Spotlight on Women's Health

Surviving an Abusive Relationship: Kelly Vrooman

September 29, 2015

Dating violence is any type of physical, emotional, or sexual abuse that happens in a dating relationship. It can happen to people of all ages, races, cultures, incomes, and education levels. It can happen in heterosexual or same-sex relationships. Violence can happen on a first date or when you are deeply in love. But no matter how it happens, dating violence is always wrong, and help is available.

Kelly Vrooman was 15 when her boyfriend started hurting her. The abuse continued for about two years. More than 10 years later she began sharing her story.

Kelly talks about feeling ashamed, breaking the silence, and what you can do to help a friend.

Kelly Vrooman is an actor, comedian, and writer based in Los Angeles. She travels across the country as a public speaker through Campus Outreach Services. You can see her on TV in "The Chica Show," see her online on her YouTube channel (Jelly Man Productions), and follow her on Twitter and Instagram@KellyVrooms.

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Q: Will you tell us about your relationship with your high school boyfriend?

A: I was an outgoing, active 15-year-old girl with a schedule full of cheerleading, student government, and church youth group, but secretly, I was very insecure. I didn't feel pretty. My family didn't have money. And it seemed like everyone in the world had a boyfriend except for me. Then one day, an attractive, wealthy boy at my school noticed me. We started dating and about a month into our blissful relationship, we had our first fight. His face got red and the knuckles on his left hand turned white as they gripped the steering wheel. The knuckles on his right hand turned white as they gripped my leg. The next day, I wore long pants to school so no one saw the bruises.

My boyfriend apologized after each argument. He told me that his dad had been abusive and he didn't want to be like his dad. After one particularly bad fight, he begged me to let him show how good he could make me feel. It went against the moral standard I had set for myself, but after a lot of convincing we started having sex. That became our regular pattern: Fight. Make up. Fight. Make up. I was soon wearing long sleeves and high collars with my long pants.

Q: Did you feel like you could talk to anyone about what was going on?

A: Not at all. I was a student leader and an active member of my youth group. I heard the names people called girls who were having sex. They weren't very nice. I was afraid that the fact I was having sex would overshadow the fact I was being abused. I had a reputation to uphold. I stayed silent and the violence continued.

Q: What kinds of emotional and physical effects did you experience?

A: I always had a bruise to hide, but the physical effects were minor compared with what so many people in abusive relationships experience. Emotionally the effects were terrible. My boyfriend was very good at making it seem like he was all I had. He would often point out the ways that my friends and family mistreated me (which wasn't true), but I eventually believed he was the only one who really cared about me. I pulled away from the other people I loved, which gave my boyfriend more control over my time and mental state. I felt worthless apart from him and couldn't see any sort of future without him in it.

Q: Will you tell us how you got out of the relationship?

A: I would like to say that I eventually became brave and told my parents what was happening. But instead, my exit from the relationship was mostly due to good timing. I was volunteering at a camp two hours from home. My boyfriend was going to drop me off, but we got into a huge fight in the car and he left me on the side of the road to walk the last few miles. I was hurt and incredibly mad. The combination of distance between us, the memory of being left on the side of the road, and a developing crush on a very attractive counselor gave me courage to call my boyfriend and say it was over.

When I got home, he tried to get me back using sweet words, threats, and jewelry, but this time I didn't fall for it.

Q: How has this affected your relationships as an adult?

A: I've read that abuse is a learned behavior, so I work hard to make sure that I don't bring any of the abuse I experienced into my current relationships. At times, especially when I'm feeling insecure, I want to use the same emotionally manipulative tricks that my boyfriend used on me so I can feel like I have more control. I know those behaviors aren't helpful and would just hurt my relationships and the people I love.

Q: Why do you want to share your story with others?

A: I wish my story was rare, but it's not. Many people in abusive relationships are shamed into silence. I stayed silent for more than a decade until last year when the Huffington Post decided to feature a short article I'd written about my experience. I submitted the article thinking nothing would come of it. Boy, was I surprised. The day it came out I called my parents and said, "I have something I need to finally tell you." Even after all these years I have to fight the feelings of shame.

The longer people who are abused stay silent, the longer the power stays in the hands of abusers like my ex-boyfriend. We need to break the silence to stop the violence.

Q: How did your parents react when you told them?

A: I had been telling myself for so long that my parents would think less of me if they knew, but when I finally told them they were full of love and compassion. They made me feel safe and cared for and even shared some of the struggles they'd experienced at the time. They knew my boyfriend wasn't good for me, but they had no idea about the abuse. They worried that if they asked about it or forbade me from seeing him that I would've pulled further away from my family. Now, so many years later, we're having the difficult but honest conversations we all wish we'd had while the abuse was happening.

Q: What do you want women and girls to watch out for in their relationships?

A: Relationships are complicated. It's easy to lose bits of yourself in the mess. Check in with yourself often and be very honest with what you find. I suggest asking yourself questions like these: Are you spending all or most of your free time with your significant other? Does your relationship with your significant other affect your other relationships, like those with your friends and family?

Remember, your significant other NEVER has a valid excuse for emotional or physical abuse.

Q: What can parents do to help?

A: I believe the most helpful thing parents can do is create an environment of open communication with their kids. Allow your children to ask questions and share their experiences without fear of judgment or being shamed. Parents can also pay close attention to their children's relationships and look for signs of abuse. Be willing to ask difficult questions with patience and love. Parents may need to start the conversation many times before getting an honest answer back.

Q: What do you want other survivors to know?

A: There is life on the other side. When I was in the thick of my relationship, I couldn't imagine a future without my boyfriend. But after getting out and going through lots of healing I love my life! I laugh freely and enjoy my friendships. I'm an actor and comedian who has the opportunity to appear on stages and screens around the country and world. I have had several kind, wonderful boyfriends in my adult life. Everyone's journey is different, but you are not alone. As survivors we're connected. Our voices are powerful. As we break the silence together we will conquer the violence.

Q: How would you help a friend who is in an abusive relationship?

A: Never use your friend's experience as material for gossip. Be patient and kind. If your friend is like me, chances are they won't be very open about what's going on at first. Don't let their denial stop you from asking about it. Depending on the age of your friend, you may need to encourage them to speak with an adult they trust or get help from a professional. There are abuse hotlines you can call to speak with someone who is trained to help. Above all, let your friend know they are not alone.

Q: What can people do to help put an end to violence against women?

A: Let's ask loving questions and create an environment that's safe and free of judgment so survivors can speak up and be heard. Let's open our hearts and voices to let the survivors of abuse know there is nothing to be ashamed of. Break the silence to stop the violence! We can do it together.

If you or someone you love has been abused, please contact The National Domestic Violence Hotline at 800-799-SAFE (7233). It's free and confidential.

For more information on abuse, its effects, and how to get help, please visit our Violence Against Women section.

The statements and opinions in this blog post are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Office on Women's Health.