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12 May 2014

Surviving Recovery

Leaving your abuser is one of the most courageous things you've ever done. Beginning your recovery will be the next most courageous thing you've ever done. It may be a long difficult road or you might sail right on through, but no matter how you go about it, your recovery is yours alone. No one can tell you how long it should take or the steps to take. Recovery is a process. It takes as much time as it takes. 

At first I didn't understand why I was so devastated by the separation from my abuser. He tortured and abused me for years, but I was in anguish. I was thankful to be in a place where I was safe and would never be hit or choked again. Why then was I so utterly miserable? I now understand that much of the pain and anxiety I experienced following my escape was the result of trauma bonding formed over the many years of our relationship. 
Bonding is a biological and emotional process that makes people more important to each other over time. Unlike love, trust, or attraction, bonding is not something that can be lost. It is cumulative and only gets greater, never smaller. Bonding grows with spending time together, living together, eating together, making love together, having children together, and being together during stress or difficulty. Bad times bond people as strongly as good times, perhaps more so. Abuse and Relationships.

I was married to my abuser for eleven years. We had a son together. We had memories. We had a life, such as it was, together. It is very difficult to overcome the overwhelming need to be near the person to whom you are bonded -- even if he does abuse you. It's all  you know. He's been in your life for so long that even the abuse seems somehow normal. This is why we go back to our abusers and why it takes many tries to finally break the chains that bind us to abusive relationships. In my case, I had to put physical distance between myself and my abuser to finally break those chains.

I successfully left my abuser after many tries because this last time I knew that if I simply went to a local shelter, or hid out at a friend's house for a few days, I would end up right back with him. I was terrified, but I knew I had to put enough physical distance between us to make it difficult if not impossible for us to have contact. If I was to finally be free I had to completely cut off all communication with him.

Trauma bonding with your abuser will make it impossible for you to have a relationship with anyone else for a time, but the longer you are separated from him, the easier it will become and eventually you will be able to form normal relationships.  

Breaking the trauma bond is a lot like the death of a loved one. You are going to experience many of the same emotions associated with a death, including the stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance.

Abusers aren't usually monsters every day. It's a cycle that repeats over and over again. After he abuses you, he seems genuinely sorry and he will convince you he didn't mean it and that it won't ever happen again. For a time he seems loving and even gentle. But you know it's only a matter of time before he does it again. During that honeymoon phase, you may convince yourself that he is that loving man you fell in love with. Truth is, he never was that man. I created a fantasy and I loved that fantasy for eleven years. You may deny to yourself and others that the abuse really happened or you may attempt to minimize the severity of the abuse. 

After you pass through denial you can expect to be angry. You may lash out at your children, your friends, or the grocery clerk. It's okay to be angry, even if you are angry at yourself. In my case, I was very angry at myself. I blamed myself because I felt that I had allowed him to abuse me for all those years. I was angry because he admitted what he did in court but denied what he did to me to the rest of the world. I was angry because he would not take responsibility for his own actions. I was angry that he blamed me for his failures. I was angry at myself because I never said all the things I wish I had said to him. I was angry for a lot of reasons, not the least of which is that I left him and returned several times before I was finally able to make a complete break from my abuser. I was angry because I felt like I had lost more than a decade of my life in fear, shame, deprivation and humiliation. It's okay to be angry. Find an outlet. Write. Paint. Take long walks. Start a blog. Join a club. Find creative and positive ways to express your anger. Soon you will begin to feel less angry. 

As the days of freedom from your abuser turn to weeks and then to months, you may begin to bargain. I call this the "if only" stage.

If only I had been a better housekeeper . . .
If only I had a better paying job . . .
If only I had tried a little harder to understand his needs . . .
If only I had not questioned his judgment . . .
If only I had left him alone and not asked him to help around the house . . .
If only . . . maybe he wouldn't have hit me. 

This bargaining with yourself is painful, but it's normal. You will come to learn the truth that nothing, and I mean NOTHING, you could have done would have changed one thing about what happened to you. You are NOT to blame for the abuse. He didn't hit  you because you nagged him. He didn't hit you because you pushed his buttons. He didn't beat you because you didn't do the laundry. He abused you because he is a broken, weak, sick man or a psychopath. Nothing  you could have done or not done would have made one bit of difference. The abuse was not about you. It is about him. 

Depression can manifest itself as deep sorrow, lethargy, apathy, sleeping too much or too little. Most everyone experiences some measure of depression after escaping an abusive relationship. You may feel lost and hopeless. Depression can be exacerbated by difficulty finding a job or a lack of resources, such as child care and transportation. The important thing is to talk about your feelings. Seek counseling from a professional. Depression can be emotionally, psychologically and even physically crippling. 

Recovering from domestic abuse, especially if you have endured abuse for years, is a lot like dealing with the death. In a way, it is a death -- death of the victim you. But this death will be followed by rebirth -- birth of the survivor you. 

Eventually you will reach acceptance. You will accept your experience, as horrific as it may have been, as something that is part of who you are as a human being now. You are a survivor. You are beautiful. You are worthy. You can reach a place where true healing can begin. You will survive  your recovery. 


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