It was more than denial. I thought it was me. Sure, he said cruel, cutting things. To my knowledge, though, a lot of them had become true. The longer I stayed around—at this point, almost a year—the more I believed that I wasn't a good person, which made me question my instincts on just about everything. It seemed silly to argue about my already-decided shortcomings. This was just what a serious relationship must be like, I thought. He was just being honest.
Despite everything, he was somehow still perfect to me. Unfortunately, to him, I was the perfect target.
It was only after weeks of awkwardly sitting on my college therapist's couch talking about my anxiety that came out of "nowhere" that the subtle mention I had a boyfriend piqued my counselor’s interest like I hadn’t seen before. After rambling about our normal relationship, where I was always doing something "wrong," she calmly suggested that I attend the weekly “Women in Relationships” support group on campus. I laughed and thanked her for the invite.
While I still thought it was probably unnecessary for me to go, the curious part of me thought it might be interesting to experience how a "support group" works.
Little did I know that during this very first group session I would discover I was not an observer. I was there because I was in an emotionally abusive relationship.
How It Came to This Point
Before I met him, I was a bright-eyed, naive freshman who spent most of her time studying with just a handful of friends. After one fateful Halloween party, however, I was immediately struck by the charm of this senior guy—so confident, clear-headed, and mature. When compared to my high school "boyfriend," who was barely adept at holding hands, I was captivated. I'd never been pursued like this before. It was intoxicating.
From the moment he asked for my number at that party, I was swept off my feet. As I started to get to know him, I was spellbound by his spontaneity and intense spirit. He dropped in unannounced to my freshman year hall to pick me up and go on adventurous dates. Very quickly, I became addicted to the boldness he brought everywhere he went. I thought I had found my soulmate.
Unfortunately, as the months passed, I began to realize that this soulmate of mine led a secret life of sneaking into our college chemistry labs and creating suspicious tonics he would sell. His temper was getting shorter by the week, especially when questioned about his side business. But I would convince myself that this was no big deal—I should just mind my own business. Before I knew it, the situation morphed in a direction that I wouldn't let myself believe.
It’s an entirely isolating experience when you question everything—including your own sanity.
The friendships I had just started to build before he came into my life weren't strongholds; I was still finding my way around campus. Caught up in the dangerous winds of romance, I let this relationship consume me. In my mind, I couldn't live without him, believing I was nothing without him.
To give an idea of what life was like at this time, I looked back at the journal I kept and read a chilling line, “I feel like everything has been ripped out of me in the worst way possible to the point where I feel as if I can’t go on … ”
The night I wrote that, I was told I needed to cry in the hallway outside of our dorm room because my roommate couldn’t handle it anymore. In the weeks following, that spot outside our door turned into my nightly perch. With the narrow, dormitory halls, it literally required others to step over me as they whispered to each other about what was up with the "crying girl." Even my parents couldn’t take it anymore. They begged and pleaded for me to move on, feeling too confused and helpless to do much more.
The problem was, I couldn't leave. I didn't know the term gaslighting yet, but in his mind games, I had lost track of reality.
I was constantly lied to about his drug use and then belittled for being worried. I was yelled at for asking why he had been missing for days at a time. I was called insane and paranoid for weeks on end after I expressed concern when he stayed at another girl’s apartment to “comfort” her. Then, of course, there are the many, many times that are too foggy to remember. Just the outline of the memories exist, along with the feelings of pain, and helplessness—and the belief that I had no one else.
Leaving was a process—but it started with emotionally withdrawing.
By the time I joined the women's group, I had already built the foundations of my college life around him. The thought of going on without him was cause for a whole new wave of anxiety. But months into the group, I started to see our dysfunctional relationship more clearly. The good memories still held me emotionally captive, but I was beginning to understand that the present situation was destroying me—so I actually took steps to build myself up and detach myself from the relationship.
I had come to a breaking point.
The problem was, he knew he had an emotional hold on me, and he didn't want to let go. From swooping in with grandiose gestures trying to win me back—to threatening to commit suicide, claiming it would be "my fault"—I felt trapped, and I was manipulated into staying by his side, even though I was miserable. At one point, his parents even called to relay the message that I had been too hard on him and that he needed my support. What was I to do?
Then one night he decided to drive up and see me when I was visiting my mom and dad. My parents couldn't bear the thought of him coming in the house, so I went and sat in his car. He mumbled anecdotes that didn't make sense and said he needed to leave me for his own drug "recovery," as if I was the cause for his recreational drug use. (Never mind the fact that I had never tried his drugs once in the entirety of our relationship.)
Perhaps he was tired of having an unresponsive girlfriend. Perhaps he was bored by a game I was no longer playing. Perhaps this was his final, petty insult. Whatever the reason, I had never felt so ready for anything in my life.
During this tumultuous time, the support group that I had so indignantly rolled my eyes at, saved my life—and what was left of my college experience. It gave me my first trusted friends on campus, and the confidence to forge new healthy friendships outside of the group. This was inexpressibly priceless after it had been ingrained in my brain that I had no one beside him.
We might have later laughed about how politically correct the title "Women In Relationships" was, but now, years later, I still tear up just thinking about that circle of women who taught me that the trap I was in was real and very scary, and most importantly, that I wasn’t alone.