I Fought Back

by Heather M. Shanks

Terror controlled my life as much as my lover did.

For every breath I took I was punished, for every word that escaped from my mouth I was disciplined. A threat followed my every action—and for this, I am now grateful.

Kyle and I met in early 1996 through my then-boyfriend, Wesley, on a double date with a friend of mine. When the time came, Wesley could not go. My girlfriend sat quietly the entire night as Kyle smooth-talked his way into my life.

Soon after that, I ended my relationship with Wesley and began one with Kyle. He was a 16-year-old's dream. Tall and slim with blonde hair, he had a fast car and a steady job. All my fantasies were fulfilled in him. Never had I imagined a prince would come into my life so early.

We had been dating for two weeks the first time he struck me. A simple joke was seen as an insult and a punch aimed for my cheek landed on my shoulder. Although I was bruised, I denied the incident and vowed never to allow him to hit me again.

The black and blue had just begun to fade when Kyle coerced me into a sexual relationship. The thought of sex had not crossed my naïve mind. He was convinced otherwise. He whispered the things every girl wants to hear and through my tears, he took the last bit of innocence I had to give. Once it was over, he laughed.

"Did I force you?" he asked. "Please say I didn't."

"In a way," I responded. "You know I didn't want to."

"I'm sorry if I made you," he said.

He cried as he promised never to force himself on me again, using words or strength. I believed him. He apologized for what he had done and reassured me that our relationship was unchanged.

As our relationship progressed, my focus narrowed until eventually he was the only one involved in my life. Friends were shunned, jobs were lost, and all connections to the world around me were gone. I restricted my actions to prevent upsetting him and provoking an argument. I did not realize that I was following the plan he had put into action on that first date: To get me alone where no one could interfere. All the while, I was oblivious to what was taking place.

I received a phone call from Wesley in May. He told me Kyle had been dating other girls and he was afraid Kyle had contracted a disease. One of the girls Kyle had been seeing was Wesley's new girlfriend. For an instant, I was stunned, but remembered that is how we met, too. I thanked Wesley and called Kyle.

Before he could address my accusation, I told him that our relationship was over, that I would not tolerate that type of disrespect. We were apart for one month and so began a new cycle. Each time I discovered an infidelity I left, but soon returned when he promised it would not happen again.

In my mind, I saw our love as perfect. I believed all relationships held some level of betrayal and manipulation. I had never witnessed a young couple who had total honesty and cooperation. By that time, I realized there was no one in my life except Kyle. I lied to myself, made myself believe my friends had abandoned me out of jealousy. I refused to admit he had taken absolute control. We agreed to marry when I was 17 years old.

Although there was no official announcement or ring, Kyle began to plan our wedding. My thoughts went ignored with him deciding every aspect. It was set for the spring of the next year in my parents' garden. The reception, the wedding party and the guests were decided by Kyle. Although I was happy, I avoided revealing our intentions to anyone else. Kyle had convinced me not to mention the engagement until I was 18. He believed my parents would charge him with statutory rape because I was still a child.

People began to question the future of our relationship when we had been dating for nearly a year. My mother talked with me briefly about the idea of marriage, as did his mother. Both women assumed Kyle and I would marry, but they were ignorant of our plans. Because I had agreed to conceal our engagement, I could not discuss my ideas for a wedding dress with my own mother.

Three months after we became engaged, Kyle began to drink. He had been an alcoholic since junior high school. He revealed this during the early part of our relationship and being immature, I did not see how his illness could affect me. He had been sober, he explained, for three years and did not intend to revert. I ignored the fact that he was forced to drop out of high school and had lost several jobs because of it.

I had never witnessed Kyle drink before. With each passing day he became more hostile. Kyle had always been belligerent with me, but never before had he cursed me. His abuse cut out my heart and left me permanently in tears. I considered leaving, but I could not force myself. I wanted to believe that with enough love, I could make all the difference. The thought of living without Kyle made me physically ill. I told myself the alcohol forced him to be abusive. Besides, he apologized every time.

Over a year after he had hit me, the abuse all but forgotten, Kyle pulled me down the stairs in my house and the memory resurfaced. I had been diagnosed with a lumbar spine disorder a few days before and was having a hard time walking. As I slowly moved across the floor, he began to yell that we were late for the movies and I needed to get dressed. Without giving me time to respond, he leapt from his seat and grabbed my ankle. He pulled and I rolled down onto the floor in the downstairs den. As I screamed in agony, he kicked me in the side. The more I screamed the more violent he became. To keep me quiet, he stood on my face. As I lay on the floor with a dirty shoe covering my mouth, the memory of his first violence came to me. At that moment I became deathly afraid.

Soon physical abuse became the norm. Grabbing, biting, shoving, and throwing all became part of a typical day. Death threats followed my every action. While all other forms of abuse were acceptable, Kyle never struck my face.

"I wouldn't hit you in the face," he said. "You're too pretty for that. I don't want to mess up what's mine."

After each attack he'd justify his actions, tell me how it was my fault, express his love for me, and then apologize. I knew that speech by heart and repeated it with him under my breath.

Any sense of worth I had for myself was gone. It had disappeared the first time Kyle laid his hands on me in anger. I was a piece of trash, not even worthy of his affection. He made himself the martyr, suffering just to love me.

Our last time together, Kyle and I went to the beach. We had recently discussed counseling to help him overcome his alcoholism and his anger. I had been accepted to a university in the town where we planned to live. We had looked into buying a home and an engagement ring. I was approaching my eighteenth birthday and we prepared to announce our plans.

The night before Kyle had been drinking. His fits of violence always followed a drinking binge, but I believed that day I would be safe, given our recent conversations. We left the beach for the long drive home. I realized immediately it was not to be an innocent ride. He began to swear at me, pounding the steering wheel. We sped along country lanes at 80 miles an hour. He felt I was trying to stop him from drinking because I did not love him. He would stay that way forever, he explained, and I would have to learn to accept him.

Once home I ran, knowing he would attack. He caught me before I could reach the door. On the porch, he assaulted me, beating my head into a wall.

Reality slid over my eyes. I could not be saved because no one knew my secret. I had never told. My best friend was the only person who questioned the bruises that constantly plagued my body. I was alone, not because I was abandoned but because I was trapped. Kyle had caged me like an animal and would not free me until I was broken. I knew he would kill me, if not at that instant, then soon. Out of love, he would eventually take my life. I wanted to die, to be free of the life he had chosen for me. Those thoughts briefly settled into my mind as Kyle put his hands around my throat.

But then, for the first time, I fought back. My life was not his and I was not going to allow him to take it. Although I found it hard to breathe, I screamed, threatening to kill him or myself. He stopped his assault and stared. His gaze was blank, void of all emotion. As he walked away, he turned and smiled. I have not seen him since that day.

But fighting back did not set me free. It had been two years since I had been able to think and act for myself. My life was in chaos; I felt helpless. Since I had not told anyone Kyle had abused me, I still had to keep the truth hidden. I was in an abyss, looking out into a world I was no longer part of. I felt ashamed and angered by what he had taken from me. I believed I would be ridiculed if people found out that I had been a victim. For six months, I cried daily, each time praying for the nightmare to be over.

Then on a cool spring day a week before my high school graduation, I exposed my secret. All the students in the senior English class were asked to tell the story of their most life-altering event. I stood at the podium, turned to my classmates, and began to cry. The words came as easily as my tears did. As the story emerged, piece by piece, I looked out over their faces. They were crying with me, feeling my pain. When I finished, there was silence and I was terrified. Then one by one, they stood and circled around me. These were the people I believed had deserted me and they had come to bring me back. I knew from that moment on that I was not alone anymore and that life had begun again.

Soon after, I began where I had left off. Although I had been absent from my loved ones' lives, they supported me fully. They reinforced me each day with love until I began to love myself. They told me it was not my fault and I believed them. They stood by while the memories integrated with my being. Then they accepted the woman I had become.

I am grateful that Kyle entered my life. Countless times I have remembered my past and each time, I am thankful. So much of my present life is rooted in the time when I was 17. Kyle helped me find myself and that is why I am grateful. I do not regret those experiences, though I do not wish to relive them. His actions showed me who I did not want to become. They will also shape who I will grow to be.

I am now resilient, able to face the world without fear. I realize when it is time to walk away, but also when it is time to fight. No person will again be able to break my spirit. I will never again become the victim.

Domestic violence strikes women of all ages and races. However, there are several signs that a woman is at-risk for becoming a victim. If these signs sound familiar, please seek help immediately. The National Clearinghouse for the Defense of Battered Women name the following as high-risk signs:

You live in a home with alcohol or drug abuse.

Your partner has uncontrollable outbursts.

Your partner destroys your valuable possessions.

Your partner is cruel to household pets and other animals.

You are dependent on your partner for money or transportation.

Your partner is overly critical of your friends and family.

Your partner becomes angry if you socialize without him or her.

Your partner ridicules you by name calling or swearing.

You must ask your partner's permission to do an activity.

Your partner uses dominating behaviors to control your actions, such as yelling or hitting.

You avoid certain activities to keep from upsetting your partner.

Heather Shanks is a senior studying psychology, criminology, and journalism student at Capital University in Bexley, Ohio. She will receive her bachelor's degrees in May 2002. After grad school, she plans to study the causes of criminal behaviors within society, and hopes to counsel young women who have had experiences similar to hers.

(c) Heather Shanks

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