No Time For Dreams

EDIT: Yet again, because posts are hard to check on a Kindle. This app is broken. TRIGGER WARNING and a reduction in the number of “mildly”s.

Things ended badly in that relationship. He’s still on my Facebook because he’s the type of person who shows up years later for no apparent reason and then disappears again. It happened so many times in our relationship that I finally put an end to it. I told him I didn’t feel the same way as I did for him. It wasn’t true at the time, but I knew it could be if I could get away from him. I was right, but it wasn’t a fun mourning period.

I decided to move to a different city. One upside to having nothing in your life is being extremely portable. All of the emotion had been drained from me, and I wanted to forget, wash everything new in a new place. I half-heartedly dated a girl from the new city for a bit, then drifted off on my own again. I still felt nothing.

I glided through time and space as nothing. Three men drugged and raped me in a country apartment building I later heard was aptly dubbed the “hillbilly frathouse”. I felt nothing. I started dating a man who left me to die one night that I overdosed. I felt nothing. I lost the home I’d worked for, the first car I’d ever bought, the pets I’d adopted and grown to love, and every other aspect of a decent life. Things broke in me that I wasn’t even aware existed. I felt like glass shards ground into grimy glitter on a dirty sidewalk.

I moved back to my hometown shattered and terrified. It was the first time I was truly homeless, with no car to stay in and no hope of a stable home on any horizon. I had reached out to an older half sister that I had never met, and she had agreed to take me in and help me get back on my feet. Instead, I ended up visiting my best friend, finding a job on my own, and staying. I was grateful to my sister, but her home was five hours away from everything I’d ever known. It was too much for me. Besides, my best friend was pregnant and horribly ill, rendering her unable to work and tightening the budget very badly for herself and her husband. I figured if I was worthless, maybe I could at least make some use of myself and help them.

Another friend had joined the single circuit around the same time that I moved back. We fell in together for job hunts and social events and general bitch sessions, missing the support of another person. I have long taken a “golem” approach to things missing in my life–constructing family from close friends and their families, or even aspects of a romantic partner in what I call other “strays”.

A stray is what I use to refer to people who have low support. Some have highly dysfunctional families, some were just turned out. Like a neighborhood cat, we can sometimes go back home and eat and crash, but for the most part, we’re on our own. And most of us are dysfunctional as well. Years of abuse, substance abuse to cover up the original abuse, untreated or semi-/sometimes-treated mental illnesses (it’s really hard to give a shit that you’re off your meds if you don’t know how you’re going to survive the next day/week/month) usually also triggered by abuse or witnessing abuse, and all sorts of other fantastic issues like sporadic bouts of homelessness (including the “hidden homelessness” that is couch-hopping, splitting time among places, etc) is not a recipe for a whole, healthy, productive member of society.

If you’re a “bootstraps” type, imagine this scenario: you’re barely into your second semester of community college, and you’re already disappointed that you have basically no choice but to go there first unless you want to be in debt forever. The man who raised you hospitalized you one morning over missing eyeliner. Everyone tells you this is your fault, and you should feel bad for making him do that. You are forced out of your home. You have no clue how the world works, because you’re 18/19 and were threatened with beatings any time you so much as hinted at testing a boundary. And the icing on the cake: you randomly experience extreme mood swings for no reason. You can be nearly catatonic for almost a year and a half, then exploding out of your skull with racing thoughts and energy that has nowhere to go for the next four months and completely wreck your life (what happened to me in the new city).

Have I done everything perfectly? No. I have enough dirt on me to suffocate under. One could argue you can’t live a life that uncertain and not have done regrettable things. But please note how many times abuse is mentioned there: not just me, but every other stray I’ve run into and ran with. Childhood abuse, domestic violence in the household, countless rapes (two–count them, TWO–women I spoke with were raped and contracted STDs from the encounter). You know what I never heard about? Counter measures. Police involvement (unless it was to take the offender away for a night and release them again). Shelters. Nothing.

There was no justice, no follow up or help for the victims, not even a guarantee that the abusers would be kept away from them. One woman was beaten to death in front of her children and the babysitter. She had an Order of Protection against the man who did it. He was let off. A family member of mine was beaten into a coma by her husband. There was blood evidence all over the house–all her blood. While she was in the hospital, he obtained an Order of Protection against her. Even with no evidence of injuries to him and countless photos of hers, he was also let off. He was back on the dating website––that he’d met her on, all while the trial was ongoing.

Here’s the thing: I had a pretty promising future. I graduated from high school a shade under magna cum laude, with several issues of the school’s literary magazine containing my pieces. I was the vice president of a Writer’s Club I’d helped form. My ACT score was a respectable 31. I was going to breeze through a couple years at the community college to save money, then go onto my dream school, from which one of my favorite authors had graduated–the University of Iowa. Maybe not the loftiest of goals, but I had dreamed of being a fiction novelist since I could remember. I didn’t necessarily need a degree for that, but I wanted to write something truly profound. I wanted to leave a legacy.

When someone is scrambling to survive, there is little time for dreams. Anything you wanted before flies out the window in the face of constant struggle. I dropped out of college twice, both times close to the end of the semester. The transportation system in my city has been hopelessly broken for years, and getting across town from where I’d set up was hard. I either couldn’t afford to or couldn’t conceivably make it to classes, and any wish to do so was buried under misery and fear. Any conceivable future looked bleak. I had no way to get ground under me or get ahead. Any support I had was just as broke as me. Strays aren’t usually flush.

I had planned to help my best friend until she didn’t need me anymore, then piss everyone who cared about me off in some epic way, leave, and quietly kill myself. I had no idea what else to do, and I was tired of being me. I took a third shift job, knowing that interfering with a bipolar individual’s sleep schedule is a terrible, terrible idea. The physical nature of the job made a painful physical issue worse. I was miserable and rapid-cycling. Still, I dragged myself up one morning after four hours of sleep for coffee with some friends.

I tagged along with my other single friend, and as we walked into the building, I saw a face I didn’t recognize from our normal coffee group. A well-dressed man sat at a table in the middle of the shop, looking up and smiling as we entered. I smiled back reflexively, prepared to be somewhat uncomfortable. When I’m rapid-cycling, I don’t always like human interaction. I can barely pull it off. I twist my face into what I hope is an appropriate shape, nod in what I hope are the right places, and wait to be able to leave. Usually, I come off as weird or stuck up.

I let the guys talk and drifted off into the haze of my thoughts–not a pretty place around that time. Suddenly, something jerked me out of my daze–a word. “…transcendentalists…” the “new guy”, as I had come to think of him, had said.

“Sorry, what was that?” I asked. It was mildly jarring and amusing at the same time. I had been a little obsessed with the transcendentalists in high school and had jokingly said once that I’d marry the person who knew what they were.

We got into a conversation about the transcendentalists, and both came away impressed with each other. I learned his name, and I learned that I really liked his cologne. He accompanied me twice outside for a cigarette. The others in the group weren’t smokers, and the coffee shop wasn’t in the best area. I thought it a gallant move and kind of cute. He left early, and I caught the scent of his cologne lightly on the breeze from his departure. I made a sly remark to a girl friend about liking the way he smelled. She apparently took note, because she brought him along to a hangout.

He and I spent our cigarette breaks that night complaining about the dating world. I caught myself staring a few times at his blue-green eyes, long lashes, high cheekbones, dark, curly hair. He was seriously gorgeous. And unlike me, he had a degree. I felt immediately inadequate. I covered it up with several beers. My friend whispered sometime later that she was heading out and leaving us to chat. We decided to throw in a movie, though we were talking too much to pay attention. It was an immediate spark. We were literally finishing sentences for each other. Despite both of us earlier expressing an aversion to dating, we decided the connection was too obvious.

Things progressed quickly. There were mild hiccups, mostly caused by my issues. But I started to notice something, being with him. I was starting to gain some of my confidence back. It wasn’t just that we had things in common–he was kind, supportive, and attentive. He was the type of person I would, as one friend put it, “ride or die” for. The sort who believed in backing the one they love through anything and building them up to feel their best. He saw me at some low points and stood by me, telling me to dust myself off and keep trying. Nothing lost.

Well, one thing was lost–the physical demands of the job became too much for my condition. I missed too much work. They called and ended the assignment. I was back to square zero. I fell into a depression.

That was about when I decided to try my hand at making jewelry. It’s calming to shape something of your own design, and there’s a certain pride when it’s finished. I took a metalworking class in exchange for also completing an online college course for a friend. I set up a studio bit by bit and now exchange housework for some space in a friend’s garage. And I’m trying to teach myself soldering, while also searching for a steady job.

What’s different this time is a working med regimen, DBT therapy, and my partner and his incredibly kind, supportive family. Had I had this years ago, I could have saved myself a lot of heartache. Maybe even been something more by now.

There’s a long climb ahead, but it’s nothing compared to deciding to participate in life again. I don’t know that I ever would have made it without someone like my partner. Maybe it’s a cliched story to end a story of cliches, but that’s okay. Finding a reason to hope for the future again inspired many more reasons, and I’m on my way to becoming a whole person at last. It’s okay to dream again.


Monsters and Men

EDIT: !!TRIGGER WARNING!!, and at some points I “insult” mental illness. I don’t really feel that way, I was just convinced of it at the time. Mental illness is nothing anyone has control over and should always be treated just the same as a physical ailment: medical treatment and therapy can go a long way towards helping us live happy, fulfilled lives.

I bounced around a lot between parts one and two. I had developed something of a pesky and/or incredibly dangerous and self-destructive drinking problem that hurt my living situation with basically anyone who would have me. I felt like my brain was scattered everywhere at once, and I was yet again angry with the world.

One thing that quickly scuttled my mental well-being before moving in with my friend happened at a party she’d hosted a week or so before. A guy there was following me around most of the night. It started out harmless and mildly flattering, and I even flirted back a bit, but as he got clearer about his intentions, I tried to get clearer about mine. I started pointedly walking away from him when he followed me to other areas of the house, talking over him to other people, even practically throwing myself on a different guy to see if he’d take the hint, but he kept after me. A little later and after a few more drinks, he convinced me to come with him to his place to watch some cartoons and smoke.

I’m not sure why I went. It wasn’t to fuck him, but that’s what ended up happening. While I watched Family Guy and tried to focus on just what was in front of me, he took the clothes off my lower half. I protested once or twice, but I’d been through this dance so many times before with my ex that reflex kicked into my drunk mind. Lay still and wait for it to be over, then go about your business. It won’t take long, it doesn’t take long, and besides, you’re just an object, that’s what you’re here for. You brought this on yourself by being where you were, acting how you did, looking how you did, leading him on. You went to his house.

All the bullshit rationalizations, and the further ones of my roommate-to-be when I told her of the incident. “He’s a nice guy,” she said doubtfully. “He would never do that kind of thing. I think it’s just a misunderstanding. Talk it out with him.”

So I did. Turns out he was sober enough to drive us to his house, sober enough to doggedly tail me the entire night and feed me drinks, but too drunk to realize that “No, stop” meant…well…no and stop.

He was at every party at that house. He’s still occasionally around. I try to avoid him.

I left there after an argument with my roommate some months later. Moved in with my mother. Left a couple months later after an argument with her. Moved in with a “friend” who turned out to just be a guy who wanted to fuck me and was angry to be turned down. He kept Vonnegut and my PlayStation 2 when I left.

When I left, it was to go back to my abuser. It had been seven long months of unstable living situations, landing and losing jobs for various reasons that usually involved my drinking, and a suffocating loneliness fueled by rejections from friends and lovers and my own self-hatred. All I remembered of my former relationship was being the center of someone’s world. I didn’t necessarily want that, but it would be a welcome change from using and being used. I wanted to be loved, and resources were slim. My mother was focused on her new family. My siblings had been shunted off to their dad’s sister, who was steadily brainwashing them against my mother and me. My extended family may as well have not existed. My best friend was in love and inaccessible. I was completely alone.

I sent him a message on MySpace one day, partially from boredom and partially from curiosity as to whether or not he’d ever heard from our slum landlord again. He responded with something chilly about me claiming he had been emotionally abusive. I brushed it off, saying all exes talk. That’s how I felt about it at the time. I had deluded myself into thinking the things he had done to me were just “hiccups” in an otherwise decent relationship. Maybe if I had just been a little less rigid in my views…a little more willing to compromise…

We started talking again. He was still a great conversationalist. Still charming and smooth as ever. We started seeing each other again. My best friend’s then-fiancee slapped me hard enough to make my ears ring when he found out, making good on a promise that he would “slap the shit out of me” if I ever even considered getting back together with “that asshole”. My best friend, ever-supportive, looked for the good in the situation. She said hopefully that he seemed more sincere in his feelings towards me this time.

Neither of us knew that he was, in fact, sleeping with someone else around that time. I found out a couple months into us actually dating, but I allowed him to explain it away. I trusted him, right? He loved me, and I loved him, and he said love meant trust, so I had to trust him, right? Even though I had found out by checking a text that had come through on his phone around 3 o’clock one morning. Checking his phone didn’t bother me at that point, because he’d already gone through mine a couple times. All I saw was: girl’s name I didn’t recognize saying “Hey you ;)”. Flimsy yes, which is why he could explain it away. It wasn’t until well after that “girl’s name I didn’t recognize” told me herself that he’d pursued her well into our relationship. At that point, considering what else I’d been through in the relationship, I nearly laughed at her.

When I left the last “friend’s” place, I had nowhere to really go. Things took a sharp turn from bad to really bad when I got a DUI. I had been out with friends and decided to drive home for whatever reason. I was stopped on the side of a country road when I saw the cop’s lights flash behind me. I knew I was screwed. My ex told me he would leave me unless I sought help, so I checked myself into a hospital for suicidal ideation. They kept me for a week, then turned me back out. Still having nowhere to go, I decided to try actually getting help from the sliding scale mental health facility in town. They diagnosed me with Bipolar I disorder and recommended the free clinic for medication, but told me inpatient services were only for those with “real problems”. The best they could offer was a halfway house for suicidal people.

I stayed there for a couple days, but quickly went stir-crazy and wanted out. I stayed with my best friend at her grandmother’s the first night out. She fell asleep early, leaving me to surf around on her laptop. I checked my MySpace, then was struck by a morbid curiosity and checked my boyfriend’s. There was a conversation with a recently divorced female friend about getting together and cuddling up with a movie. She asked about me, and he told her that I was in the hospital for bipolar disorder and borderline personality disorder (which I hadn’t been diagnosed with at the time). “Isn’t that just great?” he asked her. To her credit, she responded that at least I was getting help, and that was her last message to him.

The floor dropped from under me. Of course, I knew my mental illnesses were something to be terribly ashamed of. Of course I knew it made me an awful person. But I had thought he forgave me for that and still loved me anyway. And to have it advertised to this girl he was very blatantly flirting with was…crushing. I stayed up the rest of the night, pacing and guzzling Diet Coke and cigarettes. He was supposed to pick me up the next day. It seemed like an eternity away.

When he finally came to get me, I was shaky from over-caffeination and lack of sleep and raw, taut nerves. It took me what felt like hours to finally force out the question–“Are you cheating on me?”

His reaction to that type of questioning was usually affronted denial, but this time he seemed concerned that I would think that. Finally, I had to explain that I’d guessed his new password from combinations he usually used and found the emails with the friend. He was apologetic, telling me it was a momentary lapse (as if that isn’t the most clinched cheater’s statement in existence) and he didn’t really feel that way. He chided me gently for violating his privacy, but said he would forgive it this time. We talked things out, I allowed him to convince me that it really wasn’t anything to be worried about, and things went back to what passed for normal in our relationship.

I started staying with him and his parents for the second time in my life (the first being somewhere in between bouncing around from apartment to former aunt’s to car occasionally to apartment in the ghetto…I swear, tracking my life requires a corkboard, tacks, and colored string). I lived there for months. During that time, I got a look at how my ex–now boyfriend once again–treated his parents. His mother was a sweet woman with a massive heart, and he ordered her around with the impatience of someone addressing what they disdainfully refer to as “the help”. He was slightly more respectful towards his father, but neither parent was allowed to have an opinion different from his all the same.

We moved out and into our own house about four or five months before our final breakup. Things were bad before this happened, including a time I had been locked out of the house for about four hours, but it was nothing compared to what was on the way.

I had been half-heartedly job hunting, but every prospect seemed to have some fatal flaw that had my boyfriend convinced I didn’t love him if I pursued it. Instead, I decided to go back to school. I was able to get a federal grant without having to obtain my parents’ financial information by explaining the assault when I was 18. My car had been impounded, and I hadn’t been able to afford to spring it, so I took the bus across town to the community college. I was there around 9 hours some days because of the transportation situation, so I became a regular in the library. I ended up making a couple friends on the bus after overhearing a conversation about smoking.

Here’s the thing about making friends: I wasn’t supposed to. By now, I had been cut off from my friends (except my best friend, who insisted on barging in whenever she felt like it, and whom I will love forever for that fact) and family. I was branded a cheater, even though I had never cheated on him, so I couldn’t be trusted around anyone. He worried about women because I was bisexual. He worried about men even more, however. One of my new friends was a man. The other was another bisexual woman. Both were self-proclaimed “stoners”. These were not friends I was planning on advertising to my boyfriend.

Still, they gave me something to do and someone to talk do during the waits between classes and the bus rides. I started to really enjoy their company, though, and I wanted to see them outside of class even though I knew it would never happen. Winter break came along, and I started to miss them.

For Christmas, we went to Chicago to see my boyfriend’s family. We ended up driving back with his dad in the car. My boyfriend was holding my hand, and his dad started talking religion. He mentioned something about everyone needing to be saved by Christ, and my hand squeezed my ex’s slightly out of a reflex to hearing something I didn’t agree with. He whipped his hand away from mine and began shouting at me. Again, he enlisted his dad to help him convince me that my atheism was deplorable, and I could deny truth all I liked, but that didn’t mean he would stand for it. I shut my mouth so hard my teeth clicked and stayed rigidly silent for the rest of the ride back.

The worst was still to come during that break. One night, we decided to get some drinks and get blasted. He fell asleep, and I drunk-dialed the guy I’d befriended and started talking to him. I told him I missed him and the others I’d been talking to out there, and suddenly the phone was ripped from my hand.

All 6’5″ of my boyfriend seethed over me, and I cringed back. He began screaming obscenities at me. He called me a whore repeatedly, accused me of cheating for the umpteenth time, and shouted down my explanations with all manner of ugliness.

Frustration built in me as I tried to get him to listen. When it became clear that wouldn’t happen, I pushed him. I had pushed him before, but mostly to get out of rooms he would physically block me into during fights. I had slapped him once for name-calling, subconsciously playing into the “offended female” trope, but those were the only times I had initiated physical violence against him. It wasn’t that I was afraid of physical altercations–hell, I was raised in a constant one–but I didn’t normally lay my hands on someone who hadn’t laid theirs on me first. Once that happened, it was on.

He bowled me over backwards hard enough to make my skull rebound off of the hardwood floor, and it was on. I spared a moment for a pained moan, then gained my feet and went after him. Things get very hazy at that point. I remember lights crashing in front of my eyes as he slammed me into a wall. I remember downing a bottle of my prescription meds and being told to just “kill myself then”.

I woke the next morning on the couch. One movement lit up my muscles and head with pain, and I gasped. The damage to me was a sprained ankle, multiple bruises, and a bloody knot on the back of my head. I struggled and failed most of the day to maintain consciousness.

His wounds consisted of scratches on his chest and sore balls, where I had apparently taken advantage of the extreme height difference and uppercutted him. He said coldly that he would have called the cops on me if they wouldn’t have thought he was the aggressor, being a male, and taken him away instead. I was confused. Me, the aggressor? I had pushed him. After he slammed me into the floor, I vaguely remembered scratching him. I wasn’t sure when I had punched him in the goods, but I was willing to hazard a bet it had something to do with my useless ankle and/or the second time he had connected my head with an unyielding object. But I had started it by pushing him. So that made the fight my fault, right? Screaming abuses in my face until I pushed him away was perfectly fine in his world, apparently.

Still, I blamed myself for the fight. That day. As time went on, I began planning my second exodus from this awful thing. If a man who said he loved me was willing to cut me off from people who really did, willing to inflict brain damage on me, and willing to overlook my unwillingness to fuck him, that was not a man I wanted to be with.

I met a man in one of my Literature classes who I immediately began calling “CuteJoe” because his name was Joe, and I thought he was cute (original, yes?). I had no intention of starting anything with him, but he was interesting to talk to the first time. He disappeared for a little while, but after Winter break, I caught him in one of the smoking areas again.

The guy friend all the fuss was over had rolled up a joint that looked exactly like a cigarette and given it to me that day. I went out to the bus enclosure, waited for everyone to catch their bus, and hot-boxed it. I went into my Lit class so stoned it took me five minutes to figure out what to do with the sign-in attendance sheet being passed around.

So after the class, smoking a cigarette with CuteJoe, I found myself unable to concentrate on what he was saying. I was just too damn high. I asked him to repeat his last paragraph, because I was just too damn high. I almost saw his ears perk up at that, and he asked if I had any on me. I still had half of the joint left, so he offered to drive me home in exchange for smoking with him. We chatted on the way, and that was the beginning of another beginning as well as an end.

What really convinced me, finally, that my relationship was truly on its way out was the next day. CuteJoe asked if I wanted to get coffee after class. I partially told him I was taken, but I also told him of the beating I’d taken. He was disappointed to hear both, but said he was fine with being friends and added that he could be quite resource if I needed to get away. We took our cups of coffee to the cream/sugar station, and I picked up the half-and-half pitcher and tipped it over my cup. Nothing happened. I twisted the lid partially off and tipped it even further over the cup. Cream spilled everywhere–on me, the counter, the floor, and into my coffee, overflowing it for good measure. I stopped in shock, then suddenly was caught by hitching, uncontrollable laughter. I laughed as I helped the barista clean up the mess, as I got my second cup, and finally faded into giggles when we sat down. My entire head hurt from the laughter, and I realized that was the first time I had laughed like that in at least a year. I told Joe as much, and he gave me a knowing smile.

In my defense, I partially fell for the man because he was attractive, sweet, intelligent, and shared many of the same hobbies, but the fact that he baked me a stout cheesecake with a dark chocolate panache, then took me out to a park with the stouts he didn’t use, a lunch, and the cheesecake was really the tipping point. We ate, then sat up on a hill and talked about life, dreams, and plans. We smoked a cigarette, rolled down the hill for the hell of it, then he took me back.

Before he left, he turned and caught the door, then blurted, “When can I see you again?” I felt elation swelling in my chest, and I made no effort to tamp it down. I liked this guy. I liked him a lot. I wanted to see him again. I didn’t want to stop seeing him, in fact.

It turns out I’m terrible at emotional cheating. I had agreed that I would tell my boyfriend about anyone I met, and if I did that, I could keep them as friends. I didn’t just tell him about Joe–I babbled incessantly about him. I wasn’t allowed to see him outside of school, but we had started hanging out quite a bit while my boyfriend was at work. Still, nothing physical had happened, and I kept my attraction basically under wraps.

St. Patrick’s Day rolled around, and I was annoyed. I wanted to go out and have fun. It had been some time since I’d been able to. I went to school that day in a funk. Joe offered to take me out for a reuben and a green beer after class, and I agreed. The problem was, once outside of school with him, I didn’t want to leave him. He talked about hitting the bars later, and I decided then and there to Rebel. I wanted to go out, and dammit I was a grown ass woman and should be able to go out.

He took me to his place so he could change. We ended up smoking and talking, and I spotted a large bottle of vodka and joked that hard liquor made my clothes fall off (really, I’m just so original). He picked up the bottle and thrust it at me with a grin. I laughed and mixed a drink anyway, after which we decided to head out. We made it to the front porch, still talking. An hour later, we were halfway down the driveway. Still talking. The next thing we knew, it was dark. If I had been planning on going home, that would have been the time to do so. Joe offered to let me crash, and I readily agreed.

We went back inside to talk where we could have some light, and he sat down on a loveseat, slung his arm over the back, and patted the spot next to him. I sat down, and his arm slid over my shoulders, pulling me into him. He sighed and said that was exactly where he had wanted to be for weeks–with me in his arms. He said it didn’t matter in what capacity he had me, as long as I was there. I melted. Of course, we ended up in bed together.

The next morning, I was scared and guilty and miserable. I paid handsomely for rebellions against my boyfriend’s rules, but some defiant part of me was perfectly satisfied with events. Oh we’ll pay, it whispered, But it was worth every penny. Seconding that was Joe, getting up with me to make me breakfast and the most delicious cappuccino I’d ever tasted. I was lost to him, and I knew it. That left me with only two options: leave my boyfriend or never seen Joe again. It wasn’t hard to choose.

He “caught” me one day. I was planning to skip class and hang out at Joe’s with him and his roommates. I was late getting back to school, and my boyfriend, who had searched through my school notebooks until he found Joe’s number, tested and told him to tell him, man-to-man, what was really going on. He went on that night to threaten us with his gun, so we stayed at Joe’s. I went back the next day to get my things. My best friend had enlisted one of her friends once again to help me.

While at the house, my once-again ex threatened to call the cops if I back-talked him. I kept my mouth shut while I gathered what I hoped was everything (it wasn’t, of course. The bastard kept my favorite coffee mug and birth certificate for whatever reason). When I was about to leave, he told me he would have done anything for me. I held back–just barely–from saying “Except let me be myself”.

That was the very end of things with my abuser. The years afterward have not been easy, but I’ve spent them free. I’ve slowly come back to the self I lost in that relationship, slowly begun to have dreams and hopes again. I’ve figured out that even though sometimes I think I ain’t worth much, I’m sure worth more than being restricted and hurt.

It’s a slow process overcoming abuse, and that wasn’t the end of mine. Another day.

Zany British Vagabonds and How I Came Under Gang Protection

Things went rapidly downhill after my first breakup with my abuser. With him out of our apartment, it was nearly impossible to afford the bills. It made it even more difficult when the restaurant I served in went out of business after three whole days’ notice to the employees (they had wanted to avoid people quitting early and decided screwing us over was the best way to do so). I found another job just before my car ran out of the last gas I could afford, but it was only for two days a week.

I had once made a friend in that place, but she had moved without any goodbye but a book on my doorstep with a scrap of a quote lodged in the middle of the pages. She had been the one to convince me that my abuser was just that–my abuser. Not my boyfriend. Not my lover. Nothing but a jailer who so enjoyed disciplining his prisoner that he would make up offenses. Her name was Maggie, and I still miss her.

I met Maggie one icy day in the little parking lot in the back of our four-flat house. I had been going to my car to leave for work when I noticed the woman my ex had disdainfully referred to as a “crackwhore” getting into her car right next to it. I decided to wait on her to back out first, as the parking lot on that day would have made a serviceable skating rink. The neighborhood we lived in could have been kindly referred to as “a ghetto”, and our landlord could have been kindly referred to as “a slumlord”. If it gives any indication of how lovely my city is, he was the head of the Landlord’s Association.

The woman started her car and tried to reverse. It slid roughly two inches to the right, then lazily began to swing back left. She laid off the gas, shifted it forward, and spun her tires. No rocking it. I half-slid across the ice toward her driver’s side. She rolled down the window.

“Do you need some help?” I asked, more in the interest of getting us both out of the parking lot quicker.

She asked me if I drove stick shift, and I was struck by her voice. She had a very light, lovely British accent. So much for my dick boyfriend’s “crackwhore” theory, I thought, probably a bit stereotypically. I told her I didn’t, but I could see if my boyfriend would be willing to try. To my surprise, he agreed.

We stood on the sidelines, watching him work the car out of the stall. Suddenly, she pulled her fists theatrically to her chest, jumped up and down a couple times, and shouted, “Come on, Petunia!”

I turned to her, startled. “You named your car too?”

She gave me a sunny smile. “Of course! She’s been with me through so much, she deserves a name.”

We started to chat then, and by the time her car was finally pointed toward the street, we had become fast friends. I agreed to come up to her apartment for tea sometime (yes, tea. My inner Bohemian was flipping shit).

When my abuser was out for the day, I went up to Maggie’s and knocked on the door. She opened it, and I nearly went into fits. It was my dream space. Dimly lit with the roof sloping to the far window, scarves draped about…and books. Every wall was books. There was even another shelf set up in a half-wall in the middle of the living space with a big, fluffy spotted cat giving me a sleepy blink. The decor was like a Victorian parlor, and there was the soul-deep silence of a place of meditation.

I learned that Maggie had a Master’s of Fine Arts, but she’d been homeless off and on countless times. She had lived in London until she was 17, then moved to the US. Her mother was violently abusive, and she’d had a rough time gaining her feet. She’d spent decades bouncing around the states, basically doing long-distance couch hopping and setting up on her own when she could. At the time I met her, she worked at a Dollar Store. She’d been held up at knifepoint there once, and she told me she had thanked the man and told him to have a nice day out of complete habit. According to her, the house across the street was a Satan’s Disciples hangout, and they’d threatened her recently with a pit bull that was nearly my size.

I ate up her stories, wondering why she hadn’t written them all down herself. Maggie had had a sad but fascinating life. She was odd in the best way, and I liked her immediately. I started coming around more often, and sometimes I would have stories for her as well. None of them were good. Her face would darken any time I told her I had to ask permission to visit her, even if my boyfriend wasn’t home. I didn’t tell her he thought she was a weirdo and had ordered me to stop seeing her at all. I had fought against it, and that was one of the times a battle hit a stalemate.

Finally, I started getting more comfortable with her and telling her other things. The time he’d shaken me and thrown me. The time he’d somehow tracked me down at a friend’s house in a confusing neighborhood. The time I’d noticed his car in the parking lot when I was leaving a friend’s apartment, even though I hadn’t told him where I would be. All the times he’d looked through my phone, MySpace, emails. She told me that was control and his constant cheating accusations even when I turned out “clean” after every investigation, were emotional abuse. She told me it was time I considered getting away from him.

Concerned that he didn’t know he was abusing me, I went to him with what she had said. It’s an obvious mistake looking back, but I really didn’t know any better at the time. He said he loved me. If that was true, he’d at least consider the information.

Obviously, that led to a bad fight. Maggie told me she could hear the yelling and the slamming doors from upstairs. I continued to see her when he wasn’t home, but he had told me that to do so was to prove I didn’t love him. It didn’t make sense to me. She was just concerned. She didn’t really know what went on, so she couldn’t know any better. It wasn’t her fault. She was nice, and I loved talking to her among her books in the lovely, peaceful apartment.

The day I told my abuser we were through, I spotted a moving truck in front of the house when I got back from work. Maggie had told me she was getting kicked out, but I hadn’t realized it would be so soon. I rushed to get my things inside so I could say goodbye and get an address or anything else, but he was waiting for me. He wanted to talk about things some more. I figured I owed it to him, but I told him to keep it short so I could see Maggie before she left. That got him angry, and it was several hours later before I could get away.

I walked out the door and stumbled over something on the doorstep. It was a book, and I’d kicked it over on its face. I picked it up, the cellophane denoting it was once a library copy crinkling under my fingers. It was a copy of Saturday by Ian McEwan. I knew then that she was gone, but I went up to knock on her door anyway. I stayed there for ten or fifteen minutes, but it became obvious she wasn’t in. I watched for days for Petunia to pull up, hoping she had maybe forgotten something and I could catch her, but she never came back.

I had wanted so badly to tell her I’d gotten away. I wasn’t on good terms with my mother at the time. She was getting married soon to a man she’d been seeing for six months, and she was busy often. More, she was endlessly disappointed in me. I wanted approval and validation from someone I respected and trusted, but more than that, I wanted to hug Maggie, the woman who had been so sweet to me, and break down crying and have her tell me I’d made the right decision.

It was hard staying away from him. He was convincing that I had been led astray, and he loved me and wanted only me, but I kept him at arm’s length until he proved he wasn’t interested in changing his behavior. We were out at an air show, and my best friend and her boyfriend met us there by surprise. Her boyfriend, now her husband, is a bold personality. He greeted me by jumping into my lap and giving me a big hug and a wet smack on the cheek. I saw my ex’s face tighten, and I knew there was a fight brewing.

I told him to retrieve his things and not to contact me anymore afterward. He had a “friend” accompany him to help him move–a leggy, pretty blonde I had worked with at my first serving job. At one point, she knocked over a lamp and giggled a sarcastic “sorry” as I stooped to pick up the shards of bulb, and I heard him chuckling as well. They left, and I curled into myself and cried again. It wasn’t the girl so much–I had started seeing someone else anyway–as the condescending attitude from both of them. It was clear I was nothing in their eyes, and it grated at me.

The guy I was seeing was short-lived, but I can thank him for giving me something to take my mind off of everything. I had met him in a weird way that involved experimenting with drugs as well. You’d think I’d have learned.

One of the nights towards the end of things with my ex, we had a nasty fight. He left to see some friends. I took the opportunity alone to hack up my forearms and burn myself with a cigarette. My best friend called me, and I must have said some pretty scary shit because she immediately came to pick me up. She was going with her boyfriend to a party. They were going to do X at the party. I decided, in light of the circumstances, that that sounded pretty damn swell. She helped me bandage my arms and look relatively less like a steaming puddle of misery, and we were on our way.

I knew a couple people from the group, but some were new. One was a guy closer to my height with lovely eyes, shaggy blonde hair, and lots of weed. Later, when I was sufficiently euphoric and quite convinced that one of the girls’ observations that her shirt should read “Drug is the Love” instead of the other way around was the most profound thing I’d ever heard, the pretty guy performed a glowstick dance for me. I couldn’t take my eyes off the display, but I kept going back to his face. He was just so…pretty. We ended up sharing cigarettes and talking with the lifted enthusiasm of the designer drug cycling through our blood. As the party wound down, we threw on Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, which I tried and failed to focus on. Happy to see my attention on someone other than the boyfriend she hated, my best friend had him take me home. We exchanged numbers and an awkward hug, and then I sat down and chain-smoked a pack of Newport 100s end-to-end and waited for my boyfriend to come home so we could finish our fight.

After the breakup, I got a hold of the pretty guy again and set up a date. We saw each other until he got sick of me being broke and left me for his best friend’s girlfriend.

Somewhere in between, I came home to a small group of children on my porch. I stopped, my way inside blocked. They looked at me. I looked at them.

“…hi?” I ventured.

“Do you live here?” One of them, a thicker girl with spiralled braids sprouting every which way asked.


“Oh good,” she said, and another girl, this one smaller with lighter skin, chimed in, “We were afraid to come over here.”


The third, a boy who looked to be about six and the youngest of the group, said solemnly, “The last man who lived there shot himself.”

My mind trailed to the strange orange stains on the wall that I’d remarked to my ex looked like painted-over bloodstains. He’d said I was being ridiculous. Maybe not so ridiculous, apparently. “Oh. Cool. That’s terrifying. Excuse me, I need to get inside.”

“Can we come in too?” The smaller girl asked as they got up to let me through.

“Uh…sure?” I wondered if their parents would like that very much, then remembered I lived in a neighborhood where a good half of the houses were boarded up and figured they wouldn’t be too concerned about a skinny little white girl.

The kids rushed inside, ‘ooo’ing over my gecko and ‘ahh’ing over the Honduran milksnake I’d bought off of a friend a year before. They asked if he bit. I told them that the snake, Vonnegut, had only ever bitten me once: he was hungry, my hair was in a bun, I was letting him roam around me while on the phone, and he decided my hair looked enough like a mouse to take a nibble. He had gotten his jaw completely over it before I’d realized what the tugging sensation was and pulled him off. The kids laughed and asked to hold him.

From that day until the day I moved out, I would hear frantic little knocks at my door and three excited, overlapping voices asking to see the snake. It happened so often that my best friend began emulating the greeting. One day, I responded to the knocking to find a cat carrier with a kitten on my doorstep and no one else. The lighter skinned girl came over later and shyly asked how Precious was doing. She said she was afraid her pit bull would eat the cat and asked if I could keep her but still let her see her. There was a no pet policy in my apartment, but I figured I could stash a cat. I agreed, and the kitten stayed. I was happy for the company, though I renamed her Cricket for her penchant for chasing down my lizard’s food when they escaped.

I later realized that Cricket’s owner was from the house across the street with the massive pit bull that had been used to threaten Maggie. The Satan’s Disciples house. The woman found out I occasionally watched her kids and repaid me by scaring off a carjacker with the pit bull. “We’ve gotta look out for each other out here,” she told me.

That was the story of how I came under gang protection. It was a strange experience in a long line of strange experiences, and though it’s a running joke now, it probably saved my ass more than once. I had one night in which I drank myself into oblivion and decided to take a walk around the neighborhood and seek my fate, which I was hoping would be a bullet but more likely would’ve ended up far worse. I still wonder if I made it back home in one piece two hours later because I looked completely crazy or I had someone watching my back.

I finally went under financially and had to leave. My refrigerator hadn’t worked for two weeks anyway, and calls to my landlord went unanswered. He had stopped by when I was late a day on rent threatening eviction, and the words “fucking slumlord” left my mouth more than once, so you could say we weren’t happy with each other. Still, leaving me indefinitely with a broken refrigerator seemed excessive.

I moved in with a girl I’d met through my best friend one night after coming home to cops turning the street into an epileptic’s nightmare. The neighbors informed me there was a shooting directly out front, and my friend informed me she was on her way with her van and I would not be staying there another night. I hoped my problems were over, but I wasn’t optimistic. I’d lost yet another job thanks to an impressive run of sleep-disabling alarms, and I was tired to the core of fucked up things happening in my life.

I wouldn’t go back now and tell myself I had barely scratched the surface of “fucked up”, because that would just be heartless. Besides, I was about to display some “fucked up” of my own for awhile.

On Frying Pans and Fires


This part of the story is going to come in two parts, much like my relationship with this individual. Yes, I was one of those women who left and went back. Hear me out, and you might find that despite some slight degradation from head injuries, our brains function close to the same. People don’t go back to an abusive partner because they like abuse. They go back because they’ve internalized and rationalized the abuse to the point where they may have even thought they imagined it.

Let’s begin at the beginning, however, because beginnings are incredibly important to the narrative of an abusive relationship.

Mine should have been telling. I moved out of my family home at 19, nearly a year after the incident with my stepfather. My mother and I had been having more and more vicious fights, and my stepfather’s sister offered to help me lease an apartment from a friend of hers. I hadn’t yet realized the woman was pure evil, so I was still okay with accepting help from her.

The apartment proved to be the perfect getaway. It was barely a one-bedroom, but there was a good-sized walk-in closet, a nicely sized bathroom, and even a little deck in the back. My immediate neighbors on the floor were fun and kind. There was a couple to my left and to my right, and halfway up the stairs you started to smell the pot smoke.

The left side were more hippie types, and to the right was a big, jovial black man and his sharp, smart-mouthed girlfriend. I would often stop by their place to smoke with the man and either play cards or watch trash tv. My friends left over from high school would visit, and I was given a little albino leopard gecko by a co-worker so I had a little companion as well. Things had been bad, but life had thankfully hit a lull.

Then one night I went out with a group from work. They knew a waitress who worked at a local restaurant and would serve us alcohol even though I was underage. I left mildly buzzing with a bartender I worked with, and she told me one of her friends had some salvia he was wanting to smoke with her. I had never tried it and begged her to take me with.

We drove out to a park bench by the river. Lightning occasionally flashed overhead, but there was no rain. It was a weirdly still night. We met up with the guy she’d claimed was a friend and another of our co-workers. I volunteered to try the first bowl, and the guy friend packed it up with tobacco and sprinkled some of the salvia over it. I lit it, inhaled deeply, and waited.

At first nothing happened, and I got halfway through asking if I should take another hit when laughter seized me. I couldn’t stop laughing, in fact. I doubled over with it, then snapped backwards as the trip began. My body felt like it was moving in still frames, and I could see a huge, hulking dark creature rising from the river. A chorus of buzzing voices were repeating a strange word over and over. I was convinced I was dead, we were all dead, and this was hell.

When I came to, I was on my back on the ground, my throat raw from screaming. The guy friend was bent over me, his face twisted in concern, repeating soothing things over and over. I struggled to catch my breath and slowly sat up. He told me later that I had made a run for the river, and he and the other guy had both had to haul me back and pin me to stop me from throwing myself in. Then I had started shrieking wordlessly over and over, and the other guy, afraid of how it would look if two guys were pinning a screaming girl to the ground, had run off. He had stayed behind to talk me down.

He got my number that night and texted me the next day to apologize again for my bad trip. He was sweet, charming, and an excellent conversationalist. I loved talking to him. He invited me out for a poolside date, and I readily agreed.

He brought drinks with him to the date, and I left already buzzing. He bought more and took me bowling with him and some friends. I got tanked to the point of blacking out and woke the next morning naked in my bed with him. I was mortified. I didn’t do that kind of thing. Slutty women did that kind of thing, and I was not a slutty woman. I told him as much, but I could see he didn’t buy it. I was all over him the night before, he told me, and I had enthusiastically invited him back to my apartment. It was okay though, he said. He still wanted to see me. He didn’t think any less of me.

Relieved, I agreed to another date. We started seeing a lot of each other, and I trusted him enough to leave him alone in my apartment. I came home one day to find it spotless and a note on the floor saying he had cleaned it and he loved me. I was absolutely touched.

I didn’t notice anything strange until one day when I was at my neighbor Luke’s smoking and watching trash tv. My guy was going to a college about forty-five minutes out of town, so I had some time to kill. We were texting back and forth, and I told him what I was up to. There was a sudden silence. I periodically checked my phone to see if he’d texted back yet, but I didn’t think much of it. Until forty-five minutes later, when there was a loud pounding on the door. Immediately, Luke and I exchanged fearful looks, as it sounded like the standard “cop knock”. He got up and went to the door, then burst into a smile and opened it. He barely got through a greeting when my boyfriend, who had dropped everything and driven home because I admitted to hanging out alone with a platonic male friend, snapped at me to go back to my apartment.

Confused, I followed him next door. And spent the next several hours trying to defend myself against cheating accusations and perplexing orders to stop smoking pot because it made me a drug addict. Sure, I’d turned to it in an effort to dull the pain of being kicked out of my family for being abused, but that didn’t make me an addict. Without any idea why I was suddenly being told I had done wrong, I agreed not to hang out with Luke alone ever again and stop smoking pot completely. He made me destroy my pipe to show I was serious.

This set the precedent for years of strict control over my behaviors, who I spent time with, where I went, and basically every other aspect of my life. If I had a different thought than him, I would have to spend hours, even days, trying to defend it before finally succumbing out of pure exhaustion and admitting that he was right and the very way I thought was wrong. He was a Christian and socially conservative, while I was an atheist and a bisexual who firmly believed in LGBT rights. I’ll leave you to just imagine how often we fought.

It became a daily thing. Everything I did, said, and genuinely felt or thought was something to find fault with. We’d fight into the wee hours of the morning, and if I had an early class or work in the morning and tried to sleep, he’d turn on the lights, shake the bed, and make sure I stayed conscious enough to continue the fight. It was inescapable. I finally had enough and told him I didn’t want to continue the relationship.

He asked me to talk it over with him somewhere else. I agreed. He drove us to his parents’ house where he lived at the time, and went inside to get something. I waited until he walked out holding a black plastic case, which he put in the backseat. It was his .44 gun. I began to get nervous, but I was incredulous that he would do anything to hurt me. Then he drove me out to a secluded forest preserve and told me to get out. Nervousness turned to terror. We started walking and talking about where we wanted the relationship to go. I finally got up the courage to ask if he had brought me out here to kill me if I left him. He acted as if that was the craziest question he’d ever heard. I pointed out that he brought me into the middle of nowhere with a gun, and he told me he had only brought it along “just in case”. Still, it shook me enough that I told him I would stay with him and try to work on things.

I ended up regretting that. The fighting continued, escalating at times into physicality. There was one night we went to a party a friend of mine was having. He didn’t want to be there, and he’d taken along a rather odious friend of his. We left early, which I protested against, and he told me calmly that I had a drinking problem and he wouldn’t enable it. He told me my friends were awful, and he and his friend had gone through their coat pockets and stolen from them. I got angry, and the fight commenced. I was packing my things when we got back to his place, telling him I wanted to leave and have no more to do with him. He wrestled the suitcase away from me, grabbed my shoulders and shook me hard, then picked me up and threw me (there was a significant height difference–me at 5’1″ and him at 6’5″). The rest of that night is cloudy, but I do remember that distinctly.

He requested my passwords for Facebook, email, etc., telling me that if I had nothing to hide, I wouldn’t have a problem with giving them to him. He gave me his as well, changing them soon afterwards and accusing me of violating his privacy when I brought up how unfair I found that. Of course he needed to check up on me; I was the one who had cheated on a significant other before, not him (this was a lie).

He brought in his father at one point to “counsel” us. His dad was a marriage counselor, and my boyfriend convinced me he could help us with the fighting. His father sat down, and my boyfriend began tearing into everything about me. I sat in stunned silence, trying not to cry and give him the satisfaction. When he was done with his rant, his dad quietly turned and looked at me, as if for an explanation as to why I was such a terrible human being. I excused myself to go outside for a cigarette. His dad left shortly after, and rage had replaced my sadness. I threw a glass into the wall, and my boyfriend called his dad again, telling him to come back because he was afraid I’d hurt him. The irony made me laugh, and he told me I was horrible for finding his fear of me funny.

The last straw came one night when I was supposed to be babysitting my siblings while my mother was out with a boyfriend. My guy brought his BB gun along for whatever reason, and started shooting at a rabbit in the yard. He pumped it full of BB pellets, then grabbed a tennis racket to beat it to death. Unable to watch, I snatched the poor animal up myself and twisted its head around. We ended up fighting so badly that night that I ripped a necklace he’d given me off of my neck and threw it out the car window. I slapped him at one point when he called me a whore, one of his favorite insults for me along with “dyke”, “crazy bitch”, and “kill yourself” (he knew about my depressions and past suicide attempts). The next morning, I told him I was done. I told him we were toxic for each other, and I couldn’t take it anymore. We worked at the same restaurant at the time, and he told me he was never going in again. I had to explain to our boss that he wouldn’t be back.

I need to add something to this: the sexual abuse. The first time it happened, I was in tears over being referred to as a “dyke” and a “freak” by his best friend in a message telling him why he shouldn’t date me. Ignoring this, he undressed me from the bottom down and started having sex with me. I had given no indication of wanting sex and told him this a couple minutes in, and he got angry. He wanted sex, and he wanted me, and his friend’s completely correct opinion of me shouldn’t make a difference. I shut up and waited for him to finish.

Later on, I would wake up to pain as he shoved himself inside me while I was sleeping. He wanted to wake up to sex, so I should want the same, he said. I told him not to do it anymore because it hurt. He laughed it off and continued waking me up to it. I didn’t realize for the duration of that relationship that I had an actual reproductive issue because I was so used to being in pain and bleeding when I wasn’t supposed to be.

In the second half of the relationship, I was on a sleeping pill that would often cause me to black out. Once, he took advantage of that fact. I came to some time during and tried to push him away and tell him no, but I lost consciousness again. I told my brother what had happened, and he tried to fight him. Later he told me to tell my brother that I had lied. After all, I even got the condom for him. Obviously I had wanted it. It wasn’t rape. It was just me being completely unable to consent and trying to tell him to stop when I was finally semi-conscious.

Even after we broke up the first time, I bought every one of his explanations. He wasn’t the bad one; I was. I had ruined our relationship with how bad of a person I was. I couldn’t be what he wanted, so I left. It took years to fully admit what had happened to me to myself. To admit that what had happened to me at his hands was not my fault. I hadn’t “made” him do anything. I hadn’t given his behavior some stamp of approval just because I didn’t recognize what was going on.

The second half gets worse. Again, though, that’s for another day. I need some blues, a smoke, and to forget again for awhile.

Abuse is often insidious. No one wants to admit to themselves that they “allowed” that kind of treatment. What they don’t recognize is that we didn’t allow it because we didn’t know what was happening. We thought it was our faults. It was caused by some failing in us. We thought it wasn’t as bad as it may have seemed, that people just didn’t understand our relationship. We made excuses for them to ourselves as well as to concerned friends and family.

No one wantsto be treated badly, especially by someone they love, someone they think loves them. It’s just plain silly to think people stay with abusers because they like or accept abuse. I will never understand why people actually think this way. It’s counterintuitive and incredibly harmful. It’s this and other thoughts like it that keep abuse victims in abusive relationships, and it needs to go away. If you have a friend or family member undergoing this kind of treatment, let them know they have your full support and understanding, and they don’t need to stay with that person. They can and deserve to be treated with respect and kindness.

The Victim Mentality

EDITED to add: !!!TRIGGER WARNING!!!, fix a minor typo, and add an injury I’d forgotten because brain damage.

The whole Ray Rice issue has had me thinking of our views on partner violence. There were many outcries of “she hit him first!” as a reason either to prosecute the victim or show that this was not a case in which one partner was clearly the victim.

How do we define the victim in a situation like that? Should she have cowered, cried, not responded at all? Does it make her less of a victim because she retaliated? How is a victim supposed to act or appear?

People hear the word “victim” and expect to see a mouse-like creature sporting large sunglasses and long sleeves and barely speaking over a whisper. We hear “victim” and expect flinching acquiescence to physical blows and barked verbal commands from her obviously violent and most likely drunk husband. We don’t expect them to fight back, because a REAL victim wouldn’t fight. But why do we think this way when the brain’s normal response in high stress, dangerous situations is stimulation of the amygdala, which controls the fight-or-flight response? Amygdala facts

If a person is being injured or fears being injured, the resulting adrenaline rush will make them respond violently to either escape the situation or defend themselves. It’s a survival mechanism. If violence has already been introduced into the relationship by the abuser, it becomes an acceptable response. We think: “They hurt me. Why can’t I hurt them?” If there’s a significant size/weight/strength disparity, we smaller and weaker understand we might get hurt more in response. But sometimes, after enduring years of mental and physical torment, we just don’t want to go down without a fight anymore.

I know from two separate personal experiences.

When I was a toddler, my mother remarried. They had two kids, my younger brother and sister. Her second husband had shown signs of being temperamental, but my mother didn’t know how far it extended. When she found out, her instinct to keep the family intact blinded her to how bad it really was.

He normally spanked us open-handed on the behind. Not one or two swats, but hard, full blows until he had either worked out his anger or we were screaming. He stopped doing this to me when I hit 13 and he legally adopted me, but I remember huddling in my room many times wishing I had the courage to jump in and make him stop hurting my brother or sister. He moved on to using a belt when I was about 9 or 10. Usually not the buckle end, but you knew it when you got the buckle end. Other than that, it was either open-handed slaps across the face, the kind that knock you sideways, or a flick to the head. I saw him haul my brother across the table once for telling some stupid joke, and I had a steak knife thrown at me for the same.

Even the dog didn’t escape his temper. I saw him throw her down a full staircase once. Another time he gave me a black eye when I scrambled to help him bring her inside because she’d barked and woken him up. It was unintentional, but he told me I deserved it anyway for being stupid enough to leave her outside so late. Stupid may as well have been my nickname. My IQ tested at 146 when I was a kid, but I was “stupid”. Between the physical and mental hurts, a deep anger and resentment was starting to boil.

Things hit a head when I turned 18. I was sick of it. I was sick of listening to the blows and my siblings screaming over offenses up to and including literally “looking at him funny”, I was sick of this man who did nothing to earn nor keep what he had but called us lazy and selfish, I was sick of constantly shutting myself in my room any time I heard the lower garage door opening and hoping nothing had set him off at work and nothing would set him off later.

One morning, I was getting ready for school. My mother couldn’t find her eyeliner and told my stepdad that she was sick of my sister and I borrowing her makeup and not returning it. To this day, we’re unsure if someone moved it or she just misplaced it. She left for work, and I heard the stomping begin. He threw open my door and told me we were both grounded until the eyeliner was found. I had been rebelling in little fits lately, and even though part of me was still terrified, I told him I hadn’t seen the eyeliner and refused to be punished for something I didn’t do.

His eyes widened, his face twisted, and he strode in and knocked me over onto my bed with a heavy shove to the chest. Immediately, all that rage that had been building exploded, and I kicked him in the stomach. He lunged at me, grabbed my throat, and began beating my face with an open hand. I thrashed. I kicked. I flailed. I struggled. I finally shrieked as fireworks burst behind my eyelids.

That seemed to kick him back into reality. He let go of me and walked toward the door. I sat up and lashed out one last time: “I FUCKING HATE YOU!! I never know when the axe is going to fall!!”

I was aware then that my sister was in there with me, sobbing by the door. I shakily got off the bed, glanced in the mirror and saw blood and the puffy lavender beginnings of contusions. There was an umbrella with a sharp end near my dresser, and I seized it and focused on the door, afraid he’d come back and start up again.

Sure enough, the stomping started again. Headed right for us. The door slammed open, and I cringed back a little but kept the umbrella in front of me, vaguely aware of how ridiculous I must look. He demanded his glasses that I had knocked off of his face. Not having my own contacts in, I crawled with my face close to the floor until I found them. He snatched them out of my hand and left again. When I heard the garage door and was sure he was gone, I called my boyfriend at the time.

He took me to the hospital, and I called the neighbor on the way to ask if she could have my siblings wait there until they left for school. I was afraid of what might happen to them if he came back. The hospital’s policy was to inform the police when an assault victim showed up. I pleaded with the woman not to do it, terrified that it would get me in worse trouble, but she had no choice. The investigator took pictures and my statement and assured me that my stepdad would be out of the house when I got home.

It turned out that I had a sprained jaw a broken nose, and a concussion. Six hours of rehashing, resisting pain medication, breaking down and begging for pain medication, and a cold hospital room later, my mother took me home and told us to start packing. She didn’t trust the police to do what they said, and it turned out she was spot on. As I was shoving clothes into my suitcase, the lower garage started to open. My blood froze. My mother frantically gathered us and our hastily packed bags and herded us into the car, instructing us to lock our doors. Later, she told me he had called her and expected to “talk about her daughter’s continued existence in his house”. His expression when he watched us drive away was disbelief and anger.

We stayed in a hotel that night. The next day was the beginning of months of courtrooms, disappointment, and then long years of misery that are all stories for another day. Suffice it to say that nothing happened to him. He ended up having to turn himself in, spent a night in jail before his sister guilt-tripped my mother into helping bail him out, and was ordered to go to counseling. Meanwhile, it would be years before I could find the help I needed. I hear he’s changed. I don’t care, even on the extremely unlikely chance that it is true. He is a person I do not care to know, and it may yet be some time before I do not wish every misery life has to offer on him.

Would a victim have kicked her attacker? Wasn’t the kick an extreme response to his shove? Would a victim hurl obscenities at her attacker after being beaten bloody? Wasn’t it just stupid of me to “provoke” him by standing up for myself, knowing he was bigger and stronger? I was a legal adult at the time, shouldn’t I have been held accountable for my actions? He seemed to think so, as he threatened to press charges against me for putting a scratch on his face.

The other incident is also a story I’ll save for another day. That was somewhat more emotionally exhausting than I had anticipated. I have decided to tell these stories though, own them, and air them in case anyone can take any solace in the fact that they are not alone. Most of us have not experienced justice, and we may never get it. The most we can do is pick up the pieces and try to assemble them back into something human-shaped. Some of us will never heal. Some of us will be driven to end our pain. Some of us, quite literally, were driven mad.

Victims are not victims because we are weak. Victims are victims because someone committed crimes against us. Physical violence is a crime. Defending yourself against it is not. No matter who you are or what the circumstances, you did not deserve what happened to you. Put your head down, ignore anyone who says otherwise and whatever ignorant reasons they might give, and push forward. One day, one step, one victory at a time.

We are not strong. We are strength personified.