Bodies in the Basement Blog Series: Liberation

About 5 years ago, I heard a song that had been recorded by the Brooklyn Tabernacle Choir called Thou, O Lord. I was then able to perform it with my own church choir a few months later and it became my own personal rallying cry, of sorts. “Thou, O Lord, are a shield for me; my glory and the lifter of my head.” I loaded it onto my iPod and sang it every Sunday morning as I got ready for church. My excuse was always that it was the perfect choir warm-up song because it got my full vocal range from mid-alto to first soprano. The truth was that I needed that prep time with God so I wouldn’t come unraveled in church.

6 Praise be to the Lord,
for he has heard my cry for mercy.
7 The Lord is my strength and my shield;
my heart trusts in him, and he helps me.
My heart leaps for joy,
and with my song I praise him.
8 The Lord is the strength of his people,
a fortress of salvation for his anointed one.
Psalm 28:6-8 New International Version (NIV)

Sunday mornings were miserable. We went to church as a family and put on the nice family face. We were active in choir, classes, kids ministry, men’s ministry, women’s ministry, this, that and the other ministry… all the while I desperately hid the truth of what our world was like. I was embarrassed and ashamed. The hypocrisy was sometimes overwhelming. I would sit in the congregation with about 600 or so other people, many of whom I knew, and feel as alone as if I was sitting on the moon. One morning I remember coming completely unglued after a particularly vicious episode and sitting on the front row at the far corner, in the dark and alone, hoping to hide my now-pouring tears from most of my church mates. A friend from choir saw me and came over and said, “Whatever it is, Aubrey, I am praying for you right now and I hope it gets better really fast.”

That both touched and tore me apart, because this was a man who was my husband’s friend and I just wanted to beg him for help. (Bill G., if you’re reading this, I want you to know that small gesture that was so easy for you was a lifeline for me in that moment and I will be forever grateful.) Part of me wanted to fall out prostrate on the floor right there and spill my guts, but I reasoned that would just make me look as nuts as I felt.

Hot Buttons Make You Feel Nuts

“Nuts” is exactly how victims of emotional abuse feel. You become so conditioned to believe that what you hear over and over is real that it becomes a part of your psyche. Then you begin to believe you deserve it because surely you must be the instigator, otherwise, how could someone be so mad all the time unless you provoked it? No, it doesn’t matter how intelligent or rational or logical you are. My IQ is somewhere in the “you-gotta-be-kidding” range (totally genetic!) and it still didn’t make a difference because all the intelligence and logic tends to work against you. You rationalize and figure if you do such-and-such better or avoid doing this or that, things will improve. It becomes a way of coping, especially when your abuser continues to go after one of those hot buttons they get good at pushing.

One of my hot buttons was the wearing of a wedding ring. It happens to be one of those things that is important to me, unless you’re an auto mechanic or could otherwise rip your finger off at work while having it on. A favorite tactic my husband would use when he would get mad at me about something was to take his wedding ring off and go days without wearing it, keeping it perched atop a jewelry case in the master bath. It became some sick cat-and-mouse game where I would see how long I could go without making a big deal out of it (trying again to not create a fight or be “unreasonable”) and he would see how badly he could hurt me by not wearing it. Once I would finally break down and ask why he wasn’t wearing it, I would get a response such as, “Well, I just haven’t felt like I was in a marriage lately.”

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My other hot button was, as with many women, my weight. I have always struggled with it, but at the unhappiest times in my life I ballooned up to a size 14 on my 5’4” frame. An emotional abuser (remember most are narcissists) gains control by becoming adept at finding your Achilles heel(s) and leveraging that information to his or her advantage. Once, my ex-husband went out to play league volleyball on a Saturday afternoon and didn’t come home until Sunday morning around 11. We had no cell phones then and I was frantic. I drove the interstates and main roads for hours, not knowing where they had played. I called the police and reported an overdue motorist. I paced the floor, I cried, I worried. When he came sauntering in the next morning and told me he had “slept on the couch at this girl’s house from the team” because he didn’t feel like coming home. Like any normal person I went a little berserk. I was furious. He hadn’t even called to tell me he was okay or where he was! This particular episode ended with him declaring how he wasn’t attracted to me anymore and me sitting in a heap on the floor at his feet, crying, saying I was sorry I was so fat. I was 24, working a fabulous job at a worldwide ad agency, had gorgeous, long hair, was a stylish dresser and wore a size 10. I know a lot of women who would love to be a size 10.

Become Your Own Best Friend

What I have learned now is that you have to know your own soft spots, but more importantly, know ALL of your strengths. Yes, I got heavy a few times and that’s just the way it was. So did he. Where it becomes abusive is when that is used to demean you as a PERSON, to try to diminish who you are. Putting on 20 pounds didn’t make me less intelligent, less generous, less kind, less accomplished, or less worthy of respect and human dignity. I remember sitting and eating a salad after cooking him a nice dinner, as he expected, and being livid about it, then getting angry at myself for being angry about the food! Why? Because I didn’t think one bit about my strengths to give myself some perspective. I earned double what he did, had a ton of friends and had lots to be proud of, but the abuser finds what hurts and hurls it at you to make him or herself feel powerful. I should’ve treated myself better, but I didn’t really know how.

When is the last time you took a personal inventory? Do it now. No, I mean right now. Seriously… just make the time and quickly write down 10 great things about yourself. Pretend you are talking about a friend and speak of yourself with the same kindness and high esteem you would afford someone else. It doesn’t have to be anything “big”… you are who you are and God knows your heart. Even something as simple as remembering how you didn’t walk past that homeless person last week without throwing some change in his cup helps solidify in your mind the good points about you as a creation of God. After you jot them down, keep them somewhere handy for a while and see how you might begin to think of yourself as a friend when you read it. Start working on becoming your own best friend and stand by your friend always. Learn to be as ferociously protective of yourself as you are of your best friend and vice versa. If your real best friend called you for help, would you drop everything and run? Then do the same for yourself.

Most importantly, call on your shield and strength when you need Him. He will protect your heart if you let Him. If you aren’t used to doing it, it’ll feel weird, but I promise it’s in a good way. When those hurtful barbs come hurtling toward you, toss up your emotional shield and deflect them! You deserve to live free of that kind of pain!

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Aubrey Cole

Aubrey Cole

I survived a quarter century of psychological, emotional, economic and sexual abuse. When I got out, I vowed to help others do the same and founded the Emotional Abuse Survivors Network project in 2012. Now, I offer hope and healing to others on their journey as they rediscover themselves. My forthcoming books, Bodies in the Basement and Define Winning, chronicle my experiences, escape, and recovery. There is nothing so special about me that others can't emerge and thrive.
Aubrey Cole

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