“Ms. Vaswani? I’m Officer Dunnahan and this is Officer Jordan. We understand that you are in a difficult position but we need you to tell us everything,” said the woman.
Officers Dunnahan and Jordan leaned forward in their seats at the conference table as they asked me all the initial questions: who, when, where, how long. Their ears were pricked.
“I have nowhere else to go. I can’t fight it alone any longer. He has harassed me for almost a year and it continues to escalate out of control every time after. Last night he set fire to my clothes, vandalized my laptop and won’t stop sending crude messages, racial slurs and death threats to me, my friends and my family,” I said exasperatedly.
“Oh,” said Officer Jordan, and gave a brisk crack of his knuckles. He suddenly looked sterner than before.
A call had been made out of my hearing, and Dunnahan informed me that more officers were being dispatched right that moment to find him. I had the grave pride of being taken seriously.
He hadn’t always been this way. I remember vividly meeting him for the first time. I was a fish out of water at a party in December, floating idly on the couch while people drank and socialized. The more alcohol the people consumed, the louder and shallower their chattering seemed to be and the more apparent my boredom became. I hadn’t even noticed him until he propped himself next to me and struck a conversation. We hit it off immediately and decided ditched the party to take a midnight walk. It took only two weeks for me to fall for him.
Following our brief interaction, I took a semester off from school to spend time in India. That meant five months apart and 7,781 miles in between. Yet, he never let time or distance separate us. I was led to believe that he was worth opening myself up to so absolutely, so completely and so wholly; I let my walls come tumbling down and they didn’t even put up a fight.
Coping with the physical separation and time difference often became taxing but we managed to stick it out till summer came and we reunited. Every day that summer I would wake up to hot coffee, folded laundry, and a companion when the walks home alone at night seemed daunting. Every time I would have an anxiety attack from my despicable habit of overthinking, he would pull the sheets over our heads and we would talk till I forgot I was hurting. Perhaps, when we say we want to fall in love, we really just want a place to fall apart.
But the world kept spinning on and the more occupied I became with my academics, my career and my social life, the more I detested the obligation of joining him partying and getting absolutely totaled on weekends. If I were to make good decisions and succeed, I could not waste an entire weekend recovering from the hangover of downing 6 tequila shots and bruises from dancing on tabletops. My priorities of school and work were a stark contrast to his apathy towards academics and unquenchable thirst to self-destruct. He was a bloodhound for oblivion. Because I refused to obey him and started distancing myself from him, however, he became a control freak; he became neurotic at the thought of losing his hold over me.
Officer Dunnahan asked about prior incidents of domestic violence, so I told her how it started with verbal abuses and manhandling, how with time, the manic episodes took a turn for the worst. There was one night we fought because I had not been able to give him my undivided attention. When I refused to resolve a hotheaded fight then and there, he carried me to the trash chute. In my attempt to escape the chute, he pulled the door from the other side with my foot right under, thus, injuring my toe. For two weeks, I limped to class, chewed on painkillers, and suffered sleepless nights from the agony. If I avoided him, he would threaten to harass my friends. If I met him, he would corner me or lock me in the room, and yell at me despite my pleading and crying to go home. It became routine to have my roommates woken in the middle of the night from all the quarreling and the screaming, to the extent that they would often have to stand outside the door and menace him to leave, cooking pans in their hands.
There was another time when he came home at midnight, drunk and enraged, for the same reason that I refused to feel abashed for being “boring” and “old” instead of “sociable” and “outgoing.” So he stood me on the steps of my apartment, scratched my face and ripped my shirt, buttons popped, for the world to see. He pushed me against the wall, stared into my eyes, and choked me even as I desperately gasped for air. Because he pilfered my phone and wallet, I had no choice but to get in touch with him again, giving him another opportunity to torment me.
Thus, the question remains, even though I knew then as I do now, that I am too intelligent, too demanding, and too resourceful for anyone to be able to take charge of me entirely, why did I let him hurt me for so long without telling anyone? Even though it was like walking on eggshells, why did I care so much to stay?
It is a harrowingly familiar response to my revelation of experiencing relationship violence. Simply put, I was in denial. I did not want to admit that I could be in an abusive relationship. Because I thought I was a strong woman with a deeply troubled man who needed help, it became hard to recognize what was healthy behavior and what wasn’t. Was him raising his voice at me or pushing me around acceptable? No, it wasn’t, but he told me that I was the only person on earth who could help him face his demons and I believed him.
I stayed because I confused his manipulation with intimacy. He said vulnerability would only strengthen our relationship. He said he criticized my shortcomings instead of fostering support so I could toughen up. He said he questioned my fidelity and stalked me because he it wasn’t that he didn't trust me; he simply didn’t trust other men around me. He told me that no one would love me or understand me the way he does when really, no one should love me or understand me the way he did. It was all so subtle; he stole my self-worth and robbed me of my ready smile because he made hell feel like home. I shrunk myself for his comfort; I became small for someone who refused to grow.
He knew that despite my thick skin that I had a soft core. What he did not know was, that despite my ability to sacrifice my own happiness for the sake of others’, I respect myself enough to walk away from anything that no longer serves me, grows me or makes me happy. It took me a long time to muster the courage to seek help but I could no longer be sucked into the same quick sands of fear, insecurity, self-pity and hopelessness that he was surrounded by.
When the terror began to seep through the cracks and pervade my daily life, I became too jaded to focus on work diligently, to keep up with a social life, get proper sleep, or even show the slightest interest in doing activities I used to find enjoyable. It became difficult to even walk home alone without constantly looking over my shoulder. It made me feel vulnerable. No one deserves to have their actions limited because they fear for their safety.
It took everything I had in me to bring myself to seek the help I needed, especially because my own loved ones would tell me that my staying meant I wasn’t really being abused, or that I could have ensured my safety had I just left him sooner. And trust me, I had tried to leave multiple times without having to resort to legal authorities but it wasn’t that easy to walk away from the affliction. When I did leave for good, pulled away by legal authorities, victim blaming plagued my sense of judgment. I was told to spare him his future, that he had trust issues, that it was all a mistake. I was told that I was being punitive and trying to evoke sympathy. Worst of all, I was told that I must have instigated his violent fits; that no one behaves so irrationally without reason. But how can we tackle the injustice if we continue to blame the oppressed for the oppression inflicted upon them by others?
It took me months to understand that I am not responsible for my perpetrator’s misbehavior, and that resorting to violence is never a justification. Escaping violence is not simply about staying or leaving. The cycle of relationship violence is far more complex than that but breaking out of it meant taking responsibility for myself and having that conversation with Officers Dunnahan and Jordan because I could no longer sit in passive silence and sell my aspirations short, and he could not spend a minute longer acting with impunity. He committed a misdemeanor and should be exempt from punishment, otherwise he will continue misbehaving thinking he will not be liable.
After everything we had been through, I would have never thought that I would end up imagining myself under the sheets with him again. Only in this dream, he is suffocating me.