“Why didn’t you just leave?”
It’s a simple question, but it has no simple answer. And yet, the world demands to know. The truth is, throughout the abusive relationship I experienced in my early twenties, the darkest moments lived right next door to the lightest ones. There were days filled with adoration and punishment. Nights consumed by love and violence.
Behind the tightly closed doors of domestic abuse exists a distinct duality. I’d wipe spit off my face as I tied my shoes with shaky hands, then later press my cheek against his shoulder in the grocery checkout line.
It started as nothing more than a crush. New smells, new butterflies, new glances.
He had tousled hair and eyebrows that hovered dangerously close to his dark brown eyes. I was at an age so delicate that one wink from across the crowded room was all it took to get me hooked. His features were sharp; a contrast to my round baby face. The couple of years he had on me fostered both my intimidation of and fascination for this quiet, aloof new person. The night we met, he kept his eyes glued to the ground—something I would later learn was a trademark.
The first time it happened, I wasn’t sure. It was after an argument. He wrapped his strong hands around my shoulders and gripped me just a little too tight. It was a fleeting moment that left me with more questions than answers; I felt myself tuck the memory away, my gut telling me I may need to revisit it one day.
“One day” turned out to be just a few months later. It started as a perfectly ordinary night surrounded by our friends, but it ended with me being violently pushed backwards through my apartment and tossed onto my bed, his heavy body landing on top of mine with his hand covering my mouth.
For a few moments, I lay there under the crushing realization that we were now irreversibly stained. I tried to make sense of the rage in his eyes. Of how I could feel so violated inside the walls of my own apartment, at the hands of my own boyfriend.
In the months that followed, I held his hand wondering how I’d navigated my way into this unlit dead end, so far away from everyone who loved me. Far away from those who wouldn’t throw me against the wall and wrap both hands firmly around my throat.
It all happened so fast.
Consistently having the rug pulled out from under me—only to be told that I had tripped—wreaked havoc on my ability to trust my worth and my judgment. It made me feel like I had nowhere left to fall but back onto the familiarity of that rug; it became my only perceived stability.
All it would take was for me to stay out a bit too late or for my phone to light up with the wrong name, and the promises he’d made to be better would come crashing down, landing sharply on my body.
But then, the morning after.
As the sun rose, I was suddenly treated like porcelain. It ceased to matter if this only came after being treated like rubber. Our bond was strengthened by the secrets we were keeping. I begrudgingly, but blissfully, leaned in. Drifting back into the darkness, hating every second it felt good.
As my body ached where it had been gripped too tight, we ate breakfast. We got frozen yogurt. He sat in a booth, shoulder to shoulder with my friends—friends I lied to as I buried the memory of the night before deep in the back of my mind.
Overtaken by heavy guilt and shame, I tried to justify his actions. I tried to comprehend how I could feel irreplaceably loved by someone who, at times, didn’t seem to love me back at all. I watched the walls creep in closer as I pictured prying my life out of the hands of someone so complicated, all the while having no desire to walk away.
There was also fear of losing the bad. If he stopped reacting with violence, did it mean he didn’t love me anymore? Could one exist without the other?
Today, I strive to untangle those skewed views of myself and the world around me. I try to undo the damage done to how I perceive my body—a body that absorbed the shock of our complications. His complications.
Today, I remind myself of the light created by my own little world. Because there is a lot of it. Today, I work to sift through the memories stored as grey areas where I can too easily convince myself I hold blame. Because now I know I do not.
Today, as I unearth those buried memories, I also find self-forgiveness and self-compassion. And I no longer ask myself the question, “Why didn’t you just leave?” Because I know there was a distinct duality clouding my vision. A duality so strong, it had me convinced that being hurt by him meant being loved by him. But I know now that is untrue. It’s that simple.