[Trigger Warning: This article discusses domestic and sexual abuse.]
Ashley Bendiksen thought she was going to die at her abusive ex-boyfriend’s hands, she said, piercing through the silence at an intimate gathering in DPAC Wednesday.
He’d walked a mile through the snow to her apartment in a drunken rage a week after their breakup, lunged at her, grabbed her by the hair, and strangled her with tears in his eyes. “You never loved me,” he yelled. “I hate you, I hate you…”
But looking into the eyes of the man she thought would kill her, she felt a strange sense of guilt and longing. “He was still handsome,” she said. “He was still the man I fell in love with.”
Bendiksen never expected the situation to go so far downhill – having experienced a sexually, verbally, and physically abusive boyfriend in high school, she saw her new relationship as the salvation she deserved after her ordeal. “It seemed like destiny,” she said. But isolated outbursts soon became a cycle of trauma, and as her life crumbled around her, her manipulative boyfriend grew obsessed with her every move.
“No one’s an abuser on the first date,” she explained. Abuse follows a pattern – “I never would’ve believed them” if someone told her at the time he was an abuser, she said.
Starting with a “honeymoon” period of charm, a “too-good-to-be-true feeling,” the cycle of abuse soon shifts to accusations and name-calling, until exploding into a moment of tension, she said. The periods between joy and tension become shorter and shorter, resulting in a constant feeling of “walking on eggshells.”
“Things were really good at times, too,” – identifying abuse isn’t always as simple as people make it out to be, she said.
Eventually, though, their relationship devolved into “textbook abuse.” Bendiksen said he followed her to her school two hours away, memorizing the security guard schedule to avoid getting caught, and would constantly monitor her to-and-from class. He once went so far as to “total” her car two weeks before the fall semester in an attempt to keep her by his side – away from the setting of countless imaginary cheating scandals.
It worked. She soon dropped out of the university – never to return.
“At least he never hit me,” she said, allowing her to rationalize his emotional torment – until he punched her in the face through glass, her face covered in shards and blood.
She said, “It was the first time I was directly at his aggression – I realized I had to get out.”
She soon broke up with him.
A week after his violent drunken outburst, her boyfriend was finally charged with domestic assault. She had a long road to recovery, but eventually became valedictorian at a different college. She joined a women’s advocacy group, and now speaks about her experiences at a variety of schools and professional conferences.
She’s also in the process of forming a website for people to anonymously share their stories of abuse: blueheartsproject.org.
Bendiksen stressed the power bystanders have in cutting the cycle short. “There were a million people around me who could’ve helped,” she said.
Further, she encouraged people to define their own stories, and reach their highest potential.
“You define your life,” she said.