It took me years to realize it was rape and domestic violence…

I was 19 and we met at work. I was newly single and not happy about it – i.e., I’d been dumped. It had always been obvious to everyone we worked with, and me, that he had a crush on me, so he started charming me as soon as he learned I was single. He was constantly telling me how beautiful I was, how happy he was when I was around, etc. I didn’t return those feelings for him but I thought what the heck? Might as well give him a try, right? He’s making me feel better with kind words and attention! Worst decision ever. My self esteem was pretty low after the breakup and was primed for what happened next.

He wanted to spend every minute together, which seems normal in the beginning of a relationship but it never waned. There was a lot of pressure to be intimate. I would tell him almost daily that I didn’t want to be intimate and he kept pushing. One night I was at a party (without him) with friends he didn’t even know and I got super drunk. I had to get home because I had to work the next day but I obviously couldn’t drive. I was texting some friends to come get me, including him. He contacted them insisting he be the one to come, “he was the closest anyway” (he wasn’t, he was actually the farthest away). When he picked me up, everyone thought he was so great for coming to get me, so nice. Then he took me home and raped me. THANK GOD I blacked out and don’t remember that one – I don’t need or want to remember that.

I’ll never forget the next morning. I woke up, alone, still a little drunk, to my phone ringing at 7:26AM. It was my friend, one of the ones who he told not to come get me, telling me she was picking me up for work. The second my eyes opened my stomach dropped. I knew I had slept with someone the night before but I didn’t know who. I was so confused at first. I knew I didn’t have my car. I knew I had been drinking the night before, but who was over that night? And why weren’t they here now? At first, I thought I had made a big mistake and invited someone from the party home that night. I was mad at myself for doing that. So I went to work and about 2 hours into my shift, while still trying to put the pieces together from the night before, it hit me – I knew exactly who it was. It was the one person who should have known that, despite my intoxication, I didn’t want to sleep with him (or anyone else!). I had told him no when I was sober countless times. When I confronted him he, of course, denied it, saying I consented, claiming he had gotten drunk once he was in my apartment (he hadn’t), so it didn’t count as rape since we were both drunk. I went along with it – after all, this was the only negative thing he had ever done, everything else had been good so he had my best interest in mind, right? This was just a misunderstanding, right? (He was already in my head). Even so, I was so embarrassed and ashamed that I didn’t tell anyone for years. I tried my best to just forget about it.

We continued our relationship but it only got worse. The next year and half were the worst in my life. I would go to bed alone and wake up with him next to me, his hands down my pants (he never had a key to my apartment). I can’t describe the fear of waking up with someone else in your bed, much less someone who’s molesting you. I was literally frozen with fear. There were countless times he guilted me into having sex or bugged me so much I would finally give in just to make him shut up so I could go to sleep (FYI, if your partner is stiff as a board, staring holes into the ceiling with her fists balled and white knuckling while you’re intimate, that’s not normal!!!). One time there were several of us sleeping over at his apartment because it had snowed while we were hanging out and the roads were dangerous to drive on. Even though I was sleeping on the couch, surrounded by friends and he was in his room, I knew if I stayed he would come for me. So I got up after everyone fell asleep and drove (very slowly) home. I was right too; he called me about 30 minutes later asking where I had gone. He was furious, saying it was too dangerous and I shouldn’t have left – he was just mad he wouldn’t get to have me that night.

Somewhere along the line I found out he had been stalking me, almost from the moment he first met me. I’m certain this continued throughout our relationship and afterward as well. Then there was the emotional and verbal abuse. I was constantly walking on eggshells to keep him happy (spoiler, it didn’t work and never does). One night we were cooking dinner together at his apartment. While I was busy with the other foods I was cooking, I forgot about the toast in his toaster oven. It came out black and smoking. He went off. “How could you be so stupid?! It’s just toast, how can you mess that up?? Idiot!” (There were much harsher words but I won’t write them here.) It was a constantly swinging pendulum of praises and putting me on a pedestal to tearing me down and calling me the worst names in the book. I never knew what to expect from him.

It’s weird, while this was going on I thought I was ok. I knew I wasn’t over the moon happy but I didn’t realize how low I was until after it was over. I think that’s key in understanding domestic violence – they don’t come at you swinging. They earn your trust and very slowly start tearing you down, pushing boundaries until one day you think “how did it get like this?”

Today, I’m better than I ever have been. A huge part of my recovery was my husband (who I’ll refer to as B). I really can’t say enough about how instrumental he was and is in my recovery. My abuser and I had broken up but were still “friends.” After all, we did still work together. I started seeing B more and more (we also worked together) and started dating him. At this point, I had told my best friend about the initial rape (it was all too fresh for me to realize the entire relationship had been abusive), although I didn’t call it rape because I was still confused about whether it was technically rape or not. She didn’t really say much but I don’t fault her for that. It was 2010 and no one was talking about rape, so there was still this idea that rape could only be a stranger in a dark alley, not something that happens between two people she knew. Keep in mind – we were 20.

Even though we weren’t together anymore and I was starting to see B, he still had a hold on me mentally and emotionally. He knew what to say to get me to bend to his will but his pull on me was weakening. I’ll never forget the moment that all stopped. I was standing in the cosmetics aisle at Target. My abuser was upset because I’d been spending all this time with B and not him. We had been sparring through text when I got his response- “I can’t believe how apathetic you are about this. Don’t you care about our friendship at all?!” I looked up into the sea of mascara and eyeliner like I was seeing for the first time. “No,” I thought, “I don’t give a shit if I ever see you again!” The fog had (FINALLY!) lifted! My head felt so clear and level and I immediately realized for the first time how messed up mentally he had made me. There were still a lot of revelations to come and  obstacles for me to clear but I don’t think I’ve ever felt so light as I did in that moment. I picked out my makeup with the biggest smile on my face, paid for it, and practically floated out of that store.

Only a couple months into dating I decided to tell B. His response was exactly what I needed to hear and I’ll never forget it. I told him about what happened with my abuser, again not using the word rape – “We had sex… but I didn’t want to…” I tried to lighten the blow by admitting that I had been drunk, as if that made it ok. Silence. More silence. Then he said “Caitlin… what you’re describing… is rape.” It was like music to my ears! If it hadn’t been such a serious moment I would have slapped his arm and said “I know, right?!” It was the first time someone had validated what I had thought all along – it was rape and it was wrong.

Keep in mind, we all still worked together! Talk about the most uncomfortable love triangle EVER. A few days after I told B, he contacted my abuser to have lunch with him. They went out and B confronted him saying, “So, tell me about this party you picked up Caitlin from.” Naturally, he was a complete coward and acted like a scolded puppy. B told him he was never to contact me again or else. B isn’t a violent man but he’s easily a foot taller and 100 lbs heavier than my abuser, so he can be physically intimidating. Oh how I wish I could have seen this whole interaction from afar! After that my abuser contacted me a couple times after several months had passed. They were group messages like “Happy New Year!” type stuff. I know he was just trying to get a reaction out of me and even though I really wanted to remind him of B‘s threat, I didn’t respond. He stopped contacting me not long after.

But we still had to work together. Thankfully one of our executives was an amazing woman I’ll call S. I still wasn’t keen on telling people what happened, but B encouraged me to talk to her. She called me into her office and told me her own abuse story and didn’t push me to tell mine. I told her who it was that had done the abusing and she made sure we didn’t have to work together again. It was a life saver.

After B and I got engaged I started going to therapy at a sexual assault center in a neighboring city. That’s where the real healing began and also where I started to see the true scope of what he had done.

To anyone experiencing abuse…

  1. Go easy on yourself. For years I wondered how I didn’t see the signs telling me how bad things had gotten. When will someone breaking into your apartment and molesting you in the middle of the night ever be ok/normal?! You always have 20/20 vision when you look back, not in the moment. Domestic violence is a very complex situation.
  2. Know that you’ll still be learning things years down the road. Here’s what I mean – the initial rape that started all of this happened 10 years ago. It took me 9 years to realize that I was not only a rape survivor but also a domestic violence survivor. I, like so many others, was under the incorrect assumption that domestic violence = physical abuse. Wrong! And once I realized that and started reading more about domestic violence that isn’t physical violence, it was like a whole new world of understanding, of reading other stories and screaming “Yes! I know exactly where you’re coming from!” There’s power in feeling understood and not alone.
  3. Whenever you’re ready to talk to a mental health professional, seek out a sexual assault/domestic violence center. You’d be surprised to find that most cities have one that are income based or even free. There are some amazing people who work there and they will get you the help you need, especially if you’re still in an abusive relationship and need to get out.
  4. When you’re ready, as scary as it sounds – tell people. It doesn’t have to be your whole family or all your friends. Just start slow and tell someone. The first time will be terrifying. Your heart will race, your palms will sweat, you might even cry from the nerves. But once it’s done you’ll feel just a little lighter. And the next time you tell someone, it’ll be a little easier.

Caitlin T.