As we age, everyone has a question that makes them wince and remember. A question on an intake form, or that strangers unexpectedly throw at you that you’d prefer not to answer. For me, it’s “where did you go to college?”
It was Freshman year. My world was as big as my appetite – minimal and delusional. Entering college after years of battling anorexia, I was eager to meet my first distraction. Life for me was acquiring any distraction from food or the thought of food. My disordered thinking sent me swirling through a worm hole, but when I fell out, I was terrified and traumatized. I felt robbed of my identity and afraid to be alone for the first time in my life.
It began over a nervous game of capture the flag. I spent the first night we met in his dorm room, propped against his bed post. Our eyes pressed upon each other, frantic, mad, thrilled. What unfolded after that first night of interacting with Steve took me from life before him to hardly existing without him.
We took to campus tied together. He liked it that way. He wanted me and only me, but a label was boring and simplistic. For all things considered, “We’re practically dating, if that makes you feel better.” This was Steve’s first method of manipulation. I wasn’t happy with this label, but my fascination with Steve had me taking whatever I could get. In high school, I was only interested in casual hook-ups, fully committed to my eating disorder. I hadn’t had a traditional relationship before college and thought, maybe this is how it starts. Steve had total control over what we were to each other and how we spent our time together. Did I like not having to make the decision? After years of controlling every bite I took, maybe I didn’t mind someone else behind the wheel of my own life.
As our time together continued, food was on his time, class was on his time, fucking was on his time– the way we fucked was however his muscles positioned me. His mind control over me went so far as to affecting my personal taste in music, films, entertainment, etc. This included personal decisions like the people I chose to hang out with, the classes I enjoyed, and whether to have bangs or wear a part down the middle of my scalp. I remember one morning getting ready for Calculus and running into Steve as I walked into the building. I was surprised to see him there until he shared that he had just added the course to his credits. He went with me and sat next to me that morning, seamlessly depositing his life into mine. We were in the same program in college and quickly became consumed by each other’s lives. Getting dressed, he said if only he could choose my outfits, that I fit so nice into things – not like his smaller, skinnier ex-girlfriend, but enough. I was smarter though, I was told.
After a while, my high school friends became distant. The amount of shame surrounding this relationship slowly turned me away from replying to invitations from the friends and family who were closest to me. I was obsessed and wrapped so tightly around him. I was constantly battling his mind games. When he would neglect me and withhold time together, I would wake up next to strangers and ask them in the morning how I got there. When I was lucky enough to share in Steve’s presence, I would assure myself I belonged to him.
What may have been one of the most agonizing conversations was when Steve shared his thought on me visiting his hometown. “I wish I could bring you to my hometown, my guy friends would fucking love you – you should fuck one of them.” Having never experienced a traditional first romance, this was the closest to being in love I ever had. These mind games destroyed me. When Steve saw the disappointed look on my face, he told me not to look at the world as so black and white. I kept wondering if this is how you treat someone you love? If you love someone, would you want them to sleep with your friends?
Steve continued to mistreat me for months. He began setting the foundation to isolate me from all that was familiar in my life. He had a problem with my family, my friends and my focus on my education. Intimacy became more aggressive, and his psychological abuse soared. It wasn’t long before I began using more drugs, alcohol, and casual sex partners to escape the cycle of abuse Steve had on me.
Steve also unraveled as the year went on. He decided to wear only one outfit for many months. The challenge was to receive every bodily fluid on the outfit that he could manage. I remember one day entering his dorm room only to see the floor laden with milk bottles and the wall covered in Big Chew globs while he sat at his computer desk with his dick out. This was not an unusual scene to walk in on. Steve had become fixated on testing boundaries both in his own life and our relationship.
One night, Steve and I decided to pick a random common room in a random building, where we were going to stay up as late as we could to prepare for an exam. A man in the room had been giving me a lot of attention, flirting with me as we tried to study. Steve, assuming my friendliness as enjoyment, shut the conversation down, drove the guy out of the room, and when we went back to studying, smacked me without warning.
The rest of our time spent together has fallen into a blur. When you experience trauma, and then put yourself through repeated trauma, just to escape what began the cycle, your timeline in life turns to a milky white fog with questions marks intermittently surfacing. This may be why I find so much comfort in space, in the galaxy – isn’t space just milky white question marks in an infinite dark space?
I do remember after his relentless put downs and constant chiseling away at my self that I tried to avoid him for a week, but because of his incessant stalking, he showed up at my doorstep one evening. He had gone to such lengths as to befriend the student whose dorm room was directly above mine in the building and was “just passing by my floor”. After letting him in, I was leaning over my computer trying to check over my incomplete homework submissions. “You’re one of those girls with a thigh gap, did you know that?” As he felt me up. “Hey. Wanna grab dinner?” My effort at pulling away from him and taking time apart had only drawn me closer. He had learned so well how to hurt me. He knew just what to poke at to make me feel most vulnerable and then tear me apart. He knew of my personal battle with body image and would hurt me in any way that he could when the moment presented itself. He was back in my space and immediately hit me where I felt it the most – commenting on my body. “Yeah, sure, I’m not doing anything, let me get my coat…”
As I crossed the room and went for my coat, I felt pressure against my back and my torso. ”Steve what are you doing – stop!” What unfurled from here was madness. The guy I had spent every waking hour with since I arrived on the campus steps now had me pinned against the wall of my dorm. His hands went from whacking me against the wall to sliding up to my neck. Something I remember from this day was his admiration for my neck – a dancer’s neck, whatever that means. “I could kill you right now. I could fucking kill you.” As his hands clasped my neck tighter, my vision darkened – that galaxy vision – and I was out.
When I came to he was across the room opposite me; there was something in his eyes – almost a child-like pride of what he had accomplished. Time at this point felt immeasurable. I was trembling, shaking everywhere. I got up and proceeded to put my coat on, as if nothing happened, and said – “let’s get dinner.” All he said was that he didn’t mean for it to go that far.
Once we stepped into the hall, he insisted we take the stairs. Battling the disturbing event that had just happened, I was confused and offered the elevator since I lived on the 6th floor. Steve had no intention of taking the elevator and no sooner urged me through the stairwell door until we were shut in. Once the door clicked shut, my body sensed an oncoming attack. A cat and mouse game ensued as he descended upon me, pushing me down each flight of stairs, watching me cling to the cement railing floor after floor. This was one of the most terrorizing feelings. To this day I hate the feeling of someone trailing behind me.
Once outside, I was disoriented and in tears. We arrived at the cafe, tears tumbling down my cheeks at a side booth. “Why, why did you do that?” He insisted I was being overly sensitive : “Shut up, it was nothing, just shut up. It’s not a big deal.” The events didn’t feel real until Steve and I stopped at my friend’s dorm following our alarming dining hall visit.
The minute my friend swung open his door to greet me, the choke took hold again. Tears tore down my face, and somehow Mark knew exactly what Steve had done. He brought me into a common room where I shared the events that had just taken place. Mark felt safe. He had witnessed a lot of the mistreatment Steve had done to me throughout the school year. He was never ok with it and tolerated Steve only because of my relationship to him. Mark and I would spend days without Steve and have wonderful days together. I will never have a friendship with a man similar to the one I had with Mark. He was my great friend and always watched over me, doing what he could to keep me safe in the time we were at school together. Steve had a fascination with Mark ever since the first day of school. He sensed Mark was not someone who was going to let him in his head. So when Mark insisted Steve return to his dorm, (conveniently situated the floor above Mark’s) he gave in.
There are many blurred moments to this story. After Mark dismissed Steve, I managed to slip away from Steve. I do not recall how, but I stayed in Mark’s company for the remainder of the night. Mark and I did not attempt to make sense of what Steve did or why I was so attached to him. What we did do was comfort the evening and day’s events over a bottle of whiskey. My life feels as if it began and ended with that bottle. Earlier times in the year Mark and I would spend evenings in the dugout of the campus baseball field. We would smoke weed and daydream. This night, our trip to the dugout left me immobile and blacked out. We were on our way back to the room when campus security found us and dialed 911. I had a blood alcohol content near death, somewhere between 0.4-0.5%. When I came to the next day, I was in the emergency room of the city hospital.
I was told that Steve happened to walk by and fought the EMT workers. “I know how to fix her; none of you know how to fix her!”
The evening I returned back on campus, Steve was restricted by campus security to be in my presence. After falling asleep, I was quickly awoken by a wailing on the door. He was manic, sobbing, and begging for entry. He slipped a piece of paper under my door with “Help. I don’t know who I am anymore,” scribbled on the paper. I asked for him to stand at the opposite end of the hallway before opening the door. In my mind, this felt like a way to see if Steve was dangerous. I let him sleep next to me that night. Despite the terrors he had unleashed on me throughout the year, I yearned to be near him with every bit of my soul. He had come to feel like home. Perhaps the most upsetting feeling from this moment was my desire for things to improve and for Steve to change. I remember lying with him that night, desperately wanting to erase what had happened and finally receive the love and nurturing I hopelessly wanted from Steve. There was a stillness in all that we did that evening. I washed him because he hadn’t showered in over a month. His one outfit he had committed to wear was finally off, and we got him new clothes. He slept with me, and we didn’t speak of what happened. I knew it would be the last time I was physically that close to him. It took years for me to realize I would never have the intimacy and love with Steve that I so often fantasized about.
The days following our last night together were messy and raw. He never once thought I would truly leave him. He was chased by security and then sheriffs until he stopped pursuing me.
A few weeks after, he was expelled. I never returned to the school, and Mark, my guardian, dropped out.
For me, it took years to find myself again. We were ripped apart physically, but remained in contact for several years after. My life was controlled by my abuser despite my physical distance from him. He had a hold on me like nothing before, even stronger than my eating disorder. My traumatic bond to him made it difficult to cultivate new relationships. I had fallen for my abuser’s thoughts, ideas, and way of life. Every decision I made following my physical separation from Steven was based off of his very loud voice in my head telling me where I could go to school next, how I could spend my time, what websites I visited, what music I listened to, even the way I talked to other people in my life. I reached a point when falling asleep impaired was better than waking up from the frightening night terrors I would experience. Still today, I sometimes feel as if I chase a high in relationships to match the extreme experiences Steve and I shared together.
Today, I focus on the thoughts, activities, and aspirations that make me feel like me, and only me. I like what I like and dislike what I dislike.
I have had to start from scratch and form my own opinions again. When you’re disconnected from who you are, even deciding what pair of shoes to wear becomes an ordeal.
Abuse can find its way into your life when you lose who you are and the light inside of you. You have to be so absent from your soul – your true self – to allow harm to manifest. This is why I routinely practice yoga, to never forget what it feels like to be in my own body and take up as much space as I want on this planet. I have vowed to never let another person steal my voice or soul from me again.
This story and those like mine never end. The journey back to self has tried me in more ways than I thought possible. There is a certain presence an abuser keeps, even when you are an ocean apart. It is similar to a weak, pulsing breath on the back of your neck all day long.
If he hadn’t strangled me that evening, I could be in a very scary place today. Did it take such events to separate us? Maybe. My story is one among an epidemic of abuse and mistreatment. My journey is far from over, but my recovery has grown a warm vine back around my soul – my Self.”
Gretchen Adams is a Purple Dot Yoga Project Ambassador and all around excitable person. She spends her time being as active as possible outdoors. She is an avid yogi, hiker, has a newfound passion for cycling and tries as much as possible to spend her time outdoors. She is a community nutritionist providing nutrition education to underprivileged adults in Western NY. Gretchen is a survivor of domestic violence and is celebrating five years sobriety leading her own parade each and every day. She nurtures her insatiable appetite for life with a healthy dose of coffee, good eats, a regular sweaty yoga session, and a mountain top or two when she can escape to the Adirondacks. Currently, Gretchen is in the process of becoming a registered dietitian. She intends to guide others through their own journey to health starting with what we feed our body.”