"A guy chased me around with a knife once," a woman recently told me at a party. The music video for the K.Flay song "Cops" had just come on. In it, the artist repeats the lyrics, "Even if the cops come calling, I'll never talk." The song may be about domestic violence, or it may be about a boyfriend who deals drugs. Either way, it triggered a very personal conversation with two women I'd only just met that night—about our own histories of violence. "My ex hit me and broke my eardrum," the second woman said, pointing at the side of her head.
I clenched my teeth and considered whether to divulge my own story. It's not something I whip out often. But the more I talk about it, the more I realize that I'm not alone.
According to a report compiled by the CDC in 2014, nearly one in three (31.5 percent) women have experienced physical violence from an intimate partner in their lifetimes, and nearly one in four (22.3 percent) have experienced at least one severe act, such as being slammed against something or hit with a hard object or a fist. In 2011, the year the most recent data was collected, an estimated 4.7 million women were victimized, per that report. If you add in sexual violence, stalking, and other forms of intimate partner violence like psychological aggression, the numbers climb even higher.
Like the majority of women when they're first shoved, kicked, or punched, I was young and vulnerable when it happened to me.
I met Jack* at a college party in my hometown when I was 16. He was sitting on the back of a blue pickup truck in a white T-shirt and jeans, smoking a cigarette. He was almost 18 but had only recently transferred to my high school.
He offered to light my cigarette as we sat drinking beer and talking on the flatbed of his truck. I didn't think he would be interested in me—none of the cool guys at school seemed to be.
"You're pretty," he told me.
I learned quickly that Jack was a man of few words, of which maybe 80 percent were "uh-huh," "nope," or "dude's an asshole." At the time, I found his aloofness attractive. He didn't care about the things high school boys normally did—sports, cars, or money. Jack had outlaw status. He played by his own rules.
I soon learned that his mom, Tammy*, sold weed, which made me popular at school my junior year, when I became his girlfriend. I suddenly had access to something everyone wanted. "Can you get me some green from Jack?" the boys at school who were afraid of Jack would ask. "Can you get me some from Tammy?" the ones who knew Jack would ask me when he wasn't around.
"I'll see what I can do," I'd say.
Since I wasn't exactly part of the in-crowd, I considered my newfound status as a trusted officer in Jack's family business a step up—even though Tammy lived in a trailer park on the edge of town. I'd sit with her as she rolled a joint and then passed it from her rocking chair, chain-smoking cigarettes and watching TV. She had a low, husky voice and when she couldn't believe something someone was telling her on the cordless phone, she'd bellow out, "Jeeeeezzzzussss."
Around the time I met Jack, I'd had a falling out with my own parents, who raised me in an upper-middle-class family on the opposite side of town. They were super-strict, and I'd spent the first two years of high school grounded. By the time I was 16, I had decided to fight them on everything.
My dad would flush my pot and yell at me. I'd take twenties out of his wallet for reimbursement. My mom would throw away my cigarettes. I'd pull them back out of the garbage can outside as she watched from the window.
Jack, on the other hand, treated me like the grown-up woman that I felt I was. He taught me how to play poker and gave me my first orgasm. He was six-foot-one [185 cm], two hundred pounds [90kg], and full of words like "stupidity-ness," while I was a straight-A student who had only started getting B's due to lackluster attendance and a penchant for getting high before school. Nobody fucked with me while I dated Jack, and I kind of liked that about being his girlfriend.
I finally got respect from kids who'd either ignored me—or flat-out talked shit about me. And his trailer house was outside of my parents' jurisdiction. I can only imagine my father, a geeky soft-spoken MD, trying to have a conversation with his mother, who answered the door in a crop top and cutoffs and let her favorite expression, "That shit's ate up," rip every 20 minutes or so.
My parents did not like Jack, but it wasn't his socioeconomic status that offended them. It was that he happened to be a convicted felon. I never asked him about the crime, but I knew he'd pled guilty to a home invasion charge after getting drunk and punching through someone's window before we were together. It didn't sound that bad to me at the time—like a trumped up vandalism charge or something.
While we dated, he had to serve three months at a bootcamp in lieu of going to jail. During that time, he sent me letters, in which he promised to turn his life around as soon as he got out.
"Not sure I should be giving these to you," my mother said, but she did anyway, probably to avoid inciting any screaming matches.
Most of the time, Jack seemed like a teddy bear. Even though he sold weed, he didn't smoke it. His drug of choice was Bud Light.
Like most teenage romances, ours began to fizzle my senior year, after Jack finished high school. We weren't officially broken up, so I met him at a party he was hosting one Friday night. A girlfriend and I had stopped by a few other places on the way there. I stood on the cracked concrete of his driveway smoking a cigarette when Jack came out to meet me.
"Where have you been?" he asked.
"Just at another party," I said casually.
That's when a surprising thing happened. It was so stunning, in fact, that I remember it in slow motion. His face contorted, his right shoulder rolled back, and he punched me, fist first, in the face.
Everything went from black to white, except for a green hose, which lay coiled up on the driveway next to the house. When the white receded, a volcano of pain erupting in my head replaced it.
As soon as I could bring myself to speak, I yelled inside to my friend. Jack had disappeared momentarily and was gone for the minute or two it took her to come out of the house and take the keys to my car.
"We have to go now," I said.
I don't know where he was when I crawled into the back seat clutching my head. But I saw Jack through the windshield when he appeared out of the darkness and into the headlights.
As we were backing away, he charged the car, running toward us and then pounding his fist on the windshield. It cracked like a spider web, but didn't shatter. He then chased us down the street as we sped away, his hurled half-full beer can of beer making a thunk sound on the car's exterior.
Unfortunately, the story doesn't end with the criminal justice system. Not only do survivors of intimate partner violence have consistently higher rates of PTSD and depression, but evidence strongly suggests a link between that type of violence and other mental health conditions, including substance abuse, self-harm, suicidal thoughts, eating disorders, anxiety and mood disorders, and poor sleep .
In the months that followed, I dealt with my overwhelming trauma by ramping up an already robust pot regimen with ecstasy, which had flooded into my town along with the rave scene. For one night, all of my sadsies would disappear into a deep house beat.
By day, I was a zombie. My parents sent me to a psychiatrist, who put me on a cocktail of antidepressants. His answer to everything was, "Let's up the Wellbutrin." But it didn't help. I was too sad to even go to my own high school graduation.
Luckily, my family had the resources to enroll me in college. My dad filled out my applications, and when it was time for me to go, I somehow mustered the resolve to put the pieces of my life back together. I slowly phased out the drug use, graduated from college, and moved as far away as I could get from my hometown to avoid anything that reminded me of Jack. Because I was still afraid of him, I even kept away from social media until it became professionally unacceptable to do so.
But the groundwork for abuse had already been laid. In my 20s, I worked for a psychopathic boss for almost three years—a screamer whom I never stood up to. I also dated a man who punched inanimate objects when he was drunk. I thought I deserved these displays of aggression. They fit a familiar narrative—one in which I was the common denominator.
I went on and off antidepressants, anti-anxiety drugs, and sleep-aids for over a decade, during which time I had recurring nightmares about Jack. In one, he chased me in his truck as I fled on roller skates. In another, he had a gun, and I struggled to escape through quicksand. I'd wake up soaked in sweat before realizing I was not a panicked 17-year-old, but a panicked 30-year-old.
It wasn't until my early thirties that I started talking openly about being a victim of intimate partner violence, first with a therapist, then close friends, some colleagues, and eventually the two women I met at the party. Before then, I thought avoiding the memory and moving on was the answer. It wasn't. By hearing other stories, it became clear that I was not to blame for attracting a dangerous man, or for what he did to me. I was merely a casualty in a pattern of violence—one that affects millions of women a year.
The last time I dreamed about Jack, he followed me around silently like a pet on a leash. In the dream, I could sense he no longer had the ability to hurt me. His presence was still unsettling, but something had finally changed for me. I woke up, rolled over, and went right back to sleep.
*Names have been changed
For more information about or support with domestic violence, visit the National Domestic Violence Hotline.