Heavy breathing, tears streaming down my face, I stayed in my apartment’s parking structure for hours. Though I was in my car, I hadn’t just gotten home nor was I about to go anywhere. I was paralyzed and seeking shelter from emotional abuse. The kind of argument I just endured held such a tight grip around my chest, I could barely breathe. I felt like I wanted to disappear. In that moment, I wanted to be anywhere else but in my apartment’s cold, dank parking structure. Yet, there in my car I sat until anxiety slowly released its grip and I could compose myself to go back inside.

This pattern continued for the entire year and a half that I lived in that tiny downtown LA studio apartment.

What occurred frequently in my home (or prison?) at that time was what my young self thought was love. I moved to Los Angeles at the ripe age of 19 years old. It sounds like a dream — in a city of endless possibilities, my early 20’s should’ve been a whirlwind of excitement and adventures.

Then came a boy. We’ll call him S.

S and I met one day at a table read for a show that my friend was producing. Looking back, I don’t remember what that show was about, seeing as it never came to fruition. What I do remember, as if every detail were etched into my brain, is the moment I first saw S walk in. At that point, I was still new to the fact that Los Angeles is a hub for very good-looking people. So when S walked in with his white wife-beater, perfectly grown 5 o’clock shadow at noon, Rayban aviators on, and James Dean-esque looks, I was already swooning. Writing this description makes him sound like a bad boy. He was a bad boy. I was looking for a bad boy. I wanted S.

The story carries on very quickly. We went on a first date, ending with an intense car make-out session in a parking structure underneath a Macy’s in Century City. He took me to meet his mom; endearingly sweet to a fault, and whom S would take every chance he got to criticize. I didn’t think too much into it though, I was too blinded by the idea of him teaching me how to surf later that day.

Surfing was hard. I was pummeled by waves and saw my life flash before my eyes as the water crashed over my head in the tumultuous surf of Huntington Beach. S helped me back up each time, laughing, showing off his goofy grin that I adored. On the third time I got back on the board, he looked at me in a way that made my stomach drop. Before I knew it, he said “I love you,” and I replied with a playful splash, saying “you don’t know what love is.” Secretly though, I wanted to say I loved him too.

Two weeks, maybe a month, into dating he found himself in a situation where he needed to find a new place to live. I quickly jumped at the idea of him moving in with me. At first, he went between my place and his friend’s place until finally, he completely moved in with me. S paid me discreet rent checks that I used for my CrossFit membership and I hid from my parents that I was living with this new actor boyfriend.

Life seemed like a fairy tale. We supported each other in our endeavors; me reading lines with him. S helping me make recipes for my then vegan food blog.

Things happened so quickly, I was blind-sided when spring of 2013 came.

The situations that prompted his behavior change were so minuscule in my mind, I didn’t fully comprehend what was going on until it was out of control. I found myself constantly being yelled at that I wasn’t good enough. Not because I was lazy; I went to school full-time, had a part-time job, and ran my food blog. Not because I didn’t work out; I was going to CrossFit five times a week. My worth seemed to be tied to mundane actions that only two people living together could critique the other on.

I was stupid for not being able to remember to put the toilet lid down because it would spread bacteria.

I was careless for not turning the kettle handle into the wall so it was out of the way.

I was using him for money because he paid 1/4 of the rent.

Then it escalated.

I wasn’t pretty enough because he deserved to be with someone who looked like the models he worked with.

I wasn’t fit enough because I held a lot of fat in my arms.

I wasn’t enough for him. And I internalized that.

On top of constantly studying for my undergrad classes, I took on a lot of pressure to constantly be better for S. I was embarrassed to tell anyone that S and I were having problems, so I had no outsider’s perspective that anything was unhealthy. Instead, we would argue, ending in me pleading for him to give me more chances and him threatening to leave forever. I would run away to ball my eyes out in my car. A moment of solace that never seemed to be the answer.

This cycle continued for a little over a year. I thought it was love. I thought he was the one and we just needed to work on what didn’t work. I needed to change myself, or at least break down so badly that he would feel a change of heart and want to see things differently.

I would love to say that I had a harrowing moment, realized my self-worth, and left that relationship. I didn’t. I tried to kick him out once but he threatened to sue me and again, being so young, I thought that was a legitimate threat. It wasn’t until I finally ran away (well, flew since I moved to China) that I rid myself of him for good. I’m not joking, it took up until he dropped me off at the airport for my flight to China that I finally was able to remove him from my life.

Maybe I was young. Maybe I have “daddy issues”. Maybe I was also part of the problem. Either way, what S and I had wasn’t true love. True love is wanting the best for the other person. Loving them no matter their flaws. Taking a look at the person as a whole and not zooming in on only the aspects you find appealing. Love is a strong bond; one you would never want to tear down. The thought of purposely hurting that person is inconceivable and unforgivable.

No, what S and I had was manipulation. I should’ve seen it on the day we met his mom. The way he treated her is the way he eventually treated me. When I didn’t live up to his expectations, he took that as a moment to tear down my self-esteem. At the time, I wasn’t strong enough to stand up for myself. So it worked. When the relationship was over, I was a mear shadow of my former self.

As glad as I am to have that period in my life over, I also see the years after as a life-altering period of growth. Traumatic as it was, I now know what I will never put up with being treated like that again. Manipulation and my feelings have no place for coinciding anymore.