I grew up in a household where violence was never an issue. We never discussed it beyond the general basics most children learn, no one is allowed to physically harm you, make sure you tell us if you are being bullied, and never bully or physically hurt anyone else. Abuse in relationships was not a topic of conversation because it did not need to be. I had a large close-knit group of girlfriends, I am close to my parents, brother, sister, aunts, uncles, and cousins. I was the girl who would say with pride that I would never let anyone, especially a boyfriend, hit me. I knew that it existed in the world and I knew it was bad if it happened, but I had no idea it was called Domestic Violence, and I definitely had no idea how deeply dangerous, manipulative, gradual and lonely being abused was, until I met Phil.
Phil and I met at the age of 16. I was a happy, healthy and confident teenage girl. He opened up to me immediately sharing the struggles with his family life growing up. It made me feel trusted and loved. He told me how his father was abusive to his mother and he hated him for it. With the amazing upbringing I had experienced it was difficult for me to imagine living in a violent environment. I wanted to support him and be there for him in any way he needed me. I happily took on the task of making him feel loved and supported no matter what, it was me who was going to show him unconditional love. Our relationship started as a dream, we were young and thought I was in love. For the first 6 to 8 months everything was great. Yes we were obsessed with each other, I knew that drove my parents crazy, I wanted to be with him 24/7, and he with me.
“I just had to keep my head down and wait for it to be over.”
Slowly little things were said that I initially thought came from a caring place, “wow you look like you have gained weight”, “you really think that guy was hitting on you? I mean not many guys like a girl your size and a flat chest”; “I don’t like when you wear those shorts, they are way too short. I just love you so much I hate it when other men look at you”. Of course I felt loved. It made me feel like he loved me so much that it hurt him when other men paid attention to me. It made sense to me that the least I could do was not wear shorts that attracted the attention that made him uncomfortable. Gradually his behavior changed, he no longer spoke to me about his issues but instead became angry when I did things he did not approve of. It no longer felt like he was concerned for me but that he hated me. To him I was fat, ugly, I dressed like a whore, I was dumb, selfish and a bitch. Each and every day I heard all of these insults and many more from the person I thought loved me until I no longer knew who I was. His obsession with controlling me got so bad I would have panic attacks simply deciding what I would wear for the day. If I wore something or did anything he did not like I was verbally abused, screamed at, and then he began to hit, choke, slap me and he even spat in my face a few times. It got to the point that I felt I could no longer figure out what I did to set him off, I just knew that when he reached a certain point of anger there was nothing I could do to stop it. I just had to keep my head down and wait for it to be over. I could not talk to any males without his permission, and if I was not with him I had to wait for his call. I remember on one occasion I wore something to his house he did not approve of. His friends were over which was even more disrespectful and insulting to him so he locked me in his room for 4 hours to teach me a lesson. I lived in constant fear and anxiety.
One day at high school we received individual research projects for my Community and Family Studies class. The topic delegated to me was Domestic Violence. As I was reading through all of the photocopied research I had collected, I started to cry uncontrollably. I cried as each line perfectly described me, but I also cried with relief, relief that I now had a name for what I was going through, it was Domestic Violence, I was being abused. Part of me felt empowered that I could now verbalize what was happening to me. I was 17 and had already endured his constant abuse for almost 2 years. The acts of verbal abuse, and physical violence were endless. Around the age of 19 the violence got so bad I feared for my safety like I never had before. The physical violence and his paranoia were escalating. Being choked became a regular occurrence, I knew in my gut I needed to end the relationship, I just had to figure out how to do that.
“…relief that I now had a name for what I was going through, it was Domestic Violence, I was being abused.”
Over the last year of our 4 year relationship, I cannot begin to count the number of times I attempted to break up with him. When I would try he would threaten the safety of me and my family, or threaten to commit suicide. He would call me saying he was standing on the edge of a cliff ready to jump if I did not get back together with him. I would drive to the cliff and beg him to get away from the edge. The pressure of feeling like I literally had his life in my hands was too much for me to handle at the age of 19. I felt more helpless each time I attempted to break up. The threats against my family terrified me and I would never forgive myself if something happened to any of them. It was worth dealing with the pain alone to prevent Phil from killing himself and anyone from my family being hurt.
Through all of this my home was my safe haven where I could take a breath and I always felt loved. On my 20th birthday, surrounded by all my wonderful family, I got the courage to end the relationship once and for all. He was being his usual abusive self, whispering hurtful insults in my ear so only I could hear, and then something clicked. Here I have my amazing family telling me how beautiful I was, how much they loved me and cared for me, and one person telling me I was worthless. I felt the strength to leave, so I did it right there and then. I told him we are done and I never looked back. He never hurt me in front of my family because he knew they would come to my aid. My family had no idea their constant love and support that day helped me through the most difficult and terrifying moment in my life. Of course he harassed me, but my family protected me, I never answered the phone and surrounded myself with people I knew, who would be there for me. Eventually it all stopped.
“They knew something was going on but they did not know the warning signs of Domestic Violence and I hid it all so well.”
When I look back I still get chills thinking about what could have happened if I stayed and eventually moved out with him. I knew I could always go to my parents for anything, but I never went to them for this, I was simply too ashamed and I knew my parents would protect me at all costs. I did not want my parents to suffer because I had gotten myself into a dangerous situation. Little did I know that they had seen the huge change in me, I was no longer outgoing, confident, surrounded with friends, doing well at school, so they were already suffering. They reached out and asked what was happening but I never told them. They knew something was going on but they did not know the warning signs of Domestic Violence and I hid it all so well.
When I share my story I often get asked why I stayed in the relationship for so long. I believe people are genuinely confused why someone would choose to have someone like that in their lives. I, like many other survivors did not feel I had a choice. I was physically assaulted, verbally abused, my life was threatened, the lives of my family were threatened and I was manipulated into feeling responsible for his wellbeing and ultimately his life. The shame I felt was so strong I did not feel I could explain to my friends or family that I had let this happen to me. The one time I was brave enough to eventually tell some friends the response I got was more damaging than it was positive. They told me it was wrong that he hit me, but they also judged me for “letting it happen”. I now know why, the shame I felt is because of an actual stigma attached to victims, we as a society blame the victim for staying instead of supporting them and focusing on the abuser being the problem. And my friends, like me, had not been spoken to about Domestic Violence so they did not have the tools or the knowledge to help me.
Talking to your teens about Domestic Violence is incredibly important and could save their lives or the lives of others. It does not just benefit the victim but also those that surround them. What if my friends had been spoken to me about what Domestic Violence is and how it works? Maybe they would not have judged me and instead tried to support and reach out to me or another adult in their lives for advice. Or maybe some of Phil’s friends could have recognized that he was in fact abusing me. I understand it can be difficult or even hurtful to begin the conversation as a parent because you may have experienced abuse yourself, or you want to protect your child from ever knowing that kind of pain, or maybe you do not think it will ever happen to your child, but Domestic Violence does not discriminate. It comes in many forms, it is not always physical. Talk to them about how the effects of emotional and verbal abuse can be just as damaging as the physical. Talk to your teens about what a healthy relationship looks like. Explain that calling your partner a name or swearing at them, even during a fight, is hurtful and abusive. Constantly texting your partner to find out where they are or getting jealous of friends and family is a form of abuse and control. If you are unsure about how to begin an informed conversation with your children I would ask you to reach out to an agency like Women’s Resource Center in your local community. Bring your teen in to have a chat with a Case Manager where they can ask questions with a professional, and ask your children’s school if they intend to have a qualified speaker educate their students on this topic. Be their advocate.
“Talking to your teens about Domestic Violence is incredibly important and could save their lives or the lives of others.”
I do not blame my school, my parents, my friends, or myself for what happened. What my parents and I learned from our experience is that we live in a culture where Domestic Violence is not a topic we like to talk about, and that is dangerous. We have a culture that blames the victim rather than blaming the abuser. Together I believe we can create a culture that talks openly about abuse, and lift the stigma and shame that victims feel when being abused. I know that both my parents and I wish we were more informed on the warning signs I saw in him, and the changes they noticed in me, because at the time we did not recognize the connection to Domestic Violence. It can be overwhelming at times to think about all the dangers teens face. As adults we know how a supportive, loving, respectful and caring relationship can be one of the most important and positive elements in life. But we need to acknowledge and always remember violent and abusive relationships are just as equally damaging.