I learned what an abusive relationship was from my first love
I was 14 years old
“You understand why I’m doing this right? I’m teaching you a lesson, Audra. If you learn right now, I’ll never have to do this again. It’s your own fault that you’re upset. Remember that.”
It was Valentine’s Day, and I was a guest at a celebratory dinner for a family member’s recent engagement. I contributed to the conversation with the measured responses of someone that never quite belonged at a kids table, and greeted the quips of the other guests with the giggle of a girl that was free. No one could have known that underneath the white tablecloth and the settings of polished silver, my cell phone was repeatedly illuminated by a barrage of threatening text messages from my mentally abusive boyfriend. I was 14 years old.
When he entered my life, my beloved grandmother had recently become a casualty of dementia. Two weeks after her death, my grandfather of near pristine health, was slapped with a stage four cancer diagnosis, and the high school at which I was a freshman, approached my uncharacteristically withdrawn behavior with surprising callousness.
It was the first time I learned that life could be thoroughly ugly. In my grief, I unknowingly erected barriers that isolated myself from my family, friends and classmates.
Somehow though, he broke through them with vigor and we were fast friends. We seemed to have everything in common, from taste in music to familial values to a borderline distasteful sense of humor. It was an innate connection, as effortless as exhaling.
For the first time in my life a man that was not my father made me feel as though I was the most clever, witty, and beautiful young woman that had ever graced the earth. He worshiped me. And in Mrs. Michael’s third period Honors English class, when he defended my opinion on Fantine’s motivations in Les Mis, I knew I had fallen in love with my best friend.
The first time he threatened to commit suicide was a damp Saturday night in November. He attended a social event that I chose to forgo to help my mother take care of my grandfather. I returned home that night and got ready for bed, halfheartedly responding to his text messages about another girl he was interested in. Considering the candidacy of our friendship, I expressed my bruised ego over his affinity for someone else, expecting a mature conversation as we had had several times before. Instead, he became completely unhinged at my revelation.
It took a six-and-a-half-hour phone call, a night of lost sleep, to convince him that he had not lost me. I should have felt deeply disturbed by the incident. But as many female counterparts in abusive relationships often do, I felt that I was a vital component to his wellbeing. I felt powerful.
As winter drew nearer, my parents began leaving me home alone to take care of my grandfather, and his suicide threats became a weekly routine. When I told him I was worried about his frequent smoking, he threatened suicide. When I confided in him that I often considered hurting myself, he threatened suicide. If he had an opinion that I did not agree with, no matter how insubstantial the matter, he threatened suicide.
I trained myself to remain awake for several nights at a time, in anticipation of a call or a text. I lost interest in anything that once brought fulfillment to my life. My grades were near failing. I acted out. When times were good, I waited with bated breath for when they would eventually go bad.
Yet, he was an addiction that I was far too frightened to quit. One unhealthy relationship coincided with another and my love affair with the feel of sharp objects on my skin began. I cut myself almost daily for the next six months. In the shower. In my walk-in closet. Even using the jagged edges of a paper towel dispenser in a hospital bathroom.
In the time that it took to develop a dependency on self-harm, depression had taken the both of us prisoner. His, manifested itself in startling fits of rage and spoken sadism.
In addition to the unremitting threats of suicide, verbal abuse soon became another valuable weapon in his arsenal. It was a new facet of psychological warfare that I was entirely unprepared for.
Everything from my photographs posted on social media, to how I conducted myself at school fell under fire.
I was encouraged not to pay any mind to the positive comments on my MySpace photos because they were “superficial,” and most likely because people felt sorry for me.
He criticized my mother for her ‘absence’ and its effect on me, even going so far as to contact her without my knowledge.
I was no longer allowed to speak of my grandfather and his impending death, or my grief. I “used people” for my own gain and their sympathy. I spent too much time with my grandfather, and should focus more on him and his needs. I was to feel supremely grateful that he had chosen me over the other girls vying for his attention, and regularly reminded me that he could “move on” at any time.
And I believed all of it as though it had been delivered to me on a stone tablet.
I began showering with the lights off so I could not look down at my naked skin. I dressed for school without glancing at my reflection for any longer than five seconds, and wore stacks of thick hair bands and jewelry on my left wrist to veil the marred flesh. My friends went to basketball games and mid-winter dances. I stayed home and watched as yet another loved one withered away.
When my grandfather eventually passed away in a Hospice facility the first week of February, my special friend made an appearance at the funeral home and cried crocodile tears for a captive audience. My great aunt swooned and informed me that I had, “hit the jackpot.” Afterward, I studied my features and clutched at my fleshy sides in the bathroom before digging at my wrist with a blunt pencil – a reminder that someone like me did not deserve someone like him.
It was not until I allowed him to ruin that same family member’s engagement dinner and a weekend of celebratory festivities by berating me over a number of days because I had not spent Valentine’s Day with him, that I finally realized that this love was going to kill me. And in several ways, it already had.
In the months to follow, I attended twice-a-week sessions with a therapist, warily spoon-feeding her details regarding my current mental state. I did not recognize my own voice as I recounted the more horrific details out loud for the first time.
“This is what abuse looks like, Audra. If you continue on this way, you are sacrificing your life to someone that will not stop until he has destroyed it.”
She instructed my parents to begin collecting my phone to read through my text messages, and it did not take long before they forbade me from seeing him outside of school. Each day when my mother picked me up, she took my cell phone and kept it until the morning. Of course, there were other methods of contact and avoiding him in school was often improbable, but the threat of losing my life far outweighed that of losing him.
Nevertheless extracting myself from the relationship proved difficult, as it is for the majority of victims. He was my sun and every last one of my planets had aligned themselves in his orbit. I still pined for the person I thought I knew, and hoped that one day, the boy who believed I could change the world might make a triumphant return. But when all of his efforts at contact went unmet and the school year became summertime, he gave up. And after transferring high schools, I was able to move forward.
A common rationalization for the girl I once was, a girl that stands by as her boyfriend systematically diminishes her being to ash, is that she is merely assuming the role of her mother. That a deleterious relationship is an inherent fate because it is the only one she has ever known. Not only is this notion a sweeping generalization, it is wrong altogether. Abuse does not discriminate.
As a little girl, I yearned for the day that I would happen upon a love like my parents, one that not only withstands the test of time but is strengthened by it. Recalling the relationships of much of my family members and friends, I am fortunate that they too lacked telltale fissures in the foundation. How ‘victim’ became an aspect of my identity is all too often considered a mystery. But it should not be.
Nearly a decade has past, and it is not an uncommon occurrence that I hear of him and his new life. I am often asked by family and friends whether or not I am frightened by the possibility of crossing paths, and each time I tell them no. Instead, I have other fears.
I am afraid of the wounds that have not healed, and the potential relationships that could fall to ruin because of my aversion to genuine male intimacy. I am afraid of the unfavorable statistics for victims and the probability of a woman I love meeting the fate that I was fortunate enough to avoid. And most of all, I am afraid of a 14-year-old’s proclivity to inflict such psychological damage to another human being.
But even despite those fears, if the day ever arrived that we might come face to face, I think I would approach him first. I think I might even embrace him.
Because I cannot imagine a more apt punishment for someone like him, than to momentarily hold the thing we now both know he never deserved in the first place.