Harriette Cole attends Harlem’s Fashion Row Seventh Annual Fashion Show and Style Awards at the Waterfront on Sept. 6, 2014, in New York City.  
Bennett Raglin/Getty Images

We’ve all been there. Back in college, I thought I’d found “the one.”

But after he physically abused me, I never saw him again, so you can imagine my disbelief when, not too long ago, I saw a Facebook message from his “cousin”: “Hope all is well. Call X.”

And now, in the wake of the ongoing story of Ray and Janay Rice, as so many women have shown the courage to share their personal stories of being assaulted by men they loved—why they stayed; why they left—I want to share my story, too.

X was my college boyfriend. A tall, good-looking guy with a perfectly groomed Caesar—he once reminded me of my daddy—who’d engage me for hours on end over esoteric material that I was studying in my undergrad English texts.

This guy, who practically ran the yard at my alma mater, was also the one who, early on, professed his desire to marry me, yet later crafted the most fantastical lies about all the other women to whom I subsequently learned he had also promised his heart. Ultimately, he became the man I confronted in his dorm room while standing next to another woman who also thought he was “the one.”

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But the ending was devastating.

It was two years into our so-called exclusive relationship, when finally I had had enough and I was exhausted by the yo-yo of emotions that seemed to be the baseline for our love. There were the times that I put my foot down and said, “Enough.” The relationship would be over for a few weeks. But when I started to date someone else, he would suddenly reappear, virtually stalking me out of whatever potential future (healthier) relationships I was trying to form.

His grip on me was so strong that the only two B’s I got in my otherwise straight-A college career were a direct result of prioritizing him instead of studying. Over time I devolved—at least on the inside—from being a confident, happy, stellar student and popular on-campus model into an unsure, weak-minded shell of myself as I attempted over and over to convince him that I was singularly worthy of his love.

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I went to visit him that fateful evening because I wanted to talk. Clouded by the foggy brain of something probably more closely resembling infatuation than real love, I walked the few steps from my apartment (where I was living with my baby sister) to his dorm. As I rounded the long hallway toward his room, I noticed a woman walking in front of me. She had beautiful, long hair. She was dressed elegantly. When it hit me that she looked a whole lot like me, I realized where she was going. I called out to her to ask.

She was, indeed, going to see him. So I asked if she would be willing to talk to me first. And the two of us—attractive, smart, well-heeled, well-bred young women—went to her room, where we revealed to each other how we had come to know this man whom we both called our own. Tears streamed down both our faces as we received proof that he was a liar and a cheat. I picked up the phone and called him. I told him who I was with and that we both wanted to talk to him.

When we got to his place, he slammed the door shut and started yelling at me. He was outraged that I had spoken to this woman, that I had called him on his s—t—and that I was standing there at that moment confronting him. “Who do you think you are?” he wanted to know.

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And then, enraged, he picked me up off the ground and threw me into the door. I crashed and fell to the floor.

In the midst of this, the phone rang—it was my sister. She had tried to persuade me not to visit him, certain that nothing good would come of it. X answered and with complete composure said, “Hello,” as if nothing had happened. He then turned to me and said, “It’s your sister,” handing me the phone. I collected myself from the floor, took the receiver and answered. She implored me to come home, and in the steadiest voice I could muster, I told her I would.

The minute I put the phone down, X yelled, “Get the f—k out!” But when I opened the door to try to leave, he picked me up again and and threw me down the hall. Meanwhile, since there had been so much screaming and hurling, all of the men on his floor had opened their doors to see what was going on. A hallway of observers, now more aptly tagged as bystanders, watched silently as X started kicking me, all over my body, while shouting more obscenities.

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From somewhere within, I found a space of calm. I looked up at him and asked, “Are you finished yet?” To that he turned on his heel and went back into his room, where the other woman, who was silent through this whole nightmare, remained.

One by one, each of the men who lived on that floor went back into his respective room and shut the door. Not one person came to my rescue. I picked myself up and slowly walked those few steps back to my apartment into the embrace of my baby sister.

Not long after, X called me—at least 100 times, until I finally spoke to him. But rather than apologize, he implored me not to tell anyone. His reason? It would make it harder for us to get back together.

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And as horrible as it sounds, if it weren’t for my younger sister, I’m certain that I would have gone back. It was as if he had laid claim to a part of my brain and to the entirety of my heart. I felt crazy, empty without him. He had tricked me into believing that he loved me. He had taken me to visit his family—his grandmother, even. And he had come to know my family. Even my strict father, a judge, had a soft spot for him. He was so smart and endearing and seemingly refined that none of his other behavior made sense.

As I wrestled, though, with my broken heart and my bruises—all the while fighting the impulse to return his calls—what kept me from running right back into a living hell was that I knew I needed to be a better person for my sister. I couldn’t succumb even more shamefully to the insanity of our bond when my sweet sister who looked up to me was watching. And so I walked away.

When I finally told my parents, I asked my father if he would have X arrested. He suggested not, because it would draw attention to this shameful incident and likely lead to nothing, since I was “trespassing” on school property because I didn’t live in the dorm. Really? My older sister wanted to put a hit out on him. Some of my friends at school were sympathetic. Some weren’t. It was a painful time, at least as far as my heart was concerned, until I left Washington, D.C., to move to New York City.

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Even then, I wasn’t fully clear of him. One day out of the blue, he called me at my job after learning I was about to get married. Delivered by his signature raspy voice was this question: “Will you name your first child for me?” I hung up. Several years later a mutual friend called me to say he had somebody he wanted me to talk to. It was X. “Why would I want to talk to him?” I asked, and didn’t take the call. Later on I would learn that he had just been released from jail.

Which leads me back to the present. Why would I want to call X some 30 years after we parted ways? I could think of no reason. His cousin begged me, saying that after he had searched for X for 10 years, he had finally found him, and X’s first question was if he knew how to reach me.

I chose to call him so that I could finally, from a position of strength, call him out on how he had treated me. And there it was, the same raspy, easygoing voice, the same smooth talker. Immediately he thanked me for calling and asked if we could have lunch one day, like old friends.

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This time, however, I was stronger, tougher, clearer. I asked him why I would want to do that. I asked if he remembered how we left our relationship. Sheepishly he said he did. “Well, if you remember, why in the world would you think I want to be your friend?”

In a calm voice I proceeded to remind him how he had treated me. I told him how debilitating it was to be tricked into believing that he loved me, only to find that he “loved” a bevy of other women at the same time. I asked him if he had physically hurt anyone other than me. Yes, three women, he admitted.

He apologized, but I realized there was nothing he could say to heal the wounds that he had inflicted so many years before. No words could erase the pain or the shame.

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What hurt more then—and now—than what he did to me was how I reacted to him. Why didn’t I walk away after the lies stopped making sense? Why had I tried to convince him that I was worthy of his love?

Truth be told, it took me years to trust myself in a loving relationship again. Thank God, the love of my family, several years of therapy, more than 20 years of meditation, a bounty of life experience and a loving husband have helped me to heal.

As so many stories of abusive relationships have surfaced in recent days, I think back on those times and still come up with a question mark. Like everybody else, I wanted to be loved—to be considered worthy of a beautiful man’s love and affection. What I know now is that the most important love one can ever have is love of self. When that is strong and clear, I believe it is harder to be deluded into thinking that something is real when it’s not—no matter how cleverly it’s presented. Or, at least, so I pray.

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Harriette Cole is the author of the book of meditations 108 Stitches: Words We Live By and a contributing editor at The Root. Follow her on Twitter.

Harriette Cole is the author of the book of meditations 108 Stitches: Words We Live By and a contributing editor at The Root. Follow her on Twitter