When I was

nineteen, the first boy I ever truly loved made me feel so safe, and so whole, and so loved. Sometimes he would make deprecating comments about me, or my appearance, or my brain, but it would always be brushed off as a joke — something to laugh at, something he of course didn't mean because he loved me. He showed me that so much, so often, in so many other ways. His older friends became my friends, and as we all spent more time together, I couldn't help feeling like I was the butt of their jokes more often than not. But he loved me, and made me feel so free in so many other ways. He was older, smarter, funnier — I just needed to learn how to not take myself so seriously…especially with sex.

I had never wanted to have sex until I was on top of him one night a few weeks after we had started dating. I was kissing him and, “I love you,” just fell out of my mouth like an exhale, just as natural as breathing. It felt so right, so perfect, and he asked so many questions and wanted to know everything about what felt good to me. And it was so fun and so perfect and we learned so much about ourselves and each other. Even risky things — that we both liked spanking, or a light hand around my throat — little acts of power that said, "I trust you. I trust you not to hurt me because I know you love me and I know you know how far to go." It was exhilarating, intoxicating, this secret pact between us. We had a safe word and everything.

Until one day in the spring, on a day that I can't remember anything else about, he was inside me and raised his hand. And he hit me in the face, hard, his flat palm smacking loud against my cheek and then holding my face down into the mattress. I was stunned. Literally stunned, like a fish knocked on the head with the butt of a knife. He kept going until he finished and then as we were getting dressed he asked, "Was that ok?"

With the red marks from his fingers still on my face, I said yes. Because I didn't know. I didn't know what it felt like not to feel safe with him; I didn't know how to tell him he had just broken that trust forever. I didn't know why he had wanted to hit me, and I was so scared to ask myself that question. I didn't know why that was so different from everything else we had ever done. I didn't know that he should have asked first, not after, I didn't know that it was ok to not feel ok about it. I still wanted to be the effortlessly cool and free girlfriend — I wanted him to still love me, I didn't want to make him angry or sad. I put everything about him first, I was trying so hard to…impress him, for some reason.

Everything started to fall apart after that. Not just because of that, but because I started to see and feel so much more intensely all the little ways in which he made me feel like I was less than. That I couldn't say no, that I couldn't not love him, that I couldn't not be the person he wanted me to be. It felt like he was grinding down my personhood, my core self, until I would just be anything and everything he thought I was or wanted me to be. I started to feel this gnawing in the pit of my stomach, at the bottom of my ribcage, growing larger and deeper every time he only said “I love you” when he was drunk.

When I broke up with him, he begged. He begged me not to throw away “the best thing in our lives.” He begged me to reconsider, to try again. I was so lost, so heartbroken, so tired, that I relented and let him come over again. In the morning, before I was even properly awake, he put himself inside me without asking, before I had even turned over and said good morning, as if him sleeping over in my bed was the same thing as permission. And then when I still didn't want to be together anymore, when I still wanted to break up, he was angry at me. He was hurt that I had let him have sex with me even though I knew I didn't want to be with him.

I blamed myself too. For all of it. I blamed myself for not being good enough to make him want to stop being mean to me in the ways I'd asked him to. I blamed myself for not being able to see another solution than breaking up. I told myself for years that maybe I had made a huge mistake, maybe I had thrown away the only man that had ever, and would ever, love me.

With time, I realized that I am so much more than his love for me — that it wasn't my fault. I found who I was without him, and I liked her a lot. I realized all the little things about our relationship that were unhealthy, that made me unhappy, and I looked for those red flags in other relationships. I started to realize that so much of the behavior we normalize in romantic relationships is actually incredibly unhealthy, possessive, co-dependent and emotionally violent.

I don't think he ever knew that any of his behavior was harmful or destructive. I'm not sure he does even now, almost a decade later. But I won't blame myself for that either. It's not my job to make him realize the damage he's done. I'm never going to change the person that he was, and I don't even know the person that he is.

All I know is that I'm different now, in the best possible ways, and that's enough.