April Hernandez-Castillo is an actress with roles in the movie Freedom Writers and the TV series Law & Order and Dexter, as well as a motivational speaker, TV host and SAG nominee.
She’s also a survivor of teen dating violence.
Hernandez-Castillo was 16 when she started dating her abuser. “He was amazing at first. I didn’t see any signs. Then slowly but surely things started happening. I noticed he was a loner, and I started becoming isolated from my friends,” she says. “I come from a very loving Puerto Rican family full of passion. When we would be around my family he would be extremely introverted, and I would also become introverted. But I’m the opposite of that—I’m a social butterfly. It started being uncomfortable so I would go out less and less with my family. I knew something was not right, but I didn’t want to get him mad.”
Jealousy also factored into his abuse. “It got to the point that when we were out walking on the streets I wouldn’t look up. If I attempted to make eye contact with a man he would assume I was flirting,” she says.
Violence And Excuses Escalate
Hernandez-Castillo says that when the abuse began she couldn’t believe it was happening. She had never been molested, abused or exposed to domestic violence. She grew up in a two-parent home and she went to Catholic school. “I was an awesome student and a confident young lady who played sports,” she says.
As time went on, her abuser began adding physical violence to his emotional abuse. “It became worse as the relationship progressed. He was vicious, he was scary, he was psychotic. I would look at him and think, ‘There’s something really wrong with you’,” she says.
She didn’t tell anyone what her abuser was doing. She felt ashamed, and as a student in a Catholic school felt that she was committing many sins.
Her parents suspected something was wrong—she wasn’t happy, she had become very quiet and her grades had slipped from As to Bs. But they didn’t realize what had triggered these changes. “I hid it so well. I was a tomboy, and if they saw bruises I would say, ‘Oh, we were wrestling,’ or, ‘That was just me fooling around.’ I was always playing sports and working out so I could say that’s how I got the bumps and bruises,” she says.
Even if she had been willing to talk to someone, she didn’t know where to turn. Back in the late ‘90s, there was less awareness about domestic violence and teen dating violence. There was no education about unhealthy relationships at her school, and no Internet to turn to for information.
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Suicidal Thoughts Trigger a Turning Point
As the abuse worsened she started to have suicidal thoughts. One night, she and her abuser fought for hours. “I thought he was going to kill me. I thought, ‘Wow, this is my end. This is it. No one knows where I am. No one knows I’m fighting for my life’,” she says.
In the early morning, her abuser snapped out of it and apologized. “I thought, ‘Well you should have just killed me, I’m already dead.’ In my mind I felt like a corpse,” she says. She started planning her suicide. She thought of her parents in the next room and how they wouldn’t see her again. “But I didn’t think I deserved to live. I didn’t want to live. Who would want to live this life? I was only 18 years old and I was supposed to be getting ready for college. Instead I was just trying to survive a day without a negative thought,” she says.
“I heard a voice that said, ‘Yeah, kill yourself,’ and another that said, ‘Don’t do it. I got on my knees and prayed and asked God if he was real to save me and get me out of this situation,” she says.
Hernandez-Castillo says the choice she made at that point became the turning point. “I made the choice to say, ‘No, that’s it. I’m going to live. I’m going to get out of this’,” she says.
When she finally ended the relationship with her abuser, she called him over to her house and broke up with him. “Of course he tried to convince me to stay. He was crying but I was so firm. He left, surprisingly,” she says. She knows that abusers rarely leave without conflict or violence. “It was a miracle how he just never came back into my life. If he wanted to hurt me in any way he could have done it, but he didn’t,” she says.
A Healthy Marriage, A Successful Career
Two years later, when she was 21, she met Jose T. Castillo Jr., the man who would become her husband. “After I was abused I didn’t want to be with anyone. I was in a rebellious and angry stage and I preferred to be alone. But I was able to find an amazing man who loves me—it’s the greatest thing that ever happened,” she says. They have been married for 15 years and are the parents of a 3-year-old daughter, Summer Rose. “I want people to know that you can actually fall in love with someone who honors you, cares for you and loves you. Many women don’t even allow themselves to dream. They don’t think that it’s possible.”
Hernandez-Castillo never went to therapy after she broke up with her abuser. “I just swept it under the rug and went after my career. I don’t know how I made it or how I kept myself together,” she says.
The 2007 movie Freedom Writers includes scenes of high school students writing about their own experiences with abuse, death of loved ones and eviction. Working on the movie, Hernandez-Castillo realized that she had her own story to share, one that she had never told. She wrote a book about her experience, Your Voice, Your Choice: A Story of Resiliency and Redemption. She also became a spokesperson for the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence and she shares her story at schools, helping students understand the warning signs of teen dating violence. She hopes that learning about her experience will help other survivors break free from their abusers.
“All it takes is one choice. That’s the most powerful thing a victim has, but sometimes they feel they don’t even have that,” she says. “Finding love and finding a career is all possible. So many women I come across don’t even know the potential they have. That always breaks my heart. I pray that my story touches them and inspires them.”
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