This story contains descriptions of physical and emotional abuse. If you or someone you know is a victim of domestic abuse and wants support or information about how to find help, call call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 800-799-7233 or visit thehotline.org.
“Evan* messaged me,” my daughter said last week.
My head snapped up, every nerve ending suddenly on alert. “What?”
She nodded, her expression guarded and resigned. “Yup. I blocked him a long time ago but he figured out how to get around it. He said the order of protection runs out next month and wants to know if he could come see me.” She paused. “I told him if he showed up here you’d probably go all mama bear on him and kill him.”
“Yup,” I said.
Okay, I probably wouldn’t kill him. Truth is, most people who know me would describe me as kind and nice — and generally, I am. Plus, I’m 5'2" and I haven’t hit anyone since punching my tormenting older brother in the arm when we were kids. So no, I wouldn’t kill Evan if he showed up. Probably not. Then again, he hurt my daughter, my baby.
Before the abuse
Evan appeared in Chloe’s life when she was 19, at a precarious time in her life: She’d flamed out in the beginning of her second year at college, due to a hot-mess combo of grief over her dad’s death five years before, mental health issues and a burgeoning drug problem. Now she was back at home, working part time but mainly rudderless, clashing with her sister and me. I felt stunned by the chaos; I was working full-time at a challenging new job and out of the house from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m., as well as wrestling with a boyfriend who was colossally unhelpful with all that was going on.
Chloe met Evan at a local carnival — he was an honest-to-god carny, running one of the rides. He was five years older, stocky and glowering, and intense and silent around me. She started spending much of her time at his mom’s house, where he lived; he’d drive up in his noisy pickup truck and she’d run out and jump in. I suspected that drugs were part of the allure, but there was something else that drew her to him, something I still don’t fully understand — to me, it looked like darkness and risk. I felt powerless and overwhelmed, unable to get her to talk about their relationship and what she was doing when she was away from home. There were many arguments between us, when she screamed and screamed at me until she was hoarse.
Down the tunnel of abuse
She later told me that Evan was an adept manipulator, playing on her insecurities, running hot and cold, depending on whether he wanted to reel her in or push her away. I knew he was isolating her — from me, from her friends — but didn’t realize until much later how hard he was working to undermine me. She knew her mental health was spiraling and at some point she agreed to go to a facility a couple of states away; after a few days, he drove up there in his pickup and sprung her, and I didn’t see her for almost a week ... a harrowing week when I thought I’d lost her.
She says she won’t tell me the worst things, and I try not to let my mind go to the darkest places. Part of me doesn’t want to know; it’s in the past and knowing the worst, even now, would haunt me in the deepest part of the night. But here’s what I do know: One afternoon, six months into their relationship, he grabbed her arm and twisted it behind her back, damaging the ligaments in her shoulder. And that seemed to be the thing that brought her to the light, and back to me.
We made an emergency appointment with a shoulder specialist at a high-falutin’ orthopedic office. Sitting in the exam room while we waited for the doctor, Chloe was jittery and fragile and shell-shocked. The doctor barged in, arrogant and impatient, and asked her how she hurt her shoulder. She froze in his headlights, said she didn’t want to say, and he snapped,“How am I supposed to treat you if you won’t talk?”
“Assault,” she said quietly.
“I’m not in the mood for this — why don’t you come back when you’re feeling more cooperative,” he barked, so loud and angry-sounding that the nurse popped in. (Note to doctors out there — how about some sensitivity to the possibility of partner abuse?)
We went next to the small, local police station in our town, on her insistence. I was stunned by her bravery. An officer took down a detailed incident report and told us it would go immediately to the district attorney for an order of protection. He would be arrested, the officer told us, and charged with assault. Chloe nodded. And then we went home and sat quietly near each other on the couch, watching mindless TV.
Starting to move on
A lawyer in the DA’s office kept Chloe posted on the case, which progressed slowly: Evan was arrested and an order of protection was issued. He said he was going to fight it, the lawyer told Chloe, so she should keep track of every time Evan violated the protection order— which he did repeatedly, through any social media account she had. It didn’t matter how many new accounts in different names she started; he always seemed to find her. His attorney (or maybe his mother) finally convinced him to stop. Eventually, almost two years after that final assault, he pled guilty to a lesser charge. I’m not sure what the punishment was, but it wasn’t jail time.
In the meantime, Chloe started processing the abuse through therapy, pouring it into scary and beautiful and heartbreaking poetry. She did the hard work of getting sober, reapplied to college, started scoring straight As and now is heading toward her senior year, older and less green than her classmates. I think she’s heroic. She’s still in treatment for her shoulder injury, and I’m grateful for her kind and compassionate new doctor.
But that was not Chloe's only injury; many of them were invisible. It was a long time before she really felt free of Evan. I think she does now, at least most of the time.
A mom's thoughts
Here are the questions that do sometimes keep me up at night: What more could I have done? What warning signs of abuse did I miss, as her mother? How did I fail in arming her against abuse? What lessons could I have taught her as she grew up? Is there anything that could have pierced through my own sense of helplessness/hopelessness as I watched her slip more and more out of reach?
So much of being a parent is forgiving yourself for things that seem unfathomably unforgivable. I know, of course, that parents can’t protect their children from all the evils out there — but I also know that another part of being a parent is believing you should be able to.
Over the years, from time to time I’ve thought about what I would do if Evan really did show up at our door. I’ll yell and slam the door, I thought; or I’ll face him down and stand tall and hiss, "Get away from my house"; or I’ll calmly stare at him while I call 911; or, or, or...
I felt helpless to protect her before. So what would I do if he showed up at the door? I hope I never find out.
*All names and identifying details have been changed.
Advice for Parents of Teens
The numbers are chilling: Approximately 1 in 12 high school students in the U.S. have experienced physical dating violence, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. And as many as 76% have experienced emotional and psychological abuse during relationships, says research cited by youth.gov. That's enough to make any parent's blood run cold. So what signs should parents look out for in their own teenagers' relationships? Here are some red flags, from TeenDatingViolence:
Invading your teen's privacy
Excessive insecurity or jealousy
Explosive and unexpected bouts of anger
Blaming your teen for problems in the relationship
Controlling behavior, such as monitoring your teen's actions or phone activity
Trying to isolate your teen (from other friends or from family)
Falsely accusing them of perceived slights or behavior
Vandalizing personal property
Taunting, bullying or threats of violence
The bottom line: It's important to teach kids to trust their gut. If something or someone is making them uncomfortable, they should talk to an adult that they trust — and that might be someone other than you: a teacher, counselor, aunt, etc. If you suspect your teen is in an abusive relationship, reach out for professional help and visit the National Network to End Domestic Violence (NNEDV) website at womenslaw.org for more information.
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