Give me the keys!
I awoke to a dense weight pinning me down, hands grasping thick swatches of my hair tightly. He slammed my head down against the ground several times as he tried to rouse me from my slumber. In the darkness, I couldn’t see his face, but I knew it was him, my boyfriend, the man who claimed to love me, had finally crossed over from the emotional and verbal abuse into the physical realm. The waves of realization washed over me like a stormy sea, each new horrific thought choking out the air in my rational mind.
I tried to cry out, but he cupped his hand over my mouth to keep me quiet. He pressed his fingers tight into my jaw, hissing for me to give him the keys to the car, which he was unknowingly pressing into my leg as he sat hard over my hips. Luckily, (or maybe not so much), my ability to acquiesce to this request was impossible because of how he pinned me down.
We were camping when it finally happened. I was just out of high school, readying myself for a summer of fun with my friends before leaving for college in the fall. My brother and I shared a tent, and my friends slept in another not far away. My boyfriend decided to stay up, I realize now to get high. He was tweaked out on something, who knows what. His habit was becoming more and more costly. But I thought by refusing to acknowledge it, as we had been taught to do in our alcoholic family.
I don’t remember the exact details after that. I know I didn’t give him the keys, and that he slammed my head down a number of times into the hard ground until the noise finally woke up my brother. The commotion also stirred my friends.
The thing I had always thought about domestic violence was that people would be so horrified to witness it happening that they would jump in to help save the victim, standing by her side and helping her leave the abusive relationship. I imagined the aggressor being arrested, shamed by his behavior so publicly that he’d disappear from my life forever. The naivete of such ideas are almost laughable.
At some point, we all left the camp site, ending up in the parking lot of a gas station, arguing. My friends, both fierce feminists, stood so far away from me, I could feel the depth of my own damage down to the core of my being. My brother seemed to sense it too, and I felt ashamed that he was witnessing my failings so publicly. I asked my friends if they thought I should leave him, and neither of them said yes. The decision to stay was mine, I realized, but no one had any vested interest in telling me how much worse things would get if I stayed.
Instead, what happened in the parking lot of a truck stop gas station in the summer in 1998, was that I realized how alone I was. I saw then how damaged everyone knew I was, how I would never do any better than this man, who I was now bound to. The friendships fell away, the respect from my brother died, and I was left to my silent spiral into hell alone.
It wasn’t the last time he’d put his hands on me. But it was the first time he’d gotten away with it. I could sense it in him, the power he was feeding, he enjoyed it. His violence became more refined, more precise after that. His manipulations were more cunning, his control more absolute. It wasn’t until he stole money from my family, on camera, that they finally intervened. Had he failed to do this, I wonder if they’d ever have done anything to help me. I realize with each passing day of estrangement that no one would have. It wasn’t until their own interests were compromised that they finally took an interest. The people who claimed to love me, who were supposed to be there for me, would have easily let me die at this man’s hands as long as it never affected their bottom line.
It would take me years to recover, to learn my worth, to find my strength and my backbone. It was in my healing that I saw that the people who stood idly by and said nothing were as complicit in my boyfriend’s abuse as he was. It’s hard to have love for anyone who would so willingly let me come to harm. If you’re reading this, and you’re in a similar situation, don’t wait for a hero. They don’t come when you need them. Be your own fucking hero, because you have to be. It’s not your fault if someone hurts you and it’s not your fault if the people around you don’t give a shit. But, you can escape, you can live, and you can move on. You don’t deserve it. I promise.