By Tanya Warrington
Recovery. A popular word for those recovering from substance abuse, and a very appropriate word for those of us who are reclaiming what was lost from being abused. Abuse destroys so much. The abuser rips away our safety, throws aside our dignity, and pummels our self-worth. He or she intentionally takes without giving because it helps him or her get what they want, increasing his or her sense of power and pleasure. I’ve done lots of study on why abusers do what they do, but it is still difficult to understand with my heart. I just can’t fathom ever wanting to do to another the things that have been done to me. I doubt you can either. Thank goodness, our healing journey of recovering what was taken away from us does not require us to fully understand the abuser.
Each person’s recovery is unique but there are some parts of it that we all must walk through. Before we can get very far, we must acknowledge the pain and damage that we carry inside even though we’d rather not. We’re good at shoving that pain out of sight and ignoring it. At least we think we are. But others around us still see the pain they see it when we eat too much to comfort ourselves, or we work excessive hours, or we spend more money than we have. They can see our pain in the way we are so reluctant to trust others or in the ways we try to be invisible or in the way hide behind baggy clothes. Or for some of us, we give ourselves away by the way we try to control everyone and everything so that we won’t feel powerless again, or the way we wear provocative clothing and hang around dangerous people to prove that we are the ones choosing our plight, or the way we start arguments with our abuser to get abuse out of the way for this week or day.
The pain is frightening. It feels overwhelming. If you look at it, it feels like it will be your undoing—that you’ll never stop crying or raging, or maybe both. For years, it literally felt as if my world would come to an end if I opened my Pandora’s Box of pain. I eventually opened that box anyway because the pain of continuing as I was became as big as the pain shoved away. I became willing to see where new ways would take me because the old ways weren’t serving me well. In hindsight, it is funny to see that indeed my world did end, sort of. My world of feeling worthless and trapped ended. My world of living in constant fear ended. My world of feeling helpless and hopeless ended. And I am the better for it. Facing the memories that horrified me released me from my prison and enabled me to begin creating a world that was far better.
After the initial trauma of acknowledging what happened to you there comes a period of counting the cost. What was lost in the abuse? For all of us did indeed lose important things that we would like to recover. At first, denial and minimization try to convince us that nothing is missing or that it didn’t matter much anyway. But don’t be fooled. Yes, it hurts but it is important to see the damage. If your home was burglarized and ransacked, you would be asked to examine your home and identify what damage was done and which items were stolen. If you refused, then no one could help you to search for the lost items or to help you fix the damage. So you take a deep breath and you begin to look around. Just as burglars tend to take jewelry, money, and electronics, so too there is a list of items that abusers tend to steal. Upon examination you will probably notice that your general trust of humanity is gone. Now people are potential threats, possible abusers in hiding. The world that used to feel like a generally safe place doesn’t feel safe anymore; it feels unsafe. Your image of yourself is changed. You look in the mirror now and see someone who is too weak to prevent abuse, too dumb to recognize abusers, too foolish to earn safety. Or if not these descriptors, then some other unattractive quality is seen to be at fault. By the very nature of abuse, victims struggle with feeling guilty and responsible for the crimes committed against themselves. It isn’t logical to the mind, but it is reality to the heart. And so we must do an inventory of our warped perceptions that point to what is missing.
Looking at what was stolen isn’t fun, but it is part of a new beginning. We discover that we can’t get was taken back from the abuser. Just as so many house burglaries and investigations do not return the original belongings. But that is not the end of the story. In real life, life goes on after the burglary. Sometimes so slowly, at first, but then, eventually, returning to normal, or more accurately a new normal. New items are purchased to replace the stolen items. New locks or gates or security systems are installed to cut down on the likelihood of a repeat performance. All this is done not by the thief, but by the one who was stolen from. Just so, the abused one is responsible for replacing what was lost and securing boundaries to protect her or his own safety in the future. It is our job to give ourselves the good things that we lost or that our parents never even helped us have in the first place. Even people who haven’t been abused must do this work, just not as intensely and not as pervasively as an abuse victim. It can help to remember that when self-pity threatens to bog us down. We are not alone. Others have to work on their interpersonal boundaries, others need to consciously build up their self-esteem, and others need to consider safety issues. We can do the work of recovering what was lost.
Along the way, the choices we make as we go about replacing what was lost bring joy. Living in this very moment joy. Discovering that we can make wise decisions joy. We’re growing and discovering new things that we like type of joy. Just as the burglarized victim might upgrade her sound system after a burglary and wonder why she hadn’t done so years ago is blessed, so too we can make upgrade choices that pay us back in joy for years to come. We can choose better things than those that were lost. We can choose realistic expectations with joy-filled hopes. We can choose an honest evaluation of ourselves at the present and we can choose to practice behaviors that will help us to become someone better, someone we like better. We can choose to rid our lives of abusive relationships and we can choose to fill our lives with supportive, loving relationships. We can choose so many good things for ourselves once we start choosing and find out what possibilities exist.
Healing isn’t an easy journey. Recovery is not a smooth flat road. It is bumpy and hilly. But it is more than doable. Recovery is truly possible. I know it to be true because I’ve been recovering and I’ve met many other courageous women and men who are recovering too.
If you’re already in the process of recovering, keep on going fellow sojourner. If you’ve been feeling stuck, take hope in knowing that you are not alone. Others walk in your same path. Also remember that help is always available. You can seek professional counseling or you can attend a recovery meeting or support group in your community or on the internet. If you realize that you’ve been the victim of abuse but hadn’t begun recovering, be encouraged. Just reading this article can be part of recovery. Just admitting that you were abused is part of recovery. Be strengthened and keep on trudging. There are many good books you can read, trustworthy people you can share your story with, and many available resources. You can recover.
Tanya Warrington is the author of the blog Dazzling Wings.