Guest Post 4 – Andi: I assumed that’s how fourteen-year-old boys were

CW: graphic sexual & physical abuse

The first signs

The first six months were what every fourteen-year-old girl hoped for: presents, sweet letters, and constant compliments. It was as if this boy had come straight from a romance movie. When you’re that young, it is so hard to see any red flags. But even in the first six months, there were warning signs.

From the start he would get upset when I hung out with other people, claiming they must be more important to me. He would be cross if I didn’t text back within five minutes. But I never felt I wanted to leave. A few months into our relationship, I had to go to an anniversary dinner for my grandparents. He wanted to hang out that night and when I told him I couldn’t, he said “Shut the fuck up. You can go fuck yourself. When you get back tonight, I’m dumping you.” I begged and begged for him to calm down, not to leave. I told him I was sorry and that I would figure out a way to skip the dinner. Suddenly, he realized how simple it was for him to manipulate me and he became worse. After that day, he would constantly dump me anytime he got mad and listen to me cry and beg for him back. I guess he liked the feeling of me needing him, because it never got old for him.

Spending time with his family, I saw how abusive his dad was to him, his sister, and his mom. His dad would name call and physically harm him and his sister. I could see how his dad made his mom feel like she was nothing and expected her to only cook and clean. He would always question her about who she was texting, where she was going, and it wasn’t long before I saw that in my boyfriend too. My parents picked up on the nature of his home life, and being the kind people that they are, they took him in. They treated him with love and respect and did everything they could when he was around to make him feel safe. He became close with my boy cousins, although he told me I wasn’t allowed to talk to them when he wasn’t around. I couldn’t imagine taking away the relationship he had with any of my family members, even when he was rude to my sisters or wouldn’t allow me to pick up my younger sister because she had “given him attitude”. It was still early days, so I chose to give him the benefit of the doubt. I let him tell me what to do.

Sexual abuse

Very early on, he pressured me into having sex with him. It was something that I wanted the first time, but never after that. There were times I would cry because it hurt so bad and because I didn’t want to, and he would get mad and yell. He told me it was how he wanted to show me how much he loved me. I was terrified to ever say no, because when I did he would throw things, punch things, or threaten me. He would yell and argue that the only reason I wouldn’t want to have sex was if I was having it with someone else. It has taken me a long time to call that rape. As messed up as it is, we all have a vision of rape in our heads and I wasn’t able to identify it here because it didn’t match up to that vision. But I didn’t say yes, and I cried and protested every time. One time it was hurting so bad that I was sobbing and started to pull away and yell. He yanked me back and covered my mouth, and said “Shhh… I’m almost done.” I told him once that he had raped me, and he laughed. It’s still really hard for me to say, but I was raped almost every day for over two years.

Emotional abuse

Within the first six months or so, he had been nasty and called me names, but I didn’t feel I could call it abuse. I assumed that’s how fourteen-year-old boys were, and I allowed it to continue. By about a year, he had become very controlling, and I had developed a set of skills that I had never planned to acquire. I was sneaky: I had become good at deleting texts, hiding snapchat histories, and untagging myself from pictures on social media. Not because I was doing anything wrong, but because I needed to protect myself. I would delete texts from male classmates who texted me about homework because I wasn’t allowed to talk to another boy. I would hide my snapchat history with a girlfriend who he didn’t want me to be friends with. I untagged myself on Instagram pictures or made my friends delete them when I was pictured doing something I had not asked his permission to do. I learnt to lie a lot – about going to my friend’s houses, about spending time with my friend when her boyfriend was also there, about how close boys sat to me in class. I didn’t want to be good at lying to him, or anyone for that matter, but unless I wanted everything to get worse, I had no choice.

Whenever I was around other boys, even in class, he would make me send pictures of where I sat in relation to them and would always accuse me of being in love with them. He made me unfollow all boys on all social media, including my cousins. Whenever one of my cousins would text me, I was expected to tell him and not open it until I was with him. He once accused me of wanting to give oral sex to my younger cousin, just because I wanted to visit them. Even if I spoke to boys he was friends with he would say I was in love with them and make me delete their number. When we were in public, if I looked around, I would be screamed at for looking at other boys. I started to constantly look down when I was outside out of fear and isolate myself from all the men in my life.

Small insignificant things would make him mad. I would accidentally drop something or make a tiny mistake, and he would tell me I was a fuck up, incapable, or retarded. He would talk to me like I was stupid and scream at me for messing things up. Then, when I would cry, he would call me a crybaby or tell me that I was over-sensitive. He called me every name in the book and it always hurt. He told me I was worthless, a whore, a bitch, a fuck up. Sometimes, he would even tell me he hated me and that he hoped I would kill myself or get in a car accident and die, just for not texting him before I got into class.

Physical abuse

He started shoving and kicking me about eight months in. I constantly had grab marks on my arms in the shape of handprints, but he hadn’t hit me yet, which gave me a reason to not call it abuse. His sister once asked me about a hand mark, and when I told her it was a burn, she looked at me with sad eyes and told me she knew that wasn’t a burn. The only girlfriend I had left had also seen my bruises before but kept quiet because I told her saying anything would only make it worse. Once you have been physically hurt, making any wrong move is terrifying. I was constantly holding my breath, thinking I was going to get hurt again.

The first punch came almost two years in when I was sixteen. I had wanted to play golf at school since freshman year (I was now a sophomore), but there were two boys I had dated in junior high on the team, so he said I only wanted to play because of them and that I was a whore. One morning, I woke up feeling brave. I lied to him and told him that the golf coach had encouraged me to play the following year. This led to us fighting all day over text. But for some reason, I felt strong. I did not give in to his threats or demands at all that day. He made me pick him up once he got home from school and told me we were going to drive around. This would usually mean that he was going to calm down and not be as angry. However, he got into my car that day without saying a word. I didn’t look at him. I started to drive away from his house when his fist hit me on the side of my head. I didn’t know whether to scream or cry so the noise that escaped my mouth was more of a yelp. I held on to my head, not knowing what was going to happen next. I was in complete shock. He always told me he would never hit me. He always told me would never hurt me. He yanked the wheel while I continued to cry. He kept shoving my head into the window and pulling my hair while hitting me in the nose. He then got me in a headlock and held me there, screaming, “Say you won’t play golf!”. Unable to see the road, I kept trying to brake so we wouldn’t hit another car. People afterwards asked me what my car was doing swerving and randomly stopping in the middle of the road. As I drove past the street behind my school, he repeatedly hit me in the nose while yelling “I’ll hit you again bitch!” I was beaten in the car for an hour. There was one point when I actually accepted that I was going to die in my car. I continued avoiding looking at him and cried as loud as I could, hoping a passer-by would notice.

Once we were behind the school, I got out the car and ran. I had no shoes on and he was faster than me. I ran down a hill and into the softball dugout but realized it was over. There was nothing more I could do. He was going to catch up to me and he wasn’t going to stop hurting me. I sat under the bench crying, curled in a ball, with my arms around my head. When he yanked me out from under the bench and we finally made eye contact, he began to cry and back away. He told me that it wasn’t him, that there was no way he did that. I brought my hand to my own face and I could then see all of the blood from my nose on my hands. I could not see the black eye I was already getting, or the bruise on my face from the popped blood vessel. I could not yet see the handprint-shaped bruise around my arm from being yanked around, but the knot on the back of my head from his first hit was throbbing. I ended up comforting him while he cried about not wanting to break up. I didn’t tell anyone what had happened. I covered my black eye for two weeks and said the popped blood vessel was a burn from my straightener.

Getting out

That summer was the first time we both had jobs. He worked outside all day, and I worked evenings almost every night. This was my first taste of what it was like to not have to talk to him during the day or be with him at night. I was beginning to picture what my life would be like if I was free. I went on an annual trip to a lake with my dad’s family, and he had had a fit when I was tubing and not answering his texts. He told me that if I got on the tube again with my cousin, he would break up with me. We then climbed a cliff to jump into the lake. I have always been an adrenaline junkie, and I have jumped off several higher cliffs. But when I stood on the top, I froze. I couldn’t feel my legs and I started to cry. I realized he had taken away my courage, my bravery and the sense of freedom I had always had. I decided then that I wanted my old self back.

That night, after he went to bed following the usual fight over the phone involving him name-calling and threatening me while I cried, I called his best friend. I told him everything, and although they were like brothers, he told me how messed up it was and that I needed to get out. He told me I had to tell my parents and to tell him if there was anything else he could do to help. I didn’t feel able yet to tell my parents what had been happening, but that night, through tears, I asked my mom to find me a therapist, which she did without question.

I have never cried so much as in that first therapy session. I told her everything, and she helped me make a plan to tell my parents and get out. However, it had to be postponed because we were leaving for vacation the following week and taking my boyfriend with us. He had already bought his plane ticket and I felt I couldn’t end things before the vacation. I was actually doubting whether I could end it at all. I decided that if vacation went well, I was going to stay in the relationship and not tell my parents. However, the vacation included the normal amount of name-calling, physical grabs and disrespect towards my mom and sisters. I reluctantly went back to therapy afterwards and told her it wasn’t that bad. She told me that no one changes in two weeks, and he would be violent again. She told my mom that within the next week I needed to have a conversation with them to make sure I followed through.

That day was also the first day I went to golf practice. He texted me the whole time telling me golf was stupid and I had to quit if I wanted to keep dating him. He made me pick him up right when I got back, and I was again terrified. He was screaming in my face and I thought he was going to start hitting me again, so I pulled into the convenience store in town where I saw a police car. I knew he wouldn’t do anything in front of them. While there, I called my mom to make sure someone was home before I drove us there. When we got to my house, he told me to stay in the car, but I said no, ran inside and locked the doors. He started to cry and scream and ran away from my house into the woods. I ran to my room and just sat there afraid to move. When I heard a knock at my window, I looked out and saw him hitting himself in the head repeatedly with a piece of firewood. I ran out and yelled to my dad for help, and we went outside where he was sitting behind a tree. I had already called his mom at that point and asked her to come get him. When she arrived, he said he didn’t want to go home because his dad would hurt him. I told him he had to go, and he started screaming and cursing at the top of his lungs.

As soon as he left, I told my parents that he had been emotionally, physically and sexually abusive. They helped me to text him, ending it, and block his number and all social media. They helped to save my life and my future. Twenty minutes later, he showed up at my house and I could hear him crying and yelling, but my parents wouldn’t let him upstairs to see me. I will always be so thankful for everything they did to help me get out that night.

I heard from him once after that, after he set up a fake name on snapchat. He told me that in time, my parents would forgive him, and we would get back together. People would show me the sad things he posted on his snapchat, and he even made an Instagram page with sad posts saying that he understood why I left but that I had broken a promise.

The aftermath

I was so overwhelmed by freedom in the first few months I didn’t even think about everything that happened to me. I was playing golf, repairing lost friendships, and loving every second. I took those months to live as fully as I could to try to make up for lost time. I started spending time with a boy I had once been friends with but didn’t plan to date anyone until I was in college and far away from my little town. He was caring and understanding, and we became close. When I told him I wouldn’t be ready for a while, he told me he would wait. When my ex found out, he started posting online about me and my family again, making it seem as though we broke up because I had I cheated on him.

When I got to the point of processing everything, I was so angry. I had never been an angry person but the fact that he could abuse me for years and then act as though I did something wrong made me furious. I wanted him to face consequences for what he did to me. Therapy really helped though, and I learnt new ways to channel my anger in a productive way.

A few months after we broke up, a friend asked me to talk to one of her friends who had started seeing him. I felt bad getting involved, but the thought of another girl going through what I did, made me sick to my stomach. I could not stay silent and let someone else be hurt by him, so I reached out to her. She was extremely sweet and thanked me for sharing my story and looking out for her. After that, his dad called my mom about me getting involved, saying it wasn’t my place to ruin his relationships.

Whenever I see him about town I feel terrified. My heart races and I feel the need to protect myself. I still struggle with constant apologizing, mumbling, and fear when in a car. Anything I did that shared my story would cause him to post more online about me and my family (the posts were always deleted not long after). His friends would also come and tell me not to speak to people about it. The friend of his who had helped me over the phone that night, now seemed to worship the ground he walked on, and belittled everything he did to me, which I still don’t understand.

I have since started a new relationship with the boy I had become close to, and it is happy and healthy. I am discovering new things that should have always been normal. He listens, does not keep tabs on me, and encourages me in everything I do. He tells me I am a badass, the very opposite of what my ex continuously told me. My friends have also been the absolute best. Even though I wasn’t allowed to talk to almost any of them during my relationship, they never gave up on me. They welcomed me back with open arms and have helped me heal and take care of myself again. I honestly feel I would not be here without my support system and I am so grateful.

Guest Post 3 – Lucie: The power of psychological manipulation

CW: Sexual abuse

There are two stories I could tell. This one is my version of events, a true account that was buried for a long time but was always deep within me. The other would be my husband’s story, a narrative of our ‘love’, which for a long time overruled mine. It is an act of profound manipulation to replace someone’s internal voice with your own as a way of owning and controlling them.

At the age of 22 I moved to a new city to do my MA. At the time when I met my husband, I had yet to develop any strong friendships there and I had almost no support network locally. However, I was enjoying my independence and was passionate about my subject. My husband assessed me as being vulnerable, a blank canvas, and used this as leverage to impose himself in my life. We met at a party and had two or three dates within that first week. It took him just 13 days to tell me he loved me.

It happened so fast. He disclosed his relationship history, his personal issues from childhood; he quickly introduced me to many friends from all areas of his life, who all seemed to like him. He was frequently calling and texting me and wanted to see me all the time. My intuition told me there was something tactical about his pursuit of me and the formation of our relationship but I was bombarded by the romantic story of ‘us’ that he was recounting at every opportunity.

He was studying Psychology and quickly positioned himself as my therapist and rescuer. I had some issues from my past relating to sex and fear of men. He would use therapeutic techniques to make me disclose very personal information which I did not want to share. This would have been safe in a professional setting, but I know now, it is dangerously inappropriate to use these methods in a personal relationship where the power is already imbalanced.

The fears and insecurities that he coerced out of me were then used to justify sexual, psychological and emotional abuse. He portrayed himself as someone who could solve problems I didn’t even know I had. I think that by ‘giving myself away’ through the disclosures, I created a space for him to move in with his solutions. My self concept of being a strong person was completely undermined by his perception of me being weak, thus making me dependent on him. After six months he talked me into getting engaged. We moved in together a couple of weeks later and that was when the sexual abuse got much more serious.

‘We can just try it and if you don’t like it we don’t have to do it again.’ ‘In a healthy, loving relationship it is normal and natural to…’ ‘I want to be with you forever so if you don’t do it with me I’ll never get to experience that in my lifetime.’ The more shameful and degrading things he coerced me to do, the more exposed I felt and my underlying thought was ‘that’s it, I can never leave him now.’ I was trapped. The trauma of the sexual exploitation forced me to abandon myself, and it became a habit for me to disappear while things were going on.

Each of my personal boundaries became a target for him. He violated my body, he rewrote my past through his psychological manipulation, he dismantled my sense of self entirely and reformed me as a victim who could not survive without him. Each of those tactics was disguised as being in my best interests and was done very gently and tenderly so that I could not distinguish it as abuse.

He used classic abuser tactics of distancing me from my family and any friends that pre-dated him. He claimed they didn’t know me like he did, he diagnosed them from afar using his psychological jargon and made me question whether they were a healthy influence on me. He used himself as a barrier by claiming to have my back. Eventually it wasn’t worth having to justify contact with old friends and my life became smaller.

My husband monopolised the truth. He was always right, even if he had to use mind-bending manipulation to demonstrate it. The times when I was angry with him and felt brave enough to raise a grievance, he would transform my perception of the problem as being linked to my ‘past’ or make out that he was the victim of the situation, often invoking tears, until I had to apologise. My anger eventually turned inward and contributed to diminished health. He had now also taken from me my confidence in discerning right from wrong.

Once we were married, I felt locked down and his abusive behaviour became more intense and more complex. He suffered from multiple addictions, such as online pornography, and many sham health conditions that were never fully diagnosed but always used to justify his actions. In a sense, he switched the focus off me and my ‘problems’ and became obsessed with his own. I think he felt that he had trained me for the role of his rescuer by all the techniques he had used to help me and now I owed him. Like a perfectly programmed robot, I took this role on blindly but was set up to fail time after time, then suffered the punishment.

He went from victim to dominator by controlling and dictating what I could say to him that would help. I am naturally empathic, having had to adapt as a child to my narcissist father, but none of my own wisdom was deemed appropriate due to his exceptional circumstances. If he felt that I hadn’t adequately succeeded in rescuing him from his demons I would be coerced into apologising to him and then corrected so I could use better methods next time. I was sleep deprived, confused, guilty, afraid… the perfect state for him to control me. It took me years to connect that the addictions surfaced when things started to improve for me, thus restricting my freedom and ability to function.

I could never understand how people stayed in cults, or why victims of abuse stayed with their partners. Yet I was married to this man for ten years and had two children with him. Outside the home, he was a respected healthcare professional, elder in the church, community volunteer and doting father. He was so charming, charismatic, and caring that for a long time, he used his revered public image as further evidence that it was me who had the problem.

The times that I challenged him, for example by saying no to unreasonable demands, I would pay for it. Twice I was woken in the night to have him whisper that he was so angry with me that he had wrecked the living room by throwing furniture around but not to worry he had put it all back so our daughter wouldn’t notice and I could go back to sleep. Gentle and terrifying.

I was woken more than once by him gently saying that because I had failed to comply, he had spent hours contemplating whether to hang himself from the ceiling light or the doorway and had gone as far as to get his dressing gown cord out but not to worry he had changed his mind. He was putting a huge fear in front of me then posing as the comforter, the rescuer, the one looking after me.

There is evidence to show that domestic abuse worsens during pregnancy and immediately after childbirth and this is consistent with my experience. But having children opened my eyes, in the sense that I had to see how things might look to them growing up. By the time my daughters were two and four, it was apparent to me that my husband was demented. He was having paranoid delusions, he went to extreme lengths to cleanse our home of evil energy, he was unpredictable and terrifying.

I heard somewhere that you don’t know you’re being abused until you do. I didn’t want my daughters to witness me shaking with fear in the corner, floundering and guessing what would be the right answer to every false choice I was given. I had always dreamed of having children and the image of the mother I wanted to be was so far from the woman I had become that I got out for their sake.

I went to my sister’s and said I was unhappy in my marriage. I had been restricted by how much I could disclose about what went on at home. She simply said, ‘if you need to leave I will support you’. That was all it took. In the end, he moved out quite quickly, ready to play the victim role and uphold his status in the community.

I never expected to split up my children’s family but I have never once regretted it. We are a very happy family of three now and we celebrate freedom, joy and being ourselves. Above all I want to teach them to listen to the voice inside them and to trust it when it is saying ‘this doesn’t feel ok with me.’

It took me at least a year to acknowledge that my ten year marriage had been abusive from the start. I had never reported him to any authorities. Not even my GP when questioned. I still suffer flashbacks, nightmares, insomnia and occasional panic attacks though they are becoming less common. I have blocked his phone and email due to perpetual harassment and he no longer knows where we live.

He maintains his image as a high functioning health care professional devoted to his children and trying to parent as best he can despite my unreliable mental health and my ‘false’ accusations of abuse. However, I have been heartened by how many of our mutual friends have come forward and said they suspected what was going on but they didn’t know how to help. Ultimately, I have to own that I am a survivor of domestic abuse and continue to rebuild my life with my freedom and integrity that I now know is so precious.

Guest Post 2 – Maria: I never thought it would happen to me

Part 1 – Meeting him and the beginning of the abuse

When I first met M. I had a vague idea of what domestic violence was, but not really. I did not think a ‘woman like me’ would ever find herself in such a situation. And by ‘a woman like me I mean an upper middle class and college-educated woman who had had a history of healthy-enough relationships. I pictured the typical DV victim to be probably ‘very different’ with my limited knowledge of the subject matter back then.

In hindsight, all the red flags of his abusive behavior were there from the start, the very same night I met him. I just did not know how to read the signs. He was there. We made out. A simple drinking-at-a-bar story. I wasn’t even particularly interested in him, but the behavior that followed sucked me in before I knew what was going on. After that one night of making out at the bar, M. aggressively pursued me within a short period of time. Lots of text messages. Being everywhere I was. Suddenly always hanging out with my group of coworkers. Wiggling his way into every area of my life. A few short weeks later introducing me to his father and stepmother. Not long after that we even moved in together because my rental apartment was being sold, and he offered we could try out sharing his place. The textbook abuser approach of what is called ‘love bombing’. I had recently broken up with someone and was in a vulnerable place. A new country. A new job. No old friends or family around. It felt good to be pursued at first, and I figured a little short-lived affair is part of your early 20’s. Abusers, of course, have a sixth sense for that kind of vulnerable stuff. It’s like they can smell it from miles away.

Within days I knew his ex ‘was a b..tch and cheated on him.’ According to him. I later had the chance to speak with his ex and her story was of course completely different. She had never cheated on him and he had abused her in horrendous ways, too. His language when talking about women in general was derogative and demeaning, which is also a red flag for an abuser. Things escalated slowly into him following me to events and places he hadn’t been invited to. He was ‘just worried about me’. It was flattering at first, and I made excuses to myself and others later on as this pattern of controlling my every whereabouts continued and increased.  The worse it got, the better my excuses for him. He just cares about me, I’d tell myself. He would start doing really odd things, such as forbidding me to cook what I wanted, and insisting he cooked instead. At first, I thought how brilliant that was! A man who wanted to cook. But it was really just another manipulative technique to control every aspect of my life.

The social isolation that is so typical with abusers didn’t take long to show up as well. He would single out one by one all of my friends, and say something bad about them. Finding reasons as to why I should not go to places. Making up lies about what others had done and said. He would try to make me believe I acted out when I drank alcohol. The shame I felt was unbelievable because during that time I had been drinking a lot. I was not proud of that. But when I checked in with others who had been present when I was drunk, they all had nothing but good things to say about my behavior. They’d say things like: ‘You just had fun and had a few to drink. You did not do anything bad.’

Part 2 – Worsening abuse

The first time I tried leaving him, was after we got into a drunk argument walking home from a pub. He shoved me so hard that I fell onto the street. That bruised my left elbow pretty badly. But that wasn’t even the worst of it. The scariest part was when I looked up at him – his face was stone cold and his eyes empty. Almost pleased. As if he was content with what he had just done. I now understand sociopaths/abusers are like that, and I am convinced he is one. The next day at work I could barely lift things, and others asked me about the dark blue bruise. I lied about where I got it, of course.

The morning after he shoved me, he had written me this long apology letter, comparing our ‘special love and connection to Romeo and Juliet’ and making promise after promise. Lots of crocodile tears too, which is so common for abusers. I blamed myself for having been drunk, plus I had actually also pushed him the night before. I felt we both had issues, things got heated, and I was just as much to blame. Now I understand that me being about half his weight and way shorter, using a weak push was not an excuse for him to shove me violently until I fell. But abusers do that. They try to provoke you into doing something that is wrong, so they can do something worse, and blame it on you. And after M. had enough of the honeymoon phase, the tension came back, and he started to shift the blame to me. My bruised elbow was my fault, according to him. I made him do it. The sad thing is, I believed him. I knew physical violence was never ok, and I had turned into a person I could barely recognize at this point. I must be bad and broken goods if this is what happens in my life. Those are common thoughts DV survivors have.

My drinking got worse after that incident, and now I can see how it was probably fueled by already being manipulated and gaslighted and abused emotionally. M. would sometimes wake me up in the middle of the night by pulling my hair. He would only do it very briefly, so that I barely woke up and went right back to sleep. I remember the cold and empty look on his face those nights. It felt so surreal, I wasn’t sure if I had dreamed it or if it really happened.

I left him for the first time a few weeks after the elbow injury incident, but straight away received non-stop phone calls, apologies, him begging me to come back. And I did. It takes a domestic violence victim on average seven times to leave. It took me three.

After I got back, things were ok for a while. As they tend to be. I already experienced traumatic bonding, also known as Stockholm syndrome, but did not know that was what it was. I knew it was wrong that I went back, but I craved him at the same time, almost like a drug.

When the abuser realizes he is losing control, he chooses to be on his good behavior just long enough to hook you back into his destructive game. Over time though, my sense of self came back. I felt empowered. The relationship had begun to feel like a prison, but by that time he had tied me financially to him in a cunning way. We had rented a bigger house together and left his small apartment, and most of my savings were invested in the deposit of that house. I was living far from home, and felt too ashamed to ask for money from my parents. I was 24, supposed to be an adult and handle my own affairs. I made my bed. I had to find my way out and blamed myself for being in that situation. It would be a few more months until I finally left for good.

Part 3 – The final assault

The last day we lived together, he had gone out drinking with a friend, and I was home working on my master’s degree applications. When he came back, I could tell he was different. Agitated. I don’t remember what exactly was said, but I felt frustrated and went upstairs to our bedroom with my laptop to continue working. I had had a few glasses of red wine as well, and felt it was best we both cool down.

What followed was the worst night of my entire life. I had just sat down on the bed, when he stormed up the stairs. He called me all names under the sun. A fucking c…t. Whinging wh…e. Always just complaining and nagging. Names I have never been called by anyone. The hair on the back of my neck stood up, and I knew this was serious. He slammed my laptop shut. I opened it again. He grabbed it, and I held onto it. He was bigger and stronger, so eventually he got a hold of it. He held it out of the window, with that “crazy eyes” look abusers get on their faces. If you experienced abuse, you know exactly what I mean. He threatened to drop it out of the window. Slammed the laptop back onto the bed. Grabbed it again, and this time he threw it down the staircase with full force. It shattered and landed somewhere at the bottom of the stairs.

Of course he chose the laptop. That was not a coincidence at all. He knew I relied on it to communicate with friends and family, with work, with my future. It was a part of my life he could not control. Abusers may seem out of control, but it is deliberate. Which is why there will be people who will not believe you. Abusers can turn their abuse on/off like a switch. Back in the day, that was why police would assume the woman was just hysterical, because by the time they showed up at the door, the abuser was calm and collected, while the woman was crying and beside herself.

That’s just what M did. I was devastated after I saw my laptop break into pieces, and what followed was just like out of a movie. Except when you are in it, it’s not fun at all. It is pure primal survival. I knew without thinking what I had to do, and my body took over. It felt at times as if I was watching the scene from the corner of the ceiling, having left my body. I tried to calm him down and apologized profusely, promising to be a better partner. I didn’t mean it, but I knew my life was actually in danger. When that happens, you just know. Flight or fight kicks in, and I hope I will never have to feel that again in my life. He continued to smash my phone after I had called his father to ask for help. His father is probably just as abusive as him, and so he didn’t do anything and also did not call the police after his son smashed the phone. I kept reassuring M. I would not leave and he kept on asking ‘You’re leaving me now, aren’t you?” He followed me into the bathroom downstairs and watched me as I brushed my teeth. I somehow convinced him I would just take a quick shower, and he should go to bed, and I’d be there in a second. That we would work things out. That I loved him so much and agreed that I had been out of line with my behavior. I said whatever I knew he wanted me to say.

It took a long time, but eventually he did go upstairs. I turned the shower on without going in. There was this one moment I will never forget. I stood by the sink, looking into the mirror. And I saw the woman looking back at me. And I thought: “No. No. No. This is NOT how this ends, and this is NOT you.” I now know that when you get into an altercation with an abuser, you should NOT be in the bathroom or kitchen. (knives and hard surfaces…) but back then my thought was the bathroom was closest to the main entrance.

As the shower ran, I heard him go upstairs and get into bed. He had previously “jokingly” said things like “Sometimes you annoy me so much that I could strangle you to death”. And he was a chef, always bragging about how sharp his knives were. Showing them off. All of that ran through my mind. Abusers tend to use humor/sarcasm to package up abuse and threats, just to test the waters and see how you react. I knew I could not go back up there or I might not be alive the next morning. That’s when it first hit me: “This… is…domestic violence. And I don’t want to be another statistic.”

Somehow, I managed to gather a few things. It’s incredible what the human body does when on autopilot. I grabbed my passport, my laptop bag with the now completely shattered laptop, my wallet, his wallet….and left the house through the front door as quietly as I could. Barefoot. With only a pair of shorts and a tank top on me.

Part 4 – Leaving

I remember the feeling of my bare feet on the front steps. The relief and the fear. I have never been as quiet in my entire life. He must have not noticed for about 5-7 minutes, because that’s how long it took me to run up a hill over some gravel to a friend’s apartment. I banged on her door, it was about 2am. She opened, and I collapsed. Not a minute later we heard the very distinct sound of his car coming up the hill. I screamed and cried and went into a total panic reaction, hiding under her bed. My friend was the hero of that night. She closed her door, turned off all the lights. Grabbed a baseball bat and stood beside her front door, ready to beat him if needed. Luckily, M. only knew roughly the area where she lived, but not the exact apartment building.

Abusers are cowards. He did not dare to wake up anyone else, and left. We heard his car drive back down the hill. Called the police. They went to our house and took him to a prison cell overnight. After they had dropped him there, they took me to the house so I could gather my belongings. The police officers were shocked, and told me to be prepared. M. had thrown all of my belongings (clothes, uni books, etc.) around the entire house. He had actually put my uni books into the bath tub, and filled it with water. My toothbrush was cut in half. He had packed one of my hiking backpacks with all of my clothes, and then stabbed the backpack with one of his chef knives. Slicing it open. My clothes were all cut up.

The police took that as evidence to the station, and they photographed it all the next day. I had to come in and identify all objects as mine. So here I was. I went from a university educated upper middle class girl who travelled the world and studied abroad, to walking around a police station, looking at my cut up underwear and bras and broken toothbrush.

I had become a victim of domestic violence.

Part 5 – The aftermath

I wish that was where it had ended. But trauma works in destructive ways. After the court date, where he was given a restraining order and ordered to pay for the damage of my laptop only, I contacted him weeks later. We met up one or two times and even had sex. The shame I felt was crushing, and I had become suicidal. Feeling like I was going crazy, and again, blaming myself. Clearly if I went back and did that, something must be awfully wrong with me.

Luckily, he became controlling so fast yet again, and this time I had read up on DV and just knew I HAD to leave. This was it. I could NOT go back again. But I understand why so many women go back again and again. I have been there now and felt it in my body.

I moved away from that city and a few weeks later started my master’s degree far away. I still remember when the email came from the program I had applied to. Informing me they had accepted me for a full scholarship at a reputable state university. It felt surreal. And there I was, a few weeks later sitting in the orientation meeting with my fellow grad students. Like the upper middle class uni girl I was.

Except nobody could see what was going on inside. I did what I had to do and excelled at my studies, which distracted me, thankfully. And I drank. A lot. Red wine mostly. Just to numb it all out and function. Or so I thought. The panic attacks and PTSD flashbacks became too much eventually, and I had to seek out help from the university counselling services.

That was when my true healing started. If I regret one thing, then that I waited so long to get professional mental health support. I would advise others to give yourself permission to ‘shop around’ for the right therapist. It’s common to try out one or two before finding the right fit. The internet has great resources, and I recommend reading up on “warning signs of bad therapist’ to get an idea of what to expect, and what not to accept in therapy. I continued therapy for over three years and it helped me to both forgive myself and move forward.

Bibliotherapy also helped a ton. I read and read and read books about DV like there was no tomorrow. Lundy Bancroft’s “Why does he do that”, “Invisible Heroes” by Belleruth Naparstek, the classical book on trauma by Judith Hermann. I ate up websites and forums on DV, and contributed to Steve McCrea’s amazing book “Jerk Radar” which aims at helping women identify an abuser before things get serious. Seeing my own experiences printed and published to (hopefully) help others….was empowering.

After leaving my abusive ex, I dated a few controlling and narcissistic men, which is quite common. Abusers smell unmet needs and vulnerability from miles away. They call that repetition compulsion in psychology. However, my current partner of many years is a loving and kind and normal man. They do exist!

It’s now been about eight years since I first met M. I am “normal” again and now a college lecturer. But the memories are there and will always be there. As I was writing this, my belly got tight and I could tell my body remembers, too. But the PTSD is healed. It is nothing but a memory. Anyone reading this who has suffered similar experiences – you will heal. You will be ok again. It may not feel like it today, or tomorrow, or next week. But you will.

Guest Post 1 – Rose: Puppy love, boy trouble, and the grey areas of teenage emotional abuse

CW: Sexual abuse & body shaming

Being subject to emotional abuse is an experience both insidious and almost impossible to articulate but for in retrospect. It is also an experience that, for many woman, can take place far earlier than you might imagine.

Despite living through it all ourselves, we tend to forget that teenagers are both sexual and sexualised, and dismiss their relationship dramas as ‘puppy love’ and ‘boy trouble’. Yet I am proof that such troubles can have immense impact on these girls’ current and future well-beings – despite being middle-class, grammar-school educated and from a relatively stable family, I still found myself aged 14 in a relationship which I can now say bore the hallmarks of emotional abuse, and which culminated in sexual assault. It’s difficult to talk about, and I would never attempt to prosecute him, but it’s important I do speak, because I’m not alone. In a 2009 survey funded by the NSPCC, a quarter of the girls (aged 13-17) surveyed reported physical violence in their relationships and three quarters reported emotional violence. Puppy love may seem innocuous and endearing, but behind the sweet surface lurks real and lasting trauma.

S was the first serious boyfriend I’d ever had – coming from an all-girls school meant I had little chance to socialise with men outside of school. We were both 14 when we started dating, and I was elated. I knew absolutely nothing about relationships, but it was thrilling to play pretend with a boy who was a foot taller than me, and had floppy hair just like they did in the movies. It wasn’t until later in our relationship that problems started, but it’s important to set the tone for how the public, and my family, viewed our relationship. I was the class nerd who had improbably bagged herself a boyfriend, and whose quiet intensity ensured this relationship would last years and not months. I would get up earlier in the mornings to stop by the neighbouring boys’ school and greet him with a kiss outside the school front gates. It was saccharine and childish, but to me it was completely and utterly real.

There are a couple of things that it’s useful to know to understand how the relationship proceeded, although I have attempted to leave out all identifying information. The first is that S was raised within a fairly conservative Christian family, to the point where his mother’s first question on finding out about his relationship was not ‘what’s her name’, but rather ‘does she go to church’. I would like to make it clear that I harbour no ill-will towards religion, and it is of course perfectly possible for a devoutly religious man to maintain a relationship that never verges on emotional abuse. Nevertheless, this fact is important since it influenced greatly S’s attitude toward sex and drugs and his later manipulation. The second is that since the age of 11, I had been planning on moving schools for sixth form, to a boarding school far away. Of course, being overly dramatic, I told S this on our second date, but that didn’t stop him later trying to convince me not to leave.

The vast majority of the emotional abuse came from him trying to convince me that I was not in fact good enough or clever enough to succeed with my plans. At the time we had a plan that I would go away for sixth form, and then simultaneously apply for the same university and go there together. S would continuously undermine my abilities by telling me pointed stories about how his mother had wanted to have the career I did before a kind boyfriend had let her know that, in fact, she didn’t have what it takes. He would also express doubt about my ability to get into university for my chosen subject, pointing out people (men) he knew who did the same subject, and who he considered to have real talent. In retrospect these are really horrible things to say, but I was too young to pick up on this, and part of me believed him. It took years to tell someone that he had said these things, and years to realise they were wrong.

This was coupled with less frequent, but present, comments about my weight and food. A couple of times he questioned what I ate, mentioning that it was too sugary and expressing surprise that I would want to eat that. On several occasions S expressed disappointment when I ‘put on weight’; I’m now pretty certain that the broadening of my waist was just me growing into my body, but that didn’t stop me feeling ashamed and wishing that I could lose weight to return to the size I was when I was 14. This controlling behaviour was also expressed with regard to the clothes I wore and what I drank – largely due to his Christian upbringing, S was a firm believer in modest clothing and not drinking alcohol. Although, this was never explicitly asked or demanded of me, he would occasionally mention that he preferred it when I didn’t wear short skirts. He often told me he didn’t like alcohol or drunk people, and he didn’t want to be around me if I drank alcohol. Somehow I didn’t think there was anything strange about this. Of course, my failure to live up to his rules always left me with a sinking guilty feeling in my stomach, but it was all rationalised away. In my head, if he trusted me enough to envisage a future with me, the least I could do was try to be a good person for him.

I honestly believe that S had no idea how much pain he caused me, or I have to believe that to keep going. The over-riding memory from my earliest sexual activity is pain. The regular bleeding that followed him touching me could potentially be attributed to him being a teenage boy who just didn’t know how fragile the skin of the vagina is, but does his ignorance excuse the pain he called? When he left bruises on my body from being too rough, did that really mean he just loved me more, as I told myself, or is it just another sign that boys, and men, are taught to view women’s bodies as theirs to use? As far as S was concerned my body belonged to him. To add to this, I was not allowed to touch him in any way. This sexual imbalance led to what I would objectively call sexual assault. Consider this a trigger warning for the next paragraph.

In the last six months or so of our relationship, I realised that I wasn’t happy with the imbalance of sexual power and that I wanted to equalise this. For one reason or another, I decided the easiest way to show S how much this was upsetting me was to make him uncomfortable, and attempt to touch him without his consent. I regret this immensely, but I’m glad that when he asked me to stop, I did. It was then that I asked him, through tears, to ‘redraw the lines’ – to reverse what I saw as a progression towards penetrative sex, and refrain from all sexual activity, so that I too could be a pure, untouched, and ‘good’ person. (At this point I had started to secretly go to churches, and saved up £15 to buy a bible). S, however, didn’t take no for an answer, and forcibly performed oral sex on me, insisting I liked it. And if I eventually gave up trying to push him away that must mean I did.

Eventually S’s behaviour became so bizarre that I couldn’t ignore it anymore. I remember phoning him on AS results day, towards the end of the relationship, to let him know my news. Instead of congratulating me on my grades, I was made to feel guilty for outperforming him in the sciences, seeing as it was that he wanted to study at university. I immediately regretted having mentioned grades, and spent the day not celebrating my own success, but instead comforting him as he cried. When S dumped me a month or so later, I felt like my world had ended. In fact, I think the fact I’d started to prove him wrong began to scare him. He still blamed me for having gone through with my plans to leave for sixth form, and for months later I felt guilty for having done so. It took me so long to get out of those thought patterns and realise that, actually, some of the stuff that had gone down was definitely not ok, it wasn’t normal, and it was in no way whatsoever a healthy relationship.

It was two years later that I began to talk to my closest friends about our relationship, and I mentioned some of the things that S had done and said. Truthfully, I think it shocked them; from the outside we looked sickeningly in puppy love. And even now I have trouble convincing myself that we weren’t. Whilst my logical side knows that what he did to me was at best really fucked up, and at worst emotional abuse, I still want to believe he didn’t mean to hurt me. That the bruises were just the by-product of a 15-year old full of testosterone, and that everything was ok. And I keep finding myself thinking ‘but we were so young, he can’t be blamed, he’s not really culpable because he can’t have known what he was doing – he loved me remember!’

But in the end, if teenagers are old enough to have sex, to say they love each other, and to plan what they’d call their cat, then they’re old enough to abuse each other. And they’re old enough to be hurt. It took me a while to understand why I am uneasy around almost all men, and why I freak out when anyone gets too close to telling me that they love me and they want to stay with me forever. For me, that kind of love is inextricable from pain, both physical and emotional. In some sick way, I have continued to believe that when people hurt me, it’s actually a sign of their love. What might be dismissed by outsiders as puppy love, immaturity and a bad break up retains its hold on my actions and thought processes nearly a decade down the line.

I thought a lot about whether or not to post this story. Reading Sophia’s story was so visceral, so real, that I couldn’t for a second doubt its authenticity. When I read back this article, I’m painfully aware that I have portrayed a narrative, that this is specifically my narrative, and that, if S were ever to come across this, he would denounce me as crazy. There’s no broken nose in my story, no gas-lighting and no clear moment where I feared for my safety. I didn’t realise anything was wrong with this relationship until years later, when I’d come across some articles on emotional abuse and began recognising traits. Because that is in fact what it was – it was textbook. And yet no-one around me saw it, not even my closest friends.

Writing this article, I can’t help but feel like I’m doing a disservice to the *real* victims of emotional abuse. I still often struggle to accept what I suffered, yet putting this all in one place has helped me to realise that it was real, and I’m not overreacting. It’s also excruciatingly apparent that we were far too emotionally immature to attempt such a relationship, and that teenagers are in need of a sexual and emotional education which is more than a list of STIs and a handful of condoms. Making my story public wasn’t an easy decision, but if I can persuade one teenage girl to read this and realise that ‘love’ and naivety don’t excuse causing pain, or one mother to realise that what seems like harmlessly overprotective puppy love might be damaging her daughter, then it will have been worth it.