It takes more than one attempt to leave an abuser. It usually takes five to eight separations for real recovery to begin, for a woman to take her life back. There are also different stages of recovery, different steps to healing. I’m linking those healing steps to the times we try to leave.
Rather than feeling weak, shameful, or guilty for the times we’ve left unsuccessfully, we can see them as necessary learning. Important skills we’ll need for when we do leave.
Once we’ve left, all of those healing skills will need to come together so we can be whole persons again, reclaiming our life.
There are myths and theories about why women stay in abusive relationships. Different estimates of how many times most leave before leaving for good. Five is an accepted number. I broke all contact five different times before I was able to leave for good. Blocking phone numbers, getting restraining orders, sending him to jail and changing my world along the way.
There is some shame, here. Why didn’t I stay away the first time? What did I expect? Why doesn’t she just leave? I know that the shame is displaced. There are layers of manipulation, coercion, self-esteem, and fear involved. It’s not surprising that it takes more than one shot. But the shame is still there.
And what happens, after abuse? How much stigma is there of the ‘abused’ or ‘assaulted’ woman? How do you rebuild self-respect, dignity, hope? “You get over it”, I hear, or you “learn a new life”. But how many survivors of trauma are still hurting? When will I feel normal?
Each of my five attempts to leave was worth something. Each was a major break in his control, a step toward reclaiming myself. Of course it took five steps: healing is a process, taken one step at a time.
If you bring forth that which is within you,
Then that which is within you
Will be your salvation.
If you do not bring forth that
Which is within you,
Then that which is within you
Will destroy you.
~The Gnostic Gospels
Verbal abuse and relationship violence is hidden, denied, and often hard to identify. Most of the verbal abuse is an attempt to disqualify our experience with blame, minimization, or justification. Abuse is crazy making, isolating, and wears down any worth of self. The first step in leaving the situation is realization and learning that something is, in fact wrong, and that it’s not our fault.
We learn in different ways. We learn from other women, from books, from professionals and support groups. Use all available resources. Learn the dynamics of abuse so that you’ll recognize it when it happens. This shows you, over and over again, that the abuse has nothing to do with you. The abuser denies this, tells you it’s your fault, tells you you’re too sensitive, crazy, making a big deal out of nothing. The more you learn, the more you will see that the abuse has nothing, nothing to do with you.
Learning changes the way we understand. We’ve lived in shadows and lies for a long time. Learning will challenge the patterns of abuse, remind you of your rights, and show you you aren’t alone.
Healing often has to happen ‘intellectually’ before it can happen emotionally. Learning is the first step.
The second step: exercise
If the first step has to do with intellectual healing, and learning the truth about our situation, the second step may have something to do with healing the physical. excercise taps into the reserves of strength, endurance, energy, and self confidence in our body. Living with abuse, our bodies fell out of favor: we paid more attention to our partner’s needs and feelings than our own; we came to feel like an object or sex toy; we started to feel as ugly, worthless, or damaged as the abuse implied we were.
Tension, stress, anger, and depression are stored in the body. They cause headaches and frequent illness. Over time, they can lead to more serious illness. Abused woman often carry their pain with every step they take: they have a hard time making eye contact, they hold their arms in front of them or behind their back, they cower. We – and our bodies – have been in someone else’s control.
Using your body, choosing to move it for your own benefit, causes a revolution from within, heart outwards. Your body is strong, wise, trustworthy, and beautiful. Your body has been neglected and hurt.
Your body is a good place to start healing.
Domestic violence consumes us, swallows us, and leaves us exhausted. Everything in the world fell away, little by little, as the relationship took every ounce of my energy.
Not surprisingly, life looks bleak to an abused woman. The isolation, pain, and lies make ‘laughter’ and ‘joy’ and ‘hope’ seem like flimsy little words.
After we’ve left, our capacity for joy may be gone. Healing means finding it again.
Laughter, friendship, silliness, and joy are all proven to improve health, reduce symptoms of stress and depression, and hurry up healing. Use them, now. We make a mistake in thinking we have to wait until we ‘feel better’ to enjoy ourselves, other people, or life. This isn’t true. You begin with the little, meaningless things, and over time, your life becomes worthwhile again.
Watch comedies. Laugh at yourself. Dance in your livingroom. Laugh with your kids and your girlfriends. It will come back.
Hundreds of studies of trauma and healing have shown a remarkable connection between writing it down and really healing. Even years after a traumatic event, people can find tremendous strengths and personal growth in simply writing the trauma down.
There are different ways you can do this. Do any of them, all of them. Do something now, and remember that you can write more, later. You can write the whole story ten years from now, if it feels too close to home, now.
- Write out specific incidents. Write in fifteen minute blocks of time. Keep going back to one incident until you feel you’ve said everything. It doesn’t matter if you jump around in time, add things later, one minute write like an observer and another write what it felt like at the time. Just keep going back until it truly feels ‘done’ to you. This helps in letting go. We can’t let go of what we haven’t understood or resolved. There is no way you can ‘resolve’ these things with your partner. You can, however, do it on your own.
- Write your story. Spend some time focusing on how this trauma has affected you, changed your life, altered your life plans. This can be a list, a story, whatever. Next, write how you would like the next chapter of this story to be. We live by the stories we tell ourselves. Whether we know it or not, we have a ‘narrative’ and a ‘plot’ in our head that explains who we are, how we got here, what different relationships me. You can learn what story you’ve been telling yourself. You can change the story. You can choose to let the stories go, and just see what happens.
- Journal your feelings every day. Take five or ten minutes and simply ‘get it out’. No one else needs to read this. You don’t have to worry about grammar, punctuation, spelling. Consider it a kind of ‘letting go’ or ‘cleaning house’. Most of us don’t even know what it is we’re feeling at any given moment. But our feelings, if they don’t flow, will back up our lives, energy, concentration. Journaling will not only teach you what you feel and why, but will help you meet different parts of the day with a cleared heart and head.
- Write when you feel lonely, anxious, angry, or tempted to do something unhealthy (like call him, or drink a whole bottle of wine, or eat a whole pizza). Write down what you’re feeling, what you wish you could have said, what is unfair about the situation, now. Use writing as your safety valve. You can do this on the backs of envelopes or paper napkins, on scrap paper, or in the margins of a newspaper. Write what you need, then crumple it up, burn it, bury it, toss it. Just writing down a few cuss words can help you cool down without losing your calm, scaring anybody, or saying something you’ll regret. Write it. Write it. Write it.
Abuse is, by it’s very definition, trauma. It’s chaotic, crazy, stressful, confusing, and exhausting. When we live with it, our brains and hearts work overtime. We’re concerned about safety; we’re wondering what we did wrong; we’re planning for the next fight; we’re working as hard as we can to hold everything together.
Depression, stress, anxiety, grief, and PTSD all have a busy, ruminating, tick tocking brain in common.
Emotionally healthy persons, and spiritual guides throughout time, have talked of quieting the mind. Meditation has proven medical and emotional benefits. The ability to quiet our mind teaches us self-soothing, independence, calm, and perseverance. We’ve already talked of healing on the intellectual level, the physical level, the emotional level: this is the level of spirit and psyche, the very core of who you are.
Claiming that will rocket you into a new space of healing and letting go.
Tapping into this part of ourselves lets the body focus on healing, which it can’t do at any other time because it’s busy. It releases soothing chemicals in our brain and restores balance to the thoughts.
Precisely because we’ve been so abused, ‘meditation’ can seem strange and vulnerable, a ‘waste of time’, and awkward. Don’t think you have to learn intricate yoga poses or chant strange things with your eyes closed to meditate. Meditation is much, much simpler than that. It’s been used in every culture, in every religion. Prayer is a kind of meditation, as is a mass or a church ceremony. The word mantra means ‘out of’ or ‘over’ the mind: we can use memorized chants, prayers, or poems to sooth us, give a rhythm to our movements, or take our mind away from stressful thoughts. Gardening can be a meditation. Walking can be a meditation. Simply practice ‘clearing your head’ for a few minutes each day. You can notice your thoughts, like children playing in the distance, but not have to stop or engage with them. Just notice they’re there and focus your mind on breathing, noticing what your body is doing, on thinking nothing at all.