I also wanted to be saved. I wanted someone sweet and strong and brave to stand up for me. I wanted someone who would tell me I was brave and strong for living through it all. I wanted a hero.
I thought I got one, years into the wreck that my life had become. Three years of being pushed against walls, threatened, called a slut and a bitch then being coerced into activities that made me cringe. Three years of him being so very good at convincing me that these sexual activities I didn’t want a part of were about love. Three years of being made to feel guilty for anything I wanted that didn’t involve him. Three years of the kind of pain that never left a bruise or a bloody lip.
My so-called hero talked his way into my heart via online instant messaging. I was desperate for a savior and he was happy to oblige through text, though only in theory – never doing anything for me offline. But I didn’t see that he never really stood up for me, never tried to protect me, and I never questioned his claims or confessions. I have known a few mildly compulsive liars over time, but none were quite as damaging as this one. Eventually this would all lead to the most intense heartbreaks I would ever experience; one that lasted for too many years and too many nights feeling like such an idiot. But for now he was my reason for wanting more, for wanting out. I felt special – loved – in a beautiful, magical, safe way.