“The night I met him, it was the summer after I graduated from college with my degree. I was relaxed, relieved, and happy. Wearing a short linen dress and long curls pinned halfway back with a tortoise shell barrette, I was dancing at a local bar in Hyde Park, searching faces casually for flickers of interest: a smile, a wink, a head turn.
There. His blue eyes met mine, and I noticed his dimples, the plaid shirt tied around his waist grunge-style, and a baseball hat snugged on his closely-cropped dark hair. An invisible rope towed him to me and we danced for hours that night. When his friends were ready to leave, he wrote my number on his hand.
‘You’re not going to remember me tomorrow,’ I said.
‘I will. I promise,’ he smiled.
The next day, he called me. We made plans to get together that night, and we started seeing each other frequently.
The first time he told me he loved me, he was drunk. I was already deep into the belief that I loved him too; I knew of his demons and I was all in. Absent mother, hard-working single father who was too busy to be around much growing up, alcohol dependency, emotional distance… I didn’t yet know that I could never undo all of the damage, but I knew I would try anyway.
When he was sweet, his vulnerability drew me in. My nurturing instinct took over and I wanted to heal him. My head ignored every warning bell while my heart kept believing that if I just loved him enough, he would emerge from the darkness and we would live happily ever after. Every fairy tale worked that way, I thought.
The first time he told me that I was a worthless piece of s*** in an alcohol-infused rage, I was shocked but still clung to him as though he was the life preserver and I was drowning. When he awoke the next morning, sober and contrite, he rushed to apologize and held me as I cried. This is love, I thought. We’re overcoming these challenges together.
The first time he kicked me, I was walking down the stairs to our apartment. I was astonished not by the fact that he kicked me, but that he told me it was all my fault. I had ‘pushed his buttons’ and made him do it. I started taking all the blame for his rages, walking on eggshells every time I was around him.
Over the course of several years together, I had learned to see myself in his eyes at the worst moments: unattractive, unlovable. I believed him when he told me that he was the best I would ever find.
That no one else would love me.
Keeping him in my life became my focus, since surely no one else would have me. Piece by piece, my confidence was chipped away and losing respect in myself happened in tandem. Giving up was failure, and failure wasn’t an option I was willing to entertain. We had history. We had a home together. Love is forever. Isn’t it? We limped through time together. I hate you. I love you. The line dividing the two was so thin it blurred, pixelated, practically invisible.
The night before I was due to move to Atlanta – he was going to follow me there – we went to a going-away party hosted by some of my friends. Feeling the bittersweet emotions of excitement, anxiety, and fear of the unknown, I had a few margaritas and didn’t want to leave the party. However, my partner wanted to attend another party hosted by a woman he worked for. I didn’t trust her, and even more importantly, I didn’t trust him with her. I had to go along.
On the way home from the other party, he lit a cigarette in the car. I was incensed; he knew I had asthma and hated smoking. I grabbed it from his mouth and threw it out the window in one action that would change my life.
In slow motion, the scene still unspools in my head. He threw the car into park and before I could register what was happening, his right fist connected with the left side of my jaw with incredible force and speed. I heard a cracking sound and a thud as my head hit the window. Then he pinched my arm roughly with one hand and squeezed my neck with the other, choking me.
‘You loved me once,’ I croaked out, looking up at him.
He let go, disgust written across his face.
I got out of the car and stumbled down the street, a mile from my friend’s house, as he peeled away in our black SUV. When I came home the next morning, swollen, bruised, and ashamed, I felt fear and sadness. It sounds ridiculous to me to say this, even now, but leaving him was not on my radar. I believed I was in for the long haul and that with enough love, he would love me back the way I wanted him to, eventually.
I asked him to give me another chance. He stared into my eyes and looked away; he said we had to forget that night ever happened and he would meet me in Atlanta in a couple of months. I drove the eight hours to my new city with a slightly stiff neck, but the day after that the muscles tightened up and I could barely move.
Somehow, I drove myself to an urgent care clinic and told the young doctor that I had been playing with some kids and injured my neck. He glanced at the marks on my neck and the dark green bruises on my arm and wrote me a prescription for a painkiller and muscle relaxers.
‘You have a severe sprain,’ he told me. ‘You’re lucky it wasn’t broken.’
I started to rebuild my life in Atlanta, making new friends and living alone. A few months down the road, my partner joined me there and reunited, we were joyful. Everything was great for a while, and we got engaged several months later, intoxicated by our new city and new adventures. We had a beautiful wedding at a historic home and rode away in a rented 1966 Rolls Royce Silver Cloud.
My mother didn’t know what had happened between us, but she knew me. She saw how I had changed, and she confided in a friend that she was afraid the marriage wouldn’t last. It wasn’t until years later that I told her everything, and she cried and hugged me. I didn’t want anyone to know what I had been through, so no one really knew how to help. Or that I needed help.
When people hear my story, they wonder how I could have married him after all of that. How can a put-together, intelligent, college-educated woman from a good family fall in love with a man who is abusive? What I know now is that it happens very gradually. It begins with a sarcastic putdown, and is followed up quickly by an apology. It may escalate to a kick or a slap, with more apologies and promises that it will never happen again. By the time she realizes that she is in a bad relationship, she has invested so much of herself and her self-esteem has been chipped away so drastically, she cannot get out easily.
Four years after our wedding, a young woman named Cheryl saved my life. My then-husband met her at the gym where he worked and one day he came home and said, ‘I think we should date other people.’
What he was saying was, ‘I’ve found someone.’
He moved in with her a few weeks later.
I grieved the loss of hope and the shame I felt from being ‘damaged goods’. I missed silly things, like having his feet rub against mine in bed, or the time he brought me flowers because he didn’t want me to be sad. The valleys were so low, and the crests so high.
Ten years had just circled the drain, and it took all of my energy to keep myself from diving in after it. Our wedding album went straight into the trash, even the negatives. Every memento, every knickknack, every note from my soon-to-be ex-husband was dispatched to a big black garbage bag. Scrabbling for purchase, my new life had no room for love.
During the process, I called my parents every day and I sobbed on the phone. I remember telling my mom that all I wanted was for time to fast-forward a few months to the point that I could be happy again. Several times a day, I repeated a mantra I had claimed for myself:
I am beautiful. I am strong. I will not be bitter. And I will love someone again.
I was still dancing on the razor’s edge of grief when I meet Will, several months down the road. He made it clear that he wanted to get to know me and played no games, but I still shied away skittishly. Proceeding slowly, he was cautious with his own heart, knowing that I was fire that would burn him to the ground if he let me. As one might with a dog who had been beaten by a previous owner, he put his hands out to show me that he would not hurt me. The wide space around me proclaimed a hazardous environment, but he was patient and unfazed.
A few months later, he told me he loved me. Silently, I rolled the words around on my tongue, tasting them again. They were sweet and spicy and soft, all at once. When I said, ‘I think I am in love with you too,’ he knew I was hedging and I knew I was hedging. My mouth refused to speak the words I already felt, and yet I was stubborn, digging in my heels.
It took time to unravel the complications of distorted, mangled experiences of love in all of its worst forms to get to the core, all the way in the center, the molten mass. An auto-anthropologist, I studied myself and rewound back to what I know love should be. Fast-forwarding through the sexual assault, the self-hate, and the domestic violence, it was a long reach through Madeleine L’Engle’s mythical tesseract to return to my base camp.
It was David Cassidy lyrics (‘I think I love you… so what am I so afraid of?’) racing through my head one morning when I was in the shower that prodded me firmly to stop tiptoeing around. When I finally told Will that I loved him back, I finally meant it, and it was a relief to finally feel and know it and understand it all at once, and revel in the sensation. I had learned that love was not a state of being; it’s a verb, the choices we make, the experiences streaming behind us like ribbons. It is the sum of all of it.
You may know someone who has been abused, and you can’t understand why she doesn’t leave. She’s afraid no one else will love her. Maybe she has kids and doesn’t know how to provide for them on her own. He may have threatened to kill her. She may be so ashamed that no one knows the extent of the abuse, and she suffers in silence. He may be someone powerful or well-liked in the community, and she is afraid no one would believe her.
She is not stupid; she is scared. There are a million reasons. Keep an eye on the people in your life and offer them support and an escape if they need it. Above all, please don’t judge them. Help them.”
This story was submitted to Love What Matters by Kristin Shaw of Austin, Texas. You can follow her journey on Facebook and Instagram. Submit your own story here and be sure to subscribe to our free email newsletter for our best stories.
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