I was always a secret romantic. I wanted the love we saw in movies: the passionate kind, the heart rumbling, fire sparking, all-consuming love that is glorified in Hollywood movies. But what I didn’t realize in my early teens was how similar this “all-consuming” love was to emotional abuse. How behind the romantic gestures made by the male actors was a deep rooted objectification of female bodies.
Between the on-and-off romances was a mind that was plagued with instability and uncertainty. Between the passionate kisses there was a strong lack of consent with the male actor often cutting off the female mid-sentence to kiss her — as if what she was saying was not important enough to be heard.
I didn’t realize any of this. Not until my first relationship which took away half of my life and all of my identity.
And that is the thing with emotional abuse. It invades you and you don’t know you are being invaded. It infects you and you don’t know you are being infected. It takes you over and you happily surrender, mistaking it for love. And that is the most frightening thing of all about emotional abuse, that it parades around under a guise of love.
It took me a long time to accept that this relationship had been abusive. And it was because it never really fit into the dictionary definition of abuse. He didn’t hit me, he never called me derogatory names and he didn’t stop me from meeting with my friends. How then had it been abuse?
I realized later after talking to a lot of wonderful survivors that no two instances of emotional abuse look the same. He might not have called me a bitch, but he gas-lighted me constantly. He might not have stopped me from meeting my friends, but he degraded them.
He might not have taken over my phone and my social media, but he controlled me in other ways, using my anxiety against me. For instance, once he told me that when I fought with him, he didn’t love me anymore, therefore stopping me from ever speaking up against him.
I was 18 and a senior in high school, and I was in hell. I was in hell, and I didn’t understand why. My friends could notice that I had changed. They would tell me they had never seen me this upset and this anxious, but wasn’t this normal? Weren’t relationships supposed to be hard work?
And so when I woke up to find tears streaming down my face day after day, I compared myself to a star-crossed lover. We were supposed to be Antony and Cleopatra, Layla and Majnun, a few tears here and there wouldn’t stop me from pursuing my love story.
And then he broke up with me, and it was over. And I was damaged, abused, manipulated and gas-lighted for months, and so when I felt like I was dying, I thought it was the break-up. I was sad just like anyone else would be after an emotional split. But months passed and I would still replay his voice again and again in my head. He had left but he still controlled me.
I didn’t have time to recover before I was forced to face him again. At Hopkins — where he studied and where now, I would study. University was supposed to be a fresh start, but it wasn’t; Hopkins had become so interlinked with him in my mind that I was scared of the school because I was scared of him.
But I didn’t know this. I thought if I felt anxious when I was near him it was just a natural reaction, because who wouldn’t be nervous around their ex? And so I pushed away all of those feelings, I pushed away all of my friend’s advice and I let him into my life again, this time as just a friend.
But abuse can occur in all situations and it occurred here. I got into a cycle of toxic dependence, I needed him to make me feel better. Even when he was the one making me feel worse, I would then go back to him to feel better again.
And sometimes things would get better, so I started seeing him as a solution without realizing that he was the source of a lot of my pain in the first place. As if this toxic cycle wasn’t bad enough, he became a trigger for me, bringing to the forefront of my mind past events. My ex became a vessel for my previous painful memories. And my fear of him grew.
I had dreams where his face would morph with that of my abuser. I had nightmares where he would show up in my room, in my lab, in my classes. I had dreams that everywhere I went he would follow. Reality, unfortunately, was not that different.
I later realized that the fact that my brain mixed him up with my abuser was no mistake. It was a warning, that the feeling of helplessness I once felt because of a different type of abuse, I was feeling again, only this time it was emotional and sneaky, disguised as love and friendship.
It’s hard to rebuild from this. It’s hard to see him around campus going on with his life when mine has stopped because of him.
And that perhaps is the most bitter realization of all — that there is no law that can protect me from him, there is no legislation that validates this as abuse. I have no evidence and no trails of the crimes committed.
In the eyes of many people, no infraction was committed. As a Pakistani man once told me, “these aren’t instances of abuse, they are just couple arguments.” And I have nothing to say back. I can’t shout from the rooftops and expose him. I can’t, because in the eyes of many what has he done? Nothing. Absolutely nothing.
For those people, abuse is broken bones and torn clothes. Abuse is forced penetration and purple bruises. Abuse is not this.
And to them I say, I will stick to my truth. I will stick to my truth. I am the evidence. I am the proof. Look at me. I was emotionally abused. And I will stick to my truth.