Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Why I Stayed

Not only did I stay, I wouldn't leave when he gave me the opportunity.

So many opinions on domestic abuse are being passed around lately, thanks to the Ray Rice situation. Every time the video footage of his then-girlfriend/wife shows up on my tv or laptop screen, I don't watch it. It's invasive, it's violent, and it's shameful. And I've been there, to a certain extent.

I grew up in a home where I had seen my father and mother go to blows on a regular basis. I once watched my father pick my mother up at the shoulders and slam her down into a chair with such force that I was sure he had broken her neck. I watched her fight back, I watched them threaten each other with death, I listened to them scream at each other with an unbelievable amount of hatred. But she stayed. She always stayed.

Even as a child, I was perplexed by her staying. I asked her why. I always got a vague response that amounted to something like "It's not that easy" or "You will understand someday". But I never did understand.

I was at the receiving end of that violence on occasion, usually disguised as discipline at my mother's hand. I had to pick switches, I felt the buckle end of a leather belt lash my back, I was slapped, I was once choked, I was called names, I was told that I was hated. I stayed. Because I was a kid and I had nowhere to go.

After high school, I was able to leave home for college. I was far enough away to build a life as an adult, to make something of myself. Only, packed among my clothes and shoes and teddy bear was the baggage of never feeling truly loved and accepted, along with feeling woefully inadequate about myself and completely unprepared to handle any relationship of any kind, friendly or romantic. I was lost, but I didn't know it, because I seemed like a generally happy person. On the outside.

At 18, I craved attention from boys. I felt ugly and insecure all the time, and when a cute boy paid me some mind, it was euphoric, although confusing because why would anyone like something like me? My first "relationship" in college was with a boy that lived in my dorm. He was an athlete, he was smart, he was very handsome, and he only wanted me around when he was lonely. And I totally accepted that, because it was attention. I allowed myself to be used in a such a degrading way, and I think I knew it was degrading, but I went through the motions of this "relationship" for a good 3-4 months. And then I met J (initial changed to protect the scummy). One night at a party, I was dancing and letting go and having fun with friends. J began dancing with me. He was handsome, he had a warm smile, and we had an instant chemistry. It wasn't long before we went out, and then we were in a relationship. It was a tornado.

At first, he seemed to adore me. He thought I was cool, he loved my taste in music, he liked my friends. For weeks, it was amazing, and I wondering if J was "the one". Things probably began to go south immediately, I was just so infatuated that I couldn't see through the fog.

It started with passive-aggressive comments, then moved to outright insults about my weight, my intelligence, my voice. His words wounded me, but because I was so insecure, and because I thought all relationships were this way (thanks to my parents' model), I didn't think anything was wrong with it. Being the type of girl that I am - which is feisty at times - I would often argue back. Eventually, our verbal fights began to get physically violent.

He didn't like going to class, so he would often gently persuade me to stay with him in his bed. And I did. It wasn't too long before I had let my grades take a nosedive.

Everyone thought J was the greatest guy. And to everyone else, he was. He was charismatic, he was sociable, he was the King Bee of our social circle. Guys looked up to him. Girls wanted to be with him. I wasn't about to let that go, there must be some good in him if everyone else sees it. It MUST be something I'm doing wrong. I would try to be better. I tried to lose weight, I kept my opinions to myself, I tried to dress exactly how he wanted me to dress. If I did something to upset him, he would ignore me for days, or worse, treat me like I wasn't there if we were out together. If I dared to get angry and confrontational about his behavior, he publicly shamed me to our friends in order to put  me in my place.

Once, at a party, I walked into a bathroom to find him on top of another girl. I was so blind with rage that I smashed food in his face, making a terrible scene. You'd think I would be smart enough to leave at that point. You'd be wrong.

A male friend of mine, who had actually refereed one of our boxing matches, actually told me that we were perfect for each other because, "there is so much passion there."

One night, we were arguing at his apartment. I don't know why, of course. There was never any good  reason for us to be arguing. It's just what we did. I threatened to leave and he told me to "go ahead". In a fury, I threw my car keys at him. This angered him, and he picked me up by my shoulders and slammed me against his refrigerator, telling me that he could kill me, that nobody else would put up with me, that I am nothing. He then let go of me, and as I slid to the floor in shock and terror, he climbed on me and started to choke me. I don't know how long that lasted, but I think he stopped because he scared himself. I got up, ran out to my car, and sat there for a long time. I didn't leave, I just sat there. I wanted him to come get me, for whatever reason, but he didn't. As the minutes passed, I got angrier and angrier that he wasn't coming out to get me. So I stormed inside and we fought some more.

I honestly don't remember how that evening ended. But I stayed.

After that, J tried to end things. And rather than taking the opportunity to get the hell away from him, I actually begged him to stay with me. I actually begged. It was pathetic, but I didn't know what else to do. I think I thought I loved him, and I didn't know what else to do. I remember that I was able to convince him to stay with me, and he put me on some kind of probation, where I wasn't allowed to call him, he could only call me when he wanted me around.

Mind you, this was a mere six months after we had first met. This was not years of history together.

As the semester was drawing to a close, J rode down to my parents' house with me to store some stuff from my dorm room. At one point, I was alone in the room my with mom.

"What is that bruise on your arm?" she asked me.
"This? Oh, I must have gotten it when I bumped into a wall or something."
She was obviously suspicious. I was embarrassed.
"Don't stay. You don't have to take that from him. Please."

My mom knew what was going on, because she had been living it.

At the end of the semester, I went home to my parents' house for the summer, and J went to his home for the summer. Being away from him was freeing. I went out with my girlfriends, laughed and had fun. It was wonderful. One day he called me to tell me that we should break up.

"OK" I said, and hung up the phone. It was as simple as that.

It wasn't the last time I had to see J, not by a long shot. We unfortunately had mutual friends, so he was around a lot over the next few years. He continued to play mind games with me, making snide remarks under his breath, knowing fully that I was terrified of him. Even though I had finally found someone (several months later) that treated me with love and respect, the damage caused by that "relationship" resonated. I had panic attacks when we were around him, and eventually we stopped going around those mutual friends.

Years later, my life is in a good place and well, he didn't fare so well. Or so I was told.

So why did I stay? And why didn't I leave when he gave me the chance the first time? I don't know. I really don't know. I can blame my parents, I can blame J. I can certainly blame myself. I think when everyone else seems to see something that nobody else does, you think that either you need to change to fit with that person or that you can change that person and make them better with you. It's complicated chaos.

And everybody's chaos is different.

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