I, Survivor: The Journey Back from Violence

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Photo by Vivian Johnson.

By Erin Rook, The Willamette Week

We met during summer orientation at a New England women’s college. I was an orientation leader, and Nehal was one of the new students. At the time, we were both lesbians. (We’ve both since come out as transgender men).

I hadn’t gone into orientation looking for “fresh meat” as some of my peers did—Nehal pursued me, and hard. By that evening, we had consummated our relationship. A few weeks later, he professed his love by drawing it on my back with his finger. Come fall semester, we were essentially cohabiting.

I was a 22-year-old “student leader”—editor of my college newspaper, president of the Communications Liaison, member of the Feminist Union (aka FU). I was mild-mannered but by no means weak-willed.

Nehal was a fiery 18-year-old tennis player whose hard-to-place accent and unfamiliarity with American culture was endearing. (I made him his first ever peanut butter-and-jelly sandwich). He was cute, funny and charming (and a head shorter than me)—hardly threatening.

But it took less than a year for a charismatic Dr. Jekyll to turn into a monstrous Mr. Hyde. Sweet nothings gave way to searing insults. In place of loving touch, his hands delivered punishment and his body, denial.

All the signs of abuse were there. The name-calling (“stupid fucking cunt” was his favorite), the put-downs (“You’ll never be a writer”), blaming me for everything—including attempted rape (“I was feeling rejected”).

Once the physical abuse—slapping, shoving, choking, kicking—began, I couldn’t deny what it was. So I started keeping notes in a private online diary, “just in case” it kept happening. And it did.

There was no real rhyme or reason to the assaults. They weren’t frequent enough to be predictable. But they were always my fault. I didn’t open the door fast enough, I dropped something, I was cleaning wrong.

One time he made me get on my knees, shoved a dirty sock in my mouth, spit on me, and hit and kicked me while telling me what I horrible person I was. As much as I knew what he was doing was wrong, that it was an outsized reaction to the circumstances, I couldn’t help feeling like I brought it on myself. I cheated (once), I lied (about the infidelity), and I confided in a friend (who turned out to have designs on my partner). I should have known this would happen.

Had these assaults happened back-to-back, I might have left sooner. But they were spread out, interspersed with legitimately good times. Such is the cycle of violence. Every incident is followed by a “honeymoon” period full of tearful apologies, sincere promises, romantic gestures. Until the tension begins to build again, exploding into another assault.

Eventually, crazy became the new normal. I couldn’t rely on anything but instability. Like a hostage suffering from Stockholm syndrome, I survived by identifying with my captor and focusing on minimizing harm.

When Nehal threatened to kill me in a drunken rage, I did my best to calm and soothe him. When he said he’d “take out” my entire family if I didn’t repay some money I owed him, I chastised him like a child.

“You can’t say that!” I admonished.

He responded in kind: “I meant, like, take them out for ice cream. Geez.”

It was all very surreal. People who say they would never put up with abuse don’t understand the insidious way it creeps into a relationship, the way that daily emotional manipulation wears away your defenses and self-worth, the way your abuser’s forcibly asserted worldview begins to cloud out reality.

I did reach out for help once. In the midst of some drama around Nehal having an ongoing affair with my best friend, I told the director of Residence Life that I was considering moving to a single dorm room because my partner was “borderline abusive.” Instead of picking up on my desperate, if understated, plea, she offered me a room key. It wasn’t the help I was looking for.

I’m not sure why my friends never said anything. They knew Nehal was “difficult”—but they either didn’t suspect the abuse or didn’t want to ask. I was careful to make excuses for his behavior. If they knew what I was really dealing with, I thought, I’d have to leave. And I didn’t feel ready to do that.

When I finally left almost four years later, it took the better part of a year and weekly support-group meetings to begin to regain my footing. I wouldn’t have made it without Bradley Angle’s program for LGBTQ survivors and the friends and family who welcomed me home.

The past still haunts me from time to time, but in the five years since I left, I’ve learned and grown so much. It gets better.

But not until you leave.

The names in this story have been changed.

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