The last time I’d seen him in a suit was at my senior prom.
He was tardy to the party, having had another obligation beforehand, so I’d shown up with a group of friends, content to dance and take pictures until my date arrived. However, the night grew older and I started to feel down– I was tired of waiting for him. I turned to my best friend with tears stinging my eyes and just as I started to wonder aloud if he’d stood me up, she pointed to the door. There he was, in a tailored black tuxedo with a red shirt underneath to match my gown. Corsage in hand, his eyes scanned the room frantically before finally settling on me. He smiled as I rushed into his arms, a flurry of curls, taffeta and lace. “I like your tux,” I chirped as I pinned on the boutonniere I’d carefully selected. “Am I ever going to see you this dressed up again?”
Four years later, when I found myself in a court room, I got my answer. There he stood, in a fitted black suit with a deep teal blue shirt underneath that – unintentionally on both our parts, but eerie nonetheless – matched my skirt. But this time there was no boutonniere, there was no corsage. My high school sweetheart and college boyfriend was being charged with third degree domestic battery, and I was his victim.
When people hear about abusive relationships, the first thing they wonder is why the victim doesn’t “just leave.” A common misconception is that the abuse starts suddenly when in actuality, it builds up over time. In my case, it started relatively small. About six months prior to his arrest, he began drunkenly shoving me into walls during arguments. Having grown up with an abusive mother, I was terrified. But, I rationalized: he was drunk, he’d never hit me before, and after it happened he was always so sorry. By that point, we’d been dating for 3.5 years and were about to move in together. I loved him and didn’t want to throw everything away, so I placed the blame on the alcohol, even as the violence began to intensify. So I tried to make him cut back, only to further incur his wrath. At one point, he drunkenly shoved me down the stairs at his parents’ house when I refused to buy him 92 proof rum.
Even then, I stayed with him. He was beyond apologetic, making up for his transgressions with all sorts of displays of affection. He would explode, calm down, apologize and treat me like a jewel for weeks at a time…until something happened to set him off again. Rinse, wash, repeat. Unconsciously, I began to blame myself – both for angering him and for not being able to stop the violence. I was trapped in the cycle of abuse. When we moved in together last fall, cosigning on a duplex and adopting a dog, I tried to believe it would be a fresh start, that he wouldn’t bring violence into the new life we were building together. I thought wrong.
About a month after we began sharing keys, we were fighting again. And this time, it was worse. I can’t remember what went through my mind as I felt his hands around my throat or his fingers twisting around my hair while he dragged me down the hallway. All I knew is that I wanted things to be better. I wanted to go back to the relationship we had before, when he’d made me feel safe and loved. But once physical violence enters the equation, there is no going back. The relationship is officially beyond repair. Your boyfriend can’t love you and protect you one day while physically assaulting you the next.
Despite endless talks, periods of relative peace and promises to change, the violence continued. The breaking point was in late February 2009. After a month and a half of lying to me about moving out, he unloaded on me when I confronted him. As I lay pinned underneath him on the ground, I knew I’d had enough. The moment I could, I broke free. Running on autopilot, I gathered my things then jumped into my car and sped away. With my fingers shaking, I dialed the three numbers that would change my life forever. An hour later, I watched in a daze as he was cuffed and placed into the back of a squad car. And in that moment, I was relieved.
You’d think it’d be easy to dissolve and move on from a college relationship gone physically sour. We had no children, no shared cars or houses, just a joint lease on a duplex and a shih tzu. I contacted a local women’s shelter, and my teachers worked with me to deal with my missed assignments. But the damage was done. The physical reminders stayed with me for weeks, and the emotional scars ran even deeper. I couldn’t concentrate on class or work, and my grades took a nosedive. Eventually, my friends were able to break through the shell, and helped pick up the pieces necessary to put Chaka back together again. It was thanks to their patience and care that I was able to stand and face my abuser in court six months later, testifying about what he’d put me through. I’d never felt more relieved in my life as I did when I heard the verdict – the judge found him guilty as charged, sentencing him to seven days in jail.
Surviving an abusive relationship – be it physical or emotional – is not something anyone can do alone. Thankfully, there are numerous avenues for support, because although my story had a happy ending, many women have to watch their abusers walk away without consequence. If someone you love has fallen victim to domestic abuse, have her contact her parents, a local women’s shelter and a counselor – many schools offer counseling services to students at no additional cost. Surround her with friends, and make sure she knows that what happened was not her fault. Because it isn’t. Domestic violence should not happen to anybody – ever. But if it does, it is possible to survive the aftermath, and you will come out stronger for having done so. I know I did.
And the next time I see my high school boyfriend in a suit, it will most likely be orange.