When I was twenty-two, I moved to Wuhan, China. A few months in, I started seeing a guy who was older and a fellow expat.
Early into our relationship, he had a party and invited me. I was excited to meet more people and make friends. Even more than that, I couldn’t wait to be with him and be seen with him. I brought snacks and booze, and all the enthusiasm of a naive girl in love.
When I arrived, I hugged and kissed him. Smiling, I stood there and waited for him to show some kind of recognition that I was the one he’d been waiting for all night.
It didn’t come.
Instead, he insulted my dress and asked me why I didn’t put on something sexier.
I made mental note of it as an area for improvement as he walked away. After scanning the room for a familiar face, I started talking to a guy I had seen around a few times. Brian was from Wuhan, spoke English, and was excited to share with everyone that he was gay and in love with nearly every foreign man he met.
As I stood in the corner of the room and chatted with him, I watched as the guy I thought I was dating go into his bedroom with a girl I’d never seen before and his best friend. I watched and felt my insides turn into numbing, hallowed-out chunks of ice.
Brian noticed my eyes following the throuple as they went into the bedroom.
“You know what they’re doing right? They’re so crazy.” He winked and his face lit up with the newfound scandal.
I nodded. “Good for them,” I said, a forced smile plastered on my face.
That wasn’t enough to make me turn and run. Watching the guy I was seeing leave his own party to have a three-way wasn’t enough to prove to me that he wasn’t what I needed. It barely registered as a red flag at the time. I didn’t storm out, I didn’t even get up to leave. I just sat there, frozen to my seat and contemplated all the things I felt:
What did you expect? You knew he wasn’t hanging out with you to date you. You wanted to change him. You thought you would be good enough for him so that he’d want to date you anyway. You should have seen this coming. You knew he was into this shit. You did this to yourself. You can’t be mad at him for being who he is. You’re only mad because he doesn’t like you enough to not have a fucking threesome right in front of you. Your expectations are the problem, he isn’t.
Thanks for the support, Chloé.
But now what? Was I supposed to leave? Should I have just stayed and acted like I didn’t care? Should I have gotten really drunk and told him how it made me feel?
I eyed the bottles of alcohol and the people drinking. It was appealing. It’d stop the feelings that I felt, but I knew that wasn’t the solution. I’d say something dumb. I’d do something stupid.
So I stayed while my heart and my gut told me to get out of there. I stayed so that it seemed like I wasn’t hurt, and that I didn’t care.
Eventually, when the three exited his room with smirks and secrets on their lips, he came and sat down next to me. I smiled and tried to act normal as my thoughts screamed and scattered.
He looked at me, watching me for some kind of read. I hoped I was showing that I had hardly noticed.
“You did this,” he said.
It felt like I had sprinted into a brick wall. I could practically feel the whoosh of the air leaving me simultaneously winded and blown away.
That was it. What the fuck did that mean? Did he read my mind? Is it that obvious?
He waited for a reaction, and I sat there and thought about how to react. All I could think was, “he’s right.” He said what I had been thinking only minutes before.
You did this to yourself. You knew exactly who he was, and you opted in anyway.
I mustered a smile that felt more like a grimace and gave a weak nod of my head. He let out a sharp bark of a laugh, and looked me up and down again. With a short shake of his head, he got up and left me to process on the couch.
What’s worse is we ended up dating after that.
What’s worse is I loved him.
What’s worse is it was abusive, and what’s worse is I believed I was the problem.
And you know what the truth is? I was part of the problem. Truth is, he was a little bit right.
I did do this to myself.
There were so many choices and decisions that I could have made along the way. There were so many times when I ignored the feelings in my body that told me to get out.
I could have ended it before it started.
I could have recognized the red flags before romance was ever on the table.
I could have opted out so many times in the early stages of our relationship, but I kept opting in, over and over again.
The red flags looked like opportunities for growth, and because of that, I found myself in a mentally and physically dangerous place.
I made choices that made me a victim, but I couldn’t see it until I was out.
It’s hard to see the danger you’re in when you’re in it. It’s much easier to set up boundaries before you ever even meet someone. It’s much easier to understand and know what you can and can’t handle before you have to activate that knowledge in real time.
Looking back, I’ve learned a lot because of it.
I now know that someone disrespecting other people is a sign that they will disrespect me.
I now know that someone trying to convince me to bend my boundaries means they don’t care about the boundaries I’ve put in place to feel safe.
I now know that if they don’t respect my boundaries, they don’t care if I feel safe.
I also now know that if I don’t have clear boundaries, and don’t know my own boundaries, then it will be very easy to find myself in a similar situation all over again.
I’m learning that taking responsibility is necessary to grow and learn in all aspects of life.
It’s not easy to admit that I played a role in my own abuse, but recognizing my own role gives me back my power. I can recognize the choices I made that turned me into a victim, and I can choose to not make those choices again.
I do recognize that some things are not my fault.
Someone lying to me is not my fault. Someone threatening me, gas-lighting me or making me feel unsafe–that is not my fault. Someone using me or saying the right things to get me into bed? That’s not my fault.
But going against my own best judgment or gut instinct? That’s on me.
Deciding to pursue someone who I know is emotionally unavailable, and carries burdens I can’t hold? That’s on me.
Knowing someone is abusive, manipulative and erratic, yet deciding to dive in head first anyway– that’s on me too.
Believing I can change someone because I’m that special, that different, that strong– that’s on me.
Ignoring the warning signs and bending my boundaries so that I can seem cooler or chiller than I actually am– that’s on me.
Pretending that lust might mean more even though I know, in my heart of hearts that it is only lust– that’s on me.
Deciding to keep seeing a man who does not respect me, who does not have my best interests in mind, who does not treat me in the way I treat him– that’s on me.
Not knowing what I want, not having clearly defined boundaries, and pretending that I do– that’s on me.
Fucking a person who is unstable and has shown time and time again to have bad judgment, shit impulses and no regard for what I want?
Babycakes, with all the love in my heart, that is on me. No matter how charming. No matter how sexy. No matter how fun. That is on me.
I will not be the victim anymore.
I will make decisions that keep me safe. I will make choices that are right for me. I will not ignore the feelings that tell me when to run.
At the end of the day, I am the only one who can trust my gut. I’m the only one who can hear the little voice in my head that tells me something is wrong.
I am the only one who can choose to listen.
Owning my decisions and my role as my own protector will make me the hero of my own story, not the victim of someone else’s.