It started when I was 13. I was still a child when I met my first boyfriend, who was two years older than me. I should have been crushing on X Factor boybands or lusting after glittery gel pens; instead I was plunged into a very alien, adult world.
For a year, I suffered emotional and sexual abuse. It was quite innocent for the first couple of weeks, until the day he put his fingers inside me without asking. I lay there, quite still, watching his hand slide into the cotton knickers my mother had bought me. It was as though I was watching a violation of someone else’s body, not mine. I felt paralysed and powerless to stop him; I did not know what to do. After that, he pressured me into the next step and the next one, pushing my head down when I refused.
Control was everything to him. He forbade me from getting Facebook, like any normal 13 year old would, because he disapproved. He insisted I wore skirts whenever I saw him. Texting was on a strict every other day basis.
When people hear about abusive relationships, they often ask “why not just leave him/her?” They do not understand that an abusive relationship, whether it’s physical, sexual, verbal or all of the above, becomes deeply entrenched in your own psychology and sense of self-worth. Furthermore, as a 13 year old, I did not know what was normal. I had not been taught about consent, or what an abusive relationship looked like. I did not know if this was something I just had to endure, part of being a woman.
Like most victims, I did not realise I had been abused for several years. I did not have the emotional maturity to acknowledge this, nor did I really understand what happened. All I knew was that, for some reason, my self-worth depended on sexual validation from men. I had a string of boyfriends and lovers, each time not realising that I did not need to become a sexual object to be attractive, that I did not have to do as they asked.
My recovery didn’t begin until I went to university. Escaping the small town life of gossip and slut-shaming, I was finally able to reflect on what had happened to me.
The most helpful thing I ever did for myself was tell someone. I met a guy and I, for the first time, fell in love. But it was not for about a year in to our relationship that I revealed the full details of what had happened to me, of why I had crippling body insecurities, or had slept with so many men. Instead of the usual “I had a dodgy boyfriend” spiel, I told the truth. It was cathartic, to tell him what had happened, from start to finish, in chronological order. I told him every single detail of that year of my life, every feeling, every consequence. When I had finished (it’s a cliché to say this but never has it been so accurate) I felt a huge weight fall off my shoulders. I had been carrying around a deep shame and guilt for eight years. And to hear someone tell me that what happened wasn’t my fault, that I wasn’t to blame… the feeling was indescribable. It was a relief to get a diagnosis, so to speak. For the first time, someone pointed out to me that I had been abused, but I had never managed to see it myself.
People struggle to understand why victims blame themselves. Yes, it is an irrational response. But because this thing has happened to you, you cannot help but accept the possibility that it was because of you, that you deserved it somehow, that you could have stopped it but you didn’t. The reality is the guilt, pain, and shame that is imposed on you by your abuser is what keeps you down, submissive. It stops you from protesting.
Not all of us are lucky enough to have someone to talk to like I did, but if you do, and you have stayed silent, I urge you to let it out. Let go.