In March of last year, my ex-boyfriend proposed to the girl he'd cheated on me with. The day I finally found out it'd happened, I came home and cried. Not for him — f*ck him, seriously — but for her.
That night, I scrolled through all their photos together. He'd blocked me on Facebook, but she hadn't, so I was able to see the progression of their relationship through photos taken at baseball games, dog parks, the beach. I watched her full-figured body slowly whittle away, the bones in her neck protruding, the curvature of her shoulders and hips becoming sharp edges.
In her engagement photos, her elbow juts out so sharply it seems like the bone is trying to separate itself from her body, poking through her skin.
At that moment, I knew that no matter how much I hated her, I also felt sorry for her. I had to warn her.
I started writing a Facebook message, stopped, started again. How do you tell a woman the man she's marrying might one day wrap his hands around her neck and tell her that until his fingers touch, her neck is too thick? That the man she loves may one day hover over her as she gazes down at her weight on the scale, telling her the number is still too high? That she's about to start a life with someone who might one day slide the blade of a knife across the jiggle on her thighs, telling her that if the fat doesn't go away, he'll carve it out?
One day, her fiancé might tell her the same thing he said to me nearly two years ago: "If I don't hit you, how can I hurt you?"
Topher* never laid his hands on me, never left bruises or scars or blood. But he destroyed me, working from the inside out.
I know violence in a relationship doesn't always translate into physical pain, but it still took a long, long time for me to label my relationship with Topher "abusive." Two years of therapy, several relapses into destructive eating behaviors and the #MaybeHeDoesntHitYou discussion led to me finally understanding what Topher did wasn't normal. Emotional abuse in a relationship is just as harmful as the physical kind, because both leave scars.
When I met Topher, I was a size six and he claimed to love my curves. At first, he wanted to help me maintain my figure. He regularly saw a personal trainer and would pass along the tips he got to me. He'd worship me, love me, make me swear that I was his and only his. I felt like royalty.
Eventually, his adoration transformed into possession. He'd tell me he loved my body, then ask why my best guy friend from college texted me about hanging out. He'd ask who I was with after work, where I was when I wasn't with him, why I was so close to my best friend's brother (who, for the record, was definitely not into me because he was more attracted to Topher).
Possession turned into control. He'd question the hemlines of my skirts, the slogans on my shirts. He even told me he'd rather break up than have me cut my hair. About six months before we broke up, he began training for a marathon. It was around that time that he started "checking in" with what I was eating.
"Checking in" involved one of several things. He weighed me every morning when we first woke up, then again after dinner and before bed. On the weekends, he'd check before lunch, too. My weight was about as regular a topic as the weather at our small dinner table: "You gained three pounds this week, I really wish you wouldn't."
Suddenly, losing weight became as important as finding a job out of college. One week, he informed me I wouldn't get any more oral sex until I lost the four pounds gained while on vacation in Mexico. Another day, he ordered me to sleep on the couch until I could beat his 5-minute mile.
I wasn't allowed to see those closest to me. My friends were all bad influences, he'd say. I was too good for them, too pretty, too smart, too virtuous. He made my ego soar with compliments, and later that night, after he realized I'd gained a pound, made it plummet back to the ground.
It took me about a year after our break up to realize his obsession with my body was a mirror of his own crippling lack of self-esteem. He hated his body, the fact that he wasn't as good at the gym as some of the other guys and wasn't the fastest one in his marathon training group. He projected those insecurities onto me.
The people close to me -- family, several ride-or-die friends -- had no idea that anything was amiss, and I don't blame them. This was the same man bringing presents for my cousins every weekend, kissing my grandmother on both cheeks and driving my baby sister to dance class when my mom was at work. He was a part of my family. When we broke up, the first thing my mother asked me was what I could've possibly done to destroy the one good thing in my life.
As a society, we're not trained to recognize the more subtle forms of abuse. We call hotlines when we spot black eyes, stage interventions when there's a broken rib, but what do you do when a friend, a daughter, a coworker doesn't eat? When a friend disappears entirely because of a possessive, menacing boyfriend? Abuse comes in many forms, only one of which leaves easily read physical marks.
Topher kicked me out of the apartment that we shared in August of 2014, with no explanation other than "I don't love you anymore." I later learned the girl he often spent time with -- a mutual friend from college -- had been his girlfriend for months before our split. In March, they got engaged, with the same ring I thought he'd purchased for me.
I was devastated, but also relieved. I could finally stop counting, ending the cycle of binging and purging that continued long after we broke up.
Topher and that girl are still together, their wedding date set for this summer. Instead of reacting with crippling jealousy every time I have a weak moment and stalk him online, I feel nothing but sympathy for her and the life she's about to begin. But, most importantly, I feel pity for him and his crippling insecurities.
I'll never be his paper doll to carve and destroy again.
If you or someone you know is a victim of domestic violence, please call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-7233. Visit its website for resources and support.
*Names have been changed to protect the privacy of those involved.