Having thoroughly enjoyed writing the ‘everything-you-need-to-know’ style posts in the past, when I checked through previous posts about abuse, I noticed they all seem to be in pieces… Bits of information, parts of my experience, a few tips; all just separated into so many different posts. Of course, they are that way because up to the date they were published, they were the things I knew. The things that had happened. And I’m not suggesting that I’m at a point where I now know absolutely everything about the subject, but I do feel that I’m at a pretty good stage in my mental health recovery to feel I am now able to collate all that I have learnt, and all that I know. Unfortunately, abuse is a subject where I’d argue you will never fully understand unless it’s something you’ve experienced, so posts like this – media content by survivors – can be the best resource for those who want to learn more…
What Are Triggers?
A trigger is defined as being a ‘cause to function’ but in mental health, I fully believe it can have a completely different definition to each individual. I was once in Accident and Emergency (A&E) and I told a Doctor he was triggering me, and I remember him saying ‘what does that mean?’ I couldn’t understand how he didn’t know and then he corrected himself with: ‘what does that mean to you?’
I don’t remember even hearing the word until my two-and-a-half-year admission to the specialist psychiatric hospital where I was on a ward with over ten other girls with the same diagnosis of Borderline Personality Disorder. I quickly learnt that ‘triggering’ someone is potentially a very dangerous thing to do. I mean, of course I’d been ‘triggered’ before that admission, but I had never known the name for it – and that is something I find great reassurance in; having a label for what is happening to me. So, I knew how it could affect me and my actions and my mental health, but I believe it had never been to the degree I saw amongst the other inpatients…
With the psychiatric hospital having the average length of admission as 12 – 18 months, it meant that the staff became knowledgeable on each inpatient’s individual triggers. However, there was often some agency staff filling in any absences and then obviously new inpatients, so the ward seemed to be on a permanent state of alert for a person being triggered and struggling to cope with it. Sometimes, someone unfamiliar – agency staff or new patient – would say something and everyone else would look to the person they knew it would upset.
I thought that recognition was a real testament to just powerful triggering can be for a person’s mental health and their coping mechanisms. I mean, there was one occasion where something was said in a daily morning meeting, and one of the girls ran out of the room crying and proceeded to her bedroom where she self-harmed with items she’d snuck onto the ward.
As an inpatient, a learnt a lot about triggers… especially what mine are. However, that knowledge wasn’t enough – I like to have some sort of understanding on everything in my life because I find it gives me a level of comfort and reassurance on things that might otherwise be scary and intimidating. So, I learnt – mostly from Dialectical Behaviour Therapy (DBT), that triggers are usually about your brain’s coping mechanism being tested. You know the whole flight or fight response? It’s like a word, or a smell, or a specific noise, or the touch of something – anything! – is checking that your brain is still sure that you’re using the correct coping mechanism with your experience of abuse.
Unfortunately, I’d chosen the ‘flight’ response to my abuse. So any trigger seemed to knock me further than it would if I hadn’t spent the years since the abuse dissociating from the memories, and doing absolutely everything possible to avoid them creeping into my mind.
5 Ways to Cope with Your Triggers:
ü Use grounding techniques
ü Reach out to someone in your support system
ü Utilise activities as a reasonable distraction
ü Call your local Crisis Team if you become unsafe
ü Where possible, go to a safe place
5 Ways to Support Someone Who Has Been Triggered:
ü Provide reassurance that they are not alone
ü Take steps to help maintain their safety
ü Recommend contacting professionals e.g., helplines, GP, Crisis Team etc
ü Ensure medication is utilised if necessary
ü Just ask; “how can I help?”
How Abuse Can Change Your Relationships:
One of the diagnostic criteria for my diagnosis of Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD) is experiencing difficulty maintaining or creating stable relationships but I think the struggle with this area in my life, has been a direct result of the abuse I experienced… I mean, how could anyone be hurt so badly by someone and not have it affect how they see others and how they, themselves go on to treat others?
I was brought up by my Mum and so it should’ve been expected – or at the very least unsurprising – that she was the only person in my life during the abuse to actually notice my behaviour changes and ask if I was ok and whether something had happened that I wanted to talk about. And even though all the reasons I had to not report the abuse were strong, and they made it easier to lie to people, I struggled refusing to answer my Mum in an honest way. But the desperation of the entire situation left me feeling forcibly and reluctantly able to bluff my way through her questions.
Lying to – or at least keeping a secret from – my Mum for so long (the abuse lasted six months and then I didn’t tell my Mum until two years later), I worried it would affect our relationship but my Mum is so understanding that even though she couldn’t fully identify, she showered me in love and empathy.
You’d think that her incredibly supportive response would be enough to promote I be more honest with my Mum as my mental health continued to deteriorate, but it didn’t. In fact, it probably led to my very strong belief that if I confided in her when I felt suicidal or when the auditory hallucinations were commanding me to self-harm, she would do everything in her power to stop me from acting on those thoughts, feelings, and instructions… There was this one instance where my Mum asked what I would do if I were about to self-harm or attempt suicide and she collapsed, and I said that I would ring an ambulance and go off and do it anyway. Now that, is not me. I mean, everyone who knows me knows how much I love and appreciate my Mum so to think I’d once felt that way…? Well, I think it perfectly illustrates the power of mental illness. That it can completely change a person. I would’ve completely understood if Mum had treated me poorly in some way after that, but she didn’t. She continued to fight for my life and to show me that if I were to succeed in committing suicide then my abuser would have won.
I’m so grateful to have a Mum like that when I’ve seen so many other psychiatric service users talk about their very poor and detrimental relationships with their family.
When I was being abused, my friendships pretty much dwindled down to two or three people – who I still, very much appreciate. In a desperate bid to ‘tell’ people I was being abused without actually having to say the words, I changed a lot of my behaviours and that mainly occurred whilst I was at School. Because I was at an age (fifteen when it started) where a change in behaviour wasn’t totally unheard of, I think a lot of people at School put it down to that. No one looked into a reason. And, instead, I was bullied by girls who I had thought were my friends.
Losing my friends in that way, I became very reluctant to build any relationships at the new School I had to attend for the remainder of my schooling (two years for A Levels). I was very aware that even though the abuse had physically finished, my mental health was deteriorating, and I didn’t want to create friendships with people who would become upset by my unhealthy coping skills.
By the end of my A Levels – when I made my first suicide attempt – I had one best friend (Lauren) and a few other friends but none of them knew anything about the abuse or what I was going through with my mental health. I wore long sleeves on nights out, and I didn’t tell anyone every time I was admitted to hospital for self-harm or a suicide attempt.
It went on for three years before I ended up on life support in Intensive Care and was told I’d be going to a long-term, specialist psychiatric hospital over 100 miles away. I immediately considered what I would put on Facebook and what lie I would end up telling Lauren in particular! In the end, I told the truth – to everyone, and I was so happy that I received such a lovely, supportive response.
With the admission being a direct result of how the abuse had left me feeling and coping, I resented my abuser even more because I knew that going so far away for so long (the average length of admission was 12 – 18 months but I was there for about 30 months) was going to affect my friendships. I mean, how could it not? Fortunately, though, moving back to my hometown, I found Lauren was still there for me. And we picked our best friendship(!) up as though nothing had happened!
Having gone through all the trauma therapies and working my butt off to stabilise my mental health, I was more than grateful to have Lauren, but to find myself – seven years later – with four best friends (including Lauren of course!), I’ve never felt so lucky and privileged.
Will I Always Want to Tell My Abuser Something?
The Community Psychiatric Team told me, before my discharge, that once I’d been six months out of services, I should undergo Complex Trauma Therapy. They added that it is of course, my choice and it’s for me to make the decision. Also, that it doesn’t mean if I decide I don’t want to, I can’t change my mind. I’m now, almost six months free of self-harm and hallucinations and I’ve started to think more about this…
I’ve come to the conclusion that I don’t think now is the right time for the Therapy. My mental health is so stable, but I don’t think I could confidently promise right now that Therapy definitely wouldn’t knock it. I’m also keeping in mind that I have so many commitments right now and I want to prioritise them.
The one benefit I can really think of that could come from Therapy is around closure. Right now, the most detail I’ve ever gone into about the abuse was with the Police and as appropriate as that was at the time, I don’t think it should still be the case years later. I mean, considering I’ve been in a psychiatric hospital for two and a half years and I still didn’t go into such depth… So maybe, doing that with a trained Therapist, will leave me feeling some sort of relief? As though, it’s all out of my head now. It’s not just me coping with this. Someone else knows everything now too. Kind of like ‘a problem shared is a problem halved.’
But then, I have so many thoughts around ‘closure’… I mean, what if I talk this Therapist’s ear off and don’t get a sense of closure. Will it all feel pointless and a waste of time? And how does the simple act of talking about it bring closure? What if the closure doesn’t depend on me? What if it also depends upon the response I get from the Therapist? And if I feel their response is ‘wrong;’ what then? My uncertainty that talking will bring closure is also evidenced in my absolute conviction that my abuser being sentenced to prison will bring me peace. But then I guess I have to appreciate the chance of that happening and recognize that if it doesn’t happen, do I still need something that will bring closure? Or will it forever be an open book? And if it is, surely if I can cope with that safely, it’s ok? In fact, surely, it’d be understandable?
Another aspect of closure I’m aware of is the wonder as to whether speaking with him would bring me that. Would having one last conversation with him help? Would it help if he admitted to everything and sincerely apologised? Would that be enough? Would it help if I had the opportunity to say everything I wanted to, to him? For a while now, I’ve been conscious of a feeling that I need to tell my abuser things that have happened or thoughts and feelings that have evolved over time. But if I had that opportunity; who’s to say that I wouldn’t find things later in life that I would want him to know?
Writing this has made me wonder why I even have that urge? Surely, it’s something you should only have with friends and family (and blog readers!) – the need to tell someone when something monumental happens? It’s as though we’ve been tied together by his disgusting actions. Our lives will be forever connected by his stupidity.
Learning Radical Acceptance in Dialectical Behaviour Therapy has definitely helped with this area of the aftermath of abuse, if you want to know how: https://bit.ly/37ek3nI
Five Things I Want My Abuser to Know:
ü You will never be forgiven
ü My blog is helping people
ü You’re so lucky I can’t tell people who you are
ü Karma exists, so good luck with that!
ü You didn’t break me
Thoughts & Feelings Toward Your Abuser: How I Used to Feel
The main point I want to get across in this part is that absolutely any thought or feeling toward your abuser, is completely ok.
From one of my first psychiatric hospital admissions back in 2009, until DBT in 2013, I kept quiet on all my feelings toward my abuser. I’d been having a 1:1 with my Key Nurse and had said something about how sad it was that he’d turned out to be a person who would do what he did to me, and she asked if I had been in love with him. Now, I realise she wasn’t passing judgement in criticising me for whatever my answer was; but the question made me feel actually, physically, nauseous. I guess, that means if anyone held a judgment it was me! I was the one who felt sick at the notion of someone loving their abuser.
I think that a key reason for this was because at that time, I was so overwhelmed and consumed by hatred for my abuser that I couldn’t even imagine ever feeling the slightest amount of anything remotely resembling compassion, toward him. I had carried that anger from the very first act of abuse and to still have it years later, meant that I’d almost become familiar with it. Like I was used to feeling that way. As though feeling that way was ‘normal.’
Thoughts & Feelings Toward Your Abuser: How & Why My Views Changed
Shrugging or dismissing thoughts or feelings through the notion of shame and embarrassment to ‘admitting’ to one, isn’t at all helpful for your mental health. I mean, any kind of suppression of a thought or feeling can never be a safe act for your health. I learnt that from sheer experience of bottling things up or squashing them into boxes and closing the lids.
Through DBT, I also learnt the importance of accepting every thought or feeling and allowing them to be validated. The Therapy, which is aimed at those with a diagnosis of BPD, helped me to realise that if you don’t’ speak up and tell those in your support system how you’re feeling, how can they effectively help or support you?
These ‘lessons’ really helped me to find the confidence to be more open and honest about my thoughts and feelings toward my abuser. I finally began to tell professionals just how difficult and seemingly ever-changing my feelings are toward him. I explained that in the beginning of him and I meeting, he was helpful and supportive and that when the Police had labelled this ‘grooming,’ I felt like the most stupid person for not realising that by myself. For needing it to be pointed out to me and then pretty much underlined and boldly highlighted to draw impact and extra attention to it!
Thoughts & Feelings Toward Your Abuser: How I Feel Now
Over the years, my thoughts and feelings toward my abuser have very naturally, obviously, and understandably evolved and – in some ways – completely changed. I mean, I’ve written blog posts before about how it’s completely acceptable to feel anything toward your abuser – years ago, I wouldn’t have even agreed to a post like that, never mind written it!
Again, through DBT, I’ve learnt how to manage my anger in a healthy and safe way and actually turn it into something positive and productive, passion. Rather than put my anger into self-harming ‘worse,’ I use it as fuel to write my blog posts, to continue taking on opportunities, and to celebrate my achievements. Rather than be ‘happy’ at the thought of dying, I’m happy with life. Happy to be living.
A Support System
Since the audience of I’m NOT Disordered so huge – almost 850,000 readers you guys! – I won’t list helplines and contact information because chances are, you won’t be able to access them in your country!
So, I’ll just stress the importance of having a support system and that there’s no rule on who’s in it. I mean, I have a best friend who is a huge source of support for someone who lives in a completely different country! A support system is what you make it.
One piece of advice on this part is to allow a huge variety of people to join your system, because you might find that you get a different element of support from each individual.
Five Things I Want Abuse Survivors to Know:
ü Every breath you take, is an achievement
ü If people tell you that you’re letting your abuser win, understand why they say it
ü Don’t allow yourself to slip through their net and become a statistic over survivor
ü Where you feel your abuser has no consequences; believe in karma
ü Consider what you would say to someone else in your position