Why I couldn't "just leave" my abusive relationship
On June 14th, actress and cosplayer Chloe Dykstra published a personal essay on Medium in which she describes the emotional and sexual abuse she experienced in a former relationship with a man believed to be Nerdist founder, Chris Hardwick. (Hardwick responded by trying to discredit Dykstra and accusing her of cheating.) Dykstra’s Medium piece explains, in devastating detail, how abusers emotionally manipulate their partners into staying in harmful relationships:
“I believed that, to borrow an analogy from a friend, if I kept digging I would find water. And sometimes I did. Just enough to sustain me. And when you’re dying of thirst, that water is the best water you’ll ever drink. When you’re alienated from your friends, there’s no one to tell you that there’s a drinking fountain 20 feet away. And when your self-worth reaches such depths after years of being treated like you’re worthless, you might find you think you deserve that sort of treatment, and no one else will love you.”
Late at night, when it was time to surrender my body to him, I would ask him to hurt me. I knew he would anyway; it was inevitable. I knew that was what he wanted to hear. He was my college boyfriend, and his thoughts and opinions defined years of my life. Eventually, being with him felt like an invitation for pain, but I also felt in my bones that, somehow, I deserved that pain.
We’d spent nearly every waking moment together since we met at the beginning of freshman year. The day my father died, one month before my 19th birthday, he was there. That’s when I told him I loved him for the first time, and he chided me for saying it under those circumstances, refusing to say it back. Instead, when my ex-boyfriend showed up uninvited to my father’s funeral, he yelled at me. In a way, I was grateful; instead of focusing on unexpectedly losing my father — the man who shaped me, whose personality was identical to my own — I had someone else’s feelings to prioritize. After the funeral, he encouraged me to forgo taking antidepressants for months, insisting that it would diminish my teenage libido. The understanding between us was that he was there to take care of me now, and since my life had never been my own to lead, I didn’t question it.
I was an incredibly obedient child. I never questioned authority, no matter what. I waded through life, never missing deadlines and never saying no. Just like my father, I was born a worrier; I’d sob on my way to school if we were less than 15 minutes early. Anything other than that was tardiness, which was simply unacceptable. I lived in fear. As a child drowning in anxiety and depression, leading an obedient life seemed like my only option. I’d spent my life watching my father succumb to that anxiety, so I didn’t understand that the demons pinning down my tiny body weren’t normal. I was incapable of controlling the despair that gnawed at me, so if someone gave me an order — no matter who the person was — there was never a negotiation. It was simply something I did. With every fiber of my being, I needed to follow through. I needed it more than they did. I looked for someone, anyone, to control my every move, because I didn’t know how to myself. As it turns out, it’s easy to find people willing to do that for you.
I’ve let myself be “chosen” my entire life. First, in high school, a boy with a criminal record chose me. He told me who I could talk to, what makeup I could wear, which clothing was appropriate. The pattern escalated in college. This boyfriend chose what my days looked like: which courses I should study, what I could wear on my birthday (“You can’t wear that dress,” he’d said. “The underwear that goes with it would show too much”), and which medications could go into my body (birth control was mandatory; my Prozac was a no-go). He dictated what I ate and when. But I was grateful to be nourished at all. Knowing that someone was paying close attention was what fed me. It meant that my own brain could relax.
Years were spent staring at ceilings, arms stiff, making excuses for the both of us — why I should stay, why I should forgive him. When your only support system is someone who doesn’t truly care about you, you stop caring about yourself, too.
It was easier to rationalize his behavior than to stop it. How can you pick up and leave when you’re made to believe that your body doesn’t work that way?
I desperately worked toward becoming who he wanted me to be. Maybe someday, someone would like the end result — even if it that person wasn’t me. The less I felt like myself, and the less I reminded myself of my father, the more I’d be soothed. At least that’s what I hoped.
One morning, nearly two years after my father passed away, a sharp clarity snaked its way into my subconscious. My deep depression could no longer be attributed solely to the fact that my father was gone. I called my boyfriend to tell him it was over. He rushed to my apartment, sobbing, locking himself in my bathroom as I laughed and laughed and laughed. “If I can’t make it work with you, I’ll never be able to make it with anyone,” he said. I smiled, because it didn’t hurt. I didn’t want it to. And I had no one to thank for that but myself.