Editors note: the names in this article have been changed for privacy.
My high school boyfriend had a temper.
It was approaching sunset one day early in September 2016 when we started bickering at a park where we hung out. I don’t remember what started this particular fight—we fought frequently and often over meaningless interactions or fabricated discrepancies Tyler had woven in his mind—but something led him to punch my arm.
“I’m done with this,” I said, really annoyed. “I’ll take you home. Now come on, let’s go.”
As I turned and headed for my car, Tyler knew he’d crossed a line with me. We got inside, and his meltdown began.
“You’re going to leave me now,” he began. “Now that I hit you, you’re going to leave?”
“Yeah, well what else am I supposed to do? You just hit me,” I said, not trying to hide my irritation.
I quickly started my car, knowing that his house was only a 10-minute drive from the park. I just had to get Tyler home, then I could get away and be OK. We argued for a while as I drove and tried to hold my ground. Then he pulled out a gun.
He told me to drive to a park on Bilby Road, a backcountry road near his house that was more farmland than development. He grew more erratic; he said he was going to kill a cow.
Now that a gun was involved, I knew I couldn’t be honest about how I was feeling. I had to stay calm and try to diffuse the situation. I was no longer in control; I knew better than to say “no.” In tears, I drove slowly where Tyler wanted me to go, begging him to stop, to put away the gun. We arrived at the park.
“Come on, let’s go,” he said, jumping out the car and leading us across the street.
Still crying, I followed him into the dark field across from the park, hopping over a fence leading to a pasture where cows usually grazed.
“Please, don’t do this. Let’s just go home,” I pleaded. “You can’t kill a cow, Tyler.”
But he slowly moved deeper into the darkened field. I trailed slowly behind in a daze, praying that I would be OK.
Then like a response from the universe, a blaring light came from deep in the field—a tractor or car belonging to the landowners. It was enough to scare Tyler. He turned and sprinted back toward the road, and I followed as quickly as I could.
Back at the road, he began to walk back toward the park.
“Tyler, come on. Please stop,” I begged. “Let me just take you home.”
But he was mid-meltdown and manic as ever. I’d seen him like this before, but now he’d hit me, threatened me, and his plans to shoot a cow had fallen through. He knew he had to do something to keep me reeled in.
He walked toward the play structure, and I followed. He climbed to the second level and stood on the bridge connecting two other parts of the structure. I should’ve walked away, but I stayed, as he knew I would. Now he was crying. Though he had put me through a night of turmoil, here he was, blubbering about how he messed up, making himself the victim. I stayed, trying to calm him down, reassure him, nurture him.
Then he pulled out the gun again.
“I should just kill myself,” he said in tears, looking at the gun in his hand. “You’re not going to be with me anymore since I hit you. I ruined everything.”
Standing several feet away, I watched him raise the gun to his right temple. He pulled the trigger.
I looked away as the gun went off. When I turned back to him, Tyler was somehow still standing, which seemed to shock him, too. We both stood for a second as if in awe that we were both still alive. He looked down at the gun in a daze, feeling the side of his head.
Shaking, I rushed over to him. I saw a hole above his right ear, blood dripping lightly.
“Oh, my God, are you OK?” I said while examining him. “I can’t believe you just did that.”
Tyler was scarily calm, making jokes about how amused he was to survive. All I could think of was how to take care of him.
I told him to give me the remaining shells from the gun, that we’d drive somewhere, so I could clean him up. While we were walking to my car, he tossed the gun into a bush behind the park bathroom.
“I’ll come back for it,” he said.
We drove to a fast food restaurant down the street. We stood before the mirror in the women’s bathroom as I cleaned him up. He stared at himself.
“You can’t be doing shit like this. You could’ve killed yourself, Tyler,” I said, using a wet paper towel to wipe the fresh blood from his face. “I think you should go to the hospital. I don’t know what just happened, but you shot yourself in the head.”
“I’m fine,” said Tyler. “I’ll just have my mom wrap my head once I get home.” She was a nurse, but he seemed completely nonchalant about what had just happened.
“My family is going to San Francisco tomorrow. Will you come?” he asked, looking directly at me. “I don’t want to go by myself. I hate just going with my family. I really need you there.”
At that moment the last thing I wanted to do was spend the next day with Tyler, but I looked at this young man I loved. He was hurt, and I felt obligated to him.
“Yeah, sure, I can go,” I said with a weak smile.
He grinned, hugging me too tightly, as if he’d somehow forgotten the circumstances that had led us there.
I was terrified. I was terrified because I’d never been in an altercation with a gun. I was terrified because it was the first time I had ever feared for my life. I was terrified because my boyfriend had shot himself in the head in front of me—supposedly over me—and had survived. I was terrified thinking that someone I loved was a danger to himself.
But most of all I was terrified as I imagined how traumatized I’d be if he’d killed himself in front of me.
In the two years that I spent with Tyler, he broke two of my phones, but worse, he broke me down as a human being.
I was 15 when I met him. He was infamous in our town—partly because he’d served time in juvenile hall after robbing a local sushi restaurant with a fake gun, among other acts of teenage rebellion. Though I’d heard rumors and stories about him, I’d always been one to read the book instead of judging it by the cover. I had prided myself in that, in opening myself up to people who were usually shunned by others.
We met innocently, on an October night in 2015 in the parking lot after a school dance. He seemed mysterious, and I was intrigued. I didn’t know that in the year that followed I would slowly submerge myself in an abusive relationship. As a teenager who’d only had one prior relationship, I was highly susceptible to abuse. I had grown up without a strong father figure in my life, and by age 12 I had no male examples for guidance, so my expectations for men were practically nonexistent. Though Tyler’s reputation and my mom’s disapproval of him should’ve alarmed me, I was willing to accept any attention I could get.
Besides, I figured, I was used to fixing broken people. I saw myself as broken, too.
By April 2016 we were officially dating. We’d spend all our free time together, getting to know each other better and opening up. He began to talk about his past trauma, including some dark things he had done when he was younger, like hurting animals. He expressed remorse for those acts.
“Do you think I’m a bad person?” he once asked, eyes piercing mine.
I kept my face calm. “No, I don’t,” though I sort of did. “I think you’re just hurt, and you hurt others.”
I was touched by his openness and trust in me to disclose such personal information. He gradually shared some of his past mistakes—acts of violence and outbursts he’d had—watching to see how I would react. Once Tyler knew my limited boundaries, he knew what to work with. If x, y and z didn’t scare me off, he knew that in the future, he could act similarly. I thought his vulnerability was a sign of his trust in me, but, I later learned, it was a way to size me up and see where I might object. He was smart enough to realize the power he could have by disclosing to me edited versions of the truth.
For example, I had heard he’d gotten physically abusive with his previous girlfriend. He knew not to lie about it, but instead he’d say he felt really bad about it, downplay it, maybe even insinuate that she had started the fight. More than anything, though, Tyler would emphasize that he felt really bad about what he had done.
I fell for it. I trusted the good in him and didn’t judge him based on the past. Once he knew he had me there, he could do anything.
I remember one night he asked about my biggest insecurities, and I took the bait. I opened up to him, and he responded, flooding me with reassurance and love. The next time we fought, his insults were so personal it felt as if they’d been derived by my own inner critic. They echoed all my insecurities. Hearing them out loud and from an outside source validated those insecurities for me, and I began to believe them as facts and further internalize my self hate.
“Who else is going to want to kiss your pizza face?” Tyler had said during one fight. He knew I was most self conscious about my skin, so he made me feel undesirable, like someone with no other options, someone who should feel lucky that he wanted to date me. He would highlight all the reasons I hated myself, and it was the confirmation I needed to believe I had no value.
From there, the abuse continued to evolve. Over time it went from being solely mental and emotional abuse to more aggressive physical abuse. He was incredibly controlling, accusatory and aggressive with me. He would constantly accuse me of cheating—though, I later learned, he had been cheating on me—and he would go through my phone whenever he pleased. One time he accused me of taking nude photos on my phone while I was changing in private for a friend’s party. He responded by throwing a fit and later throwing my phone out the window, breaking it. At another party he made me wear an oversized shirt because he didn’t like the tank top I was wearing. He’d try to control who I talked to, and if I didn’t listen, he’d blow up on me. He would constantly disrespect and belittle me. It was easier to listen to him and be agreeable than not to.
Though I knew our relationship was unhealthy, it wasn’t until October 2016, a year after we met, that I realized the true gravity of the relationship. We had been at a friend’s house hanging out. Tyler and I had been seeing each other on and off for a while, and I decided to post a picture of a cat cuddling a mouse on Instagram, and tag him as the cat and me as the mouse. It was meant to be a silly way of claiming him, but when he saw it, he was enraged. Once he saw the photo, he snatched my phone out of my hand and refused to give it back.
“Take me home right now,” he fumed. “I’m done.”
I got my keys, trying to be as agreeable as possible. He was mad, raising his voice in front of my friend, and I was embarrassed. I thought if I could be alone with Tyler, I could talk him down, get my phone and diffuse the bomb about to go off.
“OK, I’m taking you home,” I said while driving back to his house. “Can I have my phone please?”
He stayed silent as I drove.
“I’ll delete the post, Tyler. Please just give me back my phone,” I begged. “I didn’t even mean anything by it. I wasn’t trying to offend you. Like, please, don’t do this.”
“It’s mine now,” he said coldly. “Take me home. Drive faster.”
I pulled into his neighborhood and parked down the street from his home near a park. He instantly got out of the car and started walking toward the park with my phone. I quickly turned off my car and followed.
“Please give me back my phone,” I pleaded. “You literally just broke my last phone a few months ago. I can’t get another phone. Please.”
“No, I told you,” he said. “It’s mine now. I’m keeping it.”
I heard my pleas grow more hysterical. I knew he would really break my phone because he’d done it before. I had told my mom I had broken it, and she had scolded me for months afterward. I didn’t know what lie I would say to cover this one.
I felt my anger grow as I begged. I felt hopeless—I had swallowed all his truths, been as agreeable as I could, apologized for things I hadn’t done, and I was still being punished.
“Give me my phone,” I tried to demand. “Give me my fucking phone!”
Being nice was getting me nowhere. I knew he had all the power. My only hope was to physically get my phone from Tyler before he could leave with it.
“Just give me my phone, please,” I cried, tears streaming down my face.
Tyler laughed a little, amused. “Why are you this upset right now? Over a phone?” he teased, like a cat playing with a mouse. He responded as if my feelings were invalid, trying to gaslight me, pretending he didn’t understand why I was upset.
I started grabbing at him, trying to get my phone back, when he raised his hand and threw my phone on the concrete, stepping on it. I felt months of repressed rage boil over in me. This man had put me through hell over the smallest things—facial expressions, interactions completely imagined—for a year. Now he’d broken my second phone, costing me hundreds of dollars, over a photo of a cat and mouse. I lunged at him; I wanted to hurt him the same way he’d hurt me.
Tyler easily overpowered me, grabbing me by my hair and throwing me to the concrete by my hair, scraping my forehead. I ended up in a rose bush, and he straddled me, put his hands around my neck and began to squeeze.
It was the scariest moment of my life. I had never felt more powerless—pinned down, struggling under the weight of a man, trying to breathe. I thought, I’m going to die here. I’m going to be one of those girls people hear about who got murdered by her crazy boyfriend. I imagined the news segment, pictures of my face flashing across the screen. I thought about how my mom had told me he was bad news, about all my friends who’d been trying to talk me out of seeing him.
And then he stopped. I had no idea why. I didn’t open my eyes until I felt his weight leave me and heard his footsteps get softer and softer. I laid in the rose bush for a minute, not overwhelmed by the pain, but in defeat. I felt so tired, and I knew moving wouldn’t make me feel any better. Instead I did what felt right, and just cried. Though my forehead was bleeding, and a welt was beginning to swell at the back of my head, it wasn’t until I slowly sat up and felt the thorns of the rosebush clinging to me that I began to feel anything. As I began to detach myself from the thorns, I screamed like a wounded animal. In the darkness, not too far away, he began to reproach me, to quiet me, I guessed. I forced myself to stand quickly and ran to my car, slamming and locking the doors before starting it up.
“Fuck you, you crazy asshole,” I screamed from my car and drove away, leaving him there.
I drove back to my friend’s house where we had started, banging on the door in panic. She answered and called my mom, who quickly arrived. I was scared about what she’d say—I felt ashamed and embarrassed to have gotten myself in this situation—but my mother came into the room and just held me as I cried.
“I’m so sorry that happened to you,” she said softly while hugging me. “I’m so glad you’re OK.”
Once I had calmed down, she was all business, trying to figure out how to deal with the situation at hand. We called the police; they were useless. They told us that if I filed a report, I would be charged as well.
My mother insisted that we go straight over to Tyler’s house. With the blood still on my face, we rang the doorbell and waited for someone to appear. Tyler’s dad opened the door, and I knew it was hopeless. He was a former Marine, a cold man by nature and hands off in his own family. Tyler had told me his dad had beat his mother, though I couldn’t be sure of anything he said.
“Yeah, hi. I’m Kelsey’s mother,” she said in a defensive tone I’d heard many times before. “Your son did this to my daughter. He smashed her phone and just assaulted her.”
Tyler’s dad expressed as little remorse as his son, saying he didn’t know how to control Tyler and had no idea how they went wrong with him. He didn’t seem too shocked to see me there in my condition. He insinuated the attack was my fault for hanging out with Tyler. His dad promised to pay me back in full for my phone; no one ever did.
It was my senior year in high school, the month before college applications were due. I was afraid that having a police record would affect that process. There had been previous times where fights with Tyler had escalated, and he’d looked me in the eyes, scratch his forearm on purpose, and say if I told anyone, he’d say it was self defense. I felt helpless and more hurt than ever. I ended up getting so depressed after the incident that I didn’t bother trying to apply to colleges.
I wish I could say that incident ended my relationship with Tyler. I wish I could say that him strangling me was the last straw, that I realized my worth and never looked back. But I didn’t.
A month later my childhood dog died, and I posted that on Instagram. Tyler saw an opportunity. He asked if I was OK, apologized and told me how bad he felt. I started seeing him again secretly. I was a marionette, and he controlled my strings.
Tyler and I continued to talk on and off until I started school at City College. It wasn’t until August 2017, when I met Adam, that I completely cut ties with Tyler. Adam appeared out of nowhere, inviting me to Denny’s where we had milkshakes and made fun of people. For once I felt lightness and ease in a relationship—it was such a different dynamic compared to the darkness that seemed to always surround Tyler.
After a week of spending time with Adam, I knew that I deserved more in a romantic relationship, and I stopped talking to Tyler. But it wasn’t until months after I’d completely severed communication with Tyler that I was able to stop making excuses for his behavior, to stop seeing him as a victim, and call his behavior what it really was—abuse.
Adam and I had our struggles, too, but he helped me understand what a healthier relationship was. He was supporting, caring and kind. Though there were issues and we’d fight, he was never malicious. He never tried to control or hurt me. He built me up instead of breaking me down. He helped me truly see myself and lead me to a path of self-healing and self-love. We dated for almost two years before going our separate ways, and I will be forever grateful for Adam for helping me get out of that dark place, helping me discover my self-worth. He showed me real love, and because of that I’m a better person.
To others, it may seem obvious that all this was abuse, but I was blinded—by teenage love, infatuation or just an idea of what a romantic relationship should be. For a long time I blamed myself for being abused. The signs were all there. I had plenty of time to get out. I had allowed myself to be treated like that. I felt like it was my fault, that I had done it to myself.
Nearly four years after Tyler, I know better. I know that I can’t blame myself for not acting the way I would now. My traumatic experience wasn’t my fault, but I learned that it is my responsibility to heal from that trauma. I’ve learned to be introspective and to see how the hurt from my past manifests in my present life—then learn from it, heal and grow.
In my self-reflection, I’ve found that my trauma goes deeper than with Tyler. My relationship with my dad—he barely spent time with me as a child, and by the time I was 12, I cut communication with him—has set my standards for male/female relationships. By not having a male role model in my youth, I had no example of a healthy relationship. I was willing to accept any male attention because it was more than I was used to. I realized how desperately I craved male validation.
I’ve learned emotionally that people tend to project subconsciously from their childhood trauma. So being able to acknowledge my trauma and identify how it manifests in my present life—shame free—has given me power. Learning to understand my issues better and how to be a healthier person, to have boundaries, to put myself first have been the most liberating parts of the journey. To realize that I am not broken or damaged because of my experiences. To be able to say, “I have issues. I have been through things, but I am whole.”
Once my perspective changed, the same trauma that burdened me helped me grow wings and fly free.
I’m a student journalist studying at CSULB. Currently I work as the opinions editor for the Daily Forty-Niner. Poetry and creative writing on the side.