Survival is a Process

The first time he hit me was in February. In my mind he was a model boyfriend for a very long time before things got bad, which is why I continued to date him: because he had proved for many months how good he was and the instances of abuse were anomalies. But I remember distinctly that it was February, only a month after we started dating.

His friend was in town. As I was coming out of the bathroom with a towel on my head, this friend said, “You must be Christina!” My name is not Christina.

Later that night, when we were alone, I brought it up with my boyfriend. Who is Christina? Why did your friend confuse me with her? Are you sleeping with someone else? He never answered directly and told me to stop being paranoid and obsessive and jealous. “It’s not a good look on you.” It quickly deteriorated into a screaming argument. I said, “You’re a piece of shit, you’re a real piece of shit.” He slapped me hard across the face. I’d never been slapped before.

I responded by picking up a glass ashtray and hurling it. It wasn’t even close to hitting him, but shattered against the cabinets. It scares me still that that was my immediate response, to react to violence with increased violence. Within a second I was on my back on the kitchen floor. His knees pressed into my arms just below my shoulders, one hand on the floor beside my head and one hand gripping my face around my chin. His brought his mouth very close to mine. “Clean it up, bitch.”

I tried to twist my face out of his grasp. He lifted my head up and slammed the back of my skull against the floor twice. “I said clean it up.”

I cleaned it up.

Another time I drank tequila and took a half a bar of Xanax. The word “tequila” still causes my stomach to do a little dip that has nothing to do with thinking about the displeasing taste. From that night I remember smoking a hand-rolled cigarette for the first time, watching professional wrestling on TV, and my boyfriend’s friend Jason on top of me. I remember Jason grunting, his sweaty face, Jason holding my hips, telling me, “Shhhh.” I remember seeing my boyfriend sitting and watching us.

I still can barely say the word “rape” out loud to describe the ten or so times I said no, or didn’t say yes, or had my mouth covered when I protested, or woke up to him inside me, or cried quietly until it was over and he crudely wiped the blood from between my legs with my own t-shirt.

He cracked two of my ribs against a bookshelf after I danced sort of near another guy at a party. He bloodied my lip on the kitchen counter when I asked him to stop drinking for the night. He gave me a concussion by pushing me into a wall because I forgot to move his clothes from the washer to the dryer. He broke two of my fingers when I found out he’d cheated on me. He punched me when I threatened to leave, leaving a black eye that faded after a couple of weeks and a burst blood vessel that has remained in the corner of my eye ever since.

He beat a mutual friend of ours completely senseless, bloodied him almost unrecognizable, after a disagreement at a party. It was horrific to witness. I was a bystander watching someone else be the victim; I’m haunted today by both roles. I was called to testify against my boyfriend in court for the aggravated assault charges. I went. I said what my boyfriend coached me to say. He paid a fine and spent a very short time in jail.

He was four years older than me. I dated this man for thirteen months, from a few months before my 18th birthday to a little after my 19th. We broke up briefly in between when I left for college. I thought moving to another state would be a good excuse to end things between us, but I was desperately lonely and unhappy in a brand-new state where I didn’t know anyone, and reasoned that any attention was better than no attention. Our new long-distance relationship was, of course, less physically abusive, but I was still emotionally controlled and terrorized by him, even thousands of miles away. He unceremoniously dumped me several months later after revealing more infidelity.

It’s been almost seven years since that relationship ended. I am thankful it wasn’t worse, that I got out when I did, that it was only thirteen months. Looking back on that relationship is baffling to me. I was a smart girl. I was a good girl. I had a good upbringing. My parents talked to me about respect and healthy relationships. How did that happen? How did I ever date someone like that? Why did I stay with someone like that?

People talk all the time about living life with “no regrets.” Why dwell on the past? What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger! You wouldn’t be where you are today without those experiences! That attitude infuriates me. Do I have regrets about dating this monster? Absolutely I do. Would I go back and change it if I could? Absolutely I would. Would I rather have never learned those lessons up close and personal? Absolutely I would. What didn’t kill me seeped into every part of me, rending my life apart, making me wish it had.

Seven years later, I’m still dealing with the aftershocks. There are good days and there are bad days. Sometimes I have good days with a little bit of bad in them, and vice versa. I will have stretches of time where I barely think about him and am happy and carefree. Then there are the times when it feels like too much to bear.

It makes it hard to date: When do you bring it up that you were in a terribly traumatic abusive relationship? Not the first date, that’s way too soon. Not the fifth date, you have to let them know earlier so they can bail if it’s too difficult for them to deal with. Not when you burst into tears the first time you have sex, because then you’re naked and vulnerable and sobbing and unable to explain why being touched is enough to send you to pieces.

Oh, and the sex. Sex has become insanely complicated. How do you explain it to a casual partner? How do you explain it to someone you love? I can’t even pinpoint specific things I can or cannot handle. I have unpredictable, irrational, indiscernible triggers: a partner shifts their weight a certain way. A partner touches my hair a certain way. A partner says something that is vaguely like something he used to say.

It makes it difficult to enjoy the things I used to. I pushed away friendships for months, unable to relate to anyone else and unable to trust anyone. I stopped playing sports. I stopped going to church. I stopped being able to handle even an hour at a social event without feeling paranoid and unsafe.

It clouds my head with contradictions. I don’t believe abuse is ever the victim’s fault. I don’t believe rape is caused by anything except the people doing the raping. I don’t believe certain types of abuse are less severe or valid than others. But I don’t hold my own experience to those standards. I do think staying with him was partially my fault. I believe I could have prevented being raped, at least a few of the times. I do consider my experience to be “less than” more serious instances of abuse. I know logically that makes no sense, but that’s how it feels.  I struggle with the fact that I truly, honestly loved this man and truly, honestly believe that he loved me too. I feel guilty for feeling a sense of loss, grief, and nostalgia still today over that relationship.  

I have terrible dreams about getting chased, being trapped in a room with no windows or doors, being fucked with my mouth sewn shut, having fingers pushed into my mouth until I vomit.

Before him, my first thought entering a boy’s bedroom was not, “What could I use in here if I have to hurt him and get away?” I could drink alcohol and enjoy myself. I never worried about everyone I love eventually cheating on me with someone less complicated, someone more attractive, someone more fun. I considered sex a wholly wonderful, exciting landscape to explore, never giving thought to its dark side. I never spent all morning in bed, unable to move, because getting out of bed when you’re depressed is like a person standing up from a barstool and realizing suddenly just how drunk they are. I never thought I’d have to carefully, painstakingly share this baggage with a new partner, revealing certain things at certain times so as not to scare them away. I could be alone with men, and talking to male strangers wouldn’t cause me to sit in the bathroom afterwards until my breathing went back to normal. I barely remember before him.

People talk about abuse in terms of the time actually spent with that person. People think it’s over when relationships end or the victim is able to get away. No one talks about how it follows you. Nor for the choices I made in those thirteen months. I hope my debt can be paid someday. One talks about the insidious little reminders that come, predictably or unpredictably, throughout your life. No one talks about the continuing ache.

I’m almost 26 now. It’s been seven years. I feel like I’m still paying.


This essay has been nominated for The Flounce Non Fiction Writer’s Award. Reader feedback in the comments section will be taken into consideration by the judges. Contest Rules.