Writing by Jodie Matthews // Photograph by Alessandra Scalogna
Writing by Jodie Matthews // Photograph by Alessandra Scalogna
“A year ago my friend was dating this guy who was beyond controlling. He went so far as to befriend a cleaning lady at her college dorm who let him into her room under the pretense of him wanting to surprise her with flowers/chocolates, etc. When she tried to break up with him he even turned violent with me because he thought I talked her into breaking up with him…not physical violence but plenty of mental abuse and suicide threats if she doesn’t stay. He still sends flowers.”
When I decided to write this article, I decided to post a call on the internet, asking for people to send me their experiences. This is something I do occasionally when I’m writing, even if I don’t end up incorporating the experiences into my final draft because it helps to give me a feel of what I’m writing about. Research is important whenever you’re writing, and I could search the internet forever for stories on this particular topic. When you’re writing for teenage girls and young women, it’s a necessity to listen to what they have to say. Reading about women’s experiences with controlling and obsessive ex-partners is not for the faint hearted. When these experiences are recounted to you by people you know, they’re even more difficult to swallow. Most of us have stories of shitty exes; people whose personalities flip once you’re no longer together. The kindest people can become bitter and harsh, blanking you in person and talking behind your back. You expect a certain level of this behaviour because heartbreak isn’t easy for anyone, especially as a young person when you may have just left your first serious relationship. There is a very blurry line when expected behaviour and bitterness can veer into inappropriate and cruel behaviour.
According to the American Department of Justice, girls and young women between the ages of 16 and 24 experience the highest rate of intimate partner violence, almost three times the national average.
So what do you do if you leave an unhappy relationship and your situation gets worse? The most pertinent thing to do is tell someone. Only 33% of teens who have been in or know about an abusive relationship say they have told anyone about it*. It’s not easy to convey to another person that you feel unsafe, or harassed. Sometimes the closest you can get it ‘That wasn’t a good relationship and now they keep bugging me’– this is still better than silence.
When I was 16, I had an ex who wouldn’t let go. I switched my phone off overnight and woke up to 25 + calls and around 100 messages. As time went on the text messages increased, ranging from begging to guilt-tripping to throwing insults my way. Nights out would result in him suddenly appearing from out of nowhere. I felt claustrophobic, I was being followed around school, and I didn’t know what to do. I blocked his number on my phone, blocked him on Facebook, and deleted him from all social media. This happened towards the end of the year, and thankfully over the holidays he cooled off and calmed down, so I was left alone.
Years later, living in a shared house with people I didn’t know, I had a short lived fling with someone I lived with. When I ended it, a similar thing happened to when I was 16, except I lived in the same house as this person. At one point I was sitting alone in my room, drinking a glass of wine, getting ready to go out. He came to my door, shouting at me to open it, saying he knew I was there. I opened it, mainly so I could tell him to get lost. When I did, I was screamed at with a similar story. I’d ruined his life, I was an ‘inconsiderate bitch’, I was the worst person to ever live etc. etc. When he finally went back upstairs, I slipped out and spent the night at a friend’s house. The worst side of social media is often shown in these circumstances, as anyone can obsessively check up on your life. Posting on the internet offers a form of detachment that feels safe. This almost-anonymity can be great in some ways; we can share stories and experiences without fear or shyness holding us back. This safe, almost-anonymity is also a catalyst for abuse.
Sitting downstairs in my room with the door locked, my Facebook was bombarded with messages. This time the messages were threatening suicide and saying that I would be the cause. It sounds trite, but by this point, I was exhausted. I was sick of living in a house with a bunch of strangers and someone who clearly hated me. I was trying to write an essay for an important university deadline and I decided that I didn’t want to be blamed anymore. So I took out my phone and I called Student Services, quietly explaining that I was being harassed by someone I lived with, he was threatening to kill himself and that I thought he needed help. No, he doesn’t go to the same university, I told them, he goes to this other one instead. I gave them all the details I could. Within half an hour they’d called back, telling me they’d contacted his school and would be coming round shortly. Another half an hour past and two of the student mental health team were on my doorstep. I let them in; they checked that they I was okay, and then they went to talk to him.
This wasn’t the end of the ordeal– two days later he was messaging me again, saying he’d had the worst day of his life, he had been taken to speak to a psychologist and he wasn’t really going to kill himself. To someone else, it might seem ‘over the top’ to do what I did, but I decided to try and put myself first. I refused to be blamed for something he did to himself in a fit of anger. I moved out shortly afterwards, blocking him on Facebook and never speaking to him again. Most social media sites have a form of ‘blocking’ which can hide you from another user. Facebook has a pretty steadfast system; you can’t be searched, contacted by or even see the person you have blocked. Mobile phones allow you to block numbers and you can block email addresses to. Take each necessary step you need in order to feel safe and calm. If an ex-partner is scaring you or making you feel uncomfortable it is okay to extract yourself from their life. You do not owe them your time or access to your life.
When you speak to other women you find that these stories are not rare. I’m 22 years old and I’m yet to meet anyone without at least one experience of a controlling or abusive partner.
My stories may not be extreme, but I am still saddened that for many of us these are shared experiences. I’m sure we can all recount horror stories we’ve heard or seen on the news as well, but I’m not going to do that now. I’m not writing this article so that the reader can pour over the gruesome details of another person hurt or murdered. I am writing this article as a gentle nudge. Speak to the people in your life. Ask your friends about their experiences. Check in with each other. Share your stories, let each other know that you are around and you are willing to help, if you ever need to. Look up the resources in your area, in case you ever need them. Try to be open. If you feel unsafe, tell someone you trust, even if you just say ‘They’re making me uncomfortable, can you walk me home?’
*Liz Claiborne Inc. study conducted by Teenage Research Unlimited, February 2005.