The idea for this post didn’t come to me until late May. I’ve wanted to share my story, but never knew how or where or when. A week or so ago, I was watching a 20/20 special on Investigation Discovery about a woman whose ex-boyfriend stabbed her over 30 times and left her for dead. I watched it with rapt attention, turning my phone to silent and computer all the way off. I teared up and had that “I might be sick” feeling through the entire special because, as dramatic as it may sound, I could have been her.
The very short version of my story is that I was in an emotionally, psychologically, and physically abusive relationship for two years while I was in college. He was a friend from high school who turned into a boyfriend shortly after I left for school. We were “together” through his entire time at basic training and a deployment to Iraq. I say “together” because we were on and off, and there was always someone else for him. I was constantly battling for his attention, but in my mind, I was the one he was coming back to, so that’s all that mattered. It didn’t matter that he’d tell me I was fat and useless and gross; he always came back. Just over two years into the relationship, he was home on leave and I was home from school, and one night outside a bar, he punched me in the ribs after I found him leaving with another woman.
For me, this was the cymbal-crashing, mind-blowing wake-up call I needed. I went to his mother’s house the next day, got my things, blocked him on all forms of social media, and ultimately changed my phone number to cut the cord. At the time, I was a Mentor RA at my undergrad, and I felt like the biggest imposter. How the hell was I supposed to help other people when my life was a mess? I sought professional treatment, but I didn’t mesh with the therapist and didn’t attempt to find a new one. It wasn’t until my second year of grad school (almost three years later) that I could say the words, “I was in an abusive relationship.”
This experience has shaped who I am as a professional every day and where I plan to take my career. As I was “not the type” to be in an abusive relationship (something I told myself and others told me both during and after the relationship), it’s taught me to never assume that I know what an abuser/survivor will look like. I don’t consider myself an overly empathetic person, particularly when I’m on call, and this has taught me balance empathy and my own straightforward nature. We can’t come into a situation of relationship violence and tell the survivor s/he’s been abused, but after trust has been established, we can be honest about what we’re seeing. I don’t think that’s a balance I would understand so well had I not been there.
Finally, I’ve learned that I can take my experience, make it a teachable moment, and work to ensure that another young woman doesn’t have to live and love the way I did. In my short time at my current institution, I’ve been trained as a Title IX investigator and Green Dot instructor. I’ve become the co-advisor to our men’s group, stemming from presentations I did with them on healthy relationships and their need/want for a female perspective. I’ve been trained to facilitate a program with the One Love Foundation about spotting signs of relationship violence in your peers. All of this has led me to look at jobs in the future that will allow me to help others.
There are ways people can learn all of the above without being abused. I hope for everyone that they learn in those ways, but my reality is that I learned through experience. I don’t wish it on anyone, but it’s certainly shaped who I am and where I’m going, and for that I am thankful. In the 20/20 special, the woman said that her greatest accomplishment was forgiving her ex, not for his sake, but for her own. I never thought I’d thank that person for what he did to me, but I’m not unhappy with where the situation has landed me.