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Not all monsters lurk in the shadows

It happened in a dark hallway. The old, cheap lights would sometimes flicker, and the heating was always off. The whoosh of air conditioning and LED lights overwhelmed my senses, along with the loud pounding of my heart. My hands were clammy; my fingers were freezing. My head was burning, and my mouth dry. Goosebumps lined my arms as I hugged myself. Footsteps approached from the distance, and I closed my eyes. I knew what was coming, but I could deal with it. I always dealt with it, and if I didn’t fight it I’d be okay.

This story of abuse begins in seventh grade, as it does for 32 percent of middle schoolers. That year, I reconnected with a close friend from elementary school, and when in sixth grade we had nearly identical schedules, our friendship grew. Within 12 months, however, things changed.

For my thirteenth birthday, I got my very first phone. He asked for my number, and as soon as I got home, he texted; we talked casually for a while. He asked me if I liked anyone, but I refused to tell him out of embarrassment. After several hours of trying to figure out who each of us had a crush on, he told me he liked me. He said he wanted me to be his girlfriend and that he loved me. I felt bad. I cared about him so much that even though I didn’t think of him the same way, I gave him a chance. He immediately started calling me ‘baby’ and saying things like, ‘I wish I could kiss you right now.’ His comments seem immature now, but they were new to me, and it was just a few days into our ‘relationship.’

After a couple weeks, I ended things because I just didn’t see him as anything more than a friend, but I felt so guilty for hurting his feelings that I convinced myself to like him and asked him out on my own terms. We were on and off for the entire year, and every time he wanted to hang out, I’d decline because his plans were for us to be alone, which made me nervous, yet he relentlessly asked me to keep our relationship secret. He’d say, “I can’t risk anyone finding out about us,” so I assumed he was ashamed to be with me. That led to us breaking things off, forgiving each other and getting back together.

He texted me casual pictures, saying silly things such as, ‘Like ma outfit?’ It started off innocent, but his pictures grew more explicit. He started asking for pictures of me in return, often requesting that I be completely naked. We’d be having a normal conversation, when out of nowhere he’d interrupt with, “Why won’t you send me pictures?” When I refused, he’d get mad and say I owed him because of the pictures he sent me first (without my consent, might I mention). He talked to me as if it were my fault he wasn’t satisfied.  That summer he got a new girlfriend, and they dated for a long time. The girl was a close friend, so it was hard when she talked about how great their relationship was working out because I blamed myself for how bad ours had been.

The summer before ninth grade, we tried to date again. I didn’t actually like him, but I wanted validation after he had made me feel so romantically incompetent. Rekindling our relationship felt like my only solution. On the first day “together” he asked for nude pictures. He begged for an hour until I replied, and he took a screenshot though we had made a rule not to. I was angry, and though he apologized, his tone and his words made it seem like I was overreacting. He defended himself saying, “It was just one picture” and told me to calm down. I told him I would never send pictures again, and the next day he broke things off.

At the beginning of freshman year, he asked to talk in person. I wanted to know what he had to say, so I obliged. We met privately, and he said, “I wanted to talk to you about what happened this summer.” He came up with the stupid excuse that his other ex-girlfriend had asked him out on the same day, and he couldn’t choose between us. I wasn’t buying it, but I thought his explanation was funny, so I hoped to be friends again. We hugged, and out of the blue he kissed me. It was the first time we had kissed, and it was my first kiss ever. Startled, I thought when we parted ways that would be that. Except it wasn’t.

The next week, he jokingly took my phone, and he made me chase him back to the same place we kissed. When we got far enough into the hallway, he stopped running and laughing. He grabbed me and hugged me tight. Then he kissed me again, but this time it was different. He started grabbing my breasts and my butt and tried to put his hands underneath my shirt. He never asked if any of this was okay. I grabbed his hands, trying to get him to stop, but he didn’t. I tried telling him to stop, but my voice kept getting stuck in my throat, and my requests came out in whispers. I mentally shut down, not prepared for this situation. But he never stopped, and, as time went on, his assaults got worse.

During the course of the next month, he’d do the same routine: bring me somewhere in the school where we were alone; we would talk casually for a bit then do whatever he wanted to do to me. I went with him because sometimes he would say, “We only do this if you want,” and I’d reply “OK, I don’t want to do this,” but he would argue with me to keep it going. I didn’t want to fight with him because I was scared of what he could be capable of, seeing that he had already held my arms back, pinned me against the wall and pulled me toward him by my wrists when I tried to leave early, and I, like one in five young women each year, became a victim. Before each ‘session,’ my mouth would go dry; my heart would pound out of my chest and knots formed in my stomach. My fingers would grow ice cold, my skin clammy.

Everything in my body screamed: “Don’t. Do. This. Just walk away, and you’ll never have to do this again.” But my legs kept walking; my eyes kept looking forward. It was as if he had put me in a trance, and I was under his control. I pretended to enjoy what he did to me because it kept him from becoming violent. I think that’s what I was most afraid of – the physical and psychological pain he could induce. He wanted to go further with each ‘session,’ which made me more afraid. He began pulling my shirt up over my breasts and taking them out of my bra. He put his hand down the front of my pants and beneath my underwear and tried to go as far as he could. The entire time I would shake and try to hold his arms back, but my efforts were useless.

All of this happened at school, almost every day, and I felt empty, unable to escape and destined to bear it until high school ended.

Since then I have read that countless other victims of assault react the same way: they freeze and blame themselves, and, to make matters worse, I was conflicted because he was once a good friend, and I didn’t want to ruin our friendship. It was even harder in class because he was funny and charming and acted like the friend he had always been. I was so confused because he treated me as if nothing was happening between us, and no one around was suspicious. It was almost as if he had two personalities. In public, it was his usual pleasant demeanor. In private, he flipped like a switch, and that terrified me because I didn’t even know the person I met in the hallway anymore. Everyone else seemed to like him. Only I saw him as dangerous and scary, so I thought the problem must lie in me.

I believed I was at fault; I accepted the all-too-common notion of victim-blaming even though I was the victim and, in my mind, defended him for his actions. People tell me I could have said no, but it’s so much harder when you’re living the situation. It wasn’t difficult for me to turn down random boys who asked me out or even pressured me to send nudes. It was hard to turn down someone I had known and cared about. My friend. I trusted him, so I did what he asked.

But the predatory behavior didn’t stop at 4:05 p.m. Nighttime was a whole other ordeal.

After everyone had gone to bed, he’d text, asking if I was awake. My mind always on guard; I feared the vibration from my phone. I replied because I believed that getting the inevitable finished might let me sleep. He prodded me to fulfill his sexual fantasies by telling him stories like, “What if we were alone together in my bedroom?” While I wove these fictions, he asked for sexually explicit pictures of my body. I sensed he would use his attacks and the pictures as blackmail and grew afraid of that more than him. I spent sleepless nights where I thought of nothing else. I became depressed and knew that feeding into his perverted ways and keeping it all a secret were major contributors. I wanted to tell people, but, like so many sexual assault survivors, I feared no one would believe me since he had evidence of my participation. Though I felt unmotivated, unworthy, overwhelmed and even dirty, I wasn’t strong enough to say no, so the rest of the year passed with only occasional breaks. When summer came, there was no way for us to meet, but the nightly routine continued whenever he requested.

Throughout most of my sophomore year, I did whatever he wanted. He repeatedly asked for falacio, begging like a child because I refused, but his nagging eventually wore me down; I figured relenting would be easier than fighting, but the act only made me more numb and depressed, and him more aggressive. Every time we met he pushed me further, grabbing my head down when he hugged me. I was disgusted with myself and the control he had over me.

Our evening routine continued, too, but now instead of pictures he demanded videos and eventually FaceTime. He’d ask me to perform acts via video, and the longer I refused the more aggressive he became. Though he said he wouldn’t force me to do anything I didn’t want, when I refused, he’d argue and pressure me: “Oh c’mon! Do it for me?” “You trust me, right?” “We only have to do a little bit.” But it was never just a little bit. He told me I was “helping” him, and although at first I found it stupid, eventually I believed him.  I, like 25-35 percent of young people in a violent relationship, interpreted it as love and wondered if all romances were like this. Like many victims of emotional coercion and intimidation, I wanted to help someone who called himself my friend. I craved an end to his harassment and did what he demanded, hoping for the sleep that never came.

The end of the semester offered me a sanctuary, or so I thought. I started dating a new guy, which made my offender back off. But even then, I felt his lurking eyes. Sometimes he followed me to the fountain and stood behind me while I filled my water bottle. He even grabbed my butt once while we were walking back to our classroom. No matter what I did, he found a way to insinuate himself into my life. He texted, saying he missed me and telling me how much he missed my body. I knew I should block his number and cut all contact, but I didn’t because  I feared his spreading pictures of me or telling his friends about what he had done to me.

When my boyfriend and I broke up that summer, I knew as soon as my harasser found out, he’d find a way into my life. Although he was in a relationship with a friend of mine, he texted, saying he wanted “a piece of the action again.” I said no, and my friends told me he spread a rumor about us. I felt trapped and soon became his prisoner once again. I thought it would be easier to let him do what he wanted than have him mad at me and potentially hurt me more. I wasn’t sure how many pictures of me he had saved on his phone, but it was scarier to think he would spread them than to do something privately that no one knew about. Like the summer before, he harassed me over FaceTime nightly. Having sleepovers with friends saved me for one night, but it’s not like I could have sleepovers all the time. Every day I tried to delay FaceTiming him as long as possible by pretending to be busy. On some occasions, I actually was, but he promised to stay up for me, which made it impossible for me to concentrate, knowing what awaited me on the other end of the phone.

Sometimes I wouldn’t respond to his “Are you still awake?” texts so he’d call me on FaceTime anyway and keep calling until I responded. Even during the actual calls I tried to delay what he wanted by making conversation or saying, “I’ll be right back” and leaving for a while. My postponement made him aggressive. He’d say, “I’m losing my patience,” which frightened me. Whenever he called, he’d tell me to perform something on camera. I’d do it, and he would make me watch what he did to himself. He’d say things like, “I wish this was your hand” or “I wish you were here in my bed right now.” I’d have to say similar things, but I never meant any of them and felt ridiculous saying what sounded like a script from a bad porn movie.

I knew this wasn’t who I was; it wasn’t what I wanted to do, but my participation made it harder to talk to anyone about it because I couldn’t leave out how I contributed. Lost and ashamed, I could tell no one what had been happening to me. It was my fault; wasn’t it? I thought. I tried to stop it multiple times, but maybe I just didn’t try hard enough. My timeline of events got mixed up in my head.  He controlled me and everything I did. I was just his little puppet, his sex doll.

My depression was so bad that I didn’t care about anything anymore. School work, particularly my grades in math and science, was falling apart. Surely, I thought,  if he spread the pictures, it wouldn’t matter. I was mentally exhausted.

Then one night everything changed for the better.

My sister was in my room; we were arguing about something stupid (If you really want to know, she smeared a dead mosquito into my carpet, and I got mad) and all the built up stress exploded out of me. I burst into tears. She could tell something else was the problem and sat on my bed, trying to calm me down.

My head pounded; I felt the lump in my throat restricting air flow and thought I might faint, but I told her everything. Words tumbled from my mouth. I cried through it all, and she listened. When I finished, I could see her anger. I was scared because I thought maybe she was mad at me, but when she spoke, it was clear that her anger was toward my assaulter. She brought my other sister into my room and explained everything. They talked to me a lot that night, and we stayed up late. They confirmed my suspicions that what happened to me was manipulation and sexual abuse, and, yeah I was weak, but it also wasn’t my fault. One of my sisters offered to tell our mom, knowing the conversation was probably too hard for me. I took a leap of faith and said yes.

The next morning my mom woke me. She was furious, and this time, it was at me. She was mad that I hadn’t told her sooner and sad I wasn’t strong enough to fend for myself against someone who hurt me so much. I could tell she was conflicted because she was having trouble processing this information, which had left her speechless. She didn’t know what to think or who to blame, who to be mad at. She later said she was mostly mad at him because he was supposed to be my friend. He had helped me in the past when life was painful, and now he was the one causing pain. She said ever since I was little she was afraid that something like this might happen, mainly because I could never stand up for myself when my sisters teased me, or when they asked for favors, I could never say no. She had thought my grades were dropping because I was lazy and wasn’t studying, when, in fact, it was this thing in my life that wouldn’t let me focus on anything. Heartbroken, she felt guilty for never having figured it out.

Our conversation made me realize that telling people gave me power over him. Keeping quiet only helped him get away with what he was doing. As ashamed as I was of the past four years of my life, I was much more relieved that I found the power to tell my family.  

The day Mom found out, she made me block him on everything: Snapchat, Twitter and his phone number. There was one thing I didn’t do, though. I left him unblocked on Instagram. Even after everything he had done, a part of me hoped for the normal relationship we once had. The sad truth is that, like me, those who have experienced trauma caused by people we once deeply trusted is that we can’t accept that they have never had good intentions. Someone I had believed in and loved for nine years was abusing me, and it was impossible for me to see that. I had seen the good side of him for so long that I wouldn’t accept his bad side. I sent him a message on Snapchat: “Hey, I told my parents about what’s been happening between us. They’re making me block you on everything, so I guess this is goodbye.”

About two months later at the beginning of second semester of my junior year, he messaged me on Instagram saying he was sorry for everything he had ever done to me and that he understood how wrong it was. He admitted he never asked me how I felt and that he never took my words into consideration or asked for consent. We talked a long time, and eventually I added him back on Snapchat, saying, “Let’s just erase the past, put everything behind us and start over again. We can forget about it all and start fresh.” It seemed to work for a few months, and I hoped to be friends again as we once were those many years back in elementary school.

Then out of nowhere, he sent me a nude picture of himself.

This time, I had determination and strength. I immediately blocked him on Snapchat, and he messaged me on Instagram saying he was “too attracted to me” and that since we used to have a romantic connection, it was hard for him to let go and he wanted what we used to have. He said once we agreed to be friends again, my Snapchat messages made him “too aroused.” He acted as if he couldn’t control his actions and that he just had to send me a picture. We had a long argument that ended without resolution, and it was the end of our contact until his birthday. As I had every year, I wished him a happy birthday as a friendly gesture. I didn’t say anything else other than happy birthday, and he responded with a thanks. I asked him what kind of presents he got, and he told me. I don’t know why I kept making conversation. It makes me look stupid how trusting I was, but it still felt wrong to think he had abused me; it was easier to believe I was at fault for his behavior. After four years of emotional and mental manipulation, it was hard to just reverse the brainwashing process in eight months.

We kept talking and, before I knew it, he tried to get me to send videos or FaceTime. Like every year previously, he said, it would be my birthday present to him. Though I should have seen it coming, part of me believed he could change. Whenever people called his behavior abuse or assault, I felt like I was going against him. My brain contradicted itself. I felt powerful one day and like I was the one in control. The next day I’d deny my inner voice, thinking he was right all along. It was incredibly difficult to keep my mind made up because I was used to oppressing my true thoughts and feelings and, instead, accepting his version of me.

My reaction to his request was different, though; this time whatever baggage he had on me didn’t matter.  Knowing all along I would say no and mean it, I told him I would consider his proposal. I wanted to avoid the argument I knew we would have. I blew him off for a week even though every single night he asked me for his “present.”

Finally, it got too annoying, and I said no. Furious, he said, “Are you kidding me?” “You promised!” and “You kind of owe me.” In what world did I owe you something? I thought, Was I your sex slave? It sure felt like it. I kept telling myself I was doing the right thing, and I stuck to my answer, and, although he was passive aggressive, he gave up eventually. For the first time, I had won. I had power over him, yes, but more importantly I had power over myself. I felt like I just conquered Mount freaking Everest, and I knew from there on no matter what happened, I’d be okay. I had told a few of my very close friends at this point, and they were supportive. I was unstoppable.

But it wasn’t over just yet.

I had to decide what I was going to do. Should I tell the authorities what he had done? Should I stayed quiet and let this all pass?  I made my decision. I am not reporting this person. There’s more to the story than I can remember and stuff I won’t mention here. I still wonder if there were times I encouraged his behavior. What makes my story so complicated is that it isn’t just the tale of a predator and a victim. Like 85 percent of assaults, this one didn’t come from a stranger, and I still struggle to accept that my humiliation and depression were caused by someone I cared for and loved, someone I trusted, someone who turned those positive feelings and used them to manipulate me.

People may not see me as a victim because they think I played a role in all of it, and part of me worries that, in a way, I did. But in cases like mine, embarrassment kept me from talking, and trust in my abuser made me believe I had to do what he said. It’s difficult to accept that a lifelong friend sexually preyed on me for five years. Some will think my story exposes me for being stupid and weak, and I honestly don’t blame them; I do sound foolish. Maybe I was. But it’s much easier to say that as an outsider. Giving him control kept him from fighting with me, which kept me from being scared.

This year, though, I stopped responding to him altogether. When he would text–“You look sooo good today,” or “I can’t stop staring at you.”– if we saw each other at school, I let his “compliments” land on the screen with no response. My silence ended any conversation before it began. Eventually I stopped seeing him in the hallways; his texts dissipated, and I’m happy to say nothing has happened.

Even with it all finished, I feel the impact of the psychological abuse he induced. I have trouble being assertive when I’m in an argument. I prefer not to input my emotions or opinions into certain matters because I assume I’m wrong, and I feel as if I over exaggerate when I get angry. I used to be more confident, and my personality changes are a result of the years of abuse.

I can’t say the way I ended things was bold, brave or satisfying. When I think about everything that has happened, I am angry for not taking more initiative. I know it’s easier to say that now because I’m in a good state of mind and in a happy place in my life with people around me who truly love and care about me, but I wish I could’ve done something more, which is why I’m writing this. It’s my way of closing the door on this abuse. I feel like telling everyone this story will not only help me accept what happened and move on from it, but, hopefully, my experience will serve someone else who’s been through the same situation.

To anyone who has experienced anything remotely similar, please know you are not alone and never have been. Two out of three teens in an abusive relationship tell no one. Unfortunately, there are people out there going through the same things, and we are willing to listen to what you have to say. Sure, there are those who will ignore your pleas for help, and even after you explain to them what happened they’ll blame you. Some will question you and may even take your oppressor’s side. They’re part of the problem; go to someone else, and if they have the same response, go to someone else. Never stop fighting for yourself because you are worth it. For years I didn’t tell anyone about my experiences, and I regret that because if I had, maybe it wouldn’t have escalated to such a great magnitude.

I’m tired of these past years dragging me down and defining me. I want my experience to be one people can use to help prevent similar incidents in the future. Now that I received help, I know it was the right choice, and I finally have some peace. If you are in a relationship that you suspect is abusive, tell someone what you’ve been through, take time to mentally prepare but don’t talk yourself out of it. You deserve some peace, too.

 

It is often easier to blame oneself than to admit that you were rendered helpless or victimized by another person. As humans, we want to believe that we are in control of our own lives. When something that occurs reminds us that, in fact, we are not always in control, it is very upsetting. So upsetting that we would prefer to blame ourselves for our victimization. –

This tendency to blame themselves and to be overwhelmed with shame leads into the next important reason why women don’t come forward: denial and minimization. Many women refuse to believe that the treatment they endured was actually abusive. They downplay how much they have been harmed by sexual harassment and even sexual assault. They convince themselves that “it wasn’t a big deal.” As one client told me, “I know a lot of women who were brutally raped, and I have friends who were sexually abused in childhood. Being sexually harassed by my boss was nothing compared to what these women went through. I told myself to just move on and forget the whole thing.”

Unfortunately, this same client had come to see me because she was suffering from depression. She couldn’t sleep at night, she had no appetite, she had lost her motivation, and she had isolated herself from friends and family. When we traced these symptoms back, we discovered that they all began after the sexual harassment incident. Depression is one of the major after-effects of sexual harassment or assault. Victims may experience self-doubt, which can lead to self-blame, and the hopelessness of the situation can also lead to depression.

Fear of the repercussions is a huge obstacle women face when it comes to reporting sexual harassment or assault — fear of losing their job, fear they won’t find another job, fear they will be passed over for a promotion, fear of losing their credibility, fear of being branded a troublemaker, fear of being blackballed in their industry, fear of their physical safety. This is true whether it is a case of a young woman in her first job being harassed, an actress trying to make her way in the entertainment business, or a career woman desperately trying to break through the glass ceiling.

 

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