What is life? It’s moments that fate has created, like a collage throwing us all together, fitting puzzle pieces in correct places. Sometimes it’s one of those child-sized puzzles that are easy to put together; sometimes it’s a really complicated 1,000 piece puzzle with a blue sky dominating the picture. In these you make a lot of mistakes, trying to fit together pieces that don’t match up. But when that puzzle is finished, it’s always the most beautiful picture.
It was 2009. He sat on top of me, smiling. Not a loving smile; it was an evil sneer like you might see on the bad guys in a superhero movie. My breathing was shallow and I felt like a brick was on my chest. Lately, his physical presence caused me anxiety. I had been walking on egg shells, never knowing when he might snap. Would he be irritated by something I said? Would he be angry that I had cooked something he didn’t like? Would he be annoyed that I chewed my food too loud?
I begged him to let me up, but he held both my arms down, digging his elbows into my forearms. He held a pillow over his head and I stared at him in pure terror. I had once told him I was claustrophobic and hated having things over my face. From then on, he thought it was “funny” to cover my face or head with things.
I begged him to stop, pleaded with him to leave me alone. Tears sprang from my eyes, itchy as they ran down my neck. He pushed the pillow on to my face. Restrained and unable to breathe, I used my only breath to scream as loud as I could, but it was muffled by the material over my mouth. Blood pounded in my ears, and my throat felt like it had ripped open. I had never felt such a loss of control. In the back of my mind, I thought about how I had gotten there.
Lately, his physical presence caused me anxiety. I had been walking on egg shells, never knowing when he might snap.
The red flags didn’t pop up immediately, although I might have been too young to notice them. We met when I was 17 years old, and I had just moved to Quito, Ecuador. Feeling vulnerable, scared, and alone, I was looking for someone to give me a feeling of security in the foreign country I found myself in. Just hours into our first date, he asked that we not see other people. As days wore into months, he showed me who he really was, and I slowly lost myself.
What lessons did I learn from that relationship with Javier? I don’t call it “my relationship” because thankfully I no longer posses it, not even in the past. Now, it’s just a thing to me, like an orange or a pen. But the lessons I learned have followed me into my current life and relationships.
1. Nobody can decide how you feel about yourself or who you are as a person, except you
One of the worst parts about being in an abusive relationship is the feeling that you’re losing yourself, piece by piece. My self esteem was the first and biggest thing that took a hit.
It was 2010. I was looking for something to do and some way to get to know people in the city, so I started an internship at a club for expats. Getting to know other travelers, working on projects, and learning about other cultures gave me a sense of belonging and happiness. My boss asked me if I would mind hosting a pub quiz at a bar one night, and upon hearing this my boyfriend said he would drive me there and stay to watch. He hadn’t been acting interested in my new job at all, so I was happy he was finally being supportive.
We drove to the address my boss had given me but I didn’t see any bar around. Suddenly my boyfriend snapped at me, “You’re so stupid, why didn’t you confirm the address?” We drove around for 10 more minutes while I got increasingly upset that I would be late, and he screamed about how ridiculous it was that I couldn’t figure out a simple address.
We finally decided to just drive home, and I was crying. He berated me for crying, and cruelly teased me about acting like a baby. When we got home, I went to my bed and cried while he looked up the correct address online and told me we were going. I only went out of obligation to my work, and had to stand in front of 30 people reading out quiz questions while they yelled at me for not talking loud enough. By the end of the night, I had fallen into a hole so deep that I wasn’t sure my self-esteem would ever recover.
Looking back on that night, I realize what a blow that was, and that it was just one of the many pieces I would lose of myself. But, as I’ve grown up and put the pieces back together, I realize that I always had the power to love myself, regardless of how he acted. I’m reminded of what Glinda told Dorothy in The Wizard Of Oz, “You’ve always had the power my dear, you just had to learn it for yourself.”
As I’ve grown up and put the pieces back together, I realize that I always had the power to love myself, regardless of how he acted.
2. Abuse comes in many forms, it can be physical as well as emotional
The yelling was always the worst part of his abuse, and to this day loud noises put me on edge. The worst of it came on a day when I was once again trying to do something to make myself feel good.
It was 2011. I had started training for a marathon, hoping that it would help me build my confidence and give me something to work on (there was a pattern of this throughout our relationship before I realized he was the problem). When I first mentioned doing the marathon, he laughed in my face and told me I couldn’t run that far and that it was a waste of money. I had never run more than a mile in my whole life. I began running at the park; the first time I had to walk after just 1 km. But, after two months of practice I could run 10k without stopping. Javier was always a fast runner, and once he saw how serious I was, he decided he would do the marathon with me. At first, I was disappointed, as I wanted this to be just for me. But I later figured we could do something together, and since we had been so unhappy, I hoped it would bring us closer.
Just a few days before the marathon, we were driving home from the park when he announced he was no longer doing the marathon because his sister was visiting and he wanted to spend time with her. I was upset and disappointed, and he got angry. He screamed at me; he told me that everything was not about me, and that a stupid marathon wasn’t important. He pulled over to scream at me more until I got out of the car crying. By the time I got home, he acted as if nothing had happened.
Emotional abuse is still abuse, and the toll it took on me mentally still affects me to this day.
3. Control is not love, in any of its disguises
Every time I hear someone say the words “shut up” I think of him.
When some goes “shhhh” I think of him. Trying to silence me.
There are always people in this world who will try to silence you, but then the key word here is “try.” They can try, but that just means you have to talk a little louder.
He didn’t hear me when I screamed so loud my voice became hoarse, but he heard me when I left him. He was all ears when I told him he would never see me again. In the beginning, I knew we only differed on what foods we liked to eat because we were from different cultures. But, as time went on, his focus was constantly on my food and the fact that it wasn’t “healthy.” Nothing I ate was considered healthy (even raw vegetables) and everything I put into my mouth was a problem for him.
He didn’t hear me when I screamed so loud my voice became hoarse. But he heard me when I left him.
Cooking is one of my greatest passions, and when I started making him food there was always a problem. Nothing tasted good, and he would become irate every time he put something in his mouth that he didn’t like. I became frustrated, constantly trying to find foods that he considered healthy. I became obsessive about my diet, and I would go on fast food binges every time he wasn’t around just to spite him.
An abusive person will always tell you that it’s for your own good that they control everything you eat, say, wear, and do, but it’s absolutely not.
4. If you can’t be yourself in a relationship, or if you’re “walking on egg shells” around someone, that’s not okay
I was constantly made to feel like everything about myself was wrong, whether it be culturally or personally. His family always looked at me as if I was from another planet, and never had any desire to learn about who I was or where I came from if it was different from them.
It was 2013. Our relationship was bringing me down so much that I once again tried to find something to make me feel better and give me some much needed self-focus. I decided I would go to the art store and buy some supplies to start painting; painting and drawing had always been one of my favorite creative outlets. Javier decided he wanted to come to the art store with me, which worried me because he was already acting strange. The mood he was in put me on edge, as I knew he would snap at any second.
When we got to the store he started pacing around while I looked for the right paint. After just two minutes of searching, he appeared at my shoulder and snapped at me for taking so long. I told him this was important to me, and he could leave if he wanted to. He became angrier and started yelling at me in public, while people stared.
Whether it was wanting to paint, asking what he wanted for breakfast, wanting him to actually celebrate my birthday, or just having a normal conversation on a walk in the park, I never knew what would set him off. Feeling like any little thing could set someone off, or cause them to yell at you, and worrying about every little thing you do or say is not healthy for you or in a relationship.
Feeling like any little thing could set someone off, or cause them to yell at you, and worrying about every little thing you do or say is not healthy for you or in a relationship.
5. Love should lift you up, not tear you down
When you meet someone and they become an important fixture in your life, whether it’s good or bad, I think we all inevitably look back and wonder what would have happened if we had never met them.
In 2015, my husband Jan and I met in Ukraine and went on a road trip together in Italy for our second date. We met up at a train station in Milan, nervous and unsure. I still had an hour before I would be meeting him so I decided to take a seat near the arrivals area. I watched this little old man nervously standing there, looking through the door with an apprehensive look on his face. I knew who his wife was before she even walked up to him; the look on his face is something I will preserve in my memory forever. His eyes twinkled like Kris Kringle on Christmas Eve and his smile had enough energy to provide electricity for the entirety of Manhattan. His wife walked up to him and he gently grabbed her face and gave her a kiss. Then he took her arm and laced it through his, turned around, and walked out of the train station with the proud look of a child who just learned to say his ABCs.
Love is a crazy thing. This stranger, this person who entered your life with a simple hello, now has the power to affect how you feel at any given time.
There are so many times in life when we stop and contemplate the past, wonder what the future will bring, and try to figure out what to do next in the present. This contemplation only lasts a few minutes before you are moving into the future with each step you take, riding the carousel or roller coaster of life until that next moment when you look out your window or stare at a beautiful view and contemplate once more. My husband makes me feel like I can do anything, and he showed me what real love is. A loving relationship is allowing two unique personalities to come together and say, “What can I learn from you? How can we improve each other’s lives? How can we make each other happy, more fulfilled, and more supported in life?”
It’s true that you should never ask a woman in an abusive relationship why she stayed — it’s an insult. If you are not in the relationship, then you have no right. You cannot get out of a relationship with someone like that until you make the choice yourself.
It’s true, that you should never ask a woman in an abusive relationship why she stayed, it’s an insult.
Until you see what is so wrong, until you realize that the nervous pain in your stomach, your gritted teeth, and your fear of every loud noise is not normal; until you realize that the way they talk to you is not normal, and it’s not love; until you realize your entire life is being controlled and manipulated by someone else, you can’t leave.
But now, I can thank him for being so weak that he showed me the true strength that is inside of me, for giving me something to rise above, and for motivating me to prove wrong everything awful that he made me feel I was. He showed me what real love isn’t.
Help.org says, “When people think of domestic abuse, they often focus on domestic violence. But domestic abuse includes any attempt by one person in an intimate relationship or marriage to dominate and control the other.”
Here are some signs you may be an abusive relationship:
1. You feel like you’re “walking on egg shells” all the time
The easiest way I can describe the abusive relationship I was in is that I felt like I was “walking on egg shells” constantly. There was never a moment when I felt comfortable, or wasn’t worried about the next moment he might snap or get angry at me.
2. You feel crazy and you’re questioning what is reality
Psych Central says, “You could have sworn that he insulted you, but now he is telling you, with fervor, that you misinterpreted what he said. You begin to doubt your perception of the situation. This is gaslighting. It can be applied to a number of situations. The formula is that the abusive person did something to hurt you and then later denies it. As a result, you begin to doubt your sense of reality.”
3. Your body and intuition are telling you something isn’t right
Every time my ex-boyfriend would start getting irritated, or if he was in a bad mood, my palms would sweat, I would start to shake, and my heart would race. My body was having a stressful response to him and I wasn’t even aware of it. If your body and your mind are telling you something just “isn’t right,” do not ignore that feeling, explore it.
If you’ve determined you may be in an abusive relationship, it’s important to seek help right away. If you don’t feel comfortable opening up to a family member or trusted friends, visit https://www.thehotline.org or call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-7233.