By Rachel Miller , See the Triumph Contributor
It’s hard to explain what leaving an abusive relationship feels like to someone who has never experienced it. We, as survivors, can struggle with telling our stories or explaining our present situations because we know, that even those with the best of intentions, often just can’t “get it.” The best analogy I’ve been to come up with is this:
Once you’ve left your abusive situation, it can very much feel like you’ve jumped off a cliff… blindfolded. It feels like you were being chased by a bear with your options being to, either jump off the cliff and hope to survive the fall, or stay and be eaten. So you jump and for a moment you feel this rush, you’re free! You’re safe! But wait... you took the leap, only to suddenly realize you have no idea where the bottom of the ravine is or what the landing will be like when you hit and because of the blindfold you can’t get your bearings or prepare yourself on the way down and you begin to wonder if jumping really was the right decision after all.
Preparedness does not prevent pain, this, my very wise therapist told me once, and I have learned this, personally, over the last few years, but I think sometimes it can provide an opportunity to brace oneself. Being prepared may keep the pain from knocking you to your knees or perhaps knowing that something is possible can provide you with the strength to get back up, if it does. From one survivor to another to another, there are five things I wish I had known when I left my 15 year abusive marriage.
1. Leaving is only the first step in recovering from an abusive relationship.
I’ve discussed this in a previous blog, but it is worth stating again. With so much focus being put on the aspect of getting victims out of abusive relationships, teaching survivors how to recover from their traumatic experience is usually an afterthought, if it is a thought at all. As someone who did not seek refuge in a shelter and only met with a counselor once to create a safety plan before leaving, I really believed that all I needed to do was get out and everything would be fine. I would be all right; my kids would be fine; I just needed to get out. I wasn’t prepared to deal with the fact that the abuse does not stop once you leave it simply changes tactics. I had no idea how the distorted thought processes I’d developed in the relationship would affect the rest of my life. I didn’t even know I had them. I had no idea how damaged and bruised I was.
2. You may develop PTSD.
I had to have a full blown panic attack, after a particularly ugly verbal assault by my ex, in order to realize that I was not nearly as okay as I believed I was. This incident happened over a year after I had left. I had moved on with my life, was in a new, amazing relationship; I knew things weren’t always easy for me or the kids, but I thought we were, for the most part, better. It wasn’t until I was tweeting one day about the panic attack and someone replied back with “the PTSD symptoms will fade, with time” that I realized developing PTSD was even possible in my situation. I thought PTSD was something soldiers, people who had survived a bomb or a shooting developed, not someone who had survived domestic violence. The idea that I could have this rocked me to my core. I had truly believed I was okay. This realization is what finally sent me to therapy. PTSD was not something I was capable of dealing with on my own, this much I knew. My therapist confirmed the suspected PTSD diagnosis and helped me understand that domestic violence in not something you just “get over,” it is something you recover from. While the idea of having PTSD was scary, I’m grateful for its appearance, as it was what brought me to the place I needed to be. It was where my healing and recovery journey began.
3. Friends and family that you expect, or need, support from may not be capable of providing it.
It was interesting to see the responses of those around me to my story, as I began to become comfortable telling it. There was horror, disbelief, sadness, pity and lots of questions. Why didn’t I tell? Why didn’t I leave sooner? And then there were others who wanted to know why on earth I would lie about something so serious, they simply could not believe that my ex was capable of such behavior, or why I didn’t try harder to make my relationship work, making it my fault for giving up. You can never predict other people’s responses to your situation. What I have learned is that their responses typically have nothing to do with me, or my story. Their responses are almost always about them, their own histories, their own beliefs, their own biases. It’s taken a couple of years of years of recovery to get to the place where I can accept people where they are, instead of where I’d like them to be and to be able to not take their responses personally. What I have found is that people you thought would be your biggest supporters actually have too many of their own issues to be able to be what you need. This does not make them bad people, but is who and where they are in their own journey that may prevent them from even being capable of supporting you. When you begin to work on yourself, you become a mirror to those around you for they work that they aren’t doing on themselves. This is not a picture many like to or are even willing to see. It can lead to hostility and even the ending of relationships. It is okay to distance yourself from those who aren’t in a healthy place, from those who can’t support you in a way you need and from those who drain you, rather than lift you up. You are allowed and encouraged to put your own wellness and healing about the needs of others, even if they don’t understand it.
4. Some will not want to hear or believe your story.
Domestic Violence is not a sexy subject. It is not something people like to sit around and chat about. It makes people uncomfortable. Even those who are relieved you’re out of your situation may not want to hear you tell your story. Then there are those who think you’re making it up, or the ones who don’t want to “take sides” or think there are two sides to every story. Here is the truth, you get to tell your story as many times and in any way you choose. It is your story, no one else’s and there is no shame in telling it. If telling your story validates your experience and empowers you, go ahead and tell it. If others feel uncomfortable, that is on them. If people choose not to believe you, that too is on them, not you. You know what happened to you and it is always acceptable to use your voice, now that you’ve found it. On the flipside of this it also acceptable to not tell your story, you have to decide what is best for you and your recovery.
5. There is potential for re-victimization from lawyers, therapists and the court system that do not understand domestic violence.
Many survivors have to seek assistance from professionals at some point. We reach out to lawyers for legal assistance and therapists for ourselves and possibly our children, for mental health assistance, as we should. Just do so with the understanding that many, if not most, of these individuals have almost no specialized training or experience in dealing with situations containing domestic violence. You will be told they do, both by them and by others, sometimes even by the court system. The reality is this there is very little training available and almost none of it mandatory for lawyers or those working within the family court systems. In addition, other than a semester long class in their Master’s program, therapists do not have training either, unless they sought it out on their own. This leaves those of us trying to get out of an abusive situation at the mercy of people who have little to no idea what we’ve been through or how to help us. They don’t understand the cycle; they don’t understand that abusers use the courts, attorneys, therapists and custody arrangements to abuse us further, thus allowing us to continually be re-victimized by both the abuser we are trying to leave and those who are supposed to be helping us. I learned this the hard way. My children will not step foot into another therapists office after their experience with one who claimed to be able to handle our situation, but couldn’t. My attorney failed me multiple times because he did not understand that my ex was using his attorney and the courts to intimidate, control and abuse me further, even though I told him that was what was going on. This by no means implies that there are not some very good, reputable and trained individuals out there who can help you, there are. You just have to do your research, ask the right questions, and use domestic violence advocates, if need be and where you can. I am not saying asking these questions is always easy but there will be a point in your situation where you will be glad you did. If you’re uncomfortable doing this for yourself, it’s a great time to rely on your support system. Ask someone to accompany you to your first meetings and don’t commit until you feel like you have found a good fit for you and your situation. This is the time to shop around instead of taking the first one you’re presented with.
While there are lots of other things I’d wish I had known, these are the five that, in hindsight, I feel would have helped me the most, allowed me to be more prepared. Knowing these things would not have prevented the pain that accompanied these realizations, but I can hope that if you are even a little better prepared than I was, maybe they won’t knock you as flat as they did me, or that if you can share this insight with your support system, they will be better prepared to help you. One of the most challenging things about abusive relationships and domestic violence is that every situation is different, what every individual is dealing with is different, but these five things come into play for most of us at some point, regardless of our differing circumstances. Maybe knowing them will make your journey just a little bit easier.