I grew up with my mom and stepfather, two grown children who threw drunken temper tantrums and abused their kids.
During an attack on my body or mind when I was younger, I would slip away to a happy place inside my head, where I felt no fear or pain.
I now know this is “dissociation.”
Even when I wasn’t dissociating, I became quiet and aloof, partly as a defense. I moved around and switched schools many times from the 7th grade on. I made a few friends in my schools, but I never told them what was going on at home.
It wasn’t their business; I didn’t even want it to be my business. I didn’t trust them because I didn’t really know them.
I didn’t even know myself. I didn’t know what I liked and disliked because it wasn’t relevant to my life as a seemingly disposable member of my family.
Besides abusing me, my mom and stepfather also made me take care of my younger siblings. I had lived for others for so long that I didn’t feel like my own person.
I didn’t know if I was sociable or reserved. I wasn’t ready for the dramatic self-creation phase teens generally go through. They’re usually making something new out of what they already are, whereas I hadn’t gained the fundamental sense of self that most children form when they’re toddlers.
Since I wasn’t sure how to act, I did a lot of observing. I kept—and still keep—emotional distance so as not to build an attachment that could lead to disappointment.
I’m still figuring out who I am and how to connect with other people.
When I was 14, my siblings and I went into care with my Aunt Fafan. It was the first time I had my own room, time to myself, and no responsibilities beyond those of a normal teenager. It was the first time I wasn’t regularly screamed at, insulted, and hit at home.
But I was already in the habit of retreating inwards, and now I had more time to create my own vibrant inner worlds. In the luxury of my own room, I would sketch, read, or write stories, listening to the Korean pop (K-pop) music I had fallen in love with.
I became an artist, in other words. Which is great, but it’s not enough. I love inhabiting the worlds of my and other people’s art, but a full life includes deep connections to people you build love, trust, and loyalty with. People feed your soul.
Unfortunately, I know this more from books than life: I have little experience with sustained, trusting relationships of mutual respect. I created alternate realities to fill the void of loneliness, and when I tried to share my thoughts with others, they called me weird or gave me strange looks.
Now that I was safe at Aunt Fafan’s, I tried to figure out how healthy relationships worked. But I had so much to overcome.
I’d told myself, “No one cares what you’re going through; they have their own problems. Why share anything about yourself? Why make the effort to have friends?”
Not only was it scary, but it was extremely taxing for me to interact with other people.
Stephen to the Rescue?
I wanted to feel and receive and give love, but no one had ever taught me how. My mom had kissed and hugged and cared for me, but she swung from loving to abusive so quickly, I always waited for the sweetness to turn mean.
At school, some of my peers seemed to have healthy and happy relationships with their friends or lovers. I longed for that, but all I knew was being overwhelmed by my parents or withdrawing from other people. I’d never known a close relationship with reasonable boundaries.
As I moved through middle and high school, I had a few friends, but none lasted much more than a year. I dated a few people, but always with a safe physical distance—a state or a borough—between us.
That enabled me to leave when I wanted to, and I didn’t put much effort into keeping those relationships going. When I experienced something I didn’t like, I left and that would be the end of that.
When I was 20, I was failing my college classes. I thought it might be due to depression, and I wanted to change my life.
I went onto an online dating app, and a guy named Stephen seemed interesting and very interested in me. I knew it was weird that he immediately told me that he loved me and we should be exclusive, but his aggressiveness seemed like it might overcome my aloofness.
Rather than pulling back like I usually did, I gave Stephen too much control over me, even though he seemed to want to change me.
He’d ask, “Are you gonna stop being so friendly?” about my manner toward people I worked with. Or, “You can’t have male friends.”
He told me I was beautiful, but he micromanaged my looks:
“You should grow your hair out.”
“Stop dressing like a boy.”
“Gain some weight.”
“Keep your hair natural; don’t straighten it.”
“I don’t like that wig; don’t wear it.”
“Get my name tatted on you.”
He really harped on this last one; he wanted his name on my body.
Yielding My Power
I finally wanted to let someone in, so I recklessly dropped my protective barriers and let Stephen take control. Being closed off hadn’t been working for me, but this time I opened up too much because I’d never learned what good boundaries were.
When I was younger, my mother emotionally abused me. She had control of everything in my life and shut me down when I disagreed with her. I resisted and kept trying to do things for myself—like doing my homework instead of parenting my siblings for her.
But when I was 14, she hit me in the face and something inside me broke. I cried for hours and then gave up trying to fight her. I gave in to misery. I yielded my power. I said, “I guess this is my life.”
It was a few months later that I went into care. I started to gain some autonomy and take my power back.
Yielding My Power, Again
With Stephen, six years later, I yielded again. At 20, I surrendered my life and my body to him and did what he wanted.
I had been in the habit of writing my inspirations, thoughts, and epiphanies down in a journal. I told Stephen how my journal was a physical representation of my mind. He began to read it without my permission.
I asked him not to. He said I should be able to tell him anything I wrote. So I stopped writing in my journal.
But because journaling was one of my best ways to understand my thoughts, I feel like not writing there led to the reckless decisions I made next regarding Stephen.
There was a boy in my dorm who I had developed a big crush on before I met Stephen. One day, Stephen and I were walking up the steep hill to the dorm, carrying groceries, and I saw the boy.
A huge smile spread across my face and I couldn’t force it down. Stephen noticed, and started questioning me. I told him the truth: I’d had a crush on the guy, but nothing was going on between us.
He would not let it go. For weeks, he’d ask, “So you like that dude?” out of the blue. Once, he got angry enough about it to punch the radio in his father’s car. I understood that he was insecure; he would get on his knees and beg me to tell him I loved him.
To stop him going on and on about the boy, I offered to get the tattoo Stephen had always wanted me to get. His name, somewhere visible. He was excited and took a lot of pictures and video of me showing the tattoo.
Sharing My Body
When we first had sex, I asked him to wear condoms.
“They make me feel uncomfortable,” he would say. He always put up an argument when I asked him to wear one, and after a while I just stopped asking.
I suggested that I get on the birth control pill. He said it would affect my reproductive organs in the long run, and back then I thought that was true.
He also promised he’d pull out in time so I didn’t get pregnant. I went along with that. I wanted to trust him. I wanted to believe that he would respect me and my decisions about my body.
Sure enough, I got pregnant, and then moved in with him to his parents’ house. I tried to tell myself this would all work out, and I worked to make everything OK for my child.
The house was not healthy. Stephen’s father was drunk and violent and abused Stephen’s mother. When I went into care, I thought I was through witnessing domestic violence, and it was horrible to be around it again, this time while carrying a child.
Furthermore, he hid my pregnancy from his parents, so I felt isolated and trapped in that house. I was also very sick when I was pregnant. My body was so weak that I couldn’t hold a job and had to depend entirely on Stephen.
I tried to break up with him a few times. I told him that I wanted an abortion and to separate from him. He threatened suicide and cut himself when I tried to leave. He always talked me out of it.
Grief and Relief
Then I gave up. Just as I’d said after my mother hit me in the face, I said about my situation with Stephen, “I guess this is my life.”
I was stuck. I tried to talk myself into making it work with Stephen for our child’s sake. I had a feeling the baby was a girl and I began to love her.
On Stephen’s birthday, four months into the pregnancy, we had an appointment for a sonogram. We found out that, as I’d suspected, we were expecting a girl.
We also found out that I had a high-risk pregnancy and I was admitted right then into the hospital and monitored. A few days later, I had a miscarriage.
The person who was literally closest to me was gone. I felt alone in my body without her.
After the miscarriage, I first felt a terrible grief. But then I felt relief to be free of Stephen. The baby was all that connected us, and now I could leave. I officially moved out of his parents’ house and back into the apartment I shared with my roommate.
I looked back to figure out why I’d let him impose his will on me. I thought I loved Stephen despite all the red flags, because he felt like the closest thing to “love” I ever had experienced up
to that point.
His manipulations felt intimate. His wanting me to move in, to bear his children, to marry him, to run away with him and forget all of our problems, seemed romantic to me.
Immersed in His Reality
Because of the way my mother loved and used me, maybe I associate love with control and abuse.
With Stephen I discovered a capacity to completely immerse myself in someone else’s reality. In the future, I need to be careful not to lose myself in the illusion that love equals complete acceptance of whatever my partner does and wants.
I let Stephen override my opinions and values because he was more aggressive and he just wore me down.
Successful relationships require compromise, but how I allow others to treat me is up to me. Once I can learn to be true to myself, I can teach others how to treat me as well. Then I won’t get lost in someone else’s ideas, perceptions, and plans for me.
Once I can maintain my own fundamental selfhood, I can have a healthy, mutual relationship. I have to figure out how to include myself in the picture and not just give everything to my significant other.
I covered up the tattoo with a beautiful picture of a feather, symbol of rebirth. You can’t even tell his name was there.