Recently I tried to explain to someone what the process of ending and recovering from an emotionally abusive relationship is like, particularly when you still have to “kiss the dragon”… that is, you are forced to have interaction with the abuser long after the official relationship is over, because of your children. I quoted a scene from my all-time favorite TV show, The West Wing, in which one of the characters is being treated for trauma after being shot and nearly killed. The sound of music sends him into a state of panic, complete with profuse sweating and shortness of breath, with exaggerated reactions of anger shortly following. After a marathon session, the therapist says, “We have to get you to the point where you can remember the shooting without reliving it. I know it’s gonna sound like I’m telling you that one plus one equals a bushel of potatoes, but right now, in your mind, music is…” “Sirens”, the patient answers.
That is precisely how it works in recovery from abuse and has been identified as a form of post-traumatic stress disorder.
I am astonished, disappointed, pleased with myself. I am distressed, depressed, rapturous. I am all these things at once and cannot add up the sum.
– Carl Jung
Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder
While I don’t even begin to compare what I and other victims of abuse have been through to what our dedicated military personnel can see in the throes of combat or the experiences of violent crime victims, I can assure you that the symptoms and after-effects are nearly identical. In writing out or retelling my stories, I can still experience the feelings of dread in the pit of my stomach, how it felt to be in such despair that I wished I could just go to sleep and not wake up so the horrible pain would stop.
Think carefully about something that has happened to you that causes you to physically react every time you remember it. Note your blood pressure and respiration change, whether your stomach knots up, if you get angry or weepy and how your thinking is affected overall. Now consider that the typical victim of abuse has hundreds, if not thousands, of these memories. Even as I write this knowing that I am helping others as well as myself, I deal with anger, sadness and nausea frequently. The worst part is that all of those episodes end with the same feeling: self-loathing. Why in the name of everything holy do I do this to myself? Why did I “let” it go on so long? Why can’t I forget? Even though C.C. is long gone and far away, memories stir feelings and a comment from someone who means no harm at all can sound like a bomb going off in my head, forcing me to emotionally duck and cover.
Return to the feeling you had a couple of minutes ago when you could recall a memory that caused a physical response, whatever it was. Now imagine having a new one of these emotional memories created 2 or 3 or 5 times a week, every week, for 27 years. That is my internal programming from abuse. It yells at me for not mowing the lawn in a certain pattern, for missing a volleyball shot in a casual game with friends, and for getting behind on laundry. It mocks me if I’m not earning “enough” money (by some arbitrary definition) and belittles me for going longer than a week without changing the sheets on the bed. When I really fail, like losing my temper with my children or breaking something – normal occurrences for others – it silently screams how “he” must be right, that I’m a failure and not good enough. I hear in my head the same voice that, when my then-2-year-old accidentally knocked over an uncovered cup of milk at the dinner table, yelled, “What are you DOING?! Are you stupid?!”
Imperfection Is Normal
It is an unwanted intruder that the person in recovery from abuse must work hard to slam the door on. It takes time and patience. It takes understanding and gentleness with oneself. It requires accepting that you are and will be imperfect, which is human nature, but you’ve been trained to believe that imperfection is a fate worse than death.
Be gentle to yourself. Show yourself the same kind of compassion you would show to another friend or a stranger who is in obvious distress. Work toward not acting on the negative feelings and reducing those negative feelings will naturally follow. You may never forget the deep and abiding pain of the things that have happened in your past, but you do not have to let those things rule you. My physical reactions have diminished some, but I still have the occasional nightmare complete with crying, shortness of breath and sweating.
It takes time. It takes love. It requires finding support. Most of all it requires faith in something greater than yourself, because you will always be an imperfect human being.
And that’s okay.