Ashley Bendiksen suffered a pair of physically and mentally abusive dating relationships before she was 20 years old, and what she endured took a toll.
“When I was 14 years old, I experienced an unhealthy dating relationship for the first time,” Bendiksen, a Fairhaven native, said. “I was sexually assaulted by my first boyfriend. Like many teens, I was very confused about what I was going through.”
In college the abuse continued, this time at the hands of a different boyfriend.
“There were days that he would just scream at me and make me feel like I was in fear for my life and my safety,” Bendiksen said. “I would just fall to my knees and I would just cry.”
The relationship was so toxic, Bendiksen dropped out of school at the University of Massachusetts in Lowell, and even ended up homeless for some time, living out of her car.
After enduring two years of abuse, Bendiksen broke free. She filed a restraining order against her abuser and started working three jobs to fund a return to college, this time at Salve Regina in Newport. In 2013, she graduated as valedictorian.
Now the 31-year-old Bendicksen is making it her mission to make sure others don’t endure the pain and suffering she did. She works as a career and leadership coach and as a public speaker. The former Miss New Bedford travels around Southern New England, speaking at high schools and colleges about the warning signs of dating violence and teen domestic violence.
“The common misconception when we hear the idea of domestic violence or teen dating violence is we hear the word ‘violence’ and we think physical abuse,” Bendiksen said. “But teens actually experience emotional and verbal and psychological abuse more than anything else. It’s being with someone who is extremely controlling. They start to isolate you from your family and your friends. Teenagers in particular, a lot of them confuse this controlling and jealous nature with love.”
Bendiksen recently spoke to students at Dartmouth High School. She says her presentations are often met with strong reaction from students.
“Every single time I speak, regardless of what town or community I am in, I am amazed at how many kids come up to me after a presentation in tears wanting to give me hugs,” Bendiksen said. “[They’re] saying that this is what they have been going through and they didn’t realize that it was abuse. I am always going back home and opening up my phone and seeing messages through Instagram and Twitter and Snapchat and they are just opening up to me. What is really cool is that I have even had emails from parents saying that their child had come home and opened up and talked to them for the first time about something, so it’s pretty incredible how many students are affected.”
Hannah Carvalho, a junior at Dartmouth High School, was one of those students moved by Bediksen’s story. She says she too suffered an abusive relationship just last year.
“The hardest part was kind of accepting it myself because we always say it’s not going to be us,” Carvalho said. “And once I got through that point and heard Ashley and her story and saw how strong she was to be able to speak about this, I was like, ‘That’s what I want to do.'”
Now, Caravalho is one of the student leaders of the Game Change Program at Dartmouth High School. It was founded in 2015 by the New England Patriots Charitable Foundation. The program provides training in anti-violence strategies to students, faculty, and coaches at public high schools across Massachusetts.
“I saw this as an opportunity to share my story and help so other people don’t have to go through it,” Carvalho said.
Dartmouth High School has to reapply for the grant every year, and administrators say they plan to do so next year to continue to fund the program.
For Bendiksen, empowering local teens to stand up to abuse has helped put a silver lining on what she endured in the past.
“My relationship ended because I was severely attacked,” Bendiksen said. “I had to go through the process of rebuilding my life. It was challenging and it was really tough to do. And I think the biggest thing that helps most people is just realizing that you’re not alone.”