Bad Advice, From Those Who Don’t Know
If you’ve already ended the relationship with your abuser (and even if you haven’t), you’re probably getting all kinds of great comments, like:
- Now that he’s gone, you should be enjoying life again!
- Get out there and date/look for a better job/climb Mt. Everest!
- It’s been a week/month/full moon cycle already. What the hell is wrong with you?
- If you don’t feel like your old self within a month, you’re depressed and should see a doctor.
- Take a bubble bath. Get a pedicure. Work out six days a week. You’ll be fine.
Which piece of advice is correct? If you answered, “None of them,” you’re absolutely right.
The New Normal
The truth is that you’re not going to be back to your pre-abuse self really soon. Those people who are expecting you to snap back like a rubber band have no idea what they’re talking about. Here’s why: verbal and emotional abuse cause your mind and your body to respond. When abuse is happening, you’ll instinctively react like you’re being threatened – because you are – and your body will go into fight-or-flight mode. Your adrenal glands (located on top of your kidneys) release cortisol, adrenaline, and a smaller amount of noradrenaline, while neurons in your brain start firing like it’s the Fourth of July. Your heart pounds, your breathing gets more rapid, and your body prepares to flee or begin combat. If you’re in an abusive relationship, this kind of thing happens a lot. Eventually, it will happen even when abuse isn’t actually taking place: when you anticipate your abuser’s arrival, when you’re replaying the incidents in your mind, or when you worry about future episodes. If the abuse becomes chronic or escalates, you’ll probably spend most of your time in a state of chronic, battle-ready stress.
Exhausted and Fried
Over time, your adrenal glands become overtaxed and pretty much fried. You may very likely develop adrenal burnout. Many abuse targets develop PTSD – which is not just about having flashbacks and nightmares. You feel drained, mentally foggy, and have zero drive and ambition to do all those things you fantasized about while still with your abuser. If you sleep, you don’t sleep well or wake up feeling rested. Maybe you have nightmares, midnight panic attacks, or get up to check the locks one more time. You likely have a spare tire around your waist, despite whatever exercise and dieting you might be able to do. Any stress makes you feel overwhelmed, and your coping mechanisms are on a beach in Tahiti having a Mai Tai. You may feel disconnected from others and emotionally shut down. You zone out during work or routine tasks. You’re unable to follow through on the plans you do make. You wonder what the hell is wrong with you and why you aren’t bouncing back immediately. It’s OK. You won’t – and you don’t need to. Give yourself permission to stop living according to your abuser’s unrealistic expectations (and everyone else’s).
Rules of the Road
- Be patient and kind to yourself. Treat yourself as you would a child who has been through a traumatic event.
- Meditate every day when you wake up and when you go to bed. For instructions, see Martha Beck’s The Joy Diet, chapter 1.
- Focus on one thing at a time. A pilot friend gave me some great advice shortly after I left my abusive marriage and was floundering in a sea of panic-driven paralysis: “When a pilot knows the plane is going to crash, the first thing he does is take a deep breath and a sip of coffee. Then, he can assess the situation.” Take a deep breath. Take a sip of coffee or green tea or whatever. Figure out what the next thing is you need to do – and do only that.
- Use Martha Beck’s Three B’s: Bag, Barter, or Better. When your To-Do list is longer than your car, Bag as much as you possibly can. Barter the things you really hate doing (my son and I recently swapped chores because he hates dishes and I hate laundry). Try to make the remaining tasks Better (I burn incense and play “Wallop the Cat” by the Wicked Tinkers when I have to deep-clean my stove, for example. Then, I eat ice cream).
- Ignore the nasty voices. Next time that critical voice (yours or someone else’s) starts to tell you what you “should” be doing and feeling, tell it, “I’m making good decisions and treating myself well. Shove off!” This takes practice. Keep at it, and eventually you will listen.
- Lower your expectations. Your “old self” will resurface eventually, but only if you give it time, sleep, good food, exercise, and a lot of TLC. Until then, figure out the three most critical things you have to get done each day – and then quit. Some days, you may only be able to manage one thing. That’s fine, too. Praise and reward yourself for getting it done, and don’t automatically expect yourself to do twice as much tomorrow.
Recovery is a process. Just as your abuser tore you down over a period of time, you will need a period of time to build yourself back up again (fortunately, recovery doesn’t have to last as long as the abuse did). Until then, be nice to yourself – and don’t listen to those who tell you what you “should” be doing.