When I was fifteen, I was shy and awkward. I was a fat girl with bad teeth who hadn’t learned how to love herself or her body. I thought my one ex-boyfriend had been a fluke. I didn’t believe that I’d be loved again, and then, online, I met Eric. He was what I now call my own Christian Grey because he was brilliant, charming, worldly. He reacted to me as Christian reacted to Anastasia Steele – not with simple desire, but with a fierce and all-consuming need. He couldn’t imagine his world without me. He said I was beautiful, called me little one, and said he wanted to own and protect me.
He was also twenty-six.
His age, of course, was part of the attraction. Every fifteen-year-old thinks that they know everything, and I was no exception. I was a smart kid who was always being told that I was more mature than my peers and that I would go on to do great things. My experience with boys my own age was painted in heartbreak and bullying and cruel jokes. High school boys sucked and here was this powerful older man wanting to whisk me away. When you’re fifteen and heartbroken and eaten up by both self-hatred and the certainty that you’re somehow above your peers – how do you say no to a man like Eric? How could Ana say no to a man like Christian Grey?
We were together for almost four years and we never met in person. I call myself lucky, for this, lucky that the abuse never got the chance to turn physical, that it was only psychological and emotional, but mostly what it means is that people aren’t sure it counts. It couldn’t have been that bad, right? I could have blocked him and walked away at any moment. The problem is, that’s not how abusers like Eric and Christian work. You don’t realize the danger until you’re too far in to escape.
At first, Eric’s obsession seemed romantic. I liked that he emailed me a million times a day and wanted to know every detail of my life. A day didn’t go by without him telling me how badly he wanted me. At school, I was consumed with social anxiety and panic attacks. I came home, sick from crying, and Eric was there to tell me he loved me. I felt special. Important. It was like a storybook romance.
I didn’t tell my parents a word about him. Most teenagers hide half their life from their parents, but I didn’t. I was one of the trustworthy teenagers. I didn’t drink or experiment with drugs. I never snuck out. I told them about every one of my online friends, except the inconsequential ones – and Eric. I was in college before I ever even mentioned him in their presence.
This should have said to me that something was wrong, but I told myself that it was just because they wouldn’t understand. I didn’t want them to interfere in my epic love story. So I kept this one secret, even as the relationship became sexual and a little frightening. It was never physical, but it also wasn’t chaste.
I lost my virginity to my first boyfriend. Other than messing around with him, I had zero experience. I’d never so much as held hands with anyone else. I had all these fantasies but no idea how to act on them. I didn’t even masturbate. So when Eric found me, I was a bundle of high school hormones and sexual energy.
I don’t doubt that was part of his attraction to me. He had plenty of ideas on how to work around our distance. He’d tell me what to do to myself, and I would do it. He’d tell me his fantasies, and ask for details on my physical and emotional reactions. When I said I was scared, which was almost every night, he’d tell me that the fear came from the strength of our desire for each other. He took my valid fear of him and convinced me that it was not only natural, but positive. I wouldn’t be scared if he didn’t love me so much, right?
He’d instruct me in what I should wear, how I should sit when I was talking to him. He started using words like training and submissive and master. I didn’t really understand what those meant in the context of a relationship, and he wasn’t interested in explaining them to me. He was interested in my obedience. He was interested in his control. Christian, at least, gave Ana the illusion of understanding with his extensive contract. At fifteen, I was thrown into lifestyle BDSM without so much as an introduction.
A year or so into our relationship, he had me buy a webcam and a headset so that we could Skype. I was the only one on camera. Other than half a dozen pictures that he sent over the course of our relationship, he had the gift of anonymity. I never asked for reciprocation. Questioning him was dangerous. Questioning led to fights, and fights led to sleepless, crying nights.
Click to the next page for part 2 of this story.
The most common cause of our fights was when I broke a rule, often one I didn’t realize existed. He said that the point of the rules in a Dominant/submissive relationship was to provide the submissive with a consistent, safe structure. I was meant to trust that he would never change them, but instead I trusted that they would never stay the same. It was true that having any other chat windows open while talking with him was always unacceptable, no matter who it was. He wanted my full attention. But similar offenses – like doing homework while we talked – seemed to depend solely on his mood. It was impossible to predict what would set him off, but all too easy to predict what the next several hours would look like.
He would call me ungrateful. He’d say I didn’t love him and ask what he’d done to make me turn on him. He talked about his dark past, a military man who’d seen too much death. Somehow he always found a way to talk about the many, many men that he’d killed in the line of duty. And didn’t I remember the fiancee he’d tragically lost? Didn’t I know that I was the one thing giving his life meaning anymore? If I left him, he would have nothing left to live for. He described in detail how he’d go about erasing himself from the world, until there was no trace, and then he’d kill himself.
It always ended the same way – with me apologizing for deeds I didn’t think were wrong and begging to be allowed to sleep because by that point it was usually two in the morning and I had to be up for school at six. He’d draw out the begging until I was broken. He reminded me that all he cared about was my happiness. He said he loved me. He said he’d be dreaming of me, and then he let me leave.
Around the time our relationship first turned sour, I discovered Twilight. Edward’s terrifying passion for Bella mimicked my experience with Eric, and their relationship was romantic, right? Every time a fight broke out with Eric, I thought: I’m lucky. I have my own Edward Cullen.
But Eric is more like Christian than he was ever like Edward, and while Edward had bloodlust and inhuman strength, I find Christian far more terrifying. He’s cold and calculating enough to manipulate and mold Ana into exactly the woman he wants – as Eric did to me – but his temper is so quick that when Ana dared to ask him if he was gay, he imagined raping her. Eric never expressed such thoughts, but I know he had the same violent streak because he threatened to kill my best friend.
See, I had one friend that Eric liked. It was probably because he was gay and not a challenge to Eric’s power like the straight boys Eric insisted had feelings for me. Like most abusers, he isolated me. He never fully succeeded in keeping me from my friends, but I learned not to tell him about them, and, over time, I learned not to tell them about him. You can only go to a friend about your abusive partner so many times over so many years before they give up on you. You learn to hide.
But I at least had this one friend that I could mention to Eric without fear of anger or judgement. The switch was whiplash-quick. One moment, senior year of high school, I was out on a drive with my best friend, and the next I was at home and Eric was telling me that this once-approved connection was a bad influence. Eric said I needed to get rid of him, and if I wouldn’t, he’d do it for me.
This was it. My breaking point. The moment when Eric’s abuse threatened not just me, but someone I cared about. I did for that friend what I could never do for myself – I ended my relationship. I blocked him. I destroyed the dream that Eric would ever be anything other than an abuser and I walked away for good. I did what Ana never got the chance to do.
It’s been six years, and in the moments when I’m at my worst, my weakest, when I want to kill myself, when everything is falling apart, I still think of him. I think of the moments when he made me feel safe. I know now that it was an illusion, but it was intoxicating and I still miss it. I see the internet all a-flutter over Christian, calling him a dream man. I see women wishing they could have him for themselves and I wonder if it was a mistake to throw him away.
In the light, when I’m stronger, I know the truth about dating Christian Grey. It’s not romantic, it’s not beautiful. It’s living a horror movie. It’s overwhelming to the point that you lose yourself and all that matters anymore is what he wants. You cease to exist. I’m not here to criticize erotica or BDSM. I’m not here to wag a finger and say for shame, for shame at fans of Fifty Shades. It is possible to enjoy that book despite all of its problems and it’s not up to me to tell people what they can and can’t read.
I’m here to talk to anyone stuck in a relationship with a real-life Christian Grey and tell them this: you’re not crazy. They’re not bad submissives. He’s an abuser, and you deserve better.
I’m here to talk to anyone in an abusive relationship that they think they can’t escape. It’s not easy. It’s not safe. Before my breaking point, I broke up with Eric countless times and I always came back. It took years. You’re not alone. There are people out there who have done this impossible thing. There are people out there who can help you.
I’m here to talk to the teenage girls in relationships with older men that are just beginning, and tell them what I wish I could tell my fifteen-year-old self: No twenty-six-year-old that’s interested in her is trustworthy. That relationship is never going to be anything except exploitation and abuse, no matter how mature she is for her age.
I know she wouldn’t listen to me, but I wish it anyway.