Dear Elline,

I was just 18, fresh out of high school, when I started a serious relationship with this guy who was a few years older than me. I admired him profoundly because he represented so much of what I wanted to be in the next few years career-wise. He had already amassed many credits in the industry, while I was still very new to the game. The wisdom he provided was always so valuable to me, and many times I felt protected and comforted to be guided, especially by someone who I assumed loved me as much as I loved him.

Sadly we were both too immature to realize what the relationship was built on: my admiration towards him. And he would constantly feed on it. This divide grew and seeped into our everyday lives, as he slowly became the superior one, and I, the inferior. He was changing; becoming increasingly dominant and possessive, and his hold over me only continued to grow from there.

For 2 years and a half, I was in a loop. And I didn’t even know it. During the majority of my college years, I didn’t even make friends. I would just go home and be on the phone with him for 5 hours. Whenever he’d call, I would have to pick up. Whenever he left messages, I would have to reply back. Otherwise, he would get fearfully jealous. But see, back then, I was blank slate and a naive young girl. So I naturally complied.

I recently saw Dave Chapelle’s The Bird Revelation special and he shared an anecdote that profoundly resonated with me in regards to the spiraling patterns and harmful dynamic of my relationship at that time: “Iceberg Slim [a pimp] is trying to control the woman that he finds uncontrollable. So he asks an older pimp how he can rein her in. And the older pimp says, “Oh, that’s easy, Iceberg. All you have to do is beat that bitch with a coat hanger. And then run her a bath. And give her some pills. She’ll be so grateful that you fixed her, that she’ll forget you were the motherfucker that beat her in the first place.” This still brings me to tears.

I started developing my own thoughts that didn’t coincide with his’. We’d have arguments about music at first, but then it filtered through other topics like politics, history, and even down to our core values. His refusal to meet me halfway and unwillingness to hear my side of the story left me feeling like I didn’t have much to add to any conversation. He had a talent at shifting words around, leaving me confused and thinking it was my fault. After every single fight, I apologized. After every single one of them. Meanwhile, he would never apologize. In his eyes, despite me being his girlfriend, I was still the inferior, naïve, and easily manipulated one.

Fortunately, I wasn’t entirely alone in this process. My roommate, some few close friends, and even my professors would ask me if I was ok, and then I would tell them my story. I started breaking down so much. One of my teachers gave me a book and said to use it to find empowerment. It was about how your weaknesses should be your strength. My roommate, and now best friend, really helped me as well, as she slowly started to point out the unhealthy behavior. I finally started realizing she was right. 

But what was I going to do? That relationship was all I’ve known for 2 and a half years. It was all I’ve known my entire college career. So if you took him out of me, I remained an empty thing. That was the scary part; I didn’t want to be a void. I didn’t realize how much of a grip he had on me and how much I let him be a part of my identity. I was so shocked. By now, it was altogether an unhealthy level of attachment. 

Mind you this was a long distance relationship, and even so, he had that much of a grip on me. It was impressively toxic. At that age, I didn’t know what it was like to have a character built, to have integrity. And his insecure self completely capitalized on that, validating himself by feeding off of the energy of someone he thought less than him. “All the things that I like are things he likes, all the ideas I have in my head are his.” I kept circling around these thoughts. It was mind-blowing. I was actually becoming him.

The peak was when I asked him, “Why is everything my fault?”. Of course, he twisted his words in such a way that I was back at apologizing again. It took me a whole month to build up the courage to break up with him. My eyes were so tired, I never cried this much all my life. I called my dad, and I could tell he was hurting to hear me like that. Despite him feeling powerless because of the distance and because didn’t know how to help, he pointed out that it was obvious what I had to do. And so I summoned the courage.

I broke off with my ex, and I blocked him off all social media for one week. I started sitting with myself for the first time, just with myself. I slowly realized that none of this was my fault. I got a trash bag, and I threw everything out, everything that reminded me of him. I died my hair, started dressing up a bit more, doing the exact opposite of what I would do. I’d even put makeup on. I would listen to myself and learn to slowly love who I was, without him in my life.

Afterward, my ex wanted to stay in touch and, truthfully, the first 3 months were hard to navigate as “friends.” But I got so much better at it. After 6 months, he asks, “You don’t have any more feelings for me?” It felt like an electric shock. Everything clicked again. The reason he wanted to stay in touch was so he could see if he had that hold on me still. And without any hesitation, I said no. Then he just blocked me on social media.

What do you learn from war? There is so much destruction. You look at the rubble, everything collapsing. You’re a new person, and you move forward. Not because the wounds have healed, but because it’s the only way to move: forward. Maybe the lesson is to have enough faith in yourself that you will figure it out along the way. And that it’s ok to be hurt again, not hold onto fear because you’ve been through worse. Finding yourself, building your own home, having a strong foundation. That was one of my biggest lessons. Looking back, it was a battle, and in that battle, I fought for myself, and then I fought to find myself. And I will continue to do so.

With love,