The first hit woke me out of a deep sleep. Stunned, it took me a few seconds to register what was happening. Beyond the ringing in my ears, I could hear a familiar voice, shouting angry words I couldn’t quite understand. Then he dragged me out of bed and slapped me, knocking me to the floor. I finally opened my eyes.
The only light came from the adjacent bathroom. Even in the semi-darkness of our bedroom and not fully awake, I could see how dangerous he looked with his clenched fists and raging eyes. I was terrified. And then it got worse.
That night, more than 27 years ago, the man I loved beat me for the first time. We’d been living together for about a year and half at that point, in a one-bedroom apartment near one of the city’s prettiest parks.
I don’t remember when I came to understand that jealousy was at the root of his rage, but I shouldn’t have been surprised. An ugly, twisted jealousy had lurked beneath the surface of our relationship from the beginning. In hindsight, there were several red flags throughout the relationship that foretold that beating. I just didn’t see them for what they were. Or I ignored them.
We met when I was in my mid-20s, and my self-esteem was at an all-time low because I’d stopped getting treatment for my depression. I was also lonely and tired of having one failed relationship after another. I didn’t know it at the time, but I was a textbook target for an abusive personality.
Then I met HIM. We were set up by his cousin, who was dating one of my best friends at the time. He immediately stood apart from the other guys because he was really into me right away. That was the first red flag I ignored.
He fell fast and hard, and took me right along with him. At last, here was a man who made me his only priority from the start. With him, I was the smartest, coolest, most beautiful woman in the world! He was sweet and charming, and no one had ever treated me better.
His over-attentiveness was the opposite of what I was used to. In my previous relationships, I’d always felt like more of an option than a priority. That’s why, when more red flags popped up, I ignored them.
It’s sweet that he’s so possessive, I told myself. He must really love me!
The first major incident occurred a few weeks after we started dating. He flew into a rage just because I had a phone conversation with an ex-boyfriend. He ripped the phone out of the wall and flung it across the room. I know it’s crazy, but at the time I was more worried about my roommate’s phone than my own safety.
It shames me to admit this, but I actually liked his over-the-top reaction! I thought it proved he loved me, and so I happily promised to cut all ties with my ex. I know now that his behavior and my reaction to it were the genesis of the sickness that would consume our relationship. And it led to one of the worst nights of my life.
The night he beat me, his face was twisted with a rage I’d never seen. I almost didn’t recognize him, he looked so deranged.
Somehow, I got to my feet. He hit me again, which surprised me because I honestly thought he was done. I tried to get away from him, but he was too fast. Plus, he had the advantage of surprise. He grabbed me and hit me again, even harder.
I’d never been hit like that in my life, by my parents or anyone. I’d never even been in a real fight! For the first time in my life, I felt real terror and pain.
I fought back, though. All these years later, I’m still proud of how hard I fought back that night. Once I knew he was really trying to hurt me, I hit back. I kicked back. I even hit him over the head with an empty liquor bottle like they do in the movies!
It’s funny what we remember about traumatic events. While parts of that night are blurry, I still clearly remember that empty bottle. It was a gin bottle, and it was useless against his rage.
He got more vicious. He punched and kicked me all over the apartment, forcing me into survivor mode. I remember protecting my face and head.
Domestic violence (also called intimate partner violence, or IPV) is abusive behavior as part of a systematic pattern of power and control perpetuated by one intimate partner against another. It’s not just physical assault and battery, but also includes sexual assault/rape and psychological, emotional, verbal, and financial abuse.
IPV is so pervasive, a woman is beaten every 9 seconds in the United States. While men are often targets, 85% of abuse sufferers are women. It can happen to anyone, regardless of race, color, age, class, religion, sexual orientation, mental or physical ability, socio-economic status, education, gender identification or geography. Still, nobody ever thinks it’ll happen to them.
I certainly never thought it would happen to me. I didn’t grow up with domestic violence. My father never raised his voice, much less his hand to my mom, my sister or me. A social worker who spent most of his career advocating for abused and neglected children, my father didn’t even believe in spankings!
On the other hand, my abuser saw his step-father beat his mother often, which was another red flag I ignored. His parents had long been divorced and married to other people by the time we started dating. We spent a lot of time with his father and step-mother, who were always good to me.
I only met his step-father and mother once, though. And that was enough for me, because his step-father was clearly a cruel and bitter man. Unfortunately for me, he was also the man who raised my boyfriend, since his mother got full custody in the divorce. So my abuser spent much of his childhood in their toxic home.
Even though he harbored deep resentment towards his step-father for beating his mom, my abuser still continued the cycle. Many children who grow up in violent households end up becoming abusers or abuse sufferers, themselves.
Anyway, as good as those early days were, the beating that would change me forever wasn’t the beginning of our troubles. Before that first punch ever landed, he’d already established a pattern of power and control that was actually harder to recover from than the bruises he inflicted.
His jealousy soon included all my friends and family. He resented any time I spent with anyone other than him. I didn’t even realize it at the time, but I slowly started isolating myself from my loved ones to avoid conflict.
He was really insecure, which manifested itself subtly through emotional bullying and manipulation. For example, he was intimidated by my college-educated family and “bourgie” upbringing. Conversations would turn ugly the moment he felt outmatched intellectually. He’d pout and whine if I read books for any length of time. And he always found ways to disparage higher education, once referring to libraries and colleges as “buildings full of lies”.
I dumbed myself down to protect his ego and avoid conflict. I even stopped talking as much, lest I prompt an argument. Normally a talkative social butterfly, I actually got quiet. I didn’t even recognize myself! He bullied me into dimming my own light so that he could shine, and I let him do it to keep the peace. After all, I loved him.
The isolation was the worst, though. He never explicitly forbade me from seeing my family or friends. But as soon as I returned home from seeing them, he’d pick a fight. He was especially ornery if I came home happy, even admitting that he hated the idea of me having fun with anyone other than him. Eventually, it just got easier to stay home rather than risk his foul moods.
Isolation is an abuser’s primary tool, and another major red flag I ignored. Remember, back then I saw the world through the lens of my low self-esteem and untreated depression, so I couldn’t recognize his manipulation. Besides, it all happened so gradually, I didn’t even notice it.
Between blocking his blows and begging him to stop hitting me, I finally figured out what triggered his violent tirade that night. This was the early ‘90s, before cell phones and the internet made communication effortless. My best friend had moved across the country, from Detroit to Seattle, for a job. Between the time difference and long distance rates (remember those?), we didn’t talk as often as we wanted. Letters were fine, but we missed talking.
I think it was her idea to start making tapes instead of writing letters. One of us would record ourselves for 30 minutes (one side of a cassette), and then send the tape to the other via snail mail. Then that person would listen, flip the tape, record a reply and mail it back.
That night, he found a tape that I’d made but never mailed, where I vividly described sleeping with this really hot guy from my past. As this was for my best friend’s ears only, I got very explicit.
Back then, most of our music was on cassette tapes stored in our entertainment center. Somehow, the tape that never got sent to Seattle made it into our combined music collection. He often went to bed later than I did, and would sit in the living room listening to music through headphones so he wouldn’t disturb me.
That night he heard me describe my night of passion in great detail. It didn’t matter that I’d made the tape long before I even knew him. It was my voice, directly in his ears, talking about having great sex with another man.
I know this because he stopped hitting me long enough to grab me by the hair, throw me onto the couch and force me to listen. Then he started hitting me again.
Why didn’t I run out the door and leave? Why didn’t I scream for help? Why did I stay in that apartment, crying, begging and apologizing?
By this time, I was a mere shell of my former self. Between my untreated depression and months of his bullying and manipulation, I couldn’t think clearly. Besides, it was the middle of the night and I was only wearing a t-shirt and panties.
Anyway I did try to leave, but he caught me and threw me against the wall. Hard. I remember seeing a smudge of my blood on the wall near our front door, and being shocked. I don’t remember what part of my body was bleeding, but it wasn’t my face. Miraculously, my face barely showed signs of the attack.
Things are a blur after that.
I don’t know when the beating ended. The next conscious memory I have is of us lying in bed. I know he cried and apologized. I know we had sex, and that I was both ashamed and relieved that my body still responded to him.
But even as I quietly accepted his touch, I was planning my escape. I still loved him, but I had to go. I left the next day, taking only a few clothes and necessities, and fled to my parents’ house across the border in Canada.
By far, even worse than the beating was the deep shame I felt telling my father what happened. I had to look into the eyes of the man who’d raised me, and tell him that the man he never liked anyway had beaten me. The look on my dad’s face when I lifted my shirt to show him my bruises still breaks my heart to this day.
The only time I felt worse was when, a few months later, I had to tell my father that it happened again.
Yep. After all that, I went back.
I’m not proud of that fact, but I’m not alone. Most survivors leave an average of 7 times before leaving for good. Thankfully, it only took me one more time to leave forever.
After a blissful period the experts call the “honeymoon phase”, he hit me again after flying into a rage about yet another guy from my past. This beating wasn’t as bad, though. For one thing, I was wide awake so I saw it coming. Also, I didn’t really fight back. I didn’t even cry! I just ducked and covered my head. But that was it for me.
This time, I planned my escape more efficiently. Some friends helped me pack up all my stuff while he was at work. Thanks to my boss’ influence, the police were waiting with me when he came home. They couldn’t arrest him for hitting abuse (no witnesses or bruises, this time), but they got him for driving with a suspended license and threw him in jail.
I never talked to or saw him again.
I was lucky. I could easily leave because we weren’t married, we didn’t have kids, and I had my own money and somewhere to go. Far too many women aren’t so lucky.
That’s why I continue to write about IPV and advocate relentlessly for survivors. That’s why I share my story, even though parts of it still fill me with shame. I raise my voice for those silenced by violence, shame and fear. I do it to offer hope and encourage anyone suffering to hang on until they can get help.
And I do it so that I can continue to heal.
October is Domestic Violence Awareness Month. If you or someone you know needs help, please contact the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-7233 any time, day or night.