Everyone has chapters of their life they don't want read out loud. To symbolize the hidden shame and guilt of domestic abuse, I chose to white out parts of this post. I recommend you highlight parts of paragraphs to find empathy in my experience.
I remember the first time he told me I was pretty.
At the time, I had this bright red Ecko short sleeve shirt and a chambray maxi skirt with matching stitching. I accessorized it with a bright red Kangol hat and red striped loafers. As tacky as it sounds in hindsight, I knew I looked great back then. And he knew too. I was such a teenage girl, the rush of my childhood crush telling me "I was pretty when I wore skirts" was indescribable. What seemed like an innocent compliment opened the gateway to attempts to control me even as a teen.
That compliment would inform how I dressed when I saw him. At the time, I didn’t realize how dangerous this precedent set for how I saw myself and operated in our relationship. How I wore my hair and what lip gloss I would buy were dictated by his preferences for years. Abuse is hardly acute; it buildas over time until it envelopes your reality.
I took every opportunity I could to fit his mold of beauty. He had a preference; I wanted to be that preference. But despite my efforts, it never quite happened for us as teens.
Fast forward to 2010. I had a new sense of self and I was completing my Master's degree. I bravely chopped my hair down to a teeny-weeny afro. When we reconnected, we were slightly more mature. Despite some hiccups, everything seemed great. I was grateful to have him back and he grew beyond my childhood crush. We eventually got engaged, for me, it was a dream. I was marrying my best friend; I couldn’t ask for more.
He was just as demanding with my looks as he was when we were younger. The innocent preferences became near-commands. This time it came with harsher words. One time, he publicly berated me for wearing a headband. "Nothing will cover up that nappy hair." He would pose questions like who else would want someone like me and why I chose specific articles of clothing over others.
The intensity of his words hurt more than how good he perceived my hair or clothes to be. The feelings I felt when he told me I'm pretty becoming a memory, I'd rationalize my love for him. I overlooked his abusive tendencies because I refused to see him as anything other than a good guy.
All the while, my friends, though happy for me to be in the relationship of my dreams, had lobbied their dislike for him. He was dismissive and wanted to come to everything with me. Despite including him in my plans, he was rude to my friends and frequently asked that we cut our outings short. I learned to keep them separate; my love and my relationships outside of it resided in two different cortexes in my brain. As a result, I no longer had anyone to talk about the verbal abuse I endured. My social life was all about him. Abusers tend to isolate their partners. The shame and the guilt I felt kept me from telling my closest family and friends. I learned to withhold the parts of my life that were important to me from people that were important to me.
When I couldn't take it anymore, I called it off after two months.
We reconnected after a couple of months; this time he was more assertive, more mature. He seemed to have a plan for his life, and he told me that it included me. I fell in love with his determination and his ambition. Abusers see their partners as their property. They will do anything to get you back so they can control you including telling you how they've changed and want to do better.
He asked me to marry him again, no proposal just a plan. He gave me the ring I returned, and we moved in together. We planned to get married in six months and search for a home. All things were anew. I had just lost my job; he offered to pay my bills until I started my new position. The cruel words seemed like a bad dream.
That is until they came back.
Moving in together only intensified the verbal and emotional abuse. I was never allowed to move my things out of the bedroom closet. Though I lived there for more three months, I was living out of suitcases. His words had a presence that always seemed to hover above me; I felt myself shrinking within myself. Intimidation is an abusive tactic to pressure someone into submission.
My hair, now a voluminous fro, became a source of disdain for him. He asked me to straighten it for our wedding and consider straightening it more once we get married. The thing is, I loved my natural hair. I loved its coils, its volume, and its versatility. I would get compliments about how beautiful it was. I was even featured in an online magazine. Despite the appearance of pride in having me on his arm, my hair only made him angrier.
He began to talk about my natural hair and how nappy it was. He would ask me to wear makeup all the time but then criticize me for trying to distract from my hair. I couldn't win. Honestly, there was no way to win.
Insecurities I never had, were being reinforced by societal and familial standards on Black hair. Perhaps I was ugly, and maybe I didn't deserve the confidence I had? Emotional and mental abuse are insidious that way. I began to believe the weapon used to inflict internal turmoil.
I didn’t see it as abusive then because we argued. I felt I, at times, held my ground. I stood up to him. But when things got heated, he would say “you’re getting real critical with me,” and that was my sign to back down. It was an implied threat. I learned his threshold and tried to stay away as much possible. I thought it was normal to determine your partner's ticks not realizing how trigger thin they were.
When we took our engagement photos, he criticized everything from my choice of jewelry to my dress to my hair. We had these amazing photos to share our love, but it didn’t tell the full picture.
I began to lose weight; my hair fell out, I broke out in hives, and I stayed sick. I made frequent trips to Urgent Care. A doctor informed me that my immune system was weak and advised me to stop whatever strenuous and stressful activities I was doing immediately. I didn't know how to say my fiancé hates me and I don't know what to do.
I experienced my first depressive episode when he told me he wasn’t attracted to me and would have outside relationships just months before our wedding. How did I become ugly to the guy that once made me feel pretty? That day, I didn’t get out of bed. The thought of being awake made me nauseous. I couldn't decide if I wanted to stay away or never wake up.
How could I ask God for this nausea-inducing relationship? I prayed for this man and loved him since I was a little girl yet he was the source of my veiled pain.
I loved a traumatized boy that grew up to be a troubled man that would seek control over his partner with financial, emotional, and verbal abuse.
I am fortunate that I had a beautiful support system that helped me get back to some semblance of normalcy. This is not, however, the reality for 1 in 3 women and 1 in 4 men that have been victims of [some form of] physical violence by an intimate partner within their lifetime. For that, I am grateful that I was able to leave abruptly.
After calling off the wedding, the threats intensified only to confirm that I made the right decision. I felt like a failure, something he repeatedly emphasized, which ironically made me want to go back. I was ashamed to say why I was calling off the wedding. Some people even held out hope that we would get back together, naive of how unhealthy our relationship was.
I took pride in my hair and who I was except when I was with him. I had to let go of the pretty girl I tried to be to become the beautiful woman God ordained me to be. The God that would give me the grace and power to leave.
More importantly, leaving the relationship made me expand my understanding of abuse so that I could share my story with empathy and compassion. I NEVER want anyone to experience what I went through.
I'm grateful to be here still. I'm proud that I never forgot who I was in spite of the many attempts to break me down.
I look back at those years when I thought I knew who I was, yet I tolerated such cutting words. Love is not conditional and it damn sure isn’t dictated.
It is still a journey to live a life of abundant love not bound by conditions. I pray for strength often. I recently found myself in a situation that was equally dangerous. I had to ask myself if I ever healed or if I was still in the process of doing so.
It can be hard fighting past your insecurities which is why self-love is such a revolutionary act.
I choose to be revolutionary today and onward.