The Cycle of Abuse

abuse, ptsd, relationships

Last night, I had the privilege of counseling a young woman named Jane (not her real name). Without giving too much away, Jane’s fiance had recently been abusive toward her and she was wondering what to do. They’d been together for several years and this was, she said, only the third time something of this magnitude had happened. We talked for a little over an hour and she asked me several times what I would do in her situation.

I told her that only she could make that decision, but we explored her support networks (friends, family, and so on). She said she doesn’t feel comfortable telling them about what’s been going on because she wants her friends to like her fiance and, in her words, she wants everyone to get along. She wants the abuse to end, not the relationship, which is not an uncommon sentiment.

This got me thinking about my own experiences with relationship abuse and, by extension, the cycle of abuse. My fiance and I spent some time discussing the cycle of abuse after my shift had ended; I don’t often identify strongly with my texters, let alone experience such a visceral reaction to their stories, but my conversation with Jane really got to me.

My fella stated he doesn’t quite understand why victims of abuse stay with their abusers, so this morning we had a follow-up conversation about the cycle of abuse (pictured below).

Cycle-of-Abuse.png

Source

I explained to him, using my own experiences, how someone can end up so thoroughly entangled in the messy web that is an abusive relationship. The concept was so utterly foreign to him that he’d never given much thought to it, and we had a very productive and healing (for me) dialogue about it.

At the Risk! live show in Milwaukee in November 2015, I spoke about my relationship with “Chad,” which was profoundly abusive in every way and lasted from when I was seventeen to age nineteen, when I had a moment of clarity and decided I was too young to live that way anymore.

In the beginning, there’s the “honeymoon” period. The exact length of this period varies from person to person; in my case, things were dysfunctional from the very start, but I also grew up in a fundamentally dysfunctional family and was already carrying around over a decade of trauma from my childhood. To this day, I believe that those early experiences led me into the relationship.

I’m not blaming my family at all–I was loved and cared for, though there were some serious problems (mostly stemming from witnessing my mother’s own abusive relationships and later, her internment in a state correctional facility). However, early relationship modeling is profoundly important when it comes to developing a lovemap (a person’s view of an ideal relationship or partner), and I simply didn’t witness any functional, respectful romantic relationships when I was growing up.

Back to the story. You can listen to my Risk! story here for a more in-depth description of the abuse–obviously, the content may trigger some people, so please listen at your own discretion.

My “honeymoon” period with Chad–that period where the excitement of a new relationship is especially intense–lasted only a few months before the emotional and verbal abuse began. He never trusted me around other men; even being friendly and occasionally chatting with coworkers was a cause for suspicion and accusations of cheating (which I later learned was him projecting his own behavior onto me).

As this was my first “real” relationship where I actually cared deeply for and trusted my partner, his words were incredibly damaging. Deep down, I knew how wrong this was, but my self esteem had already been so low when I entered the relationship that I didn’t think I deserved better. I remember crying a lot in those days. After a while, I just went numb.

I can’t even remember how many times we broke up and got back together over the course of those two hellish years. Every time, I begged for him to come back. He apologized, albeit in the “I’m sorry, but you made me ____” way that is so typical of abusers.

One time, we were having our reconciliation in the basement of my grandmother’s house, where I grew up and lived until age 20. We were sitting on a couch taken from my great aunt’s house when she moved in with us, and I remember him brushing my hair away from my face as I cried and apologized over and over again. I had no idea why I was even saying “I’m sorry.”

He looked into my face and said, “You have the most beautiful eyes. They’re like glaciers, and when you cry, those glaciers melt.” I will never forget those words. I knew how messed up the whole thing was, but all I felt in that moment was relief–relief that he had taken me back, broken as I was, and relief that I had someone who truly cared about me (although I suspect some part of me knew that this was nothing like “love” was supposed to be).

We went back into the honeymoon period, and then the whole mess repeated itself. Over and over and over.

In May of 2008, when I was nineteen, there was a huge thunderstorm. The power went out and I was sitting on the floor of my bedroom, back propped against my bed, looking into a candle. At that moment, for no particular reason, I decided that I didn’t want to live like this.

I went into my aunt’s bedroom, which was across the hall from mine, sat down on her bed, and said, “I don’t think I want to be with Chad anymore.”

She looked up from her book, patted my hand, and said, “That’s okay.”

He was on his way home from his cousin’s graduation when I called him. I broke it off and actually told him verbatim that he’d been abusive to me. He freaked out and accused me of being the abusive one. Other words were exchanged, but the point of the story is that I finally broke it off.

In the weeks and months that followed, he blew up my phone with apologies, claimed that he was going to hurt himself, and eventually threatened suicide a few times. I responded by calling his parents and telling them what was up. He never bothered me again.

But I still feel those effects like an aftershock to this day. They don’t come knocking often, but when they do, I instantly feel like that sad teenage girl who was so lost and frightened and desperate for love that she stayed with a profoundly abusive man for two years. Two years.

I don’t view that period of time as a “waste” or anything similar. I learned a lot about myself and after it ended, I found a level of freedom and, for lack of a better word, lightness that I had never before experienced.

I plunged headlong into a less abusive but highly dysfunctional relationship only a few months later which culminated in a desperately unhappy marriage. My divorce was finalized in October 2015 after nearly two years of emotional estrangement (we were, for all intents and purposes, broken up but were stuck living together for financial reasons).

I still say that the divorce was the best thing that ever happened to me.

I met a great guy, got into my first relationship that was truly loving and respectful, and got into graduate school. I am now a student at Johns Hopkins and am engaged to said fella–we’re going to get hitched next November!

The point is, readers, that it can take a while. As depressing as it sounds, your first abusive relationship may not be your last. The patterns we learn from being abused “stick,” often in insidious ways. It’s not uncommon to be totally unaware of the lasting effects of the abuse. If anyone has a statistic for this, I would love to see it–for some reason, I’m unable to find the actual percentage of abuse survivors who end up with another abuser.

In my case, I thought I was totally fine–a newly single, empowered woman who had survived something terrible. In reality, I had not given myself enough time to process and heal, which led me into another unhealthy relationship because I was afraid of being alone.

LoveIsRespect.org is one of my all-time favorite resources for abusive relationships. The website provides a chat, warning signs that your relationship may be abusive, and a quiz, among other information that can help you (or a loved one) escape an abusive relationship.

Until next time, readers, stay safe and lovely. And most importantly, remember to be kind to yourselves.

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News Day Tuesday: Childhood Mental Illness

News Day Tuesday, ptsd, rapid-cycle bipolar disorder, relationships, stigma

Good afternoon, readers! This week, I’m featuring an article from NPR related to the early detection of mental illness in children. Child psychologist Rahil Briggs states that half of all children show signs of mental illness before age 14.

On a personal note, I began experiencing symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder around age seven or eight. My mother had gone to prison when I was six years old, and I went twice a month to visit her at the correctional facility that was several hours from my home. By this point, nightmares were a common occurrence–I’d had them regularly since age five–so my guardian and other relatives didn’t think much of it when the frequency increased slightly after these visits began. There was some talk of finding a therapist for me, but the idea was abandoned.

One of the earliest memories I have of PTSD-related symptoms was one night when I was attempting to play chess with my aunt in the basement of my grandmother’s home, where I lived for the majority of my childhood and adolescence. I began to feel odd, detached from my own body and my surroundings. I remember saying to my aunt, “Do you ever feel like you’re in a dream?” because that was the only way I could describe it at the time.

She had no idea what I was talking about and gave me a strange look, a reaction for which I can’t exactly blame her–if I weren’t “in the know” about the symptoms of PTSD, I would have found such a statement very strange.

As a child, I was generally calm and reserved, but I did occasionally “act out.” I would get panicky and anxious, a tiny ball of pent-up energy and what I can only describe as rage at nothing in particular. That energy had nowhere to go, so it was directed inward, causing lasting damage before finally exploding outward. I would storm around the house in a dark mood, only to erupt moments later in a fit of crying so intense I felt like I couldn’t breathe.

My family was helpless to help me because they didn’t understand–or perhaps didn’t want to accept–the reality of what was happening to me. Bipolar disorder, which has spread throughout the family tree like Spanish moss, was beginning to wreak havoc on my still-developing brain.

Childhood mental illness is a tricky subject. It’s hard to recognize, and it’s terrifying, both for the sufferer and the child’s loved ones. It can strike anyone at any time, regardless of socioeconomic class or education level or how strong the family’s ties are. Therefore, it’s especially important for parents to remember and impress upon their children that it is an illness like any other and is not a moral or character judgment. It is not evidence of parental failings or proof that the child has not been loved enough. It simply is, and the earlier it is detected, the earlier treatment and healing can begin.

Did you start showing signs of mental illness in childhood, readers? How did your family/caregivers react?


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Recovery is a verb: It’s what you do!

a cure for what ails you, anxiety, call for submissions, medication, rapid-cycle bipolar disorder, relationships, three hopeful thoughts, Uncategorized

I’m not going to lie–moving to Baltimore has been a bit of an adjustment for me. The whole new city, new places, new people thing doesn’t faze me, partly because I’m here with someone I love and care for deeply and can lean on, and partly because I was so desperate to get away from the Midwest, to start fresh and re-invent myself again.

The part that’s scary is not having much of a support system yet. I’ll admit it; I’m frightened because right now I don’t know many people and the ones I’ve met (and like immensely!) are my fella’s classmates. I’m in that awkward transitional phase where an introvert suddenly has to start over and find friends in the area to hang out with, and as someone who’s generally a homebody, it’s tough. It’s especially hard right now because I’m taking a gap semester to adjust, work on the blog and CTL, and find a grad school down here to continue my work toward a Master’s in Counseling Psychology. What that translates into is a lot of long days where I have to figure out what to do with myself.

I’ve had a rough few days. It always seems to hit around this time of year–I love autumn and it’s always been my favorite season, but as someone with relatively severe bipolar disorder, my brain chemistry doesn’t like the changing of the seasons so much. I’m hopeful that this year it won’t be so bad, as I’ve heard the seasons are a lot milder here in the Southeast. Still, I came to the realization last night that I need to change my meds a little bit, which is nothing unusual for me. (I have some beef with the texture of my uncoated lamotrigine tabs, which makes snapping them in half to add a half-dose for nighttime a little unpleasant texturally-speaking, but that seems pretty minor in the grand scheme of things.)

Important side note and disclaimer: I don’t recommend anyone tweaking their meds without the express permission and guidance of a psychiatrist–luckily, mine helped me develop a seasons guide to use in situations like this, where I’m unable to get in to see a doctor to make adjustments. I’m still within the prescribed dose range and am only doing this to get myself through until I’m able to start seeing a psychiatrist down here.

The other night, I finally opened up. My last relationship–a five-year marriage–was somewhat disastrous and left a ton of emotional damage. As some of you may remember, I was out of work for thirteen months because I was simply too ill to hold down a job with regular hours, and staying inside most of the time with little to do means I got a lot worse before I started getting better. I don’t want to become a dependent. I don’t want to be needy. I want to be a partner, a strong woman who is capable of supporting herself and living her own life and not feeling sad and lonely and, perhaps worst of all, soul-crushingly bored when I’m alone during the day.

To counter this, I’ve been making myself a little “schedule” for each day, just little things I can do to keep myself busy so that at the end of the day, I feel like I’ve accomplished something. It helps a little; I don’t feel as melancholy and like I wasted the day. But it’s still very much a process. Recovery is not something you either have or you don’t. It’s not like you either are or aren’t “recovered.”

Each of us has natural ups and downs in life, regardless of how well-medicated we are. We can take our pills every day and go to therapy and exercise and be social and do everything right, and we will still have low periods. It’s the nature of the illness. It doesn’t mean that we’ve failed on any level or that, as I believed for years, that we’re unsuitable partners, sons, daughters, friends. It just means that we have an illness and we’re doing everything we can to fight it. Despite our best intentions, it is always going to be there, and I’ve found that accepting that fact has it a lot easier to live with.

I’m trying to make friends with my brain again. I’m trying to make friends with the ugly voice in the back of my mind that tells me I’m not enough. It’s the same one that brings up such tiny, insignificant things from decades ago and nags me about how these events, most of which I had little control over, make me bad or less-than in some way. I talk to the negative thoughts. I tell them to shut up if I’m feeling peevish or overwhelmed, but I also try to be sympathetic. I try to rationalize with the parts of me that are still trying to drag me down.

I still externalize what I’m feeling and pretend I’m a therapist and my client is me-but-not-me, a person who has the exact same concerns and emotions and neuroses that I do. If I separate myself from the negative feelings and thoughts, it’s easier to cope. I feel a sense of power over the thoughts. I counter them with the A-B-C-D-E method of learned optimism, which, thankfully, is effective more often than not.

And most of all, I am still working hard to be kind to myself every day. When I’m feeling bad, I try to remind myself of everything I’ve accomplished so far in spite of these huge obstacles and the weight I’m still carrying around.

On a happier note, I found out that Johns Hopkins offers free counseling to students as well as family members and significant others, so I’ve put in an appointment request for short-term counseling to get me through until my Medicaid (ugh) paperwork is finished and I can find a long-term therapist and psychiatrist again.

In the meantime, I’m trying to practice good self-care and take pride and enjoyment in the little things in life, whether it’s nailing a tough piano piece or simply tidying up the apartment. I don’t want to go back to my life being all about pain. I want to keep moving forward, to keep doing more. I have huge goals for myself in life, and I refuse to let this illness keep me from accomplishing them. My stubbornness has kept me alive for 27 years, and I need to harness that and use it as a recovery tool.

Where are you in your recovery, readers? Do you have any helpful tips to share?

As always, stay safe and lovely and well. I’ll see you all again next Tuesday for another exciting News Day! And keep those submissions coming–I want as many unique voices and stories on the blog as possible!

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Anxiety blues.

a cure for what ails you, anxiety, medication, ptsd, rapid-cycle bipolar disorder, relationships

The last few days, I feel like I’ve fallen down a sort of anxiety-hole, and it’s really bugging me.

Yesterday was wonderful–we went to Canton and had delicious pie with a friend of Paul’s from college and her lovely fiancee, then took a walk in a nearby park. There was a hiccup where he snuck up on me and startled me a bit, which in addition to a ton of people being around (it was, after all, a beautiful day) kind of made my PTSD-radar go “ping!” I think that’s what set it off.

When we got home, I had a minor annoyance/setback when I learned that my venlafaxine, which I’m almost out of, was ready–but my new insurance, for some reason, was still pending and the Rx was pretty far out of my price range. After waiting in a crowded pharmacy for close to an hour, my brain didn’t take the news particularly well and my anxiety went up a few more notches.

I had taken a couple of lorazepam throughout the day, which I normally don’t have to do, and while I was nice and chilled out by that evening, I woke up this afternoon (after fourteen hours of sleep, which is highly unusual these days) feeling groggy and depressed.

Days like these, I feel the old blues and hopelessness creeping back in. I am in a gorgeous city and a new apartment with someone I love, yet I still get sad and anxious. I’ve come to realize that it’s part of the illnesses and that these things will be with me for the rest of my life. I suppose I’ve taken the good days for granted, so this one blindsided me a little.

I took another nap, woke up, finished my Theories paper, and am feeling quite a bit better. Still, it’s something I’m going to mention to my new psychiatrist (once I find one in the area, haha). The lorazepam does wonders for me in terms of calming my anxiety and the irritability that comes with it, but I often feel a little down the day after taking it and I’m wondering if there are other things I could try.

Needless to say, I also have to find a therapist to help me with quite a few things–after all, I just went through a huge move and am dealing with all sorts of new feelings and worries about being so far from home for the first time in my life.

What helps you unwind, readers? How do you shake off the blues?

Risk!

abuse, Authoress, ptsd, relationships

On November 14, I had the honor of participating in the Risk! podcast live show in Milwaukee. In my story, I talked about the abusive relationship I was in from ages 17 to 19 (tw: there are some kind-of graphic descriptions of rape and abuse). You can check it out here!

I’m not really the most social person and am still pretty shy, so I was extremely nervous about the show. I mean, I didn’t even know I’d been raped until years later, when I learned that rape isn’t just when you scream “No” at a stranger in a dark alley and they force you to have sex with them anyway. It takes so many different forms, and all of them are very real, very legitimate, and very damaging.

But knowing something and believing it are two very different things. I was worried that people would come up to me and go, “That wasn’t rape,” or “That wasn’t even that bad!” Instead, I got an outpouring of support and spent about an hour after the show greeting and connecting with a lovely group of people.

All in all, it was a super-positive experience and it kind of lit a fire for storytelling in me that I didn’t even know I had. One of the women who approached me after the show mentioned a Madison storytelling group, and I might look into that once I get situated in my new job and finish the last of my boring, soul-sucking post-divorce adult stuff.

Have you ever told your story publicly, readers? I’d love to hear from you!

Pain.

a cure for what ails you, abuse, memories, ptsd, relationships

My last pain doctor suggested that my history of abuse (especially sexual abuse) might be the main source of my pelvic pain, along with neuropathy. I have muscular trigger points that cause low pelvic pain, despite having had two injections and a nerve block. It’s true that my endometriosis has progressed from stage one to stage two, after essentially being “reset” by a laparoscopy in March 2011, but I’m taking two forms of birth control to at least slow the progress, if not completely stop it.

I have no more options for controlling or reversing the endometriosis. Lupron didn’t work—all it did was leave me with horrible acne scars on my left cheek and $2,000 poorer. Another surgery is out of the question, mostly because of finances but also because there’s a very good chance it could cause more scarring and adhesions and actually make things worse. All this has led me to reconsider my stance on the mind-body connection, which I’d previously scoffed at.

I was looking up information on pelvic pain related to a history of abuse and found a study on the topic from 2000 (http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/11084180). Some highlights:

  • 22% of patients with chronic pelvic pain were sexually abused before their 15th birthdays
  • 25% of women with chronic pelvic pain were exposed to emotional neglect, especially during childhood
  • 38% were exposed to physical violence

I haven’t written as much about sexual abuse as the other forms I’ve suffered, and I think that’s probably because I still haven’t connected with any of it emotionally. Now that I’m in a functional relationship with a good person who makes me feel safe, appreciated, and generally cared-for, I’m beginning to feel better about myself and more secure and confident in my self-worth.

In short, I think I’m finally ready to talk about it, though in the interest of protecting their privacy, I’m going to avoid all but the vaguest references to abuse within my family.

I’m still not completely sure whether or not I was molested as a child, although more therapists and psychiatrists than you can shake a stick at have all told me that my partial memories, repression, sexual precocity, and general attitudes toward my body and sex are strongly suggestive (no pun intended) of early abuse. I was terrified of men until I was fifteen—I stopped crying and completely losing it around them around age seven or so, but I kept my eyes down, or at least averted, and would cross my arms over my chest and hunch over—anything to keep them from seeing me or even noticing that I was there.

My mother had a boyfriend who made me profoundly uncomfortable from the time I was five until she went to prison a year later.

I remember crying whenever she left me alone with him. They both drank, but I was especially frightened of him. He was tall and overtly masculine in a swarthy sort of way with dark eyes and hairy arms. I will never forget those arms, which I think explains my penchant for mostly hairless men with less testosterone-loaded features.

I have a memory from when I was about five-and-a-half of lying in bed in the room he’d set up for me in his house. (We frequently stayed overnight, and I’d always cry when she insisted I had to go with her.) They’d gone out on a date and had left me alone with his son, who was fifteen at the time and very kind and protective of me. He used to read me books before bed, but because he was pretty severely dyslexic and I was way ahead of the curve in terms of language and reading ability, I usually took over and read him to sleep on the living room floor before putting a blanket over him and tucking myself into bed.

For some reason, I was still awake that night when they came home, albeit in a drowsy twilight state. I remember them opening the door to check on me and seeing the dim, watery yellow light flooding in through the crack in the door. She walked away and he lingered there for a moment. I remember seeing him hesitate, then approach my bed. I remember his dark silhouette against the thin light from the hallway. I remember that hairy arm stretched over my chest, and then everything fades to black. The memory ends there.

It bothers me, not because of the implications but because I pride myself on being annoyingly self-aware and don’t like the idea that my brain, which I know so well, is still hiding things from me. I want to know. I don’t want to know. I’m curious, but I know there’s probably a good reason my brain is blocking that memory. What good would it do, anyway, knowing for sure whether or not anything had happened? I know that he was abusive toward both of us in other ways, and I feel like that should be enough.

But sometimes it’s not.

I’ve written about the other abusers—all four of them, for a grand total of five—in other posts and may revisit the topic later. But for now, I wanted to finally speak out about the one incident from when I was a child that’s still bothering me, that I still haven’t been able to untangle, in hopes that it might strike a chord in one of my readers. I don’t like to think about other people being abused, but I know it’s one of those horrible realities I have no choice but to face, especially since I want to specialize in trauma therapy.

It feels wrong to hope that someone will be able to relate, that they will reach out and that maybe we can have a dialogue and reach some sort of insight together (or at least achieve catharsis), but I feel like it would be incredibly helpful right now. I’ve learned that we need to lean on each other, because no matter how good the intentions of our friends, partners, and families might be, there is no substitute for being able to talk to someone who’s experienced what you’ve been through.

I am here for you, readers. If you need help, I will help as best I can. And if you need to howl into the void, I will be your void.

Mental Illness in Entertainment: Six Feet Under

a cure for what ails you, memories, rapid-cycle bipolar disorder, relationships, self-harm, stigma, suicidal ideation, three hopeful thoughts

I recently binge-watched “Six Feet Under” for the first time (Michael C. Hall and Frances Conroy being the main draw, though my backup plan for life since I was 15 has been mortuary school) and was overall impressed with the show’s treatment of Billy, who has severe bipolar disorder with psychosis. However, though Jeremy Sisto’s* performance was excellent, I had a hard time fully enjoying it because of the painful memories it dredged up—not because of his behavior, but because of other characters’ reactions to it.

As I’ve mentioned several times on this blog, I wasn’t properly diagnosed until I was 24 years old, a full sixteen years after the initial onset of my symptoms. (The disorder is notoriously difficult to diagnose in children and teens because teens are stereotypically “moody” and, in my case, mixed episodes in children can look a lot like run-of-the-mill temper tantrums.)

The result is that in both of my long-term relationships, I’ve been accused of being manipulative and even emotionally abusive simply for expressing my needs. Most of you can probably relate to how difficult it is to reach out for help when you’re struggling, and I’m not sure how telling a loved one that I was worried about hurting myself and didn’t trust myself to be alone counts as either. Each time, I felt guilty beyond belief for making the person in question cancel plans to sit at home with me when I couldn’t stop crying and generally was not much fun to be around. But at the same time, I doubt many people would begrudge, say, a cancer patient for needing company on a bad day.

It’s true that at times, my behavior was what most people would refer to as “a little off,” and I am horrendously embarrassed by it. I try not to look back at the things I said and did back then because I know that my illness was the culprit and that I was not at all myself.

I take comfort in knowing that I’m stable now and haven’t had a major episode in over a year. I am in a relationship again, and though it’s in the fledgling stages, it’s actually functional and healthy and I can handle prolonged absences (my fella travels for work quite a bit) without panicking and worrying and feeling intolerably lonely. For the first time in my life, I’m experiencing true emotional independence. I’m able to take care of my own needs and create my own happiness. For the first time in my life, I am not hinging my happiness and emotional well-being on a man. I actually have object permanence and can trust that he’s going to return and not suddenly decide he no longer cares about me. I have accepted that if that ever does happen, it’s not my fault. And while I appreciate his presence and that he augments my life and has affected it in a very positive way, he is not my entire world.

This is a huge step. I’m pretty much the last person I ever expected to see in a healthy relationship, but amazingly, I’m managing to pull it off. The entire experience thus far has been incredibly healing, and with each good experience, each good day, I am learning to forgive myself for the past.

Since it's official now, here's a super-cute picture of us. :3

Since it’s official now, here’s a super-cute picture of us. :3

* On a lighter note, does anyone else think he totally looks like Kevin Rowland? (Check out the video for “Come On Eileen” by Dexy’s Midnight Runners, then tell me I’m wrong.)