Content warning for abuse and discussions of suicide
During my sophomore year of college, a freak heat wave hit Illinois in the middle of April. For a few hours, the temperature in my college town — normally near freezing this time of year — climbed into the 80s.
My friends and I put on our packed-away summer clothes, grabbed some blankets and books, and laid on the lawn outside our dorm to soak up the good weather. We took silly group pictures to post on Facebook and reveled in the anomaly for a while until the cold rolled back in.
I’d been back in my dorm room for less than an hour when the angry texts from my boyfriend started popping up.
“Why would you wear that shirt around other people? You look like a slut.”
“I can see your bra strap in that photo. What were you thinking?”
“Are you wearing makeup? Who are you trying to impress?”
“Were there guys there? Who were you really with?”
“I can’t believe you would do this to me.”
This wasn’t out of the ordinary. In the year and change that we’d been together, I had gotten used to “Jon” accusing me of cheating on him or judging my clothes. Most of our relationship was long-distance, so I figured a little jealousy was typical.
When I started college, Jon demanded we talk on the phone for a minimum of one hour every night as a way of proving that I was faithful, no matter how much homework I had or how late my extracurriculars went. He grilled me with a barrage of questions each time I added a new friend on Facebook. He made me tell him where I was every minute of every day. I loved him, so I let those things go.
Jon didn’t like the idea of me drinking around people, so he decided I wasn’t allowed to drink at all. He hated that other people might see me wearing makeup, so he banned that, too. If I took too long to respond to a text, he’d bombard my phone with messages accusing me of cheating on him. Jon knew I was bisexual when we started dating, but he treated my identity like a threat; the way he saw it, there were twice as many people out there who could take me from him.
I tried to tell him the way he spoke to me wasn’t okay. Each time, he flipped the question on me, tearfully accusing me of trying to hurt him, of not caring enough about him. At a certain point, he sensed that I was considering breaking it off and got even more aggressive.
“You know that if you ever try to break up with me, I’ll stalk you, right? I’ll figure out where you live and come find you.”
“You know that if you ever leave me, I’ll kill myself, right? Do you really want that?”
Intimate partner violence affects more than 12 million people each year, but it remains a difficult subject to talk about.
For many people, including some survivors, domestic violence is something of a taboo, a touchy subject not to be discussed — even though the real shame lies not with the survivor, but with the perpetrator. An unfortunate consequence of this mass silencing is a lack of education about the different forms that domestic violence can take: physical abuse, absolutely, but also mental and emotional abuse.
It took nearly two years of belittling and berating before I broke up with Jon. I was terrified that he’d actualize all his threats. (Thankfully, he didn’t.) It took many years longer to realize that what he’d put me through wasn’t just jealousy, moodiness, or long-distance angst; it was emotional abuse.
October is Domestic Violence Awareness Month, a time to uplift survivors’ voices and share resources to support survivors and their loved ones.
Since leaving that abusive relationship almost a decade ago, I’ve had the space and time to process what I went through, how it affected me then, and how it still affects me today.
“Whether it’s emotional or physical [violence], healing is very individualized,” says Maureen Curtis, Vice President of Criminal Justice Programs at the victim assistance organization Safe Horizon. Curtis, who is also a licensed social worker, adds, “What [one person] might find healing may not be the way another person will heal.”
It’s taken years to figure out my own healing journey. Here’s what I wish I could have told myself when I was younger— and what I try to remind myself now.
Know the signs.
It’s no secret that in much of the United States, sex education is woefully inadequate. That goes for education about healthy (and unhealthy) relationships, too. As a teenager, everything I knew about domestic violence came from dramatic TV shows: a man hits a woman, someone notices, and she’s swiftly saved.
The reality of domestic violence is, obviously, far more nuanced. Domestic violence can happen between people of all genders and relationship types. It can be physical, like hitting or kicking, but it can also look like jealousy, threats, accusations, emotional manipulation, and gaslighting. Domestic violence can look like partners deciding how you can spend your money, pressuring you to have sex, stalking you on social media, and countless other expressions of power and control.
Unfortunately, most of us didn’t learn about this in our teen years, when we were forming our first ideas about relationships — but it’s never too late to learn.
Trust your people.
I’ll never forget the day I realized other people could see what Jon was doing to me. I was recounting a particular fight to my best friend over text. She wrote back, “I’m sorry, Camille, but you need to get out of this relationship within the year.” I got mad at her and challenged her on it, and yet she was absolutely right.
Good friends know that, for a number of reasons, it’s often not possible or prudent to “just leave” an abusive relationship. But they can help keep you safe and supported in the meantime. Your closest friends hold that status for a reason — you trust them to look out for you and tell you honestly when something is off. If your friends notice troubling behaviors in a relationship, listen.
Show yourself love.
A common throughline of my abusive relationship was how utterly terrible I felt about myself. During the relationship, I internalized the awful things Jon said about me. After it ended, I blamed myself for what happened and even felt guilty for breaking it off. I wondered if I’d made the whole thing up and had been harder on Jon than he deserved.
Healing from this kind of abuse looks different for everyone. For me, an important first step toward healing was finding solidarity with other people who survived similar experiences. In 2016, Zahira Kelly’s powerful #MaybeHeDoesntHitYou social media campaign made me feel seen in ways I had been too scared to admit to myself. Jon never hit me, but he’d made me feel worthless, scared, lonely, and like I couldn’t be trusted — or trust myself. I read one tweet after another and cried for the countless people who had once felt as small as I had, or who felt that way still.
Moved by the wisdom of others who had been there, I stopped looking for ways to “forgive” myself — the abuse was not my transgression to seek forgiveness for. Instead I started looking for ways to heal. For me, that meant spending more time doing the things I love, like writing, reading, and singing, to help me feel in control of my own life again. For other survivors, it’s art therapy, support groups, or activism. Again, healing is a deeply individual process.
To figure out which healing practices might be a good fit, Curtis suggests that survivors start by looking at ways they found solace during the abusive relationship, whether or not they’ve left. “The [survivor] has the expertise in their life and their experiences,” she says. “What might they be doing to lessen their stress or make themselves feel better?”
Practice healthy relationships.
I feel the effects of Jon’s abuse frequently in my marriage and friendships. I worry all the time that I’m letting people down if I’m not available for them 24/7. With romantic partners, I used to get irrationally jealous — like he did — because I thought that’s what love looked like.
With the help of therapy, a few powerful memoirs I’ve read, and an incredible spouse and friends, I’ve learned to take the time to model healthy relationships with people in my life. My wife and I trust each other completely. We create the space for each of us to follow our own passions and lead individual lives, knowing we have a solid relationship to come home to at the end of the day. I know that an occasional unreturned text is a sign of busyness, not malice. When we mess up, we forgive each other. It sounds easy enough, but I certainly don’t take our healthy relationship for granted.
Pay it forward.
One of the most harmful myths about domestic violence is that it’s “none of your business” when it happens to someone else. That line of thinking permits us to look the other way when someone we love is hurting, and when our interference might relieve them of a great deal of pain.
When my interactions with Jon left me broken and defeated night after night, I’m grateful that my friends didn’t buy into the idea that it “wasn’t their problem.” They jumped in to help me. While I wasn’t ready to hear what they had to say, they said it anyway. I would have remained trapped and miserable for much longer without their guidance, support, and love.
Whether or not you’ve experienced an abusive relationship, chances are you know someone who has. It’s on all of us to look out for the people we love and to speak up when we realize something isn’t right. Nobody should ever have to face domestic violence, and especially not alone.