Brain Waves: Not physical, still abuse

Brain Waves: Not physical, still abuse

Maricela Murillo, Contributing Columnist

The first week of my freshman year, the acne that had plagued me throughout high school resurfaced with a vengeance. My hair, still adjusting to the humidity, was usually little more than a halo of frizz around my blemished face, and I had to balance school, a social life and my plummeting self-esteem all at once. I was the most vulnerable I’ve been in my entire life, and that was when I met the boy I’d go on to date for a year and a half.

Things started out well. I had never had someone interested in me like he was, so I relished the attention. When he asked me for permission to call me his girlfriend during our first date, I immediately said yes. He was my first kiss, my first date, my first boyfriend.

But then things started to change. I stopped hanging out with my friends as much as I did before I met him, stopped going to parties, etc. because every time I left to spend time with someone else, I’d feel uncomfortably guilty about leaving him behind.

I felt myself justifying my platonic relationships as I spent more time reassuring him that I was faithful, and that I wasn’t going to leave him for the friend I’d had a casual conversation with in the common room.

What began as guilt evolved into a threatening fear. What he intended to be compliments escalated into ultimatums. He started telling me that he’d break up with me if I ever tried to change my body because then “I wouldn’t look like myself anymore.” Lighthearted complaints on my part about gaining weight resulted in him assuring me that he thought I was beautiful, and that somehow, his assertion should be the only thing that matters.

As time went on, our interactions grew to be more and more volatile. I began to lose sight of my opinions and friendships as I focused most of my time around keeping him happy. Often, he would get angry any time I disagreed with him—about politics, food, etc.—and more than once pushed me away from him and stormed off, leaving me alone on a random New Orleans street at night because I had an opinion he didn’t like. But I was so under his spell that my guilt fueled me to apologize profusely in attempts to win back his respect.

I never interpreted his behavior as abnormal. More frequently than not, I felt rightfully accused and deserving of his verbal abuse. Sometimes, I qualified his outbursts as “needy” moments, and other times, I confused his irrational jealousy with protective praise. But eventually, after a summer apart, I had the time to clear my head, forcing me to realize that the relationship wasn’t healthy.

I realized that I was far from okay. I realized then that I had been powerless in that relationship, that I had been conditioned over time to worship him, dedicate my life to him, think that everything that went wrong with him was my fault and that it was up to me to fix it.

When I returned to campus in the fall, replete with on-and-off breakups, I started running into him on purpose, to make him uncomfortable, to feel like I had some sort of power or control over him like he’d had over me for over a year. I became depressed. I hated myself. I didn’t clean my room for months, used food as a coping mechanism and tried to fill a hole in me that I didn’t even know was there.

When I was far enough away from it all and could look back almost objectively, I started to come to terms with what had happened to me. I started to heal, slowly, by allowing myself to acknowledge that I’d been hurt. I had to shake the doubts out of my mind constantly—that I hadn’t been physically abused, so it couldn’t have been that bad, that other people had it worse so I didn’t really deserve to feel the way I felt, that I was making a big deal out of nothing.

Even today, a year later, I still struggle. I still doubt myself. I still get anxiety attacks when I see him unexpectedly and feel as helpless then as I did when we were dating. But every day, I remind myself that I did not deserve what he did to me, even if I wasn’t always the perfect girlfriend, even if I imitated his awful behavior sometimes because he’d conditioned me to believe that it was acceptable. I have to remind myself that I’ve come a long way, and that my voice matters too—and that love for myself must come before love for someone else.