Content warning: this article contains violence, abuse, and self-blame.
This is the story of who I was in high school, the abuse I suffered at the hands of my ex, and how I came to be sitting here, writing this.
I’m hoping this piece can help people see abuse for what it is: complicated but never okay.
Names and descriptors have been changed to preserve anonymity. Timelines and details are at the mercy of my memory.
I think the first class we had together was in the fourth grade. Small towns are funny like that. They push you together, but you don’t see someone, actually see them until you’re 13 years old and they’re hitting on your best friend.
Looking back, I’m stunned I didn’t realize Gawain like liked my friend Emmie. I remember being insecure and sure that everyone liked bubbly, fun, and gorgeous Emmie. I think my crush on Gawain kept me blind to his crush on her.
I wanted to feel seen. I didn’t know who I was yet. I’d read so many stories about how twisted souls found love and how love transformed them. I wanted to be a storybook. I wanted that kind of life.
I wanted a love like that.
I wanted someone to see me and go, “You’re everything.”
Gawain was quiet and had this big goofy grin that seemed like it was splitting his face in half. Even when he was mindbogglingly happy he seemed like he was hurting.
Gawain had been separated from the rest of his elementary school friends and put in my class in the eighth grade. He told me his separation felt intentional, and he couldn’t understand why he was the only one removed from the group.
I was sure he needed someone who saw him.
And boy, oh boy, did I see Gawain.
Gawain sat in the back by the wall. He didn’t raise his hand. When we had a reading period, he always read the same book.
The teacher moved him closer to the front; he’d read the same book. The teacher sent him to the hall; he’d read the same book. The teacher suspended him; he’d read the same book.
I have no idea if he was reading and re-reading that book. He might’ve just been zoning out.
I wish I knew which book that was.
Sometimes I wish I never started seeing him, or that my friend Emmie had liked him back — but I wouldn’t wish that on Emmie.
I don’t remember for sure when Gawain and I started dating. I know we were together for around four-and-a-half years, from somewhere in grade eight straight through till grade twelve.
Gawain broke up with me about six months into our relationship and I panicked.
I was so sad. I remember crying and dragging him outside the school. I was embarrassed walking through the halls so upset, but I was dead set on talking to him. I didn’t understand why he’d broken up with me.
I wanted answers.
I forced him to talk to me. I continued crying.
I somehow convinced him to stay with me. He told me later he’d tried to end things because he’d never liked someone as much as he liked me, and he’d been scared. Looking back, that sounds like bullshit, but I bought it.
We started dating again, and we never talked about that day-and-a-half he’d dumped me again.
So, the story continues.
Gawain liked to pretend he could predict the weather. I thought he was pretending to make me laugh or to seem mysterious, but maybe he actually thought he could predict the weather. Maybe part of him thought he could conjure up storm clouds and then cast them away.
I didn’t believe him, except in the moments I did.
Gawain and I often sat outside our small school with our backs against the red brick walls.
Our spot was away from the doors and windows. We could see the baseball diamond but not the faces of the people who sat there.
Our side of the school was the warmest, with the sun above us and the wind blowing across the field.
The day I bought into Gawain’s weatherman abilities, I was sitting alone with him. I watched his hair as the sun made it hot to the touch. It seemed like his head was glowing. I loved his hair.
“It was supposed to be raining,” he said in a sad voice. His neck lost its strength and he brought his head back to the wall. He sighed, and I felt the weight of it on my chest. I was so sad it wasn’t raining.
“Give it two hours,” he said in a low voice, quiet enough that I’m not sure that’s what he said.
“What?” I asked.
Gawain pulled his head away from the wall, eyes unfocused, and three hours later when I went to catch the bus home, it was raining.
The parking lot potholes were filled with murky water. I stepped around them, thinking it must’ve been raining for at least an hour.
The funny thing about love is it makes you believe a bunch of things, and the not so funny thing about abuse is it can make you believe everything except yourself.
I’m 23 years old and it’s been around six years since I saw Gawain.
My inner timeline is bad, and the therapy I’ve been through encouraged me to focus on myself, mainly forgiving myself for staying with Gawain.
I think that I’m high risk for abuse. I believe everyone is just trying to be happy. This belief makes it hard for me to fault people when their version of happiness is different than mine. I often forgive people for trying to find happiness by doing problematic things.
I fault people’s upbringings for not giving them the tools to be happy in a healthy way. I think that’s why I stayed.
I believe Gawain was dealt a bad hand in life. When we were together, I was trying to teach him how to find happiness in a healthy and safe way. There’s a part of me that thinks I didn’t do enough to help him.
My therapists have all asked me if I’m worried that I’d go back to him, and I’ve refused to answer that question every time. I don’t like to admit the question scares me.
Abuse is a cycle according to all of my therapists, as well as a study I found called “Risk of Revictimization of Intimate Partner Violence: The Role of Attachment, Anger and Violent Behavior of the Victim.” The study was published by the Journal of Family Violence.
The study talks about attachment styles, which are terms I remember from when I was in university. In normal nonscientist speak it says if you are a commitment-phobe, or you need constant reassurance, or if you’re somehow a mix of both, you’re more likely to go back to abusive relationships.
All that science stuff aside, I did the things the women in the study did. I justified, found reasons to stay, did all the apologizing, and withdrew from friends and family. I stayed because the good parts of Gawain made me think it was all worth it.
I don’t know if it was intentional, but Gawain made me believe I was worth very little. I was afraid no one else could love me. I believed Gawain was giving me a gift by being with me. I guess that’s manipulation, intentional or not.
I try not to think about the good parts. My therapists have told me it’s bad practice because it might make me more likely to go back to him or another abuser. I’m going to do it anyways.
Here are some of the good parts.
My brother played hockey.
It’s weird to start a story about my first kiss with a line about my brother. I’m saying it because it’s an important detail I may or may not be lying about to keep some anonymity to my story.
Gawain’s house was in town, about a 20-minute walk from the arena. Two days a week, I would go to my brother’s hockey practice, sit in the back with my book and watch the door.
Gawain would wander in, looking lost. I’ve never met someone who walked like him — on his toes. He seemed to bounce when he moved, but he also seemed so weighed down.
I’d see him, my heart would pound, and I’d snap my eyes down to my book, fighting the creeping smile. Gawain would sit down next to me and I’d pretend to be startled. He smelled like the cold, and I could feel it coming off him. He’d walk to the arena, even when it was 30 below.
He didn’t have a good winter jacket; he’d wear two or three big sweaters. My mom asked me about it once, and even offered to buy him one or give him a hand-me-down. Gawain didn’t want a jacket.
Gawain had this habit of not sitting next to me. He’d leave a chair of space between us.
“Sit next to me,” I said.
He’d look at me. “I am,” he’d say, and look back towards the rink.
I don’t remember what we’d talk about at the arena. Sometimes my books, sometimes garbage bags. Sometimes we’d plan our future together.
I’d bask in his laughter, his smile, the feeling of being with him. He’d warm up and we’d go outside again. I liked to climb the big pile of snow left by the Zamboni behind the arena.
So, we’d climb it.
I wanted to kiss him so bad. I was terrified. I don’t know how long I waited for him to make the first move. I remember thinking he was more experienced than me and that he’d kissed people before. I didn’t know if that was true, but it felt true.
I remember standing on top of that stupidly large pile of snow, looking out across the winter fields. Lights danced in the distance from houses down back roads. Stars were still overhead. The wind blowing across the prairie. It was freezing.
I sat down.
“Sit next to me,” I said, my pants slowly getting wet as the snow melted.
Gawain sat down.
I scooted closer to him. I remember looking up at him. He was higher up on the snow pile.
I kept looking at him, trying to will him to kiss me with my mind. He didn’t look at me.
“Hey,” I said.
He turned. I took my chance. A quick peck on the lips and I was instantly mortified.
Gawain smiled, and looked back out over the fields. I don’t remember if he said anything, but I remember the burn of my blush in my ears.
Gawain’s favourite animals were sloths. He knew so much about them. He was basically a walking talking sloth encyclopedia.
I remember how his eyes would kind of glaze over and he’d smile sometimes.
“What’re you thinking about?” I’d ask.
“Sloths,” he’d say.
Sloth babies cling to their mothers with their strong fingers or claws. I didn’t understand his fascination with them.
I don’t know how it started, but I remember being on the floor, face up. He was on all fours over me, and I was clinging to him. I remember holding so tight and laughing. He lifted me off the floor and I held on.
“What’re you doing?” he asked, laughing.
“I’m a sloth,” I said.
He started crawling.
“No,” I screamed, tears running down my face from how hard I was laughing. Gawain was crawling us towards my bedroom door.
“AUUUUUHHHH,” he said in his best sloth impression.
I kept laughing. We got halfway down the hallway before he collapsed on top of me. We were both laughing so hard. I rolled him off me, and we were just lying there on the hardwood, our faces wet and chests heaving.
I remember really liking Gawain’s laugh.
I used to do a lot of charity work. Gawain would tell me I was lying to myself. He’d say I wasn’t a good person. He told me I only wanted people to think I was good because secretly I was selfish and mean. He said if people knew my motivations, they’d know I was bad.
I remember starting to buy into how awful I was. I learned what gaslighting was years later. This one website, loveisrespect.org, describes gaslighting as “a form of emotional abuse that causes a victim to question their own feelings, instincts, and sanity, which gives the abusive partner a lot of power.”
I remember one night when Gawain and I had a fight, I told him I’d apologize by the morning. I said I didn’t think I’d done anything wrong. I thought I had the right to be upset, but I was the one who always changed, forgave, or gave in.
Gawain never changed, and it got to the point where I thought I was wrong to ask him to. I thought asking him to be kinder or to change in any way made me an awful girlfriend.
I believed if I was better, he’d give me the validation and support a partner is supposed to. It took me a long time to realize no matter what I did or how I changed, Gawain wouldn’t give me those things.
After we broke up, Gawain got me flowers for Valentine’s Day. It was the first time he’d given me a gift since we’d started dating. My second gift from him ever in over four years. I remember screaming in my car, frustrated tears running down my face and wondering if I should give him another chance.
I’m happy I didn’t.
Gawain heard voices. I could tell you their names, but I won’t. He assured me he didn’t have schizophrenia.
Gawain had this fantasy world in his head. I remember him telling me stories and how he’d cry.
Gawain told me about a world where everything was larger. He described it as prehistoric, with huge plants and bugs and jagged clouds that looked like broken glass.
Gawain told me he remembered being there. There was a team of people with code names like “Newborn Honesty” and “Newborn Virtue.”
The only one he didn’t refer to as a code name was Iris. He told me he had loved her, admired her, that she was the sun and I was a candle. I didn’t compare. I was a placeholder, I was good enough for now, but she was the kind of woman you wanted to be with forever.
Iris wasn’t real, but Gawain convinced me of some weird shit. I was convinced I was a second choice and always would be.
I remember writing a letter to Iris. A letter about how I was better for Gawain, how he needed to let her go. I’ve read through my journal since we broke up and I always skip that letter.
I now know that Gawain was sick. Since we broke up he’s been diagnosed and is receiving treatment. When we were dating, he was forced to see a counselor, but he told me he led them on a runaround. He didn’t tell them about the voices, the world, the incorrect memories, how truly disconnected he’d get from reality.
He took medication he told me was to “make his brain go as slow as his body.”
He told me sometimes he took more than the recommended dose. He showed me how when he did that it made his teeth loose. Literally loose. He’d wiggle them.
I justified his bad behavior with his illness.
I told myself if I loved him enough, or loved him the right way, he might get better and start treating me well. I told myself I had to change and forgive. I thought everything wrong in our relationship was because of me. I told myself I wasn’t good enough and Gawain reinforced that at every turn.
Intimate partner violence can take a lifetime to recover from and being in an abusive relationship while you’re a teenager increases your chances of being abused again. At least that’s what I read in a paper from the British Journal of School Nursing called “Empowering adolescents and the wider community to recognize adolescent relationship abuse.”
The point of the study was to figure out how to make teenagers recognize abuse sooner.
The study defined intimate partner violence as “…a pattern of coercive behaviors used by adults and adolescents, and represents an attempt to control, dominate or harm the intimate partner.”
I was coerced. I was controlled. I was harmed.
Gawain and I were in my bedroom, the blue walls around us.
My fluffy comforter was on top of me but underneath him. We were just talking like people do, but I don’t remember what I was saying.
I know he was staring towards the ceiling above the door, and I know I was running my fingers through his hair. I know at one point he didn’t answer me. I thought he wasn’t listening anymore. I was annoyed but tried to be playful about it. I pulled his hair. Not violently; his head didn’t snap back, he didn’t make any sound of pain or look surprised.
When he turned to look at me, I knew he wasn’t there. There was a far off look in his eyes and the next thing I knew he was on top of me. The blanket separated us and felt like it was trying to pull me into the bed. His knees pressed down on either side of my hips.
I can tell you how his hands felt around my neck.
I can tell you that I didn’t break eye contact.
I can tell you I couldn’t breathe. Sometimes I can hear the sound that came out of my throat.
I just looked at him and tried to tap his arm, trying to get his attention. Trying to make him see me. I still don’t think he was actually there, watching as he strangled his girlfriend in her bed.
I woke up not long after. I don’t know how long I was unconscious. Maybe I was out for blink, or maybe Gawain sat beside my unconscious body for a minute. I have no idea.
I don’t remember if he apologized. I know he said, “My mother used to pull my hair when she was mad at me,” because that’s what I used to justify him choking me. It’s what he said when I came to
My inner thoughts kind of sounded like this: He’d been trying to protect himself. He had a bad childhood. He’s not a violent person. It was my fault because I pulled his hair. I scared him. He thought he was in danger.
I remember apologizing.
This is just one story. Gawain hurt me a few times. He’d push me, twist my arm, and make motions like he was breaking my leg or snapping my neck. All the stories are bad, I told this one because it’s the worst.
“After high school I’m going to disappear,” Gawain said through the phone.
I was sitting on my bed, back against the wall, blankets covering my lap.
I don’t remember how the conversation played out. It was the summer before grade twelve. Gawain told me he’d vanish, delete all of his social media and leave me behind. He said he’d come back for me when he wanted to — if he ever wanted to.
Gawain told me if I was with someone new when he came back for me, I’d leave the guy. He said if I had a kid, all bets were off. He expected an update on my life once a month. He expected I’d tell him if I was thinking of sleeping with anyone new. He expected I’d wait for him.
For someone who was trying to break up with me, Gawain put a lot of rules on my future behaviour. That’s around the time I started to realize something wasn’t right. After that conversation I started grieving the relationship. I was heartbroken, but I tried to save the relationship.
I remember a lot of fights after that. Almost all of them were over the phone. I almost always tried to convince him to stay. It didn’t work.
I remember accepting it eventually, but my memory of this time isn’t great. I think I just realized I’d been fighting for the relationship too long.
I still hadn’t acknowledged the abuse.
Then I started getting over the relationship — while we were still together. By midterms I told him I wanted to breakup. I said we could stay together for the holidays. Christmas went fine, then January and the breakup came.
I remember him telling me he was going to try and get together with my friend Max. I was furious. I remember telling Max that if she dated him, I wouldn’t be her friend anymore.
I can still picture the uncomfortable look on her face when she told me she didn’t want to date him.
Gawain made me believe he was the best thing to ever happen to me, so I was stunned other people didn’t want him the way I did.
I remember seeing him on the bus as I walked to my car and flipping him off. I remember the panic in my chest while I pretended I didn’t see him staring me down.
I saw him a couple times after breaking up. He lost weight, cried, told me he’d changed his mind and didn’t want to breakup at all. I remember feeling hollow. I dug my heels in and didn’t get back together with him.
I returned Gawain’s things. He didn’t return mine. I waited a few weeks before I decided I’d given him enough time. He had my favourite books. I was worried he’d burn them.
I went to his house when I knew he wouldn’t be home. I knocked on the door, looked over my shoulder to make sure he wasn’t walking up the drive.
His mom let me in. I stood in the doorway as she looked for my books. I made sure I didn’t touch anything. I didn’t enter his room. She couldn’t find them. I left and never went back.
I told Gawain I didn’t want to see him, but I wanted my stuff. I said he should leave them at the school’s front desk for me.
I woke up from an afterschool nap. It had been a few weeks since I went to Gawain’s house. I went to my kitchen and my brother told me Gawain had been inside.
My stomach dropped.
My brother said he’d come upstairs from the basement and found Gawain standing in our mudroom. He said he hadn’t heard Gawain knock; he was just inside.
My brother told me Gawain was standing there, staring at nothing. He said Gawain clenched his fists and ground his teeth before handing over a bag and leaving.
My brother gave me a bag. Inside were my books, and one of Gawain’s shirts that I used to really like.
It was after this that I started to be really afraid of Gawain.
I called Gawain’s mom. I asked her if she’d lent him her car. She said yes. I told her Gawain had entered my home unannounced and uninvited. I told her that was breaking and entering. I told her I’d made it clear to him he wasn’t welcome at my house.
I said if he tried to contact me again or showed up at my house, I’d call the cops.
She tried to tell me I was in the wrong. She said if I called the cops, I’d have to tell them everything. I started getting angry.
I don’t remember if I yelled at her, but I remember my voice cracking. I was sitting down with my knees pulled up to my chest. I started talking, trying to sound like I wasn’t terrified.
“I’ll tell them I went to your house. You let me in. I’ll tell the cops I went when I knew he wouldn’t be there. I didn’t touch anything or go in his room. I’ll tell them I told him to leave my stuff at the front desk and instead he showed up at my house, came into my house, scared my brother, and left his stuff here. I’ll tell the cops I’m only 17, and he’s 18 now, and he won’t leave me alone. I haven’t done anything wrong.”
“I’ll tell the police I’m scared.”
I don’t remember how she answered.
I hung up.
The Rest of It
I’m not going to lie to you, I still don’t know where the line is between abusive and toxic relationships. I think it’s a thin line. Gawain had a lot of traits abusers have. He was prideful, antisocial and unempathetic. I don’t know if he still is.
We were kids when this all happened, and I know he’s now receiving treatment. I hope he’s getting better.
Someone asked me if I still blame myself, or if all of these stories could be seen as victim-blaming. I don’t blame myself.
I think the confusing part is that I don’t blame Gawain. I don’t excuse abuse. This was real.
I found a study called “Healing From Intimate Partner Violence: An Empowerment Wheel to Guide the Recovery Journey.” It was published in the Journal of Creativity in Mental Health.
The study says there are six things to focus on when healing. Most of them focus on helping victims feel more in control of their relationships going forward and learning to trust themselves and their judgement again.
An International Journal for Research, Intervention and Care published a study called “Women’s experiences leaving abusive relationships: a shelter-based qualitative study.” The study said women usually leave an abusive relationship after two criteria are met. Either something changes, like they move in with the abuser, the abuse gets worse, or they realize the abuse isn’t going to end. The other thing is having a chance to leave. This could look like having shelter, or having the support of family and friends, and a safe moment to exit.
That’s terrifying to me. If I’d stayed with Gawain longer, I wonder what my breaking point would’ve been. I didn’t have any of those “leaving point” moments in my breakup. The relationship just ended.
Recovery looks different for everyone, I guess leaving does too.
I thought I saw Gawain once last year when I was walking home.
I panicked. I ran to the building, spinning on the sidewalk like a maniac to make sure he wasn’t following me. I got inside, locked all my doors and sat in the bathroom hyperventilating. I called my boyfriend. No answer. I called my friend. She answered.
I just remember crying, sitting on my bathroom floor, with three locked doors separating me from a world where Gawain might be.
All I could think was the rules Gawain had given me. He told me he’d come back for me when he was ready. Four or five years he said. It had been five years at that point.
It’s funny how I can say I’m doing so much better. I really believe I’m doing well in my recovery, but something as little as maybe seeing Gawain on the street freaked me out. Trauma is weird like that.
When I started writing this, I contacted Gawain’s friend. I invited them both to coffee. As soon as I sent the message I started to sweat. I was nauseous and afraid. I went for a walk to the bathroom, leaned my head over the toilet and did some deep breathing. I stared at the water.
I almost threw up.
I got a message from Gawain’s friend.
Gawain had said no.
Gawain’s friend sent along Gawain’s response “There was more than just us.”
Gawain’s right, there is more.
There’s recovery. There’s hope.
There’s me, writing this, for you.