My Boyfriend Was Abusive. Why Do I Still Feel Like I Have To Forgive Myself?

Illustration: MERIÇ CANATAN
Warning: Some readers may find this essay distressing. Help numbers are at the bottom.
It was the early hours of the morning but the asphalt felt scorching hot under the bare soles of my feet. I was in a dissociative state of disbelief, tears streaming down my face and the smashed remnants of my phone in the palms of my trembling hands. My skin was red but the bruises were flowering underneath from where his fists had struck flesh from neck to hipbones, my arms sore from when he’d pinned me down on the hotel bed. I ran down the streets like my life depended on it; in a lot of ways, it did.
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How did I get here?
It’s easy to forget the answer to that question. In the same way that, several years ago, sitting in the courtroom in the witness box, shielded by a flimsy paper screen, I momentarily escaped the confines of my chair and became a spectator on the pew alongside my father, my best friend, and his parents. My first-year university exams were around the corner, and my ex-boyfriend’s lawyer had just asked: "When was the first time he hit you?"
It had been picture-perfect. I was in my final year of boarding school and in a long-distance relationship with my boyfriend, who had already graduated. My family lived overseas but my close friends had become like sisters.
But then there he was. Popular, athletic, good-looking in the sort of way that lingers because you know it spells trouble.

By the time he started to become physically abusive I thought that bringing his actions to light would brand me 'the girl who cried wolf'

For whatever reason, he took an interest in me. And, over time, I began to reciprocate those feelings. It was scandalous, as everything is at that age; things did not end well with my boyfriend back home but within a matter of weeks I had replaced something irreplaceable with a charming surrogate who had his own car.
I didn’t know it then but that choice would change the course of the future I had been so meticulously building.
At first, there was no cause for concern. Every evening we would sneak out to make out in the park. I’d spend the weekend at his parents' house out of town; I’d be there on the sidelines at sports matches, cheering him on. A standard school romance.
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Okay, so he had mild anger issues. I ignored it for a while. He would speed down the streets like a maniac – but boys love to race. He would tell me he wanted me to be curvier – but he just wanted me to look my best. He would show me videos of him burning the corpses of animals he had shot – but that was just sport, right?
Eventually, things became harder to ignore. His steroid use, his cheating, his substance abuse problem, his constant degrading statements about women, his clenched fists. I stuck around for a number of reasons; the main one, I admit, being my sense of pride, which overrode reason. I was a victim of self-imposed Stockholm Syndrome. Gradually, our relationship became a toxic cycle, devoid of trust and full of bitterness. I felt trapped and he felt trapped but neither of us was willing to let go.
Which is when I became a ghost; the girl full of confidence and brimming with positivity was gone. I felt empty and overpoweringly alone. My quest to find out whether my boyfriend was cheating on me (he was) had isolated my friendships and granted me the title of 'drama queen'. By the time he started to become physically abusive I thought that bringing his actions to light would brand me 'the girl who cried wolf'. He was good at apologising the next day, even better at pretending it never happened, and triumphed at placing the blame on me. There was nothing left so I believed him. I believed myself to be the cause of his anger, I believed I deserved it.
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Being a 'drama queen' led to my becoming a statistic. It put me among the 25% of women who experience domestic violence in their lifetime. Among the 1.2 million women in England and Wales who reported experiences of domestic abuse in the year to March 2016. As a 'drama queen' I do not forget – I refuse to forget – that two women are killed each week in this country by a current or former partner.
I saw him once more, long after we left that courtroom. Amid the crowds in a train station, I felt him before I could see him. The restraining order may have been intact, but the fear enveloped my body in the same way it did that fateful morning; all I wanted to do was run.

I saw him once more, long after we left that courtroom. Amid the crowds in a train station, I felt him before I could see him. Fear enveloped my body.

This is what happens when someone tries to break you. The scars fade but they leave invisible imprints on your perception of every stranger, every man who asks you to stay the night, every Uber driver who picks you up when the world is cloaked in black.
Over the years you master the illusion of strength. You join marches, protests, read books and become educated on the fight of the women who came before you, while looking proudly at the women who are leading the fight now. But the past haunts the present, and there is an underlying fear that maybe you don’t belong after all, that maybe because you willingly forfeited your autonomy many years ago to someone you believed held more power, you lack power of your own.
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We often talk about the actions that annihilate our trust in others but simultaneously forget the lingering effects of the aftermath.
I have a hard time accepting that this happened to me. Like many women who have found themselves in similar situations, I have an even harder time accepting that I am not at fault for getting caught in the avalanche. Most of all, I have a hard time forgiving myself; but I am trying.
If you are experiencing domestic violence, please contact Refuge's helpline on 0808 2000 247 or email helpline@refuge.org.uk
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