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Ok, so if you’ve been reading for a while, I may have alluded to it before, but if you didn’t realize it before, I’m saying it now: I was once in a relationship where there was emotional abuse. It has been a few years since the relationship ended, and while initially, I expected the process of healing to go at lightning speed ( abuser is gone = problem solved, right?), I have found that the end of a relationship, even an abusive one that you are better off without, comes with a slow healing process. That’s great and all, but the problem is that like many abused people, I have wound up with triggers and flashbacks that haunt me, cropping up when I least expect it. I’ll give you an example:
I was spending some time with a friend, and I had said I wasn’t feeling well to avoid going a place I was supposed to be (don’t judge me, sometimes we just have to steal a little of our time back from the world). As we were enjoying lunch together, I found there was a cucumber on my sushi roll. I’m allergic to cucumber and immediately stopped eating it. My friend looked at me and said: “now you’re going to have a reason to say you’re sick.”
Instead of making a connection to the fact that I had told someone I was sick that day, my mind immediately jumped to all of the times that my abuser mocked me for my struggles with mental illness, said I wasn’t really sick, and all of the time that I spent trying to teach him and prove to him that my suffering was real, and I wasn’t making it all up for a pity plea. “Oh no, he thinks I’m making it all up, and now he’s going to hate me too” was my first thought. I froze, and it took me another twenty minutes of being mindful and dismissing my rising panic before I realized he was talking about my feigned illness that day, not my mental illness, which of course I have shared with him. That he wouldn’t mock or question me on that and never has.
This is what it means to survive abuse, that your mind is hypervigilant, always on guard to keep you from doing or saying things that will upset the people you’re around. Because if you upset them, they’ll be angry with you. And when someone is angry with you, oh my. They try their best to hurt you as deeply as they possibly can, no matter how small the infraction. This, by the way, is not true of people who aren’t abusive, and when your mind, conditioned by being abused, begins to apply that pattern of thinking to the world at large, you will find yourself feeling like shit the majority of the time. If you’re triggered, you may feel embarrassed and leave early, or not show up, or overreact.
In this case, I ate my lunch in relative silence, cursing myself for acting weird and wishing I could explain without seeming like I was hunting for excuses for just being weird (I am a little weird, but not that weird). I didn’t bother to explain my strangeness over lunch, because how can you without killing the mood, bringing down the vibe, and otherwise being a Debbie Downer? So instead, you just get to be uncomfortable and wish you could do it all again. Because you are out of the abusive situation, you don’t want to constantly have to explain that if you behave a little strangely sometimes, it is because you are still learning how to adjust to life without someone terrible in it.
That’s one example, but there is a bigger realization I had to come to about this whole thing, and I’m going to share it with you. When you live with an abuser, slowly and surely they will convince you that everything that happens is your fault, and they use that to ridicule and put you down, and give themselves an excuse to verbally or physically abuse you.
Without realizing it, I have continued this habit of feeling guilty every time something goes wrong. That means everything. If I’m late because of something someone else did, it’s my fault, I’m apologizing. If some mysterious change in plans disrupts a whole day and it was completely out of my control, I’m apologizing. Because I should have known, I should have done better, and please, please don’t be upset with me, because I am trying my best. The weight of all this shame has been tearing me up inside. I literally do this all of the time. Don’t worry, I brought along another example.
That same friend came to visit from a considerable distance. After spending a few awesome days together despite my triggering at the sushi place, he headed off home. I discovered later that he left his bag containing his laptop and other important shit. That sucks, but it is a normal mishap, right? WRONG. Not to the amazing former abusee . . . let me give you my train of thought in that scenario:
-He is going to be so upset when he finds out I have his bag.
-I should have reminded him to look for his bag.
-I didn’t remind him, I’m a terrible person.
-He’s going to be so mad at me. He’s going to say awful shit, and I’m going to feel like shit and it’s going to be horrible.
-This is all my fault, I have to fix it.
Again, this friend is super understanding and very cool, and it was HIS bag that he forgot. He wasn’t mad at me, he didn’t need a huge explanation of how sorry I was, he just needed his bag back. Do you see how ingrained these behavior patterns can become? Do you see how I was accepting responsibility for an accident that wasn’t my fault (or anyone else’s for that matter)? Because I never did before I found the bag.
It is a ridiculous idea that someone else forgetting something would lead me to blame and ridicule myself. I have been taking responsibility for things that are not my fault. If something goes wrong with anyone that I love, I feel responsible. . . even if I was miles away, had no control over it or anything to do with it. I feel responsible, and I will bend over backward to show them how sorry I am for my folly and fix it. That, my friends, is crazy making. I don’t deserve that, and neither do the people who I care about.
Needless to say, I’m putting the bag in the mail and moving forward in the knowledge that I can finally stop carrying around the blame for things that have nothing to do with me. This is a huge epiphany, folks. A large part of recovering from being abused is to stop blaming yourself for the abuse. For those of us who live in a world where we accept the responsibility for everything and try to smooth everyone’s paths, this is a hard realization.
If you’ve ever been there, I hope that you can mail the bag, or stop apologizing for not being there when you wanted to be, or whatever it is that you are accepting blame for. Just like the abuse, it isn’t your fault. . . so keep working towards the day when you can completely and utterly believe that. Leave the blame where it belongs.
And if you need a mantra, I leave you with the immortal words of Fiona Apple, from her song Sleep To Dream:
Just go back to the rock from under which you came
Take the sorrow you gave and all the stakes you claimed
And don’t forget the blame
Books to help you through
One of the things I can suggest to women who are trying to break away from an abusive relationship is to educate yourself as much as you possibly can about how to recognize the pattern you are caught in. On average, it takes seven attempts for a woman to finally get away from her abuser for good. Many women are stuck in a bad situation whether it is because of finances or fear. I am including these books that I read in hopes that they will be of help to you as they were to me.
1. Why Does He Do That? Lundy Bancroft: As I found myself being manipulated, ridiculed and hurt over and over again, I often asked myself why. This book helped me to begin to pick apart the reasons and methods that abusers use to keep their victims under control.
2. The Verbally Abusive Relationship – Patricia Evans: Patricia is an amazing woman, and she has dedicated her life to helping people in emotionally abusive relationships learn how to break free and recover. This was one of the most helpful books about getting free I have ever read.
3. Hope and Healing From Emotional Abuse – Gregory Jantz, Ph. D.: When you are living through the horror of emotional abuse, it may feel like you’ll never move past it. This book is a good starting point for learning how to get yourself some relief and start the path towards healing.
4. Women Who Love Too Much – Ellen Archer: This book seeks to understand why people have such a hard time moving past the idea of their abuser changing. Women often stay with their abusers long after they learn who these people are. They stay in the hopes that the person will change and go back to being the amazing man they fell in love with. This book really seeks to help you move into an understanding of why that is and what steps you need to take to change yourself.
5. Codependent No More – Melody Beattie: Many people take responsibility for their abuser’s actions, apologizing for them and truly believing that they are the only ones who can help the abuser change. Codependent No More helps to identify the negative patterns that cause this way of thinking and help the victims of abuse break the cycle
Emotional abuse can take a good portion of the life you had and make you feel like it can never be good again. If you’re reading this and you feel like you’ll never escape emotional abuse, just know that you can. It will take time and strategy, but you can do it.