‘He went quiet. ‘You’re out with who?!’ he snarled. Surprised by his reaction, I laughed. His anger grew. ‘Tell him to go home. Tell him to leave. Now.’ This must be my mistake, I thought.’

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“I was fresh out of high school and was excited to finally focus on my photography career full time. One day, I received an inquiry about a photo shoot and headed down to meet the potential client at his store. After we finished our brief meeting, he and I ended up keeping in touch. I liked him, and as an insecure 18-year-old, it felt great that this older, successful man liked me too. We conversed and hung out and when he asked me to be his girlfriend only two weeks later, I was all in. I was so charmed by him and a little intimidated by his confidence, but more than anything I was longing for love. The fact that he seemed to always want me around made me feel good. Validated. Desired.

It wasn’t long, however, before he began to use his anger to control my life. One of the earliest incidents I can recall is when I was at the mall with a guy friend I hadn’t seen since graduating high school. While we were hanging out, my boyfriend called me, and when I mentioned where I was, he went quiet for a moment.

‘What?’ he snarled. ‘You’re out with who?’

Surprised by the intensity of his reaction but amused because I knew things were platonic between my friend and I, I laughed and tried to explain that it wasn’t that type of situation. His anger only grew. This was the first time I had experienced him being upset in this way and although I was completely bewildered by it, I decided to apologize in an attempt to pacify the situation. My friend stood by awkwardly as I did my best to reason with LO, confused though I was by his overreaction. Then LO said, ‘Tell him to go home.’ I was really thrown off by that and said I couldn’t do that, he had just arrived and I hadn’t seen him in so long, and we were just hanging out and―

‘Tell him to leave. Now.’

I was young, naive, and inexperienced. I didn’t know what to do. The anger in his voice was making me nervous and I was starting to feel like if he was 𝘵𝘩𝘢𝘵 upset then I must have messed up somewhere. Maybe when you’re in a serious relationship you’re not supposed to hang out with your guy friends anymore. This must be my mistake, I thought.

Completely embarrassed with no other idea of what to do, I turned to my friend and said, ‘He said you have to go home.’

‘What?’ he asked, incredulously.

‘He said you have to leave. I’m so sorry…’ I felt mortified, unsure of myself, and helpless.

My beloved classmate turned and walked away, shaking his head. We never spoke again after that and along with his departure went my innocence; I was becoming ensnared in a situation that would alter my life completely.

@ziggazaggastudio

About a year into seeing him, I returned from a month-long trip to India. I had missed him so much during my time away and headed over to his place excitedly with all the gifts I had brought back for him. Halfway through dinner, I accidentally knocked over my drink.

‘Whoops,’ I said. His reaction, however, was a lot more intense. He began to yell at me and berate me. Completely surprised by it and refusing to be spoken to like that, I went upstairs to gather my things so I could leave. He followed me, picked up the gifts I’d bought for him, and began throwing them at me. I headed down the stairs but he ran past me and blocked the front door, saying, ‘You’re not going anywhere.’ I tried to open the door, but he wouldn’t move. He wouldn’t let me leave. So I returned to the couch and sat there while he verbally bashed me for the next half hour or so until his anger subsided. He told me to clean up the mess and said, ‘If I was really an asshole, I’d be throwing the wet paper towels at you while you cleaned.’

Although he had already been manipulating me with his anger at this point, it was always in a quiet way, with glaring looks and harsh words spoken calmly. This was my first experience with him blowing up like this—and over something so incredibly minor! And why did I stay with him after this and so many similar incidents to come? Because during the entire time we were together, I did not know I was being abused. I had never heard of psychological abuse before and thought only physical or sexual violence could be considered abuse. My eyes were completely closed to the fact that psychological abuse is, in fact, a very real and very dangerous form of abuse, often downplayed because its wounds tend not to be physical.

@ziggazaggastudio

Because I was unaware of this form of abuse, the way I saw it and the way he had me looking at things was that he was just stressed out because of major changes that were happening in his life. He claimed to be working on himself and doing his best to improve his situation. As his girlfriend, I naively thought it was my duty to love and support him through it all. How could I just jump ship when he was going through so much? He’d been so sweet when we first met. I believed that one day he would return to being that way. It’s ironic how I believed him to be the caring, charming person he had shown himself to be for a brief period of time, instead of the angry, disrespectful person he was most of the time. If he ever pushed me too far, he would do a small gesture to win me over and it would work. He saw the compassion in me, the longing for love, the need for acceptance. He knew he could take advantage of the most vulnerable parts of me, and he did.

Over the course of three years, his behavior continued to get worse. He managed to get me to cut ties with all my guy friends. He cheated on me with more women than I’ll ever know. He sped dangerously between other cars to terrorize me when he was angry. He screamed at me in public to humiliate me. He coerced me once into performing a degrading, sexual act to punish me for having a conversation with another man while I was at a party with him. And if I tried to leave, he wouldn’t let me break up with him―he’d ring down my phone or keep my belongings so that I’d have to come back for them. He even showed up at my family’s home one day when I refused to answer his calls. Afraid he would make a scene, I went out to his car to meet him and when I refused to get in, he grabbed me by my clothes and pulled me in. Some time later, he said that if I ever called the police on him, they wouldn’t be there to protect me 24/7, and even if he did get arrested, he would send his boys to come after me. When he eventually began to threaten to hurt people I loved if I left him, I surrendered. I no longer felt like I had a way out, and I carried immense guilt for putting other people’s lives in danger. I believed I was going to be in this relationship for the rest of my life.

@ziggazaggastudio

One day, in yet another fit of rage, he spat in my face. I was completely shocked that the person who was supposed to love me would do this to me, and while my mind was still reeling and trying to process the fact that he’d done that, I instinctively reached out and slapped him. And then he slapped me back. And it was with that first incident of physical violence the spell was broken. I may not have known what psychological abuse was, but I definitely recognized physical abuse. I finally knew for certain that he wasn’t working on himself as he had claimed, that he wasn’t going to get better, and that if I stayed, things would only get more and more dangerous. I left then and there. And unlike all the other times before when he was able to convince me that whatever traumatic incident he put me through wasn’t really all that bad, this time I didn’t look back after I left him.

Of course he didn’t make leaving easy. As usual, he called and texted and emailed nonstop, and just when I thought I was never going to get away from him, he got arrested for something completely unrelated. And with that impenetrable distance in between us, I was finally able to start piecing my life back together.

A lot of time passed before I realized I’d been abused that entire time. I fell into a pit of sadness and confusion and stayed there for a long time, wondering over and over again, ‘Why did he do that to me?’ Eventually I came to understand that it wasn’t about me, and that it was entirely about him and his issues. I began to feel deep compassion for him (knowing it was still not safe to be in touch with him ever again) and that was of the moments that marked the start of my healing journey: the moment I took myself out of the equation and stopped taking what he did to me personally. The pain however, did not dissipate right away. In fact, it took years.

@ziggazaggastudio

After leaving him, I got into another relationship with a much kinder person who was very loving, but suddenly I had all these new challenges. I couldn’t seem to trust him, I was always worried he was cheating on me, and feeling incapable of stopping myself from feeling this way exacerbated my mental anguish. Finally, after holding all of these negative thoughts and memories in for so long and being so hard on myself for not knowing how to be calm and at peace in a relationship, I ended up speaking to friends about what I was going through, hoping they could give me some advice. This was a pivotal moment for me. I felt tremendous relief to get everything off my chest after holding it all in for so long, but I then felt great sadness as one by one my friends began to relay their own stories back to me. I couldn’t believe how common abuse was and how little it was being spoken about. This awareness affected me deeply, and in 2012, I did something about it.

I faced my lifelong fear of public speaking and began sharing my story of abuse publicly to raise awareness. I also started a free event series called Reclaim Your Voice (www.ReclaimYourVoice.org), where other people could have the opportunity to share their stories in a safe and supportive space. Since then, my team and I have hosted over 50 community events, I’ve discovered my passion for public speaking, and I’ve begun performing spoken word poetry based on my experiences and the stories others have shared with me. Here is one of my spoken word poems brought to life. This poem has had a lot of impact on the people I’ve performed it for in the past.

I started Reclaim Your Voice to support others as they heal, but I didn’t expect how much it would end up adding to my own healing. I once heard someone say, ‘You were abused in isolation, you can only heal in a community.’ That has been completely true for me. When we connect with people who share similar experiences, we learn things that make us feel less alone as well as techniques for healing.

If you are currently healing from or are still in an abusive relationship, know that pain is not the end of your story and there is much beauty and joy to be experienced in your lifetime. No matter what you have been told or how you have been treated, you are worthy of love, gentleness and belonging. Don’t believe the words that people use to make you feel small or less than, when really this world is full of kind people who care about you. There is support out there to help you leave and/or help you heal. Many have done it before you and have gone on to live wonderful lives. I myself, someone who was once trapped in a relationship I couldn’t get out of, am travelling solo through Asia as I write this, seeing some of the most beautiful sights I’ve ever seen and crying tears of joy as I reflect on my freedom.

Look into resources in your area to receive the support you deserve. Connect with others who have gone through similar experiences. Believe in your ability to heal. You can reclaim the life that is yours.”

@ziggazaggastudio

This story was submitted to Love What Matters by Jungle Flower of Toronto. You can follow her journey on Instagram. Do you have a similar experience? We’d like to hear your important journey. Submit your own story here, and be sure to subscribe to our free email newsletter for our best stories.

Read more from survivors overcoming abusive relationships:

‘He proposed. ‘You’ll NEVER find a man as good as me.’ I was ecstatic and terrified. Finally, we will be married and everything will be perfect. I was lucky to have him, because HE would still love me.’

‘On the night of our honeymoon, I saw the DARKER side of my husband. My heart was beating out of my chest. He crouched down and whispered in my ear, ‘You… are NOT going to tell me what to do.’ I felt instant regret.’

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