At 17, I was at the typical crossroads of a high schooler in America. It was time to level up in responsibility and find my first real job, and I also could finally drive a car...which also meant that I needed to pay for gas. So I sought out a job as a cashier for our local supermarket, working after school and on weekends.
Soon after, I was promoted to Lead Cashier - working the front customer service desk, selling cigarettes and lottery tickets before I was old enough to buy either, and helping other cashiers until it was time to close the store each day. Sometimes this meant working until 2:00 AM on a school night if the money in the safe wasn’t adding up correctly, or dealing with a VERY angry customer that was screaming bloody murder if I chose not to give a full refund for food that I knew was either stolen or not even sold at our store.
Please, please stop yelling at me.
You’re yelling at me about broccoli.
It was there that I also met a guy who piqued my interest from the beginning: in his 20’s, really funny, and seemed to get along with everyone. We quickly became friends. I enjoyed the fact that I could engage in meaningful conversation with a guy who was older, and he seemed to really care about me.
Most guys that I hung out with were either very close friends that I would never imagine dating, or guys that knew me since middle school and labeled me as a forever-geek that helped them with their homework. At work, this man knew the person that I wanted to be, and didn’t have any preconceived prejudices.
He appreciates me for who I am.
I don’t need to ever pretend to be someone else.
At-work courtships are always tricky. You are still straddling the line between self-announced independence and a parentally-determined curfew; splitting your shift between the dedication towards your first job and attempting to show romantic interest in someone. Our relationship started slowly, but it was clear from the beginning that we liked each other more than just friends or coworkers. By the time our dating became official, I was fully convinced that he was the only partner I needed by my side; that my life was complete if he was in it. Early on I knew that I would do whatever it took to make sure that he knew I cared for him, and that I would fight for him.
Our “honeymoon stage” reminded me of those montages at the beginning of RomComs when you only get quick glimpses of happy times in a relationship, complete with an acoustic-pop soundtrack in the background. Fleeting moments of pure joy are then quickly replaced with images of fights, disagreements, and silent treatments.
We were both still really learning what it meant to be in a relationship. Small arguments would break out if I wanted to hang out with my friends on the weekends – I had always invited him to meet them, but he never wanted to, claiming that high schoolers were immature and he would rather just spend quality time with me.
He’s trying to give me compliments,
trying to tell me how much he cares about me.
But why does this feel a bit off? Am I crazy?
My friends are great - he could learn that quickly.
But he seems so adamant about it.
I don’t want to start a stupid fight.
All he wants is quality time.
How could that ever be a bad thing?
I had also met his parents, which has always been a big deal for me. They were wonderful, and seemed to really love me. His dad one day pulled me aside and said that my impact on his son was one of true happiness and positivity – his son was getting better grades in community college, and seemed to be so much more complete with me by his side.
“You are the best thing to have ever happened to him. Thank you for helping our son.
We love you.”
... ... ... ... ... ... ...
When I heard that come out of his mouth, I felt like my insides were being torn in half – and that surprised me greatly. I put on a nice smile, thanked him and told him that I am so happy to have made his son complete, and excused myself to the bathroom.
It was true: I was really happy with this guy, loved his parents, and was thrilled that I was making a positive impact. Any time spent with my boyfriend alone, or around people in his life, was great. But I couldn’t help but feel a kick to my stomach –
If the roles were reversed,
Mom and Dad would NEVER say that to him.
He is not the best thing to have ever happened to me.
They wouldn’t consider him “helping me.”
They sure as hell don’t love him.
I was so confused and lost that I didn’t know how to figure it all out, so I did what almost any 17 year old does: I stuffed those messy feelings deep down, put on the smile I knew so well, and kept moving forward.
The conversation with his dad admittedly stuck with me, though, and it inspired a conversation with my boyfriend about my own loved ones. I tried to tell him that after 6 months of dating, I really wanted him to meet my friends and get to know my family better. I let him know that I haven’t spent time with my best friends in months, and I really missed them; that my parents really don’t know him that well and would feel more comfortable with my spending time with him if they knew him better.
His response seemed passionate and logical at the time: my parents were overprotective, and no matter the impression he could try to make, they would still not like him; why should he meet my friends if I’m going to college in a few months and will make new, more mature, friends anyway? Why am I focusing so much on forcing him to experience my past, when he just wants to enjoy my future with me?
Everything feels foggy and heavy...
Which way is up?
Is he right? Are my parents right?
How am I supposed to choose between him or my family?
Fast forward a month or so, and I was getting college letters in the mail. I had been accepted by every college I applied to, and was torn between two universities: The College of New Jersey, where I could pursue my passion for Sociology just an hour away from home, or American University, where I would move to D.C. and explore a future in politics and global awareness. I sat down with my boyfriend to discuss both, as my decision greatly impacted the status of our relationship. He made it clear: I needed to stay closer to home, so that he could visit me more often. If I moved to D.C., it would surely be the end of our relationship.
He loves me.
He wants to be near me.
How could I be so cruel as to deny him that?
I want to be close to him too.
And today, it pains me so much to admit: initially that was the main reason as to why I chose The College of New Jersey.
Prepping for college became a sore subject between the two of us – it always ended up in an argument, in him not wanting to hear about anything related to my graduation or what classes I was looking forward to. He started to say I was selfish, that I was making him feel bad for going to community college. I reminded him that I only ever raved about his classes that he told me about, but that he never really opened up to me about that aspect of his life. I wanted to know more, but he would never tell me.
How could I have supported him better?
I should have been more loving, more caring.
I should have listened better,
been more attentive to his needs.
I am being selfish.
Due to our increasingly frequent arguments, work life became stressful as well. He was shorter with me at work and didn’t really hide whenever he was upset with me. I learned to develop a poker face at work (although by all accounts, I was never great at hiding my emotions), and I was able to survive whenever our shifts overlapped by trying to tend to him a bit more often. I had to remind him more and more that I loved him and cared for him, and I had to prepare myself for any snide remarks he would make about me – because he was just lashing out due to his love for me.
He doesn’t mean what he’s saying, he’s just upset.
It’s my responsibility to survive any cruelty he afflicts,
because he doesn’t mean it.
A month after sending my letter back to TCNJ to let them know I was excited to attend in the fall, I had a week where I was putting in lots of extra hours at work to save up a bit more money, while also trying to see my boyfriend more often within territory where he seemed most comfortable. I had to spend a full Saturday working the front desk as lead cashier, and a friend of mine from high school came by to visit. We were class partners in our Sociology course, and good friends because of it. He happened to be in town, and wanted to swing by to say hi and talk about our class; we chatted for maybe 3 minutes. I thanked him for stopping by, told him I’d see him on Monday, and he left. I expected that to be the end of the story.
What I didn’t expect was to have my boyfriend come storming up the aisle, making a bee-line for my station after my friend left. I didn’t prepare myself for him ripping open the door to my space, shoving me against a wall, and whisper-screaming an inch away from my face. I wasn’t ready to know what it felt like for someone to slam your head up against a wall, or the adrenaline of fear that shoots through you when someone hits you, hard. I never knew what it was to be so confused and scared that you are left motionless.
... ... ... ... ... ... ...
After his tantrum, my boyfriend stormed to the break room, and I followed. I let one of the cashiers know that I would be right back, and asked if she could man the Cashier Station in my absence. I then met him in the break room, preparing myself to scream at him...when I realized that he was crying. He told me that he was upset because I was flirting with another man in front of him, that I never took his feelings into consideration, that he was so tired of me being selfish.
How could I be mad at him?
He’s crying. This is not the face of a violent person.
It’s the face of someone who’s hurting.
I wasn’t flirting… but if he perceived it as such,
who am I to tell him his feelings are wrong?
He pressed every emotional button that I had, and I felt terrible. I asked him why he hit me – and he responded with, “I would NEVER hit you, how could you think that?! I just opened up the door and you were in the way; I didn’t see you there until I was in the station.”
Am I losing it?
Did I just make all that up?
I guess… Yes,I must have exaggerated what happened.
He’s right - I’m being dramatic.
I ended up telling my parents what happened – with all of the caveats that I might have just misinterpreted the situation, and he wasn’t that bad – and thank goodness I did. I knew they didn’t like him, and I REALLY didn’t want them to be right, but I also knew that I needed to turn to someone about the fact that I was unsure that my relationship was truly a reflection of love. Something felt bad, and I needed to bounce ideas off of someone I trusted. Naturally they saw all the red flags before I did, and they let me know that this was an abusive relationship, not a healthy one. But for two weeks I didn’t want to believe them. I spent 14 days trying to work things out with my boyfriend, and trying to prove to my parents that it really was just a fluke. But during those 2 weeks, things only got worse. The more I searched for a healthy relationship, the more I realized just how screwed up everything really was.
This isn’t love. It shouldn’t be this hurtful.
But I might be leaving the one person who will ever love me.
After I broke up with him, he ended up harassing me at work. He found my timecard in the office and carved the words “FUCK YOU” across the magnetic strip so that I couldn’t clock in, and he spread horrible rumors about me to our coworkers. I spent so much time worrying that he would physically hurt me again, and asked my mom to come in with me to speak to my manager about it.
He was not surprised that things were going south, as my ex-boyfriend was buddies with him and had already expressed his side of the story. But when I let my manager know of the harassment, and showed him the time card, his demeanor changed. He first questioned how I really knew it was my ex, and I reminded him that we have cameras everywhere and he could check if he wanted. I told him I didn’t want to be on the same shift as him ever again, and my mom reminded the manager that my ex should actually not work there at all if he is prone to real harassment tactics.
My manager ended up making sure that our shifts didn’t overlap, but he didn’t fire him – the excuse being that if my ex was fired and he knew that I had a part in it, I might be in more danger than I was currently in at that time. At that moment, I was just glad for any small step towards safety.
Things quieted down towards the end of the school year and into summer. My ex and I didn’t talk for months, and I felt like I was learning what it meant to have a healthy life again. I wasn’t prepared for the extra guilt, though, of re-visiting friends after having been separated from them for so long.
I abandoned them.
I don’t deserve them anymore - I left them for months,
How could I beg for their help?
I am a terrible friend.
Here’s a surprising lesson: the people that love you will always love you. Even if you push them away, or you don’t let them help, or you try to ignore them when you’re in pain. They will still love you, and will be there to embrace you when you’re finally ready for it. I expected my best friends to say “screw you” and never speak to me again, but instead they hugged me and reminded me that they were always there for me. They just were waiting for me to see it. I had never felt so loved and yet so undeserving of that love. And they repeated time and time again that if the roles were switched, I would have loved them back as well; this was true friendship and real love. And I was so grateful that they reminded me of how that felt.
As with most soap operas, though, the story didn’t end there. I didn’t end up riding off into the sunset towards college, with a clear head on my shoulders and the confidence that I was headed in the right direction. No, instead I was questioning everything. I no longer trusted my instincts since I had missed so many red flags that other people saw – and I was focused on the fear that I made the wrong move, that all I did was hurt my former boyfriend.
He had reached out to me randomly one day, a few weeks before college was going to begin. It was the standard, “I miss you, how are you, I would love to see you” type of thing. Not at all an apology, but it seemed like a small attempt to make some kind of amends. So I responded back, which started a secret chain of messages between the two of us as we caught up on each others’ lives.
He’s trying to make up for everything - he’s changed.
No one would understand, but it’s because they don’t know him.
Forgiveness is important - I can do that.
People will think I’m being naive or manipulated - but it’s not true.
He’s changed. He’s proving he’s the man I fell in love with.
We wrote to each other in secret, and planned on meeting up in person three days before I was headed to college.
I’m 18 - officially an Adult.
My parents would freak -
it’s better that I just tell a little white lie:
“I’m borrowing the car to see a friend” - yea, that’ll work.
It’s not REALLY a lie.
Maybe a little one, but not really.
They just wouldn’t understand.
I snuck over to his house and parked the car in his driveway. His parents were thrilled to see me, which yet again made my stomach tighten almost imperceptibly, and he and I got in his car to head to the movies. The date was wonderful, and it felt like things could actually be normal again.
We headed back to his house after the movie, and he walked me to my car. We talked quietly for a bit more, and he mentioned how happy he was to see me. He leaned down to kiss me, and I suddenly felt all of the blood leave my body in chills.
He hit me.
He harrassed me.
He abused me.
He hit me. He hit me. He hit me.
I fought so hard to be safe again, to find health again.
Am I about to throw all of that away?
I pushed him away, said it was a terrible idea, and he blew up immediately. The version of him that I feared still existed was hiding just beneath the surface. And I found the trigger.
I raced back home in tears, but thankful that I didn’t allow this to go any further. I entered my house, breathed a sigh of relief that both of my parents were asleep, and went to bed. I woke up the next morning still a bit frazzled, but happy that I was home. It should not have come as a surprise to see my dad in the kitchen making breakfast as he greeted me with:
“So you know you’re grounded, right?”
“You know you’re grounded.”
I didn’t bother asking what he thought I did – deep down I knew that whatever “Dad Powers” he acquired, mind reading was probably one of them. That, and maybe acting on a hunch and driving to my ex-boyfriend’s house to see my car in the driveway while we were at the movies.
“But I’m 18! I’m headed to college in three days!”
“So, then you’re grounded for three days. What do you want for breakfast?”
I ended up letting both of my parents know what happened over the summer, and how things ended, and what I learned the night before. They were beyond pissed, but also glad that I was safe. I soon found a therapist that helped me recognize red flags that I previously ignored, and I leaned on friends and family members to be my instinctual barometers until I could trust my gut again.
After that final hiccup, it felt more like I was limping into the sunset rather than riding towards it. A little bruised, a little beaten up emotionally and mentally, but stronger because of it. Although the relationship was so abusive, I still look back on it as my first “adult” relationship: I learned about communication and love, as well as abuse and control. Fear came in new forms, but I learned to take my “inner voice” a little more seriously. I also discovered what “I’m sorry” can mean, and when it is meant as either truth or manipulation.
- - - - -
It’s been 11 years since that experience, and to this day I still look back on it as one of my most important life lessons. Certainly one of the earliest. There will always be more detail that I could add to this tale; but if you can take anything away from my story, please take away this:
There is a very clear overlap between what I felt, what I did, and what I wish I did. The main takeaway was how I grew. There is no shame in the learning process, and I am continually thankful for the emotional scars that continue to heal over time.
Let me repeat that: there is no shame in the learning process.
Nothing could have prepared me for how I developed beyond those experiences - and I wouldn’t change a thing. But I am glad that I got out when I did.
Personal growth can be hard, painful, and scarring. But it also makes us whole, loving, and empathetic. If you ever wondered why I started this “empathy embodied” community in the first place, you might say this was the catalyst...