Stages Of Healing From Abuse
While every survivor's path is unique, there are some common stages we all go through. It is rarely a straight sequence, as we tend to move on from stage to stage too fast, which results in jumping back and forth - from anger to acceptance only to discover that we missed grief, or to realize we have more anger than we used to think and we need to revisit the anger stage, or to walk through a few of these stages again, regarding another instance of abuse that we didn't think much of at first.
This page is by no means a recipe to healing, it's simply sharing our experience. Walking this path can at times feel like it's hopeless, getting worse, or going in circles. Sometimes it truly is. This is why a roadmap might be helpful.
The popular phrase of this stage is "yes, but..." - yes, he gave me a black eye, but it was my fault; yes, she shouldn’t have touched me there, but it wasn’t too bad; yes, they stuck my head in urinal, but it was only once. Regardless of whether you recognize that what happened (or is happening) is indeed abuse and that it hurt you, abuse is driving your life - it is full of shame, skeletons in closets, fear, loneliness, and unhappiness with no insight as to its causes. You can't press your bellybutton and stop being in denial, but there's a very important thing you can do meanwhile - prepare for the next stages. They will come sooner or later whether you like it or not, so better prepare. Ensure safety. Build up your support system. Develop good skills and strategies on coping with stress. Pay attention to your basic functioning. Get your life as stable and functional as you can - you'll appreciate it a lot when things explode. So - yes, he's abusing you, but you can't move out for twenty reasons? Cool, don't move out. Just straighten out your bills. If you decide to move out in the future - you don't want messy bills on top of that havoc. And if you decide to stay for good - straightening out your bills won't hurt either. Get your ducks in a row.
In this stage, the world collapses and you realize you have been hurt. This often is when people reach out for help first - it feels like you're going crazy. All that pain, memories, shock, despair, terror, rage, guilt, hatred, confusion and perhaps also love - overwhelms you at once, throwing you into utter turmoil. All these intense and tangled up emotions can result in severe anxiety, nightmares, flashbacks, and emotional distractions such as addictions, self-injury, dissociation, hyper sexuality, loss of appetite or compulsive eating, etc. It's a weird thing - sometimes it just starts with any emotion. For example, enjoying your ice cream. Once you allow that feeling, all the other feelings suddenly pop up and throw you off balance. It actually makes sense - severe trauma (like abuse) often causes people to freeze up their emotions so that they can manage surviving. But you can't remain frozen forever, so sooner or later you're bound to acknowledge you have feelings - and not only about abuse. Painful as it is, this stage is fairly short-term, so take very good care of yourself while you're going through it - it's short, and you do need to be safe and as comfortable as possible during this hard time. Take especially good care of your body - take a bubble bath, go for a long walk in a park, eat tasty and healthy foods, wear comfortable clothing - indulge yourself, while feeling all the feelings that come up, in full. The more you feel now, the shorter your recovery road will be.
"What if I said "no" louder, what if I didn't go to that party, what if I told mom right away" - Now that you were flooded with all the feelings, thoughts, memories, confusions, pain, and hope - shattering your views on self and the world around you - you naturally want to make logical sense of just what happened, why, could it have been any different, who is to blame for the fact that it happened the way it did, who is responsible for fixing the damage, etc. Take your time figuring things out, but use your head more than your heart at this stage. It was not your fault. There are no what ifs, no excuses for abuse. If you were intolerable - he didn't have to beat you up over it. He could have left, or called police. Beating you up wasn't the right choice, whatever the situation was. In reality, it's not about what's whose fault, sorting through past blame isn't always productive, - but you won't be able to move on to further stages unless you acknowledge that abuse was not your fault, you are not to blame for what happened - because this allows you to drop guilt and shame, and be able to think and talk of the experience without freezing up in "I'm a worthless loser who caused it all" type of thing. And acknowledging that what happened was abuse and has hurt you bad enough to need something done about it - prevents you from brushing the issue off with "it wasn't so bad" and returning to denial.
Once you're conscious of the things that were done to you that you didn't deserve in the slightest - naturally you feel very angry. You exhibit hostility and rage at your abuser, at those who failed to protect you (such as your parents or police), at those who didn't have to go through what you went through, at the whole wide world where such things happen, even at G-d himself, for allowing it. You break the silence, take active stand against abuse, confront your perpetrator, disclose the issue to family and friends, write and publish various abuse-related materials from awareness flyers to poetry and memoirs. The problem here is that abuse is still a dominant influence on your life, talking about it is a necessity rather than a choice, and still brings up deep, often overwhelming feelings. There are many people stuck at this stage while thinking they have already healed. Discovery that abuse wasn't your fault but a wrong committed against you can turn into desire to educate everyone on abuse dynamics, to preach the newfound truth, resulting in annoying self-righteousness. The feeling that you were wronged can cause the opposite swing, entitlement - expecting people to fix your problems now. Or, if the conflicts of previous stages weren't fully resolved, you might turn your anger inward and get depression, self-sabotage, self-injury, and/or substance abuse as a result. Anger is a powerful and liberating force, and using it right can be of tremendous help towards your healing and an inspiration to others. So celebrate your strengths, your assertiveness, your knowledge and power, your motivation to change - but don't let your anger turn into self-defeating patterns. Recognize that your situation isn't very unique - approximately a quarter of humanity gets abused one way or another in their lifetime. Besides, there are other traumas people experience - for example, natural disasters.
You've just discovered you've been screwed over, there's nothing you can do about it in most cases, and anger leads you nowhere. Of course this causes deep feelings of sadness. You're grieving what happened and what didn't and never will. Decent family, happy childhood, perfect husband, innocence, trust towards people, faith in a good future for yourself, friends, support from community, good memories and happy photos in your family albums, etc. You didn't mourn the loss of all these things, didn't think all these thoughts - and now the realization hits you hard: those things are gone. It's important to feel this grief fully, but it can overwhelm you, resulting in depression, self-injury, addictions, even suicidal feelings due to hopelessness. Keep in mind that this is a temporary stage, so don't let it cause permanent damage. The way through is to feel all these feelings, talk about them, release the emotions. Art and/or creative writing are especially helpful during the grief stage. You'll never be happy about what happened, but the intensity of grief will pass. The sooner you feel and express it all - the sooner it will be over. Allow yourself to grieve fully.
You might or might not forgive the person who abused you, but you're moving towards accepting that abuse happened, is in the past, and cannot be reversed/undone. PTSD symptoms (such as flashbacks or anxiety attacks) lessen (though might still pop up occasionally). You can talk of what happened to you without being overwhelmed with emotions such as rage or grief. You can share your story, but you're not driven to share it indiscriminately. You also start seeing the role that trauma played in your general life path - of course you still resent the idea that you have been abused, but you can acknowledge the wisdom and strengths you've gained as a result, recognize that it perhaps allowed you to grow and learn. You start developing self acceptance & self respect, and perhaps getting other interests, besides abuse-related activities such as therapy, support groups, or creative writing on the subject.
"Ok, so I was abused, it was not my fault, not my responsibility, I accepted it, moved on - why is my life not any better than it used to be? Now what?" Feelings of hopelessness, helplessness, social withdrawal, loss of motivation, frustration, even despair. The reason you don't feel better is because you didn't repair the damage yet. Imagine someone spat on you all of a sudden - you yelled at them, told all your friends, got plenty of sympathy, filed a police report - but you still need a tissue to clean up the spit. You walked the road of recovery, processed the feelings, took appropriate actions - and now you're back to square one for a short while - you're aware of what happened and how it affected you, but otherwise you feel exactly same as you felt during denial. Because you haven't addressed any problems that abuse has caused you, you simply acknowledged their origin. How long you will be at this stage depends entirely on how soon do you realize you still have work to do, and get motivated to do it.
Repairing the damage:
This is the stage where you actually fix what got broken during abuse: physical, social, emotional, behavioral problems, boundaries, relationship issues, new better ways of coping with residual anxiety issues. You are examining your functioning, identifying problem areas, setting goals and taking steps to create the life you want. Many of these issues can be fixed fairly easily - for example, CBT attempts to resolve agoraphobia in about 3 months, and with a good success rate. The sole reason it takes years for survivors is because you need to reach this stage to achieve behavioral change. You can't change your behavior until you've discovered all of the above - that abuse was not your fault, that it is past and cannot be undone, that it caused you problems that are current, and that, while abuse was not your fault, fixing these problems is your responsibility (no one else will do it for you), and that you won't feel good until you do that. This is what takes years. Once you're there, simple behavioral adjustment can be done fairly quickly.
Eventually you reach a point where abuse is just a thing of the past - it has affected you, no doubt, but so did many other factors: the town where you grew up, your first grade teacher, your highschool sweetheart, etc. Every experience shapes who we are, so at this point you integrate the experience of abuse and view it as just one of the things that affected you, but not something you need to focus on daily. The damage was repaired, you learned all you had to learn from the experience, and you've let it go. Your life isn't perfect, but it no longer is ruled by the tragedy of what you went through years ago.
~ Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
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