Sunday, 29 September 2019

A GUIDE TO THE AFTERMATH OF ABUSE



“Don't judge yourself by what others did to you.”
C. Kennedy, Ómorphi

I struggled with the title for this post; I didn’t want to make it sound as though there’s some sort of structure or prediction to the aftermath of abuse. You could have two people go through the same type of abuse e.g. sexual, emotional, physical etc. yet their actual experiences and the impact they have is completely different. Some people don’t understand this and so I once had a Healthcare Assistant in a medical hospital say to me ‘being abused is no excuse; I was abused, and I don’t self-harm or have mental health problems!’ I hope that this post doesn’t leave anyone feeling the way that comment left me feeling – alone and as though I must be weaker. I think that my intention for this post is not only to aim it at those who have gone through abuse and encourage them to recognize that they aren’t alone; but also, to provide insight for those supporting someone or caring for someone who has been. I also just wanted to say that I did a poll on Twitter about whether to split this lengthy post into numerous ones or to post the entire content and the vote favored all at once; so, here you go:

So, I talk about the ‘aftermath’… I once had someone ask me when the abuse had ended, and I struggled to answer. I could tell you the exact date that the physical side of the abuse stopped (April 20th, 2007) but for me, I sometimes wonder if it ever will fully ‘end.’ I guess it depends on what your definition of ‘end’ is and whether you’d consider the impact the abuse has had to be a continuation of it or just the result of it and a whole new chapter. So, for the purposes of this post, when I speak about the ‘aftermath’ it’s any time from the first instance of abuse – even where the abuse physically continues.

I think that the first thing to talk about is the emotions, thoughts, and feelings that someone experiences after abuse.


“There is no one way to recover and heal from any trauma. Each survivor chooses their own path or stumbles across it.”
Laurie Matthew, Behind Enemy Lines

Last year, I talked about the five stages of grief and how I believed that they really didn’t mean all that much when I was grieving the loss of my cat, but I do think that they ring true to abuse. Denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance are all emotions and processes that I experienced after the abuse. In my grief post, I talked about how they might be feelings that you experience but that they don’t necessarily happen in stages. It can be chaotic, and everything can either seem to happen all at once or in slow motion.

The first ‘stage’ - denial, was surprisingly ‘easy’ to experience because my memories of the abuse were as though they had happened to someone else. I saw it as though I were looking down on it happening to another Aimee. I now understand (from talking to a hell of a lot of Psychologists and Psychiatrists) that I did this – dissociated like this – to protect myself. Not physically. Mentally. Emotionally. It was my way of distancing myself from what he was doing to me in a desperate bid to find the ability to cope with it. I didn’t trust that if I remembered it ‘properly’ I’d be able to survive. It was a flight or fight instinct because I never once physically fought back against the abuse – something that I’ve learnt is ‘ok’ – instead, I tried to distance myself from it. The biggest difficulty I’ve found in remembering the abuse in this way was when I was interviewed by the Police and couldn’t remember certain details because from my vantage point on the ceiling in the corner, I couldn’t see those things. I was very fortunate to have Officers who understood and appreciated this and didn’t use it as a reason to disbelieve me – something they could have easily/understandably done.

There’s also an element to denial that’s more obvious; having this stage mean that you deny the fact the abuse even happened and that’s something that I spent two years doing. From the physical end of it in 2007 to reporting it in 2009, I tried so many different methods to block out the memories of the abuse that it became dizzying and my life began to evolve around finding new ways to cope. Initially, it was drinking alcohol in a bid to forget what had happened, and then I tried throwing myself into my schoolwork and when that didn’t work, I started restricting my diet and over-exercising. I guess it was almost a little bit inevitable that it was going to end in me trying to take my life because I was becoming more and more desperate.

“The repulsive actions of the person who abused you do not identify you.”
Tanya R. Liverman, In The Mirror: A Woman's Saga

I guess that the second stage – anger – should have been sort of expected after the frustrations of my memories shading the evidence of the abuse but when I think on it, I’d say that it probably came first! I remember always feeling so angry through the six months of the abuse and it wasn’t just directed at my abuser. I mean, obviously a lot of it was! Without going into the details that I legally can’t get into, I had to see my abuser regularly so there was ample opportunity for me to take out my anger on him. In fact, our public arguments were one reason why others said to Police that they wondered if something had been going on between us. The pent-up anger that I had to store inside of me was aimed at pretty much everyone else who was in my life at the time of the abuse. It was difficult for me to accept that because I was doing everything I could to prevent people from realizing what was happening to me, no one could stop it. It was frustrating because on the one hand I had one million reasons why I couldn’t tell anyone what was happening and on the other hand, I wanted to scream it from the rooftops! My anger increased a little after I reported the abuse when the Police told me that everyone they’d questioned had either said they’d been suspicious; in which case I felt like screaming ‘why the hell didn’t you do anything then?!’ or they’d said that everything that went on during that time now made so much sense; in which case I wanted to say ‘bit late now!’

It took a surprisingly long time to realize that the anger was eating me up from the inside and that the hatred I carried towards my abuser was going to get me nowhere in life. I think that I tried to validate my anger by attempting to make it into something productive and motivational as though it could spur me on to succeed in life and get ‘justice’ for the abuse. Instead, I found that what I really needed to do was take out my anger on the person who’d caused it and because I couldn’t, I internalized it all instead and used it as a motivator in self-harming.

I’ll be honest, the third stage; bargaining, isn’t something I’ve really struggled with, but I have definitely experienced it! I often found myself promising some higher being that I’d do anything in return for a time machine to take it all back and make it all… unhappen! That I’d take back lies I’d told, I’d keep promises I’d made, I’d do everything in my power to take back what had been done to me. I think it helped me to think that maybe there was even the slightest potential that could happen and that there was something that I could do about it. I guess I was just so desperate for some sort of power and control back that bargaining seemed to be one of the few things at that time that actually made sense!

“It is through that brokenness that we find courage and strength. It is what empowers us to do great things.”
K.S. Ruff, In a Broken Dream

The fourth stage: Depression. Often, when I’ve told professionals that I have mental health problems, one of the first things I’ve been asked is ‘is it Depression?’ I guess because it’s one of the most commonly talked about mental health disorders that’s more often in the media than any other (except maybe Anxiety and Eating Disorders). I guess that it’s also easily – or at least quickly - assumed that if a person is self-harming or attempting suicide then that must mean that they have Depression, but of course; there are so many more reasons for someone to engage in those behaviours.

I’m not 100% sure that I’ve ever had Depression in the clinical sense, like the tick-all-the-diagnostic-criteria-boxes-sort-of-Depression but maybe I’ve felt depressed. If you’re surprised to hear that, then let me elaborate and explain… I think that the biggest negative feelings I experience when I’m suicidal are hopelessness and emptiness; not Depression. I think that the main reason why I won’t label myself as Depressed is that I don’t want to misunderstand or minimize the emotion. All too often in mental health, terms are thrown about loosely and with very little sincerity behind them e.g. ‘I’m so OCD about that!’ or ‘I literally want to kill myself right now!’ And I believe that depression is one of those things and I’d hate to be a perpetrator to that behaviour and appear to diminish the actual difficulties people with diagnosed Depression experience.

Whilst I’m not sure that I have much experience in this fourth stage, I thought it should definitely be mentioned because I’m fairly confident that a lot of abuse survivors will experience this emotion and I don’t want this post to just be an insight into the aftermath of my abuse! I can imagine that Depression mostly comes to abuse survivors because of the sheer, brutal, trauma that their body and mind has gone through.

“When you accept things as they are, you allow yourself to make choices, that will help create the change you seek.”
Patricia Dsouza

Acceptance – the ‘final’ stage - is still a work-in-progress for me! I’ve largely struggled to learn the true and correct definition for this word when it comes to abuse. In this situation, the word definitely doesn’t mean that you’ve deemed it acceptable because abuse never is! Instead, it’s about accepting that the abuse has happened to you. I guess that considering ‘denial’ is a stage, it’s inevitable that ‘acceptance’ would be one too, but I don’t think they’re necessarily separate stages. There are aspects of my abuse that I’m probably still in denial about but there are also larger parts that I’ve come to accept.

I think that being admitted to the psychiatric hospital and beginning therapy left me with almost no choice in accepting what had happened to me. Partly, because being sectioned under the Mental Health Act meant that I literally couldn’t run away from it anymore and also, partly, because after ending up on life support from a suicide attempt, I had realized that to continue running from it? Well, it might actually kill me; and I couldn’t bear the thought of my abuser winning in that way.

“You can recognize survivors of abuse by their courage. When silence is so very inviting, they step forward and share their truth, so others know they aren't alone.”
Jeanne McElvaney, Healing Insights: Effects of Abuse for Adults Abused as Children

More often than not, there’ll come a point after the abuse where the survivor will tell someone about it. More often than not, though, that ‘someone’ isn’t the Police. With the disgustingly disappointing statistics on the percentage of reported abusers actually convicted/prosecuted for their crimes regularly in the media, it’s no wonder abuse survivors are hesitant to go to the authorities about their experiences. Knowing that chances are, the abuser won’t face the consequences for their crime, can be so disheartening that survivors wonder what the point would be in reporting it. But it isn’t just about the appalling prosecution rate; I knew that if I was to go to the Police then I had to be prepared to get into all of the details. I’d have to be willing to talk about the aspects of it that – even now (twelve years later) still make me uncomfortable, awkward, and upset. And I’d have to be prepared to do all of that with a total stranger! It’s ironic that the process an abuse survivor has to go through to attempt to get justice for what has been done to them can be so intrusive that it often leaves them feeling that the entire trauma has been exacerbated and refreshed. I also had the added difficulty of my abuser being someone who had been in a position of power and trust and that made me mostly question other authority figures and their motives too.

With a huge aim of this piece being to provide an insight, it’s also important to talk about how many people wrongly assume that if a person does report the abuse then they must have accepted that it has happened. But that isn’t necessarily true. Or, at least, it wasn’t for me! I think that actually, part of my motivation for reporting my abuse to the Police was to make it more real to myself. I hoped that perhaps by talking through the nitty gritty of it all, maybe it’d sink in a bit more and I’d finally accept that it’d happened. But instead, it did the opposite; the brutal honesty that it took to complete that Police video interview was so horrific that all I wanted to do afterwards was escape. Escape the memories. Escape the sounds. The smells. The thoughts, and the feelings. Everything that the interview had brought forward and made raw again.

Deciding to finally speak up publicly through I’m NOT Disordered and, in the media, wasn’t a difficult decision because I knew that, for me, it was the right thing to do. I knew that hearing my story had the potential to help others in reassuring fellow abuse survivors that they weren’t alone in their experiences and the impact it’d had on them. I did once have someone close to me say that they were upset that I was telling complete strangers more than what I’d told them so I tried to explain that it was different.

“Often it isn’t the initiating trauma that creates seemingly insurmountable pain, but the lack of support after.”
S. Kelley Harrell, Gift of the Dreamtime - Reader's Companion

I’ve always been very fortunate to have an incredible support system around me but I guess the fact that I still self-harmed and attempted suicide shows just how powerful abuse is because it doesn’t matter how many people you have in your life who care for you and love you. Maybe I phrased that wrong… I don’t mean to sound ungrateful; so many people are going through mental illness completely alone and without family or friends or even professional support. I just meant that having that love and support isn’t necessarily the answer. Having three lovely people in your life doesn’t mean that you’ll forget what one terrible person did to you. And it doesn’t mean you’ll suddenly want to be alive and will no longer self-harm or experience Depression or Anxiety.

Family, friends and professionals are all equally important to a helpful support system, but each comes with their own benefits and positives. Having all three, I’ve found that I trust different people with different pieces of information. I’ll let my Mum see me on days I would never dream of even telling my friends that I’d experienced. And I’ll confide in professionals’ things that I wouldn’t tell another soul. Is this right? To be a different person with different people? I think that it’s understandable but not always helpful. There’s been so many times when someone hasn’t understood my actions because they’ve only really known half the story. It was one reason why I think being in the long-term Hospital was beneficial because we were surrounded by staff 24/7 so yes, I could still be selective about what they knew and saw, but it was a hell of a lot harder to do so. Being able to see lots of sides to me and the occasions when I’d struggle that wouldn’t normally come to a professional’s attention, meant the staff were better placed to support me and know what I need to get better.

I hope that this post has given some insight to those with little or no experience around abuse and I hope it reassured those who have that they are not alone.