In this inaugural posting of Inspire Solutions’ new series, Silenced Voices, Dawson Humanities professor Mariam Sambe interviews a former student, who wants to break the silences about abusive relationships. With courage and honesty, Dawson Graduate Rhea Giuliana speaks about how the relationship began, why she stayed, and how she found the strength to leave.
When we think of violence, we often look at violence occurring at a large scale: Wars, conflicts, or acts of terrorism… Yet, the foundation of most acts of violence is within the walls of our homes. According to Statistics Canada (2016), 4 % of Canadians report being physically and/or sexually abused at home. This may seem like a small number, but considering that 70% of individuals being abused do not report their mistreatment to the police (Family Violence in Canada, 2014), and that family abuse also comprises emotional and psychological exploitation, domestic violence happens far more often than we think.
I sat down with a brave young woman, Rhea Giuliana, who wanted to share her story in the goal of cautioning and advising future women who might find themselves in violent relationships. For Rhea, talking about her story was no easy task. Yet, she felt the need to express herself because she sought to fight for what is right, and not let fear win the battle.
When you first meet Rhea, you will see her as any other ‘normal’ young woman living in Montreal. She is a 22-years-old student majoring in Religion Studies at Concordia University. In her free time, she writes poetry and short stories, and hopes to be published someday. She also wants to become a teacher and is looking for possibilities to help youths achieve their highest potential. Prior to Concordia, Rhea attended Dawson College, and studied Literature. She was involved with Ecterra (also known as @EtcDawson) a student club whose “objective is to fight for fairness, reach-out to those in distress, and provide a safe space for all whom wish to be accepted for who they are or aspire to be” (EtcDawon, 2017).
This is one side of Rhea’s life. The other side is that she had to deal with an abusive relationship that almost shook her to her core… To the point where she lost her self-esteem, became depressed, had anxiety attacks, and started to lose her drive for success. Here is part of the interview I had with her.
Mariam Sambe: How was it when you first met your partner?
Rhea Giuliana: We met on an online dating site, and on there, we only said basic, “hi, how are you,” type of stuff, but nothing more and he gave me his number. During our texts, I was feeling a little bit apprehensive about the whole thing. I wasn’t feeling great about the conversation, but I figured that maybe it was just nerves because it was initial conversation. The same day we started texting, he started expressing that he wanted to meet me the next day, and at first I did not want to. Then he called me the same night, and I decided to agree. During our first phone call, he uttered the words “I love you,” and I said them back, which I fully regret.
When we actually met up, I was feeling nervous, and uneasy again. He was nice at first, and being sweet. We were talking, and things felt okay. I could tell that there were things I was a little bit uncertain of. It was not even close to love at first sight. It was more of “I know this is totally wrong, but maybe I’m just overthinking it right now”.
S.: When did you first notice that things weren’t right?
G.: I sort of noticed that things were not right from the very start. There were red flags from the moment we started to talk, but I chose to ignore the signs. However, the first instance of me having an “oh, this doesn’t feel right at all,” was about one week into him and I dating. I started to pick up on these little things, mostly the anger. I noticed he was already less attentive, and cared less. I noticed things pretty early on honestly.
S.: Tell me about the abuse, what exactly happened?
G.: The abuse was emotional and psychological. The abuse happened almost daily. It took on different forms, depending on what we were talking about or doing that day. I’ll provide some general examples of what occurred:
From the first date, he was already asking me to “prove I loved him,” something that to me was a red flag, but I overlooked it. He would say things like “If you loved me, you’d do this”
He would constantly make me feel bad about my weight. He’d ask me to sit on his lap, and then quickly tell me to get off, because his legs hurt. He’d constantly say “babe, you really need to lose weight, and I’m going to make you.” He’d tell me “Oh, I want you to wear shorts, but first you got to lose the weight, otherwise it won’t look good on you.” He’d try to be “cute” about it, and compare me to large cartoon characters. There was a video of the “Six Little Ducks Song” and he said I was the fat duck who was always waiting for food. He actually called me “Bulaga” on multiple occasions.
He would find ways to attack my looks in different ways. He’d sometimes flat out tell me how ugly I was. Or how my personality was better than his ex fiancé, but would essentially say she was prettier than me. He would tell me how he liked that she had long hair, and that I needed to grow mine out. He told me that “his mother said” that I wasn’t pretty enough for him and that he could do better. He would guilt me into doing sexual things for him, and would never accept no for an answer. He’d pout; he’d argue with me, he’d make me feel terrible if I didn’t want to. He’d say I didn’t love him. He expected me to do things for him, because as he put it “it’s a woman’s job.” This led me to lose my virginity when I wasn’t ready. I was scared of what would happen to me if I said no. He didn’t believe in the word no, when it came to sexual things.
He’d get angry at me, he’d get up in my face, come close and angrily say harsh things to me. He’d always say “You’re lucky you have a boyfriend who doesn’t beat you, what more could you want?”
There were issues of trust. He’d think that I was cheating on him. I went to my best friend’s house once, and he called me thirteen times…. because he didn’t trust me. He knew about the situation of my father cheating on my mother, and how much it hurt me, but he always suspected that I was cheating. For example, we’d be walking, and there would be a guy in front of us, and he’d say “Oh, I bet you think he’s hotter than me, don’t you? Oh you want to be with him instead.” All the while he would actively tell me “oh wow look, that girl is hot,” and it was a girl who looked nothing like me. He would tell me his ideal body type was the Jennifer Anniston type, and I look nothing like that. If I had a male friend, it was a problem because he’d get upset. If I would tell him that him saying other girls were hot was unfair, and he’d say “it’s what guys do, but it doesn’t matter because I’d always come home to you”.
He was trying to actively isolate me from my friends. He’d tell me that I didn’t need friends, because I had him, and that was all I needed. He’d get angry at me if I was busy when he wanted to call me, but when he was busy it was okay. He would expect me to make him the center of his world, and I wasn’t allowed to have friends or family. He actually yelled at me once for choosing to spend more time with my mom as opposed to calling him. He said it was an issue that my mom was taking priority over him.
We’d argue almost daily, and everything was always my fault. It was always me because apparently there was no way he was ever to blame. I also caught him replying to sexual ads on Craigslist. The amount of times he called me a bitch, I lost count after about the 15th time. Being called a bitch was almost daily.
Every time I’d try and talk about school (and anyone who knows me knows I could spend weeks on end talking about school), and how I was excited about my future; well, he never wanted to hear it. Instead, he’d tell me that I was just a show off, and that I was trying to make him look stupid, and make him feel bad about himself. He’d say “Oh you only want to talk about it so you can think you’re better than me” or he’d get angry and say that I shouldn’t put my education before him. It was an issue that I took my school seriously.
S: How long did this last? How often did the abuse occur?
G: The relationship lasted about 3 months, and the abuse was almost daily. It started to pick up more and more after the first week of the relationship, and it became even more than once a day.
S: Many will wonder then why you didn’t just leave him right away. Could you explain?
G: This question is tough to answer. And for most people it may seem simple to just get out of such relationship. But many things stopped me from leaving: One, it’s because I was thinking that this was it. I truly felt that he was it, because of where I was in relation to myself. I didn’t feel confident in myself. Also, I felt like I had to work it out. It was my duty. I felt like if I didn’t leave that it would get better. So, I felt like I could fix the situation. I kept thinking maybe I was reading into things too much. In addition, he’d say things like “if you ever leave, I’ll come all the way to your house and not leave you alone until you take me back.” So, I was scared.
I also thought that most of this was my fault, so I thought that leaving was running away from fixing myself. He also would guilt me, and make me feel bad if I would express my unhappiness (which I was scared to do).
S: How did you feel about yourself when all this was happening?
G: I felt as though everything I was doing was wrong. I felt lonely, and scared. I was always worried, and angry. I let go of things I cared about. I was isolating myself from friends and family, and my life became him. I was not myself. I felt like I did not know who I was anymore. I felt sad. I cried a lot. My anxiety was constantly up, and I could not focus anymore. I felt stupid. I felt like I couldn’t do better than this. I felt so degusting. I actually had worked hard on trying to be happier with my body, and being with him destroyed that. Being with him, I felt like I was completely flawed. I didn’t think I had any good qualities about myself anymore. I fell back into a dark place, and it’s one that has taken me almost a full year to finally feel like I am getting out of it.
S: What was the changing point for you?
G: There were a few things that lead to having this changing point. One of the things was a lot of reflection. I think that when I sat down and started to look over things, I just felt sad. I was starting to reflect on my feelings and realized I wasn’t happy. My mom and stepdad sat me down, and explained for nearly 40 minutes how I needed to leave him.
And one day, my ex and I had a huge argument, an even bigger one than usual. It was the day where the abuse was worse than it had been, and I couldn’t handle that anymore. It was then that I realized that I needed to think about myself. I needed to stop being someone I wasn’t happy to be. So, I tired to break up with him, but it didn’t work the first time. I had to actually break up with him twice.
S: When in that relationship, what kept you going?
G: I think what kept me going was God. I prayed every day, and hoped that God would give me answers. It was one of the only things I could do. I didn’t really tell people what was happening while it was, and if I did, I let it be something less drastic than what it was. I would leave things out. Or just not express how much it hurt me. Praying was the only thing that kept me fully okay and the fact that I knew I still had my education as something that would help me. I think indirectly, my family and friends were there, but it was less crucial because I didn’t fully let them in. It was just my faith in God that allowed me to push through. I knew that if God put this person in my path there was a reason, and I believed that God would let me come out of this, and that eventually, I would be okay.
S: What advice do you have for people who might find themselves in an abusive relationship?
G: The most important thing I would say is “don’t blame yourself”. It’s easy to get caught up thinking that you could have done something different, when in reality; it’s not your fault.
Another thing would be, “let people in”. Talk to the people who were there for you before this person came around. They will help you, and be there. Listening to what other people say (of course think about who they are), but chances are if they see signs, they’re right. At the very least, if you are not willing to show them you’re listening, reflect on what they are saying.
Also, think about yourself. Think about YOUR feelings, and what this is doing to you. Think about how you feel now versus how you felt before this. Think about where you see your life going, and if deep down this is the person you want to be with. Sometimes, thinking about yourself first is important. We’re fed to believe that if we don’t put others before ourselves that we’re selfish, but sometimes reflecting on what we want, and what is good for us, is crucial.
My last advice is this: “You deserve the best, someone who lifts you up… Someone who makes you happy and allows you to be you”. Being in a relationship is not supposed to be some entrapment. Of course nothing is perfect, but a healthy relationship is one where both parties are happy, and can express themselves, and that when issues arise you can talk about them, and you can talk about your achievements and grow together.
S: Today, what makes you happy? What keeps you at peace?
G: Today, school, reading, creative writing, my family, my friends. I know this sounds generic if you will, but after going through this, I have learned to appreciate the people I have. I am able to feel better about myself as a result of these things. I am able to channel all the struggles into an experience of my past, and am more aware of what is happening to me. I have a better relationship with my mom now because I am able to talk to her more, and be more open about it. I think going to school also helps me because it allows me to express myself in a different way. If I had to sum up this question’s answer in one sentence: what makes me happy and keeps me at peace is being able to express myself.
S: How do you feel about what you did here, this interview?
G: This was not an easy process. It was a challenge to even feel ready and talk about it. What happened to me was not something that fixed itself overnight, and it took almost a year to finally start feeling like myself again. I am finally at a point where I want to talk about it, but still I cry when thinking about this, and even answering these questions is hard. But it’s okay to cry when you feel pain. It was a long process, and I am still working on myself, but I’m making improvements and that is very important to me. I hope I can help at least one person by telling my story.
Mariam Sambe is a youth worker and educator, with a special focus on critical pedagogy and AIDS education. She has been involved in the field of education for about 15 years and has worked in all levels from preschool to university. She has managed several educational programs and services in Ethiopia, France, the United States and Canada. Currently she is a PhD Candidate in Educational Studies at Concordia University and a Humanities Professor at Dawson College. Mariam has dedicated most of her life to humanitarian and charitable organizations; particularly those benefiting children and youth, and that promote education. In 1999, she was the co-founder and president of an association named Welfare by Teenagers that assisted orphans and homeless youths. In 2007, she launched Sponsor Ethiopia to support underprivileged children with needs such as shelter, food, clothing and education. Mariam is also the Founder and Chair of Academy of Bright Africans, a holistic school that is set to be launched this year.
With SILENCED VOICES, Inspire Solutions seeks to raise awareness of the harm caused by forms of discrimination and marginalization that affect those closest to us. Alongside our regular postings of more academic fare, we will be including regular stories from members of our community. Story-telling has long been a key part of the Inspire Solutions project, as stories have the power to awaken our empathy and understanding in ways that transform our outlook on the world like little else.
We are therefore calling for the Dawson Community — its students and staff — to share, anonymously if they wish, their own experiences, or those of people they care about, with being disabled by an ableist society, living in poverty in a culture where our value is often defined by what we own, confronting racial profiling, or being affected by recent acts of physical violence or the traumatic legacy of harm that can cross generations. Of course, violence comes in many forms, and these are just a few possibilities. This will be an ongoing call, and selections from the series, in whole or in part, will be posted periodically on our monthly blog.
If you are interested in sharing a story, just send an email to Inspire’s Editor Pat Romano at firstname.lastname@example.org