Storytelling

A few months ago, I was invited to speak to a group of medical students about my experiences in an emotionally abusive relationship. I wanted to give them a better understanding of the dynamics of abuse, challenge the stereotypes and show how confusing and complicated it feels to be in that situation. The main goal, for them, is to recognize the signs of potentially abusive relationships in their patients, understand the health consequences that even “just” emotional abuse can have, and know how to respond and offer the appropriate support and referrals.

Personally, I was honored to be given the chance to speak and this topic is important to me. Because I had gone to doctors many times because of the direct or indirect consequences of the abuse in my marriage.  My anxiety attacks that began when I got married were not identified for years. They were written off as a “mystery virus” after the pregnancy test I was asked to take (despite saying there was no chance I was pregnant) came back negative. When they were identified as anxiety attacks after several years, I was given medication and coping strategies that helped considerably. But that still did not identify the source of my anxiety. “Generalized Anxiety Disorder” was the diagnosis.

It was the first time I had spoken about my experiences to strangers who were not survivors themselves. I had an hour to speak per group, separately with two groups of students. It was difficult emotionally to tap in to some of my most traumatic memories and try to describe them in a clear way. This is something that is more for the listener’s benefit than my own, as I do not gain anything from reviving those memories. The length of time was also a challenge–how do you pack 10 years of extremely complicated and emotional experiences into just one hour? On the other hand, how do you continue talking in front of strangers about these personal moments for that long?  There were so many moments and things that I learned along the way that I would like to share, but how to shape them into a coherent narrative? I felt accomplished enough just making it through.

I’ve been asked to talk to a similar group in March, which gives me time to think about my approach and how to communicate clearly without feeling overly drained and exposed. I have to be careful: I want to use my horrible experiences to benefit others. Because if I had been more aware of my own situation, I would not have waited ten years to leave! However, becoming too involved in this could also set back my healing. I don’t want being a “survivor” to always be in the forefront of my mind.

Along those lines, I’ve started attending a workshop series about storytelling for survivors. We’re working on how to structure and organize a story (any story) to make it effective. Over the next month or two, I should finish the personal story I’ve been working on (which is only loosely related to my abusive situation) and present it for an audience.  But it’s difficult! When we talk in the workshop about having characters and communicating what motivates them and what actions they took when they were faced with conflict and challenges, I try applying those concepts to stories in my past. But I find no motivation, no goals, no agency. It is like running on a treadmill trying to keep up, trying to please someone else, being manipulated and controlled and insulted— putting all this energy into someone else but losing your own voice and agency in the process, losing touch with your own thoughts and feelings, forgetting what your motivation and goals were in the first place. I think to be in an abusive situation is to have your story taken away from you. 

I’m starting to get my voice back now, slowly. But it is still difficult, thinking of how to tell the story of how your story was taken away?

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A night out

Photo of city at night by Sergio Souza on Unsplash

My “year of recovery” is almost at an end. I only have a little more than a month to wait until (hopefully!) my divorce from my narcissistic abuser will be final. This was also the period of time I mentally set aside to make sure that I worked on myself and made healing from the damage of the past my top priority, and a time to work every day on developing healthier habits. I worked on my self-talk, on setting boundaries in my relationships, in being comfortable saying “no” but also in saying “yes.” I learned how to feel comfortable with myself, and how to feel close in a relationship without losing my ability to protect myself. I hope to write more about this in more detail at a later date.

A few months ago, I reached a point where I was done analyzing the past. My work there is done. I can remember it when it is useful, or speak about it when my experience can help someone else, but I do not have to go looking for any more answers there. I feel that those wounds have healed, and I do not enjoy thinking about it. When I am mentally or emotionally brought back, it feels like I am giving my abuser just one more piece of my present moment–and he does not deserve a second more of my time or energy.

Moving on. Within the past month or two, I’ve started going out more. I realized I hadn’t seen a movie in the theaters since January, when I went with my abuser. So I took myself out for “dinner and a movie” and it was a good experience.  

I occasionally meet friends but often have to choose between getting out by myself or staying at home. I moved here with my abuser about a year ago, so all my connections here have been newly formed. And needless to say, I’ve been more than a little distracted with other things and had little energy to put into my social life or finding entertainment and activities. For a few months, it was all I could do to go to work, come home, and crash. And I couldn’t go to a public place without being triggered or looking over my shoulder, wondering when I would run into him.

So getting comfortable going out alone, just for fun, has been another improvement. Sometimes I don’t have the energy for it and I stay home. Or I force myself to get out but then realize I’m really not in the mood for it. Other times I enjoy it at least as much (if not more) than if I had been in the company of a good friend. Because I’m learning to enjoy my own company now, and to feel complete by myself. This has been important to me, to be able to reach a place where I am happy on my own, so that I will not feel drawn to any other unhealthy relationships or tolerate any more abusive or toxic behavior. I believe my strength to say “no” when needed comes from my ability to be happy, healthy, and content with who I am at my core, alone.

So I have gone to museums, art galleries, tried some new restaurants, and am finding cultural events and workshops related to things that are interesting to me. I feel like I’m starting to have “a life” again and other things that define me more than my past with an abuser. Sometimes, even going alone, it is important for me to be surrounded by people and have those interactions. And now, more often than not, I am starting to see familiar faces and usually find one or two people that I already know there to talk to.

Going out alone has also meant spending more time getting around town. While I keep my safety in mind as a woman walking alone at night, I also find that I really enjoy the feeling of being outside at night, surrounded by the lights and activity. Even when things are occasionally eerily quiet as I walk back to my car, I realize I am safer now than I was in my own home a year ago. This felt incredibly freeing. Like I can breathe deeper now, and the world is more open.

And while I don’t want to dwell on the past, I need to point out that this is in stark contrast to my time with my abuser. It may seem like one of the smaller things, but each “outing” was laced with the stress of trying to maintain his approval. If there was somewhere I wanted to go, a restaurant or movie, I would find myself begging or bargaining for it. He wouldn’t feel like going out and I wouldn’t want to go alone, or he wouldn’t want me to go alone because he’d “worry about me” being safe. This “concern” was really about control, which is what all abusive behavior comes back to. By pretending to be concerned about my safety he restricted my activities, I became less confident and independent, and lived more in his shadow.

When he went out with me, he was often unhappy or angry and every step of the way was stressful. Driving directions and finding a parking spot would lead to rages and insults and end in tears (mine). Stilted conversations after an argument, trying to appear to the public like everything was okay, so that I could convince myself of the same. Rather than having a night of healthy interactions and being present as myself, I often listened to rants and monologues, and was not allowed to “interrupt.” I did my best to be supportive so I wouldn’t “set him off” again. Walking on eggshells.

I had the belief that I was responsible for his moods and his behavior. When he became upset and expressed abusive anger, he blamed this behavior on me. And I felt that it was my duty to keep him in a good mood, pouring my energy into this Sisyphean task. What a relief, now, to realize that I am not responsible for anyone’s behavior or moods except my own!

This is just one way my life is changing now.  There is still much more to say that I have to save for another time.  All my problems have not disappeared by any means, but in general, the future is looking much, much brighter.

 

On Who Defines

One of the biggest things I have learned from leaving my abuser was that no one else has the ability or the right to define who I am. For years, my abuser had defined me not only with his insults and criticisms, but also with his praise. He told me who I am, and I believed him, for the most part. I began to lose the ability to truly see myself, for myself.

Even after leaving him, I often notice small attempts at defining me from many different areas of my life, even from those who mean well.

So this is the best way I can express my response to this for now:

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On Being Whole

The day I left my husband in January, I did not know that I would never go back. I left because I had to, when his abuse escalated and I realized that things would not change. With distance, my entire marriage began to look different. When it was safe to stop denying what had happened, I realized the depth of the abuse. It had distanced me from my family, prevented me from forming close friendships, not allowed me to make my own decisions, distanced me from my own thoughts and emotions so that I would describe the thoughts and emotions of others and not my own. My hobbies dropped off, I became sick with anxiety, and the list goes on. All without realizing what was wrong, and what was draining the life out of me. Like most people in an abusive situation, I assumed the problem was in me, and that was where I looked for years for something that I could fix.

After I left, I began to see more clearly and I was filled with determination to learn and grow in every way possible. I would take lemons and make lemonade, and use my past as a victim of abuse to empower me. I would be more caring because I understand the pain of trauma, I would not be vulnerable to any other abusive personalities because I can see through their games. I would not be afraid of any decision I had to make, because I had shown that I could survive the unthinkable.

I set aside a year for this mission, because that is the required waiting period for a divorce in my state. I began reading every day through books on abuse, boundaries, narcissism, and recovery. I wrote here and talked daily with other survivors, encouraging them or learning from them, or both. I attended my support group and found a wonderful counselor. I had PTSD dreams and I wrote them down, I talked about them, and then I stopped having them. I broke down at times, when something triggered buried memories to resurface or required another difficult decision…but I always reached out to my support network and focused on self care and found the strength within myself to get back up and continue on this journey.

Reading, talking, writing, and thinking about abuse was work that I needed to do daily. I was determined to scour every memory and inch of my consciousness to get to the bottom of what happened. I wanted to fix any weakness in myself that might lead me or mislead me into allowing something similar again.

Recently, however, something started to change. I had to ask myself, when will this work be finished? It was beginning to feel like a form of self-punishment. Like I was holding myself back and forcing myself to pay a “penance” for my weaknesses that led me to accept the unacceptable. As if I hadn’t already paid enough by living through it.

And here I was, still looking inward for flaws that I could fix, telling myself that I have to be better and stronger before I can trust myself and begin to write my future. Still doubting myself, that if I really gave myself back the power to make decisions and move on with my life, I would end up repeating the past.

After all of that, I realized that although it has not quite been eight months, I am ready. I am done. I no longer feel any need to delve into my past. I have done that, I saw what was there, I accepted it, and I dealt with it. I am not going to stay there, because it is time to move forward. I do not think there is anything else for me to find by looking back.

Along with this, I am giving myself permission to move forward. To make decisions and to form new relationships. To tell myself that more than accepting the past and surviving, I can actually let myself be happy and excited again. I can trust myself again. I can enjoy life and move on to a future where what happened in my past has very little to do with anything.

A few months ago, when I met someone new or reconnected with an old friend, I felt that I had a dark secret that I had to weigh when, if, or how to tell that person. How can they really know me if they don’t know about the disaster I am going through, I thought? Now, I feel no urge to bring it up because my life and my self is much bigger than this one piece of my past. To feel the need to bring it up and connect it to the present and all the other pieces of my life–that is another way of giving more power to the person I call my ex-monster. He already had 12 years and does not deserve to reappear as a ghost or a memory in places where he no longer belongs.

Once I described recovery from abuse as feeling like I had just woken up from a nightmare. When you are experiencing it, it is very real and you can see no way out. You feel trapped in what really is a world of psychological horror. Then you wake up and see it for what it is, still shocked but able to move freely. It was only a nightmare and now you are no longer bound by its rules.

But other times, when you wake up from a dream or nightmare with a jolt, you are unable to even remember what was in the dream. So you begin your day without giving it another thought. That is where I am right now.

I know what happened to me in the past, but if I think about it I do not feel any pain. I could remember it again if I tried, but why would I want to? There are better things ahead and I feel that I deserve to move towards them as if I was someone who had never been wounded.

Rethinking Awareness

Yesterday I attended a training for volunteers at the domestic abuse organization that helped me earlier this year. For the first time, I sat in a room with 20 strangers and had to introduce myself and say why I was here: I am here because I am a domestic abuse survivor, and this organization helped me at a time when I need it. Now I would like to find a way to give back and help other women. Saying that out loud felt like a milestone; I could say it without feeling ashamed or nervous about my past, because I have accepted and learned from all that happened.

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Updated Reading List

Hello! I have made some progress in reading the books on my Recommended Reading List.  The titles on this list were recommended to me by other survivors.  I have updated several of the listings with my own notes and comments. The most helpful book I have read is Healing from Hidden Abuse: A Journey Through the Stages of Recovery from Psychological Abuse by Shannon Thomas, which I finished last week.

Now, I have started Loving Him Without Losing You by Beverly Engle, and I am finding it to be very useful as well.  This book focuses on you, the survivor, and your future–not what has been done to you by an abuser. It is providing helpful strategies to build and maintain healthy relationships, keeping your sense of self and separateness in tact. I am finding that I have already adopted many of the healthy behaviors in the book. However, some of these behavioral changes are recent and are taking the place of unhealthy habits that have been deeply ingrained over the years, since childhood. So, the book contains some very helpful reminders for me.

Continue reading “Updated Reading List”