Slutty twenties? Traveling twenties? Dreaming twenties? The years after high school are among the most powerful decades in our lives. And you stole mine.
There were a lot of great life lessons that inform my current writings on Medium. But the years I should have spent building my career I spent on protecting my heart. I spent on you. Trying to deal with you. Trying to escape you.
You were 45. I was 27. I tried to be enlightened enough to not mind the age gap, but something always bothered me about it. That you were never in a serious relationship, let alone married, should have tipped me off that you were not normal. And yet when our “relationship” failed, I blamed myself.
“Oh, please, like you’re scared of me. Stop it. STOP IT. You’re just trying to manipulate me. Stupid little girl.” He bellowed at me as I cowered in my bed, terrified because he’d woken and immediately started telling me that a dream he’d had “informed” him that I needed to abandon my best male friend and my father to be with him. When I expressed resistance, he shoved his penis toward me and began screaming that I owed him. Hence the cowering.
I’d never been so afraid in my life.
Before you, there were other abusers. I didn’t have the vocabulary to identify them as such. I didn’t understand why I was so unhappy. It sucked up so much of my energy, energy that could have been spent applying to good jobs rather than working retail. So much time dealing with your madness that could have been spent pursuing my own goals. Between 22 and 27, I was constantly in an abusive relationship.
I blame myself to this day. I tell other people, my coaching clients and friends alike, that abuse is never their fault, but I too willingly blame myself.
Could I have escaped sooner, I wonder. Why was I so consumed by stupid relationships instead of my career?
These questions are pointless to entertain. Of course I was concerned about my career…but I was distracted.
“Ha, you’re going for a master’s? College is for bigoted snobs,” he said. “Why don’t you just grow your hair long and be a hippie with me.”
The thing about hearing such negativity from someone you love is that you can’t completely reject it. You try to shoehorn it into your current mindset. This means that you perceive yourself as a tolerant accommodator, not a doer. You think more about potential than actuality.
As a woman already socialized to believe that I was worth less than men, I had extra work to do to overcome my own self-bias.
Just today, I was in a diversity training seminar. I was talking about the extra work I needed to do as a woman, to fight to be heard, for a decent wage, to not be harassed. My ever-so-helpful group partner advised me to “just roll with it.” As though I hadn’t thought of that. “It’s not that bad,” she advised. Thank you, stranger!
And yet, her words stung. Was I just not strong enough? Had I been stronger, could I somehow avoid the extra work I’d been doing? Could I have broken free from an abusive relationship sooner?
Thing is, I have no benchmark for “strong.” I could be strong, I could be weak. I really don’t know, because no one has established a standard. I escaped — am I strong? Am I stronger than someone who waited years to leave? Or the opposite?
It really shouldn’t matter. I am the victim, not the abuser. It’s his fault, not mine. There is never any reason to rape, manipulate, steal from, or otherwise abuse another person.
That’s what it took me years to realize: it was not my fault. I could have been my best self and this monster would still have targeted me. In fact, he may have targeted me because I was strong.
And yet, my twenties are past. I never had a choice in how to spend them. I work with people younger than I who make more money, who feel more confident in their roles. I didn’t ask for enough until it was too late. And I wonder if I’ll be permanently behind.
And it’s your doing, abuser. You’re the problem.
You stole my time. And all I can do is try to make my remaining time mean everything.
Rachel Wayne is a writer and artist based in Orlando, FL. She earned her master’s in visual anthropology from the University of Florida and runs the production company DreamQuilt. She is an avid aerial dancer and performance artist, and also dabbles in mixed-media. She writes nonfiction stories about herself and other awesome people, as well as essays on feminism, societal violence, mental health, politics, entrepreneurship, and whatever cultural topic strikes her fancy.