February 10, 2012

Even though I didn’t know Yeardley Love, I feel that we had a lot in common.

Our early lives were both marked by privilege. We both discovered and tested our strength in the burgeoning world of female athletics. We both went away to college — looking forward to bright futures as strong, able women — and were drawn to charismatic athletes from similar worlds of affluence and entitlement.

And one night we both found ourselves, if the prosecutors’ account in the trial unfolding in Charlottesville is accurate, with our lives in the hands of a man who had become a monster. The achingly heart-wrenching difference is that only one of us lived to tell about it.

I can only assume that, like me, Yeardley saw it coming. And I can only conjecture that she, too, didn’t know how to stop it. As young girls, we were told we could own the world. What we never learned was what to do if, after we’d done everything right, the ability to control our own future was slowly, surely and deliberately taken away.

My boyfriend and I had been dating for 21 / 2 years when I finally decided that I couldn’t take the constant belittling, jealousy, rage and intimidation that had come to define my reality. Everywhere I turned, he was there, menacing and controlling — constantly reminding me that I didn’t deserve my freedom or his so-called love.

On the outside, we were your typical college couple; he was charming and jovial, I was dutiful and contained. Only those closest to us saw flashes of the nightmare that had become my life. On the inside, I lived in a state of fear and exhaustion from his mental, physical and sexual abuse.

I broke up with him the first day of our senior year. He banged on the window and door of my dorm room, calling me a dirty whore. A month or two went by. I was out with a friend and came back to my room about midnight. I put my key in my door and felt him standing behind me. “Where have you been?” he asked. He followed me down the hallway, spewing his usual venom as I tried to put physical distance between us. Without thinking, I turned into the dark TV room, tucked away along a dim corridor. He followed me in and blocked the exit. The next thing I knew, his hand was around my neck as my body was thrown against the wall. He held me there as I struggled to breathe.

For a minute, as he tightened his grip around my throat, I felt the sheer helplessness that comes when someone else gets to decide whether you live or die. He let go, and I dropped to the floor. Unlike Yeardley, I walked away with nothing more than a bruise.

It was just after graduation when I saw my monster for the last time. I was helping my best friend pack up her car. I was giving her one last hug. He walked slowly past us, glaring into my eyes. “You’ll never forget me,” he seemed to be saying. He was right.

In the months that followed, the fear came over me in torrents. First there were the nightmares, in which I was screaming and he was laughing. Then the hallucinations. Even though we lived hundreds of miles apart, I would think I saw him on the bus, I would walk by what I thought was his car on the way to work, I would feel his hands around my neck, his body pressed hard against mine. I started taking drugs to keep myself from sleeping and feeling. Soon after that, I tried to kill myself. It was then that I was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. And my long uphill climb began.

Today, I am happy. I found a man who loves me gently and fully. We have a young son and daughter. We’ve built a life, a family together. It’s been 16 years since I last saw my monster. He has a career and a family of his own.

I go days without remembering him, and the fear stays in check. Then I hear about cases like Yeardley’s. And the fear comes rushing back, followed by the hopelessness, the numbness and the despair.

I lived. Beautiful Yeardley did not. She will never know the feeling of her child’s tiny fingers grasped in her own. She will never be able to look at her husband and wonder how she made it here, how she ever got so lucky. Her story reminds me that I, too, almost missed the rest of my life. And that, because I lived to tell about it, I must honor the memories of countless others like her by doing everything I can to ensure that every young girl becomes a woman who is strong, able and free. Just like Yeardley was meant to be.