From Chicken Soup for the Teenage Soul on Love & Friendship

Operation Save the World

But you be strong and do not lose courage, for there is reward for your work.

Chronicles 15:7

I always thought “it could never happen to me.” To tell you the truth, I don’t think the thought ever crossed my mind. I lived an extremely sheltered life living in a small town, and attended an all-girls Catholic high school. It all began the beginning of my sophomore year. It was right around homecoming, when I knew I had met the “man of my dreams,” or so I thought. Carl was a living dream with a great personality, who always knew exactly what to say to make me feel like I was queen of the world. He seemed to have it all: star of the football team, captain of the wrestling team and president of his homeroom. He was so perfect and to think that he liked me was incredible! He wanted to spend every waking moment with me. I was a busy girl and a very good student. I was an athlete on the basketball and volleyball teams, student council class secretary, choreographer of my swing choir, and this year I was even elected to homecoming court. My life was picture-perfect.

The more time we spent together, the more he wanted me all to himself. I didn’t object because I thoroughly enjoyed the time I spent with him. But then it began. It started with swearing and verbal arguments, but quickly escalated from there. I always thought I would never put up with that, but I soon realized there was nothing that I could do. I discovered that Carl had problems.

He confided in me, and I found out all about his divorced parents and abusive father. I felt it was my duty to take care of him because he wasn’t as fortunate as I to have two loving parents who gave me the world. Little did I realize, I was sacrificing myself for his punishing behavior. I was also sacrificing the friendships of my three best friends. I was becoming extremely isolated and growing farther and farther apart from my family and younger sister. Carl now took up all of my time, and I considered it my responsibility to rescue him. I’m not the type of person who likes to fail at tasks so I put a lot of time and effort into helping Carl. (I now refer to it as “Operation Save the World,” because it was such a huge unattainable task that I took upon myself.) Of course, at the time I didn’t realize a person can only help themselves if they truly want to change. I was willing to sacrifice anything and everything because this was “the man I loved,” and we were destined to be together forever.

I don’t remember exactly when the violence became so intense. He never hit me, so I didn’t actually consider it abuse. My bruises were from his excessive pinching, shoving, kicking and hair-pulling. I distinctly remember one incident when I had all four wisdom teeth pulled and the two of us were watching a movie. I said something extremely insignificant and Carl lost his temper, so he began fiercely pinching my swollen cheeks together and slamming my head against the wall.

I was the helpless victim and would never fight back for fear of what else might happen. It soon became a sick cycle, but it always ended in tears and a dramatic apology, promising it would never happen again. Despite my swollen cheeks and the contusions on my head, he had never hit me, but the violence was now occurring more frequently and was getting worse each day. Soon I could barely get out of bed in the morning from my aches and pains, and no one knew how much I was hurting. He always made marks in places people couldn’t see, and I always had good explanations if anyone happened to see. I was a tough girl, and I could withstand all this pain for “the man I loved.” It wasn’t the physical pain that hurt as much as the emotional pain that was tearing me apart on the inside.

On the exterior, my life seemed composed and everyone thought our relationship was perfect. Carl had even bought me a diamond engagement ring. He would constantly send me flowers at school and all the girls would always exclaim, “I wish I had a boyfriend like Carl. You’re so lucky.” Little did they know.

I don’t know what made me finally realize that this treatment was inhumane. Maybe it was that my three best friends would no longer speak to me, or that my parents wouldn’t listen to me. I was convinced that no one would be there for me if I didn’t have Carl. I had become so exclusive and Carl was the center of my life. I do know that God played a role in helping me realize that what Carl was doing was wrong.

One Sunday morning, exactly two years after I began dating Carl, my family and I were sitting down at the breakfast table, and I broke down—it all came out. That was probably the most difficult moment of my life, but also one of the best, even though I didn’t think so at the time.

I broke off all ties with “the man of my dreams” and began to piece my life back together. I started going to therapy. At first I thought I would die without Carl, but it only took time, lots of it, to change that. My family and friends were very supportive. They let me back into their lives after I had shut them out completely. I could not have done it without them.

A few months later in my behavioral science class, I had to do an oral exam on a social issue that is prevalent in our society. My speech consisted of my experiences with dating violence. The entire class was in tears even though most of them could not understand my experience. It felt good to come out of my corner of isolation, yet at the same time, it was also very scary. Most people don’t understand fully unless they have been in a similar relationship. I was often asked, “Why would you stay in such a relationship and let someone treat you like that?” It’s extremely difficult when people judge me in this manner, but it’s part of my experience and has shaped who I am today.

I have now moved on to new responsibilities and greater aspirations of college life. I have become more independent and happy, thanks to all of the love and support from my family and friends. It’s still difficult to learn to trust people, but I am thankful to all those who are learning and growing with me. I couldn’t have asked for more than my supportive family, understanding friends and incredibly patient new boyfriend.

Last week I was checking my e-mail and I received this:

Dear Jenny,

I found your e-mail address in a student directory, and I decided to write you since I never got the chance to thank you for your presentation in our class about dating abuse. This summer I was looking at the handout you gave everyone about the signs of abuse. I began hysterically crying as I realized that my boyfriend matched all too many of the signs. I knew it was a bad relationship, but I could not tell anyone and I thought it was my responsibility to fix it. After hearing your experience, I realized I couldn’t. Your story gave me a lot of strength to get out of the relationship before it got worse. Well, at least the story has a happy ending for both of us; we are very fortunate. Thanks again for having the courage to tell your story. You really helped me a lot, even though you didn’t know it at the time.

“Operation Save the World” didn’t fail after all. I did rescue someone.

Jennifer Winkelman

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