I stared at the pointy end of a giant butcher knife, held to my face by my boyfriend of almost a year, unable to ignore its sleek shine.
Morbidly, I felt the fear, not of crucial blood loss or even the loss of my life, but the fear of losing my boyfriend after reacting in a manner he deemed unacceptable.
Still, my voice shook as I told him to put it down, wondering somewhere, deep in my mind, how I got here.
It was Halloween 2013, my favorite holiday, and I was excited about getting ready to go out and celebrate with friends.
I was a witch, dressed head to toe in black, the polar opposite of my usual colorful ensembles that some might describe as “basic.”
All my life, I felt a pressure, whether intrinsic or extrinsic, to fill that "basic" role. I possessed the looks of a typical blonde sorority girl.
However, my shy demeanor mismatched my appearance, which often confused people and caused many to deem me a “bitch."
I think that’s where my attraction to Tom* began.
I was standing in the crowded bar, surrounded by my friends as I donned a skintight corset, fluffy tutu, tights and tall, heeled boots. He approached me in an easygoing fashion I didn’t often receive from people.
“So, what are you drinking?” he asked, pointing to my beer.
“Never mind, I’m buying you a shot, Iowa,” he said as he gave me a playful nickname, knowing I had just graduated from The University of Iowa. He was a cousin of one of my friends, which somehow made his status as a stranger less intimidating.
We talked, and we danced. As we walked out of the bar, I stopped to stare at the bright, full moon.
“Oh, that’s so deep of you,” he exclaimed in an almost hateful tone. I was taken aback. but until him, I had a deep belief every person was inherently good.
I overlooked it as a drunken comment, although it wasn’t playful or even sarcastic. He was calling me stupid, putting down what I proclaimed I admired.
After Halloween, he asked for my number, and our texting became more frequent. Eventually, this lead to us dating.
The first few months, I was swept off my feet. He took me out to bars and restaurants, never letting me pay.
We had our own Christmas celebration, exchanging gifts. He bought me a Tiffany & Co. necklace. I felt loved and understood.
Then, something switched.
I began receiving texts from him while he went out with friends without me that read, “I just feel a lot of pressure to cheat on you from my friends,” or “It's just so hard when there are hot girls everywhere to stay with you.”
I never considered myself a jealous girlfriend. In fact, I felt healthy relationships needed space and nights apart with just friends.
However, what I couldn’t understand then is healthy relationships have both space and trust. I felt crazy telling him he made me uncomfortable going out, either by ignoring me all night or sending inappropriate texts about the “hot” girls at the clubs.
The stronger my reaction, the more games he played with my head. I stopped sleeping through the night, expecting the typical 3 am text that said, “I’m sorry for what I’ve put you through. I’m trying so hard to change for you, babe.”
But, the next day’s text always said, “You don’t have to be such a bitch all the time. Then maybe I wouldn’t want to cheat on you.”
Looking back, it seems so simple to have left. But, I loved him and felt I could help him. I almost believed it was my duty.
None of my friends liked him, and even his own cousins told me to break up with him.
One night, I sat in the passenger seat of my car as he drove through the city on our way back to my apartment. The traffic was awful as usual, and I really needed to pee.
“I have to pee so bad. Can you pull over at a gas station, babe?” I asked him.
“There’s a Subway right here. You can go in there.”
“But I hate the way Subway smells. Can you just pull up into the gas station around the corner?”
“You can pee in Subway, you f*cking pretentious whore!” he exclaimed, with a level of hatred I’d never heard from him — let alone anyone else — before.
Even his face looked different. He looked like he was holding back from hitting something (or me).
“Fine. Pull into Subway,” I said in monotone.
I was shocked by his statement, but I was also numb to his mental abuse by this point. I calmly got out of the car, slammed the door and walked into Subway.
I stared at the scene of happy customers, calm and eating their meals, as if the world hadn’t just shifted in the most distressing way.
I felt accosted and scared, but I asked the kind manager if I could use the bathroom. I sat on the toilet, stunned and unsure of what to do or say. I knew I had to return to my car and back to Tom.
I wish I could've demanded he get out of the car, but I was hooked in his vicious cycle of abuse, neglect and false sense of reassurance and love.
The sickest part was I recognized it. He had my self-esteem, and he knew it.
“Love you,” he said in a singsong voice as I re-entered the car.
“Love you, too,” I replied, staring out the car window at the picturesque falling snowflakes.
I clung to hope through those grueling eight months. It was a false hope, just like it was a false love.
But, he hammered me down and brought me back up again so many times, I felt trapped. I knew this wasn’t what I wanted for my life.
When he would talk about marrying me and the names of our babies, I felt the world growing smaller and smaller. I wondered if that would be my reality, since I couldn’t find the strength to leave.
One evening, we walked home from the bars without our friends. We stood on the stoop of my apartment building as I fumbled for my keys. I heard a loud slap before I felt the pain, and I realized he had smacked the back of my legs with a grave force.
I'd never been hit like that before.
I screamed, and tears watered out of my eyes. But no one was around to witness or help.
“Gotta get stronger, man,” he said.
Now that I'm so far removed from it, I question my judgment. I had red handprints on the back of my legs.
Why didn’t I call the police? Why didn’t I insist he go home?
I felt ashamed, like maybe no one would believe me, or I would be questioned for putting up with this pattern of behavior.
“Look,” he said, before we walked into my building, my legs still burning from the sting of the hit. “It’s a full moon out. Your favorite.”
I felt numb, like I could no longer appreciate anything I used to find beautiful in this world.
My soul was crushed, and he took pleasure in that.
I washed my face and crawled into bed, ready to forget the evening’s events.
Then, he turned to me.
“You know I could kill you if I wanted to, right?”
I stared at him, horrified and unable to speak.
"So, you should just think about that.”
I’m not sure how I fell asleep that night.
My roommate was gone, and I convinced myself he was just playing more games. He wouldn’t actually hurt me more than that slap.
I rationalized everything with him.
I tried to understand every mean comment, every put-down of my looks and career aspirations and every abusive moment in our relationship. I did all this, just to save a relationship that, looking back, was never worth saving.
The final straw came at the end of that summer.
I had moved apartments into a three-bedroom, with two roommates who could now see what was going on. On a particular day when both of them were out, Tom and I stood in the kitchen together.
In one swift motion, he turned toward an expensive knife set my roommate had bought for the apartment, and he pulled out the sharpest, largest butcher knife from the block.
He held it up to me and asked, “What are you gonna do about it?”
I stood in silence, staring at the pointy blade for a few moments, trying to catch my breath.
I asked him to put it down. I told him this wasn’t okay. I was at a standstill while he stared and kept it pointed.
I looked at him, and he set it down back in its proper slot. I wonder why I didn’t run, or grab the phone and call 911.
So many incidents occurred that I deserved to report and receive protection from, but he was a dangerous manipulator. He convinced me my self-worth was nothing without him.
However, that incident was our relationship's breaking point.
My two roommates convinced me to leave him, and they even came with me to file a police report against him. They came to the hearing in front of a judge, where I was granted a two-week emergency order of protection as well as a follow-up, two-year order of protection.
Seeing him in that courtroom after breaking up was one of the most daunting experiences of my life. A part of me still heard echoes of his voice in my head, telling me no one would believe me, I was being too sensitive and I was the crazy one.
I have all my friends to thank for convincing me otherwise. Although I was petrified, the restraining orders helped me heal and move on. There was no way for him to contact me and hook me back into the same repetitive cycle of abuse.
Before Tom, I believed in second chances. But second chances turned into third chances, fourth chances and 89th chances.
Afterward, I sought help from psychiatrists and sleep aides because the trauma still lingered, even after he was gone. I suffered sleepless nights, fearful of receiving those 3 am, degrading text messages, followed by immensely false apologies.
But, I made it through.
This experience taught me to see the red flags and walk away.
He didn't get to take away my belief humanity is inherently good. He didn't get to crush my spirit and degrade me to the point of no return.
He made me stronger and more self-aware, which is exactly the opposite of what he aimed to do.
Now, when I look up at the moon, I see beauty in the light it reflects, representing countless people whose lives impact each other's in invaluable ways. These are things he could never see because he only chose to see the darkness.
For that reason, I pity him. He’ll never find true love or the enjoyment of moments in life, big or small.
I hold no resentment or bitterness. I only have hope that maybe one day, he too can see the bright side of the moon.
*Names have been changed for privacy purposes.