I was sixteen when I met him, in that awkward, in-between space where I looked fully grown, yet was very much Child. I was sixteen when I met him, in my chunky Steve Madden boots and faded blue jean jacket, thick dark curls cascading down my back, before I learned how to straighten them. I was sixteen when I met him, a child looking for a fire to play with, a Girl desperate to be Woman.
There were signs in the beginning, whispers of control that hinted at the monster living inside the man I loved that I couldn’t possibly see. Whispers silenced by extravagant, generous gifts that I believed meant he loved me extravagantly, generously. Signs overshadowed by an intense, chaotic relationship, in humid summer nights we’d spend upstate on no sleep and too many cigarettes. In October days we’d just drive and drive, windows down, Blues Traveler turned up. In struggles over power that always belonged to him. But most of all, the murmurs of abuse were drowned out by my deafening desperation to be loved.
There would be signs later, too, but they would be flaming signs, burning signs in big red letters all across school projects I had slaved over for weeks, signs in slashed car tires, four of them, and four new ones, slashed, the following day. Burning signs in pepper spray that I desperately tried to wash out of my eyes, burning, while he leaned against the bathroom door and watched me struggle, calmly smoking his cigarette. Screaming signs in silent cries when he took my apartment keys, locked the door and wouldn’t let me in on icy January nights. Or when he somehow turned the birth of our only child — my contractions, my 24-hour-labor, my delivery — into yet another reason to get angry at me.
But I was never afraid. When he pushed me down when I was pregnant. When he grabbed the phone out of my hand so I couldn’t call the police. When he held a knife to my throat — I told myself that I’m not afraid I’m not afraid I’m not afraid.
My limbs and my heart and my blood were too frozen to feel anything.
But you know what they say. They say that dogs can smell your fear.
And he knew I was terrified, even when I didn’t.
There were days that I wanted to scream, scream so loud the walls would shake, scream so loud the heavens would shake, have somebody, anybody, fix what was wrong with him so we could go back to the way we were.
But being a victim means being silent.
And I was an excellent victim.
Why am I writing this, five years later? Why do I force myself to remember, one year and two years and three years and four years and five years after I have blocked out the memories, forgotten his face?
This isn’t fun for me, to put my name and my face next to my heart and soul in public this way. Oh I can’t even tell you how many times I pause before I click “publish,” how many deep deep breaths before I post to Facebook.
But I do it, I write it. And I’ll tell you why I do:
I write and I speak and I remember because you and I live in a world where domestic abuse affects at least one in every four women, and who knows how many children — and their children, and their children’s children. We live in a country where it’s easier to get arrested for punching a stranger in the street than for beating your wife, and where judges in positions of power hand over children to their abusers on a silver platter.
(May the best lawyer win.)
Domestic violence, still — as we enter 2016 — is so misunderstood it’s scary, and I write because I must, I must make you understand what it is.
Abusers live all around us, among us, in every community and in every part of the world. When we somehow find out that someone is an abuser, we don’t nod and say: Oh yeah, I knew something was up with him. We are shocked, we are shaken — because abusers are always the nicest guys in the world. And let me tell you — they’ve got everybody fooled.
It’s tragic, it’s painful, and it’s frustrating beyond belief.
But here’s the good news:
Domestic abuse is actually a preventable problem. It cannot thrive when the veil has been lifted, when victims and everyone else around them understand exactly who the abuser is, what he is doing — or better yet, learn what to watch out for before it is too late.
There is power in education, and there is power in our words (just ask any victim). The more educated we become and the more we educate our children, the less ability abusive men will have to continue doing what they are doing.
We are starting to hear stories — but not nearly enough. Every article out there, every headline and every news story about domestic violence resonates with more women than you can ever imagine.
And this is why I write. Because as much as I don’t want to think about him — believe me, believe me, I do not want to think about him — I must acknowledge his existence in order to remove his power.
So I will never stop writing. I will never stop speaking. I will never stop remembering. Somewhere someone knows in the pit of her stomach that this story is about her, these words are about her. And though she may not be ready to accept it now, perhaps one day that word or that phrase or that article will come back to her and she will be finally ready to hear it.