As a junior in high school, Erica says, “I was the All-American girl.’’ She had solid grades, came from a good family, and played varsity girls’ sports at her Gwinnett County school. That’s when she met the guy. “He was cute. He was really sweet,’’ she says now, 10 years later. “He really wooed me.’’ The two started dating. After a while, her boyfriend started calling her constantly during the day. “If I didn’t answer or have time to talk, he would get really mad at me and call me names,’’ says Erica, now 26. “And he started making me feel bad because I was playing so many sports,’’ she says. He also grew upset about her spending time with friends. After a few months of dating, he began hitting her. Erica’s story demonstrates the abuse that a high number of teenage girls suffer while dating. “Teens think domestic violence happens to adults, not them,’’ says Laura Barton, prevention and outreach director for the Decatur-based Partnership Against Domestic Violence (PAVD). But that’s far from true, particularly in Georgia. The anti-violence group, citing data from the CDC, says Georgia leads the nation in teen dating violence. Dating violence is defined as the use of physical, sexual, emotional or verbal force by one dating partner toward another. It can include threats, constant text messaging or instant messaging, cyber-stalking, insults, isolation from family and friends, sexual abuse, name-calling, emotional abuse and controlling a partner’s behavior and appearance, the PADV says. The organization’s goal is “to try to turn victims into survivors, and help them get control back into their lives,’’ Barton says.
A problem that’s often unrecognized
Trouble within a relationship is not always easy for an outsider to assess. The point at which disagreements turn into verbal or emotional abuse can be hard to define. Sometimes there is mutual abuse, or there are mutual accusations of abuse that are difficult to untangle. But many teenagers who are in toxic relationships know when something is wrong. And statistics prove how serious the consequences are when abuse occurs. One in three Georgia teens is a victim of violence in a dating relationship, Barton says. Teen dating violence is very similar to adult domestic violence, which is experienced by one in four women, Barton says. Georgia ranks 10th in the country for its rate at which men kill women in single-victim homicides – and many are domestic violence murders, according to the Violence Policy Center, a Washington-based non-profit Friends of a possible victim should look for whether their friend is withdrawn, whether she is constantly reporting back to her partner, whether she has unexplained injuries, Barton says. Erica says her boyfriend never hit her in the face – the blows came to her arms, legs, neck. “He made it seem like it was my fault,’’ she says. “I was so in love with him that I believed it wouldn’t happen again.’’ Instead, it happened more frequently. Erica never told her friends or family what was going on, even when her mother questioned the bruises on her legs and arms. “I was embarrassed,’’ she says now. But what was worse than the physical abuse, she says, was the emotional scorn she suffered. “Most of the time, I would rather had him hit me [than say] the words – like, ‘You are worthless.’ ‘You are not as pretty as this person.’ ’’ He also called her “a whore,’’ she recalls. She stayed with him almost a year and a half before she broke up with him. Then Erica started “self-medicating’’ herself with alcohol and prescription pills. “I didn’t feel anything,’’ she says. “I lost who I was.’’ And she went back to him again briefly, for three weeks. “It all went back to how it was,’’ Erica says. It finally ended one night when he attacked her again, she says. She was able to flee his vehicle and told her parents about the abuse. They helped her get into therapy. “I built my self-esteem and self-worth back up,’’ she says. But the recovery was far from swift. She had depression, post-traumatic stress disorder and a substance abuse problem. And she had anger that she had to let go. “Three years afterward, I’d have nightmares.’’ She learned that it wasn’t her fault. “I can’t change what happened in my past,’’ Erica says now. “I can change my future.’’
Part of the solution
Erica is now married to a man who is supportive and caring, and they have children. She still has some residue of anger. Drawing on her own experience as a way to help others, Erica now talks to girls and women who are dating abusive people. “People don’t realize how frequently it happens to people in high school,’’ she says. Barton of PADV says that like Erica, many women go back to their men several times before they leave for good. “Many go back with the hope they can change their partner,’’ Barton says. Teen dating violence doesn’t have to include physical hitting, she adds. “Emotional abuse sticks with them longer.’’ Her organization tries to educate teens about healthy relationships – about boundaries, trust and honesty. PADV offers a 24-hour crisis line for victims and their friends and families. (404-873-1766). The nonprofit can help teenagers and adults get into an emergency shelter, if needed. Support groups are offered, and victims can be connected to counselors. Violence among teens in domestic and dating situations is “one of the greatest public health issues out there,’’ Barton says.