Domestic violence is not limited to spousal or family abuse. It can also occur in the form of intimate partner violence, meaning relationships in which people are dating.
Craig and I met the summer I was twenty-one, home from college until fall classes resumed. My friend Stephanie and I had plans to go out. Looking good, as it was the summer she and I spent every second of the day lying in the sun ingesting little more than cigarettes and Diet Mountain Dew, we were both tan and skinny. (I didn’t say healthy.)
One night we drove to a bar the next town over. Much of my early twenties was spent doing very important things like drinking until blacking out.
We were on the dance floor when she nudged me, “Look over there!” The most muscular arms I had ever seen in person, attached to an overall smokin’ hot body and face that was clearly out of my league was in my direct line of vision. The buff and hunky types were never what I’d go for, because, well…they’d never go for me. “He’s hot,” I said in awe to Stephanie, wiping the drool from my chin.
Hope was immediately abandoned, as I would never possibly gain the interest of a human being that impossibly good-looking. Somehow, though, he and his friend made his way to us and seemed to actually be interested. And the hot one was interested in me. He started making small talk and I obliged but never put much stock into it, figuring he was merely being nice.
After a while, the bathroom was screaming my name. Once inside, a girl that I’d seen with him earlier said, “Craig wondered where you went! He really likes you!” Disbelief doesn’t even begin to describe it. I turned to stare at myself in the grungy bathroom mirror, looking hard to try and see what he saw.
When I exited the bathroom, the bar was closing down and he was waiting for me. “So can I get your number and we can get something rolling?” he asked.
It seemed too good to be true.
Craig and I began dating and I was on top of the world. He was by far the hottest guy I’d ever seen, and I was still in shock that he’d find someone like me attractive, even though men were recently appearing interested in me - I’d “blossomed” since high school, which means I went from a B to D-cup. My hair had also grown out, which apparently can make a world of difference for men (although as it turns out, the focus on the body inevitably becomes, um…much lower…which they prefer without hair. Go figure.)
The signs were subtle at first. We were on a date and he asked me if there were one thing I could change about his body, what would it be? Laughing, because his body was ripped to perfection, I giggled out a “Nothing!” Assuming he’d say the same, I asked him. “You could work on your arms,” he said with a semi-disgusted smirk. My heart sank and I felt a lump grow in my throat followed by a little anger. I calmed down a little with the rationalization that, well, yeah, I guess I could work on my arms, right? What’s so wrong with that?
Working on my arms turned out to be hour-long sessions in the gym with him as he also proceeded to tell me what to eat. A vegetarian at the time, I didn’t get enough protein from food to build the muscles he wanted to see on my body, so he recommended I buy cases of protein bars and drink protein shakes. He sat me down one day and said, “Okay, I have a diet and exercise plan laid out for you.” He then proceeded, like a military officer, to bark at me that I was not allowed to let anything remotely tasty touch my lips from this point on. “There’ll be no doughnuts, no more pastries, none of that. We’re gonna whip you into shape!”
While many people pay big bucks for dieticians and personal trainers to motivate and sculpt them into perfect-bodied individuals, I hadn’t asked for this. It felt degrading and made me sad. At the same time, for whatever reason, I went along with it, replacing my hurt with intense motivation to do whatever it took to please him.
Craig and I started working out regularly together, and he pushed me through workouts, harder and harder with each one while he simultaneously powered through his own gym routine, sweat dripping from his blue bandana. Jaw clenched, veins popping, he grunted angrily with every bicep curl, lat pull-down, or squat that he performed, stopping now and then to guzzle water from a gallon jug and shoot me a casual thumbs–up. Proud or impressed were two states I hadn’t seen from him until we hit the gym together. His eyes would widen and he’d smile, congratulating me every time I completed a difficult set.
The positive reaction I got was what drove my addiction to please him, and my addiction to attain bodily perfection. He became increasingly complimentary with the more muscle I gained and fat I lost. And I thrived on it. While he had never seemed too fazed by the fact that I was working toward a Master’s degree in literature and had a lot of smart things to say, he was thrilled to notice that my behind was firming up.
Because Craig, who appeared to have other interests when we first met, like golf and Jim Carrey movies, slowly was revealed to be more and more superficial, I figured the problem lied in me. Maybe I was too judgmental. Having a great body is no small feat, right? Deep thoughts are overrated, I told myself. Aren’t we all superficial on some level? Clothes and make-up meant a lot to me; maybe Craig and I were more alike than I thought. Maybe it was just me. Besides, how could someone so crazy hot be wrong for me?
My exercising spiraled out of control and my now fervent desire to emulate a cover girl on Women’s Fitness caused me to stop eating altogether, and when I did eat, I got rid of it most of the time. Craig was so proud of me at this point and loved to show me off like a shiny new car. He hadn’t stopped offering his “constructive criticism,” however, with helpful tips like, “You know if you get your waist smaller your boobs will look even bigger,” and “If I were rich I’d take care of that bump on your nose.” He also freely distributed his fashion advice, which means he preferred that I dress like a stripper, and I politely accommodated.
All my friends hated him and tried to at first tactfully, and then not so tactfully, tell me we weren’t right for each other, but by then I had invested so much time on the relationship and money on a gym membership that it seemed like a waste to give up now.
I became obsessed with pleasing him.
Although I had smoked when we met, I gave it up for him even though he chewed tobacco, because that was okay for some reason. Smoking behind his back one night and his discovery of this led to him going ballistic, screaming in my face and becoming unacceptably aggressive. Somehow I always turned it on myself, explaining away his anger and rationalizing that, ‘He’s right; smoking isn’t healthy.’
So many times during the course of our relationship as my identity slipped further and further away, I told myself I was actually becoming a better person with Craig in my life – after all, my body had never looked better. Plus, he really tried sometimes. Even though he didn’t manage to get flowers sent on Valentine’s Day, it wasn’t his fault. All the florists were just booked. But he watched Sex and the City with me one night. I mean, come on - what guy does that?!
His constant remarks about other women became normal to me; I figured all men did that and I was overreacting. His opinions became my opinions; I started agreeing with him. He liked when I made out with other girls, so I did that, too. Essentially, I became everything he’d ever wanted, down to my perfectly manicured fingernails which I’d always bitten away at before, but he’d found that “horrible.” My hair was cut the way he wanted. I was his Pygmalion. Had he gotten the reference, I would have told him this, but I’m pretty sure that’s not explained in MuscleMag.
When I went back to college, he visited me on the weekend that it didn’t interfere with his workouts, only to pack duffel bags full of supplements, cases of tuna, and I can’t forget carrying cooked chicken breast in my purse if we did go out, so he could eat his protein around the clock.
When we weren’t going out drinking, we’d spend nights renting movies which we never got through because we always started messing around. Sometimes it would start out playfully, sort of like a wrestling match. Being the smaller, less muscular of us, I’d do my best to fight back, because sometimes he didn’t know his own strength.
One time to make him stop pinning me to the ground, which was really hurting me, I grabbed at his chest. He got in my face with an expression full of rage and screamed, “Don’t you ever grab my pec again!” It really scared me and I immediately I started crying. He half-heartedly apologized and left my house while I was still in tears.
He became rougher and rougher with me on a regular basis. Inside, I was dying, sinking, drowning. This didn’t feel right at all, and the realization of what was happening was breaking me. Even though a voice in the back of my head was whispering that this wasn’t right, this wasn’t healthy, this wasn’t me, I told the voice to shut up.
He visited me at college one weekend in January and we went to a small party one night at a friends’ house. Michigan had literally six feet of snow on the ground at this time. Craig and I snuck off to the bathroom, something not unusual for us. Our making out was getting pretty heated. Somehow, some way, something changed. He began banging my head repeatedly, hard, against the tile bathroom floor. All I can remember is digging my fingernails as hard as I could into his arms, to the point of drawing blood, so he’d stop. He finally did. To scream at me.
He ran out of the bathroom yelling that he’s done with me, he’s done with my parties, done with my friends, done with everything. He didn’t explain further and I don’t know what his motivation was, but it didn’t matter. The ten or so people in the room who had been immersed in the party, laughing, drinking, and listening to music, immediately became somber deer in headlights, their eyes darting from Craig to me and back again, wondering that the heck was going on. How did I feel at this point?
Numb. Frozen. Paralyzed.
My first instinct was to sprint out of the house and not look back. So I did. In my thigh-high boots, leather mini-skirt and beaded tank top, I just ran and ran the best I could through the semi-shoveled sidewalk between the six-feet of snow.
Between huffing and puffing, I looked back and he was nowhere to be seen. I was a bundle of fear, hurt, and sadness - packaged in a leather mini and sparkly tank. A car full of guys pulled up and asked if I needed a ride, so I got in. My address somehow escaped my lips and I luckily got dropped off without being gang-banged.
As soon as I reached my apartment, I called my best friend Steve, sobbing about what had happened. Steve said he was on his way over, but Craig got there first. Somehow he turned the whole thing on me once again, that I had angered him to the point of violence. And I believed him. Apologizing through my sobs, I begged him not to leave. After all, he was so angry and upset with me, and I had caused it. It was just a big misunderstanding triggered by drinking. ‘This wasn’t like him,’ I thought, something I’d thought many times.
We stayed together far longer than we should have.
The funny thing is, the realization that my identity was gone and I had no idea who I was anymore and I abhorred the thread of me I had left – the me I was with him - didn’t hit me when it should have – it came out of the clear blue sky one day when I wasn’t even with Craig; I was alone. Since I spent all my time at the gym anyway, I had gotten a job there by this point. Working the front desk, aimlessly flipping through a magazine,something struck me like cognitive lightning. ‘Who am I?’ I wondered. ‘When is the last time I did something I enjoy doing? What do I enjoy doing?’ This wave of truth washed over me; I felt my whole body come to a conclusion. Did I know who I was anymore? Not at all. Being myself, doing the things that fulfilled me, engaging in activities that brought me peace, following paths that agreed with my sensibilities – where…where did that go?
I missed me.
It wasn’t a quick, painless process. The break-up dragged on and on, complete with those post-break-up drunk dials (cue Lady Antebellum’s “Need You Now”) that I regretted every time. There were days I could not physically get out of bed. Kleenex made a killing off of me. Logically it made no sense – I was leaving something very unhealthy and damaging – something to this day I’ve not gotten over.
Heartbreak followed because of everything I had put into it and I had wanted it to work so badly. Even though all along I had really known he wasn’t the one for me, I had wanted him to be the one. The reality that he wasn’t and that he never would be, left a giant aching hole in my heart…because I had known this but had refused to accept it. There was sadness, intense sadness. The sadness wasn’t because he was gone. The sadness was because I had been gone for so long.
It’s taken years to recover from my extremely damaged self-esteem, and it’s still a struggle, though not nearly as bad as it was.
I still have trouble setting foot in a gym.