Stage 1: Seduce and charm
My ex (now affectionately known as Dingleberry) came into my life when he was at the end of another relationship. We met because he was still friends with his ex, who was friends with my brother. We all ended up at a trivia night together and got along well, so the same group got together a few more times in the following weeks. He flirted with me and flattered me at these various events, and having never been in a romantic relationship before - and frankly a bit desperate for one at the ripe old age of 21 - I was pretty naively smitten. A boy! Who likes me! What?! That's crazy talk. But there he was and yes he apparently did. We started off pretty slow, since he was still living with his ex (his story was that they'd gotten a lease together and were amicable enough even after breaking up that they decided to share the apartment until the lease ended), but when my grandmother announced she was getting remarried that fall, we seemed serious enough for him to be invited.
The wedding went remarkable well. It was a small, fairly casual affair being that it was a second wedding for a woman late in life. Dingleberry charmed most of my family by chatting freely with everyone, joking, and helping to set up before the event and clean-up after. He received many family members' stamps of approval. I felt that I'd made a good choice. He became my first everything, including, regrettably, my first kiss and sexual partner.
He confided in me early on that he'd been abused as a child by his mother. After the end of our relationship, I started to realize how many things he probably lied about, but I have to say that this one I believe, having met the woman. He also "confided" in me about abuse he'd suffered in the Navy and the PTSD he still struggled with* and was successful in garnering my sympathy and affection as a result of these heart-breaking secrets (read: lies).
Stage 2: Isolate
Dingleberry encouraged me regularly to avoid "toxic" relationships. If someone upset me, his solution was for me to cut that person out of my life. They clearly didn't really care about me, so why waste my time? I was young enough, naive enough, and petty enough that this seemed to make sense, and I far too often took his advice, treating some friends with indifference. He also behaved incredibly differently around me than he did others. If I was in the room, he tried to play nice with everyone. Most of the time. If I wasn't, he didn't pull punches. He was abrasive and rude without cause around many of my friends, when moments before he had been ingratiatingly nice. Combined, these behaviors served to annoy people and gave the impression of him being "fake." Which he was, of course. More significantly, by now he was a fixture in my life, so this off-putting and sometimes outright offensive behavior meant that the friends I still had didn't want to spend time with me if he was going to be there. And he was, of course.
I know my friends did the best they could with the information they had. They couldn't know what Dingleberry would ultimately become or how bad it would get for me. At the time, he just seemed like kind of a douche-bag. So the solution of avoiding him, and as a consequence me, seemed basically harmless. That was part of his strategy to emotionally isolate me. I didn't understand why they couldn't get over their feelings about my boyfriend and just be there for me. I felt like I had no one to turn to or talk to when I needed someone. That feeling was exacerbated by moving across the country, but I felt it even before we moved away because I could tell that my friends didn't want to be around him/us. So in addition to just seeing them less, I was also less likely to reach out because I felt it wouldn't be acknowledged. My advice to people now is that, if you have a friend who is in a bad relationship, stick around as much as you can. Maybe the guy is just a jerk and isn't outright abusive, but leaving your friend to handle either situation alone can be dangerous and depressing. Plus, when and if it hopefully does end, they will need some support to escape and recover.
This relationship started at the beginning of my final year in college. It was the point in my life at which I was applying to grad school, as I wanted to be a full-fledged SLP. Dingleberry encouraged me to apply to San Diego State University (SDSU). He framed this request as an opportunity for me: SDSU was a great school with a great program (true) and it would allow me to live on the west coast (which I'd always wanted to and would still like to again someday). It would broaden my horizons! And what was the harm in applying? I could always say no, but I was so smart and so good that they would be crazy not to accept me. I had to at least try. So I did, and I got in! Even now, it's a moment I hold dear as it was indeed a pretty big accomplishment. He explained that it would be easy for us to get along in California because he'd lived there before during his time with the Navy. He knew all about it and could guide us. You can see that there is some overlap between stage 1 and stage 2, as he used his charm to isolate me. We moved to California, where I knew nothing and no one.
I was hopeful about the move. Not long after we arrived on the west coast, he proposed. We seemed to really be starting a life together. And even though I didn't know people, I thought I would make friends at work and school. But because of his reckless spending I had to drop out of school, unable to afford it. I got along well with my coworkers for a while, but he would harass me at work and upset them. Since he was so careless with our money, I could never afford to go anywhere but work, making it almost impossible to meet others. Additionally, he cheated on me multiple times over the course of our relationship. He only confessed to one, for which he begged forgiveness, but staunchly denied the other affairs. I found them because he used my laptop to check Facebook and usually forgot to log out. Thinking I was in my account, I would check messages and see conversations with women with whom he was sleeping. He had so well engineered my isolation that I was dependent on him for almost all human contact most of the 15 months I lived there. As not even he had much of an attachment to me, I was well and truly alone,
Stage 3: Introduce the threat of violence
I mentioned before that I think this is the stage emotional/verbal abuse falls into. While not a direct threat of violence, it softens the victim, lowers their self-worth and their resistance so they are more accepting of any kind of abuse.
After we moved, and some before, the name calling started. Dingleberry claimed this was simply an effect of his upbringing: his family were loud, violent arguers. They didn't really mean it, that's just how they interacted. This was his excuse whenever he called me stupid, worthless, boring, fat, lazy, useless, and/or ugly. I didn't know how to take care of a house, never mind that he never cleaned or cooked because that was my responsibility. I was uninteresting and embarrassing should we ever be interacting with his friends (recall that I had none at the time). I didn't earn enough because I only worked part-time as a way of allowing time for my graduate classes which I was no longer taking because he'd lost all our money. At the time, he was unemployed, though he pretended not to be because he "worked" as a webcam model. In one of the cruelest threats of our relationship, he insisted I had to become a "model" as well because we needed the money. When I couldn't handle the emotional fall-out that accompanied that situation, I quit and he harassed me for it throughout the rest of our relationship.
You're so pathetic! Just shut up, I don't want to hear from you.
This was the stage when, similar to Leslie's situation, he informed me that he had guns hidden throughout the apartment. I now believe this to be false as I cleaned that place from top to bottom and never found them, but the message was clear: he had the tools to hurt me.
This was also the point at which he became violent toward our possessions, including our dog (adopted using my money and without consulting me). He would often throw and break things, again, including our dog, putting more than one hole in the walls of the apartment that I ultimately had to pay to repair. The throwing and screaming and name calling happened as a result of several possibilities that all boiled down to one basic behavior on my part: disobedience. Or at least his perception of disobedience, though Dingleberry would never put it in such words. It happened when I did something the wrong way, when I corrected him, did something I shouldn't have altogether, spoke to someone I wasn't supposed to, interacted with other men, had other men look at me. Offenses were constant and impossible to predict. A classmate from school reached out to me once, months after I left and invited me to lunch to catch up. I told him about the invite and he seemed unperturbed. When I returned home, however, he insisted I had been meeting another man because I was having an affair. It couldn't have been a friend because I had none. Furthermore, he liked to role play that I was spending time with other men, and after the fact scream at me because my performance had been too believable and I must actually be cheating - oh the sad irony!
Stage 4: Violence
I was fortunate in that I escaped before I experienced much physical violence in the sense of beatings, but I did experience some. Dingleberry would want to "wrestle" with me. I have play wrestled with siblings and cousins when we were children. I have also play wrestled with my current - and wonderful! - Fiance. That's not what Dingleberry was really after. This was real, full on, competitive-type wrestling. He had an advantage in that he'd actually competitively wrestled before, and in that he knew what was coming. It never failed that he would contort my body into some extremely painful hold and keep me there until I was sobbing and begging for release.
The other physical assaults I experienced included sporadic kicking when I upset him or was in the way, shoving for the same reasons, and choking during intimacy because he "thought I'd like it." Most of the physical violence I experienced in our time together manifested as the choking did, as sexual violence. During our time together, he forced himself on me when I actively refused him 4 times, and coerced me into sex dozens of others. Another, more specific description of what happened is that he raped me, more than once.
Stage 5: Murder/stalking
Obviously my story did not end in murder, as I am here today telling it. But I did experience stalking.
The first summer after we moved to San Diego, several things changed. Dingleberry made a work friend with a long-term girlfriend. He wanted us to appear normal, so he decided we should have couple friends, and we began spending time with them regularly. That summer, a friend of mine from Tennessee decided to move to San Diego as well, so I was seeing her more often. Another friend got pregnant, and called to share the news with me before most others as we have been very close. These events are significant because they gave me outlets for expression. With other people in our lives, it cast a brighter light onto exactly what was going on, and forced me to really confront it. I now had people who asked me how I was, or how we were, and I started giving more honest answers. Although my friend having the baby (we'll call her Rara) still wasn't geographically close the way the others were (the couple we'll call CK and the girl that moved we'll call D), her opening up to me inspired me to open up in turn.
I started sharing my concerns about my relationship with D. I started going to church again with CK, where, as fate would have it, the pastor was doing a series on healthy relationships, and I was reminded of my worth. I started talking more with Rara, and it wasn't necessarily that we discussed Dingleberry's treatment of me, but just that I finally felt I wasn't alone.
It was during this time that, due to my incredible unhappiness and stress, I stopped having regular periods. Terrified I might be pregnant, I became even more stressed and started having panic attacks. This was further compounded by Dingleberry picking a fight with his mother, who had been coordinating our wedding plans in Tennessee. She was petty and vindictive enough that she canceled everything we'd planned for our wedding in September. This turned out for the best as our relationship would shortly end, but added to my worries at the time.
The literal terror I experienced at the thought of being pregnant translated to a decision to abort the child. It turned out I wasn't, but something at that point finally clicked. I realized I'd been subconsciously planning for the fact that we would get divorced some day, and didn't want a child tying me to this man for the rest of my life. I was also reasonably afraid that he would end up abusing the child, too. I realized I had to leave.
Sensing things had changed, he confronted me via Facebook messenger while I was at work and insisted I tell him what was going on. I told him I was ending it. At the time, I still wasn't quite able to admit I was in an abusive relationship, so I said it was because I didn't like who I'd become in our time together - which was true. I contacted my parents and told them what had happened - just the break up, none of the gritty details - and that I needed to come home and they immediately responded with overwhelming support. Even across the country, they had sensed something was wrong and were eager to help. My father bought me a plane ticket home for the end of October to give me time to collect my belongings and find a replacement for my job (I'd found a full-time receptionist position by then). I collected my things that night and spent the last month with my friend D. It is worth noting that the last month was easily the most fun I had in California. I look back on that time with great fondness and nostalgia.
Once I came home, he refused to leave me alone. He would call or text demanding money. Despite the paperwork he'd shown me they (we had a roommate at this point) were turning in to take me off the lease, he now admitted he'd lied and I had to pay up or ruin my credit. Worse, that it would ruin my father's credit since he had cosigned the lease. My father hadn't signed anything - another lie. I told him he wouldn't get a cent. What were they going to do, evict me? He'd already toileted my finances, so I wasn't worried about that either. Now that I was free, I could see through all his tricks and traps. I blocked his number and Facebook account. I refused all method of communication he tried to send me. I finally paid almost $300 to separate our joint cell phone account and cut off his line. Worth every damn penny. It was probably a year after the end of our relationship that I was able to cut him out of my life completely, and we hadn't married, didn't have kids. I imagine it's much worse for others.
Stage 6: Recovery
A new stage, one that I created instead of Dingleberry.
Remember that I told you when Dingleberry and I first met, he was living with his ex? Turns out, she's kind of awesome. We're actually pretty decent friends now, almost like a bizarre support group for a very specific situation. Turns out, he stalked her too, contacting her often after he and I started dating. He bragged to me when stalking me about his new girl. Her sister contacted me once, asking me about Dingleberry because they were engaged and about to have a kid. I told her the truth, which was that the idea of him as a husband and father terrifies me. I hope the girl got free.
It took me months even after leaving to really realize what he was. I still today think back on that time and realize something he told me that I just accepted as a fact then was probably a lie. It was probably more than a year before I labeled him an abuser, and even longer before I really admitted it to myself that I had been abused.
Why? Why did I stay? Part of it was as Leslie said. I was in love with a troubled man and only I could help him. He's suffered abuse, and PTSD. And we were going to be married! I wasn't (and still am not) the kind of person to take that commitment lightly. I couldn't just walk away because things were tough. Plus, where would I go? He'd isolated me so well, I didn't feel I had anywhere to turn. He'd lowered my already pitiful self-esteem to the point that I really believed no one else would want me.
So after all this deeply personal, overly revealing stuff, what's the point. Why did I share? For the answer to that question, let me remind you of Beth Moore's talk:
Where the devil has his way:
1. People live among tombs (literally or metaphorically - living in the past)
I have struggled with living in the aftermath of my abuse for a long time. I didn't know how to let go of the pain and disappointment of my past. As Beth put it, I was repeatedly breathing air into a corpse. The abuse was over and done, and even years gone, but I still couldn't stop obsessing over it. I've gotten better about that, and sharing this story is part of my process of putting it in the past where it belongs.
2. People have no voice
I was saved the minute I spoke up to my friends and family. Leslie says the same was true for her; abuse thrives on silence. I want to also let others know, who may currently be lacking in voice, that they are not alone. It's why I've publicly shared aspects of my experience that I never have before. You are not too lost to be saved. You can get help and you can get out. Until then, we must be the voice of victims and insist that this isn't ok. Demand that not be allowed to continue.
3. People do self-harm (physical or emotional)
One last confession I'll make is that during the time of my abuse (and other moments of emotional turmoil) I have been a cutter. Not often, not much, but it was a way of coping, a method of controlling a life in which I'd lost control. Freeing myself from Dingleberry and firmly claiming my self worth was the catalyst I needed to free myself from the burden of self-harm as well.
4. People are out of control and out of community
This one is obvious - I was lost and alone.
Where Jesus has His way:
1. Demons have to flee (again, literal and figurative)
As soon as I got back to church, I realized my relationship was wrong. And I got out.
2. People find a sane place in His presence
I often felt like I was out of my mind around Dingleberry, something he actively tried to cultivate so I wouldn't leave. Absent that influence, my head is finally clear.
3. People are robed in worth and dignity
This is perhaps the most significant thing Beth said, and the biggest reason I wanted to share with you all. I felt so ashamed of my past I've been hiding from it, and in that way, giving it power over me. In Christ, I have my freedom and my dignity back. I realize not everyone reading this is a Christian, but I can promise you that you still have nothing to be ashamed of. Someone else taking advantage of you and hurting you is NOT your fault. Stand tall and walk forward. They have no power to affect your worth.
4. People go and tell their stories.
And here we are full circle. Inversely related to having no voice, I felt the need to share my story now that I am free.
No one needs to live with abuse. Talk, and ask for help. We can put and end to abuse and domestic violence. Thank you for sticking with me through out this series. Be safe and well, my loves!
* I do not intend to make light of PTSD. It is a serious condition that many service members suffer from, and for which they deserve our support. My comment here was meant to indicate my lack of belief that Dingleberry was telling me the truth when he claimed to have the condition.
This is the final part of a multi-part series about abuse, addressing my personal experience, representations in media, and general information. No more additions to the series will be published. Find part 1 here, part 2 here, part 3 here, and part 4 here.
Credit for the framework of this post to Leslie Morgan Steiner and Beth Moore, whose websites are linked above. Thank you for reading.