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I was 17. He was 36. I Was Groomed.

None of this happened because I was “mature for my age”.

During my last year of high school, I found myself smirking a lot despite being isolated by the peers who had bullied me so ruthlessly. I had a dirty little secret that made me feel more confident than ever before: I was the object of a grown man’s desire and obviously far superior to the girls my age who were having romps with 17 year old boys.

I met Brad* working at a local drugstore. While I stocked shelves and rang customers up, he managed the store and implemented the retailer’s theft protection policies. Working late meant that I was often left alone with this man, and so we grew a friendship after frequent nights of conversation. He immediately began a regular conversation with me where he’d beam about how mature I was and how despite being 36, he’d never been in love because he’d never met a girl like me.

There was a general air of fondness. I liked that he was talkative with me, because most adults didn’t give a teenager the time of day. He seemed to like everything about me.

Everything between Brad and I was pretty normal until one night when he grabbed the back of my head and kissed me while I was stocking the shelves in the candy isle. At first, I was disgusted and taken aback, but then I grew to feel special. It didn’t strike me as wrong that this man who was almost 40 years old found me — a timid, mousy, skittish teenager — attractive enough to pursue.

Finally, I thought, someone sees something other than ‘shy’ when they look at me!

The weekend after Brad’s forward advances took place, he invited me to his apartment to spend time together and watch movies. I naively believed that we were actually going to watch movies and shook with fear when he began touching me. Once again, I gave the situation the benefit of the doubt and chose to interpret his forcefulness as a kind of advanced sexual behavior that I just didn’t understand because I was inexperienced.

For the next year, I began seeing Brad in secret. I’d tell my parents that I was going to my friend’s house, but really I was going to his one bedroom apartment, where he’d teach me about sex and we’d watch movies.

I believed with my whole heart that this man was dealt the wrong cards in life and that the fact that he was living in poverty as well as alienation as the black sheep of his family was not his fault in the slightest. He was troubled, and I was the only person powerful enough to fix him.

Brad always talked down to me, and I believed that that was okay because he was advanced and knew more about the world than I did. He had named-called me even from the beginning, long before we were seeing each other formally. Then again, hadn’t everyone? It balanced out all of the compliments he gave me. I believed that I needed to learn from this incredibly articulate and witty man, and if I could be perfect for him, then I’d be the most perfect person I knew.

It wasn’t long before Brad began bragging about me as conquest, telling his friends about how he’d “bagged a cop’s 17 year-old daughter” right in front of me. I’d nervously laugh at these comments and just try and remember how special I was for being chosen by this man. All of the girls my age were still seeing immature little boys, and I was surely better off.

The season where I turned 18 and graduated from high school, Brad started to lose interest in me. Things had been “more fun” when I was “jailbait”. To my confusion, we stopped having sex and he wanted to hang out less and less. He began smoking marijuana around the clock, and he would call out of work to binge watch movies most days of the week.

The fact that he was so broke and could barely afford food made him regularly break out in tears. The government discovered that he was committing fraud by claiming disability while he worked 40 hours per week, so his answer was to work fewer hours in order to keep collecting disability and to ask me for the rest of the money he needed.

He only told me he loved me when he was touching me, so I would do anything to make him better and bring sex back into our lives. I gave him most of my paychecks from working at Walmart, and sought to comfort him whenever possible.

By the time my parents found out about Brad, my whole life had fallen apart. I was removed from my friends, kept away from my artistic passions, and my grades were declining. Slowly but surely, I became miserable. Brad was now the only stability in my life, and when he proved to be more unstable with each passing day, I blamed myself.

I caught him cheating, but it was my fault because I was too skinny and he needed a “real woman”. He’d take pictures of me naked and send them to his female friends to try for a threesome, and even though this hurt, I kept letting him do it because I believed that my body and face were disgusting. At least he loves me, I’d think. I would do anything to keep him around, until I stopped.

Once I started getting attention from other people, I began to realize how deeply screwed my situation with Brad was. I gave up on him entirely, and we’d fight ceaselessly about the fact that I wouldn’t give him money anymore, the fact that I was going to go and hang out with my friends, and even the fact that I was going to work late waitressing. He didn’t want me to do anything or go anywhere, but I was determined to fight tooth and nail.

Because Brad had verbally threatened to kill me if I ever left him or if he caught me cheating, I lived yet another secret life. Since my parents absolutely detested him, I used their protest as an excuse for not being together, and in the meantime went out to see my friends and to get more hours in at work.

Even though we hadn’t had sex since the first few months of our relationship and all we did was fight all of the time, Brad tried one last time to keep me on a leash and took me apartment hunting with him. While I loved the idea of living in a beautiful, spacious new home that wasn’t with my parents, I knew I’d inevitably be stuck paying all of the bills and that this new home would be filled with nothing but hatred and arguing. When I declined to provide the down payment that he’d hastily promised a renter, he went ballistic.

I’m sad and ashamed to admit that a great deal of time went by before I finally escaped the misery of a relationship with Brad. Even though we kept breaking up, he’d harass me and show up at places I frequented for my attention and instead of remaining firm, I’d give him what he wanted. We broke up and got back together several times, and what urged the decision every time was that I would try dating other people and my lack of connection with others made me believe that I was destined for a life with him and him alone.

I went through a lot during my years with Brad, including several mental health crises that landed me into hospitalization. He used this against me to solidify my belief that I’d never find anyone else — I was crazy, after all — and that a few decent times together without arguing meant true love.

From 17 to 21, I’d evolved as a person. I looked differently, too, and Brad was enraged when I started getting intricate tattoos, stopped dressing in ill-fitting, boyish clothes, and lightened my hair to be blonder. Terrified at the prospect of me moving on, he’d scream and throw things as he called my friends “sluts”, denounced my sisters and parents, and said that I looked like a “whore”.

When I finally broke up with Brad for the last time, he called me a few weeks later with the assumption that we were getting back together. But as a few months went by, I actually found a partner who I deeply love and who has treated me like gold for years now, and I wasn’t going to let him go. I told Brad that I found someone else, and after describing why I would always be his property and that I was “used goods” anyway, he finally left me alone and left go.

Getting out of this relationship was hell, and I want other young women to know that if a man twice your age begins pursuing you, he’s up to no good. There is no rational reason why a 36 year old man was seeking me when I was an emotionally defunct and bitterly sad 17 year old with so little confidence that I could hardly make eye contact with others. I was groomed and used.

I wish that someone had intervened, but everyone in my life was afraid of losing me. They knew I’d choose Brad and was convinced he was my soulmate. My determination to make things work with a predator robbed me of years where I should have been learning and growing with activities normal for people in their late teens and early twenties, but this was not the case.

If you know someone who you suspect is being groomed, intervene. If you have a similar story to mine, don’t fret — my life has drastically changed from the awful picture I’ve painted and with time, yours will too if it hasn’t already.

Some societal taboos exist for a reason.

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I write about all kinds of human experiences big and small.

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