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Monday, January 30, 2023

Gabby Petito’s story is more common than we think

“Dating violence is often hidden in plain sight”

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Seeing the video of Gabby Petito in the backseat of a police car absolutely broke my heart, and it should break yours, too. Not just for Gabby’s family, but for all the women in America who have sat in that exact same seat.

When I was 19 years old, I was in a relationship with a man who I thought I would later marry. I was young and for the first time in my life, feeling what it was like to be manipulated by someone I cared for.

I went into the relationship with the hope I would find a companion, someone to laugh with, to have fun with and to go on new adventures with. I thought one day we would hike the entirety of the Appalachian Trail.

For two and a half years, I kept a secret. I posted on Instagram that I was “happy.” We went on double dates with friends. We even adopted a cat together.

It was only a few months after we started dating, the night I introduced him to my family in Orlando, that we got in a fight in the car, and he began screaming at me to the point where I told him to pull over. We stopped at a rest area on Interstate 75. I got out, and he drove away.

He eventually circled back after a few hours. I decided to get in the car with him. Better my boyfriend than a stranger, I thought.

I refused to speak of the situation to anyone, especially my family, thinking that if anyone knew what had just happened to me, they would think I was an idiot for believing this man ever really liked me. In all honesty, I believed I was an idiot for being in this situation at all. I couldn’t process how this happened to me, and that it happened so fast. I thought people would ask me why I got out of the car. I didn’t want to explain it to them, and frankly, I didn’t know how to.

Dating violence is often hidden in plain sight and can come in many different forms. For years, I wasn’t ready to leave. I wanted to learn how to turn my bad relationship into a good relationship, without having to suffer through the shame that I couldn’t make it work. 

Ideally, something like the rest area incident would never happen again. Although, it was only about a year after that fight that I called the police on him for the first time. He stole my car keys and refused to let me leave his apartment. At the time that this happened, we fought about once a week.

The police officers (resembling the Moab Police Department that stopped Gabby Petito and her boyfriend in August) proceeded to tell me I was equally a part of the fight as my boyfriend, and that they really couldn’t do anything about it. I told the police I didn’t want to press charges, in fear that my parents would find out my boyfriend was abusive. The officer told my boyfriend to give me back my car keys. I drove back home to my house. My boyfriend showed up an hour later.

After two and a half years of psychological manipulation, I left him, underneath the close protection of a friend. I hid away for three months, with no contact, so I could muster the courage to tell my family and friends who he really was. 

I look at the Gabby Petito case and I can’t help but to draw parallels. I could actually imagine the pain she felt in the days before her death, because I feel like that was me when I was young: scared and afraid for my life. People are shocked by the awful tragedy that happened to Gabby, but they must not know that over half of the women who are murdered in America are killed by a family member or partner, the CDC reports. 

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I was one of the lucky young girls, who had a friend who extended their hand, asked me to take it and leave the man who was abusing me. Unfortunately, there are plenty of young girls, who, for the first time in their lives, feeling what it is like to be manipulated, that are not so lucky.

About six months after I had gone into hiding, returned home and started back on my feet, I was told by an old friend that my ex-boyfriend had purchased a gun and was in the process of applying for a concealed weapons permit. I filed a restraining order. I haven’t heard from him since.

By the time I left him, I was 21 years old. I attempted to speak about it with friends and family, but no one in my circle could really understand what happened to me. As it turns out, only about a third of women who are survivors of psychological and emotional violence end up telling their story. I want to try to end that today.

This piece is to bring awareness to dating violence against young women. I’m calling on the students at UF to opt into peer training initiatives and constituting zero tolerance for all forms of dating violence, to prevent situations like what happened to Gabby Petito in our community. 

I am eternally grateful to my friends and family who helped me. I shouldn’t have been so surprised, knowing that they were there for me all along. I just needed to reach out and ask for help.

If you are struggling, you can call the Peaceful Paths Domestic Abuse Network at 352-377-8255 for help or to set an appointment with an advocate. (I did).

The writer is a student in the College of Health and Human Performance at UF.

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