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When I was a teenager, I dated probably the worst excuse for a human being in existence. Looking back on the experience, and the subsequent fallout, I’m baffled at the decision. But I was groomed at a young age to accept what the world threw at me. Once my mother told me that if I were ever raped, I should just lay back and try to enjoy it, as fighting would only make things worse. My father was a soft touch, and often brought home barflies with a sob story from the bar at the VFW, who would stay on our couch, sometimes for days. We had a family tradition of picking up what other people would throw away. Human beings were no different, I suppose.

When this boy asked me out, I didn’t hesitate to say yes, even though my best friend had dated his brother, and it was a catastrophic experience. In my mind, he was different, and I was a bigger person, because I felt I could help him. I naively believed that through the power of love and dedication, I could show him how to be a better person. Instead, I turned a blind eye to his lies, theft, cheating, drug use and abuse. He came from an absolutely disgusting home, blinding poverty, abusive and negligent parents, and simply had no chance from the get-go. That aspect of his life wasn’t his fault, but the way he treated others was his responsibility, regardless of how he tried to turn it around on me.

He began to manipulate me early on. I recall him using the silent treatment as his way of getting me to comply with what he wanted. If that didn’t work, he would use threats of self-harm, which always scared me. Looking back, it was hard to know if his panic attacks (which he had often) and crippling anxiety (stemming from his abusive family, no doubt), were a farce to complement his manipulation, or just part of the landscape of his personality. Nonetheless, my selfless dedication to him and our relationship was merely an extension of my own family’s dysfunction. I was never allowed to put my own needs first at home, so why would I do this in my relationships? My boyfriend quickly realized the goldmine he’d stumbled into.

One day, we had been visiting a friend of my father’s, attending a barbeque I think, and had stopped at the corner store for a snack and drinks on our way home. The cashier was male, roughly our age, and made the foolish mistake of *gasp* looking at me. Simply making eye contact with this person was enough to set my boyfriend off. His brooding scowl that accompanied the silent treatment on our drive home was all the indication I needed to know I was in trouble. Frustrated at being punished for something I didn’t even have control over, I blurted out that I was allowed to look at other people. A ridiculous statement that I couldn’t believe I had to make, but to him further infuriated him. He said nothing for the next 30 minutes. He remained in the car when we arrived at my house; I went inside, after trying in vain to get him to speak to me. He said nothing.

After a while, I figured he’d come in the house, but he didn’t. I looked out the window to see if he was still in the car, but he was gone. Frantic, I ran outside to find him sitting in the middle of the road. It was like a passive suicide attempt. As if the cars driving down our country road wouldn’t stop for him, simply driving past with odd looks on their faces. He was trying to elicit a reaction, which unfortunately I gave him. I went to him, trying to get him out of the fucking road, but he wouldn’t move. At some point, the neighbor up the street came out, beer reeking on his breath, and tried to talk some sense into him. I could see by his seething, that it was just making him angrier. But still he was silent. I honestly don’t recall what we did or said to end the standoff, but eventually he got out of the street and came inside. The fight would continue for days, and not until I agreed not to look at other people, would he relent that I wasn’t “cheating on him.”

I wish I could go back to that time, and call the police. I wish I could have told them I had a young man who was threatening self-harm and needed to be institutionalized (which wasn’t that far away from the truth). I wish I had broken up with him right then and there. What I didn’t see at the time, but is so clear to me now, was how much of the upper hand I had at that moment. I could have told him I didn’t want to be his girlfriend anymore, I could have just walked away, gotten in my car and left him. I could have done so much, but instead, I tried to help. I had no backbone.

This is the difference between a healthy person’s outlook and my own. Not to say that I’m super well-adjusted now, but I would never stand for such nonsense nowadays. Often my parents saw this brooding silence, his temper tantrums, his manipulation, and never once did they say anything. They didn’t particularly care for him, but they feared saying something to me, that I couldn’t handle the criticism. I think if they had said that this type of behavior was not normal, that it was abusive and not okay, it would have given me a metric to hold the relationship to. But instead, their silence was a tacit acceptance that this was what a relationship should look like, that I was right to accept it.

The manipulation got much, much worse after this situation, and culminated in all kinds of other abuses. Never once did anyone say anything, which was just as cruel. It was obvious I was suffering. It wasn’t until he made the mistake of stealing money from my parents did they actually intervene. By then, the prospect of criminal charges wasn’t enough to end the relationship, but force it into secrecy. My isolation became worse and worse. I contemplated suicide. I felt that no one cared, not even him. I truly hit bottom, or so I thought. Turns out, I was capable of doing much more damage to myself after that, and then would have no one to blame but myself. But that’s a story for another day.

The memory still haunts me because it’s so easy to accept ludicrous things in an abusive situation if you have no barometer for healthy, normal behavior. This is how the cycle of abuse perpetuates itself across generations. We deny our own health for the sake of status quo. We ignore the elephant in the room because the cognitive dissonance is just so painful to accept. It’s easier to believe we’re the messed up one when abusers don’t love us than to put that onus back on them.