I didn’t know it was abuse until I was 21. We broke up when I was 17. Four years passed before I breathed the realization out in therapy. One long wavering breath, still tinged with disbelief.
There were inklings before that day in therapy, but never affirmations of my trauma.
The strangest part was that I had spoken the truth out loud to friends, new partners, and crowds at Take Back the Night marches. I’d recall the emotional abuse and the sexual coercion, but I’d always feel alone—even when people were cheering me on, talking me up, or empowering me.
Telling people about my abuse almost became an act of self-care. Maybe, if I said it out loud enough times, I’d believe my memories. I’d believe it was abuse when he repeatedly touched my breast in front of our peers after I’d asked him to stop. I’d believe it was abuse when he told me that my vagina was disgusting. I’d believe it was abuse when he remained angry with me for not wanting sex.
Despite my efforts to believe my own story, I told my therapist that it was my fault. Yet again, I failed to accept that it was abuse.
Without bruises, abuse is hard to see.
A string of I-Statements flooded out of my mouth:
I liked the attention. I wasn’t a perfect girlfriend. I kept going back to him. I perpetuated the trauma.
Then one question changed everything: Why does imperfection mean abuse is acceptable?
It took my therapist handing me an Unhappy Relationship Wheel to put the pieces together. Finally, I understood. It was abusive to control my walking patterns to class during the school day. It was abusive to scream at me for refusing to perform oral sex. And, it was abusive to threaten suicide every time I tried to break up with him.
The truth is, my abuser robbed me off my formative teenage years. He robbed me of friends. He lowered my already abysmal self-confidence, and he robbed me of independence.
I went to therapy for my depression. My anxiety was an after-thought. My abuser never even crossed my mind.
I never imagined those three and a half years of dating would affect me forever. My lexicon is filled with I’m sorry’s and Are you angry’s now. I’m usually anxious around significant others as if I’ve already done something wrong—bracing for the anger.
I shouldn’t have to deal with this. No teenager should have to deal with this: to face teen dating violence. And if they do face it? They should be able to identify it.
Carmen Vernon is a 2017 graduate of Indiana University. She received her Bachelor’s degree in English and Gender Studies as well as a certificate of Political and Civic Engagement. While on campus, Carmen organized Take Back the Night marches, Slut Walks, and faculty lectures ranging from topics on transnational feminism to transgender healthcare access. She also served on the National Student Advisory Council for the American Association of University Women in 2016. When she isn’t reading, Netflix-ing, or thrift store shopping, Carmen can be found Yelping as part of Indy’s Elite Squad. To learn more about Carmen, follow her on LinkedIn and Twitter.