When I first cut contact with my family I did a lot of strategizing. In part this was because I was still in touch with my sisters, in part it was just my mind still operating in survival mode. There is a fine balance between being prepared for legitimate threats, and just being anxious and obsessive.
But how do you learn the difference, and how can you use planning and strategizing to calm the anxiety?
While still in the abusive situation, you are constantly trying to stay ahead of the game. Which is impossible really, since the rules and the object of the game change every 5 minutes. But you still tried. In that environment your brain is going 90 miles an hour,coming up with plans and strategies designed to stop the abuse. We are looking for ways to make the abuser happy, so they will not be abusive. Or we try to deflect the abuse away from ourselves and on to another target.
“Especially when I was an adult I would try to be clever about my planning. Like the day when I made sure I made appointments at work that I could not possibly get out off, so I had an excuse not to attend the first couple of hours of my mother’s retirement party. It was such a ego-fest, and I just could not face it. So I made sure I had a valid excuse to cut down the time of my attendance.”
This type of strategizing is almost frantic. It is your brain being in the panic of constant survival mode. Once you have left the abusive situation, it is hard to stop you brain from still functioning in this way. You have become so used to the constant stream of thoughts, plans and strategies, you continue to approach your life with that same intensity. Your life however, does not hold quite the same amount of stress and pitfalls, at least not in the same way that the abuse did.
Preparing for Reasonable Threats
By continuing to prepare and strategize in the same way that you did while still in the abusive situation, you are creating a situation where you will feel anxious all the time. It is time to slow down that thinking, and change your objectives.
Where you were trying to control your abuser and stop the abuse with your previous planning, now that you are out you can focus on something else: guarding your boundaries. I don’t just mean your physical boundaries, but your emotional ones too. That means that your thinking and planning can now focus on how you will protect and defend those boundaries.
Consider yourself as being inside a bubble. The abuse and the abuser is outside the bubble. At the start of your recovery, you will be vigilant about protecting the bubble, as you should be! You are constantly doing perimeter checks, and have a vivid imagination when it comes to potential threads. This is good, you need to protect your bubble, and you need to train yourself in the art of border control. As you progress on your healing journey, you push out the bubble. Over time you are going to see less and less of those outer limits, and it becomes easier to not obsess over them. You become better equipped to gauge possible threats and the dates, days or moods that leave your boundaries particularly vulnerable.
The Boundary Check
It is good to consider where the threats are, and to prepare yourself for them. Ask yourself what you expect, what you accept, and how you will respond. Here are some examples to get you going.
How will you manage your social media activity?
In a world where we depend on social media to keep us connected both professionally and privately, how are you going to manage your online presence. Who will you keep in your friends lists, who will you block from seeing your profile, what information will you share… it is worth giving all this some consideration. Read some more about this in Gaining Your Online Freedom.
Is your phone ready for the right responses?
There are a few changes I made to my phone directory, so that I was ready to deal with anything. Firstly I collected all the numbers of anyone in my family of origins to a single contact name: DO NOT ANSWER. I also made sure I had both the emergency and non-emergency numbers for the police programmed into the contact list.
How will you respond to a surprise visit?
Have you cut contact with your abuser, then it can be worth your while to have a plan in case you are ambushed. My plan is two-fold. Firstly there is my response to them, which basically is a calm request for them to leave. If they refuse, part two kicks in. That is a call to the police, and I have already prepared what I will say. It is not something I am overly concerned with, but I have given it some thought so I can respond more rationally if it ever comes to that.
How will you limit access?
If you are still in touch with the abuser, how will you limit their access to you? When I was still in contact with my family, I would try to make sure that I did not have to spend hours and hours sitting pretty on their couch. Whether you design visits with clear end times, make sure you meet on neutral grounds… There are certainly ways to limit the toxicity of a situation. Check out this post on Making It Through Christmas, for some more ideas and strategies on this. Also check out this article by Aubrey about how to become a less interesting target for your abuser.
Above All, Create a Safe Space
Over time, I have managed to create a safe haven for myself. I have made very specific choices and plans about what to do if the boundaries of my safe haven are tested, but I do not spend that much time considering them. Every so often, especially around times when I feel my “terror alert” is likely to rise, I will just run through my plans in my head. I just have a once over of the “speech” I prepared, I mentally run through my options and choices. It is like a governments contingency plans, they are taken out and dusted off every so often, but there is no daily practice runs.
This where being prepared and being anxious begin to differ. Anxiousness stems from fear, and preparation then has that frantic edge to it. It is about stopping the abuser, rather than about empowering yourself. Once you begin to release the fear of your abuser, preparedness becomes a tool of self-care and self-empowerment.