Co-written with Zainie Qureshi.
The Death of Butterflies
Taking a shower. Brushing his teeth. Putting on a brave face for others. This was all a regular routine for abuse survivor Mark Jones, whose name has been changed to protect his identity. No one was aware of the abuse that was coming from his significant other; not even him.
“Goals!” friends would yell with envy across the locker banks whenever they were together. His parents were always fond of his partner and couldn’t find any flaws. But nobody knew what their interactions were like when no one else was around.
For Mark, the person he used to lean on in times of distress became the same person causing it. The person who used to cause bubbly butterflies in his stomach became the reason for his self-doubt, low self-esteem, and nervous jitters.
“I would see this person in the halls and realize that all of a sudden, the person who I used to feel comfortable with was now the person I would do everything to avoid,” Mark said.
This was abuse.
According to Family Shelter Service, an agency that provides counseling and shelter to victims of domestic abuse in DuPage County, dating abuse can be described as “using power or control to manipulate your partner.” This can happen in straight or gay relationships. It can include verbal, emotional, physical, or sexual abuse, or a combination of all of them.
Being in an unhealthy relationship takes it’s toll. Over time, the line between who you think you are and what your abuser says you are blurs. The perplexing task all high schoolers face of identifying who they are becomes even more confusing when layers of abuse are added on top. Mark was with his partner for a couple years, equating to the majority of his high school career. In turn, his journey of finding himself became more daunting than it already was. “This person and I sort of grew into each other as people instead of growing as individuals. I didn’t really who I was without them. In retrospect, I feel kind of robbed,” Mark said.
One in three adolescents in the U.S. is a victim of physical, sexual, emotional or verbal abuse from a dating partner, according to National Coalition Against Domestic Violence. In a study by the American Psychological Association, researchers found that girls were more likely than boys to report being victims of sexual dating violence, and both genders found themselves victim to physical violence from their partners. The findings were “consistent across race, ethnicity and income levels.” Abuse finds itself in all walks of life, no matter the person.
He became really jealous. He would get mad if I favorited someone’s tweet, liked a pic on Insta, or if he saw me talking to someone else in the hallway.
The central force of abuse is control. “He became really jealous. He would get mad if I favorited someone’s tweet, liked a pic on Insta, or if he saw me talking to someone else in the hallway,” abuse survivor Jane Rowell said, whose name has been changed. Control becomes manipulation, and manipulation becomes suppression, starting a cycle of mental and emotional abuse.
“In the off chance that I did confront him, he would twist it to where it was my fault. Mental and emotional abuse definitely has deeper scars than people think. I’m conditioned to think that everything’s kind of just my fault because I spent so much time with someone who kept telling me that it was,” Jane said.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, abuse can cause “symptoms of depression and anxiety, engagement in unhealthy behaviors, such as tobacco and drug use, and alcohol, involvement in antisocial behaviors, and thoughts about suicide.”
In turn, dating violence is no longer a matter of control, but a vicious cycle of abuse on others and oneself. “For the longest time I was really down and depressed and I didn’t even know that I was,” Mark said.
Like Mark and Jane, those in an abusive relationship can find themselves lost. Lost in hurt. Lost in shame. Lost in the stigma of abusive relationships. These stigmas plague survivors, often causing them to not come forward to tell their story.
“A lot of kids feel like they can’t talk about it. They almost feel violated again while talking about it. And we as adults try to be as empathetic as possible because I know it can be hard,” school resource officer Dustin Coppes said.
For some, an abusive relationship signals weakness. Some even believe that the victim deserved the abuse, thinking that their actions provoked just anger from the abuser.
However, according to Patrick Nakamura, a Prevention Educator at Family Shelter Service, “It’s not their fault at all.”
Women and men in abusive relationships are not weak. They are some of the strongest people I know.
These stigmas are merely just that. “Women and men in abusive relationships are not weak. They are some of the strongest people I know,” Nakamura said.
Due to the private nature of romantic relationships, the abuse often stays behind closed doors. Abusers often manipulate their partners to stay in these relationships, and to the common eye, it appears as if they like the abuse or that they’re “asking for it.” According to Nyla Whitehead, also a Prevention Educator at Family Shelter Service, this is far from the truth. “People do not choose to be abused. People do not want to be abused. But people are stuck in that abuse because it’s scary. It’s scary to get in and it’s scary to get out,” Whitehead said.
Abuse is not glamorous
Perhaps most importantly, abuse is difficult to recognize. A relationship filled with giddy first kisses and bubbly puppy love can transform into manipulation and, at its worst, violence in the blink of an eye. The charismatic twinkle of a partner can go dim.
“He knew what to say and when to say it and what to do what. He was really easy to be around. At first, it was really just perfect. The first couple months were really good and that’s what kind of sucked me into the whole relationship. Once I got deep into it, it felt impossible to get out,” Jane said.
In turn, defining dating violence can become difficult. At times, images in music, movies, and television can make abuse appear desirable and glamorize its reality.
Eminem’s 2010 hit song “Love The Way You Lie” glamorized abuse by masking an abuser’s manipulative and violent tendencies with “fiery” passion. Lyrics like “if she ever tries to leave again, I’m gonna tie her to the bed and set the house on fire” reflect the dating abuse at its worst: a victim at the angry hands of his or her manipulator. Images like these blur the lines between love and hurt, making abuse difficult to decipher. But it’s not just rap songs that glamorize abuse, glamorization lies in the attitude of the news media as well.
Stanford swimmer Brock Turner was convicted of sexual assault of an unconscious woman during his time as a swimmer at Stanford University in 2016. The victim, who wished to remain unknown, was forgotten, and was lost in the media circus. Turner and his “steep price to pay for 20 minutes of action,” as the situation was referred to in a letter written by Turner’s father, reported by the Washington Post, was the main attraction. Articles referred to him as the “Stanford Swimmer.” Photos showed him smiling with his teammates and family members. His sentence was reduced to three months.
With the media’s wall-to-wall coverage of Brock Turner, it became easy to forget about his victim. “That woman’s life is forever changed,” Nakamura said.
Lean on Me
Dating violence is a reality for 1.5 million teens, according to NCDAV. For those trapped in an abusive relationship, it can feel dark, cold, and lonely with nowhere to reach for help. But it does not have to stay this way. Through knowledge and conversation that uplifts teens to share their story with those around them.
“If we can lift up the victim and not the abuser, we can empower the victim. In an abusive relationship, the abuser speaks for the victim. So now, we give this person the opportunity to speak what they want,” Whitehead said.
Becoming an active bystander, someone who recognizes a problem and takes steps to speak up or step in to keep a situation from escalating can be the difference between further abuse.
Warning signs of dating abuse include extreme jealousy or insecurity, explosive temper, isolation from family and friends, physically inflicting pain or hurt in any way, or repeatedly pressuring someone to have sex.
Understanding the signs of abuse can help. Warning signs of dating abuse include extreme jealousy or insecurity, explosive temper, isolation from family and friends, physically inflicting pain or hurt in any way, or repeatedly pressuring someone to have sex.
“If you don’t break that cycle, it’s only going to get worse, so it’s important to get out of it. The most important thing I can tell teenagers is to be honest with yourself, and to be strong enough to say no,” Coppes said.
Students can reach out to a friend, a relative, a school counselor, a teacher, a coach, or the school resource officer. They can also call 911 or the 24-hour hotline at Family Shelter Service, 630-469-5650. Victims of abuse should reach out to any of the help lines or organizations that offer advice and perspective. Most importantly, it’s vital to talk.
For Mark, that talk was with his parents and that made a world of a difference. “I actually ended up having a conversation with my parents. My parents are really supportive, and I don’t know why I didn’t tell them sooner,” Mark said.
A New Beginning
Today, both Mark and Jane are survivors. Survivors of abuse. Survivors of manipulation. Survivors that walk strong and hold their head up high.
“Looking back, I know that no matter what it’s not OK to do the things this person did. I feel like this weight has been almost lifted off my shoulders,” Jane said.