This is the first in a five-part series on domestic abuse and domestic violence. The new Netflix show, Maid, has brought attention to emotional abuse and the role it plays in domestic violence. The show helped inspire this series, as Austin Moms seeks to bring further awareness to the issue of domestic violence through the personal stories of some of our team. If you need help, call 512-472-HELP(4357).
I was 22 when I found myself making a collect call from outside a Food Lion grocery store. I was supposed to be inside buying groceries. It had been snowing for a few hours – unusual for the north Texas town I lived in with my boyfriend.
My hands trembled as I listened to the phone ringing on the other end, but it wasn’t from the cold. I knew I had to hurry because if I took “too long,” my boyfriend would come looking to make sure I was where I said I’d be.
“Hello?” Thank God, I thought. Hearing my best friend’s voice on the other end made tears spring to my eyes. We hadn’t talked in over a year. Somehow I had stopped talking to her.
I had stopped talking to all my friends during that time. My family, too.
A few years earlier, I’d met a man who I swear to this day was the most physically beautiful man I think I’ve ever seen. He really and truly was tall, dark, and handsome, and he had the most incredible sense of humor. He could have had any woman – no exaggeration.
And he chose me.
Maybe it was that feeling of sheer luck – that such an amazing man would desire me – that played into what would become a dangerous denial of what I can clearly see now.
The slow chip, chip, chipping away at my support network. Convincing me my family were bad, dysfunctional people who only cared about appearances, not about me. Making me doubt my own thoughts, my own feelings.
Making me look up one day and realize that I’d lost myself.
I remember thinking, “Is it normal to feel this way? Is this just what a committed relationship feels like?” Because I knew that relationships require give and take, and giving pieces of myself is what I thought that must have meant.
I felt controlled by him. A knot squeezed my stomach when I knew he wasn’t pleased about something I’d said or done, because I knew a fight was coming.
He never hit me.
But the fights were long, long hours of yelling and name-calling and talking in circles until I was an exhausted, empty casing of the vibrant, young woman I was before.
Because I was so isolated, I didn’t have anyone to talk to about what was happening. If I had, maybe I’d have known what to call it. It was abuse.
One day at work, a few coworkers – two men – invited me to join them for lunch. I hesitated, but agreed to go. They sat in the front and I sat in the back. As we pulled away from the office, I saw through the front windshield a familiar car. It was my boyfriend heading in our direction. I gasped and flung myself into the floorboard so he wouldn’t see me in the car with these two men.
The reaction of my coworkers was at first confusion, and then pity. I was humiliated that they saw me this way.
But their reaction was the first crack that let light into a secret I didn’t even realize I had been keeping.
My coworkers rounded to the back of the building so I could re-enter through the back door, so I wouldn’t “get caught.” In the coming weeks, they would talk to me less about surface-level work talk, and more about my personal life. They asked me questions that didn’t feel like prying, just caring.
Their disbelief at some of the things I told them helped me see how dysfunctional – how dangerous – our relationship was. It validated for me that no, this was not normal. They were the ones who said it first: this was domestic abuse.
But I questioned whether the situation really was as serious as they made it sound. He hadn’t hit me, after all.
Months after the work lunch incident, something happened that would be a turning point for me. My boyfriend and I were in the car and we’d been arguing most of the day. I was driving and remember looking over at him and he didn’t look as handsome as I once thought he was. He looked tired and disheveled.
The very next moment, his hands were around my throat. He was shaking me while he squeezed down, tighter and tighter. I pulled at his hands with one of mine, the other on the steering wheel. I saw spots of light in my eyes and I could see that I was veering the car off onto the shoulder, then onto grass, then back onto the shoulder.
As quickly as he’d grabbed me, he pulled his hands off my neck. I coughed and wiped tears from my eyes. Neither of us spoke the rest of the drive back to our apartment.
I vividly remember thinking, “Now there’s no denying he’s abusing me.”
I wanted out.
But I was afraid. I felt like I had nowhere to go, because I wasn’t speaking to any of my friends or any of my family. I was all alone.
I was embarrassed to be in an abusive relationship. I am not meek, by any stretch of the word. I have a strong, independent personality. I am bubbly and confident. How was someone like me a victim of domestic abuse?
I was ashamed at having to face my parents and tell them they’d been right when they said he was controlling me.
That phone call to my best friend from college was my first official cry for help. Without hesitation, she accepted the collect call, and – without wasting any time – I launched into exactly what I needed to tell her: “I don’t have much time, but I need help. Can I come see you?”
Over the course of the next few weeks – or maybe a month? – I would visit my friend in secret while my boyfriend was at work; she would convince me to reach out to my parents; my mom and I would sneak away (remember: I wasn’t supposed to be talking to her) and she would help me find an apartment in a different city.
Then my parents came – again, while my boyfriend was at work – and moved my things out of the apartment and into my own, with an unlisted phone number.
Of course the story doesn’t end there. There would be months and months of hiding ahead of me. Months and months of one of the lowest bouts of depression of my life. Years of working to repair relationships – many that would never be repaired at all.
But the one with myself was repaired. I just wish I had trusted myself enough to know that I was being emotionally abused and controlled before it got so bad.