When I read the recent Rolling Stone cover story on Rihanna, I couldn't help wondering how she is coping since breaking off her highly publicized abusive relationship with fellow singer Chris Brown two years ago. I know that recovering from a domestic attack is never easy. It happened to me almost 10 years ago. While my experience was not nearly as violent or public as Rihanna's, it is something I continue to struggle with.
I had just moved to New York to anchor BET Nightly News. I didn't know many people in the city, so I reached out to a guy who went to college with one of my best friends. We had met years earlier when my friend tried to set us up. I was attracted to him, but at the time we lived in two different cities, and there just wasn't a connection. In fact, we never had any romantic interaction until the night he attacked me.
That night, we were kissing passionately in his apartment. We were still fully dressed, but there was that moment when you make the decision in your head whether you are going to have sex. I decided no, and he had apparently decided yes, because he became upset when I announced that I was going home.
He escorted me from his apartment to the elevator. We chatted a bit, but he was mostly quiet — but on the elevator ride down, he said that he wanted me to get out of his building, and he grabbed me as if he were going to physically throw me out. I held on to the railing in the elevator and refused to move, so he lifted me so my feet were no longer on the ground and my hands were desperately clinging to that elevator railing. I was terrified.
In a matter of seconds, he was able to break my hold on the railing. I had been holding on so tight that as I lost my grip, a couple of my fingernails ripped off. He then dragged me about 20 feet across his lobby, pulled me to my feet when we reached the front door and threw me so violently to the ground that I wound up with cuts on my hands and bruises on my knees. Everything in my purse flew out onto the sidewalk and into the street.
It was about 2 a.m., so no one was in the lobby or on the street to witness the attack. As I lay there, stunned, he called me a bitch and just turned and went back into the building and got onto the elevator. I slowly got up, gathered my things, walked a little and hailed a cab.
I don't remember much of what happened after that, except that when I walked into my building and greeted my doorman, I did it with a smile as if nothing had ever happened. I also remember I never shed a tear.
Because the man who did this to me is a public figure and we belonged to the same gym, I would see him from time to time. But I never spoke to him and went out of my way to avoid him. About a year later, in the gym parking lot, he stopped me and asked me if he could speak to me. I agreed, and listened as he issued an apology. Because I thought it was the right thing to do, I accepted.
Over the years, I would see him or speak to him from time to time. I thought about that night every time we interacted, but I acted as if nothing had ever happened. I wanted to convince myself that I had moved past it.
Last year I finally understood that I had not. His friends reached out to me because they were organizing a celebration for him. That's when I had to admit to myself that I was not at peace over what happened. I actually became angry at the thought that he would even invite me. How dare he?!
That's when I realized I was the victim of domestic violence. I didn't initially define it that way because I felt that what happened to me didn't compare to the severity of the abuse that women like Rihanna are subjected to in their relationships. But I was wrong.
"If someone is doing or does something to you that you don't want them to do, it is considered abuse," Barbara Gibson of Atlanta's Women's Research Center to End Domestic Violence told me. "We often minimize pushing, slapping or name-calling. It's all abuse, and it takes something away from you when someone hurts you."
So how, I asked Gibson, do I stop feeling angry about what happened? She advised that a big step is to forgive myself. "Stop thinking about all of the things you could or should have done that night or shortly after," she said.
I was upset with myself for not pressing charges, getting the videotape from the lobby cameras or, on that day that he apologized, telling him about what he put me through physically and mentally and how humiliated I felt. Why didn't I do something?
"You were shocked and you were humiliated," she said. "Someone needs to make you understand that it's not about you. He made a poor choice, and you were the victim of that choice."
Gibson helped me focus on the good.
"He had the power to take you off course but not fundamentally change or destroy you," she said. "You had the power to go back to the gym. You had the power to set boundaries and not go to his celebration."
My conversation with Gibson helped me realize that I really need to deal with the emotional baggage of my encounter once and for all. She said that talking to a domestic violence expert can provide perspective that family and friends often can't. Like many women who have experienced this sort of violence, I had mostly kept my experience to myself.
In Rolling Stone, Rihanna shared, "I didn't want people to see me cry. I didn't want people to feel bad for me. It was a very vulnerable time in my life, and I refused to let that be the image. I wanted them to see me as, 'I'm fine, I'm tough.' I put that up until it felt real."
I mostly put that facade up for myself. That didn't work for me. But Rihanna, I sincerely pray that it is working for you.