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Recovering from an abusive relationship

The moment when abuse starts can be blurry. That gray zone can turn your sex life into a nightmare that returns with each orgasm and lasts for years. But you have to help yourself wake up from it.

I have prostituted myself for emotion. It wasn't about earning money for sex. Instead, I traded my body for the illusion of love and that changed my relationship to sex forever.

"Can we talk about something?" This is my 17-year-old self speaking, to my boyfriend at the time. "I feel like every time we meet, it's all about sex. And if I’m being honest, I don’t want our relationship to revolve around sex."

My boyfriend’s reaction was immediate and emotionless, cold and direct. “Well, then," he said, "we better break up."

I was shocked and couldn’t understand his demeanor. "I'm sure, we’ll find another way," I said. But it seemed he had decided already, he must have thought about breaking up quite often, given that immediate response.

So I begged. I asked him to forget my initial point and hoped we could pretend that this just didn’t happen. I cried. Nothing helped. What had been my boyfriend a few minutes ago was now my ex-boyfriend.

I was too desolate to leave and he said I could stay. When I called my dad to say that I was staying over, he skeptically asked if everything was okay. I said, "yes, of course." But from that moment on, nothing was okay.

My rational side knew that this step, and all others to follow, were wrong. But emotionally, it felt right. For years, I hardly remembered that time, because I did not want to remember, only to forget.

As it turned out, that didn't work.

From boyfriend to ex-boyfriend to lover. Minus the love.

We had sex just a few hours after we broke up. In that moment, I didn't realize that we had begun a relationship based solely around sex that would last for one year, two months and 10 days.

In the beginning, I actively sought false pretenses to see him. Like, let’s study together for our biology test, which, of course, resulted in sex. After just a few weeks, it was okay simply to ask whether or not he had time on the weekend.

If I allow a few memories, then I remember that I said “I love you” several times during those months. He either said nothing in reply or something like: "I love you too, in this moment."

I knew he was sleeping with other girls but I didn't take action on that knowledge. Instead, I did the opposite. I did whatever I could to please him and keep him in my life. Though I find anal sex the most disgusting thing on Earth, I agreed to do it. I even offered myself to him in these ways, because I knew he liked it. Over and over, I agreed to things that I simply did not want to do.

I cried often during these moments. Tears running more or less silently over my cheeks. He knew I hated it and even if not, he should have seen it from my crying. Only after his orgasm, he seemed to realize how I was feeling and apologized. Then he would try to comfort me. But I still felt disgusted at what I just had done.

At some point, I stopped crying, because I couldn’t stand him ignoring that. When having sex, I uncoupled from any emotion at all.

436 days, 149 smileys, 350 times sex

The fact that he still desired me, wanted me and spent time with me, was enough to keep me going. I loved him, in spite of it all. However, if I'm honest with myself - at least in retrospect - I was finding ways to escape: I slept a lot during the time we weren't together.

Every time that we spent time together, I drew a smiley into my calendar. Through one year, two month and 10 days, I counted 149 smileys. Each smiley represents two or three times having sex. And my friends saw the result.

They often tried to convince me to end that nightmare. "You're so beautiful, intelligent and self-confident. We don’t understand why you are doing this."

Every time, my answer was the same: "I don't want to lose him."

And in fact, I didn’t.

And the moral of this story... was the wrong one

Fairy tales usually have a righteous moral. But this was no fairy tale. Instead of ending the relationship, we made it official. When he started a proper relationship with me, I learned the wrong lesson: It's worth it to trade your body to get what you want.

The quality of our new relationship wasn’t so different from what we had before. The only difference was that everyone knew I was his girlfriend, again. So that made me feel less like a slut. Of course, in a sexual way, he still got everything he wanted from me. Because I didn’t want to lose him again.

This went on for a little more than a year. At the end of the school year, we were voted "the dream couple" in our yearbook. After exams, my boyfriend joined the marines. We saw each other on weekends and our relationship continued to be about sex.

His best friend told me we should break up, that I should run away and not look back. I accomplished the task of breaking up. But I could not help looking back. My past was present, every single time I had sex.

Memories forced me to remember

I experienced flashbacks even in neutral situations. I realized that I could hardly stand being in the darkness or alone with a man who had a similar voice. When random men walked by wearing the same perfume as my ex, I was catapulted into the past. At times, I was alert any time a man was too close to my physical comfort zone.

Sex was worse. I tried to act as if nothing was wrong with new boyfriends. But groaning sounds led to flashbacks and my brain switched immediately from arousal to horror. I saw, smelled and felt a past that was vividly alive.

Instead of continuing on in those moments, I was able to say stop. And they did stop. That might be the obvious reaction to you, but each time, it was a surprise for me.

Still, I had panic attacks after every single orgasm. Within milliseconds, the fear that he wouldn't stop took over. Suddenly, I was sober, awake and terrified. I shivered and cried. The only words I manage to speak during these moments were: “I’m sorry.” The cruelest thing for me was that I was conscious about what was happening but could not prevent it.

A good friend of mine however took it with humor: Jokingly she said that sex with me must be very good, if a man was willing to be patient and kind more than once through my panic attacks.

Whose fault was it?

It took me a long time to realize what happened to me, to accept it and name it:

He abused me.

Even as I write these words, doubts are in the back of my mind. Part of me says to myself: you agreed to it. You pushed it, even. Then a more rational voice in my head arises: He knew I loved him and used that emotional dependency to get sex.

You may ask why I didn’t go into therapy. Partly, it's because I fear that someone will tell me that it was my very own fault. Perhaps more importantly, I don’t want to remember all the details that I worked so hard to push out of my memory. I hope to get by without it.

It took me three relationships over a period of many years, until one man managed to help me. He was different. He felt my panic attacks approaching before I did. He stopped moving immediately, whispering that everything was okay. Slowly, we managed to calm me down earlier.

The panic attacks got less intense. We worked with my rational side and counted prime numbers. For the non-mathematicians out there, it's a number that can only be divided by one and itself. Each time we did it during a panic attack, I couldn’t believe anew that 57 wasn’t prime (it can be divided by 3).

I learned that it was okay to be conscious during sex, that it was okay for my brain to analyze what was happening, that I don’t need to be alert or afraid of letting go. It can probably be summarized this simply: I learned to trust a man.

One day, we had sex, and I didn’t have a panic attack. And many other days followed this one. It was now 10 years after the abuse and once again, I was back to normal.

Fearing the fear

If this was a fairy tale, this would be the happy ending. But life is not a perfect story. That man found another woman and broke up with me. And guess what? After we broke up, we had sex.

This time, though, it took me only four months to take the right step and finish that forever. And I promised myself that I wouldn't do it again. It took me time to learn the moral from my own story, probably too long.

There are no excuses. Neither for another person doing something similar to you, nor for you pretending it's all okay.

You have the power to change something about the latter. So please, just:

STOP.