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.

I’m not afraid of anything, except feeling.

abuse, major depression, ptsd, therapy

This is something I think I’ve known for a long time, but I never fully realized it until my most recent re-reading of More, Now, Again (Elizabeth Wurtzel), where Wurtzel’s therapist tells her the exact same thing.

One of the ways I managed to survive, for better or worse, was by learning to numb myself to all the “big”/important events that would normally have provoked a lot of emotion. To this day, I can recite all the details of being abused and neglected as a child, or what it was like to visit my mother in prison, without shedding a tear or breaking out of a monotone. I can tell you exactly how it feels to be terrified by verbal abuse from a romantic partner, what it’s like to have them hit you for the first time, what it’s like to be coerced into sex (which is a form of rape), what it’s like to be sexually assaulted by someone who initially seemed like a nice guy. I can describe all of these things down to the very last, tiniest detail without feeling any of the emotions behind them because I’ve learned to store those emotions as far back as possible, but for some reason, my memories stay right up front, almost as fresh as the day they were formed.

It’s safer to feel sad about old people in general than to cry over the fact that I am terrified of losing my grandmother, who raised me and is like a mother to me. It’s safer to get upset about the minute details I remember about the days when the abuse (both as a child and as a teenager) was at its worst than to release all the emotions that pertain to the actual events.

This is why I’m so detached. I put all of my energy into feeling depressed and hopeless over seemingly insignificant things because once I open the floodgates about the really important things cluttering up the back of my mind, I can’t turn it off. Instead, they languish there, floating around like bits of shrapnel and inflicting more and more damage as time goes on.

I think this is why therapy doesn’t work for me. It’s like an ouroboros, really; we can’t get at the roots of what’s fucking me up because of my defense mechanisms, which are touchy and what’s keeping me so numb. But without working through the underlying issues, there’s no hope of ever relieving some of the numbness and the angst…it’s an ongoing process. Right now, I’m not seeing my therapist because money is an issue (but when isn’t it?).

In the meantime, I’m trying to keep myself occupied as well as I can, considering I’m unable to work. D. and I have been talking about me going back to school to finish up the last few credits for a B.S. in psychology, then on to grad school. I’m not sure if I want to go into counseling or go down the forensic/criminal psych path yet, but there’s plenty of time to figure that out.

Trying not to turn into my mother seems to be taking up most of my time these days, but I’m also trying to balance that with keeping myself alive. My coping methods really suck sometimes, but the general consensus (from friends, my husband, even my therapist) has been that even if something is problematic in the moment, if it can get me through a crisis alive, it’s okay. We can work on that bit later, but in order for any of the work to get done, I have to be alive.

I am alive. I left the house on a small errand today, and though the dissociation was a whole lot worse when I got home, I’m still relatively okay. That has to count for something.

Some days, my need for acceptance and praise is really disturbing.

abuse, major depression, ptsd, rapid-cycle bipolar disorder, self-harm, suicidal ideation, therapy

I say this because of the things I know beyond a doubt: I am attractive, there is nothing wrong with my body. But I need reassurance about the physical things because of the most important parts I can’t accept—the thought that I am worthy and lovable and worthwhile and that I don’t ruin everything I touch.

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I had a particularly disturbing dream last night that D. suddenly decided he didn’t love me, never had. I told him I was feeling suicidal and his response was something along the lines of, “Actually, that’s the best thing that could happen to me right now.” I woke up in a panic, convinced that it had been real. I had some terrible dream-within-a-dream-within-a-dream experience last night, and it’s left me a little rattled. I know the dream is just my subconscious vomiting out the particularly horrible bits of all the abuse I’ve taken—the dream situation is ripped almost verbatim from something that happened countless times in a past relationship—but it’s still upsetting.

It’s upsetting because after all these years and how far I’ve come, I still feel like a victim. It’s upsetting because my childhood would have fucked me up enough without the awful part in my teens where I realized that even if someone tells you they love you, they can still hurt you terribly. In some cases, they can hurt you more after they’ve said it.

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A stranger once complimented me on my eyes and followed it with, “But there’s something unquiet about them.” It took me a long time to realize that everything I’ve gone through has turned me into a haunted house. If the eyes are windows to the soul, then the restlessness in mine is because of all the horrible memories, all the ghosts.

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D. and I were discussing “Inception” the other day. “I wonder what my subconscious would look like,” I said. He replied, “I’m pretty sure it would be full of monsters.”

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I’ve been reading a lot about self-harm and how it relates to prior abuse (the book I’m currently reading focuses on the theory that childhood abuse is completely to blame, but for me, it’s been more of a cumulative effect). I have to go slow because it’s very triggering for me, but it’s also hauling some useful anecdotes up from the depths and forcing me to confront a lot of hard truths about myself—about what happened to me during the first twenty years of my life and how those experiences have shaped almost everything about me.

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I’m heading back to therapy on Thursday, and I’m feeling particularly anxious about it. I’m not sure what to expect; I already know my prognosis for ever coming out of the dissociative state is pretty grim, and that it’s likely I’ll be in therapy for the rest of my life. We have to move so maddeningly slow—working through the trauma without awakening my defense mechanisms is like trying to sneak past a sleeping dragon in a cave. If it shifts in its sleep or makes a sound, we have to go back and find a safe hiding place until it passes.

My therapist is wonderful. She’ll start off by prompting me to share what’s been going on in my life, and then she’s somehow able to zero in on what I need to talk about during that session. She reassures me that it’s okay if I can only handle remembering things for a minute or two—she says it’s a lot healthier than going at it too hard and making the dissociation even worse.

I’ve gotten pretty good about just accepting the way things are, the numbness and the detachment. But there are times when it makes me want to scream, when I just want to feel something other than all the pain and numbness. I want to be in the moment all the time instead of faking it. I want hearing “I love you” during sex to feel good instead of scaring the shit out of me and causing me to shut down.

I want someone to turn me off and fix me. I wish I had a factory default switch, that I could go back to being an infant and be born into a situation that wouldn’t cause so much damage. People say I’m lucky; the abuse has given me an endless source of inspiration for writing, and most people with “normal”/stable home lives have to work harder.

To that, I say: Fuck you so very, very much. If any one of those people had to live like this even for a day, they’d probably end up putting a gun to their head before sundown. No one wants to live like this. No one.

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I know this post has jumped all over the damn place; please bear with me, as I’ve been dealing with some pretty brutal cycling as of late. I want to close this on a positive note, so let’s just appreciate that I made it through two suicide attempts, nine months of self-harm, and a lot of substance abuse—and that’s just this year.

I want to live the rest of my life without ending up in a hospital. I want to make it through this without dying by my own hand. I want to be happy, if I can’t be completely well ever again.