Image Credit: Jess Miller
Skin renews its self every seven years—meaning the skin that is on me now is still the skin he broke and bruised. I am waiting to be new again, to be seven years away from him. As if a new layer of me will take away all he did. As if my skin is the only thing tethered to this history.
I met Mike when I was 19. He was a bowling ball of a man, 5’11, 300 pounds—a starting defensive lineman on our college football team. His palms were stronger than all of me. He ruined me with the same strength he used on his opponents. The knock your breath out of you kind of tackle, the see a God who refused to save you kind of hit.
I let this man abuse me for two and half years, read as; he abused me for two and a half years and I still blame myself.
The first time I told my therapist about him, I wrote what he did to me in a list. Like the ease of a grocery store trip—without thought, but with so much survival. What I could not speak out loud I expressed in poems about deserts, measuring cups, and grave yards. They all read like shame. Images obscured and vague, unwilling to tell too much. He was the weather, or a broken home, or any pile of words to disguise what I couldn’t write; abuse.
My ability to write our story now, has not arrived because of a magical realization, or a strength I’ve built up over the past three years, or even the example that incredible women of the Me Too movement have created. It has been by changing my entire life that I can write this now. It has been by graduating from the middle of cornfields university where the colors he wore haunted me. I had to get away from all the places that were tainted with him. I had to create a life that is completely different than the one he was a part of. I made my world unrecognizable to the one he was in. Through all of this change, I can look back now with some small bit of objectivity. I can look back, as if maybe it wasn’t even me.
I am careful with these words as if I am still afraid of his retributions. I have rearranged each sentence to appear softer in its truth. The first time I met him, he told me about his mother and I made fun of the way he walked. It was easy. I held on to this while things got worse. Within weeks he started molding me for what would come. He created a relationship where I felt uneasy, unworthy, and unable to leave. I met him with confidence and intelligence, he took those away quickly and easily. To Mike, I was a naïve college freshman, willing to put up with anything just to be around him—I wonder now, if I’ve proved him wrong.
Our first fight started because I wouldn’t have sex with him. I threatened to never speak to him again, he threatened to post naked photos of me on the internet. From the beginning to the end, he told me that I would never get someone better than him. He did small things to show his control. We’d ride in his red Dodge pickup and appear in front of his apartment when he was supposed to take me to my own. He would take my phone, delete all evidence of him and throw it back at me. I remember the day I lost all hope in God—when Mike appeared in my Communications Research course. For weeks, he did not acknowledge me, but sent me photos of myself. He held things over me like a Midwest, fall storm. The clouds darkened, leaves whipped around, you changed your plans for the impending doom—but so often—only thunder came.
When we had sex for the first time, it was awkward and too bright in the room. The second time it was bad but not in the same way. He choked me until I passed out. The next day my friends gawked at the hickies around my neck that they did not know were bruises. I wish I could say this was the only time he put his hands on me in a way that I couldn’t stop. Over and over again, he’d push the limits. He’d grabbed too hard or hit me during sex, I’d fight back and he’d retreat. At some point I stopped fighting back, and he never retreated.
As time went on, these bruises faded and reappeared and I became a woman my mother didn’t mean to raise. I could run out of words describing all the ways that he put me down, all the small things he did to manipulate me into staying. Everything you need to know though, is that I feared him like the ocean. What I knew of him was the possibility of drowning, a slow death like sleep. The knowledge that the longer I stayed in him, the less likely I’d ever get out. What I left undiscover of him was deep and unknown—the consequences, endless. This is to say, I was afraid of everything. Of all I knew, of all he threatened, and all I hadn’t met yet. Throughout the months of knowing Mike I accepted abuse like it was deserved. Half the time it was because I was young, and I thought I loved him. The other half, it was because I felt trapped—I felt like there was no way out of him where I could land safely on the shore.
In November of my junior year, I made my last attempt at ending things with him. We had sex, a definition I use loosely as half the time was spent prying his hands from different parts of me and pleading him to stop. That night, I told him I never wanted to see him again. He laughed, then he climbed out my bedroom window, an escape to avoid my friends who were settled in the living room. His exit has represented so much of my time with him—a shameful unwillingness to walk out the front door. That was the last time I saw him, but not on my own accord.
Six days after he climbed out my window, he drugged a girl at a popular college bar. He was caught on camera slipping a sedative into her drink. Of all the things that rack my brain each day this might hold the most guilt, I wonder if I could have stopped what he did to her. If I was stronger, or smarter, or all things I don’t blame others for not being, maybe I could have stopped that from happening to her. But I didn’t, and I hold on to this shame every day. Too many times, I wished for death just to take this shame away.
When I saw Mike’s face splayed across the Internet, first, I felt saliva fill my mouth and nausea overcome me. Then, I felt nothing for the following three years. Within 30 minutes of finding out, I had to take a literature final. I should have been reviewing Their Eyes Were Watching God, but I was obsessed with my own tragedy caused by a violent man. It was the first final I ever failed. Throughout the day my phone dinged with questions. Within hours the entire campus had read what he did. I told everyone that I was shocked. I told myself, it could have been me—it should have been me, in so many ways it had already been me.
I have never rejoiced in the imprisonment of a person. But I cannot ignore the relief that I felt when Mike was arrested, and later when he was sentenced to two years. In that moment, I could look to a future without him. I could live as if he never existed. I felt like someone gave me the reins back, like she gave me the reins back. I am not sure, that without the strength and fight of that girl, that I would have ever gotten out of him. I owe her the life that I have now.
The journal I kept during this time sits on my book shelf. This withered journal that I have thought about burning a million times, is bright green. On the cover, in shimmering gold, it reads, “The grass is always greener.” Inside the pages you can see a timeline of the moments I promised never to go back to him, the time he gave me an STD, and the nights I ended up with him again. There’s a spread of ten pages where I printed and glued every article about him. His mugshot and roster photo still open wasps’ nest within my stomach. But what brings more pain than those artifacts, is all I wrote in the following days.
The day after he was arrested, I wrote a list of all my friends and role models, including my mother, coworkers, and professors. Under each name was a description of what they would have said to me at that moment. I wrote all the comforting phrases I imagined they would use to soothe me. I was too ashamed to ask them for help, but needed them so much that I wrote stories of the solace I thought they could offer. Within the journal, my mother told me that all this wasn’t my fault, that no matter what it felt like now, Mike was the one to blame. She repeated it over and over again until she thought I believed it. My manager at the university library told me that other strong women had been through this, too, that his actions were not a reflection of my worth, strength, or intellect. She gave me a list of books to read. My best friend did nothing but hold me, she gave me a space to feel safe. I wrote how scared I was of him, of everything. Then my sister murdered all the men in the world.
Two days after he was arrested, I assured myself that I would be okay. I wrote, “I know it’s hard to imagine, but someday you will feel smart, and strong, and like yourself again.” Reading those sentences, I feel the hopelessness all over again. I wish I could reach back in time and offer myself the comfort I so badly craved. But even now, I’m not sure what I would say.
Maybe that you’ll never feel like the girl you were before you met Mike. You will carry a terror and worry with you in every relationship to come. You will forever be acutely aware of how many women die by the hands of their partners. You will write an honors thesis on campus sexual assault and learn the word revictimization. A word that scares you more than death. Despite this though, you feel smart and strong—and like a better version of yourself.
Three years after you populate that journal: the grass is not only greener, but new.
I am still ashamed of the time I spent with Mike. Ashamed of the words I let him call me, of the things I let him do to me— the things I still don’t have the courage to write. Somedays I still miss him in a complicated way that makes me disgusted with myself. But I find sanctuary in the stories of other women, and in Phoebe Bridger’s song “Motion Sickness”. Her lyrics, “I hate you for what you did to me/ And I miss you like a little kid,” have made me feel less lonely in this reality.
In the two and a half years that I knew Mike, I learned things about myself that I did not want to know. I understood that in flight or fight, I was neither a bird or a boxer. I was the kind that stood and waited for the storm to pass, growing deeps roots, trying to hold on to something. I learned that shame is not something inside you, but the home you come back to and in which I live every day.
Since Mike, I have not been in a relationship that lasted longer than six weeks. I end things quickly, for fickle reasons or no reason at all. I haven’t learned to trust myself yet. I told a friend once that I would rather give up the chance on ever falling in love again, than feel the way that Mike made me feel. After attempts at therapy and hundreds of scribbled pages, a part of me still believes this statement. The other part doesn’t wasn’t to let him take more from me.
Today, over three years since I last saw Mike, a beautiful, wiry, incredibly smart woman, has given me reason for hope. I have fallen madly in love with her, a love I haven’t felt since first grade. We are close friends and my love is unrequited. But I watch the way that she takes care of people, the way that while not romantically loving me—she looks out for me, she wants the best for me. When I told her about Mike, about this shame that still envelopes me. She told me one day I would sit on a panel and talk about my experiences, that I would write essays that might save someone. She gave me this little sliver of future where I could proud of my past. I hold tight to this. For the first time in so long she makes me feel safe, and worthy of good love. Just knowing that I am capable of this feeling, lets me know that someday I will be out of him. Maybe even before my skin has time to redo itself.
Adrianne Beer is a graduate of Bowling Green State University, where she received a BFA in creative writing and BA in communication. Her writing can be found in Moon City Review, Chicago Reader, All Roads Will Lead You Home, and elsewhere. She currently lives and works in Chicago, Illinois.