How do you mend a broken heart? How do you recover after bad treatment, emotional neglect, the feeling of having wasted years of your precious life; hence, how do you start again after abuse?
Why me? may be just one of many recurring questions you may ask yourself. Although some people may be much more vulnerable to falling victim to abuse, anyone can get trapped in a toxic relationship, be it at work, school, among friends, or at home.
Nevertheless, it can also be reassuring and liberating to seek the answer to this question, and find out why and how it was possible to slip into a situation where your right to respect and peace was severely jeopardized.
For all the victims of abuse I have met and gotten to know well over the years, they have told me that once they had made the decision to leave, they went into some kind of ‘limbo’. Finding the answer to the question had become a necessity to start a new life again. It allowed them to move forward with much more confidence, less feeling of guilt and regret. Without that vital clue, they felt that, just as they’d been trapped in a destructive roller-coaster relationship, they were now left to pick up the puzzle pieces and rebuild a picture that they could not see clearly.
I’ve given these courageous women a collective pseudonym here – I call her Emily – and she will go through the different stages of healing and the challenges they faced and/or are still facing.
Emily is breathing a sigh of relief. She and her three children are safe. They have gotten away, broken all ties with a person who never really had their well-being in mind, who cheated and deceived them, who abused their confidence and good-will and whose remorse never lasted long enough. On the contrary, who twisted their words, diverted attention from his actions and intimidated them even after proffering a few apologetic words or promises to change forever. He always ended up expertly shifting the guilt onto her.
Now she needs to create a new chapter in her life and, although she is happy with her decision, there is the weight of the past to deal with, the future to secure, her children’s well-being to consider. It either drags her down like a load of coal mounted onto her back one day or she feels hope another day.
Physical and emotional exhaustion – a result that is not your fault
Emily knows that she is not alright, but safe and glad about her decision. The feelings of guilt and remorse subside as she surrounds herself with people who endorse and encourage her decision. She feels deeply hurt when comments such as ‘how could you have stayed with someone who cheated on you?’, ‘how was it possible you did not see?’, ‘anyone could tell he was a waster’ cut through a conversation because even though she cannot comprehend why she did not escape earlier, the comments are like salt rubbed into her healing wounds.
It is essential to surround yourself with people who are truly compassionate and caring, who are genuinely interested, especially in the first year after the separation. There will be much self-doubt, anxieties about how to cope with the future demands as a single mother, how to protect yourself from snide remarks, the doubt in people’s eyes and occasional pity.
Talk, talk … and talk some more
Rewriting your life-story and understanding Stockholm Syndrome
Emily is experiencing many highs and lows. Some days she is hunky dory, another her head feels heavy and the world is painted in shades of black and grey. She has found a new job, has made new friends and her children are all starting to talk, ask questions. Each one of the three children take turns in either brooding over their loss of an abusive father one day, or talking to her for hours another day. Emily feels the same need. Sometimes she retreats into silence, at others she reads everything there is to know about abusive relationships. The Internet, bookshops and many 24/7 helplines are available to answer all of her questions … except the main one: Why me? Because every Emily has a unique story to tell, based on different backgrounds and circumstances.
It is likely that during her search, a victim of abuse will stumble upon the term called ‘Stockholm Syndrome’ which is a descriptive term for the kind of coping mechanisms involved in dealing with a traumatic situation. The reason for the emotional attachment to the abuser is the result of the continuous stress and dependence and ultimately a way to survive. It’s an extremely powerful reaction and the result of a perceived threat that completely blurs a victim’s point of view on reality but makes them express empathy for their abuser to the extent that they will even defend them with teeth and claw. Often a small gesture of kindness from the manipulator is enough to trigger the adaptive behaviour.
Therapeutic recovery from ‘Stockholm Syndrome’ is said to be good … as long as the person is separated from the narcissistic manipulator/abuser.
Re-connect with the world therapy, diary-writing or meditation
Emily is working in a local estate agent, relishing the hours that she gets to meet other people – new colleagues and clients. It is not her favourite kind of job but that doesn’t matter because as long as she feels useful, is financially independent and reconnecting with ‘normal life’, she can embrace her new start.
Some days, Emily knows that the past will never quite leave, her feelings of loss, lack of self-esteem, the years forever gone are a painful reminder that she needs to find an outlet for the recurring memories. She turns to anything that can take some of the burden off her shoulders, help her re-assess what may have gone wrong, what aspects of her toxic relationship caused her to shift, lose her confidence, her self-worth.
For one woman, it is therapy under hypnosis, another prefers diary-writing, yet another finds peace and a feeling of refreshment and release when meditating, jogging or walking through a wood, reconnecting with nature. There are many apps available for free which may be helpful guides to start with relaxation techniques, yoga postures that are conducive for better sleep or breathing exercises that can help people to cope with emotional turmoil. Reading poetry is another activity that has proven beneficial and soothing when the dark clouds are threatening to blur your newly found vision.
Healing rather than revenge, truth rather than pretence
The Titanic Image
Emily imagines that she is Rose, the heroine in the movie Titanic. She is lying on a ripped piece of wood, floating on the freezing Arctic Sea. There is much debris moving around her and she is suddenly aware of a massive shadow looming in the corner of her eyes. She lifts her head to see what it is and her eyes widen with disbelief. She ponders whether to attempt reaching the ship again, finding a way to get back on. After all, she’d been told that it was the safest, the best built ship of all times, unsinkable. She believed it was but notices that within minutes, the massive bulk of the vessel is sinking and creating waves that carry her further and further away. The panic rises to her throat but she is so cold and weak that all she can emit is a small whimper.
What she thought was a beautiful and strong Ocean liner is now sinking in front of her very eyes. She must give up on the idea of returning. She looks around, not sure who has survived the shipwreck with her but also knows that her existence is precarious. She is trembling intensely, emotionally and physically drained. Staying out here for much longer will mean her certain death. She must accept that all’s changed, that she will only survive if she gets onto one of the few life boats floating nearby, wrapped around a blanket, finding warmth and comfort.
You are stronger than you think you are. You can accept and survive the symbolic disappearance of an illusion. The Titanic can represent any relationship which was not built strong enough to detect life’s perilous ice bergs.
Everyone deserves to be given respect, love and joy; the chance to grow and most of all a life that holds no daily threats, fears and anxieties. Whenever you falter, don’t reprimand yourself, embrace the emotion, observe it, then let it go, reminding yourself that you did survive the sinking of the Titanic, that whoever you left behind does not have a connection with you anymore. Rediscover just how powerful kindness, support, encouragement, and compassion of others are. These gestures have a huge impact on our brains and bodies and allow you to find that general sense of well-being you deserve.
About The Author
Helene Andrea Leuschel was born and raised in Belgium to German parents. She gained a Licentiate in Journalism, which led to a career in radio and television in Brussels, London and Edinburgh. Helene moved to the Algarve in 2009 with her husband and two children, working as a freelance TV producer and teaching yoga. She recently acquired a Master of Philosophy with the OU, deepening her passion for the study of the mind. Manipulated Lives is Helene’s first work of fiction.