“I hate you, never leave.”

Zoë McKinney
J.D. Candidate 2016, UCI Law

I lived constantly clenched, anticipating the silence and withheld affection that signaled to me that I’d yet again disappointed him. Had I said something in the wrong tone? Does he not like my dress? Did he not like the dinner I made him? I’d start off indignant that he could treat me that way and end up apologizing, begging for forgiveness, convinced I wasn’t worthy of his love within a matter of minutes. I both hated him and never wanted to leave.

My life changed the day my friend told me that she had recurring nightmares that he was attacking me and she was trying to protect me. She told me that she would be relieved if he got hit by a bus because she would finally know I was safe. She’d been trying to express concern for months, but all I could hear was that she was an obstacle to my relationship. The good times with him still gave me such a euphoric high that I hadn’t been able to hear her. I finally experienced a moment of clarity just long enough to process what she was saying. If I didn’t leave, I never would. The longer I stayed, the more trapped I became because every day another piece of me died. Every day that I stayed I was silencing my inner voice: the voice that told me that how he treated me wasn’t love, I was strong enough to go, to stand on my own, that I wasn’t stupid, I wasn’t a slut, that I was lovable. She saved my life.

I can still feel his hands clenched around my wrist, reminding me not to stray too far. I can feel him yanking my hair back for walking too far ahead of him. I can feel him tugging at the back of my shirt as we walk into a bar, claiming his property. I see the look in his eyes as he goes from happy to angry, and I can feel my stomach clench in response. I can see the ceiling as I count to 100 over and over, wishing he cared that he was hurting me. I can hear the text message alert notifying me that he was cancelling plans, and I can hear him telling me how it was my fault. I can feel the hope that came back every time he kissed me. I can feel the false reassurance every time he told me he loved me—“ah, yes…this is the real him.”

What outsiders don’t always realize is that it doesn’t start that way. The man I fell in love it is not the man I moved out of the country to escape. I started dating a funny, kind, sweet, doting man. When he became cruel, angry, and aggressive, I was desperate to explain it away. I made excuses for his behavior, refusing to believe that my relationship had turned into one of those relationships I’d never, ever be in. Who wants to admit their fairytale is a lie? Realizing mine was a nightmare crushed me.

When I left, I had nightmares and flashbacks that left me shaking. I reminded myself that I was safe and that I wouldn’t have to see him again. The PTSD didn’t surprise me, but I didn’t expect the shame, the loss of identity, and the mourning that would accompany it. I’d spent our relationship making myself smaller, quieter, unobtrusive so I wouldn’t trigger him. I was left empty, hollow. I was a shadow.

I was still in love with the man I started dating, and I couldn’t accept that the guy I fell for and the guy I left were the same person. The shame I felt at missing the man who caused me so much pain is indescribable.

I graduated from an elite university. I moved abroad on my own. I was independent, bilingual, smart. I was a human rights worker. I came from a “good family.” But my experience isn’t unique. I was no different than the 30% of people who experience intimate partner abuse worldwide. (World Health Organization). I was not immune because no one is. I mourned the loss of the man I thought he was and the loss of who I thought I was.

I hated all men. I could barely interact with my father, brothers, and other male family members. I was convinced that every man I’d ever meet would hurt me. If anyone touched me at all, I felt like I was being attacked. I felt hopeless, like I’d never really love or want to be around people again. I was dead inside because I only knew who I was in relation to one person, and it turned out that person was a fiction.

I didn’t get out of bed, except to go to therapy, where I just wanted help coping with what I’d figured out—this happened because I was unlovable. I’ll never understand the psychology behind what I experienced—the love and the hate. Being scared to stay and scared to leave. The constant fear. The loyalty to something that would have killed me eventually.

I don’t have a resolution. It’s twisted, and it’s complicated. The relationship I was in changed how I view myself and how I interact with people. Documented effects of psychological, physical, and sexual abuse include clinical depression, poor physical health, post-traumatic stress disorder, heightened likelihood of alcohol and drug abuse, poor work or school performance, and panic and anxiety attacks. The journey back to myself will probably be a life-long one. More than likely, I’ll never get there.  Anyone who claims to have a tidy solution is a liar.

Getting asked “was it really that bad?” and “well why didn’t you just leave sooner?” convinced me it was my fault. They made me question my decision to leave and feel guilty for hurting him. These emotions might explain the severe underreporting in domestic violence incidents in this country: two out of every five incidents go unreported to the police. (US Bureau of Justice). It was only when I gave myself permission to identify as a survivor of domestic violence that I truly started to heal. Only then did I see that what I experienced was real. I wasn’t overreacting. I didn’t cause it, I didn’t deserve it, and I never could have stopped it.

We need to listen to the voices of survivors of domestic violence. The emotional trauma and cycle of love and violence that keeps individuals in these relationships is real. We are not weak, we are not stupid, we aren’t bad role models, we aren’t lacking in self-respect. When you assess our experiences this way, you tell us that what we feel doesn’t matter, and that our pain is our fault. You push us back into that cycle. Give us validation, understanding, and support instead of attempting to explain emotions you do not know or have not yourselves experienced.

I stand with V-day as part of ONE-BILLION RISING to end violence against women, and I invite you to stand with me.