| This is the 309th story of Our Life Logs |
I was born in York, Pennsylvania, on April 3, 1994, raised in a family where I was one of five girls. Emotions—my mother’s, specifically—ran our household. If Mom was upset, everyone’s emotional state shifted. My sisters and I walked on eggshells around her, holding our breath as we waited to be a happy family again. Unfortunately, it was more often that we complicated the air around our mother, making our father agitated and sharp. If one of my sisters or I made a mistake, we were not only in trouble, but also had to deal with the guilt of seeing our mother cry.
This need to “keep the peace” bled into how I dealt with others as I grew up. One of the more prominent manifestations of focusing on others before myself was with my first boyfriend. I met him when attending West York Area High School in 2011. Though we went to different schools, we started dating very quickly because of my tendency to go “all-in” with people emotionally.
We hung out all the time, and even though it felt great to be with him initially, his anger had a negative effect on our relationship. His family moved around a lot, which was difficult for him because it caused him to leave a lot of his significant relationships behind. In his anger, he became emotionally manipulative.
When I got a prominent role in my school play Crazy for You, my boyfriend wasn’t happy for me. He was resentful of the fact that I got an opportunity that he didn’t. I didn’t want to cause him stress, so I lowered my head and let him berate me. I wanted him to feel better, but I couldn’t.
Eventually, I allowed his emotions to rule me so much that I put his feelings before my own safety. One day, he got uncomfortable after seeing a picture of the cast on Facebook. He was enraged upon seeing me touching toes with one of my male cast members as we stretched on the stage. When I realized he was upset, I went to his house, convinced that I had completely messed up, and wanting more than anything to make it better. He was so jealous that he told me he could hit me. Instead of being shocked or afraid that someone could say something like that to me, I asked him to hit me, not to taunt or dare him in any way, but because I wanted him to feel better.
Despite this and other instances where his threats of physical violence became more than just threats, I was deeply in love with him—or at least I thought I was. We bawled our eyes out together before I left town for Eastern University in 2012, knowing that we would be seeing each other so much less. I was so upset about leaving him that I didn’t even want to play field hockey in college, even though it was something I had dreamed about for years. However, I allowed myself to follow this route and, in doing so, I became friends with one of my teammates, a psychology major.
As I described my relationship with my boyfriend to her, I was shocked to see the alarm on her face. What was going on with her? After I finished talking, my friend told me what I wasn’t seeing: I was in an abusive relationship.
Her words brought on the immediate sting of embarrassment. I hadn’t felt like I was someone being abused, as I had been solely focused on not hurting him. After a deep breath and some time to think, every fiber of my being (reluctantly) knew she was right. My concern for his feelings left me with nothing but heavy guilt. All this time, I thought I had moved away from the eggshells I used to tiptoe as a child, but instead, I had just gotten better at walking on them.
That fall, I broke up with him on the phone, but we still saw each other, like many young lovers in broken relationships do. I guess I felt a certain comfort with small doses of familiarity, regardless of his taunts and threats that stained our past. I guess I didn’t truly accept that our bond was unstable. Of course, I believed my friends who had intervened, but my heart had yet to flip the switch.
The funny thing was, it took a broken ankle from field hockey practice to push me into the light. After I had been rushed to the hospital by the team’s trainer, I made a phone call. My “ex-” boyfriend was supposed to visit that weekend and I wanted to let him know what was going on.
All he said was, “So…should I come visit you or no?” Such a simple question in such a monotone voice. This was when it clicked. He didn’t ask how I was feeling or if I was in pain, no—he held no stock in my well-being. I answered quietly and politely, no, don’t worry about it. In that moment, the knot that was holding my boat to the dock loosened, and I began to drift away.
Even though he was no longer a part of my life, I still had realizations about our relationship long after that. During a trip that my international social work class took to Tijuana, Mexico, my professor talked about the many forms of domestic violence.
I always thought that abuse looked like a woman with a black eye, but I learned that abuse could come in the form of emotional manipulation as well. My professor gave examples of abusive language—such as “I can’t live without you,” or “I would commit suicide if you left me,”—that matched exactly with what my ex-boyfriend had said.
After that trip, there was a certain finality to the emotional turmoil I’d been swimming in over the years. I left all the shame and responsibility for my trauma at sea and paddled to shore.
My story didn’t stop there, thankfully. This new understanding of my past relationship was therapeutic to me, so I put my energy into majoring and establishing a career in social work.
While my story was painful to live, I now see it as a bridge of empathy in which I can extend to the people I meet with my job. I have learned that social workers don’t necessarily experience the same things as their clients, but we all have experienced the same feelings. I can’t identify what it’s like to be addicted to heroin, but I can identify what it’s like to feel terrified or powerless. I can connect with clients because we all experience the same feelings—inexplicable pain, terror, sadness, happiness—but it’s just different events for all of us. I felt more confident to be a social worker because I knew what it was like to be terrified and traumatized and to overcome that.
So that’s what I do. I sit with people in their pain and I help them start a new life. I create space in my empathetic heart to hold their stories, just as you are now holding mine.
This is the story of Kerri Hartnett
Kerri Hartnett was born and raised in York, Pennsylvania. After getting out of an abusive relationship that followed her to college at Eastern University, Kerri studied abroad in Argentina while majoring in Social Work and Spanish. Kerri uses this understanding and her passion for people to help her support people with addictions at Prevention Point, a harm-reduction organization in Philadelphia. Kerri specifically works with drug addicts, sex workers, victims of sex trafficking, people who are mentally ill, and people who are homeless – all of which are co-morbid with substance abuse. She is also currently continuing her studies in social work by studying to get her master’s degree at Bryn Mawr College.
This story first touched our hearts on November 16, 2018.