By MaryBeth Koenes
It’s safe to assume every person’s journey of healing after abuse is unique. Hope becomes the bridge between what holds a victim down and what ultimately sets them free. In the hope for a different kind of future, survivors are able to learn some of life’s most precious lessons. This schooling comes with scars–sometimes visible, sometimes invisible–proof of the grit we have sewn into our souls. With every labeled “flaw,” there lies the opportunity to find a different path the next time around. Victims of domestic violence are not damaged goods. We’re not imperfections in a perfect race. We are human, just like everyone else. And each of us holds the sacred privilege to heal and learn from our run-ins with abusive people. Over time, we will each choose the depth of our healing, and with each layer, comes new growth, wisdom, and skills.
For me, it wasn’t enough to realize anyone could be a victim of abuse. I knew that wouldn’t help me avoid getting into a similar situation again. Once I was safely out of my marriage, I went on a quest to find out what it was in me that led me to choose and stay with my abuser. I studied every choice I made that led me to my darkest hour–married to an abuser for 10 years while raising two kids in our home, a hostile habitat. I had to know so I wouldn’t end up there again. I had to know so I could protect my kids from following my example and teach them how to watch for signs of domestic violence. I had to know so I could help other victims.
While there is no “stereotypical” victim of domestic violence, we do tend to have a few similarities in common:
- Our Fears. Fear of losing ourselves, our kids, our partner. Fear of being rejected, abandoned, or left behind. Fear of disappointment–disappointing others or being disappointed by others. And, of course, fear of failure–not having the dream marriage, family, life. “I’ll lose everything. I can’t survive alone. What if I never find love again? Everyone will think I’m stupid or weak, they’ll think it’s my fault. People love him/her, they won’t believe me. I don’t know how to take care of myself or my family. I can’t live without him/her.”
- Our Insecurities. Everyone has insecurities, but ours usually call into question our inherent worth as humans. “This is all I’m worth. I don’t deserve more. I’ll never find anyone better. I’m too much. I’m too sensitive. I’m ugly.”
- Our Bad Beliefs. They can come from our childhoods, our heartbreaks, our abusers, and our self-talk. “I’m too emotional. I expect too much. It’s not really that bad… sometimes it’s good. I’m not good, worthy, or enough. No one will believe me. I’m stupid, small, and meaningless. I’m not strong enough. I can’t do this alone. I’m nothing without him/her. He/she will take the kids from me. I am ruined. No one will ever want me now. I am broken.”
- Our Self-Doubt. This is a by-product of our bad beliefs. This is where we lose our power and feel weak, incapable, and broken. “I can’t make it on my own. I don’t know how to provide for myself, take care of kids, pay bills, get a car/apartment/job…I don’t have enough education. No one will hire me. I’ll be invisible. I can’t find good partners, I’m only attracted to abusers. I will never be different. I think there’s something wrong with me.”
- Our Self-Abandonment. Self-abandoning looks like ignoring intuition, making someone else’s needs/wants more important than our own, or not speaking our truth. “If only I would have tried harder or handled it differently. I shouldn’t have asked for so much or pushed him/her so hard. What was I thinking? I provoked him/her. It’s my fault. They didn’t mean it. I just need to forgive and forget. This feels bad, but I won’t say anything. I’ll be fine.”
All of these elements are intertwined with each other, and together they may seem like a recipe for disaster, but they’re actually the opposite. They’re information. See this funny thing happens when we walk out of abuse…we get the chance to flourish. This opportunity comes when we learn from the information of our past–integrating all of those horrifying life lessons that came laced with the implicit and explicit threats to our survival. Part of rebuilding and creating the life we want begins with implementing the wisdom available to us through our experience in abuse.
(Noteworthy disclaimer: Sometimes victims get stuck in repeating the past and keep finding themselves in abusive relationships. This is very common and usually happens when the survivor isn’t fully aware or ready to face their internal world and integrate their past. But it’s never too late to break the cycle and start afresh. If you or someone you love is feeling “stuck” in a repetitive cycle, there are tools out there to help! Talk therapy, EMDR for Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome, Guided Meditations for PTSD, and hiring a Life Coach are all positive options to begin breaking old patterns.)
Let me share just a few of the skills survivors can learn through their experience:
Fighting for Freedom. There is always hope for more freedom, especially for those who have tasted the bitter sorrow and trauma of being trapped, confined, threatened, violated, and silenced–often in their own homes. As victims begin to realize the possibility of freedom, the inner resilience we are all born with begins to awaken. This can be both frightening–as the sheer hint of independence can set abusers off–and invigorating, because feeling the tiniest spark of will power can remind victims of who they really are–valuable. When the spark of freedom becomes worth the resistance our abusers cause for us, we grow. Every time we tap into that “fight for freedom/rights/basic humanity,” we call our true self forward. The more we do it, the bigger we become. Fast forward a few years past the abuse, and what do you have? You don’t just have a survivor, you have a warrior. A human who has tasted the darkest parts of humanity in their abuse and now knows how to fight the unseen, unspoken, unknown battles of psychological, emotional, and mental wars. Once we’ve seen both sides of this kind of war, we become Generals in navigating life’s hardest curveballs. After that, freedom is no longer a choice, it’s a requirement.
Recognizing Red Flags. We know how not to be loved, so that makes being loved well more noticeable. When we’re not being treated properly and things begin looking all too familiar, we have little tolerance for repetitive apologies, excuses, and lengthy explanations. We don’t believe words anymore. We don’t trust good behavior anymore. We wait to see patterns of actions+words+behavior lining up over time. If they’re not congruent, we have no problem saying, “Oh, honey, been there, done that. I’m not looking to replay a bad record! Sayonara!” Red flags are obvious and we no longer question getting involved with that kind of crazy again.
An Intense Awareness of Self. We now have an increased intuition and ability to sense what’s really happening beneath the surface and all that is unsaid. With this heightened keenness for BS, we want to be careful not to over-analyze or create faulty storylines about situations though, as sometimes we can tend to think we have it all figured out before we let the other person show us their true colors–good or bad. This new self-awareness allows us to recognize when relationships (romantic or otherwise) are fueling us or draining us (aka healthy or toxic). We don’t owe anyone our love, time, or loyalty and we know it. But we are ready to give it freely when we are treated with respect and kindness. Our radar for being treated well is off the charts because we lived long enough at the bottom of the chart. Self-awareness is the gift that keeps on giving for life. It’s one of our secret weapons as survivors–always reminding us that we are valuable, lovable, and worth every good and kind person, gift, and story that comes our way.
Appreciating the Wins. Our ability to navigate difficult situations allows us to experience a different side of people and life–recognizing the small things. Living hopeless for any amount of time changes the way a person sees and absorbs the world. As life moves on, survivors have a knack for remembering (Okay, honestly, sometimes the PTSD that reminds us) that there is so much to be thankful for. It can be a struggle reconciling what we think we “should” be doing versus what we are actually doing at this point in our lives, but at the end of the day, the fires we have walked out of–our stories of abuse–are the bitter reminders of sweet the simplicities life can bring.
Walking out of abuse doesn’t guarantee that we will walk away all the wiser, but it does offer every survivor the invitation to heal and choose differently moving forward. And isn’t that everything–moving forward? It’s a gift to longer be captive. Our march to freedom begins with the invitation to hope then it takes us through healing as we look at our fears, insecurities, bad beliefs, self-doubt, and all the ways we self-abandon. As we trek through these difficult parts of our shadows, we are actively choosing a new life. That new life is full of wisdom! The way we fight, the way we pay attention to red flags, how we become self-aware, and every time we marvel in our wins–big or small–we are exercising our divine wisdom. Mighty are we when we choose to break the cycle!
All around the world people are being held hostage in their relationships, in their homes, in their workplaces by abusers. But hidden in every single one of us, woven into the fabric of our humanness, we carry the most magnificent instinct: the power to break free and be reborn. Every rebirth comes fully stocked with a new set of skills. They’re our superpowers. So maybe all of us survivors are really superheroes hiding in plain sight, protecting the innocent and the hurting with our own stories of hope.
If you or someone you know is in an abusive relationship, there is help. You can visit the Break the Silence Against Domestic Violence website at www.breakthesilencedv.org or chat with one of our helpline advocates at 855-287-1777.
Share Your Story
Sharing our stories can be incredibly empowering while also helping others connect with survivors who have similar experiences. If you are inspired to share your story with us, submit here. You can choose to remain anonymous.
You can also donate to BTSADV here.