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He walked over to the table I was sitting at with some friends and casually, yet confidently, pulled up a chair. His voice was deep and he had a luring accent that immediately caught my attention. His distinctly cut jawline along his perfectly trimmed beard made him seem older, I thought, than the age I’d soon learn he was. Our paths had crossed before like two ships in the night, forbidding us from ever quite meeting as we did that day . . . eye to eye, energy to energy He chatted with me and our mutual friends for a few minutes, making eye contact with a subtle, cheeky grin every once in awhile, and then he walked away.

This was my first encounter with the man who soon thereafter swept me off my feet and turned my life into a series of exciting adventures and thrilling endeavors. What I didn’t know then was that these times of great sunlight would never last too long before a storm full of pounding thunder and striking lighting would shake me to my core, only to blow past and bring light anew.

When I first fell for him, he made me feel like I was the most prized possession he’d ever been able to call his own; I’m quite independent myself, so this left me paradoxically flattered by his strong desire and unparalleled passion for me. From the exquisite descriptions of the future he imagined for us to the simple, discreet way he touched my back when we were in the company of others, I found everything he did spellbinding. And so, when the pockets of darkness brought on by deep threads of his jealousy, anger, and manipulation peeked through intermittently, I chose to believe my forgiving storylines excusing his outrageous fits: he is stressed from his demanding job; he didn’t sleep enough; he had too much to drink; this isn’t the real him; he will apologize in the morning.

Though it was infrequent at first, when he’d turn, it was like his green, glaring eyes would seep tiny zig-zags of red, like the spreading roots of a plant taking hold of the ground, and it was as though they belonged within the face and body of a stranger—an irrational and aggressive stranger I didn’t know how to calm down. This stranger only appeared once every few months in the beginning, and he left as quickly as he came, leaving me with the same endearing man I was now, a few years later, very much in love with.

Or at least, I convinced myself I was very much in love . . . even though there was this dull but clear idea in the back of my mind that perhaps, as strong as the magnetic pull was between us, he might not actually be the one. In fact, in a conversation with my mom when we were babbling about Mr. Dreamy, I almost admitted this gut feeling to her, but I wasn’t ready to divulge. I wanted to see where this would take me more than I wanted to listen to my mom tell me to end it now and not waste my time.

So when I learned of his grandiose idea to move to a different county together I thought, “Ah-ha! Maybe he could be the one!” Much to my mother’s chagrin, I abandoned my life as I knew it; I left my stable, highly accredited career, my loving family, my nearest and dearest friends and I moved with him to a beautiful island full of palm trees, warm breezes, and nothing that resembled my bustling life in New York. Before leaving, I had visions of sitting on the bow of a boat with my love at the helm and the wind blowing through my hair without a worry to whisper. You see, I have always wanted to move to an island. This was a dream of mine; I wanted to go somewhere new to me, somewhere exotic. I had a nagging desire to be immersed in people and cultures different from mine for as long as I could remember. I wanted to do something bold like this and I knew I could. This dream coupled with my blind sense of hope in making this relationship really work despite my quiet fears sent me over the moon with excitement.

The night before we left, my mother took me upstairs to talk to me privately. I felt like a child being sent away from the party as I retreated up the stairs away from my boyfriend wondering what she had to say hours before our departure. I will never forget her words that night: “Honey, he speaks for you. When I ask you a question, he answers. Promise me you won’t let him take your voice away.” In the moment, I was so disappointed that this was the advice she ultimately chose to leave me with. I was angry: Why couldn’t she have just sucked up her worries and decided to at least pretend to be happy for me that night? But, if I am completely honest, I was also angry because I knew that she just may be on to something.

I made a promise to myself on the plane that I wouldn’t let him “take my voice away” and control me, but the moment we landed, I knew this was going to be harder than I had anticipated.

Beginning the first week we were there, any attempt I made to make new friends was met with ridicule and left me doubting my judge of character. Could he be right that these people don’t really want to be my friends and they are just humoring me? Any attempt I made to join a group that made me feel a part of something, such as a gym, was met with jealousy and control. Why would you chose to spend your free time with them? They just think you are attractive and are using you. Instead of going to the gym this morning, I will make you breakfast at home, stay with me. Any attempt I made to connect with my friends and family back home was met with resentment and belittling. You don’t need them. Don’t you see how they keep you down and stop you from living your best life. Why would I ever go back to see your family after how they’ve treated me?

I couldn’t make sense of his logic when he would twist and turn situations into things they were not, but yet nothing I could do or say would make him believe me. He started to compliment the way other women would do things, like how they chose go for walks instead of go the gym or what great cooks they are even though I made great food nightly. He would beg for me to be home with him, but be somewhere else when I would return. If we were fighting and someone called, he could somehow immediately change his tone of voice and sound calm and collected on the phone, and then as soon as he hung up, he’d return to nonsense. He would smile at me when we were out with friends, but if something was wrong, he’d make eye contact for a little too long just so I’d get the hint that we’d “talk about it” later.

It started out with the manipulation of words and my thoughts, but it wasn’t long before he got physical. At first, he wouldn’t actually put his hands on me, but he would throw things, punch walls, and drive recklessly with me in the car. Then he would curl up to me like a little baby and say he was sorry. For some reason, more often than not, in the moment I would accept the apology and want to try again.

This was why it was hard for me to determine what was happening was not OK. It became a familiar, predictable routine. I came to anticipate his jealousy or anger and I learned how to calm him down. I threatened to leave, but I knew he’d stop me. We’d make up and I’d feel relieved when he would put me back on that pedestal he picked out for me when we first met. I was still physically passionate about him and I longed to go back to the way things were. I had conflicting thoughts in my head constantly. How could I feel both repulsed by him and still have such strong desire for him at the same time? I longed for the sweet side of him to stay. I feared it would never happen, but I fought that fear with all my might for months.

But then one night, we were fighting over something I cannot even remember, and I found myself lying on the bed with him over me, pinning down my shoulders with his strong hands. I couldn’t move the top part of my arm, but the bottom part was free. I slapped him across the face. And before I could blink he slapped me back and his silver ring clipped my eye. He retreated and sank to the floor crying with an apology. I was stunned, shocked. I looked in the mirror. My eye was already swelling and turning a dark color. He was so pathetically sorry I almost felt bad for him. But what I really felt was relieved and confused. I was relieved because I knew he would leave me alone for awhile and confused because I wasn’t sure if it was my fault. I wasn’t sure if the fact that I slapped him first entirely negated him slapping me. I thought, “Did I do this? Did I make him hit me? Was I abusive?”

As we were driving in the car one day talking about what we would say to people when they asked what happened to my eye, it occurred to me that not one ounce of him was worried I would tell the truth. That was an eye-opener for me. I thought, “How is he so convinced that I won’t tell someone he did this to me?” I don’t know if it was because he thought no one believed me, or because he thought I did it first so I won’t tell, or just because he actually didn’t care if I did. I will never know, but this realization helped me to wipe the salt out of my fuzzy eyes and make my move to end this.

But . . . I was on an island, remember? And the thing was, I loved it there. I loved my job, I loved the people, I loved the gym I belonged to, I loved the smells and sounds . . . I didn’t want to leave just because he was ruining this relationship. So, I decided to stay. Fortunately, thanks to my parents’ strong insistence, I had financial freedom. I had a job and a bank account with money in it that was my own. We agreed to live separately and go on with our lives living there until my job contract was over in a few months and I would return home. We’d coexist in the same, small circles island life provides, but we just wouldn’t be “together”.

The plan worked for a few months. I went on with the life I had started building without him. I grew close with amazingly inspiring local families; I continued working with the greatest integrity and progressive intentions; I ate and drank at unique, authentic bars and restaurants; I sat on beautiful beaches with beautiful people, inside and out, from all over the world; I listened to music that moved my soul; I learned how to navigate hilly, small dark roads by myself; I accepted invitations to events without having the comfort of knowing many people; I took care of myself and lived day by day in paradise.

My ability to maintain my distance from someone I still desperately wished was a better man and to create a beautiful life with myself as my top priority was life-changing. I was in a land foreign to me without a person I could really trust, except for myself. And I leaned in to that self-trust. I trusted that God had put me on that beach right then and there for that time of my life because there were lessons I needed to learn about other people and about myself. I paid attention to those lessons and looked for all of the intricate little details. I found beauty in every wave, in every flower, in every local meal I shared with every unique person I spent my time with. I found gratitude for this opportunity to be on my own and to decide for myself how I wanted to be treated, who I wanted to engage in conversations with, what I would do with the hours in my day. I realized that when you are going through a tough time and you are away from the people who truly love you, like close family and friends, you begin to love yourself a little bit more. Above all else, I look back and I think the most significant thing I learned from my experience away was the value of this self-love. I learned that if I am true to myself and make my choices according to that truth, I can do anything and I can find my own happiness.

Ultimately, I did end up leaving the island a few weeks prior to my scheduled departure date. My mother and my best friends came down to see me and since they had caught on to the situation by that point, they basically staged an intervention and said they wouldn’t leave without me. Coincidentally, at the same time I got wind of my ex moving on with another girl and I didn’t put up much of a fight when they started to book my flight. The truth is, I was ready to go home, but I was also sad to leave. I was not sad to leave him, but I was sad to leave my island . . . the once unfamiliar place I came to call home.

When I look back on my time away, I am filled with beautiful memories of a rich and luscious life experience that I will never regret, despite the periods of heartache and pain. Yet, I very rarely talk about this experience in its entirety with friends and family now because my truth is accompanied with a lot of tough questions and emotions.

How could you love someone who hurt you?

I would never put up with that. You are better than that.

But you are so smart and beautiful.How could a girl like you end up with a guy like that?

But, did he actually hit you? (Only once.) Oh . . . well, at least he didn’t hurt you.

It is comments like these that envelop me with shame when I talk about this time of my life. Yet also, it’s comments like these that encourage me to push past the shame and share my story. For years even after my departure I wondered, was it emotional abuse? Does just one hit make it physical abuse? Was he just a “bad guy” and I didn’t see it? I tried to give my relationship (or really, my ex) a label. I read behavioral checklists to see where my experience fell on a scale. In a weird way, I didn’t feel entitled to feel sorry for myself because it hadn’t gotten to the awful distance so many accounts I read about had; this diminished my own experience and my ego would tell me to “get over it”. This wasn’t helpful because what I really was in search for was support and understanding. I looked for some black and white sign that told me I did the right thing instead of staying in that pool of stagnant grey quicksand I was in for so long.

But now, years have passed and I have realized that I didn’t need a sign or a label or someone else to tell me I did the right thing. I know I deserve complete joy and respect and happiness and I don’t need validation from anyone. I know if I let go of things that aren’t bringing me what I need, I will make room for people and experiences that will.

To the woman reading this who is looking for her black and white sign, consider this story it.

Go. Leave. And if you need help to start anew, ask for it.

Start loving yourself and every single part of your life the way you are meant to.

Trust your gut, listen to your intuition.

I promise, if you spend time and energy committing to loving yourself, true love with knock on your front door. I know this to be true, because it happened to me. Trust the process.

So God Made a Mother book by Leslie Means

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