I want to tell you an important story, and here’s why: not a lot of people will share their versions.
It’s scary. Too scary, for many.
Like for my hairdresser, whose husband was “the sweetest guy she ever met” at first, yet ended up nearly choking her to death against the kitchen wall. He didn’t spare her—she would have died if her 11-year-old son hadn’t come into the room.
Like for a friend of a friend who wasn’t able to leave her abuser until the day he popped a blood vessel in her eye.
Like for another friend of a friend whose boyfriend, for years, would threaten to kill himself with the nearby gun if she tried to leave him.
Like for my colleague whose sister died at the hand of her abuser, though he is still walking around free.
Like for the millions of women, men and children who don’t speak up every day because they are exhausted, don’t want to be reminded of the situation, or simply can’t say anything because doing so would risk their lives.
I’m doing my small part by sharing my story because violence of any kind, but especially domestic violence, is perpetuated by silence. The more we talk, the more we know, the faster we learn and demand better.
I love my bike more than almost anything in the world.
I think there’s a disease for that–object sexuality, anyone? But really, I do. There’s nothing that compares to riding, whether or not I have a destination, I’m exhausted or energized, my music’s blasting or I’m just enjoying the silence of my surroundings.
This time last year I met a boy who loved bikes, too. So we loved bikes together.
We rode our bikes everywhere and then pretty soon we did everything else together, too. All. The. Time. Every minute together.
But I was always unsettled with all this togetherness, that went from zero to 60 in just a few weeks time. I blew off the discomfort as me just learning how to be less independent and self-sufficient, as if those traits could actually adversely affect my future.
So we kept riding. Boy told me some things that were massive red flags, akin to those at Running of the Bulls, waving in my face, yet I was still charging right at them.
“Don’t judge,” I said.
“He’s changing,” I convinced myself.
“I won’t be like the rest,” I lied.
Every time I said these things my standards dropped lower and lower, and I perpetuated my own lie that everything was okay. I knew that if my family even knew the half of it they would douse me in a bucket of ice water until I cycled away as fast as I could (which is pretty damn fast).
But I kept riding.
The fights got worse, the anger more explosive, the jealously and put-downs and blatant hypocrisy so intense, only to be appeased by a shoulder shrug or guttural laughter that didn’t even sound like my own voice.
My brain felt like putty so often that all I wanted to do was sleep forever.
“It’s normal,” I assured myself, “It’s the dead of winter, who would have the energy to get out of bed?”
But I never stopped riding, and one day I rode so fast that even my bike said enough.
Though I love him to death, sometimes that carbon-fiber bastard has the weirdest ways of looking out for me.
Wake up, he said, or I’m gonna make you wake up and see it.
So he did.
My chin hit the pavement and that was it.
Well, it was more like, where the f*ck is all this blood coming from?! plus five days of hospitalization, six weeks of a wired jaw accompanied by a liquid-only diet, zero bike rides, dozens of nauseating painkillers, and two weeks of the most unimaginably inhumane response to my trauma from the “man” who was supposed to be there for me.
He took my weakened state and used it as an opportunity to yell, control, blame, punish, flee and cheat.
The cheating after my major surgery was the moment that finally allowed me to leave my abuser in the physical sense, yet it was the compounding layers of intense emotional abuse that will keep me away from him forever, along with anyone who possesses the same traits.
While I certainly don’t have everything figured out, or even know what a “perfect” relationship would look like, I have learned what relationships are most definitely not, what love is most definitely not, and that is the following abusive behaviors:
1. Frequent hanging out, right from the jump
This intense togetherness is probably the hardest one to identify as a key sign of abuse, and I’ll tell you why.
In an age where we can deposit a check, order a burger, listen to the latest tracks and swipe through photos of potential matches all at once, it is safe to say that instant gratification has become the modus operandi. We subconsciously apply this to relationships, too, where hookup culture is expected and anything else is too old-fashioned.
Abusers, who tend to be extremely charismatic and complementary in the beginning, capitalize on this idea, convincing their partners that they need to be together all the time, and anything less is insincere. In this intense period abusers quickly establish a pattern of dependency whereby the partner begins to rely on the abuser’s opinions and habits to affirm their character and sense of worthiness as a match.
It is also common for the abuser to suggest “big steps” like moving in, taking trips alone or sharing financial resources. Because of the preexisting fast pace of everything else, in the moment it’s easy to go along with these big steps. These “suggestions” from my abuser were attempts to further control my actions, decisions and whereabouts, so that when the abuse started, my options for leaving would be more limited. Every time I voiced hesitation about moving too fast, I felt guilty.
2. Creation of isolation.
Because abusers need to maintain a strong power imbalance in the relationship in order to carry out the abuse, a prerequisite is making the partner feel isolated in every way.
Beyond physical isolation, this can manifest as threats of being alone if you ever leave him/her, verbal manipulation regarding those in your network and how they feel about you and reprimanding you for speaking to close friends and family about problems in the relationship.
“You’re missing out on a really good man,” he said one time I tried to leave. “You should be lucky to be with someone like me.”
When my family came into town after the bike crash, he got angry and resentful, calling me “spoiled” and “selfish” for being with them.
3. Extreme jealousy
This is another hard one because I see so many people—myself included—mistake jealously for exclusivity.
When we first got together, I thought “Oh, he must be really jealous because he really likes me and wants to make sure nothing comes in the way of that.” I was unable to see the jealousy as the deep-seated insecurity that it was.
Toxic habits became the new normal. Things like looking through my phone every day, demanding that I answer if I had slept with any man we encountered who he didn’t know, and telling me not to wear certain clothing that he thought was too revealing.
4. Lack of respect for your property, aspirations, and values
Because abusers see their partner merely as an extension of themselves rather than their own person with every right to their own opinions and limitations, boundaries are often blurred.
One of the first weeks I was dating this abuser, I had him drop me at a meeting on a topic that I was sure would be of no interest to him, and he immediately accused me of sneaking off to meet someone.
He often used my car and when I asked him not do things that would put me in jeopardy like smoke weed in it, suddenly I was, once again, “selfish.”
Once the relationship was over, all the money he owed me was no longer his problem.
Kind words that he had feigned regarding my job and career choices turned cold turkey to, “You’re a f*cking lackey.”
Abusers very rarely see themselves as abusers, which is why they almost never stop abusing. My abuser said things like, “I only attract crazy people” or “They made me do x, y, and z,” always looking through the lens of a victim when discussing exes, family members, friends, etc.
Because of this, whenever conflict arose, I was always wrong or to blame in his eyes. He refused to utter “sorry,” claiming that using that word makes you a self-deprecating person, yet he expected it all the time from me.
6. Uninterested in self-help
Abusers tend to find people with bleeding hearts or a savior complex, and they will allow their partner to “fix” them in order to 1) make their partner feel like she or he is different and the only one who truly understands the abuser, and 2) (usually towards the end of the relationship) use this as a threat for why the partner needs to stay (i.e. “you’re supposed to be there for me no matter what”).
At the very end of my relationship, when for the first time I saw the heightened abuse with clarity rather than just a “complicated relationship,” I suggested anger management, and offered to go with him so it didn’t come across that I was singling him out. When he used lack of funds as an excuse, I offered to pay. When he still refused, I finally saw the distinction between someone with demons who is wanting and willing to do whatever it takes to healthily work them out versus a true abuser, who would rather just find someone new who hasn’t figured out their true character yet and start the cycle of abuse over with them because it’s easier.
This list is by no means exhaustive, and doesn’t even begin to get at the complexity of emotional abuse, especially when coupled with other factors like substance abuse, family history and mental illness, all of which were present in my relationship.
But I’m not here to talk about all that, I’m sharing simply to shed a bit of light on key signs of emotional abuse, which is so damn underexposed, if for no other reason that it doesn’t bear the visible scars that physical abuse does.
I’m also not here to tell you that I’m perfect, or that I didn’t possess qualities that probably enabled the abuse at times.
There is a certain kind of gratification that comes from helping someone improve, but if there’s anything I’ve learned, it’s that the uplifting has to be mutual, no matter what kind of relationship it is. Anything less is a sure-fire path to the annihilation of your self-worth, and a total expending of your good energies on others, leaving nothing left for yourself.
And, please oh please oh please, don’t ask me #whyIstayed.
I did try to leave, but ended up doubting my own intuition every time.
I even called the National Domestic Abuse Hotline once after the abuse hit a verbal and somewhat physical climax. I was on hold for 45 minutes, during which my abuser insisted I was on the phone with a dude who I was making arrangements to go sleep with. But, at the time, I expected nothing else from him. It had all become normalized, you see.
I can’t reiterate enough how slowly emotional abuse can creep into your life—the first stage of complete adoration, gaslighting, and love-bombing from the abuser happens very quickly, but everything else is oftentimes so subvert you can only recognize just how bad it was once you’ve left.
Many people stay in abusive relationships far longer than they would like because they keep remembering the good times and subdue the bad. I would be lying if I said I wasn’t doing the same when it was first over. But as soon as I was able to identify the one thing we truly shared a passion for—cycling—I realized just how easy it was to replace the good feelings associated with those rides with hundreds of others in my city’s beautiful bike community, or even with the dozens of solo rides I’ve taken since getting back on my frame.
And I’ll leave you with this, only because it’s applicable to all injustices everywhere, not just the gross human rights violation that is domestic violence.
“Great spirits have always encountered violent oppression from mediocre minds” ~ Albert Einstein.
If someone/thing/force is bringing you down through its weakness, flush that shit and don’t forget to wipe.