Sunday, April 14, 2013

Why I'm Wearing a White Ribbon this Week

April 12th marked the beginning of of Vera House's 19th annual White Ribbon week. It ends on the 21st. I've always held Vera House in high regard, but I didn't know they did anything like this until I started my practicum work at Pine Grove, where a project is in the works to raise awareness. I thought I'd do my part and describe, in as much detail as I feel comfortable, a rambling account of what happened to me, and why I'll be proudly displaying my white ribbon all week long.

I remember the first time I realized that my relationship was in serious trouble.We were in a hotel room for New Years, and he started to insert his finger inside my anus. Like all of the other times, he had forgotten to cut his fingernails, so it hurt a great deal, and I bled. I didn't know it at the time, but this was to be the first time of many where a sexual encounter between the two of us would make me bleed. When I refused (not for the first time), he collapsed in a pile and was crestfallen. He told me that "real couples had sex" and if we didn't have sex (not mentioned: the way he wants it), then we aren't a real couple. I was perfectly happy sticking around third base and not having painful, unpleasant, sexual intercourse that I hated, mostly because it made me bleed every single time. He issued me an ultimatum: I could either fall in line and allow him to have sex the way he wanted it, or the relationship would end right there.

So I gave in. I let him do whatever he wanted, however many times he wanted, until he was finally done. I hear what you're all thinking loudly in your heads: "But TBW, why didn't you just tell him you hated it and stop it there? And if he wanted to end the relationship, then so be it. It sucks, but it's better for both of you." Well, yes, dear reader, you're right; I could have done that. I could have said that we were over and saved my own ass. Of course, there was a catch: he implied very heavily, and on at least one occasion out and out stated, that if I left him, he'd either be so depressed that he'd commit suicide, or he'd start having chest pains that would kill him. Either way, it would be my fault. That part of the message was unsaid, but was also crystal clear. "No one loved me like you do." "I don't know what I'd do without you. I don't think I could survive." etc.

All this got me thinking about all the ways in which my relationship with my ex-fiance had been failing. He had been manipulating me in a number of ways, from telling me how bad my dog is to reminding me about how everything would be better after I cut my family out of my life. He frequently got angry, confused, and hurt whenever I said I'd gone out with friends, and insisted on going everywhere with me. Whenever I said I didn't want to go someplace with him, he moped around the house and told me about how superfluous he felt. Whenever I went for a walk with my dog, he assumed he was invited and rushed out of the house to follow me. He'd always assume he had access to my things, particularly my laptop, and would be angry when I suggested he use his own. He was extremely angry and hurt by the fact that I had a friend over who made me dinner, he was hurt and confused when I went to play volleyball without him, even though he was several hours away and couldn't physically come. Any time I wanted to spend by myself was time I was being anti-social.

I couldn't be angry or sad or even mildly frustrated around him. Any emotion besides happiness was off limits, and caused him to mope and turn the topic to how I'm not thinking about his wants and needs. If I'm sad, it's clearly his fault, and I'm going to leave him. If I'm angry, I'm clearly angry at him and I'm going to hit him. Outside factors were NEVER taken into consideration. In his mind, there WAS nothing outside of our relationship. Because of that, he would discourage me from spending time with or talking to my other friends, especially about discussing our relationship. I couldn't suggest that we might not be together forever, because if I did, in his mind, that meant that I was thinking of leaving him. I didn't want to leave him, not for a long time, but I simply wanted the option. I wanted to be able to leave.

That's abuse. But, of course, as a victim, I couldn't see that at the time and thought it was all my fault. He would always tell me that I should take steps to be more like him. He hated the things I liked, and was outright offended by some of them. He was offended by my identification as a feminist, as the very word is discriminatory against men, and don't you know that the sexes are equal now and that discrimination is over? Any time I disagreed with him, I was clearly trying to silence him and suppress his opinions.

This was, of course, just the predecessor to the physical violence and sexual assault that permeated most of our relationship. His favorite games in bed were to hold me down by my wrists during intercourse, and if he could, he'd pin my head so I was looking straight at him. The only thing he hated more than my saying no was when he thought I might be thinking of someone else during intercourse. He liked to lie down on top of me and pin me so I couldn't move. I couldn't show fear or displeasure, couldn't let on that I didn't like his idea of sex. I couldn't even lie back and think of England, although that tended to be what I did, only I had to make it look like I was enjoying it. In fact, if I showed anything but ecstasy, I knew I needed to prepare for a long session where he would cry and mope and tell me how worried he is about our relationship. One of his other favorite games was to try to have me kiss him. He wanted me to attempt it knowing I would fail. That was the game. With my arms and legs pinned, the only way I could assume any kind of control in that situation was to not attempt to kiss him, which made him sad and angry, because if I wasn't playing his game, then our sex life was in trouble and I would have to leave him and he'd die. There are plenty of nights where I have to sleep on the futon in the next room over because I can't relax in the bed where I was assaulted so many times.

I didn't bleed from every session we had, but one is way more than enough. I couldn't tell him about the bleeding, because if I did, he would get sad and angry, and the discussion would shift from my being in pain to why I'm saying these things to hurt him and that I shouldn't leave. The litany continued until I finally couldn't take it anymore. I had had enough of trying to select each word with surgical precision and at lightning speed, because if I didn't, bad things would happen. I had had enough of shutting my friends out of my life, tailoring my hobbies and interests to someone else's desires and ideas, and constantly being told how childish and silly all of my fears are. And that's not even getting into how poorly he treated my dog, taking every opportunity to tell him (always when I was present, of course) what a bad dog he was, and how no one will ever love him because he's so bad, and how he's the worst dog in the world, and so on.

He'd always tell me it was my fault. He'd say things like "You know what happens when you breathe on my neck", and "I can't be held responsible for what I do when you wear a red button-down shirt". He'd say that he just couldn't control himself because I turn him on so much, that I had to agree to have sex whenever he wanted, otherwise, we weren't in a real relationship. This scared me, a lot, but of course, I couldn't let it show, because if I did, much worse things were in store.

So, I left him, and as expected, he ran around the house, throwing a temper tantrum as he packed. He kept asking what he did to make me not love him anymore, and when I responded that I did but we were better off apart, he said that if I loved him I would still be with him, and that I'm just wrong about everything else. The fact that we had disparate personalities didn't matter. The fact that we had two wildly different sets of interests didn't matter. The fact that I was in grad school and physically and psychologically couldn't spend all my time on him didn't matter. The fact that we wanted completely different things out of life didn't matter. The only thing that mattered to him was how much I had hurt him, and how I was doing it intentionally because I couldn't deal with his baggage. He and many of his friends decided that I was not in any pain because I didn't post about it on Facebook. Because I didn't tell everyone who would listen that I was hurting, I must not have cared at all. He threatened to take legal action against me if I didn't return his stuff, called me abusive on Facebook, and decided he would show up at my house whether I liked it or not. That was the last I've heard from him.

Now, in the aftermath, I've become hyper vigilant. I carry a knife when I do laundry. I carry a flattened fork, dubbed my 'rape fork', in the pocket of my peacoat to make me feel safer. I carry a hunting knife in the pocket of my summer coat for the same reasons. I walk around with my car key in between my pointer and middle fingers, and I automatically size up every room whenever I enter it. Yes, within fifteen seconds of entering your house, I will have mapped where your exits are, and where there is anything I can use as a weapon. I make sure to note street lights and park under them, I change my appearance and gait if I need to go back to my car because I forgot something so as not to be recognized, and I see him everywhere. Whenever someone smiles so big that their eyes close, I see him. Whenever someone sighs happily, I see him. Whenever someone bites their knuckle, I see him. Whenever someone jumps in the air and claps their hands, I see him. Whenever I see him, I can feel his hands on me, holding me down and forcing me to do what he wants. I'm constantly aftraid that I'll turn around and find him standing behind me, or that I'll flip the light switch on in my room and find him waiting there, waiting for the one last night he never got. Hell, as I write this, I'm terrified that he's going to find it and read it and try to contact me again.

I spent most of November, December, and January as drunk as I've ever been in my life. Imagine that you've just come to the realization that you've been repeatedly and violently raped for over a year when you thought you were making your own choices. Imagine discovering that the only serious relationship you've ever been in, the only one where the person loved you back, was in reality a disaster built on fear and manipulation. Imagine realizing that everything you thought was good about said relationship was an emotional abuse tactic in disguise, designed to wear down your defenses until you had no free will or personality. How long would it take you to come to terms with that? I drank two or three strong mixed drinks every night, I slept on my futon because I kept having violent flashbacks if I tried to sleep in my bed, I developed severe agoraphobia, and my social anxiety and OCD, which were already unpleasant, got noticeably worse.

On the bright side, losing my fiance has shown me who the people I can really count on are. They're the people who came out of the woodwork and said "He did WHAT!?" and didn't question me. They're the people who sat and listened to me while I begged them to let me call my ex and apologize for breaking his heart, while refusing to tell me where they hid my phone (at my prior request). They're the ones who showed up at 8PM with a bottle of wine and wouldn't take "No really, I'm okay" for an answer, the ones who stand in the back with silent support because they don't know how else to help, and the ones who keep reminding me that I don't have to consent to sex I don't want just because my partner says so.

If I haven't made it already, the point I want to hammer home should be abundantly clear: DV and sexual abuse can happen to anyone of any race, gender, social standing, location, family status, or anything. No one deserves it, it's not their fault, and the best way to prevent it is to talk with friends about your relationship. It doesn't necessarily have to be in a dark alleyway with a stranger, it doesn't have to include someone slipping you a drug or purposefully getting you drunk, though those happen frighteningly often. Rape and domestic violence occur for one reason and one reason only: these people believe that they are better than their victims, and that they are entitled to sex. Coercion and guilt tripping are popular abuse tactics, and saying "but s/he never hit me!" does not preclude DV or abuse. I'll be wearing white ribbon this week because I don't want what happened to me to happen to anyone else.