"You will not believe what just happened," my friend said as she closed the door.
"Some guy in the cafeteria just me asked if I knew you. Then, he said I should come find him if you know who tried to lay a hand on anyone, again."
My pen dropped, and my jaw might as well have been on the floor. Apart from my close friends and the Resident Advisers, I hadn't told a soul about what happened between me and my then ex-boyfriend. I thought it was a secret. Apparently, word traveled fast in a small university. I had never been an optimistic person, but for a short moment, humanity seemed inherently good.
"How is that possible? How many people even know?" I asked. She pursed her lips, entirely unsure of how to continue.
"A lot. A couple days ago, I saw him walk into the cafeteria and people just started yelling 'woman beater' until he had to leave."
To be honest, I was laughing at this point, in complete shock. It couldn't possibly be real. Somewhere between getting my first college boyfriend and coming out of the dorm room with bruises, I had become an actual social debate. I was many people's first encounter with abusive relationships, and everyone had something to say about it. The idea of someone beating, gaslighting, and mind-fucking their own girlfriend enraged onlookers.
How could he do that? How can he look himself in the mirror? Even my friends — to whom I'm eternally grateful — went from loving my fun, charming boyfriend to actively despising him. Without a shadow of a doubt, they would have dealt him some vigilante justice if they had the means. I was ecstatic to have the support, but there was only one problem: I didn't hate him.
It's not entirely uncommon for someone in an abusive relationship to have complicated feelings about their abusive partner. The "Why I Stayed" twitter campaign blew up because those relationships are complex and, more importantly, impossible to grasp until you've been there. When people find out that someone is an abuser, their immediate response is something along the lines of "what a jerk," "fuck that guy," or an aggressive "I'd let them die in a fire" attitude. What do you do with a bad person? You take them down. You show them their place. But that was never what I needed. "It wasn't you. It was him," I'd tell myself. "Because he's a walking sack of human failure." I imagine that's a pretty common way to cope with trauma.
It was 2008 when we first met. I was a mousy, nerdy university freshman who was completely insecure. Frankly, I was easy bait, and he knew it. He was a sort of "secret player." He didn't look the part, but he was a lady charmer racking up conquests like it was a mandatory general education course. I fell completely head-over-heels, stupid in love for him, and he was — of course — a great boyfriend, for a while. Then the bizarre happened. He warned me he was a bad guy, that he had issues, and we should break up. But it was too late. I was already enraptured in his story for a very good reason. I always imagined myself as one of those "broken" individuals. It started long before we ever met. The fact he was a wreck only made me feel better.
Real life isn't like the movies. You don't see the villain coming from a mile away. He wasn't the first guy to play the "I'm no good" card, and I couldn't imagine he really was. Then "it" happened. He was drunk. I was cornered. He had pushed the boundaries of emotional abuse before, but this was the breaking point. It was surreal. My world broke open.
I quickly became the sad recovering victim, and he was practically Satan incarnate. People treated it like a bad breakup. Ice cream. Hugs. Lots of drinking and insulting my ex. But the end of an abusive relationship isn't at all similar to the end of a healthy one. I wasn't just depressed, I had full-blown PTSD and was toeing the line between varying states of psychosis on a daily basis. It felt like perpetually being on a bad trip, where you aren't you, the ground doesn't always exist, and you sometimes forget how words work.
Friends literally burned mementos of my ex — things I was nowhere near ready to give up — in order to make everyone feel better. They later apologized, but there was still so much hate in their eyes. They hated every last fiber of his being and if I ever hinted that I didn't, there was an immediate intervention. "He's no good," "you don't need him," and, of course, "fuck him."
Basically, everyone but me wanted him to die in a ditch.
So much time has passed since then, and, the truth is, I still don't hate him. Saying "he comes from a broken home and needs serious support" isn't an excuse. It's the truth. Our cultural obsession of demeaning the abuser and trying to shame them out of doing it again, ignores the problem. When has shaming ever fixed an actual problem? It's like sentencing someone to a prison when what they need is a doctor. I'll never excuse him, and I may still want to punch him in the face, but I love him as another human being. He deserves the same support people gave me.
Living through PTSD and psychosis is one of the most horrifying things I've ever experienced, and it was without a doubt triggered by that fateful relationship. But it also taught me that life can be freaking terrifying. Sometimes, existence isn't a shiny, happy world, and I refuse to hate my abuser because who knows what he's living through, even now. Treating abusers like crap does nothing for the victim.
It's important to remember that the real reason abuse hurts isn't just physical pain. Abuse also creates mental and emotional battlegrounds in victims' minds. Trying to cover up deep and meaningful pain with hate isn't just a waste of time, it's also hurtful. It may seem like the easiest route back to normalcy, but it can stymie a victim's ability to fully deal with what happened. Painting over pain with hate is just another way to create long-term troubles and end up in the therapist's chair some decades later. It's the victim who gets to decide how they feel about their abuser, not the world. Even if it makes onlookers uncomfortable, it's one hundred percent their right to choose. Deal with it.