Tuesday, 17 July 2018

Healing After an Abusive Relationship

Trigger Warning: The following piece is a personal account and includes mentions of assault, self-harm and trauma.

Sociologist Michael Kimmel says “feminism expects a man to be ethical, emotionally present and accountable to his values in his actions with women – as well as other men.  Feminism loves men enough to expect them to act more honourably and actually believes them capable of doing so”.

If you feel let down by this statement, I don’t blame you.  If you feel your experiences preclude you from maintaining faith that men can be and are capable of being “ethical, emotionally present and accountable”, you are not alone.

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I want to tell you one particular story of mine, one I am just now gaining the courage to talk about.  I was in a toxic and abusive relationship for over four years.  Even though I identify as a survivor, I am also struggling to effectively apportion responsibility and blame, to put back together my self-esteem, and learn to trust myself again.  

About seven years ago I moved away from the city where my family lived, where I had forged wonderful childhood friends and where I completed my tertiary education.  I moved to gain the necessary experience within my chosen career.  I moved for reasons more complex than that too, for a fresh start – I have had mental health issues since I was a child that bled into identity as a teenager and a young adult.

I was extremely anxious and a perfectionist with unrelenting standards of personal performance.   As a teenager, I battled with depression but it wasn’t until I was 17 that my world fell apart.  That is a different story, one for another day.  But, I want you, the reader, to know that as a romantic proposition I have always considered myself to be too complicated and complex to be loveable.  In ways I have behaved to reinforce this belief; in other ways I was treated as such.  

Back to the new city I’d moved to - as is wont to happen, old patterns crept in as I faced my loneliness and the realities of interning (for no money) and having to work in a bar to pay my rent.  I retreated into myself, into a bottle of red wine and into the internet.  When a face from my past appeared on my Facebook feed, a face who had loved me in that innocent way teenagers do and who had loved me before I had identified myself as broken.  I thought, ‘this is it – here is the love I have been waiting for’; the love I might not feel I deserved but that I would chase anyway.

I am a romantic and I am delusional.  Romantic in the sense that I want that feeling of mystery and excitement that (romantic) love promises; the kind that lifts you from the drudgery of everyday life.  I am delusional insofar as my learned experiences of romantic love has meant that I have come to expect a degree of intensity, obsession, chaos and drama that is at best, unhealthy, and at worst, toxic.  My idea of love became very twisted – it needed to be expansive, complex, intense, and obsessive in order for it to be real. 

So, five and a bit years ago, I gave up a job that was on the cusp of giving me everything I had doggedly worked for (interning and working in a bar at night) – the job that held so much promise and with people who had an unending faith in my abilities and potential – I left that and moved to a new country, to a new city to be with this man, M.  

I am a restless soul, thoughtful and pensive, melancholic and impulsive.  I have been a risk taker since I was a small child – in many ways I can be absolutely fearless.  But I am also extremely anxious and prone to shame – the shame is so pervasive that it makes me incapable of forward movement.  I get stuck and cannot move.  It is the emotional cancer that has eaten me from the inside out, eroding my confidence and sense of self, that facing the world, facing consequence, is simply too hard.  But at times it yells at me – run!

I didn’t see it as running away, but I was.  I was running as fast as I could from the person I had become and the shame that had been my constant companion for so many years.  And it was easy to run, I had done it before – 

I ran away to America for similar reasons, for a handsome stranger I had met just once in a lonely hostel in Argentina (stick with this blog, I have a lot of great stories).

Where I should have sent myself to intensive therapy – I packed my bags and got on a flight to Melbourne and then into M’s car.  I cracked a bottle of duty free vodka along the Tullamarine freeway with the window’s down, in the summer heat, I thought to myself - ‘this is so bohemian and wild and free’.  This, I said to myself, this would work out.  
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Happiness, which is not based on contentment but on a ‘feeling’ of being high and giddy, is a fleeting anchor on which to hold - especially when you are effectively broke, jobless, living with a stranger and struggling to find your feet.  
The deep depression hit quickly. I ignored the holes that M had punched into the walls of his home out of frustration and anger at a previous relationship’s breakdown.  I ignored the growing resentment he felt toward me because I didn’t match the idea he had in his head of me.  At that point we were still feeling each other out – our discontentment was understandable and manageable.  But it began to get less and less so, at least for me. 

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The abuse began in stealth … I was broken, I was mentally unwell, I was needy and reliant … M began to list all the way in which I was the problem.

So, when M said he would support me to get sober by teetotalling with me – I thought, ‘this, this is love.  I have finally found it.  Someone who will accept me, who understands me’. I thought.  But sobriety didn’t fix me, because alcohol and its use in my life has always been a symptom not a cause of feelings of inadequacy.  Sure, it exacerbated things, created drama and brought with it its inevitable shame spiral.  But sober, you are left with the rawness that alcohol had dulled for so many years.  I sat alone with this and my anxiety skyrocketed, my weight plummeted and I reached out with both hands to the man who said he would love me and asked – please love this version too, please see I am struggling, please acknowledge this and please help me. 

I let myself be completely vulnerable to M and asked to be loved regardless of my flaws – real and imagined.  But he didn’t love my flaws or know how to – it became very clear that stopping drinking did not turn me into his fantasy woman and he was clearly disappointed.
He didn’t want to learn about my pain.  Didn’t or couldn’t understand why I would beat myself, cut and punish myself for everything I thought were my failures - at work, at home, with friends, with family. The grief and trauma that I had dampened for years was now on glorious show.

I retreated into myself.
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When M first assaulted me we were both sober, I rang the police.  We were separated and I chose not make a complaint.  The next time he assaulted me we were both sober, I was left with a two black eyes, bruising around my neck after being choked in the shower and scratches across my arms after being restrained.  I did not ring the police.  I did not make a complaint. This also marked the end of my 1.5 years of sobriety.  

I cannot list all the times I was yelled at, verbally abused, physically stood over, or pinned to my bed by M; nor am I going to list the further assaults that occurred.  It is too easy to view complex human relationships in black and white terms, and I am still coming to grips with my entitlement to be angry and distressed by the events that occurred within this relationship and what degree I have been culpable – not for the assaults but for my own anger and emotional instability that do not a happy relationship make.

It took multiple attempts to disentangle myself from the relationship and in many ways I still identify M as the love of my life.  
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Now, I am living in the aftermath and fall-out.  I will talk more about this in another post but at the moment my sole purpose in life is to heal, let go, forgive, and rediscover myself and use my new-found identify to anchor and trust again.  

One thing I know is how damn hard it is to trust yourself when you have (a) made your own mistakes and (b) been gaslit for so many years you question your own ability to be reasonable and accountable.  I took on the full responsibility for the relationship breaking down – if you asked M what went wrong it would be entirely and unequivocally my fault.  
This burns me to my very core – it is the thing that presents as the biggest roadblock to my recovery.  Because, I know that I will not get any acceptance of responsibility from M, nor an apology.  

I have to do my healing alone, like many women do, and when you don’t like yourself, this can be a very daunting task.

As I embark on this journey, I want to say the things that are working for me and I hope to share more as I get further along my path:

1. Talk.  But if you are not ready to shout out your trauma from the rooftops then be careful of who you talk to.  Some people who you love can respond in ways that are unhelpful and can undo the work you’ve done.  Professionals are great but so too is that one, trusted friend.

2. Be totally frank, fearless and honest about everything.  This is hard for me.  I have hid my weaknesses, flaws and ‘bad’ bits from people for years.  But people are astute – they already know, so you might as well own it.  Owning up to everything can help reduce its impact, as there is always a person out there who can identify with what you are going through. Fearlessness begets fearlessness – that next leap of faith becomes easier.

3. Listen to your instincts – this will help to trust yourself again.  The two times this year I have not followed my instinctual reaction to something (you know that gut feeling), things have turned out in ways that have set me back financially, emotionally, and at work.  Practicing listening to your gut, or inner voice, will help you to learn to trust yourself again. 

4. An all-or-nothing approach is doomed to fail.  I have been one of those people who wants to change, creates an elaborate and detailed plan, then fails at the first hurdle because it’s too much, too soon, too hard.  This just gets you stuck in the blame and shame cycle again, which is what you’re trying to escape from.  Adopt a modulated approach – start with small, manageable changes then build on them.  

5. Medication works (for me).  I have finally, FINALLY stuck to taking my medication for 7 consecutive months now.  I was always someone who would start something, hate the side-effects, not feel the effect quick enough, give up and then go back for something new.  Needless to say, this has created a sense of distrust for GPs who prescribe me such medication – I set myself as a science experiment then complained about doing so.  It is trial and error, it doesn’t work for everyone but there is no shame in needing medication for the short or long term.  

6. Exercise.  I walk everywhere – I try to walk at least 10,000 steps every day.  Today, I start a 6 week dance class.  I am taking things slowly, building on what I have worked on previously (see point 4 about adopting a modulated approach).  Elle Woods was right "exercise gives you endorphins.  Endorphins make you happy. Happy people just don't shoot their husbands, they just don't."
And remember, you (as I do) deserve to find love that doesn’t expect or require you to convince them you are loveable or that their idea of you is somehow more valid than your own.  
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If you feel your experiences preclude you from maintaining your feminist faith in ‘ethical, emotionally present and accountable’ men, you are not alone.  I stand with you but I am also willing to rebuild that faith over time.  

By: Rachael Thurston

4 comments:

  1. Honest and raw, painful and real. Your healing, heals others. You are a brave Warrior Goddess.

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    Replies
    1. Aw thanks sis, this means a lot coming from you - the baddest, most kickass chick I know x

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  2. Great post!!Thanks for sharing it with us....really needed.Our expertise is in all areas of Criminal Law (including everything from assault, apprehended violence orders, drink driving & drug driving, traffic offences, computer crime through to drug importation and murder trials) and we have a high profile within the Criminal Law area. Sydney Assault Charges

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