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Surviving Abuse

I recently had the privilege of attending a talk by Dr Ramani Durvasula for the mentl space podcast: live , where she discussed her latest book, “It’s Not You.”

The evening was nothing short of liberating, filled with tears, laughter, validation, and hope. It struck a chord deep within me, resonating with my experience as a domestic violence survivor, writes Anna Marie Lopes, founder of ‘iambraveandfree’ and Highly Commended Mental Health hero in ‘the mentl awards 2023‘.

Dr Ramani’s words echoed a sentiment often overlooked in discussions about abuse—the impact on survivors. For too long, the focus has been on the abuser and the abuse itself. We dissect the tactics and raise awareness of what abuse is (which is important), but rarely delve into the ever-so-painful aftermath. It was this thought that led me to write this piece and share what it’s like for survivors of abuse to live with trauma. 

Understanding Trauma

It is a common misconception that once the abuse is over, the trauma is over. Having escaped an abusive relationship, I know of this misjudgment all too well because I’ve had well-wishers ask me “Why does it still affect you? Didn’t that happen a long time ago?” Well, you see, leaving an abusive relationship is not a clean break. The abuse may be over but the trauma has just begun. Gabor Maté eloquently captured this concept when he said: “Trauma is not what happens to you; it is what happens inside you as a result of what happens to you.”

For the sake of more clarity on what trauma is, imagine surviving a car crash. The actual crash happens in a flash, but the consequences follow through. The car, depending on the impact, might be totalled or need extensive repairs. And the person involved faces a list of potential injuries aka trauma. Minor accidents might require a few stitches or a short hospital stay, while severe ones could involve surgery, intensive care, and a lengthy recuperation period. This may call for additional treatment or lifestyle adjustments. The bottom line is: a car crash can have a severe toll on the human body and the physical force of a collision can lead to injuries that may alter the way the person does everyday life after that. 

This analogy highlights how trauma as a result of abuse is similar. A car crash might be a single, shocking event that results in various kinds of trauma to the body (and mind). Now imagine enduring any kind of abuse for minutes, hours, days, weeks, months, or even years. The trauma will undoubtedly be far-reaching, deep and complex, and may need long-term treatment, healing and life-alterations. This is the reality for survivors who grapple with the impact of abuse, long after the abuse itself has ended.

The Challenges of Living with Trauma

We’ve explored what trauma is and its intensity. Now, let’s dive deeper. What does living with trauma truly entail? Here are some insights into the daily experiences of those affected, including myself.

Developing PTSD/C-PTSD

One of the most significant impacts of abuse is the possibility of developing post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) or complex post-traumatic stress disorder (CPTSD). PTSD is a mental health condition that can arise after experiencing or witnessing a highly distressing event. On the other hand, CPTSD is mental health condition that can develop from experiencing or witnessing chronic (long-term) distressing events. Both are characterized by intrusive memories, flashbacks, nightmares, hyper-vigilance, and avoidance of triggers related to the trauma, with C-TPSD being more nuanced because of the longer duration of distress.

To shed more light on the seriousness of C-PTSD, a study found that women who survived childhood sexual trauma exhibited symptoms similar to those seen in PTSD among Vietnam veterans. Both survivors and veterans endured experiences marked by feelings of helpless terror and threats to their body and life. In each case, PTSD stemmed from traumatic violence, and “tenacious symptoms were the result.” However, there were several differences between sexual abuse survivors and veterans. The women were typically abused by family members, were much younger when they were abused, and experienced it in isolation rather than as part of a group. As a result their abuse lasted longer, was more likely to have been repressed, and they experienced delayed therapy.

Chronic People Pleasing

Another impact of abuse is the tendency to develop people-pleasing behaviours. This is not just about offering to grab extra coffee on a work run -– it’s a complex coping mechanism rooted in traumatic experiences.

Imagine constantly feeling like you’re walking on eggshells, never wanting to upset anyone. This is the reality for many survivors. The fear of rejection, low self-esteem, and constant anticipation that others will react negatively or harshly can lead survivors of abuse to prioritize the needs of others over their own. This chronic people-pleasing takes a toll, leading to emotional exhaustion, a lost sense of identity, and difficulty setting boundaries in relationships.

Risk of Revictimization

Did you know that survivors of abuse have a high tendancy of falling into future abusive relationships? This vulnerability stems from a complex interplay of factors. For one, the distorted dynamics of an abusive relationship can become strangely familiar. Survivors might unconsciously seek out partners who display similar behaviors, simply because that’s what they know. This familiarity, however unsettling, can feel strangely comforting.

Trauma can also warp a survivor’s understanding of healthy relationships. The constant need to appease the abuser can become ingrained. They might mistake unhealthy power dynamics (that are not so clear-cut) for love and prioritize a partner’s happiness above their own. This distorted lens makes it difficult to identify and avoid future abusive relationships.

Low Self-Esteem and Trust issues

Abuse isn’t a bump in the road, it’s a relentless assault on a survivor’s sense of self-worth. The constant barrage of criticism, manipulation, and belittlement used by abusers erodes a person’s self-esteem like a sculptor chipping away at stone. I for one, after leaving my abuser, found myself drowning in a sea of self-doubt, questioning my judgment, value, and even my sanity. 

This internal battleground bred shame, self-blame, and the suffocating belief that I was unworthy of love or happiness. What’s more, I even struggled to trust myself and others, making healthy relationships incredibly hard. Withdrawn and guarded, I have often feared the sting of betrayal and the pain of further emotional harm.

External Invalidation

It’s a cruel twist of the knife –-  you survive abuse, only to be called “weak” or “overly sensitive.” But it’s true, the stigma abuse survivors face is brutal. We are constantly misunderstood for our current reactions to triggers or stressful situations. These responses, however, are far from weakness; they’re a fight to survive because of the profound impact of abuse on our mental and emotional well-being. 

Articulating experiences can be incredibly difficult for survivors. Explaining how past abuse continues to shape their present can feel like speaking a foreign language. This often leads to people not being able to grasp the complexities of trauma and its long-lasting effects. This then creates an isolating silence, making it even harder for survivors to seek support or feel understood on their healing journey.

Being Stuck in Fight, Flight or Freeze

Another debilitating consequence of abuse is getting stuck in a long-term fight, flight, or freeze mode. Imagine your nervous system as a primal protector, constantly on high alert. Abuse throws this system into chaos, leaving survivors hyper-vigilant and trapped in a cycle of fear. (Kind of like how you’d feel when the fire alarm in the building rings and you don’t know if you’ve got to evacuate or stay put considering a month prior there actually was a fire and you were trapped until help came.)  

As a result, survivors might become easily triggered and lash out (fight), withdraw from social connections to avoid overwhelm (flight), or experience emotional numbness or difficulty mobilizing (freeze) –- all desperate attempts to cope in response to a faulty alarm system that has short-circuited from abuse. This prolonged state of heightened arousal or shutdown can severely impact their daily life, relationships, and overall well-being. Overcoming this state often requires specialized therapy and support to help the survivor feel safe and learn to regulate their nervous system.

Unhealthy Coping Mechanisms

We’ve established that trauma can leave survivors devastated in several ways. To numb the crushing weight, they may turn to unhealthy coping mechanisms. This can manifest in self-harm, substance abuse, or eating disorders –- all desperate attempts to find comfort at any cost.  These mechanisms might offer a temporary escape from what they experienced, a sense of control in a world that feels out of control for them. However, as many of us know, this path is a dangerous illusion. It’s a vicious cycle, that further complicates the healing journey, leaving survivors trapped in a cycle of numbing the pain with substances that ultimately cause more pain.

Living with Trauma is not a dead end

While we’ve explored some of the challenges faced by survivors of abuse, remember this is just a glimpse. Trauma carves its own path through each life. Healing, however, is not a distant dream. Help is available, and for those in an abusive relationship or rebuilding afterwards, a fulfilling future is absolutely possible.

The road to healing is long, demanding, and often unpredictable. Yet, with support, therapy, and self-care, survivors don’t just overcome these challenges –- they transcend them. They build resilience, reclaim their power, and create lives filled with joy and meaning. Last but not least, remember, for survivors of abuse, healing isn’t a destination, it’s a journey –- a relentless march forward, one brave step at a time.

Coming soon

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