I’m not a therapist, nor am I qualified to offer therapy to anyone. Also, I don’t know you. I don’t know how you process the world and how you work through trauma. We’re all different, and we all have different ways of dealing with things. But here’s what I do know about undoing abuse…
You can’t undo abuse. Whatever happened to you has happened, and while you can escape the abuse itself, you can’t escape the experience or the impact. It’s part of who you are now.
Does that mean it has to define you? Absolutely not. But it will be part of you forever. You can’t escape it. It’s in there, and it’s likely changed you.
That’s not meant as a statement of despair. I know it sounds that way, and I know it must feel that way at times. I often say, the saddest day of my life was when I realized that you don’t “get over” abuse the way you get over a cold. You can’t just take medicine, or wait it out, and eventually go back to feeling normal.
Part of surviving abuse means creating a new normal. But how do you do that?
I found that embracing the fact that I survived child abuse and domestic partner abuse was the key in my personal improvement and evolution. Instead of trying to forget the abuse, or waiting until that magical day when it would somehow be all better, I embraced the fact that no, it’s never going to be okay. No, I’m never going to not be at least somewhat angry, sad, and disturbed by my experiences.
What I don’t have to be is a perpetual victim. The abuse had stopped, yet I was still suffering. I felt out of control. I felt like it would never get better. I was still being victimized weeks, months, and even years after getting away from my abusers. The pain didn’t magically dissolve the moment I walked away. My memory was rife with abuse experiences, meaning I kept being re-traumatized over and over again.
At first, I thought I’d never be able to stop it. I thought I was too damaged, that I’d be stuck in that awful place of anger and pain forever.
I wasn’t. I’m in a very good place these days, and have been for a while. It can get better.
The trick for me was identifying behaviors and side effects of abuse that I wanted to change. Stuff I couldn’t live with. For me, that meant dealing with some massive anger issues that caused me to lash out at others, and stopping the nearly crippling anxiety I had developed.
I achieved both. But that doesn’t mean I’m not angry about the abuse I suffered, because I am. It doesn’t mean I don’t get triggered, because I do.
What it means to say that I dealt with it is that I now understand how to manage my anger constructively, and also how to let go of it. I no longer walk around with a high level of anger that’s just waiting to be triggered by any little things. Most days, I feel just fine. Most days, I deal with frustration rather well. Most days, I’m able to figure out what matters, and let go of what doesn’t.
I understand now when anger is justified, and when it’s not. I understand how to be angry constructively. I understand that anger is necessary and even good – anger protects us. Anger can help us to stand up for ourselves. Anger can keep us away from people that we shouldn’t be near. I hold on to my anger at my abusers, not because I enjoy it, but because it serves as a reminder and a motivator. Even as a badge of pride – when I think about myself 15 years ago, and then look at myself today, I feel really good about the progress I’ve made.
As for the anxiety, I controlled that with medication while I worked on the anger. There’s no shame in medicating. The anxiety came from the same place as the anger, but the anger was worse. I chose to focus on that, and control the anxiety with pharmaceuticals. That’s what worked for me – you need to decide what will work for you.
Getting the anger under control meant processing why I was angry, and I’ll be honest – it’s not easy, and it’s not fun. There were dark days. There were days when I thought, I’ll be like this forever. There were days when I contemplated hurting my abusers as badly as they’d hurt me, or worse. There were days when I felt that I had no control over my mind or my feelings.
But slowly, it got better. And I realized something…
The abuse I endured wasn’t my fault. I did nothing to deserve it. So it would seem natural to want to push away those experiences, right? To approach healing from trauma the same way you’d approach healing from an illness – that all it takes is time and the right medication, and eventually everything will be all better again.
That’s not how trauma works. You can’t medicate trauma away.
So instead of running from the pain and the anger and the bad memories, or wallowing in them, I embraced them. And not a half-hearted embrace, either – I gathered all of those abuse experiences up into a big bear hug and refused to let go. I claimed them as my own, and recognized them as part of the person I had become.
Doing that allowed me to feel like I owned my feelings and my experiences, instead of having them be owned by my abusers. When I was filled with anger, I felt helpless because I felt like the anger was there due to circumstances that were beyond my control. It was something done to me, therefore it was outside of me and I had no way of controlling it.
It took embracing that anger, and the reason for that anger, before I was able to move forward. I had to claim my memories, my sadness, my pain, the hurt, the scars – I took all of that nastiness and wrote my name all over it. This is mine now. I own this.
Once I owned it, I felt, for the first time, that I was the one in control. Not the ghosts of my abusers – me.
A wise therapist pointed out to me that even bad stuff, like uncontrolled anger, serves a purpose. One of the things I had to grapple with was, How is anger serving me? The answer, for me, was the my anger protected me. From there, I was able to figure out how to protect myself in other ways – better ways, that didn’t hold the potential for harm to myself or others.
That’s how I think we undo abuse – by owning experiences, and using them to evolve. I was on the path to becoming an abusive person and perpetuating a horrible cycle, and even though I recognized it, I initially felt powerless to prevent it. I managed to change that path by embracing that anger is always going to be a part of who I am. I allowed myself to feel it. And it felt *awful*, because it often triggered sadness, and a sense of injustice and helplessness, and despair, and anxiety, and depression.
I had some very hard days, but slowly, it got better. Eventually, I took it my embrace step further, and got to a point where I can say, Anger is always going to be a part of who I am, and that’s okay.
That doesn’t mean the abuse I endured was okay, because it wasn’t. That doesn’t mean I don’t still feel some anger about it, because I do.
All it means is that I understand that the abuse-related anger is part of me, and loving myself enough to break the cycle of abuse means accepting the anger. Not grudgingly or half-heartedly, but completely and unconditionally.
I can’t promise you that my narrative of embracing and owning the bad experiences will work for you, or that my framework makes sense in your particular context. It may not, and I acknowledge that other people will have other narratives of how they dealt with abusive experiences.
Here’s an example: Many abuse survivors I’ve met use warrior/fighter rhetoric to describe their process. That didn’t work for me, because it wasn’t that I wasn’t fighting back, it was that I was doing it in all the worst possible ways, and with very little success. But many abuse survivors are terrified of anger, even their own. They become placatory peace-keepers. They try to make themselves invisible, or anticipate the needs/demands of others so as not to rock the boat. They sacrifice their needs, desires, and feelings for the sake of maintaining a status quo. They’re often terrified of leaving the abuse situation, afraid of retaliation, and/or browbeaten into thinking they can’t, or won’t, survive on their own. This is understandable, and we should NEVER judge anyone for staying in a situation and not fighting back. But in a case like this, a warrior framework could be more fruitful if it helps someone get out and stay out of a bad situation.
No matter what that framework, we can’t shove the bad stuff away, and we can’t deny the extent to which it impacts us. Only in taking a long, hard and painful look at those experiences and what they mean can we begin to move forward.