WARNING: This article contains descriptions of domestic abuse.
Twenty-nine percent of Black women are hurt by an intimate partner in their lifetime. And in 2019, I became one of them. Like singer FKA twigs said on Friday in a damning lawsuit against her former boyfriend, actor Shia LaBeouf, people might not “think it would happen to you,” but “it can happen to anybody.”
I was tough. I was strong. I was mentally fortified. And none of that mattered.
Two-and-a-half years ago, I started seeing a man who would attempt to mentally abuse me for months until finally hitting me at a crowded bar, sending everything I “knew” I’d do if a man ever put his hands on me straight into oblivion. Instantly, I had become one of the more than 4.7 million women who were physically abused by a partner that year.
It was summer when I made my bi-annual online dating account, putting myself out there for some artist or bartender in New York City to disappoint me for the umpteenth time. Eventually, I matched with someone the account told me was more than 70 percent compatible. He was a bartender (of course), but he had tangible ambition. He was determined to go to medical school *swoon*.
He held decent conversation and our first few dates were fun. None of the “over-the-top displays of affection,” twigs, aka Tahliah Debrett Barnett, alleges as the “honeymoon phase” of her situation, but the care he showed was already more than I’d received in the past.
Still, I wasn’t sold on him. I wasn’t as attracted to him as I’d liked to be (though he thought his light skin and light eyes made him God’s gift to women), but it was hard out there in the dating world, so I thought maybe that was something I could get over.
I should have just cut my losses and ran then.
As an aspiring medical professional, he was pretty into science and, obviously, medicine. But his need to be right about those topics was the first red flag I ignored.
At some point in the “get to know you” phase, we were chatting about something regarding medicine, and I, like half of the people on the internet, tried to give my own unscientific, “factual” opinion in response to his, likely well-founded, thoughts. That didn’t go over well.
He responded with something like, “Look, I don’t take well to people doubting my intelligence.”
I’m no punk, so I shot back with, “I’m not walking on eggshells for your feelings, so you better get over that insecurity.” I sure showed him. Well, that’s what I thought. He course-corrected and all was well for our next few months of virtual communication, while he was away from the city.
I knew that my response made it clear exactly who he was dealing with. And it did. But that didn’t change how things went on from there.
When he came back to the city, in between nice dates and charming conversation, he’d become increasingly aggressive—cutting me off in conversation, depriving me of compliments for either my work or my appearance, shouting over me and shutting me down in arguments; he even called me stupid.
Twigs said she’d avoid eye contact with other men so she wouldn’t upset LaBeouf. I started choosing my words carefully to avoid yet another exhausting fight.
But for every bit of disrespect he threw my way, I made sure to give it right back and I had spent years building my self-esteem, so I had no need for his approval or compliments. I knew I was great with or without his confirmation.
But was that a relationship worth staying in? With every rude remark or hurtful comment followed by a kiss or kind gesture, I convinced myself that it was, and thus, I fell into the cycle of abuse.
Every opinion I had was wrong. There was never a civil disagreement. It would always turn into him asserting himself as the smarter of the two of us (something I’d also seen him do with his friends and family). If I brought up an accomplishment he’d barely offer a smile. I once asked him if he’d read one of the most heartfelt and important pieces I’d ever written and his response was “Yes.” It was a one-word answer that dangled the hope of feedback or a compliment in front of my face like a dog anticipating a treat it will never get.
I never felt like I needed his approval, but like any abuser he knew the potential power of withholding it.
I wasn’t happy, but I stayed. Unlike twigs, it wasn’t because I was isolated or afraid. I just kept trying to remind myself that no relationship is perfect and I would just have to deal with some crap sometimes. Relationships are hard. I hadn’t realized until afterward that they’re not supposed to be a constant struggle involving such near disdain for my partner, especially just several months in.
There were other signs. For one, he was an aspiring surgeon and according to the blogs and articles I’d read, surgeons can be awful people.
He also had an uncomfortable relationship with alcohol. He’d wake up and drink, not anything in particular just whatever alcohol was in the fridge. One day, all I had was a Bud Light Straw-ber-rita, a drink you literally only go for when you want to get drunk fast without the burning feel of isopropyl-strength alcohol running down your throat, yet that was the first thing he went for after rolling out of bed that morning.
When I dealt with a difficult period of extreme anxiety, he even suggested I take shots of rum to fall asleep.
But his potential for alcoholism didn’t rise to a level of concern because he had such a high tolerance, he’d rarely get drunk. He just constantly turned to alcohol as his drink of choice.
I probably should have paid closer attention to the alcohol thing.
There was a night in late March 2019 that has become an indelible part of my memory, in the same way I’m sure the moment that twigs alleges LaBeouf assaulted her at a gas station is burned in her mind too.
It was the day I realized the girl who thought “she’s not the one to mess with” might be anything but.
I’d just arrived from a week-long trip to Japan and was ready for that Hollywood-movie feeling when we finally saw each other after being apart. We’d embrace and maybe the love I’d been hoping to feel would finally spark because, as they say, distance makes the heart grow fonder.
I met up with him at a club where he and a group of his medical school classmates planned to hang out after finishing a big exam. As soon as I entered, he hugged me, the drunkest I’d seen him save for one occasion. He noticed the small fashionable backpack I was wearing (which I thought looked cute with my outfit) and said dismissively, “Why would you bring a backpack to a club?”
That was the beginning of an unstoppable spiral.
I was rightfully upset by his criticism, so I stood in silence for a bit, cussing him out in my head. He turned to me after noticing how quiet I was and said, “Don’t give me any attitude tonight. I don’t have time for it.”
I was shocked, but I was also a few whiskey gingers in (I stopped for a drink at a nearby bar while I waited for him to get there) and couldn’t gather the words to tell him off, so I just seethed in anger. Then, I sucked it up and tried to just turn the night around. It was supposed to be a night of enchantment after all.
He asked if I wanted a drink and I declined, having had quite a few already. I asked him to dance and he refused because he’d rather stand there like cheap bar décor. At that point, I figured, well if we weren’t dancing and we weren’t talking, I might as well get a drink.
So I bought myself another whiskey ginger and right after, he turned and accused me of buying my own cocktail simply to spite him.
Every nine seconds, a woman is assaulted in the United States, and my time was coming.
Now bored, annoyed and completely over the night, I decided to message a friend on Instagram about anything other than what was going on. I was mid-laugh typing out a hilarious response to my friend’s equally witty text when I felt a hand grip my arm and pull me away from the bar.
This time, I had the words to say.
“Don’t you ever, put your hands on me like that,” I said, inches away from his face, my finger waving in the air, to no response.
He must not have heard me.
“I said, don’t you ever put your f****** hands on me like that again.” Still no response or apology.
I was cut off when a fist thrust into my abdomen. My world shook. I looked around for a witness, or an idea of what to do as if it’d be written on the bar in sticky vodka drippings and discarded limes. It seemed like no one noticed what went down in this back corner of the noisy, dark club tucked away by the bar.
He tried to explain why he so desperately wanted my attention, but the room was spinning and all I could focus on was what my next move should be.
I made eye-contact with the bartender, but I couldn’t tell if she knew I was in distress or thought I wanted another drink. I was on my own and I didn’t want to be the Black couple fighting in the club, even though my first thought was to throw my drink at him. I didn’t know what to do.
Prior to that night, I was so sure of what I would do if this ever happened to me. I’d go down fighting, I’d scream and alert everyone around.
That night, I just left.
Intoxicated, stumbling and shaking onto the sidewalk trying to order a car, I texted him about what he’d done. He didn’t come after me. He didn’t call me. He didn’t respond until the next day when he tried to ignore the fact that he had hit me and said instead that he had needed my attention to help a friend of his get rid of a guy she wasn’t interested in talking to.
She was a grown woman and my ex was a grown man. They didn’t need me for that. And regardless, there’s hardly a reason to physically move someone in order to get them to notice you. Likely, he was already upset and seeing me not pay him any mind after I’d already “spitefully” ordered my own drink triggered his fragile ego.
I couldn’t understand how stupid this man thought I was that he would ignore the fact that I just called him out for assaulting me, and just change the subject as if the most important issue was a friend having to talk to a creepy guy for a few minutes.
Despite all I went through with him, I’d still been searching for a “good” reason to break up and after he put his hands on me for the first time, I’d finally found it.
His eventual apology passed on any and all guilt by claiming he was sorry “if” he hurt me and that he didn’t know he grabbed me that hard. Even LaBeouf offered more of an admission of fault than this guy. There was no “if” about it. He hurt me, period. And with the amount of force he exerted, he had to have known he’d cause pain.
I’m proud that I let that be the first and last time he’d ever hit me. When we finally spoke during an official break up when I went to pick up my stuff, he tried to blame his actions on med school stress. Justifying their actions is something abusers often do.
I refused to let him have that scapegoat. I told him there was no excuse for what he did (not even alcohol) and, as I said why his actions were wrong, I could see his rage building. Then I remembered the advice my mom had told me before I went over to his apartment: “Make sure you leave before he gets upset.” And so I did.
I haven’t spoken to him since that day, and up until recently, I thought I was OK about the whole thing. I even had my therapist convinced. When people would ask me why we broke up, I’d casually say, “He hit me” and move on like all I said was, “We just weren’t feeling it any more.” I honestly didn’t think what I had experienced was mental or physical abuse. Part of it was because I thought domestic violence had to be more consistent. I mean, I left, and it’s not easy for women to leave.
The other half was that I still believed it couldn’t happen to me until I spoke to a friend one day and caught myself saying, “I have a tendency to make men angry.” I’d at some point internalized a feeling that I was the problem. I don’t “make” men angry. Weak men have a tendency to get angry.
When I started dating again, I began anxiously looking for signs of irritability, nervous I might accidentally tease someone into battering me. I was even hesitant to date a seemingly-nice gun-owning veteran because I thought I might one day make him upset enough to shoot me.
The more I thought about it, the more I realized my ex’s attempts at trying to break me from the very beginning: The insults, the disrespect, the judgment. Because I’d always stood up for myself, I didn’t see that what he was trying to do was assert his dominance and destroy my self-worth. Good thing he couldn’t succeed.
Twigs shared her allegations because she’d “like to be able to raise awareness on the tactics that abusers use to control you and take away your agency,” and I want to share mine to remind anyone who, like me, thought they were a force too formidable to be penetrated by the daggers of abuse, that strength has nothing to do with it.
My short bout with an abusive partner blew a hole through long-held beliefs about myself. I’m not too tough and I’m not too strong to be targeted by an insecure, vengeful, emotionally manipulative person.
None of us are. But armed with a new awareness of the warning signs of abuse, I’m hoping I won’t find myself there again.