But I’m Tough
I remember my hair sticking to my lip gloss as we walked across the street to the courthouse.
I remember thinking that one day, I would start a story with this sentence. My mother added the following line: this isn’t where you think your relationship will end up when it starts.
What still gets me is that, deep down, I did know. I knew the entire time that things couldn’t end well.
I knew it was strange that he never seemed to have any close friends – and that he didn’t know anyone in my friend circle. I knew it was immature that he didn’t take our music teacher seriously; I knew that, eventually, he’d need to grow up. I noticed how it made me uncomfortable when he started asking me personal questions after we’d only known each other for a few weeks.
But I consciously ignored all of it, and thus began nine months that ended in that dreaded courtroom.
The first of those nine months was May, when we started dating. I turned sixteen the day after it was made “Facebook official.” He was seventeen.
I was happy; he was happy.
We texted and talked on the phone, we spent every moment of free time together. The warning signs seemed to fade away from my sights, and I enjoyed maybe a few weeks of bliss.
He took my virginity in either the late spring or early summer. He was gentle about it, and I was confident in my choice to give it to him. He was caring. He loved me, and I loved him. That’s how it’s supposed to be when you share something so intimate with someone.
I’m not capable of saying exactly when the abuse began, but at some point, it did.
He would pin me down and pinch the backs of my arms until he drew blood. He’d lay his 200+ pound frame on top of my 125-pound one, which bruised my hips and stifled my breathing. He got angry any time I told him to get off of me; that he was hurting me. He got angry because I was “lying” when I said those things. He could see things in me that I didn’t see in myself:
I was tough, he said.
I could handle him.
The emotional abuse started around this time, although it’s harder to draw a hard line around it. I will never know what our first fight was about – it was pure nonsense; they always were. What I do remember was the yelling, the way his eyes would narrow at me, his voice would deepen dangerously, the way he broke things.But I wasn’t weak. I could handle him.
Over the summer, I steadily learned to be afraid of him. I learned not to deny him sex, because if I did, I was rejecting him. I must’ve been in love with someone else. I learned not to wear skinny jeans to work, because that was the one place where he didn’t get to see my fine piece of ass.
I learned not to correct him about anything – whether it was whether green was a primary color or if being gay is genetic – he hated to be wrong. That’s why he was always right.
I learned not to fight when he held me down and pinched me, when he held me under the water in his friend’s pool. I learned to go limp and deny him the satisfaction of overcoming me. I learned not to panic, because that only made it worse.
I learned how to act like everything was okay in front of my friends. I learned how to let him pinch me and slap me in front of them, because I knew he wouldn’t stop if I told him to. It would only make things awkward to draw attention to it.It would confirm what I knew deep down; something was terribly wrong in our relationship.
I learned to take out my frustration on my family instead of him. I learned how to yell at my parents instead of listen to them; I learned how to never cry in front of them, in case they asked questions.
My boyfriend didn’t like my parents – he blamed them for everything he didn’t like in me. If I let my guard down; if I acted weak, it was because I’d been raised that way. If I told him I couldn’t stay out past three o’ clock in the morning, he asked me if I always let them control me: when was I going to grow up?
When I told him my mom started noticing the yellow-and-purple bruises on my arms, he asked if my parents disapproved of harmless roughhousing. Did they coddle me? Was that why I was weak? This was why, in the heat of the summer, I didn’t wear tank-tops. It was easier to change my wardrobe than to change the way he treated me.
Late in the summer, I received the four scars that will stay with me for years to come.
The one on my forearm was from a ride at a county fair, when I was so offensive enough to “crush” him against the side of a spinning-ride. By this point, it was already established that I was weak, so of course, it would make sense that I was unable to stop physics.
And I was severely punished for it. He gripped my arm and refused to let go, tearing his fingernails into my skin and holding on until his hand was trembling. My arm bled, and for weeks after, it hurt to touch it and it turned a horrid color of yellow.
Now, I have a pretty little gray dot the size of my pinky nail to commemorate the event.
The other three scars are on my back.
They look strange, and for months, I was convinced that I would never wear a swimsuit again. There are three quarter-sized grayish-pink circles in a straight line.
I want to say two things before I go on.
One: it wasn’t rape. I never told him to stop.
Two: it was four letters away from being rape. I knew that he wouldn’t stop if I told him to. I knew that the moment I let my emotions take control; that the moment I felt the pain, that I would panic. I knew that I would try to get him off of me, and that he would force me back into it.
Call me naive for dating him, call me stupid for staying with him, call me whatever you want, but don’t ever tell me I didn’t know him. I knew what I was afraid of.
And I will never be convinced that it wasn’t four letters away from being rape.
We were having sex in his basement. He was on top. As soon as it started, I knew something was wrong. I could feel the carpet starting to rub against my back – and not in a good way.
I will never know for sure if this happened or not, but I swear I remember telling him something was hurting. Of course, I was tough. I could withstand the pain. So I waited. I closed my eyes, I gritted my teeth, I blocked it out like I always did. When he was finished, I sat up and saw what he had done.
My spine had rubbed against the floor like a cheese-grater, giving me three bloody, gaping holes in my skin. I was horrified to see it. I still have the shirt that has the blood spots on it. I had to hide it, should my parents find out.
Of course, he thought this was hilarious, and insisted that we have sex against a door right after. The next time you skin your knee, rub the bare wound up against a piece of wood. That’s more-or-less what this felt like.
When a boy pointed to the marks at the pool weeks later, my boyfriend laughed.
He made jokes about what the marks looked like, about how the scars would never go away. He humiliated me, showing me off to everyone.
But I didn’t cry; I never cried.
I was tough.
The only time I ever stood up to him about his abuse was when he hit me hard enough to knock the wind out of me – twice in a row. He slapped me in the back and taunted me when I sat down to catch my breath, because I was acting weak.
As soon as we got into his car and out of earshot, I told him to never hit me like that again.
He was quiet for a long time, but I could see the signs of his anger that I knew were only there to psych me out. He clenched his jaw, he tightened his grip on the steering wheel, and for a moment, I wondered if he was going to get us into an accident. But finally, the explosion came when I told him to man up and tell me what was wrong.
“It’s like you think I abuse you,” he yelled. “You know I would never hit you out of anger!”
And there it was.
There was the moment when abuse was defined by my abuser: If it wasn’t out of anger, it didn’t count.
All he’d ever done was foolishly roughhoused with me; all he’d ever done was belittle me to get his way. He’d never slap me across the face. He would only slap me on my legs, my arms, my stomach, my chest. But never the face.
Imagine my relief to find that I wasn’t in an abusive relationship; just a complicated one.
By the time school started again, my boyfriend came to me with news. He was in love with my best friend, Anna. He wanted to date us both and decide which one he loved the most.
I’d put up with a lot of pain at this point, but this was too much. As long as it was just the two of us, I could withstand any emotional or physical torment. I had given him my soul and the rights to use my body as he wished. But now, I was learning that it wasn’t enough. He still wanted someone else, and he wanted to share me with her.So I said no.
He broke a window; he yelled at me, he demeaned me in every way possible.
But I said no.
And the feeling I felt after that; the pure, shaking abandonment, was the most painful thing that ever happened in our relationship. It felt like every bone was breaking.
Only when he left did I see what he had truly done to me; the destruction he’d caused in my life. In order to be with him, I’d silenced myself. I stopped standing up for myself, I no longer understood what it meant to have self-respect. I, as I knew me, was gone. He’d filled that hole for some time, but now, he was gone, too, and I was the only one left to blame.
All of this happened in late August, maybe early September. If you remember right, we still have four or five months to go. And any abuse I’d suffered from him couldn’t compare to what he did to me next; what he did to my family.
He decided he loved me more than Anna, but they were still “together,” whatever this meant at the time. So he cheated on her with me. I hurt her by doing it, and I knew it. I justified it by saying that she knew what she was getting into with him; that she’d hurt me first by dating him.
But I knew I was just being selfish; that I was intoxicated by him. Before this, I never understood why women stayed in abusive relationships.
As it turned out, that wasn’t the thing that destroyed my friendship with Anna. That came later, when the court got involved.
He wanted to take me back after he broke up with Anna, but he’d already made his mistake. He let me go for at least two weeks, maybe even a month, without him. It had been tough, but I had started to wake up and come to my senses. I turned him down; I told him I needed time.
That was when things truly got bad. He’d always told me when we were together that he had an ugly side he hoped I never had to see. I should’ve realized at the time that I one day would.
He threatened me. He threatened to ruin my life in every way he could imagine. He threatened my family; he told me that he didn’t know what would happen, but that I shouldn’t be surprised if his mom or dad showed up on our front porch one day and “did something.”
He told me that I needed him to protect me, because I would only fall in love with another abuser in time. He told me that I would get raped if I slept with anyone but him. He publicly humiliated me at school, yelling at the top of his lungs personal things that I’d only told him; how I’d felt broken after being diagnosed with ADHD years before; how I no longer felt like I could trust anyone.
At this point, I’d come clean about many secrets to my parents, and they stepped in. We went to the principal’s office and told my ex that he was no longer allowed to contact me. I’d wanted space before, but now I needed it. It wasn’t just for me. I knew what he was capable of, and I wasn’t going to let him hurt my family.
So he stalked me. He followed us home in his car, he skipped class and kept his eyes on me at all times during school. He ambushed me at our home and screamed at me in our driveway, blocking the door so that I couldn’t get inside. I had an anxiety attack after that happened.
In December, we had the first court date.
We’d filed a restraining order. Here’s a piece of news I didn’t know at the time: if you file for a restraining order and the defendant doesn’t show up to court, it’s immediately granted.
If he does show up to court, he has the choice to either agree to it, or to contest it, meaning he would come back at a later court date to dispute the charges.Guess which one he did.
The next court date was set for late February. We hired an attorney and a private investigator. I was forced to pick through every text, every email, and every Facebook message we’d ever exchanged, looking for proof that he was a danger to me, and that I’d been clear that I didn’t want anything to do with him.
Everything that was supposed to stay private about our relationship; our sex life, our fighting, our most intimate moments, was torn open. The story of how I lost my virginity to him is now known by countless people who have a copy of the full restraining order; my boss, an attorney, police officers at my high school and college.
That’s why I’m okay with sharing my story with the world. The people I wanted to keep this a secret from are now the people who know everything about it.
And in the end, it wasn’t enough. We didn’t get our restraining order, and at the advice of our lawyer, we dismissed the case.
I lost four of my best friends in the world after this happened, leaving me with one.
I lost Anna when I read over her testimony that she’d given to the private investigator. She didn’t think I had anything to be afraid of. She knew that he slapped me, that he hurt me, that he taunted me. But I never told him to stop in her presence, and in her mind, that made it okay.
She saw the mess I’d become after dating him; she knew that he’d threatened my family. But she was on his side; under his spell. If she’d said that she thought he was a danger to me, we could’ve had a shot at a restraining order. I knew that I would never trust her again.
I lost a third friend a few months after the whole thing happened. He’d had a crush on me for some time, and we had a very close friendship, texting 24/7 for months. I’d told him every detail of what my ex had done to me, and he’d been supportive.
I started college in January – at the age of sixteen. I had a job. I was stressed and emotionally wounded. I stopped talking to him every day, and shortened it to just once or twice a week, until eventually we were hardly talking at all.
He always wanted to hang out, and when I did agree to do something, I was exhausted and not as “playful” as he wanted me to be. So he gave me an ultimatum: either put in more effort, or don’t bother talking to him again. I knew better than to think that giving him more was the way to make things work; that was the entire nature of the relationship I had just escaped. So things ended.
And, lastly, I lost a fourth friend; my boyfriend. Before this, I never understood why women stayed in abusive relationships any more than I understood why people did drugs.
Both things were harmful and had potential to ruin your life.
But they have another thing in common; people run to them when they’re week. Just months before I started talking to my now-ex boyfriend, our house had been burglarized while we were home. I couldn’t sleep in my own room for months without the light on.
I had also been diagnosed with depression. I was unhappy with school. I lacked a sense of purpose.
No one talks about the good side of abusive relationships. He was my best friend in the world. We shared everything together; opinions, thoughts, feelings. When he wasn’t tearing me down, he was the most supportive friend in the world.
When I admitted to myself that his abuse was worse than his good side could ever be, I lost the best friend I had in him.
Getting out of that abusive relationship was the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do.
It was painful, and I haven’t even begun to imagine how it will affect my future relationships.
It made me stronger than I ever was, but I will never be thankful for it.