I’ve always been a vivid dreamer.
It’s a good thing, when your dreams leave you never wanting to wake up, visions so real you could swear they actually happened.
But when your dreams wake you up panicking — because of a fear that he can get you, even after all these years — vivid dreams hurt. The nightmares can seem crushing, like a knife in the gut.
He was my 10th grade honors English teacher.
Four years have passed and just the mention of his name still causes my stomach to wrench into knots as the color drains from my face.
My senior year ended with my mental stability slowly deteriorating. On the last day of school, this teacher, who’d spent three years emotionally abusing me, took the next step.
He’d written me a story about us.
He then asked me to hug him — to wrap my arms around him and squeeze as hard as I could.
He whispered in my ear and told me he loved me. He asked me to tell him I loved him. He asked me to kiss him on each cheek.
And I did.
Terrified, confused and sick to my stomach, I didn’t know what else to do. I knew it wasn’t normal or healthy, but just like “Alice in Wonderland,” I fell down the rabbit hole and I couldn’t see the light out.
Years of emotional and mental abuse. Years of forcing dependency and knocking down my self-esteem and he had exactly what he wanted: someone so unsure of everything she’d once known, that she could be forced to do almost anything.
I entered my sophomore year searching for who I was. I felt like I needed guidance and I didn’t fit in — something that sent me looking for a mentor I could never seem to find.
That was, until 10th grade honors English. A room filled with student-drawn posters with quotes from books became my safe haven. A man, in his 30s, became a mentor who I thought wanted the best for me.
He wasn’t like every other teacher — something that in hindsight was a sign. We grew closer as he treated me like the adult I always wanted to be.
It started with him teaching me poker, just as his grandfather had done for him. He related it to life, to help prepare me for a world I was so afraid of messing up in. He gave me assignments — reading poker and religious books, writing about them, reading poker magazines, learning how to count cards, memorizing a set of rules he gave me and repeating them any time he demanded — and I complied.
I completed assignments in the middle of the night to hide them from anyone. I felt special, smart and cared about. I fed into an acceptance I yearned for from my peers but often felt like I couldn’t find.
But things grew worse. It wasn’t just assignments and lack of sleep. It wasn’t just requests, but instead the threat of always disappointing him. He held his mentorship over me like a cloud always threatening to bring a lightning strike.
As the punishments grew, the mentoring relationship did as well.
He began requiring more of me. Memorizing more things to recite verbatim, whenever he asked. We’d play poker after school, with the promise that someday he would take me to Atlantic City and teach me to gamble, just as his grandfather had done for him.
Promises of how much I meant to him were met with bouts where he wouldn’t talk to me because I’d somehow, inevitably, messed up and disappointed him. Again.
It was these days I questioned what was happening — was everything as wrong as it seemed? Was I overreacting, or making a big deal out of things like he made me think?
And just when I was at my breaking point, he’d reel me back in. Emails about how special I was and how I would one day set the world on fire. Texts reminding me just how proud I made him, where he’d use any of the number of nicknames he’d come up with for us.
He’d convinced me that I needed him — that I was nothing, and could never grow to be anything, without him by my side. He left me no choice other than to believe I’d crumble without him.
I started going to some church services with him. We were Facebook friends, we texted, emailed and called. I met his wife. He had a constant connection to me and if I didn’t maintain it, if I disappeared for too long, I was in trouble.
Senior year came and he started taking days where he just couldn’t be around me. He’d contact me in the morning or late at night and say he just needed to not see me for a day or two, without explanation.
Those were days I spent on the verge of puking at almost any moment. I’d cry and I couldn’t explain why. I just knew I wasn’t happy.
But it continued. I sat in the hole I’d somehow wound up in, lonely as he isolated me from other friends. Dependent as he told me he wanted to become the most important person in my life. Scared, as he became just that.
The mention of boys left him to remind me to hold on to my “honor.” That having almost anything to do with them made me trashy.
He gave me the book “Lucky,” Alice Sebold’s personal memoir about being raped. He highlighted passages that related to things that had supposedly happened to girls he knew who went to Penn State. And if I went there, to a place he couldn’t watch over and take care of me, he threatened these things would happen to me.
He related television shows, movies, musicals, almost anything in my life to our relationship.
He nicknamed me “Newbie,” calling me the J.D. to his Dr. Cox, knowing I loved the show “Scrubs.” He lent me western movies with assignments where I was to come up with a list of scenes where the characters mimicked our “mentoring” relationship. He made a playlist of songs he put on whenever we spent time together, a combination of songs he knew I loved and songs he could parallel to our situation.
He wanted to make sure that every aspect of my world included him — he wanted to be so much a part of me that I could never leave.
One day after school, while playing cards, he held my hands. This was the first warning sign, two years later, of a physical boundary broken — something I didn’t fully understand at the time.
He began to threaten that come graduation, he would have to cut off contact because he just couldn’t see me leave. He finally admitted he just couldn’t stand losing me because I was too important to him and it would be too hard to see me go.
In my final weeks, I tried to sit down with him to explain he was hurting me, and I needed him to stop. I still thought logic had a place in his world, that if he just knew what he was doing to me, then he’d stop. As if he wasn’t doing these things on purpose.
But somehow, he always wound up winning — I would leave confused and feeling like I had been upset for no reason.
He still had power.
The days continued as I walked on eggshells.
On the last day, he took me to the back corner of the room where we were out of sight from the windows and door for our hug. He told me he wanted hugs and kisses on the cheek every time I saw him.
I left that day afraid. I tried to pull away and cut ties because if nothing else, I was tired. I was tired of always being upset. And I was sick with myself for what happened.
He sent me angry messages when I tried to stop turning in assignments, telling me I was really “fucking up” and he didn’t know why he was even bothering with me.
I finally couldn’t take it. I broke contact with him and he wished me luck and told me he’d always be there for me.
He thought I’d come back.
But after finally telling someone the whole story, and being encouraged to go to the school, he got the rudest of awakenings.
The school investigated him. Turns out, he’d done this at least once before. But that time, it only went to his supervisor.
I told my story to three men in suits one morning after I’d graduated. One of them cried.
My former teacher was allowed to quietly step down from his position. He had tenure.
And I spent my remaining time before college digesting just what had happened. Trying different therapists and thwarting off rumors.
I came to Penn State in 2011 and that November, the Jerry Sandusky child sex abuse case broke.
I read the grand jury report, and just like that, I felt revictimized. Sandusky had given those boys presents. He had taken them on trips. He had gained their trust, and had made them feel loved and special.
He threatened to take it away.
And then he took their childhood, just as my teacher took what was left of mine.
Spring of my freshman year, I recounted my story to the Department of Education. My mom called me one day, to tell me they’d left a message on the machine at home, asking me to call them back.
I didn’t want to. But I returned the message, with one question on my mind: Will I have to testify?
I told them my story, as details of a relationship I’d tried so hard to block out were dragged back to the surface nearly a year later. I rambled as I paced the stairwell of my dorm, looking for an ounce of privacy as my pulse raced and my hands shook.
I was told if he didn’t willingly give up his license, I would have to testify. Otherwise, there was nothing they could do.
I couldn’t sleep in the coming days. I called my mom in the middle of the night, in that same stairwell where I unwillingly reopened the wounds I so desperately wanted to close.
I sobbed hysterically, torn between the terror of having to face him and letting him get away with what he’d done. Setting him up to hurt someone else.
But I never had to take the witness stand. While he’d first tried to spin the situation as a misunderstanding, he eventually gave up his license.
It’s a term I’m all too familiar with now. It’s when someone gradually builds your trust over time. Slowly, they work abuse into the relationship, all the while still gaining your trust. It happens in a way you don’t realize, or refuse to realize.
I’m still not sure which one I was.
But I do know I never knew how far in I was, until I couldn’t find a way out. And that feeling of helplessness is the goal of grooming.
Institutional abuse is the mistreatment of a person from a system of power. This includes prison guards, teachers and coaches.
Today marks three years since our school was rocked to its core. Three years since I tried to avoid the news at all costs, because everything I saw was a painful reminder of what I’d just left.
Here’s a secret: Institutional abuse is not just a Penn State problem. And it isn’t limited to rape and sexual assault. It’s mental, it’s emotional and it’s a very real problem in our world.
Three years later, I am certain of one thing. We don’t talk about these problems as much as we should because they’re ugly issues. We don’t think about emotional and mental abuse because we can’t see the scars they leave.
I’m here to tell you differently.
I’d be lying if I said after three years, that I’m completely fine, because I know that’s not the truth.
One year of therapy and three years of nightmares later and he still floats to mind. He still affects my life. The thoughts of weakness, of self-loathing and the crippling anxiety he caused still visit me in my darkest moments.
I Google him sometimes, when I can’t sleep — when he comes to mind and I can’t shake the fear of him. I search local news sites, click every story that might be about him, wondering if he’s done it again, if he’s hurt someone else. Each time I click a link my stomach lurches with anxiety as I scan for his name.
I’m horrified of what would happen if I ever had to come face-to-face with him again.
Most people don’t know my story. It’s not something I’ve ever chosen to broadcast, even as people make jokes about Sandusky. When they do, anger and shame floods my body.
Half my high school probably still thinks someone found me hooking up with my teacher in a classroom. Or that we had been having a secret, consensual relationship.
Rumors are ugly, but they are born because no one wants to talk about the darkest, dirtiest parts of life — because it’s so much easier to victim blame than it is to understand why this is happening.
So today, I say listen.
Listen to these stories. Learn the signs. Because once you recognize them they’re blatant.
And do everything in your power to change the world so one day, no one will have to try to understand why she’s being forced to earn the love of a married adult instead of finishing her childhood.
Start talking. Start listening. It’s everywhere, and it will keep happening if we don’t.