“We forbid you from having anything to do with him anymore! This relationship is toxic, and we are afraid of what he might do to you!”
My mom and dad yelled at me with looks of desperation in their eyes. It seemed like they had finally reached their limit, so I came back immediately with fighting words:
“You don’t understand him! I love him! I need to be with him!” Then, to really pack a punch, I added, “And I hate you two for trying to keep me from him!”
After reading that, you may not believe me when I tell you that my parents are two of my very best friends. They are my heroes and my role models. You may wonder, then, how I got to this level of disrespect toward my family.
I met Joe in the summer before my sophomore year of high school. Joe quickly asked me to be his girlfriend, and I couldn’t have felt more excited to start my first dating relationship with him. Right off the bat, Joe, who had a rather unstable family life, claimed me as his emotional outlet. As his dependence on me increased, so did my dependence on him. Because Joe knew very well how to manipulate me into falling for him by paying me many compliments and claiming he loved me, my heart became attached to him, leaving little-to-no room for anyone else. However, I did not mind giving Joe most, if not all, of my attention because I desperately desired his affection and approval in return. Unfortunately, instead of affection, Joe often lashed out at me with anger, cruelty, and verbal abuse. Because my heart longed for him to love me, I always took the blame when he became angry with me, even though I had done nothing wrong. Then, I would set out to repair our damaged relationship in the hopes of redeeming myself and eventually regaining his affection and approval. Slowly but surely, Joe, and my longing for his love, took over my world.
More than anything, I wanted Joe to be happy with me. One day, Joe asked me to learn one of his favorite songs on the piano. I worked relentlessly on the song, perfecting it to the point of memorization. When the time came for me to play the piece for Joe, I felt a knot tighten in my stomach as I placed my trembling fingers on the keys. After I held the final chord for the appropriate length of time, I nervously looked up from the piano into Joe’s eyes, desperate for his praise and appreciation.
“You know,” he began, “You’re not a really good pianist until you can play the song ‘A Lake in the Dim Dark’.”
I did not expect that kind of blasé reaction because he knew how hard I had worked on the song. But I packed away whatever disappointment I felt, and—still desperate for his affection and approval—I went to my next piano lesson and asked for the sheet music to ‘A Lake in the Dim Dark’. I worked even harder to learn this new piece, thinking it would surely show Joe how much I loved him. Again, when I finally felt ready to play this new piece for him, I sat at the piano with my heart racing and body shaking with adrenaline. This time though, he didn’t even let me finish the song.
“You know,” he blurted out. “You’re playing the song way too quickly. You keep making stupid mistakes all over the place. I just don’t think you’ll ever be as good as the original composer. I don’t want to hear anymore.”
Stunned, I got up from the piano and walked to the bathroom where I cried in silence. After I collected myself, I went back out to meet him with a smile on my face so that he wouldn’t know just how much his words hurt me.
Joe degraded me like this every day for a year and a half. Whenever he was in a bad mood, he sent me very cruel text messages. I became his emotional punching bag. Through his manipulation, Joe convinced me that I was not worthy of love and that no one after him would ever desire me.
My parents knew better than anyone the negative effect my relationship with Joe had on me. I was unhappy. My grades dropped. My friends stopped reaching out at me. My parents tried to prevent me from seeing Joe and interacting with him. But I ignored their warnings and fought to stay with him. Joe and I even started going behind my parents’ backs to see each other.
One night, when I arrived home from a long day of school and basketball practice, I found my parents waiting inside for me. I could tell by their crossed arms and stern facial expressions that they were angry. Between pursed lips, my mom said, in a cold voice, “Come sit down, Kate. We need to talk.”
My heart sunk into my stomach. Could they possibly know that I was with Joe after school? No, of course not. I had planned all the details flawlessly so that they would never find out. Although I felt confident that they didn’t know the truth, my entire body shook, and I started to feel very warm.
“What did you do today after school, Kathryn?” my mom asked. The use of my full name made me even more nervous.
“I studied in the library and then went to basketball practice.”
Lie number one.
“Really?” my mom asked suspiciously. “Were you with anyone?”
“Well, Joe and I did go to Subway after school, but then I went straight to the library to study before practice.”
Lie number two.
“If you were on campus before practice, why did I see your car pulling into the school lot minutes before the start of basketball?” my mom questioned further.
I started to panic. How could she have seen me? I had been so careful! She’s bluffing, I told myself. I just needed to keep up the act a bit longer until the interrogation finished.
I answered smoothly, “I parked in the cafeteria lot this morning, and I was just moving my car to the gym lot.”
Lie number three. I was starting to gain some real confidence in my acting abilities when I heard my mom ask the one question I had been dreading.
“Katie, you snuck over to Joe’s house today after school, didn’t you?”
She had known the whole time.
“Yes,” I finally admitted.
“We forbid you from having anything to do with him anymore! This relationship is toxic, and we are afraid of what he might do to you!” My mom and dad yelled at me.
“You don’t understand him! I love him! I need to be with him! And I hate you two for trying to keep me from him!”
Unfortunately, some of Joe’s lying and manipulation rubbed off on me over the course of our relationship, and I lied to my family on more than one occasion. I also started to lash out at them when Joe lashed out at me. My younger sister felt so uncomfortable with my frequent screaming arguments with my parents that she would stay away from the house for days at a time. I wouldn’t listen to my parents trying to help me, and I sure would not allow myself to accept the love that they tried to give me. Not only did I damage my relationships with my family, but I also isolated myself from my friends for Joe’s sake. It seemed like nothing would break me of my desire for Joe’s affection and approval.
Then, on New Years’ Eve of my junior year, my extended family came to my house for a celebration, during which my phone started vibrating incessantly. I checked my phone, and to my dismay, I discovered a series of cruel text messages from Joe, yet again. In typical fashion, I started to panic, fearing that this time he might dump me for good. Knowing how badly that would crush me, I sat in my driveway in tears, desperately trying to figure out what I had done wrong and how I needed to change for him this time. When I didn’t return inside after fifteen minutes, my older cousin, Jillian, came outside to find me and sat down next to me in the driveway. Without asking permission, Jillian took my phone and began to read the text messages from Joe. She found texts in which Joe called me a “dirty whore” and directed many awful words at me. Jillian put the phone behind her out of my reach and looked into my eyes.
“Katie,” she asked, “why would you let Joe or anybody treat you this way? Don’t you know that you are worthy of all the love in the world, not this kind of foul mistreatment? Don’t you understand that you deserve better than this?”
The simple answer: no. I did not know that. I had become so consumed by trying to fit into Joe’s mold for me that I couldn’t believe that I actually deserved better or was worthy of more. Although my family—especially my parents—showered me with a much truer and more whole kind of love, I chose to ignore them in order to stay wholly attentive to Joe and his wishes, desperately trying to earn his affection and approval. In doing so, I became used to his hatred and abuse. Because Joe had all my focus and attention, I became deaf to my family, who saw the reality of the situation.
That night though, Jillian shattered the sound barrier that surrounded me, and her words finally broke through my plugged ears. Because I had chosen to isolate myself from many of my friends during the course of my relationship with Joe, Jillian was the first person outside my immediate family to question my decision to stick with Joe. Jillian offered a perspective that I had not previously heard, and she showed me love in a new kind of way. I expected my parents to love me, so I became used to hiding myself from their love. But Jillian’s concern surprised me. Because I did not expect her to care, her interest got my attention. I needed to hear her words.
After Jillian went back into the house, I sat in the driveway and reflected on what she had said and on my relationship with Joe. Although I was not guilty or deserving of Joe’s behavior toward me, I realized that I was guilty of neglect. I neglected to hear the abundance of love and care in my parents’ words. I neglected to treat my family with the kindness and respect they deserved. I neglected the person I was before Joe. Instead, I chose Joe’s version of me as my only truth and gave him my whole heart without room to spare for anyone else, even my own family.
While meditating on Jillian’s words and my missteps in my relationship, I heard another voice I had neglected for a year and a half: God’s voice. God began to call me back to Him. He told me that He never left me alone but was ever-present in the love and guidance of my family. He also reminded me how much of myself I gave up to be with Joe. I realized that, in my desperate desire for Joe’s love, I forgot about who God created me to be and about His unconditional love for me, a love made known to me through my family. I had wandered so far down the wrong path in my relationship with Joe that I even stopped listening for God’s voice.
I wanted nothing more than to erase the prior eighteen months and start over with a clean slate. I hated the cruelty and abuse Joe had imposed on me, but more than anything, I hated who I had become through my relationship with him. After much mental and emotional torture, I was completely incomplete. I was broken. I had given away my heart and had it returned to me in pieces. I had closed my ears to God and to those He sent my way trying to help me. How, then, could I ask the King of all creation to accept my apology and fix my broken heart?
Here’s the thing about God though: I didn’t have to learn and perfect an advanced piano piece to earn His affection and approval. I didn’t have to come to Him in any state of purity and holiness. I didn’t have to do anything or be anyone but me.
I turned to God for the first time in a long time with wounds on my heart and my own share of sin. My sin lay in my failing to reciprocate the love and care that my family and God showed me every day. My actions clearly demonstrated that I did not love anyone except Joe during that time—not myself, not my family, not God. But Joe only hurt me. The way he taunted me with cruelty and abused me was wrong and inexcusable. I did not deserve the way he treated me, nor did my family deserve the way I treated them. However, when God saw even the slightest desire in my heart to come back to Him, He seized the opportunity without a second thought! He made His way slowly but surely back into my life. I realize now that God not only accepted me and all my wounds, but loved me totally and even more for those wounds.
I said my final goodbye to Joe that night in the driveway with Jillian. In walking away from Joe, I began a longer walk to reclaiming who I really am. I have had to work hard to restore my relationships with my family. But I have come to see that God expresses His divine love and mercy for me in the love and forgiveness of my family, and through this love, I am learning more about who God made me to be. Looking back, I know now that I did not make one step of my journey alone. Not only did God give me my wonderful parents and sister for support, but He also walked with me the whole time, patiently tugging on my heart to come back to Him. He never once gave up on me but always hoped for my return.
Although the path to healing has not always been easy, God has helped me to redirect my desire for affection, approval, and love in healthier and better places. Joe was not capable of fulfilling my desire for love. But my family never fails to supply me with all the praise, affection, and love I need. I now have relationships with my family based on mutual honesty, respect, and kindness. In these wholesome relationships, I have witnessed the fullness of God’s love and forgiveness to me. Along with the help of my family, God picked up the pieces of my broken heart and has made me full and whole again through His divine love and mercy. Thank you, God, for giving me ears to hear You through others even in the hardest times.
Katie Ferrera (’16) is a senior at the University of Notre Dame, majoring in Theology and Marketing. She served as a Mentor-in-Faith with Notre Dame Vision in 2014 and 2015.