Some cycles break you, other times you break the cycle. Next month, I’m hitting a significant 5-year anniversary. There won’t be confetti, balloons, cake, or champagne (okay, maybe champagne). It’s not for my relationship, career, or even my college graduation. Unfortunately, this anniversary is one that too many women will hope for in their lifetime, but only few will survive to see. It’s an observance of freedom and the abolition silence. It’s the five year anniversary of a significant break-up. One in three women will experience domestic violence in their lifetime; I’m the “one” in this story.
The Pursuit: A Little Too Generous
Teen dating violence is a terrible epidemic that can lead to a lifetime of issues. DoSomething.org reported that females between the ages of 16 and 24 are roughly three times more likely than the rest of the population to be abused by an intimate partner.
In high school after a silly breakup with my theatre boyfriend, a friend of a friend began to send me MySpace messages (sliding into DMs is nothing new, kids) in sophomore year and reconnected with me as a senior. Something felt a little off in the beginning, but I couldn’t put my finger on it. There was an intensity in his messages that was striking, so we both got busy and I let the chance of a friendship pass. He left the school, re-entered my life by what felt like chance, and charmed me into forgetting that initial vibe many of my friends noticed. People were reinventing themselves in high school all of the time, who was I to judge? Then the first of many flags raised when he started to buy unexpected gifts during each meetup and a startling sterling silver Tiffany & Co. ring in the course of a month.
I didn’t know every gift, compliment, favor and sweet gesture was a piece of a long-existing cycle. This was the “pursuit” and, frankly, it can be confused with any typical courting. I felt obliged to give this person a chance and in the process, I fell for the charm he possessed. Somewhere in the honeymoon phase, I dropped the ring which resulted in the first signs of a temper I had never witnessed but was quick to dismiss. I didn’t realize that the “pursuit” was already won. Around our one year mark, he proposed quite impulsively and created an invisible cage of control cast in white gold and diamonds. We were in love, but it was the beginning of a long-lasting blur of extraordinary emotions pouring out of a faucet that only knew hot and cold.
Lies, Loss, and Lack of Privacy
If I knew anything about toxic relationships, I should have known that after courtship comes attachment and isolation. He wanted to be EVERYWHERE. He would pick me up from work (because if you don’t have your own car, you can’t go anywhere), stop by my job with flowers during shifts, hang out with my best friend to get on her side, and drive anyone who was catching onto his dishonesty and unfaithfulness away, usually shifting the blame on them. What innocently started as tagging along, grew into joining the student newspaper to ensure I wasn’t cheating, texting malicious messages with speculations while I volunteered after school about “the guys I was probably f*cking,” disagreeing when I wanted to go to the gym alone, and even hopping on a plane to fly to Italy for the summer to join me on my semester abroad. It was normalized and calcified. We developed a two-way jealousy that was rooted in fear and instability. This all happened while he lied things small to big, including cheating (or plotting to) with more than a handful of girls I knew, both at school and my job.
I know you’re saying you would have ended it from the start, but it takes a lot of focus to understand the mindset someone experiencing abuse is in and just how far my perceptions and actions were warped. Abusers are predators who internally plan their cycle and cater to their prey before entrapping. Not to mention, after an attack you’re fed promises and treated like the most valuable person on earth. You want to believe it’s the last time, you want to make them feel better and whole, and you think you’re the only one who can endure this enough to do it. God’s sacrifice to his broken spirit. This mindset doesn’t grow overnight. If abusers went 0 to 60 on the first date, this country wouldn’t be where it is today.
The “Did That Really Just Happen?” Moment
In a letter presented in a courtroom five years ago, I struggled to pen the words “a child not remembering their first steps, doesn’t make those steps any less monumental.” I racked my brain in a fit of insomnia trying to think back to the first time that I was physically hurt, but to be honest it’s not something that is easily recalled. From getting a verbal lashing for forgetting a friend’s present at a birthday party to leaving a hole in the drywall of a hotel room after a brutal argument, the amalgamation of abuse felt numbing, endless and dangerously inescapable. All the same, I was head over heels in a senseless love; it was a love that made me do things I didn’t understand. Domestic violence is so common that it’s easy to forget where it began, and even easier to push it away from your mind and pretend it didn’t happen at all. It can happen through spoken word, senseless fights, sexual encounters and/or financial control. No matter what abuse a person faces, all are valid and nearly impossible to control.
A Living Stepford Wife
Bow in my hair, flawless makeup, a diet of lettuce and always in a dress — if you knew me during this time, you probably thought I was a Stepford Wife. I left my opinions out of things, spending my time counting my calorie intake and molding myself into the perfect girlfriend that never felt like enough. I dropped to a sickly looking 117 pounds and didn’t walk on eggshells any lighter than I had before. I wore sweaters in the Florida heat, and kept Sephora in business with red lipstick to cover bloodied busted lips and foundation to mask bruises. I got creative and overly confident in my excuses that included everything from, “I fell on the treadmill,” “My nephew did a flip in the pool and kicked me in the face,” and embarrassingly, “It’s none of your business what I do behind closed doors with my boyfriend,” when my mom tried to walk in on me changing. The walls were closing in and I was running out of lies to protect him.
Cue the question you’re waiting to ask, and then remove it from your language for forever: “why didn’t you leave?” Aside from the feeling of disassociation, survivors are often fearful for their own lives and often care too much about the abuser to protect themselves. I knew three truths in breaking up, as I had tried many times: 1) He would be a danger to himself or, most likely, me. 2) It would not be a clean break, and I risked getting back together because I was vulnerable or getting stalked. 3) Going to the authorities to get the protection and distance took courage, transparency, and the ability to let go of my greatest setback: as much as I hated what he was doing, I didn’t feel that I had any right to leave a permanent mark on his life.
I got my first taste of a life that didn’t involve him when I joined student clubs and got close to classmates. One male classmate triggered him so much that it caused our collapse, an implosion that simmered for years. The final fight lasted a full night, a majority taking place in a car, with him dropping me off the next day. I felt different this time, felt braver or perhaps like I had nothing to lose. A week before I wrote that I felt “dead at 23 in a journal.” When you feel dead you have nothing to lose; I took the opportunity to grasp at a chance for life.
I texted my friend a photo and planted the first permanent seed of evidence. When I arrived home, my mom saw my missing engagement ring and immediately called my sister. Jamie called with a simple demand: “say yes or no,” and I said yes to my own surprise. What followed isn’t essential to the story, but it played out as a dramatic as any film would. Flashing blue and red lights, tears, screams, and a tiring list of questions. The evening ended when my father and I were followed to a restaurant where he wanted us to hear him out. He trailed us for an hour without our knowledge. Do you want to ask me again why I didn’t leave?
The Victim Blame Game
So much has occurred over the years and it’s a little too dense to write down in this medium, but one thing I continued to experience was blame. When I was finally able to return to work; the phone rang countless times; his friends arrived in the kid’s store I worked at to persuade me to see and speak to him; I was harassed and watched; and my cell phone was spammed with texts and calls so much that I changed my number, deleted social media and adopted a flip phone. I was supervised for weeks and the one moment I was left alone, he arrived and broke a restraining order. He had been watching from afar as I pieced my life together in front of his gaze. He pleaded for me to “run away,” and I felt like I was in on a secret he wasn’t. I asked him what was in his bag. I asked him if he had a gun.
The police nearly broke down the door of the room we had barricaded ourselves in that night. The private space soon became a crowded room filled with commotion. It still felt like a lonely room to be in.It was a painful and really saddening goodbye to the life we shared, the person I really did love and the person I used to be. When it feels as if no one can possibly understand, some use their opportunity to blame the survivors for their “callous” detachment or question their validity. They foment the ideas that women are insignificant and their stories should be swept under the rug.
His Sister: “This will ruin his life and you don’t want to do that.”
Mutual Friend: “He misses you and he’s depressed.”
Family: “We don’t come from an abusive family. Why did you let this happen to you?”
Defense Attorney: “On the night of the incident, you say you touched his leg. Does this mean you started it all?”
Judge: “We’ve never heard of that social media platform, so we don’t know if this counts as online harassment. We can’t prove it.”
Credit Card Companies: “We’re sorry Ms. Goltzman, but we can’t justify that you did not make the thousands of dollars in charges that went unpaid.” (Because financial abuse is still a form of abuse.)
Defense Attorney (again, for good measure): “Ms. Goltzman was adopted. Is it fair to say she has identity issues dating back before her encounter with the defendant and this is just a cry for help?”
If you take anything away from this, learn what victim blaming sounds like and avoid it. It happens to the best of us, and it’s easy to do. When you run out of words, just show up and listen.
I Wrote My Way Out
As a blogger, I admit to being awkward in front of cameras. Nothing will be as uncomfortable as being in front of the flashing camera of an officer documenting the crime. The lens was a magnifying glass, and I felt like an ant being burned alive by a giant. When they handed me a form and asked me to write down, “I will press charges,” the paper became as battered as the girl who held the pen. It was crumbled, torn and within the margin, I wrote a tiny line I didn’t fully agree with: “I will press charges.” Who was I to paint a scarlet letter on the future of someone I cared for?
To create a guideline for my hearings and to find a reason to quote Hamilton, “I wrote my way out.” I wrote a letter that served as a piece of evidence to the court and moonlighted as a heartfelt goodbye. It was a final farewell to pain, delusion, my first love, the thought of marriage and the closet of secrets I kept close to me. The letter sits in a thick file of records no parent should ever have the burden of holding, but it stands as the most powerful words I have ever written to date.
I recounted every significant attack, feeling ashamed and embarrassed for what I had let happen to myself. This is what domestic violence does. It makes the victim feel crazy, at fault, and ashamed. When I look back on that letter, I don’t know what possessed my hands to rigorously type everything I’d masked for years and immortalize the words within the court of law. I didn’t appreciate it at the time, but my shaking hands commanded the keys to bravely bid my secrets. If you are a girl drafting your own letter out, you are not crazy or at fault.
Do It for the One
I wish I could say the story wrapped up neatly with a bow after that first hearing. The real fight followed for an entire year when I moved forward with the charges, the scarlet letter I questioned. In the beginning, it felt worthless. My dear friend once said something so simple years later that I’ll never forget: “do it for the one.”
My first week “out,” I asked my parents to take me to Women in Distress of Broward County, a center that provides aid and counseling to victims. The visits made me nervous. No group counseling hours were listed on the website for safety reasons, the location was difficult to get to, and the security was high. I sat in on a handful of group classes on dark subject matter masked with fluffy titles like, “Moving Beyond.” We sat in circles, read poems, and busied our hands with symbolic craft projects that seemed meaningless. I didn’t speak; I observed.
These are not easy words to type, but it’s real and we should read them over and over again. I saw a woman who was married to her fourth abuser, a woman with a black eye and two twins toddlers in strollers, as well as a lady with a neck brace donning fresh scars. At 23 and the youngest one in every group, I made friends with a 29-year-old who had been tied up and left in the trunk of her boyfriend’s car. She said it was “her fault.” It wasn’t. When I did finally open my mouth, the counselor said, “what you described is attempted murder. I hope you realize that.” I didn’t.
As they all described their abusers, each sounded like the same person… and they all said they would change.
The reality set in and he would do this again, if not to me, to someone else. To a future Jane Doe that I think of more often than you can imagine. She is the “one” I did it for. I left breadcrumbs to warn her, and in turn, those breadcrumbs forced him to get help, too. I don’t know if court-ordered intervention programs and service hours made him change but I hope he is a better person because of it. I don’t know if that year of depositions can save her or if she’ll ever find out what happened. I don’t know if she’ll ever read this—if she’ll ever know I exist. What I do know is that I did my absolute best to try, and that is something I can live with.
Believe in Hope
I fought hard, had bad days and good, and kept everything close to my chest while experiencing independence for the very first time in life and feeling “normal.” I confided in close friends and family, using them to help me up on days where I felt like the sky would fall. As an AVDA ambassador, I can finally say out loud that I am a domestic abuse survivor. The sky never fell. I can now tell you just how important organizations for domestic violence prevention can be because I’ve lived them. I can live to share that there is hope on the other side of fear.
I went on to graduate at the top of my class, study abroad (again…the right way), earn my first job, move to a new city, start a healthy relationship, travel, get published, fail, succeed, and enter a new struggle to which we all can relate: figuring out who we are.
There is a life so full and welcoming ahead of you, with ladders to climb, miles to travel, ceilings to break, love to develop, and freedom to relish in. Organizations like AVDA, and the people who stand by them, give the gift and tools to live that life. The support of a community that stands up to statistics is one shining light in that well of darkness you are trying to climb out of. While the escape can feel lonely, there are advocates, teachers, counselors, friends and loved ones who know that you deserve that shot at a life well lived, safely and without fear.
In the words of Charles Bukowski, “What matters most is how well you walk through the fire.” When you rise and emerge from the flames, your light will be so strong that no one can extinguish it. And I promise you will not do it alone.
If you or a loved one is experiencing domestic violence, please visit AVDA for resources here.