Elizabeth Brei
May 24, 2016 12:09 pm
iStock / bruniewska

When I was fourteen, I attempted to come out to my parents as bisexual. It was messy and confusing for them and, though they tried to be understanding, it was clearly hard on them, and I retracted the statement with an “I was just confused!” and locked myself firmly back in the closet. So when, at eighteen, I started talking to my soon-to-be girlfriend on a message board, I didn’t tell anyone about her. I couldn’t tell my parents, and I didn’t think my friends would be comfortable knowing I was dating a girl. So I kept it a secret.

My girlfriend didn’t mind, which probably should have been a red flag. I met most of her family and some of her friends and even attended church with her once. It didn’t seem to bother her that she didn’t know the people who were important to me. In hindsight, this makes sense. She was possessive and jealous of my attention. She was often frustrated if I didn’t respond to her messages in what she thought was a timely manner and scolded me about it regularly. It got to the point that I had to let her know beforehand if I was going to be away from my phone for a while, and I had to specify an exact amount of time that I would be unable to answer her texts.

When things took a turn for the worse, and our relationship became characterized by regular emotional abuse, I didn’t know what to do. I had crippling self-confidence issues and extraordinarily low self-esteem, so I didn’t think that anything she said about me was wrong. On days I felt unattractive and could have used some encouragement, she was silent, which felt like an agreement that I was fat and ugly and unlovable, which led me to an unhealthy relationship with food and exercise. If I was telling her a story, she sometimes cut me off to tell me I was boring her. She once even told me that the few mutual friends we did have, most of whom were really her friends, actually hated me because I was a condescending bully who thought I was smarter than everyone else. (It seems likely now, a few years removed, that no one had actually ever said this.)

I was convinced that no one else would ever love me like she did, that no one else found me attractive, and that she was doing me a favor by being with me. I know now that I felt that way because she did everything in her power to make sure that I did. I’m not sure what my breaking point was. I am sure that it coincided with joining the feminist group on my campus, where I started learning about typical abuse tactics, and they started to sound a lot like her. We officially broke up after she dragged me into a sex shop. When I was uncomfortable and unsure what she wanted from me, she exploded at me about how I wasn’t attracted to her and that if I wasn’t willing to do the things she wanted, then she wasn’t sure why we were dating. Sexual coercion was apparently my last straw, and we broke up right there on the sidewalk outside of the shop.

She tried to get in touch with me a few times after that, with apologies and “I love you”s. They eventually tapered off. I didn’t hear from her for almost three years, until she sent me a Facebook message apologizing for her behavior and acknowledging her abusive tendencies. I didn’t respond. I knew well enough how abuse worked. I knew how easily she could draw me back in.

That relationship took a toll on me and on my ability to have successful relationships. To this day, I tend to retreat from confrontation. Since she so often dismissed my feelings, it’s difficult for me to tell significant others when something is bothering me. I have ended relationships (that were going fairly well) out of nowhere because I didn’t feel like I was a good partner and didn’t think I deserved to be with someone who made me happy. It’s been hard, and I’ve had to unlearn a lot of behaviors that I was conditioned to.

Because I also date men, I also have the weird experience of sometimes having to explain my bisexuality and that I also have a past with an abusive girlfriend to straight men when I’m in a relationship with them. It’s something that most people don’t consider, this idea that even queer people end up in abusive relationships from time to time. I wish it didn’t happen; I wish that queer relationships were happy, safe spaces when so much else about being queer is scary. For the most part, my partners have been supportive and understanding. Sometimes, I run into impatience and frustration because I struggle with communication. Small issues often escalate into meltdowns. (I recently burst into tears over a bowl of salad because I felt unappreciated by my boyfriend. In his defense, he was very sweet and patient about it.) Criticism often feels like rejection.

While I wouldn’t wish this experience on anyone, and while I wouldn’t ever want to repeat it, I’ve come out the other side a stronger person and a more honest one. I am out of the closet to everyone I know; I have no problem casually dropping into conversations that I’m queer (because it’s not my problem if it makes other people uncomfortable). My parents try their very hardest to be understanding and considerate.

I am also very open about my experience with an abusive partner. I wish I had been in a position where I felt like I could have told someone about what was happening while it was happening and that I could have gotten the help I needed to get away. Now that I can talk about it, it’s important to me that I’m able to tell people that I am changed, perhaps irreversibly, by this experience. It’s important to me that I can help other people recognize when their situations might be similar. The fact that I was emotionally abused is not something shameful, and it was not my fault, and I don’t ever want to hide it or be afraid of talking about it. If it helps other women to be brave enough to leave, I’m going to tell my story again and again. If it helps queer people in scary situations admit that they need help, I will yell it if I have to, without a moment’s thought.

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