I Only Realized I Was In An Abusive Relationship 4 Years After We Broke Up

by Jen Flanagan

When I began my application process for my semester abroad in London, I knew I was signing up for the adventure of a lifetime. My numerous preparations and proactive planning left me feeling confident. When I boarded the plane, I knew all of the logistics were in order.

What I had not prepared for, however, was the anxiety-filled epiphany I experienced while I was abroad about a high school relationship I had never quite gotten over, but didn't know why.

I remember things started to change on March 11th, 2015. One of my professors showed us a video of "The Artist is Present," an act by Serbian performance artist, Marina Abramovic. I watched the clip carefully, but with a bit of hesitation. I couldn't stop thinking about how a former boyfriend, who had passed away, would make prolonged eye contact with me in the same way Abramovic did with her spectators. My stomach dropped as soon as I began to realize exactly why I was feeling queasy during the viewing.

I left class with a heightened sense of awareness, and decided to unwind by casually checking Timehop on my phone. A photograph of the foot tattoo I got two years prior reminded me it was also the same day in which I had last spoken to my biological father. For some reason, I wasn't able to take all of this news with the same ease and strength I would have on any other day.

I kept telling myself I was fine during my commute home, as I unpacked my belongings and cooked dinner. I thought that, if I kept repeating positive mantras, I really would be fine.

Fifteen minutes, and half a bottle of Pinot Grigio later, I was not fine. Two hours later, with a trash barrel of vomit and hysterical tears, I was definitely not fine.

I did not clock my eight hours of sleep that night; I barely slept at all. When I arose the next day, I started crying as soon as my eyes opened. My head was spinning, and I felt like the world was collapsing into every pore of my skin. As I opened my box of crispy rice cereal, I knew I couldn't go to my internship that day. I had barely poured an ounce of breakfast into the white ceramic bowl when I began sobbing once again.

In addition to calling out sick for the day, I sent an important email to a staff member at my program to ask about the counseling services they had mentioned during orientation. I knew something was wrong, but I couldn't put my finger on it. Within a few days, I was able to see a counselor and tell her what I had done following Wednesday's incidents.

Seven tissues, a couple nervous giggles and two and a half cups of tap water made up my first session with my therapist. It didn't take long for her to realize what I hadn't put together for over four years: My partner had been emotionally abusive.

I remember explaining certain behavior traits he had, the way he responded when I wasn't behaving exactly how he wanted me to and some of the unwanted sexual acts he had wanted me to perform at an age where I knew I wasn't ready. I never took any of it as abuse at the time, but after learning more about what emotional abuse is and how to recognize it, I knew it was exactly what I had experienced.

The most paralyzing part of the process was realizing the effect of this relationship more than four years after breaking up. I remember feeling like such an idiot for not asking for help or investigating as to why I still “wasn't over” him. If I had known his behavior was abusive right after we broke up, I wouldn't have had to deal with the all of the triggers, regrets and confusion for so many years.

Even though this realization was so painful in multiple ways, I slowly started to embrace how to deal with the truth. Once I had a name to the pain I had experienced for so long, I found it easier to figure out how to get the help I needed, which ultimately helped me move on. I saw my counselor for the remaining month I was studying in London, and I continued to see another counselor throughout the summer once I returned to the States.

The anxiety I experienced after the revelation was debilitating to the point where I constantly couldn't breathe, and often felt dizzy. After meeting with a psychiatrist, I began taking a low dose of Propranolol to keep my heart rate under control, so I could start breathing easy once again.

I even started taking some of the healthy dating tips I received from my counselor, and put them into practice in August by going on a few dates with a guy from my work. I was finally starting to feel like a normal, functioning 20-year-old by the end of the summer.

Although I wish I would have been able to see how toxic my relationship was in the moment (or at least shortly after it was over), I am so thankful to recognize the truth now. The past year has still had its own challenges, but I am so grateful to finally have closure over an area of my life that was once so sensitive and heartbreaking.

Sure, there are still times when the anxiety is triggered, but now I know exactly how to handle them. Ultimately, it's nice to know moving forward that the problem wasn't actually me; it was him.