I’ve been reflecting recently on the troubling end to a relationship I was in 12 years ago. I have been following this story and a rush of memories came flooding back. I have talked about this experience with a few trusted people and my therapist, but for the most part, I have made light of it. I tried to laugh it off, hurling names like “crazy” or “psychopath” in his direction in an attempt to minimize how terrifying the experience actually was for me. I am lucky that he never made good on any of his threats, but there is still that insidious “what if…?” thought pattern lurking in the back of my brain.
This is a story about ignoring the signs and of normalizing abhorrent behavior.
When I was just 12 years old, I met a guy in a chatroom named Chris. He said he was 16, so I lied and said I was also 16. I was told throughout my childhood that I was mature for my age and often lied about my age on the internet so I could talk with people that I felt were on my level. For years, he was on my buddylist (shout-out to AOL Instant Messenger!) and we would chat when we were both online–usually about nothing exciting. School, relationships. It was casual and friendly. Sometimes he would be a little bit flirtatious. We honestly didn’t have anything in common. It was just nice to be anonymous, to share hopes and dreams, to vent. I liked having someone I could always talk to.
Four years later, when I was actually 16, I had my heart broken. I had been in previous relationships, but this one was the longest yet and the one I was the most invested in thus far. I immediately turned to Chris, which would become my habit–jumping from one sinking ship into the nearest life raft available. At some point I had come clean to him about my age, so he knew by then that I was 16. He was 20. Looking back, so many alarm bells ring–why would a 20-year-old be interested in a 16-year-old? But at the time, I thought nothing of it. We were of the same maturity level, and I had just had my heart broken by a boy my own age. I was ready for something different. We agreed to meet in person.
This alone is a risky move. It was the early-2000s. I had seen enough pictures of him, and talked to him on the phone, and was fairly certain that he was who he said he was. But he could have easily not been.
I remember the night we met quite vividly. I left early and sat at a Noodles & Company to have dinner by myself. I needed to psyche myself up for this. Eventually I met with him at a nearby Home Depot parking lot. We drove around, and talked, and eventually parked and kissed for the first time. It was new and exciting, and I didn’t get the sense that he was unsafe. I might have even asked to see his license–to be sure he was the person and age he claimed. It was June, and our whirlwind summer romance began. The summer was full of sneaking around, lies (to my parents about my whereabouts), alcohol, and sex. We lived an hour and a half from each other, so we saw each other usually once a week. Eventually his license was revoked due to speeding tickets, so then it was on me to keep the relationship going–making the drive out every weekend, picking him up from work, driving him to the bank to cash his paycheck…
The lies started early, but I gave him the benefit of the doubt. The lies ranged from trivial things (where he was, his work schedule) to quite serious things (lying about having been tested for STDs when an ex-girlfriend of his had contracted herpes around the time that they’d been together). The last straw for me was when he lied about the amount of money he had spent on my Christmas gift. I felt so guilty for not liking the two necklaces he gifted me, and when he told me he spent $150, I felt even worse. That night, I felt guilted into having sex that–while consensual, in technical terms–I had felt obligated to have. When I learned the truth about the lie (each necklace had been $4.99, bringing us to a grand total of under $10), and connected the other lies, I decided to end things the next morning.
This was when the horrorshow began.
He threatened to kill himself, and then didn’t answer his phone for 4 days. I checked the internet daily for obituaries, thinking he had actually gone through with it, and feeling like it was my fault. On the fourth day, after possibly 100 attempted phone calls, dozens of voicemails, texts, and IMs to a signed-out account–he answered as if nothing had transpired. “Oh, I just didn’t want to talk to you,” he said.
The year was 2004, and MySpace was in full swing. After the suicide threat, he changed his default picture to a collage of pictures of me. It looks like a memorial. He changed all of the content on his profile in an effort to win me back, posting things like how much he loves me and how sorry he is and how much he misses me. I contacted him and asked him to please remove the pictures of me that he was posting without my permission (he wasn’t in any of the pictures, they had been snagged off my own MySpace page).
He started IMing with a close friend of mine. He was flirtatious, saying things like, “You were always the one friend of hers that I was the most attracted to.” His first motive seemed to be to make me feel jealous or hurt. But the conversations changed from being flirtatious to being extremely dark. My friend says that he spoke to her of killing me and storing my body in the trunk of his car. She stopped talking to him.
He contacted me to tell me that he had been cheating on me. Whether or not this is true or something he said in attempt to hurt me, I will never know.
He drove to my house without my permission on a day that I should have been at school, but had taken a sick day. He dropped off a letter and a necklace, urging me to give him another chance. I promptly called him on the phone and said that I’d like to send the necklace back, and that I think we should cease all contact with each other. He became violently angry on the phone, calling me names and saying how selfish I am for not sitting down with him to at least have coffee and talk when he had driven all this way to drop off such a generous gift.
He tallied up all the money he’d ever spent during our relationship and asked me to send my half. This included his phony doctor’s visit for his STD test, boxes of condoms, and loose change I’d borrowed to pay tolls when his license was revoked and I was doing all the driving.
Eight months later, when I was a freshman in college, I was still regularly getting phone calls from him. I never answered; I let them go to voicemail. The voicemails were abrasive. He would call me a cheater, a whore, a bitch, a slut, telling me that he’s doing so much better without me because he’s woken up to how awful I really was, telling me how much sex he’s having with girls that are so much hotter than me. I could usually hear his friends laughing in the background and egging him on. He even asked a friend to chat me up online, pretending to be interested in me, to see how “easy” I was.
Several times, I wanted to contact the police. I was scared. But my fear of being found out by my parents kept me silenced. My primary fear was having to admit to them that I’d been sneaking around with a guy I’d met on the internet who was nearly four years older than I was. My secondary fear was that they’d find a way to press charges against him for statutory rape, because I was 16 and he was 20. Even though I was afraid of him, I wanted to protect him because I knew I’d been a willing participant and consented to our relationship.
Years later, after things had cooled off, he friended me on Facebook and we exchanged a few private messages. We were cordial. It seemed he had moved on, and I had, too. About 10 minutes after I posted a photo album from my recent trip to Colorado, he made this status update: “What does it say about me that all of my exes have gotten fat? lol” I decided I’d had enough and I unfriended him on the spot. I thought I could forgive and forget and move on, but the last thing I needed or wanted to endure was further cyberbullying, which I’d already fallen victim to.
When I think back to his threats of killing me and storing my body in the trunk, it’s easy to say that he was just puffing up his chest and acting tough, just using his words as weapons. But I know that I was legitimately afraid, not just for my own life, but for my family and our pets. He knew where my parents lived. He had my address. Years later, when I saw that he’s been body-building (he was always tall and lanky), the stray thought crossed my mind: what if, after all these years, he’s going to come and find me so he can carry out the threats from 12 years ago?
I minimized, normalized, and accepted his behavior, even though my gut was telling me: this is not okay. He had shown me his true colors far sooner than the suicide threat, death threats, or abrasive voicemails, but I ignored them. I didn’t listen to what I knew. And I still fall into this trap even today.
It is so incredibly important that we listen to our intuition, that we stand up for ourselves, and that we ask for help when we need it. I am hesitant to post this because I think it’s very easy to say “well, this is an over-dramatized version of something; you’re still alive, he was just struggling with the break-up, what’s the problem?” The problem is complacency. The problem is I’ve gone 12 years never having aired this out. The problem is that women are threatened and murdered daily. The problem is that women are afraid to exert agency because this is a matter of life and death.
I can’t change the world we live in, but I can change how I interact with it.
And I’m done with silence. I’m done taking shit.