When is a relationship abusive? Let me show you.

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Spoiler Alert: You don’t know him unless I want you to, so don’t try to find out who he is. But you almost certainly know people like him, though I wish you didn’t. Allow me to present to you a few of his facets. If you recognize this person in your life, at any point, I want you to take note of it. This is the age old pattern, and it’s sly.

He doesn’t like your male friends. Maybe you can’t have them, anymore. That’s okay, they naturally receded anyway.
Your interests and hobbies slip into the vortex of him and his.
You leave enjoyable parties, events early because he knows you’re there and wants you to be home, or with him.
You’re struggling with something, a rebound maybe, and he says he wants nothing more than to be there for you.
Your friends’ brows furrow at his name and you shuffle in your seat, wishing the topic and its judgement would fade away, or that the nausea would recede.
You’re sometimes frustrated, but expressing frustration does no good, so you stuff it.
His snips and frustrations bite, but you probably did something to deserve them, you think. Eventually, you know.
You’re so close, he says, that the two of you could do anything. Should be able to do anything. (He should be able to do anything.)
You’re the only one who’s ever understood him, he says.
He’s disgusting, he says, and you’re the only one who could ever put up with him, he says.
No one else would be capable of loving him, he says.
The other people in your life, he says, don’t want the best for you, like he does.
Your body is his, he says.
You can’t trust anyone but him.
Only he knows the true you.
Only he could or would ever love you.
He doesn’t know what he’d do without you.
You belong to him.
He’d die without you.

Abusive relationships don’t start with a slap or an assault. It’s a subtle creep, slow burn of a thing. It’s the cliche of the frog in boiling water, but the frog hopped in eagerly, thinking it’d be met with a lukewarm glaze and peppered with rose petals. It’s never had a bath before, and the pot of water on the stove sure looks enticing. Winter is unforgiving, and forgiveness is a visceral craving.

I’m writing this with my hands trembling. A curious symptom of only this area of my brain, it signals primal fear. In the trauma world, fear is the main event and it is perpetually playing, in dreams, in flashes and in drawn out ways, too. It’s late at night, but this part of my brain doesn’t sleep. This part of my brain is what’s writing now.

I’m here, unkempt and disorganized, to provide you with the red flags you’ve already been provided with many times over by myriad adults, but that you perhaps still aren’t seeing. People like the boy I described above exist- he sure as hell does- and yours may be included in them. People say the darndest things when they’re in love.

I’m telling you that there is a part of love that isn’t love at all, and you deserve better than what I got, what so many people, usually women, get. You’d probably agree, now. I’m a strong woman, I deserve the best! You so, so do. It’s when you’re in it that you’ll really need to have known this all, before, because nobody will be able to tell you by then. It’ll be too late or you won’t care. Here’s the end of the story that I just gave you the beginning of.

When I tell people what happened to me, wet eyes are the most common sight. Watching the adults who are supposed to protect you cry for you is a terrible, shameful thing, and I hope never to have something happen to me again that could prompt it, even just for the sake of dry eyes. Why are they crying if I’m not? Should I cry? A slight smile is playing at my tightened lips and my fingers fiddle with a piece of long-shredded tissue. What else is there to do? It feels like I just told them my date of birth, and what I’m seeing is that I just told them that the world is ending in five minutes. Even if I wanted to, I couldn’t conjure tears. And I don’t want to.

Little Olivia used to cry at the drop of a stuffed animal. She cried when she lost the spelling bee in eighth grade to the word “pharm(a!)ceutical.” She cried when she stepped on a worm whose corpse had already been baking in the hot sun for hours, on the front steps of the house she grew up in. She cried when she scored in soccer, cried when she didn’t. She cried every year during the Pledge of Allegiance on September 11th anniversaries and she cried when her fellow Americans jeered and cheered the death of Bin Laden. She cried when she didn’t get around to the last question of her fifth grade math level qualification test and she cried when she got a perfect math CMT score in eighth grade (vindication!).

I didn’t cry once during this time.

What’s the worst that can happen if you ignore the red flags listed above? I’ll tell you, dry eyed.

Truthfully, the worst that could have happened is that I could have ended up dead, and that happens to many women, but there were times when I wished I had, instead. Sometimes acutely.

What did happen was a slow erosion of anything that resembled consent. I didn’t want any part of anything I was doing. My waking hours were his, my sleeping hours were, my body was, my words, my friends, my time. To get through it, I completely split from what I had been. No, dissociating isn’t staring out of a window a lot, or zoning out, or daydreaming. I dissociated from my body and mind, and from anyone who’d tell me to do differently or to get out.

I went to junior prom with a date who wasn’t him. It was a predetermined, friend kind of thing. I’d known my date for years, it was a dear male friendship of mine. He texted me from his dark bedroom over two hundred times that night. At one point, I left my phone on the table and my date saw it.

It read, “do anything with him, or anyone at the afterparty, and I will genuinely kill you.”

So funny, right! I told my date it was. The exaggerations that are said for love. Ha! I didn’t think it was funny, it was “too real” as my friends would say, but I wasn’t scared. That was just how it was. Fear was so constant, my safety so separated from my desires, that what he said didn’t register as improper. At least not for my purposes; I just didn’t want any intervention. Some part of me, then, knew it was worth intervening into, but it wasn’t the forefront of me. I remember my date being concerned, but I changed the subject and wouldn’t return.

My date didn’t know what I knew; I’d seen all the red flags, already, and had for a long time. My would-be after-prom killer had a history of both sexual and physical violence dating back years. It was part of the backstory I was in charge of healing, you see. Everyone deserves second chances, I’d thought. Hell, I’d been upset to watch my country animalistically celebrate the death of Bin Laden. I figured I’d be a monster if I couldn’t put up with this, I wouldn’t be a good person. I’d be someone who abandons people. I’d be an abandoner, a heartbreaker. Not me.

Should I have ended things the moment he disclosed his past violence? Should I have ended things the first time he told me his deep fantasy about a friend’s rape? The time he fantasized about my teacher’s? The first time he fantasized about mine? Should I have ended things after his first ultimatum? Should I have, when he first hurt me? When I lost my last friend? Should I have fully ended things when I first tried to, when he screamed he’d kill himself if I did, when he ran off camera as he said so? Should I have when he laughed in my face as I cried on a late, too late, night in early November 2016, when my pain was funny to him? Should I have when he didn’t listen to no… the first time, or the twentieth? The first time I thought to myself I’d have to die to get out, or the last before I finally did?

Maybe. If you were to invent a time machine that could take me back, now that I’m out, medicated and therapized, I’d certainly go back and make sure I never fell for it. I’d make sure I told my doctors what was happening, when it happened and in its entirety. I’d holler at myself things that I now understand about myself that I didn’t, then. Things that I now understand about human behavior.

But I can’t. We all wish we could go back and change what we did or didn’t do, what we did or didn’t know, but we can only arm ourselves as best we can with as much information as we’re willing to heed and march forward. That’s why I want to share both parts of this story. The first part of this story, the spurts if you will, is happening all over the world, in many relationships. The second part of this story is some of the worst of what can happen.

You should get to know your vulnerabilities. The ease with which I succumbed to this situation was a result of self-hatred (thinking I didn’t deserve better) and deep, desperate loneliness.

Manipulative, abusive, controlling people know vulnerable people when they see them. They know what draws an empathetic caretaker in, and they know what makes them stick. If you go into knowing those people equally as well armed, with appropriate knowledge about both yourself and general safety, my hope is that you’ll emerge unscathed.

If you can recognize such behavior when it starts, you’ll be able to escape before it gets to a point where the only way out is through barbed wire, like in that Saw trap.

Seriously, read over that list. Do it twice, if you would. That’s how it starts.

Ask me.

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