Before today, I didn't know who Amber Heard was.
“Amber Heard CLAIMS DOMESTIC VIOLENCE, Gets Restraining Order Against Johnny Depp” is the TMZ headline that brought her to my attention. Heard's bruised face is pictured directly below the headline, in a photo she submitted as evidence.
She told the court that her husband, Johnny Depp, smashed his iPhone into her face and broke a bunch of stuff in their apartment, and that this was just the most recent incident.
Obviously, I don't know anything about what went down, and neither does anyone else, except for Johnny and Amber. What I do know is, that picture of Heard's face reminds me of another picture I used to see all the time.
It was everywhere in New York City in the fall of 2013: a close-up of a woman's face, a single fat tear rolling down the side of her nose. The other side of her face was in shadow, with these words superimposed over it in all caps:
Underneath, it said, “If you feel any of these in your relationship, that's abuse.”
Every time I saw the poster, I used to go down the list, mentally checking off items. Often, I'd be looking at it while I waited for a train after leaving my boyfriend's house late at night. Our fights often ended with me grabbing my bag and hoping I'd make it to the subway station before he could catch up with me.
Once I barely made it out the door; he slammed it on my arm as I escaped. Running down the street, shoulder throbbing, I hoped there would be a visible bruise the next day. Then I could check the last item off the list: battered.
My friends knew my boyfriend and I had problems. But most of them didn't know about the nights I barricaded myself in his spare bedroom after a fight, locking the door and pushing a bookshelf against it, texting my best friend to please tell the police who did it, if anything happened to me.
All of his friends thought my boyfriend was the greatest. He was the guy who would fix your boiler when it was on the blink, or lead an initiative to start a composting program in the neighborhood. You could put him down as the emergency contact for your kid's school. He wasn't a celebrity, but he was a "good guy," a guy you believe.
Sure, he sometimes drank a little too much and got unsteady on his feet, but everyone knew I was the unstable one—the divorced mom who couldn't get her shit together. I was lucky to have him. He told me so all the time.
The autumn those posters were up in New York -- the ones that Amber Heard's photo reminds me of — there was an article in The New Yorker about how the shelter system fails most women fleeing domestic violence. It told the story of a woman whose husband murdered her after she left him. For years, she'd been telling people he would kill her someday. She went to the police. She got a restraining order. She did everything she was supposed to do. And he killed her anyway.
My copy was creased open to the first page of that article; I read it over and over. Is my boyfriend just an asshole, or a potential murderer? I asked myself. Am I being hysterical? Could he really kill me? The most dangerous time for any woman in abusive relationship, the article said, is right after she leaves. Did I want to take that chance?
In eighth-grade health class, we learned about the cycle of abuse: tension builds, then comes the explosion—or, “the incident,”—and then the honeymoon period, followed by a peaceful period that leads right back into the tension-building phase.
What they didn't teach us was, living inside that cycle feels a lot different than reading about it.
Yes, sometimes my boyfriend called me a stupid, lazy whore. Sometimes he grabbed at me, pinching me and saying my body “must have been nice once.” Some nights I gritted my teeth when he curled up close to me in bed, reeking of alcohol, putting his hands everywhere. But there were also nights when he cooked us extravagant dinners, took me to fun parties, held my hand at the movies. He told me no one would ever love me as much as he did. I thought it might be true.
At the bottom of those anti-domestic violence ad campaign posters, there was a number to call.
We can help. Free, safe, and confidential. Emergency shelter. Emotional support. Public benefits. Job assistance. Children's counseling. Legal services.
Once I surreptitiously snapped a picture with my phone, hoping no one would notice. But I never called. I didn't believe they could do anything for me. I didn't think anyone would believe me.
Reading about Amber Heard on TMZ, this is what jumps out at me:
“Sources connected to Johnny are calling BS”
It's interesting ...”
I know they have to use some of those words. I know about innocent until proven guilty. But I also know how it feels to be bullied. To be scared. To know that no one will believe you. To not even believe yourself.
I think about all the people who have asked me why I didn't leave my abusive boyfriend sooner. I still don't have an answer good enough to satisfy myself, never mind anyone else. I think about people who know him reading this article and still not believing me. And I think about how he said he would “destroy” me if I ever wrote about him.
I don't know what goes on behind anyone else's closed doors except my own. But I do know something about how much courage it takes to admit that someone has hurt you. And I know what it feels like not to be believed.
If Amber Heard, or anyone, says she's scared and asks for help, I owe it to myself to believe her.