When I lived with my abuser, I was caught in an environment where I was swallowed up whole by consistent – incessantly high – levels of stress. I mistakenly came to believe that because I was still able to function in some manner even as I ducked and dodged ambush after ambush of every shape and size I was also somehow handling and dealing with how I was forced to live. However, being caught up in this cycle for extended periods of time, never having time to stop and reflect on what I was enduring because it never seemed to stop, rendered me incapable of actually doing what I truly needed to do to move past the traumas as they were inflicted upon me. There was no time to stop and think about what he did to me each time. There was no thinking past desperate decisions to comply or not comply with his demands. There was no thinking past self-preservation in the moment. There was no reflection. There was no confronting the monster before me. There was no coming to terms with what I was experiencing.
What I misinterpreted at the time as functioning was an environmentally induced auto-pilot where instead of reacting to something he did after considering and pondering and examining before I arrived at my decision, I was reacting hurriedly in a way that protected me in the moment. To minimize immediate damage. To calm the beast. To get from one day to the next alive. And all the while, as my days and weeks and months strung together into years of torment, desperation, and fear, emotions past these were snuffed out, buried, and disassociated from the reality of what was actually happening to me. While the world went on outside my place of torment, my world screeched to a halt. I felt nothing. I thought nothing. I “felt” things because I was told to, but I no longer understood what these things called emotions and thoughts were. They were taken from me and encased in an impenetrable fort I was not allowed access to.
The pressure built as I was unaware, too busy walking the eggshells littered across his minefield rigged so I’d always misstep, so I’d always fail, so I’d always be obsessively running after something I could not catch. And the pressure built up in my head as I would plead and beg for mercy, for forgiveness for a manufactured transgression, for a slight I had not dealt out. And the pressure rattled inside even as I could not feel the quaking of my mental stability or the pending failure of my ability to reason or understand. And the pressure reached dangerous levels, pressing against the warm, porous white casing protecting a mind now rendered fragile and distraught, but I could not feel it as it pressed feverishly outward in a desperate, urgent search for a valve to release the trauma building within.
Each of our minds can only handle so much constriction from trauma before they bend and warp and give way to the pressure. Before the explosion of all we have endured no longer can be abated, held off, relieved in the minute to minute acts of desperation to preserve what few tatters of us remains. Mine came in the months after I escaped the abuse I had endured for 1,551 torturous days. When I left, minus the blind fear, I was numb. If it was not fear, I could not react. I just lived in a cycle of insomnia, work, home, over and over and over until one day this foreign thing happened. I felt something. Actually, I felt a lot of something that I could not identify, that I could not control. There was no gentle onset. There was no warning. One minute, I felt nothing but that familiar and obnoxious blind fear of him, and the next, I felt myself fall through the crumbling, rotting ground that had been trembling beneath me, straining and fighting the urge to collapse under the weight of the damage, into an abyss that seemed to have no bottom. I felt myself feverishly grabbing for the walls concealed from me in the darkness even though from the outside, I looked like just your average girl.
If you are anything like me, the feeling of losing your mind is even more unsettling than whatever trauma that actually caused me to become like this. It was at this exact point, somewhere in the middle of my spiral into my internal chaos, that I was forced to acknowledge that I had not really handled anything at all. I had spent four years blindly fumbling forward along that jagged tunnel just trying not to fall into any traps from which I was unable to extricate myself. Because it had become abundantly clear that even as I reached out into the darkness daring to ask for help, no one was coming for me, because no one was there. I walked on eggshells, dodged mines he secretly placed to trapped me, and did the best I could to survive from one day to the next. I felt if I could just get out, I’d be okay. So foolish, because that isn’t the way it works at all. The truly hard part comes when you leave and have to battle the monster called fear that stalks your mind, the physical danger you are still in from the monster in the flesh, and the seemingly insurmountable amount of destruction, ruin, and decimation that spreads out for miles around you, encircling you with its wasteland. It was that moment that I realized I was lost, and my brain was about to force me to play catch-up whether I wanted to come along for the ride or not.
Initially, I had one response to everything: I cried. Something would happen, and I would feel this thing in the pit of my stomach, my mind would go blank, and I would cry. I would be at work processing invoices, and all I had to do was look at it and catch it at just the right positioning on the monitor, and I would cry. People would talk to me, deliberately, and I would cry. Someone would drop something or slam a door, and I would cry. I would hear a song, and I would cry. My extension at work would ring, and I would cry. A debtor would cancel penalties and interest, and I would cry. There was no emotion I could identify in any of this. I would just feel a knot and then seconds later, I’d be sobbing, even when I tried to hold it in. In fact, the act of attempting to bury it in the pit of my stomach would make it infinitely worse. I didn’t know what it was, and not only could I not control it, I couldn’t figure out what was causing it. Remember that little girl who always dissected everything until she was satisfied with what she found? She was driven to distraction, almost to the edge of madness, because even if she couldn’t work things out around her to be completely reconciled, she always knew how she felt, how things made her react, and why. And when she found herself paralyzed by the confusion of not being able to figure this thing out, she panicked.
What happened that enabled me to finally begin to re-stabilize? If you find yourself in this position now, or even if you are watching someone you love from the outside as they battle this short-circuiting of their mental faculties, there are a few important things that will help you get through this troublesome phase of your healing process. What are they? Building and using a circle of support (which means you have to talk through it), acceptance that you are going to have to struggle to get control, and time. The more consistently you use your circle of support (including a counselor and other survivors), the more you talk about the chaos even if you have to struggle to identify things initially, and the less you try to resist the decompression due to the drastic change in your living environment, the more stable you will become emotionally. Until you come to a point where you have regained some control over your emotions, you will not be able to begin to take note of (in the beginning) when things trigger you, then what things trigger you, and finally how those triggers are making you feel in context of the connection their share with the event that causes them. When you have been told what you think and how you feel for so long, just the same as when someone has been making all your decisions for you, and then you find yourself suddenly in a life without that constant input, you become lost. But don’t get discouraged, because this is normal. Don’t think you can immediately figure it all out, because this takes time, and it takes effort on your part to keep yourself working through the stress and moving forward. In the meantime, search out those in your support circle you feel can provide you with supplemental objectivity, those you feel you can trust to help you make decisions and identify these unknown feelings swirling around desperately in your mind, those who will have patience to help talk through the rough spot and help you understand that what you are experiencing is normal, that it will ease over time, and that you won’t always be so lost.
This was probably the worst part of the earliest stages of my healing. I understood what happened to me, I knew I was not at fault, I knew he was wrong. After a while, I came to accept that what happened to me really was as bad as it seemed and I stopped questioning myself about the validity of my fear. But not being able to figure out the tumbling and banging chaos in my own mind was distressing. I was always able to figure everything out, always capable of understanding the what, the how, and the why. However, in this instance, it evaded me and left me haunted and questioning my own sanity. I had others around me, though, in my innermost circle, who willingly served as sounding boards and tools of reflection to show me what was there until I was capable and strong enough to see it on my own. And it is because of them that I stand here now equipped to tell you what I battled to learn and take to heart. You really aren’t losing your mind. You’re getting it back. Just ride it out. You won’t always feel this way.