It started out as innocently as most high school relationships begin. I was 14, almost 15, quiet, studious, insecure and growing up poor in a mostly middle-class small town. He was 15, almost 16, athletic, funny and he smiled at me when I walked past him on my way to my seat in World History class. It started out as innocently as a few notes passed between our friends, stolen glances and smiles when he turned around, small talk between classes. It started out as innocently as it could, but it didn’t end like a fairy tale, or even like a high school relationship that just grew apart. It ended with silence at the other end of the phone, a broken engagement and ultimately ended 3 years of abuse, control and manipulation.
It started out with behaviors that I thought were sweet, at first. He walked me to class, to the bus, to band practice. He put his arm around my shoulder, or held my hand tightly when we were in crowded hallways. He gave me his letterman and his class ring to wear. I wore that jacket no matter what the temperature was outside, and his ring was too big for me so I wore it on a chain around my neck. I loved to smell his cologne and feel close to him and be reminded that I was “his girl.”
He was fiercely protective of me, always asking me if I was okay, if anyone was bothering me, always keeping me in sight and checking in with me. We wrote notes to each other every class period and exchanged them at our lockers. We talked on the phone every night, sometimes for hours, usually about routine things and little jokes we had, or music or movies, or school. The same things most teenagers talk about with their friends or boyfriends. We had some intimate moments, but I had very little experience with boys touching me or kissing me, so I was very careful not to let things go further than I was comfortable with. I was not used to attention being lavished on me, being told I was beautiful or gorgeous every day, being valued and held above others. He made me feel like I was so special.
It changed subtly. He slowly and surely began to control things about my life even though at times it made me feel unsettled or unhappy. He asked me to wear my hair in a ponytail, because he liked to see my neck and shoulders. He asked me not to wear makeup, because I was beautiful without it. He asked me not to talk to boys in my classes, because he trusted me, but he didn’t trust their intentions. He didn’t like it when I wore v-neck shirts or shorts because he said guys were looking at me like I was a “piece of meat.” He wanted me to be “only his to look at.” He said he knew what they were thinking because all guys are the same, except him of course, because he loved me.
He asked, at first. And then, as time went on, he told. He demanded. We argued. I gave in. I did what he wanted, most of the time. And he cried – tears streaming down his face – if I resisted. He said he didn’t want to lose me, that he’d be so lost if someone took me away from him.
He isolated me from my friends. I was in band and he wasn’t, and we had been the same friend group of girls since middle school. We ate lunch in the band hall every day, we hung out after band practice, we had inside jokes about rehearsal or the music or something that happened at morning sectionals. When I was a junior, my director made a rule that no one outside of band could be in the band hall. That meant he wasn’t allowed in there, which by definition meant I couldn’t be either. My friends were angry, they felt betrayed. He was always nice to them to their faces, but he told me repeatedly that they were “whores” and they “didn’t really like me,” or they “felt sorry for me.” He convinced me that they were flirting with him behind my back, that they were plotting against me, that they were trying to break us up. I believed he was my only true friend, the only one who understood me. He knew every deep, dark secret in my life. He knew family secrets. He knew things that, if anyone found out about my family, would get them into trouble and I’d lose them. He had built a wall around us, an impenetrable wall that no one could breach. I trusted his every word, believed his every statement, had faith in him and that he wanted only to take care of me. I was also terrified that if I did leave, he’d tell everyone in our town everything he knew, or that he’d make good on threats to make things up that were even worse than the truth. He didn’t lay a hand on me, didn’t hit me, didn’t even raise his voice.
Until I became friends with someone forbidden. The band had a concert performance trip to Florida during Spring Break. I was packing, and he had become completely unreasonable in the days leading up to the trip, had started yelling at me, cornering me in my bedroom and threatening me that I had better not go on the trip “or else he didn’t know what he’d do to himself.” But my father had paid hundreds of dollars to help me go on the trip, my director expected me to go, and I wasn’t missing it. So I did the ultimate betrayal in his eyes – I went anyway.
So he broke up with me, right there in the parking lot when he dropped me off. He said I was never going to find anyone who loved me like he did, and if he did something to himself while I was gone, it was my fault. I cried and cried. I was scared he’d hurt himself, and I couldn’t live with myself if he did. I genuinely loved him, wanted to protect him, to go back to the way it was in the beginning. But I was also so tired of the control, the accusations, the jealousy and isolation from other people.
In the space of about 5 minutes, I went from heartbroken to extremely angry. I got out of the truck, told him to go to hell, and went on my way into the band hall. And – somewhat out of spite – I sat with a boy on the bus. A guy in my section, a year younger than me, sat beside me on the charter bus for 18 hours. He was kind, had a gentle smile, and he listened when I spoke. He laughed at my silly jokes. I felt myself relax for the first time in months. During the 5 days we were in Florida, I talked to him about a lot of things, and I opened up about a few of the issues I was having. He said I deserved to be treated like a queen, and that if I wanted to get back with my boyfriend, I needed to tell him how I felt.
When we got home, he was there, waiting to pick me up in the parking lot. I was skeptical, but I got in the truck. We sat in silence, and he drove to a local park. He parked, turned to me, and he was crying. He said he thought a lot about me when I was gone, that he was so sorry, that things would be different. He said he wanted to be together, that he’d make it right, that he’d change. He held my hands, looked into my eyes, pleaded and begged me to give him another chance. He looked so broken, so lost. I couldn’t turn him away. I made him promise he’d change. I made him swear it. And he did.
And it went back to the way it was at first. The sweet notes, the kind gestures, laughing and joking. He eased up on what I wore or where I went. He didn’t stop me from seeing my friends. We really didn’t argue. Until a friend of mine saw him at his job, and they talked about our breakup briefly and she mentioned how I’d become “close” to a guy on the band trip.
I was at work, handling an order in the drive thru. He got off work early, came and sat at the end of the counter where I was serving people. He didn’t speak. He stared at me, watched my every move. I was terrified. I had seen the face of his anger before, but he was stone faced and red. He sat like that until we closed, and then he waited in his car. I still don’t know why I got in the truck that night. But I did. When I got in the truck, he was crying. He looked up at me, tears streaming down his face. And then, he hit me. Full force, closed fist, right across my mouth. My lip split open and I felt like I’d been slammed to the ground. I was about to reach for the door handle, and he grabbed my arm, held it down and drove off, and stopped at the park. I stopped resisting because I knew it was futile. He was so much stronger than I was. My head was pounding and I was so scared. We sat in silence and I could barely breathe. He got out, went around the truck, opened the door and dragged me out. He kicked me in the stomach, pushed me down and hauled me back up again repeatedly, pulled my hair, spit on me. In silence. He picked me up and held my limp body against the side of the truck, smeared dirt all over my mouth and face. He told me he was going to “ruin” me. He said he was going to make it so no one would ever want to even look at me, let alone touch me. He called me every filthy name he could think of, and then he dropped me on the ground. Then he got in the truck, and called for me to get in. I was so upset but terrified to be left alone at night in the middle of a forest so I got in. He drove me home. As I got out of the truck, he came up behind me and picked me up, cradling me in his arms, and he cried, and cried more. He was coughing he was crying so hard. He kept saying he was sorry, that he couldn’t believe he’d hurt me. He begged me and begged me to forgive him, to please say I was okay. I hurt all over, but I knew that if I fought back or tried to run or told anyone, he’d do worse. So I said it was going to be okay. I let him take me in the house and clean me up, bandage my cuts, hold me and stroke my hair. He promised it would be better. He just got so mad, and he couldn’t control it. He couldn’t lose me. He hadn’t told me about what my friend had told him. I didn’t know for weeks what had led up to the beating.
He never hit me in the face again after that. Too much evidence, he’d say later. He knew – the moment I slumped into his arms and allowed him to come into my house and stay in my life – that he had me right where he wanted me. He knew he could do whatever he wanted to me, and so he did. He had complete control over me, so he went back to the physical and emotional manipulation, the isolation, the constant control. He never left a mark where someone could see it. He would pinch me on my upper thighs, slap the back of my legs, punch me between the shoulder blades. He would force me to overeat, then punch me in the stomach until I threw up. I began chewing my fingernails, pulling out my hair, stabbing myself with needles in my armpits. Anything I did to myself hurt less than what he was doing to me.
He repeatedly sexually assaulted me. He told me that every time I’d let him touch me before gave him the right to do whatever he wanted to me. He held me down, put his knees on my chest, pinned me against walls, pulled my arms behind my back so I couldn’t fight back.
This went on for over 9 months, my entire senior year. In that amount of time, I kept my job, held up a 4.0 GPA, applied for college, was a newspaper editor at school, and a leader in the band. No one – not one single person – knew any of it had ever happened.
He proposed to me three weeks after we graduated from high school, and I accepted. I honestly, truly loved him, and I wanted to help him, to be enough for him to change. I wanted to save him – I knew his childhood had been horrifying and he had been abused himself. I knew his secrets too, the same way he knew mine. And I wanted to save him. He enlisted in the Air Force, and I went to college orientation. I saw him graduate from basic training, and I went to my first day of being a college freshman with a ring on my finger and wedding plans in my mind.
I was 18. He was 19. He’d been my entire existence for four years, and hiding the truth from everyone had been my daily work. After 6 months in college, with more freedom than I knew what to do with, I made the decision to end our relationship. I called him on a January morning, 2 weeks before what would’ve been our 5 year anniversary. A girl answered the phone. In his apartment. In the morning. I asked if she was his roommate’s girl and she said she was his girl. I asked to speak with him, and when she asked who I was, I said I was his fiancée. He picked up the phone, and I told him it was clear that he’d moved on, and there was no way that he could take care of two women since he’d never been able to take care of one. Silence.
And it ended. I saw him once more about 3 years later, sitting in the bleachers of our hometown football game, and I was with that sweet guy from the charter bus, the man who would become my husband. And even though the physical contact and the tumultuous relationship ended on the surface, the effects of it rippled through my life and my relationships for years.
I wish I’d known so many things when I was going through this.
I wish I’d known I was NOT alone.
I wish I’d known I was NOT to blame. It was NOT my fault, I didn’t ask for it and I didn’t even really allow it. I didn’t know any better. No one had ever told me that love could hurt.
I wish I had known that control, manipulation and isolation are not signs of love and protection but are the early warning signs of abuse.
I wish I’d known that I could tell someone, anyone. No one who loved me would’ve let it go on the way it did. But they didn’t know. I was an expert at protecting him instead of myself.
I wish I’d known that there is professional help available. Counselors, police, teachers. Someone could’ve stopped it.
I wish I’d trusted my family with the truth. They would have helped.
I wish I had been more self-confident, more true to myself. I wish I had known my own self-worth.
I wish I had the strength to tell people I needed help, and that I did not to see myself as weak.It started out as innocently as most high school relationships begin. I was 14, almost 15, quiet, studious, insecure and growing up poor in a mostly middle-class small town. He was 15, almost 16, athletic, funny and he smiled at me when I walked past him on my way to my seat in World History class. It started out as innocently as a few notes passed between our friends, stolen glances and smiles when he turned around, small talk between classes. It started out as innocently as it could, but it didn’t end like a fairy tale, or even like a high school relationship that just grew apart. It ended with silence at the other end of the phone, a broken engagement and ultimately ended 3 years of abuse, control and manipulation.
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