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Learning to be Independent

independent

An abusive partner’s main objective is to create a totally dependent victim. They want us to lose all of our spunk, our spirit, and our freedom. They want total control over us. We are no longer independent. To do this, they use their myriad of tactics to isolate, dominate, and manipulate us in a way that molds us into their submissive robots.

When abusive partners do this, they strip us of our autonomy. I was a fun-loving, independent, successful, and smart person before he walked into my life. Over time, I became something I did not recognize. I became a robotic shell of a human being. I became completely dependent on him.

How do we, as survivors of domestic violence, regain our independence post-abuse? How do we find ourselves again? How do we adjust to life after them?

Learning to be independent after our abusive relationships is something we may have great difficulty in doing. We are so accustomed to living by their rules and their way of life that we don’t know anything else. We don’t know how to step, speak, and live. We need to relearn everything all over again.

Reclaim

One of the biggest hurdles for me to overcome was reclaiming parts of my life that were lost. Our abusers are hell-bent on taking away every last bit of what makes us individuals. I was so timid and afraid to take a step post-abuse that it took me a long time to reclaim lost parts of myself.

Things to consider when reclaiming yourself:

  • There’s no timetable for this. Go as slowly as you need to.
  • Take small steps. Baby steps can equal large accomplishments.

One of the biggest pieces of advice I can give in reclaiming yourself is to accept the satisfaction and freedom it gives you when you accomplish something. I remember that after my situation when I began to do things that he didn’t want me to do, I reclaimed part of myself again and began to feel freedom with every new step that I took.

Reconnect

Abusers often isolate us from our support system. Subsequently, it’s also a tactic they hate to lose when we begin to break away from them. They despise it when we reconnect with our support system. Their goal is to drive wedges between us and those closest to us so that the only one we rely on is the abuser.

Reconnecting with family, friends and other support is vital to our healing and recovery. When I was first out of my situation, I found it easy to reconnect with my main support system – my parents and a few close friends. My mother knew what I had gone through because she, too, is a domestic violence survivor and knew what it took to come back to those who love her.

Things to consider when reconnecting with others:

  • How quickly you reconnect is up to you.
  • Don’t let others pressure you into connecting too quickly.
  • Create boundaries if you need to.

You are putting yourself back together, like fitting puzzle pieces together. Each time you reconnect with those around you, it will fit a piece back into that puzzle. The more you do that, the more of yourself you will get back, and the more independent you will become.

Regain

To regain is to get possession of something once again. The thing I needed to regain the most was my voice. My voice was taken away from me. Much of who we are is made up of our voice, thoughts, opinions, and feelings. When we are in our situations, abusers strip us of the ability to speak our minds. They tell us we are stupid, that we don’t know what we’re talking about and that we should listen to them because they know better. We begin to defer to their supposed better judgment. Little by little, our voice is taken away.

Regaining our voices will help us learn to be more independent in our healing journeys. But it will take time. It took me a considerable amount of time to find my voice again. I was so afraid to speak my mind that I agreed to everything to keep the peace. Finding your voice again will be a big, but necessary, step to becoming independent again.

Things to consider when regaining your voice:

  • Share with those you feel most comfortable.
  • Share at your own pace.
  • Speak up about your needs as often as you feel.

The more you speak up, the easier it will become. I know it will be a scary thing to do. I was petrified of others’ reactions to my thoughts and feelings. I thought I’d be told no, that my thoughts were stupid, and that I didn’t matter. But with the right support system behind you, you will find your voice again because they will give you the space and time you need to do so.

Re-express

To freely express ourselves again after an abusive relationship is a petrifying thought. It is human nature to be expressive in thought, word, and action. Abusers slowly destroy that expressive part of us. It’s only natural to be fearful of learning to be expressive once again. What did you love to do before your abuser? Did you love to paint, draw, sing, or write?

We are coerced into shutting ourselves off creatively when we are with our abusers. We stop doing the things that bring us joy. We stop our lives because of them. We turn into people we don’t recognize. Part of learning to be independent again is learning to re-express ourselves.

When you begin to reclaim and reconnect again with loved ones and begin to find yourself again, your independence will shine once more.

Why is Sleep so Difficult?

sleep

You’ve barely slept all week. You decide to go to bed early to try to catch up on reset, but once in bed, you lay awake, your thoughts racing. You toss and turn, then decide to get up and grab a glass of water. The process repeats itself until finally, about three hours later, you fall asleep. Why is sleep so difficult?

Never Ending Pattern

A noise wakes you. Instantly your thoughts begin to race… what if he’s back? What if someone is in my house? Is this the end? “It’s okay,” you rationalize to yourself, “it was probably just the dog.” But even trying to talk yourself down keeps you up for at least another hour. You fall asleep again, only to wake up every hour, following the schedule your abuser kept you on. Most nights follow this pattern.

Do you relate to this? 

Sleep and PTSD

If your answer is yes, you may have post-traumatic stress disorder. Aside from sleep disruptions, individuals suffering from PTSD are also likely to wake up screaming or thrashing, wake up often, move frequently during sleep, and have realistic nightmares which can lead to waking up in a state of panic. Being a victim of abuse has clear connections with sleep disruptions, some surveys suggest that 70 percent of people with PTSD experience insomnia and/or nightmares, according to Very Well Health

Healthy Ways to Manage Sleep

There are healthy ways to manage sleep while struggling with PTSD. It’s important to not use alcohol or drugs as a coping mechanism as you can easily become dependent. Chemical dependency often leads to more disruptions of sleep, including sleep apnea. Lifestyle changes can help people with PTSD sleep more soundly. According to the National Sleep Foundation, referenced in Good Therapy, sleep is a habit and with the right changes, sleep patterns can be corrected. 

Be patient with yourself. Change and healing take time.

You can follow these tips from Everyday Healthy, to help heal and reset those patterns:

  • Adjust your bedtime (and be consistent), 
  • Avoid naps,
  • Avoid oversleeping,
  • Wake up a set time every day,
  • Avoid exposure to blue light prior to going to bed,
  • Exercise, but not too close to bedtime,
  • Create and follow a personal bedtime routine that relaxes you,
  • Use your bed only for sleeping, not to read or work.

Stress Management

Most importantly, managing stress levels can drastically reduce PTSD episodes. This relief can be found from therapy, meditation, yoga, or guided imagery. You can also consult with a doctor to determine if medication or other steps would help you have a more restful night of sleep.

Ultimately, do what makes you feel the safest and most comfortable. You know yourself best, follow all suggestions with good judgment of what will make you feel the happiest and healthiest. 

Processing Grief

processing grief

Loss of any kind is a part of this world. It’s something we, unfortunately, have to learn to cope with. How we process this loss is also a part of this world. What are the ways we can process grief in a healthy way? What can we do to cope with loss in our lives? What if you lost someone dear to you because of domestic violence? How do you process that loss?

Kirsten Belaire, Director of Behavioral Health at Mt. Carmel Veterans Service Center stated, “Everyone is unique and so is their grief.” There are natural responses to trauma, grief, and loss, the recovery process, and functions of the brain.

Types of Loss

There are so many different types of loss – from losing a loved one to an illness to mourning the loss of a relationship, and even to a sudden loss of a loved one (including a domestic violence situation). This is not to say that any one loss is more significant than another. It also doesn’t make it easier. We all deal with loss differently and we will each process the grief differently.

Belaire‘s goal is to lead workshop attendees to an understanding that processing grief in a healthy way is to allow “the process, not dampening or shutting off the process (like coping with substances or ignoring feelings), and sharing your story/process.”

How Do You Process Loss?

I lost one of my best friends suddenly in April 2020. It was such a shock to the system that it literally brought me to my knees. How do you process such a sudden loss? I couldn’t make sense of it. I felt lost.

According to Merriam-Webster, grief is defined as “deep and poignant distress caused by or as if by bereavement.” Often, those in bereavement find great difficulty in processing such an extreme and intense emotion.

In her book, On Death and Dying, Elizabeth Kubler Ross outlined the five stages of grief:

  • Denial
  • Anger
  • Bargaining
  • Depression
  • Acceptance

There is no right way to grieve, and the stages don’t “go in order” either. These stages are not linear – you will bounce between stages and maybe back to a stage you were in already. Since my friend’s death in April 2020, I have been bouncing between the anger, depression, and acceptance stages. I find myself wanting to be angry at how and why she died. Then depression sets in that my friend of 19 years is gone. Acceptance finds its way into my heart. But again, so does anger.

What does grieving look like? Well, it varies from person to person. What works for one, may not work for another. It typically manifests itself physically, emotionally, and psychologically, according to Mental Health America. “For instance, crying is a physical expression, while depression is a psychological expression,” stated the site.

Processing Grief in a Healthy Way 

NPR lists several fantastic ways to process grief in a healthy way. My two favorites are “be with your grief” and “grief needs expression.” Being with your grief does not mean to let it consume and overwhelm you. It simply means to acknowledge it and allowing the messiness in. Denying it doesn’t help either. Often, people will push the grief away and keep busy with work, school, or other things. That does us no good and in the end, those emotions can come back tenfold. Sit with your grief and recognize the messy emotions that come with it.

The other thing NPR lists that I have used to help me process and cope in a healthy way is expressing my grief. We are expressive creatures and in that, we need to find ways to express all of our emotions, including grief. If you are an artsy person, maybe you typically turn to painting, drawing, or sculpting. You may also find that keeping a journal will help you release your grief. Sometimes, shared grief can be a big help too. Perhaps find another trusted friend or support group that you can lean on. Those who know what you are going through can be an incredibly positive experience and help bring you peace.

Don’t Do It Alone

If you are struggling to process the grief you are experiencing, Belaire’s advice is simple but important. “Don’t feel you have to do it alone. Talk with someone who is familiar with grief (like a counselor, group member, or peer). In other words, someone who will not shut you down or make you feel like you’re failing. Remember, the grief process/healing is often painful and not always the ‘prettiest.’ It’s okay to be messy in moderation. If life becomes unmanageable, or your/others safety is at risk, seek help.”

For more information on Mt. Carmel Veterans Service Center, please visit their website.

Turning Trauma Responses Into Strength

trauma response

You’re driving down the highway on your way home from work when suddenly, out of nowhere, you hear a loud screeching and see a car barreling towards you from two lanes over. Thoughts begin racing through your head but you feel frozen, unsure what to do. Right before they slam into the side of your car, you check your rearview mirror and, seeing no one behind you, you slam on your brakes with just enough time for the car to get in front of you. The threat has passed but you feel yourself breathing rapidly, your heart is about to pound out of your chest and your hands are trembling. You pull off at the next exit to give yourself time to calm down so you can safely finish your drive home. You experienced a trauma response.

Fight or Flight

Fight or flight is a physiological reaction that occurs in the presence of mental fear, physical fear, and uncertainty on how to best respond. The sympathetic nervous system stimulates the adrenal glands which release a large amount of adrenaline – resulting in increased heart rate, blood pressure, and breathing rate – often accompanied by foggy thoughts and trembling. Following the elimination of threat, the fight or flight reaction takes anywhere from 20 to 60 minutes for the body to return to normal levels.

Trauma Response in Domestic Violence

In abusive relationships, it’s very common for victims of abuse to live in a state of fight or flight. While it may not be fully elevated at all times, individuals in this position have been conditioned to remain fearful and unsure of what is going to come next. Due to living in a state of threat, it’s often not possible for victims of abuse to work through their emotions, feelings, and events until they have left the abusive situation/ relationship. This can make leaving even more difficult. 

After leaving an abusive relationship, the emotional and mental effects are extremely likely to linger. Again, due to being in a state of fight or flight, someone is not able to process emotions until the direct threat is eliminated. According to Love is Respect, after leaving an abusive relationship, victims are likely to experience any of the following:

  • Depression,
  • Guilt,
  • Anger,
  • PTSD,
  • Anxiety,
  • Trouble sleeping,
  • Being easily frightened,
  • Avoidance of triggers.

Turn Trauma Response Into Strength

While there isn’t a definitive healing process that works for everyone, it can be reassuring to know that many people have similar emotional experiences after leaving abusive relationships. Due to the conflicting feelings that are likely to follow leaving, it’s extremely important to seek out support in the form of therapy, support groups, and self-help activities. The first few months will not be easy but in the long run, you are saving yourself. It’s important to turn these responses to trauma into strengths. 

You’ve Been Through A Lot

For starters, your body is having such an extreme response because of all that you’ve been through. That alone should be enough to show you your worth and allow you to realize how strong you are to leave a situation that could cause such a strong physiological and subconscious response. Your body is proving to you that anyone who told you’re crazy, or that it’s “not that bad” was wrong. The body doesn’t have strong responses unless provoked.

It’s Okay to Grieve

Secondly, use these struggles as a time to heal and refind yourself. It’s okay to grieve. It’s natural to feel conflicted and to question if you’re making the right decision, but it’s important to remember that you’ve been conditioned to second guess yourself. When you’re questioning your decisions, stand firm in them, each time you stop those doubting thoughts in your head you will recondition your brain to trust your intuition.

Reconnect with Your Previous Life

Lastly, turn these responses into strengths by reconnecting with your life before your relationship. Did you enjoy coloring? Spending time with friends? Going out to eat? You might feel emotionally closed off, depressed, anxious, or apprehensive, that is okay. Turn that into a strength. Prove to yourself that you can return to normalcy. You can do this by setting a goal with yourself. Start out small, but don’t be afraid to push yourself out of your comfort zone. It can help to ask yourself “what’s the worst that could happen?” and only use logical responses in determining the risk. Don’t let your fear outweigh the positives. You’re going to want to talk yourself out of it, but trust in yourself and recreate the amazing life you deserve. 

How to Cope with Survivor’s Guilt

survivor's guilt

You are free and clear. You are not with the abuser anymore. You can live your life free of abuse, pain, shame, and a host of other things. Yet, you feel an overwhelming sense of guilt. Why?

Some domestic violence survivors may face what is called survivor’s guilt. They may be asking themselves, “Why did I survive when so many others were killed by their abuser?” What are some ways these survivors can cope with the guilt? What can survivors do to move forward past the guilt to a place where they can help fellow survivors?

What is survivor’s guilt? 

According to Medical News Today, survivor’s guilt is “when a person has feelings of guilt because they survived a life-threatening situation when others did not. It is a common reaction to traumatic events and a symptom of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).”

Survivors of domestic violence are among those who have survived a traumatic situation and are left wondering why they survived when so many have not. They also begin to wonder if there was something they could have done differently to prevent the situation.

Survivor’s guilt is characterized by feelings of guilt, nightmares, flashbacks, anxiety, feelings of helplessness, difficulty sleeping, and more, according to Very Well Mind.

Ways to cope 

Survivor’s guilt can follow a domestic violence survivor for months or years following their situation. But this doesn’t mean it needs to cripple them in their healing journey. There are ways to cope with their feelings.

  • Write it down – Holding everything inside is like letting something fester for an extended period of time. If you don’t do something to let off the pressure, you’ll bubble over. Write it down in a journal if you must. Let it out.
  • It’s okay to feel – Sometimes, it’s hard to remember that it’s okay to let these feelings in and acknowledge them. We survived, while someone else may not have. Why did we get out of our situations when someone else didn’t? It’s totally understandable to feel what you’re feeling.
  • Time to grieve – Grieving for any loss is vital to healing. It’s okay to give yourself room to mourn the loss of others who did not make it out of their situations.
  • Turn it around – Channel your grief into something positive so that you can make a difference in the fight against domestic violence. Volunteer at your local shelter, organize a rally in your area, or raise money and donate it to an organization like Break The Silence Against Domestic Violence.
  • Connect – It’s important to connect with other survivors so that you know you aren’t alone. Volunteering is a great way to connect and help others at the same time.
  • Self-care – Perhaps one of the most important things is to find a path of healing that works for you. Incorporate self-care activities into your daily routine.

What can survivors do to move forward? 

It is completely normal to feel guilt following a traumatic event. Holding onto those feelings, though, will only consume you and hold you back. While it’s okay to acknowledge it, try not to let it take over your life. There are ways to move forward in your healing journey while still acknowledging your feelings.

To get to a place where you can help fellow survivors will take a lot of time and patience. It won’t happen overnight. Often, I find myself wanting to finally be completely free of the pain and guilt, but I know it will take patience with myself so that I can process the feelings naturally. But I have been helping other survivors for several years now. How can you get to that place too?

Ways That Might Help

  • Acknowledge – The first part of moving forward is acknowledging what you feel. Allow the feelings to come to you. The key is to not dwell on them. Process the feeling. It’s totally normal to have this response to the trauma you endured.
  • Connect – Connecting with others who have been through what you have will not only help you cope, but it will also help you move forward. You will come to learn that you aren’t alone and that others have been through similar situations and feelings.
  • A force for good – Survivors may also find it helpful to give back to their community in some way. Volunteering your time at a local domestic violence shelter, donating gently used clothing or toys to a shelter, and educating the community about domestic violence are just some of the ways you can be a force for good.

Perhaps one of the things that helped me most in my healing journey and helped me cope was coming to understand that I couldn’t fix him. Survivors cannot fix the abusers. We can’t love them more. We can’t act a certain way. We can’t save them. And once I accepted this, I began to move forward on a healing path of hope, strength, and peace.

Breaking the Cycle of PTSD Triggers

trigger

June is Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) awareness month, so we’re going to take a look at what it is, some of the triggers, how it can affect us, and where we can begin the healing process. The American Psychiatric Association defines PTSD as “a psychiatric disorder that can occur in people who have experienced or witnessed a traumatic event such as a natural disaster, a serious accident, a terrorist act, war/combat, rape or other violent personal assault.” They go on to say, “People with PTSD have intense, disturbing thoughts and feelings related to their experience that last long after the traumatic event has ended”. For some, PTSD occurs after just one unpredictable catastrophic event, for domestic violence victims, it comes through a stream of traumatic interactions with their abusers over days, weeks, months, or years. 

What exactly constitutes a “traumatic event”? Merriam-Webster defines trauma as “a…behavioral state resulting from severe mental or emotional stress”. It’s important to note that being exposed to verbal, psychological, emotional, financial, and spiritual abuse qualifies as trauma. Emotional scars can be some of the trickiest to navigate because we cannot see or touch them, we can only feel them. But survivors see the effects of these invisible scars when they struggle to cope, create positive change, or heal their internal world once they’re free of their abusers. This is a very normal part of the transition out of domestic violence, and every survivor can find hope in the fact that they are not alone. There are studies, research, and resources all over the world to help survivors transform their trauma into their superpower. 

Finding Hope

Understanding how trauma and post-traumatic stress can impact a person is a constantly evolving endeavor. In her book Invisible Heroes, Belleruth Naparstek says, “…heroes are people who do good or necessary things at great personal cost… That’s why trauma…produces heroes.” She lists the “shortlist” of PTSD symptoms: “flashbacks, nightmares, intrusive thoughts, agitation, numbness, insomnia, irritability, depression, concentration problems, anxiety, panic, shame, guilt, temper, estrangement, and sudden startling”. 

Naparstek goes on to dictate several key variables to whether a person will develop PTSD after experiencing a traumatic event. This includes proximity, duration, extent of brutality, betrayal, threat of dying, perpetuating violence, societal context, unpredictability, injury, loss, and being trapped. In short, PTSD is prevalent in the world of domestic violence, but it is a condition not an indicator of a person’s identity. This distinction is the difference between survivors being able to find hope or losing themselves in the wake of the trauma they have experienced.

Healing Is Not a Linear Process

Let’s talk about what that hope really looks like. There is no formula when it comes to healing. Survivors should take comfort in freely exploring their own unique healing journey without trying to be, do, act, or follow any linear process. Emotional healing is circular, meaning it won’t always look like you’re getting from Point A to Point B and then to Point C. Sometimes you’ll go from Point A to Point D then back to Point B and revisit Point A for a deeper level of awareness. Healing trauma is no different and embracing the process instead of focusing on a certain end game will serve to soften survivors and allow them to heal more quickly.

Here are the five rituals I recommend to my trauma survivor clients (in no particular order):

1. PTSD-specific treatments.

While talk therapy may not always be the most effective method of healing for trauma victims–because it can cause triggering and reliving the experience(s)–EMDR, brain spotting, and other subconscious therapy modules can be highly effective. Search your area for professionals who have had extensive training in these areas. Don’t be afraid to ask questions to make sure you are comfortable with their treatment suggestions and feel they are a good fit for you.

2. Focus on finding stability.

Take the pressure off of yourself for having to be somewhere or something you may not be today. Keep your goals, intentions, and focus on establishing healthy relationships, income, home environment, and peace of mind for yourself. The simpler, the better as you begin healing post-traumatic stress syndrome.

3. Breathwork and meditation.

Take your pick on breathwork guides. Youtube has millions to help you get started. I recommend Wim Hof’s 10 min Breathing Exercise for my clients who are just beginning. Guided meditations are also an extremely powerful tool for survivors. The Health Journeys App is my favorite resource for this as they have an extensive catalog of PTSD, trauma healing, and self-love meditations.

4. Deep self-care.

These are simultaneously relaxing and rejuvenating rituals like journaling, yoga, sipping tea, taking an Epsom salt bath with essential oils, body brushing, breathwork, meditation, etc. Anything that allows you to connect with YOU more deeply. This is where you begin studying your triggers, reactions, needs, feelings, boundaries, etc. I have an online course that will walk you through everything you need to know to learn how to nurture yourself.

5. Choosing consciousness.

YOU are not a sum of the trauma you have experienced. Trauma (PTSD) is part of your story, but there is so much more to who you are. Be mindful of giving yourself grace and embracing this next step in your story–to heal, be kind to yourself, and take all the time you need to find YOU again. Listen to podcasts on relationships, finances, self-love, personal development. Make yourself the priority and practice thinking about your thoughts. This is consciousness. This online course is a wonderful tool for unlocking your power through conscious living. 

Rebuilding Our Lives

As with any form of social-emotional care, implementing these new responses when you feel triggered will take time and practice. It’s important to focus on becoming more aware through each trigger and each ritual of care instead of fixating on why you’re still reacting to certain triggers. Once you are in a calm state of mind, ask yourself, “What did I do well? What do I want to do differently? How can I remember what I want to do when my nervous system is locked up by my trigger again?” It is very helpful to practice these responses when you’re not feeling reactive so that they become habitual for you and second-nature when you find yourself in the middle of an old trauma sensation.

Survivors of trauma do not have to keep experiencing the paralyzing effects of PTSD. There are many available tools online. Such as trained professionals around the world, numerous books, apps, and other resources designed specifically for trauma survivors. We have so much power. One next right step at a time, we can find relief from the emotional turmoil, reconnect neural pathways destroyed by traumatic events. We can learn to rebuild our lives with confidence.

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