Content warning: this post contains graphic descriptions of physical, sexual, and emotional abuse.
I just played through the text-based game Nineteen by Kiran Oliver. It hit me hard and took me right back to that part of my life, when I felt lucky. When I was so sure that, with a little hard work on my end, everything would turn out just fine.
The week before I turned nineteen, my first winter break from college began, and I left on a Disney vacation with my family. I remember holding my boyfriend’s hands outside my dorm, both of us crying. It was like a fairy tale, like a dream, to be so in love that we could hardly stand the thought of being apart for a few days.
I was still learning the ins and outs of love, romance, and sex, which frustrated him. I loved how patient he was with me when I got something wrong. I’d never known how to dress, and he spoke so gently when I made a mistake. He’d say “You look different than usual”, and I’d go change. No one else I knew would have cared enough to correct me like that. I never told him no, even when I liked what I was wearing. I wanted so badly to be right for him.
After a while, I got into the rhythm of talking with my family, wandering through the parks, enjoying myself. But my boyfriend, who didn’t have a good relationship with his family at all, kept calling me sounding so sad. I turned nineteen in the Magic Kingdom on an unusually cold, gloomy Florida day, warming one hand on my phone and the other in my pocket, listening to him cry while my family waited in line for rides. I felt terrible that I’d left him alone.
I vowed to be better to him in the coming year. He’d had an awful life. He’d been sick lately, and I’d had to help talk him down from suicide when his ex cheated on him. And I — fat, awkward, disabled — was hardly a catch.
When we returned to school, he took a class I’d already completed the previous semester. I offered to help him with the online quizzes and work on the papers with him; it’d be easy for me. But when I struggled to quickly choose the right answers for the first quiz, he began to panic and begged me to just sit down at his computer and take it myself. I did, of course. He looked so helpless and scared. From then on I logged into his class and did it myself.
His own birthday came right on the edge of spring. Although he could barely stand my procrastination habit, I hadn’t found the time to slip out and buy a gift. I slept over in his dorm every night by then, and when I wasn’t in class, he liked to read together, or have me sit with him and play video games. (I was lucky to have a lover who was a reader and gamer, like me!) So on the day he turned nineteen, I woke hours early and walked four miles to buy him a book and a cake mix, which I baked in the communal dorm kitchen. He was surprised and so grateful, and we were happy.
I loved playing games with him, and watching him play. I had left my game consoles back home, and my laptop wasn’t powerful enough to run most PC games. I had a casual interest in Second Life, but dropped it when he’d tease me about liking my second life more than my first. I’d been a volunteer moderator for Gaia Online since high school, but I found it harder and harder to put in enough uninterrupted time, and eventually I got kicked from my position. Although I hated keeping secrets from my boyfriend, I pretended I had quit. I knew he’d rightfully blame me for putting off my work.
Near summer, I spent a day in my dorm doing chores, homework, and laundry. I chatted on the phone with my mom while working, and halfway through, the call from my boyfriend came in. I wrapped it up and called my boyfriend back. He asked why I hadn’t answered right away, and I told him.
His response floored me. He demanded to know why my mom was more important than him. He said my lack of response had worried him, that he was on his way to my room right now.
I had never meant to make him feel that way. I knew he had trust issues; I knew I was somehow in the wrong. I told him it was just a mistake, that I didn’t think he’d mind if I waited a couple minutes to call.
He told me, “If this keeps happening, we’re through.” And he hung up.
I shocked myself by flinging my phone across the room in frustration. Why couldn’t I properly get across my side of the situation? Why didn’t he understand? For a second, I thought — after this, would it be so bad if we broke up?
But I couldn’t give up on our relationship after one little argument. That would be childish. So I ran out of my dorm, met him at the corner, and begged for forgiveness.
That summer, our dorm leases expired, and he asked me to move in with him. I’d have to cover the cost until he felt well enough to get a job, but I could do it easily, between my scholarships and disability income. Campus life stressed him out, and he said he’d be much more relaxed if we had a place of our own. We’d have more time and freedom to have sex, so he wouldn’t have to nudge me into it whenever he could.
For a week between the dorms shutting down and our apartment opening, I lived at home. I spent a lot of time alone, pacing around, dwelling on my thoughts. I loved my boyfriend, but I’d lost trust for him somewhere along the line. I wanted to ask my mom whether I should back out of living with him before it was too late, but how could I possibly phrase it? She’d laugh at me if I told her that he got mad when I put things off or ignored his needs.
We moved into a clean, spacious second-floor apartment with a balcony that overlooked a lake. There was plenty of parking and a bus stop a half mile away. Our first night, equipped only with a mattress and a few bags of clothing, he hugged me and whispered contentedly against my ear, “We have a home.”
I poured myself into making it work. Cleaning was hard, especially since he didn’t like me to spend money on supplies, but I discovered that I enjoyed cooking and could use it to lift his spirits. When the school year started and he asked me to pick up a few more classes for him, I knew it was a lot to ask, but I didn’t want to turn him down while things were going so well.
But I fell behind. I got distracted. I let the sink fill up with dishes, let food in the fridge grow mold. I was years away from getting diagnosed with ADD, and all I knew was that family, teachers, and friends had called me lazy all my life. One more voice in the chorus couldn’t be wrong.
One day, my boyfriend came to the kitchen for cereal, and all the bowls were in the sink, dirty.
This had happened before. Like always, I said I’d wash one for him right away, but this dirty bowl was the last straw.
He said, “You had plenty of time to do them today. I left you alone for hours.”
My heart started to race. I knew he was about to call me lazy, or accuse me of not caring about him. I apologized and promised I’d do better next time, keeping eye contact, so he’d know I was honest.
“You always say that.” This was new. He had lost his patience. “Lazy fucking bitch. You always break your promises. You say you’ll do better, and then you just put it off again.”
Then, for the first time, he slapped me. His palm connected with my cheek, and I heard the sharp noise before I felt it. I didn’t react for several moments after it happened. I touched my face, wondering if it would be like in the movies, where a thin stream of blood trickles out of the woman’s mouth after she is slapped, because her teeth cut the inside of her cheek. But despite the hot, tingling pain that rose to the surface of my skin, there was no blood, so I knew it wasn’t that bad.
If I remember correctly, what he did after slapping me was shake his head and ask bitterly, “Why did you make me do that?” Then he walked away.
I followed, and to my surprise, he immediately apologized and swore never to hurt me again. I thought about leaving him anyway. I could tell he felt guilty enough for having done it that he wouldn’t have tried to stop me if I’d left.
But I loved him. I thought about how he hadn’t really hurt me, hadn’t beaten me up. I’d seen men slap hysterical women countless times in stories, where it’s always just the thing that snaps her back to reality. I thought about how really, I could have done the dishes earlier instead of painting my nails or browsing the internet.
And that winter, when I turned twenty, I went to see my family for only a weekend. I lied about the bruise on my arm and said I’d fallen while riding the bus. I huddled under layers of coats and blankets and spent the whole time on the phone with my boyfriend, listening to him tell me about how hopeless he felt, how he’d spent hours staring blankly at the ceiling, how he couldn’t believe I cared about him when I wasn’t there. I had left him premade meals, I had written dozens of love notes and hidden them away, I would return with gifts for him from my whole family.
I was no longer a child. I was sure that anyone I asked for help would ask me how I let it get so bad, or tell me to try talking to him. In the same way I was different from the slapped woman in movies, he was different from the textbook abuser. He didn’t cheat on me or get drunk. He only hurt me when I’d done something really wrong. When I behaved, he did too.
And, if I locked myself in my old bedroom and refused to go home to him, he knew where to find me.
I’ve written before about how my characters help me through hard times.
I used one character to experience the pain with me, and another to fight toward independence. After leaving my ex, I had to start out exploring the rest of the world slowly. So I created an avatar I could used to engage with others online, through gaming on an RP server. This gave me what I lacked elsewhere in my life: enough space to set boundaries.
I’ve made plenty of missteps along the way, especially with separating my identity and feelings from the first character I made to help me navigate life after abuse. We still have a lot in common (such as gender identity, as you can see from the difference between the screenshot below and the one above), but I’m better at avoiding entanglement with both real people and fictional ones these days.
The character is an elf, and according to World of Warcraft lore, he’ll live hundreds of years at least. Still, I remember an in-character conversation I got into, early on while playing him. Someone asked how old he was, and almost without thinking, I replied, “Nineteen.”
Nineteen. I could have escaped (mostly) unscathed when I was nineteen. You’re never too old to change your life, but however unconsciously, I wanted my character to have the best possible shot at it.
I played the game Nineteen, and I discovered that its creator, too, went through abuse, struggled with their gender identity, had a disability. I looked through their blog and almost wept. They and I have even played on the same WoW server, as characters who aren’t always accepted by a community that touts itself as welcoming. It’s rare that with my particular set of experiences, I’m able to feel a little less alone.
So, thank you, Kiran. For surviving being nineteen, and for speaking out about what it was like. You’ve inspired me to do the same.