Content warning: This story mentions violence against women and sexual assault that might be upsetting to some readers.
When I was 15 years old, I had my first kiss and fell in love for the first time with a man who was older than me.
He made me feel loved one day, then the next he would turn around and make me feel nonexistent. This made me feel so bad about myself after he gave me my first sexual experiences, which I wasn’t ready for, but felt obligated to do for him.
I snuck around my parents rebelling for love. But I was just a baby, still only with an image from movies of what love should feel like.
We took a broadcast class together and almost always snuck into the studio during lunch when nobody else would be there. Some days we’d kiss and cuddle, others he’d play hard to get and ignore me.
One warm spring day, I wore a dress to school because it was hot outside. This day was one of the days he decided he wanted to ignore me.
I’d had enough of his games. I confronted him about his actions and told him I’d had enough. He then decided he wanted to “make me feel better.” He put his hand up my dress. My body froze.
I kept telling him: No. Stop. Please. And yet he kept going, like I was supposed to like it. I saw the principal outside of the door but was too afraid to scream for help. He finally stopped after 30 seconds, but it felt like an eternity.
I thought I was supposed to like it because I thought I loved him. I didn’t fully comprehend what happened, so I ignored it and tried to forget.
When I was almost 17 years old, I was talking to boys on the regular, hooking up with them in parking lots or on the side of some dirt road getting naked. But I never let them see me in the light.
This did more damage to me when I should have been healing from my past dating violence and instance of sexual assault. Instead, I would again put my trust in these young men, and they’d leave.
I began to think I had to be cooler, less bubbly and sexier to get their attention. Otherwise, boys would never look at me. I thought I was the problem.
During this time in my life, I had never felt so disgusted and dirty. I would try to scrub myself skinless, and it still wouldn’t be enough.
When I was 18, I finally understood I was surrounding myself with men who treated me like shit, because that’s how I thought love was supposed to feel.
As I came to this revelation about my past abuses, I felt everything at once, like fireworks on the Fourth of July. My anxiety, depression, PTSD — everything was in front of me.
When I ultimately felt clean, a boy who had been my best friend since my freshman year of high school helped me see that I’m attractive without makeup or tailoring myself to the likes of others. He showed me happiness is the greatest beauty of all.
My freshman year of college, I dated a boy that at first, seemed like the guy I had been waiting for. The real deal. My future. But in a few months span, he went from a sweet, sensitive, loving guy to one telling me I shouldn’t wear such tight leggings if I didn’t want to get fucked.
I felt pressured and coerced into sex with him, and it hurt me. My heart and vagina ached, and I couldn’t wait for each sexual encounter to be over. I was taken back to age 15, in love with a man who hurt me.
But I loved him, right? That’s what I told myself.
Since these abusive relationships began while I was in high school, I consistently had panic attacks — a familiar, fearful feeling that filled my body. I’d always had anxiety, but this was debilitating.
I always wondered what it meant when I was having these attacks. What triggered them? Were they random? Was it my fault?
I soon went to the doctor the following week for my annual check-up. I began to break down in front of my doctor during my first pelvic exam. As she walked through the door, everything I held inside spilled out; I hyperventilated while I was being penetrated, reliving one of the most painful feelings I’d ever experienced. She was worried, and I began to have yet another panic attack. This is one of many I’d had over the years.
I assured her I was OK, even though I clearly wasn’t. I told her how I felt like the earth was moving so fast, and I couldn’t make it stop. This led her to prescribe me anti-anxiety and depression medication.
In just two weeks, I felt immense weight taken off my shoulders — I was finally off on my road to recovery.
I’m slowly becoming the woman I was destined to be: a proud sister of a 13-year-old boy whom I will help raise into a respectful man and daughter to parents who always believed in me.
For so long, I had blamed myself and fell into a cycle of suppression that so many other survivors of sexual violence face. It’s taken until recently for me to realize I was one in three adolescents in the United States that are victims of physial, sexual, emotional or verbal abuse from a dating partner, according to Loveisrespect.org. Or that I’m one in six college women who has been sexually abused in a dating relationship.
Now, I stand tall with an understanding of what love should feel like. I’m still coming to terms with my past abuse, and I’ll wear whatever I damn please.