There Is A Lot We Can (And Should) Learn From What Happened To Gabby Petito

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“I’ve been pretty consumed with the heartbreaking Gabby Petito case all weekend. My mom asked me if I’d heard about the van life girl who was missing after her boyfriend drove home in her van without her and wouldn’t talk to police. I was pretty sure I knew how the story was going to go, unfortunately, but still obsessively refreshed Twitter and TikTok and watched as social media, incredibly, helped put together the pieces to find her. I still watched the live press conference when the FBI said they likely found her body in Grand Teton National Park. I still felt heartbroken at the news. It’s so very sad.

Needless to say, part of the reason this story wouldn’t let me go is the weird similarities between her travels and my own. A long van adventure through a bunch of the western US National Parks, many of her photos on Instagram being of places I’ve loved and traveled to also. I immediately recognized the location her boyfriend was picked up hitchhiking in Grand Teton, as we had spent a day there doing laundry not so long ago.

Van life traveler poses for a photo in the van she shares with her boyfriend while looking out at the trees
Courtesy of Caitlin Alexander

I have felt that same sense of excitement for possibilities and overwhelming appreciation for our natural world. I watched the body-cam footage from when they were pulled over, saw her panic and despair and explaining her mental health struggles, taking all the blame for what was happening to her. I’ve never been in a situation so dire and dangerous and abusive, but I have anxiety disorder, have been in a toxic relationship where I thought I was the cause of all problems, and I empathized so much with her pain.

There is a lot we can and should learn from what happened to Gabby Petito, the first and most crucial being about domestic abuse. It’s insidious nature, where the abused may look like a worse partner than the abuser, because the abuser orchestrated it that way. Abuse is usually not obvious. We all need to be better educated on this, especially considering how, quietly, so many other women (especially Black, brown and trans women) are also killed by their partners every year. And for the love of God, we need police (or some other organization to respond to these calls) who can see this for what it is.

We should also learn social media is most often a fictional story. I know we talk about this all the time and the damage it does to our mental health, but we all keep participating in it anyway. These photos are completely untruthful. I’m embarrassed to admit Jordan moved the van around at a different angle to take these photos, per my request. I moved his unaesthetic bags out of the way and placed pillows where our feet would normally be to cover the kitchen cabinet wall and look more cozy.

Woman lays on her stomach on a bunch of pillows while looking out of the back of her open van, taking in the view
Courtesy of Caitlin Alexander

Laying on my stomach over them was actually a really unnatural angle for my back and very uncomfortable. There is, *iconically* nothing in my cup. This is completely staged and wasn’t a lot of fun to put together, honestly. I had the perfect Instagram van life photo in my mind— you see it everywhere— and I wanted that. But taking photos like this does not mean your experience *is that.*

Van life traveler poses for a photo, fake laughing and holding an empty coffee cup, while sitting in the back of her van
Courtesy of Caitlin Alexander

Thank God nothing horrible was happening in my relationship behind the scenes. I’m very fortunate to have a partner I trust and feel safe with. But even then, life on the road can be taxing and exhausting and hard sometimes (nothing like the romantic, perfect photos you see online). If the two of you can’t come together to tackle those tough times as a team, but instead fall apart at the seams… this probably isn’t for you. Gabby shared none of that, of course. None of us do.”

Woman looks out over the view out of the back of her van she travels in with her boyfriend
Courtesy of Caitlin Alexander

This story was submitted to Love What Matters by Caitlin Alexander. You can follow her journey on InstagramSubmit your own story here. Be sure to  subscribe to our free email newsletter for our best stories, and YouTube for our best videos.

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