I reminded myself daily that I did not need the approval of people who constantly treated me like shit.
Image: Kristin Curette Hines / Stocksy
"Why the fuck do you look like that?" my girlfriend at the time, Joelle*, yelled as I walked in. I gave her no response, rolled my eyes and trudged from the front door into her bedroom. As I continued to remain silent, I felt her eyes—unmistakably filled with rage—burning the back of my head. I knew what was coming next, but I did not have the energy or the sobriety to even contest. She picked up an empty tequila bottle and started swinging it toward my torso.
"Hello?" she yelled again as she took another full body swing at me and it smacked me in the ribs. "You did not cut your hair like I asked you to. I know for a fact you haven't been to the gym. By the way, do you have my stuff?" I reached into my pocket and placed an eight ball of cocaine in her hand and slumped to the floor and listened to her murmur to herself as she went to her living room.
Bullying and abusive relationships were not anything new in my life. As a black adolescent transfer student at a southern school that was overwhelmingly white, I was often someone's verbal punching bag. The amount of bullying, racism and lack of acceptance my family has endured while living there was enough to tarnish anyone's mental health and self-image.
My skinny build, lack of height, slight stutter, and social awkwardness became the focal point of all my classmates' jokes growing up. Despite the stigma that body image is more of a women's issue, a 2015 study shows that men and women tend to be almost equally dissatisfied with their bodies.
The impact of child bullying may have lasting effects, even after the bullying has long stopped and the subject has entered adulthood. Adults who were victims of frequent bullying throughout childhood have an increased prevalence of poor psychiatric outcomes as adults, including mental illness, disorders and suicide.
Watching children bully each other has always been another trigger for me. I did home counseling for mentally ill and traumatized youth for five years, who were—as you can imagine—giant bulls' eyes for bullies. And now, not only do these children now have to worry about bullies they personally know in school or in their neighborhood, but strangers on social media as well. The presence of constant access to technology has drawn bullying to the forefront as a public health matter.
So how did I get to that place with Joelle? My body image issues as a youth spilled into my romantic life. I had a thing for women who had their own personal battles with self-image and acceptance. We were somehow always able to connect through our wounds, but at the same time we were prone to taking advantage of each other—which was even more harmful.
The psychology of volatile relationships and why people stay in them is unfathomably complex. Research has shown that people can be addicted to their partners in a similar way to being addicted to drugs. Once we experience those dopamine highs of attachment and affection (whether it is personal or even seeing it on television), we are conditioned to find our way back to it at any cost.
I knew Joelle had a problem. Hell, I knew I had a problem. From stalking and verbal abuse to overdoses and suicide attempts, self-harm and abuse was a pattern in the women I was dating. I can't speak for everyone in my situation, but at 19, my attraction to these women was a sign that I felt like I deserved to be put down and criticized. I had become somewhat comfortable in the role of "the bullied." I even yearned for it some days.
I was also along for the ride because I did not want to lose this idea of what I thought love was.
"When your lack of self-love and acceptance is not there, you will let anyone do anything to you because you feel you are not worthy," says relationship expert and sexologist Michelle Hope. "A lot of times we are trying to fill in empty holes of ourselves with other people or tend to connect a relationship with completeness. People need to fill those holes with self-love and be able to explore what those underlying issues are."
Yes, self-love, rainbows and butterflies all sound nice. But breaking a cycle is difficult. Joelle, our drug issues, and my bruised ribs were all it took to finally shift something in me.
So I quit cold turkey. Everything. The drugs, the alcohol, the woman; I stopped going to class altogether for two weeks and smashed my phone with a hammer so I would not have the opportunity to reach anyone. I did not want anyone close to me know I was going through this. This, of course, is a difficult thing to do without a health professional helping you out.
My girlfriend sent me dozens of emails and I never read a single one. She came to my apartment obsessively and even tried to break in. I remained isolated from her (and everyone else). It only took about a month before I heard that she was dating someone new.
I got back to doing things that genuinely made me happy. I was like a post-presidency Obama, carefree and glowy. Writing and going to the gym made me feel confident in particular. I wanted to learn how to cook, so I started dabbling in pasta. I read voraciously.
Going to therapy was a huge tool. I just wanted to be able to look myself in the mirror and be happy with the person I was looking at. I changed phone numbers, deleted my Facebook account, and grew a full beard. I needed a fresh start and a new mindset. I reminded myself daily that I did not need the approval of people who constantly treated me like shit.
The biggest issue for me after making changes was sustaining them. How do I go about improving the quality of my romantic relationships after I was used to being subject to constant criticism for so long?
"Here is something that men never do: Make a list," Hope says. "Literally write down everything that you want in a relationship. Set your boundaries and be firm on those boundaries. Communicate from the very beginning what you are not going to tolerate and what are deal breakers for you. Sometimes in the beginning of relationships, we tend to let things slide due to infatuation, but you have to recognize what abuse is. No amount of love or sex is worth bullying and intimate partner violence."
Even though now—at age 27—I look and act nothing like that timid, scrawny high school freshman, that little combination of self-doubt and anxiety still appears from time to time. But, my subconscious attraction to women who bully has seemed to fade as I intervened on my negative habits. Educating myself about how to avoid stressors is one of my daily goals. And equally as weighty, I stay weary of people whose additional stressors I used to welcome.
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