Say When

Feature image by Andrew Bret Wallis via Getty Images

tw: this piece contains descriptions of abuse and sexual assault

When I was 23, I met someone.

At the time, I was going through the harrowing process of taking the man that sexually assaulted me to trial, and my life had become very small. Work and trial prep and therapy, sometimes. My housemate and his girlfriend invited me out to dinner one night at a house in the neighborhood that touted itself as an “intentional community.”

“Everyone’s queer, the food is mostly vegan, you’ll love it.”

I put on a cute outfit and went, mostly hanging out with my housemate and his girlfriend. Eventually, the risotto was ready, and everyone lined up to grab a plate. A small, blonde person stood behind me. She had piercing blue eyes. She started making conversation with me.

“I like your necklace,” she said, with a coy smile on her face. My necklace was a nameplate that read “dyke” in blue script. She introduced herself to me, and I quickly learned she was the de facto leader of this community. In typical lesbian fashion, she ran it with her ex-girlfriend.

We started hooking up pretty soon after that. One day, close to the date of the trial, I sat her down and tried talking to her about how I might not be up for sex, how I might disappear if things didn’t go the way of justice. She didn’t want to hear it, brushed me off, and told me I should talk to her current on-and-off again girlfriend about it.

I ignored the fact that I felt dismissed and continued fucking her. Months later, after we had turned our hookups into long, multi-day dates, I told her that I loved her. She said it back. I was relieved.

There were red flags, of course, there were red flags. I ignored them. I told myself that what I wanted, what I needed was to love and to feel loved in the face of one of the most devastating things that had ever happened to me. I had been raped, and my rapist got off with a pretty mild plea deal. I felt unmoored, like I couldn’t trust myself anymore. He was a friend.

So, when I met this person, I was determined to be okay. I was going to be able to have sex and like it. I was going to be able to have relationships and not feel so fucking undone. When the red flags came, I turned my cheek.

One night, after dinner with her friends, we rode our bikes home. She kept loudly making comments about my body that made me uncomfortable. I playfully said, “quit sexually harassing me” with a laugh. She grew cold and replied, “you are my girlfriend, I can say whatever I want about your body.”

It didn’t take long for her to disapprove of my friends. They weren’t radical enough, weren’t queer enough. When I said no to her, she cried until I relented, or worse, just took what she wanted.

A few months into our relationship, we started arguing about things regularly. Sex was the strongest part of our relationship, so we’d often smooth over a disagreement in bed. Until I stopped wanting her to touch me. I started refusing to sleep with her, and she would beg until I said yes. On one occasion, I flat out said “no” and then awoke in the night to her hand between my legs. This was especially violating because of what I had survived when we first met. Letting her do what she wanted to me, even when I didn’t want it, was easier than having to face her tears and anger.

I was desperate for space and wanted to get away from the casually cruel way she treated me. Toward the end, she became more demanding and clingy.

On another night, I came over to her place. I greeted her as I took off my winter coat and backpack. She perched on the couch with a scowl on her face and said:

“The next time you enter this house without kissing me before you take off your coat, you can turn around and leave.”

It broke my heart that I had stopped wanting to kiss her and that she demanded that I do.

After talks with my friends who were still around and my trusted therapist, I made a plan to leave. The day I broke up with her, I wrote a letter and read it to her because she had a habit of interrupting me when I tried to speak.

I told her that I was afraid of her, that she was jealous and controlling. She cried, she demanded examples of times she had scared me, she said that because of my size and my self-defense training, she was the one that should be afraid of me.

When I got home, I cried in disbelief. I couldn’t believe that I had again allowed myself to be treated so poorly by someone who claimed to love me. But, as usual, I was determined to be okay. I jumped back on Tinder, jumped in bed with my trainer, did everything I could to not face the pain of ending a relationship with the first person I had ever truly loved.

That was five years ago. I’ve been single ever since. Many first, second, and third dates since. Many lovers that didn’t last. I tried to fast forward through the healing and ended up hurting myself more in the process.

When I think about the fact that I’ve been single for five years, I think first: so, what’s wrong with me? I’ve proven that I can love and be the doting girlfriend, so, why hasn’t it happened again in all these years?

Sometimes, it doesn’t feel real that I was in love. I burned all the letters, deleted the pictures. Lost the text messages. It just doesn’t feel like it happened, but then I remember her crying because I wouldn’t spend the night or because I had asked for time alone.

There was a trend on TikTok a while ago where white women were showing off how easily they could go from crying to calm, and it reminded me of my ex. Reminded me of how, when I said I didn’t want to have sex and wanted to go home, she started sobbing, saying that I had promised her time with me, that she had a hard day and needed physical touch. When I relented and said I would stay, the tears would stop immediately, she would wipe her eyes and go back to whatever she had been doing before she approached me.

It was chilling to be on the receiving end of it. It haunted me for a long time after our breakup, how someone’s emotions could be so disingenuous and deceitful.

Single, I tried to burn all the remnants of what we were. But, I was left with what my body remembered. Her cruelty and disdain for my own emotional life. In therapy, I felt silly talking about a failed relationship. I just wanted to be over it, so I decided I was over it.

In the five years since I ended that relationship I’ve reflected on how I got into it, why I stayed, and my own part in the failure of it. I was an active alcoholic when I dated her, and she was a person who had an alcoholic father. I’m sure the dynamic wasn’t easy for her, and this isn’t to excuse her treatment of me. I can imagine that it hurt to see me drinking when I had promised I wouldn’t that night.

I had to leave that relationship to get sober. For as much as she hated me drinking, I don’t think she believed I could ever get sober either. When I tried, she would often amp up her own drinking to see how I would react, placing bottles in front of me at dinner to see if I’d flinch.

I always flinched, and it probably made her hate me. I don’t know. But I imagine it was disappointing every time. She had proved herself right. I couldn’t do it. I left in December of 2017, and I was sober by February 28, 2018.

By that time, I had cut off all contact with her. The last time I saw her, she had returned some of my things. We sat at my kitchen table and tried to figure out how I could still be a part of the community without being in a relationship with her. During that meeting, I revealed I had remained in contact with someone she didn’t like. Her face morphed into a mask of rage, and she gripped the side of the table and almost lunged at me, but stopped herself. The day I broke up with her, she insisted I had no reason to fear her because she had never hit me, and at that moment, I knew that form of abuse wouldn’t be far off if I had stayed.

When I think about having been single for five years, I often want to remove my judgments of myself from me and place them on other people. I insist that everyone else is thinking what’s wrong with her? instead of facing that as the thought that I’ve had about myself. Five years is a long time, but in that time, I got sober. I continued to go through extensive therapy to unpack the childhood trauma that made me so desperate for love. Part of the reason I stayed for over a year was that I wanted to prove that I could love and be loved, something that I longed for as a kid.

I learned to stop being so desperate for love that I would tolerate any treatment. As you can imagine, I’ve gone on a lot of dates in the past five years. Weeks after I broke it off with my ex, I started dating my self-defense trainer, and it — shockingly — did not work out. I kept dating and dating to prove I was fine, proving that I, in fact, was not in the process. In your first year sober, they tell you to stop dating altogether, and I did not, could not listen to that. It took me two years to really recover from this programming and thinking, and find ease in my singleness. Then, we were faced with a global pandemic which certainly changed how and how often I was dating.

In my pandemic dating, I noticed another unsettling trend. I was dating cool people, but people who were treating me like I was second best, disposable. They were often people in polyamorous relationships and marriages who wanted to have sex with me but didn’t want to date me. I talked for hours with my therapist about this dynamic, how I went from wanting to be someone’s world to being okay with being their side piece.

Allowing myself to be treated as secondary was a way of trying to avoid the pain of being someone’s partner, being close enough to hurt. Being secondary was hurting me too, but in a different way. The people I was dating weren’t close enough to know my deepest insecurities and bring them up casually in conversation. They didn’t know my dark secrets and couldn’t call me a coward for having these secrets as my ex did.

After the pandemic ramped up again in 2021, I decided to take a break from sex and dating. I needed to center myself in my own life again. I continued therapy and worked on my book manuscript. I made the decision to move away from the city I had lived in my whole life and put my focus and energy into being in the right place to make that move. Work became my world, and while I would browse dating apps in lonely moments, I haven’t really dated anyone in a year.

This time spent alone has granted me the gift of love. I love being by myself, reading books, working on my manuscript, submitting poems, and writing for other publications. I love getting to spend time with my brother and his family. It is endlessly corny to talk about self-love and loving the self over searching for romantic love, but it has really brought me so much fulfillment and ease in this last year. It means everything to me to be okay with being alone. I work alone and live alone, and I’m at peace with that. When I want company, I can have it, but I don’t need it in the way I used to, I’m not hopelessly searching like I was before.

My ex and I don’t talk. I’ve thought about reaching out over the years but know that it wouldn’t do me any good to do so. The last interaction we had was after one of her exes came forward about abuse that they had suffered that sounded so familiar to my own experience. I reached out to that ex and we still talk. I also talked with the ex she ran the intentional community with, and again, found common ground over stories of abuse. I used to be obsessed with her getting justice. I didn’t think it was fair she could up and move from the place where she had hurt so many people and just start a new life miles away.

The last text she sent me was “please help me” after her ex made a long post about how they had been abused by her. I blocked her number and never spoke to her again.

I’m very justice-driven, but I know that obsessing over her getting her due isn’t healthy for me. I had to move on, so I did. I have made a life that I’m proud of and that is full of the love she was ill-equipped to give me. Five years single, I often joke about being ready for love again, specifically finding my Taurus wife. But I really do think I’m ready for it, not forcing it onto relationships that aren’t built for love, just open for it whenever it comes.

Until then, I continue to surround myself with the people I love. I continue to build my career and adjust to my new life. I’m thankful to everyone who helped me leave that relationship, the people that said “say when…” when I told them I wanted to leave, and when I did, they were there. I know that I can’t just erase my first love, but I can lean on the lessons I learned during that time, and know that I deserve better in the future.


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danijanae

Dani Janae is a poet and writer based out of Pittsburgh, PA. When she's not writing love poems for unavailable women, she's watching horror movies, hanging with her tarantula, and eating figs. Follow Dani Janae on Twitter and on Instagram.

danijanae has written 138 articles for us.

18 Comments

  1. some of this hits close to home in a way that makes my stomach turn. among other things, i don’t think we talk about that kind of emotional sexual coercion enough. i wish i had been able to identify it when it was happening to me. i’m sorry you went through this and i’m so glad the past year has been what it was for you.

  2. Thanks for writing. It’s hard to ID and analyze emotional abuse, and I think the potential for it & its impacts in queer relationships gets glossed over sometimes. I hope you continue to heal and find someone.

  3. thank you for writing this <3 so much of it hits eerily close to home – your timeline for sobriety matches mine but for a month, the break from dating, the specifics of the abuse & the ways you tried to prove your love –

    so much love to you in this healing journey. so much gratitude for your vulnerability.

    cherishing your work,
    mat

  4. “I tried to fast forward through the healing and ended up hurting myself more in the process.”
    well said! I’ve also thought I was taking a shortcut when in reality that was a detour, relatable to read someone else going through it too

  5. This resonated with me so much- I’m crying. I’m recently out of a relationship like the one with your ex, and I can see myself falling into patterns you described with dating after- both of which I hadn’t been able to describe with as much clarity as you did. You give me hope that I can eventually heal and be okay with enough time alone. Thank you so much

  6. Thank you so much for writing and sharing this Dani. I really appreciated this insight into what it can mean to heal and the way you talked openly about what hihello referred to above as “emotional sexual coersion.” This isn’t just a really fucking good essay, it’s also super important.

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