4 years out…still trapped

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Photo credit: http://www.katewmak.com/

This week marks the 4 year anniversary of the separation from my ex.  Four years since the night I told him it was over and I was leaving.  Four years since I made the biggest and most difficult decision of my life.  6 weeks later, I moved into my own home and started my new life as a single mother of two.

If I had known back then how difficult leaving would be, I would probably be dead.  If I had known 4 years ago that the court process would still be ongoing.  If I had known he was going to abuse my children and I would be helpless to prevent it.  If I had known that after four years, I would still be caught, living my life trying to prevent him from hurting us.

If I had known these things I would have stayed.  If I had known that leaving would become a marathon of epic proportions, with no end in sight, I would have ended my life.

In the past four years I have endured all of my worst fears.  I have had to face the fact that my absolute worst fear (my own children experiencing abuse) has not only occurred, but is ongoing and society refuses to step in to stop it.  I live with things I thought I could not survive and I live with them daily.

I’ve had to survive things that no person should have to survive and so have my children.  Leaving didn’t save me.  It didn’t save them.  It didn’t cure my PTSD because I’m still being abused by him.

Some days, even recently, I have wanted to give up.  When I started to feel as suicidal, as hopeless, as trapped and as depressed as when I was living with him, it felt unbearable.  Many days feel unbearable, but each day I survive.  I have to survive to create a safe home for my children.

It’s crucial to help people and support them in exiting abusive situations, but we have to stop perpetuating the destructive myth that “just leaving” is the solution.  We have to stop perpetuating the myth that “just leaving” will solve all the problems.  If your abuser is the parent of your children, you can never “just leave” because you are forced to interact with them on a regular basis until your children are adults and possibly longer.

Of course I had to leave.  I wouldn’t have survived there much longer.

Of course it’s better for my children to have a happy, healthy mother 50% of the time rather than a dead mother 100% of the time.

Of course I made the right decision, the only decision.

Of course there are a number of things in my life that have improved since leaving and I’m grateful for them.

But that doesn’t make it any less painful to look back over 4 years of struggling to fully extricate myself from narcissistic abuse.  4 years of betrayals and incompetence by every major social program I’ve interacted with (CAS, legal, court, police, hospital, school).

So let’s support domestic abuse survivors to leave, but let’s also support them for as long as it takes after.  Let’s recognize and acknowledge that the abuse does not end the moment she walks out the door.  Let’s support survivors who regularly doubt whether or not they should have left, because the legal process is so traumatic and inaccessible.  Let’s support survivors who have to co-parent with narcissits.

Create a community of support circling the survivor and keep it in place for as long as she needs it.  Because she will need it, especially at the times she feels as bad, or worse than she did in the relationship.

So this week I mark 4 years down, a life time of healing to go!

Celebrating One Year of Hopeforsanity Blog!

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It’s been one year since I started writing this blog.  If you are a new reader I encourage you to go back and read the first few posts of this blog.  To all of you who are reading, following, liking, sharing and commenting: THANK YOU!  I’m writing this blog for the dual purpose of expressing myself and connecting with others who are struggling, letting them know they are not alone.  You are not alone.   Though this blog has dealt with graphic and dark topics, I aim for the overall message to be one of hope and resilience.

Twenty one years ago tomorrow (April 12, 1996) the entire course of my life changed.  I was 15 years old and I entered into an abusive relationship that altered my relationship to myself, my friends, my family and my body.  I went from a relatively happy, self assured, popular 15 year old girl, to an anorexic, withdrawn, self-hating, 16 year old young woman.

I believe Ana was born at this time.  It’s no coincidence that Ana is 15 years old.  Ana is my traumatized child self personified.   Ana is angry in ways my younger self could not be.  Ana is all the fear, shame, guilt and hopelessness personified into a rebellious teenager who only wants to hurt me and say a giant F U to the rules of the world.

Sometimes I wonder how my life would be different if I’d never dated X.  If I’d never tried to befriend him.  If I’d never believed that I could help him feel better about himself.

I also wonder how my life would have been different if I’d been taught as a child that it’s okay not to be “nice” to someone who is hurting you.  I wonder how my life would have been different if I’d been less concerned with being “perfect” and more concerned with protecting myself.  I wonder how my life would have been different if I’d realized that saving myself was even an option.  I was an easy target for perpetrators of abuse.  I played the role of rescuer, helper, caretaker and I never wanted to let anyone down or disappoint anyone.

People who don’t understand normal coping reactions to sexual violence have asked me:  Why didn’t you just scream?  Why didn’t you tell someone?  Why didn’t you push him and run away?

All I can say is that the answer is so complicated.  The answer lies in the social conditioning of some women living in a patriarchal, rape culture.  The answer lies in being taught to be “good” rather than to be true to oneself.  The answer lies in physiological responses which caused me to freeze and disassociate rather than fighting or fleeing.   Those physiological responses were not random, but were connected to the socialization of being a “good girl.”

My 15 year old self never would have considered screaming or fighting back.  Because she was ashamed, blamed herself and never wanted to make a scene.  My 15 year old self was confused and inexperienced and it took her a while to figure out that she didn’t like the sexual experiences that were being forced on her.  It took her a while to figure out that she wasn’t really choosing.  By the time she realized it wasn’t right, she was already coping by disassociating to lessen the impact of the abuse.  By the time she started firmly saying no, the pattern of abuse and the cycle of violence was already firmly established.   And because she was not naturally an assertive child and had not been taught to fight back in self defense, when her no wasn’t listened to, she began to shut down even further, withdraw further and develop other ingenious coping techniques such as anorexia, self harm and disassociating completely.

These reactions weren’t accidental.  They were conditioned from a young age.  Adults have to teach children to fight back.  Adults have to teach children that being nice can stop when someone crosses a boundary.  Adults have to teach children to fight like hell to escape a dangerous situation.  And even if a child learns all these things, it is still possible that in a violent situation freezing can be the only available option.   Many people being abused feel that fighting back would only result in further violence and physical injuries.

In my case, what kept me frozen was guilt and shame.  I thought I was doing something shameful by being sexual.  I thought that his family and my family would judge me.  I thought that my friends would judge me for neglecting them (as I was being socially isolated by the abuser).   Self blame kept me frozen and not fighting back.

Even as an adult, 21 years later, I still cope with conflict and stress by freezing or disassociating.  I’m still not skilled at saying no.  I also have difficulty saying yes or asking for what I need.

I think for a person who has experienced sexual violence it is difficult to say no.  Because in the abusive situation no was ignored and pushed past.  So staying silent feels less painful than having no not respected.  If I never really say no, I can’t be abused again.  It’s warped logic.  It is not productive or helpful, and it also prevents me from comfortably saying yes.

For someone whose boundaries have been consistently violated, setting boundaries can become a life long struggle.  A skill that must be learned or relearned gradually and with patience and self compassion.

Quite simply, I survived in abusive relationships for many years because I literally felt I had no other option.  I didn’t even feel like I deserved to be respected and I was gaslighted into believing the abuse was my own fault.

It’s never helpful to ask a survivor “Why didn’t  you just leave?”

Keep those thoughts to yourself.

They would have left if they could have.  And if they did leave, they are successful.  It doesn’t matter how long it took.  It took as long as it needed and not a moment longer.  Celebrate the reality, don’t question why it didn’t happen sooner.  “Why didn’t you just leave?” is a type of victim blaming statement.   If you don’t understand how someone could be trapped into an abusive relationship, educate yourself.  Don’t ask the survivor to educate you on their own painful lived experiences.  Survivors need to feel believed and validated, not questioned into justifying their existence.

Every year on April 12, I count another year of my life that has been impacted by sexual violence.  It is a grim reminder that for many survivors, myself including,  that the abuse was not “a long time ago” and we can’t “just get over it”  or “just move on.”  For people living with PTSD, time is a slippery beast.  Ana is still 15 years old.  Ana is me, she’s a part of me.  A part of me that never really grew up.  A part of me that needs parenting.

I’ve never parented a teenager before. I have no experience.  But I guess I’ll have to start somewhere.  And starting with acknowledging she is here, and she has unmet needs, is as good a place as any!