William* was everything that a 20-year-old girl could have asked for in her first serious boyfriend. From the minute that we first met, sipping martinis (despite being very much underage) at a Capitol Hill reception while we were both interns in the House, I could tell that there was something different about this one. Tall, dark-haired, athletic but with a serious countenance, he charmed me with his professed love of politics and French — and more than slightly embarrassed me the next day by calling the Congressional office where I was working to ask me to lunch. By the end of the summer, besides having fallen in love with the much-maligned United States Congress, I had fallen head over heels for William.
Ours was a courtship that had moved quickly. Three weeks after we met, we shared our first kiss in front of the White House. About two weeks after that, I found myself coming home with him to meet his father and stepmother, and we were officially boyfriend and girlfriend. Not two weeks later, he told me, as we were standing on the Speaker’s Balcony, that he loved me, and I breathlessly professed the same (though in reality it took me a bit longer).
Once the summer ended, I had to return to Boston for my junior year of college, and he had to go back to his own school in a different state. Sobbing openly and dramatically as I slowly trudged through security at National Airport after he dropped me off for my trip home, I didn’t care what the other travelers thought of me. I felt that I had become involved in something extraordinary.
During our junior year, the distance failed to stand in the way of our relationship. He met my parents and sisters and, during a visit to me in the middle of the semester that I spent abroad in Europe, he purchased me a ring. I proudly wore it on my left-hand ring finger, blissfully aware of the incredulous stares of others — 21 years old, and I knew the man I was going to marry.
As William and I selected the names of our future children and discussed the merits of moving to London after graduation versus New York, I felt privileged, lucky — so much more so than all those poor souls who hadn’t a clue about the shape their futures would take!
Yet somehow, a shift occurred. It’s difficult to put my finger on precisely when or why, but as we marked our one-year anniversary, I began to sense that all wasn’t well in William’s world. It started with his confession to me that during the past semester at school, he had earned Ds and Fs, landing him on academic probation. Then there was his relationship with his father; time and again I would hear about their fights — and once was even dragged into one — about how William felt his father didn’t support him. Still, I was steadfastly in his corner — no one understood him! It was the two of us against the world, I sometimes felt, but we would win yet.
However, William lacked direction, and beyond that, he was deeply depressed, drinking heavily, and using drugs. Despite my pleas, he refused to get help. Besides failing to take care of himself, he began to neglect me. He’d wait until 1 a.m. to call, or he’d phone after smoking a bowl with his roommate. He would procrastinate all weekend, and then panic the night before a paper was due, leaving me to stay up until 3 a.m. making corrections. I snapped at my friends when they noticed my anxiety; I would scream at William when he finally called, crying about how I was neglected until he promised to do better. Still, this too shall pass, I thought. We were made for one another.
The final straw came after William failed to call me the day after Thanksgiving, offering cryptic excuses. I told him that we were over, and went into my parents’ room in tears sometime around 4 a.m. to inform them that my life was over, since William had been the best thing to ever happen to me.
Of course I was fine; I threw myself into my schoolwork with renewed vigor, and let myself begin to truly appreciate senior year with my friends. I started dating someone new, which I made the mistake of telling William. This led to a series of angry voicemails, late-night phone calls begging me to speak to him. When I called him back, he told me that he was going to be the father of my children, and urged me to move in with him after graduation. He even contacted my then-boyfriend over Facebook, informing him that he had made a promise to marry me, and that he intended to keep it. Furious, and disgusted that someone I had loved had sunk to this level, I told William never to contact me again — never, ever.
For the most part, he obeyed. Other than a few strange phone calls and an email the following fall telling me that I was “the best partner and companion” for him, it was as though he had never existed. Though it hurt to sever the connection so decisively, I felt that my decision had been the correct one.
I finished college, and moved to Washington. Through the grapevine, I found out that William had as well, but we moved in different circles, and I found myself happily involved with a fascinating job and a wonderful group of friends. I dated other men, and though nothing had serious staying power, I was far from ready to settle down anyway.
Life was seeming pretty splendid one afternoon in the spring of 2010 as I was walking through Georgetown, making a few last-minute purchases before leaving on a trip to Turkey. Strolling down M Street and reviewing my packing list in my head, I was floored when I came face-to-face with William. The split second of eye contact felt like eternity as my heart rate sped up and, walking away as quickly as possible, I called home in a panic. But once my mother heard that he hadn’t tried to speak with me, she reassured me that it would all be fine, and I went off on my trip.
When I came home 10 days later, my mother called. Saying that she hadn’t wanted to alarm me while I was out of the country, she told me that she and my father had recently received a FedEx-ed letter at home. It was for me, and it was from William. The letter, which was for the most part incoherent, essentially apologized for having hurt me two years before. Though I was uncomfortable at having heard from William again, I was relieved that he had sent the letter to my parents and not to me — it meant that my efforts to conceal my address had been successful. And I did feel that the letter indicated he’d found closure, and would be closing the book on our relationship for good.
Two weeks later, things took a strange twist. I was at home alone in my apartment, about to get into the shower before meeting a friend for dinner, when I heard a knock on my door. Since I lived in a building with a doorman, and a key fob was required to get into the main entrance or up in the elevators, I expected to see a neighbor standing there, wanting to borrow an egg or to plan for pre-gaming later that night.
Instead, as I looked through the peephole, I saw William wearing a freshly pressed suit and holding a bouquet of flowers.
I stood frozen in place for a minute, as my brain struggled to process what I was seeing. Then adrenaline kicked in. Despite hearing William call my name through the door, I left it shut and double-locked it. I called a neighbor, who called the building’s front desk. As I waited in my bedroom, a resident services staff member came up and asked William to leave the premises. Later, I found a note that he had left me downstairs, asking me to join him for dinner at an upscale restaurant later that night. From the way the note was composed, it seemed like he had made a reservation, as though actually expecting me to come to dinner.
The rest of the night was a blur. I wanted to be anywhere other than my apartment, so I went out to dinner and then to a friend’s for drinks. Since I deal best with my problems when I talk about them, I was open with everyone I saw that night about what had happened. Though I realized that I had to do something, I didn’t know quite what. Some jokingly suggested that I send a male friend to the restaurant to introduce himself to William as my bodyguard; others asked if I thought it would help to call William up, tell him yet again never to contact me, and leave it at that.
My parents, however, were adamant that I call the police, since they feared William was escalating. I hesitated — it felt like such a huge step. But I ultimately did call to see what the police would suggest, assuming they would say that, in the scheme of things, my situation was nothing.
Instead, to my surprise, the dispatcher told me that I had more than adequate grounds for a restraining order. When she heard that I had asked William to stay away from me repeatedly in the past, the dispatcher told me to go down to D.C. Superior Court the next day to file a petition.
So the following morning, while my colleagues thought I was at the doctor, I sat in the Domestic Violence Unit of the courthouse. An advocate from a wonderful victims’ rights group helped me to file a petition against William. She listened to me talk for more than an hour as I recounted every detail of our relationship, and as I asked more than once whether I was being too harsh. This was, after all, someone I had loved; someone who had made me feel utterly safe and adored; someone with whom I had hoped to share children and a future.
The advocate told me that I was doing exactly the right thing. She reminded me that in my petition, I was free to request that William undergo a court-ordered psychiatric evaluation followed by therapy. This was actually perhaps my highest priority — it was clear to me that William needed treatment, and I certainly wanted him to be healthy and to be able to move on with his life.
So I filed the petition, and was informed that William would be served with papers — either at home or at work — shortly. In the meantime, we had a court date two weeks later.
My own parents had told me that, simply put, if I were ever to engage in behavior like William’s, they would want to know so they could give me the help I needed. So I wrote to William’s parents, and I straightforwardly told them that I was seeking an order of protection. William’s father, with whom I remembered eating pancakes and chatting about politics, pleaded with me to drop the petition. And I very nearly did, until my godfather, an attorney, told me in no uncertain terms that I would be crazy to do so. Someone like William would likely continue to escalate, he said, and the court would not take me as seriously if I filed another petition after dropping this one. So my father booked a last-minute flight to D.C., I hurriedly prepared a written statement, and we got ready to go to court against someone I had once loved.
The hardest part of being at the courthouse was actually seeing William again. His attorney descended upon me practically the second I sat down, urging me to come chat with him so that we could “resolve the situation.” A negotiator informed me that William was refusing to consent to my request that he undergo psychiatric treatment, and when I told her that I had no intention of changing that demand, the negotiator rolled her eyes and made it clear to me what she thought of my decision.
“I guess you’ll have to go in front of the judge, then,” she sighed. Well, that was what I’d come to court prepared to do. My father agreed. So I waited.
Finally, our case ended up in family court, where we had a judge and a courtroom to ourselves. And here began the deliberating. While my father waited outside in the corridor — I had wanted him to be a witness, which barred him from being present for the first part of the hearing — I stood up in front of the judge, aware of William’s eyes on my back and a look of dislike from his father, and gave my statement. I explained that I no longer felt safe in my own home, and that I wished William no ill will, but simply wanted him to be able to move on with his life as I had.
The judge listened patiently, and suggested a compromise: William would agree to undergo psychiatric treatment, and to stay away from me for a full year. At the end of the year, if he complied fully, I would order the charges expunged from William’s record.
William at first refused to accept the deal. Really speaking for the first time since he’d set foot in the courtroom, in a voice that had once been so familiar to me, he suggested to the judge several scenarios in which we would be able, unavoidably, to encounter one another. He resisted the order of protection so stubbornly that the judge lost her patience. “I look at you today,” she told him, “and I see a stalker.”
My mouth dropped open — to hear those words from a judge was surprising, but it utterly, completely validated what I had been trying to do. I knew, in that moment, that I was doing the right thing.
Ultimately, William accepted the deal, and I received a civil protection order. (Later, it was renewed for another year when the judge learned William had cut his treatment short.) When I began writing this several months later, I was still filled with conflicting emotions. I felt relieved that I got what I needed in the way of protection from William, and hopefully, I’ve helped ensure that other women don’t go through what I did with him. I felt lucky; every week, it seems, I read about or hear about another person who was battered — or worse — by an ex. When I was in court, I had only to look into the eyes of some of the women sitting around me, some of whom were holding small children, to know that I was fortunate in comparison.
I do feel a sense of sadness still, and I probably always will. I don’t think anyone believes that her first love will end in a courtroom before a judge. And I am still slowly working on rebuilding my ability to trust. Despite having had several normal, healthy relationships after William, the incident had a profound impact on the way that I look at dating. But with the help of friends and family, I am working on it — and I’ve found that, at the end of the day, I do still believe in love.
When it comes down to it, I am glad that I did what I did. Though there were some who questioned my decision to go to court as extreme, for every one person who doubted me, there were 10 others who told me that I was doing precisely the right thing. I hope that by telling my story, I’m able to help even one person who’s going through the same. We all deserve to be happy and safe in love — don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.
* Name has been changed, along with identifying details.