Here’s a story I haven’t told before.
Or at least, I haven’t told this version of it before.
Usually, I tell a story of two teenagers in love who were tragically pulled apart by their terribly cruel friends. He cut himself; she tried to save him. His family was dysfunctional; she tried to save him. He was struggling under the pressures of popularity; she tried to save him.
All of that is true.
But what is also true is that meanwhile, she was constantly losing friends and almost never made new ones, and her confidence in herself was growing weaker by the day. And he did nothing to save her.
For the first two years of our friendship, we were adorable. We wanted the best for each other. We could tell each other things that no one else seemed to understand. It’s no surprise that we fell in love.
But once we did, he used my love for him to manipulate me in subtle ways. It took me FOREVER to realize it because we were once so pure and great together, and he had so many of his own troubles that I ended up giving him a pass on a lot of stuff. Even if I was initially mad about something, he’d find a way to get me to apologize to him instead because I was adding to his problems.
Before I knew it, he had convinced me that all my friends hated me and the situation was irreparable, when really, they kind of just didn’t give a fuck about me – which still isn’t great, but probably could have been solved with a simple conversation or two. He convinced me that a relationship-that-was-not-really-a-relationship on the down-low was the best that I could possibly have – at least for now. Later, maybe we could be something more, once our friends calmed down or once we were away from all the pressures of high school or once he was ‘ready’. But later never came.
Here’s the thing – did he know what he was doing? In the early days, probably not. Did he feel bad about it? Absolutely. He took his self-hatred out on himself in the form of slashes into his skin.
But did it all still happen? Did it all still hurt me just the same?
So why am I writing about this now? I mean, I’m over it, right? I’m dating a fantastic person, I have new friends, I moved away and then my parents did too…almost everything about my life is different.
But all too often, something will happen that will make me so upset that I know it is irrational, and when I dig a little deeper and think about the first time I ever felt that way and ask myself why it happened, he is almost always the answer.
He’s the reason why I get so anxious around my birthday and holidays. There was always some excuse as to why he couldn’t spend important days like that with me. Though my family was always there, I long for someone to want to spend days like that with me by choice, even if they don’t feel obligated to.
He’s the reason why I feel uncomfortable around niche communities that feel cliquey to me, no matter how nerdy they may be. I bristle when people throw around acronyms and made-up words without bothering to explain. Although I long to bring people together, when I succeed and my friends hang out without me, I sometimes feel sad and offended. It all reminds me of being on the outskirts of my circle of friends.
He’s the reason why I’m so aggressively opposed to drugs of all kinds (even the ‘cool’ ones) and am still uncomfortable with anyone getting more than a little tipsy, even though I usually pretend I’m not. I was uncomfortable with all mind-altering substances as a young teen, but right around the time everyone started experimenting, I was pushed out of my circle of friends. I was not around when they were discovering all these things. By the time I graduated high school, I was clueless and just as nervous as I was when I was 14. I’ve since had opportunities to partake in such substances, but still I am reminded of that exclusion, so I usually don’t. (Chances are good that I would have hated it anyway because I’m such an anxious weirdo, but still.) I naturally gravitate towards people with similar lifestyles as me, so when I’m hanging out with my good friends it’s not an issue anymore, but breaking out of my comfort zone is hard.
He’s the reason why I’ve so desired for someone to ‘show me off’, but have never really expected it, and the reason why for a long time I was so scared to show my partner off myself – I didn’t want to scare them off. For almost a year in high school, I was his dirty little secret and he would only speak to me in private. I dreamed of Facebook official status and profile pictures and PDA. When I told him how I felt, he would get angry and say things like, “Why am I not good enough for you unless I’m your boyfriend?”
He’s the reason why, when another ex-boyfriend moved away and started treating me badly, I immediately jumped to the conclusion that he was abusive too. (He wasn’t. He was just a regular, run-of-the-mill asshole. I know because shortly after that he broke up with me, setting me free, and I haven’t heard from him since.) Hell, I even jumped to that conclusion a little bit in my panicked state following an incident with my current partner, even though anyone who knows us would say that is the most ridiculous thing they’ve ever heard. It was just one bad manipulative thing out of hundreds and hundreds of nice things and good days, and the kind of pure love I haven’t seen since the young glory days of the high school relationship I’m talking about here.
I know it kind of sounds like I’m just randomly insulting this person for no reason other than to be a bitch and/or destroy his reputation, but really, I’m just trying to understand myself better. And over the past several months as I drew these conclusions it became more and more important to me to share this story. I give all of these specific examples because I know there is a chance that by sharing these details, someone else might see themselves or their partner in my story.
I started thinking about this when I was asked to give a keynote speech about my experiences in high school last year. While I was preparing to write this speech, I had my current partner ‘interview’ me about that time in my life, and during our hour-long conversation I realized just how often his name came up and how many things he was responsible for.
I’ve since come across many other reminders – articles and music about abuse that I see myself in, and finally, an entire novel. Because of a positive review I saw, I picked up It Ends With Us by Colleen Hoover. It is an excellent book – it really takes you through all the stages of a relationship like this in detail, and even though it is about physical abuse primarily, the whole time I was thinking, this is me. Was me.
While I was reading this book and revisiting my past, my current partner was less than 10 feet away from me, playing League of Legends at the kitchen table or in bed asleep. And every time I would finish reading all I could handle at that time, I would go over to him and give him a hug – a thank you for not being like him. For being a better man. For loving me without conditions or strings attached. For being so proud to be with me and showing me off and talking about me to anyone who will listen. For doing his best not to let his past damage our future. They may share a name, but that’s about all.
In relationships, you’re bound to hurt each other every once in a while unintentionally. But when it starts becoming a more frequent cycle, that’s a problem, and one that is all too often overlooked – not because the person in the relationship doesn’t feel like there is a problem, but because they feel like said problems are justifiable in some way due to their exceptional circumstances.
I’d like to say something that He’s Just Not That Into You taught me many years ago, that for some reason took me ages to actually understand: you are not the exception to the rule. Exceptions exist, sure, but it’s generally best and safest to operate under the assumption that you’re not.
In addition, emotional abuse can range from mild to severe, and can also look very different in a teenage relationship compared to an adult one. Information online often cites only the most extreme signs (controlling finances, where you go, who you spend time with, explicit name-calling and insults, stealing, complete isolation) when often it is much more subtle than that – but just because a case is milder doesn’t mean it’s easier to deal with or put an end to. It just makes it even harder to catch.
Just because someone has had a traumatic youth, or is currently going through a hard time, or anything else, doesn’t excuse their behaviour.
Abuse is abuse.
It does not matter if it is intentional.
It does not matter how old (or young) you are.
It does not matter whether or not they physically hurt you.
It does not matter whether or not you yourself behaved perfectly.
It does not matter whether or not you were “officially” in a relationship.
It does not matter how many good memories you have, or how long they treated you well for.
It does not matter what else was going on in their life.
It does not matter how bad they feel about it.
Abuse is abuse.