‘I Never Expected to Survive’: Meet a Dating Abuse Advocate

“I never expected to be in an abusive relationship...like, ever,” says Danielle DeZao.

Why would she? After all, the she’s an upper-middle class suburbanite. She comes from a great family. She’s smart. And yet, while in college, Danielle became part of the 1 in 3 teens in an abusive relationship. After a nine months of verbal, emotional, and physical battery, she left the relationship. A survivor, Danielle knew she had to raise awareness about dating violence and sexual assault.
 
She founded h<3rt1, (pronounced "heart one"), an acronym for its mission, to "heal a heart, remove the “1" of the 1 in 3 affected. Since then, the Marist College grad has been honored in Cosmopolitan and elsewhere. She’s worked with Tim Gunn, Joe Torre, and participated in a table discussion at the White House.
 
Read more about Danielle’s experience - and why understanding the problem is the first step to solving it.
 
Abuse can take many forms. What did it look like for you?
After becoming involved with a seemingly great guy while in college, small instances of jealousy transpired into over-possessiveness within a few months.  Then he began controlling who I spent time with, even asking about my Facebook activity.  The manipulation and threats were woven together with adoration and loving make-ups.  Always one extreme to another, in the blink of an eye.  Fast forward a few months and my skin was tainted, splattered with ugly bruises, visual reminders of moments that just couldn't, couldn't, couldn't have been real.  Luckily, after our nine-month nightmare, I was able to remove myself from the situation.  
 
Tell us about the origins of heart1. What inspired you to start the organization?
First I had to wrap my head around the fact that I was a victim of this "thing" that I thought I was too good for. I thought it was irrelevant to my life until it almost ended mine. Then I had to wrap my head around the fact that no matter how badly I wanted it to be false, every single thing I read said that 1 in 3 teens is involved in an emotionally and/or physically abusive relationship.  
 
I felt cheated, like somehow I had been robbed of something by not being told of this. But it did comfort me in a way because all of this research and available help made me realize that I wasn't crazy, none of it was my fault, this "thing" has a label, a true identity, and that most importantly, I wasn't alone, not even close.  So that's what inspired me, wanting to share what I wish someone had told me.
 
You may have heard that Rihanna is back together with Chris Brown, despite his history of abuse. Why do so many women return to their abusers? How can we help stop the cycle of abuse?
I have such anger and sympathy towards Rihanna all in one jumbled mess. I am angry that she is in a position to do so much good and help so many by setting an example and walking away, for good. I am angry that because she has not done so, young girls are tweeting, "I would let Chris Brown beat me any day."  
 
But at the same time, I am sad for her because I know how it feels to believe with everything you have that the person will change, except that I didn't have to deal with it in front of the entire universe, and I didn't have everyone wanting me to be someone I just wasn't ready to be. I am sad for her because for as long as she's not ready to be that person, she will be hurt by him. The cycle cannot be stopped until it is understood. If we stop judging, we can understand.
 

Create a 1 in 3 dating abuse bracelet and give them out to your classmates. GO