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October 18, 2010

How I Saved Myself from an Abusive Boyfriend

Like Lindsey Wegner, women 16 to 24 years old are most at risk of suffering abuse at the hands of a lover. Would you know the signs?

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Lindsey poses on graduation day at Indiana University with a friend, Vicki Kleger.

Photo Credit: Courtesy of Lindsey Wegner

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Saving Grace
An instant message from her friend Amber — who was in the military and was stationed overseas — changed everything. Lindsey revealed that her boyfriend was beating her, and Amber threatened to tell Lindsey's family if she didn't tell them herself. Boosted by her friend's support, Lindsey got up the nerve to call her brother, Michael, while she sat in her car in the library parking lot. "It was so hard to get those words out," she says. She asked him not to come help her get out until after finals. In two weeks, her family drove to pick her up and then to the courthouse for a protective order.

Unfortunately, it's not that easy for teens and young adults in other states. Many jurisdictions require that the perpetrator and victim be current or former spouses, or have a child in common, to get a restraining order, according to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence. (See how your state fares.) Often, support groups cater to domestic violence issues among older women, and awareness programs work with grade school kids, but there's not much in the middle, says Joe Samalin, who works with the national organization, Men Can Stop Rape, to develop prevention programs on college campuses.

"One of the challenges in working with colleges and universities, especially on the issue of dating violence and domestic violence, is that very often traditional college-aged students tend to fall into the cracks between adult domestic violence and youth dating violence," says Samalin.

The Cycle
A week after Lindsey got the protective order, she was instant-messaging with her ex. While a court order put an end to the physical abuse, it took another year of emotional and verbal abuse for Lindsey to completely break ties with her abuser. She went back because she had become dependent of him. "I felt very lonely," she says. Her family was at work during winter break, and she had nobody to keep her company.

It's a vicious cycle that's hard to understand, but Eminem's music video, "Love the Way You Lie" — featuring Rihanna, a victim of domestic violence herself — portrays it very well, says Jean Sung, a teen dating violence survivor and Day One's Youth Voices coordinator. Still, she's not so sure about the message it sends: "I can't tell if it's glorifying it or spotlighting it, and I think that's a definite problem for me."

Although it's not clear what Rihanna is trying to convey by singing with self-proclaimed wife-beater Eminem, her 2009 case against ex-boyfriend Chris Brown was a sea-change in the conversation, says Nilva. Now, people see that it can happen to anyone of any economic or social background. The high-profile case chipped away at the stigma of dating violence and made it a household term, says Nilva.

"I think the thing that's still missing is a real strong accountability for the batterer," says Gentile. "No one would ever say if you were being mugged, 'How were you walking down the street? Was your wallet bulging from your pants?' But for rape victims and dating violence victims, you still get a tinge of or an overt questioning of your legitimacy to be a victim, and that goes hand in hand with lack of accountability."

After years of healing and rebuilding, Lindsey is happy with her life. Initially, she was worried that the effects of being in an abusive relationship — having to take incompletes in three college courses and not getting the grades she would have otherwise gotten — would stymie her career goals, but she worked hard. She's been accepted to IU for law school and plans to work in family law so she can help other women and girls understand their rights. "When I got in, I felt like I had reached my ultimate goal because this was no longer haunting me."

October is Domestic Violence Awareness Month. If you think you or any of your loved ones may be an abusive relationship, check out the signs at breakthecycle.org. Get help by calling the National Teen Dating Abuse Helpline (1-866-331-9474) or the National Domestic Violence Hotline (1-800-799-SAFE).


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