It’s strange how surviving abuse can impact you, even several years after you’ve left. Transitioning from being actively victimized to surviving the escape from the abuse into survivorship does not come with a neatly plotted road map. There are no highlighted routes or imperative notes of advice jotted down in conspicuously noticeable places. If it weren’t for the army of survivors on the other side of the border serving as guides ushering those fleeing abuse through the minefield and out of the darkness, we wouldn’t have even had the landmarks along the way to help us find our way back to life.
In the early months, other survivors are vanguards of our recovery, standing tall and dependable like a lighthouse perched on a rock crag offshore, lighting our way past the jagged coast and rough seas that can cause shipwreck in despair without guidance. Never looking only in one direction, they constantly search and scan the horizons so as to catch each of us coming out the darkness and fog and provide the light we so desperately need to make our way out. They ask for nothing but give their all. They glow with the divine light of hope. The hope that says living after being shredded into pieces is possible. The hope that says you will find your way. The hope that sings to you with the promise that the shame and silence and loneliness and confusion and hurt will shed and fall away in layers, slowly easing the burdens off your slumped shoulders, draining the ache from your heart, and filling the dark void within you with peace. The hope that says, best of all, that you won’t have to make the journey on your own. It’s also the same hope that warns you there will be battles to wage and setbacks along the way but assures you that it’s a normal part of the healing process while simultaneously providing sources of guidance to keep you moving forward.
At some point, you become steady enough to move forward on your own, and you begin the process of becoming a lighthouse in your own right. But it’s not something you notice about yourself, and it’s not something you are aware of until others tell you. You tend to find that once they tell you, it’s not really even something you are comfortable enough to believe. We never see ourselves, our courage, our strength, or our boldness as others do, in part because of the conditioning we endured during the abuse and the resulting decline in self-esteem or confidence causes us to underestimate how amazing we really are. Those amazing things are characteristics of other survivors of trauma, not ourselves. Or so we unfortunately often believe.
We end up doing a huge disservice to ourselves with our lack of self compassion and objectivity.
September and October are always the beginning of a hard season for me. These months mark the anniversaries of so many horrific things spread densely across the 1,551 days I was abused. When everyone who is in love with autumn is all in fervent uproar over the coming months, I feel myself shrink back and detach into dissociation. I used to love fall, mostly because the trees are set afire in brilliant colors, and the rains of autumn come and wash away the dusty, viscous humidity of summer. Like spring, it smells clean, and even in all the gloom as I would watch nature slowly hide away its vibrancy in the gloomy fog, it felt new. Summer hovers, but spring and fall purge the stagnation.
The meaning of fall has changed for me. No longer a season of purging and shedding, it has become a harbinger of loss, destruction, and emotional death that culminates into the icy cold hell of winter. As the foliage finally begins to show signs of turning, the hints of red, orange, and yellow scream out to me as a reminder of all the horrors that descended upon me in rapid succession in the fall of 2008. So many certainties I had for myself were brutally stripped away as the trees shed their leaves, and they fluttered and swirled to the earth and died unnoticed and unmourned (by anyone but me) under a crunchy layer of brown carpeting the earth. As the dried leaves were repeatedly trodden over, I could only watch as I was pulverized into a thin, weightless dust.
Over the past few years, I have come to understand that my dread of the autumn season is not the time of year itself, but the symbolic association of all that happened to me and how it was timed so prophetically to changes in the natural world around me. It is the slow decay of the lush green carpet and walls of trees as the verdant plant life around me ever so tediously begins to die off, fade to brown, and let loose of its hold as it finally dies and falls to the ground. It is a reminder of the emotional death exacted upon me and the abysmal descent into the madness and torture that was to be “life” with my ex until my escape over four years later. I say “life” only in the broadest sense, because although I physically was alive, it was nothing more than a long, devastating spiral into isolation, invisibility, and the death of who I was before becoming ensnared with my ex. Knowing this, does not make the coming months any easier to get through.
Changing roles when it comes to self-sacrifice has never been my forte. I take the old adage of not being able to serve from an empty vessel and defy it; continuously I eek and wring out drops of myself long after the vessel has appeared to be empty. There is always something left. Except right now, there is not. Although I am painfully aware of this, I still refuse to step back and acknowledge that at some point, I am going to have to pause and replenish myself or I will run myself to death much like a bloodhound on the trail of a scent.
And in my silence over the past several months, this is exactly what I have been doing while simultaneously running from memories that I’m tired of replaying, voices in my head I wish I could silence, nightmares I can’t escape, and old wounds that I just want to heal. Once September arrives each year, I begin a descent into a panicked mix of depression, triggers, and a dismally small world, and as chaos reigns in my head, I willfully summon the affectation of contentedness on the surface and beguile you all into thinking nothing’s changed. One thing I learned (and learned well with my ex) was to hide the suffering at all costs, so you’ll see no evidence of the struggle evading prying eyes. Is it really strength to camouflage the despair? Is it weakness, this hiding and shielding my vulnerability?
What would happen if someone noticed?
I’m not allowed to feel.
I’m not allowed to need.
I’m not allowed to want.
I’m just supposed to be.
I’m supposed to just let it go.
Before I was abused, I had long waged a battle with rolling back and forth between dysthymia and major depressive episodes accompanied by suicidal thoughts. It’s a war that, now at the age of 40, I’m tired of fighting. It’s never a permanent victory, and I am emotionally ravaged by the time I ascend out of the blackness of the sever episodes yet grateful that I made it through again. Just as I do each time, despite the fact that each battle gets longer and more grim as I get older. My life is lived in a perpetual state of midnight and dusk, and because physical reactions to medications, I push forward armed with nothing more than hope and a history of somehow making my way back into the light, no matter how brief that is.
At some point during my abuse, I plunged into a major depressive episode that lasted until well after I left my abuser. I was not equipped or mentally prepared to handle the severe depression as it crashed head-on into PTSD, and it made navigating and weathering triggers overwhelming. There were times that it became so oppressive I verbalized to others that I wished I had stayed with my abuser and let him beat me to death, because I couldn’t mentally handle the aftermath of him.
So often when it comes to those of who daily battle against depression or a number of other conditions (on their own or in combination with others), we are shamed into silence. We’re expected to keep this hidden, because it makes others uncomfortable. They assume we’re weak or seeking attention or using the massive, crushing weight of these legitimate mental health conditions as an excuse to avoid responsibility. It must be convenient for you to judge us from a position of not having to live with these burdens. It must be satisfying for you that you don’t feel suffocated by hopelessness and worthlessness. That you aren’t bound in darkness and shackled by despair and can live your life unfettered, whole, and free. It must be nice that you don’t find yourself confined in a clear prison while life goes on around you. It must be safe not to be the object of cruel, critical, and demeaning murmurings by a wave of undulating ignorance ever-present in the crowds around you.
We’re expected to out on a brave face and act like nothing is pulling us back, when some days we have the entire weight of the world bearing down on us. And for those of us that have survived domestic violence, we often find ourselves in a precarious position when trauma and depression collide. We are already slammed with victim blaming and shaming for “allowing” the abuse, for not leaving sooner, and for not seeing it before it even started. Many do not feel comfortable opening up and revealing that they battle with depression as a result of the abuse they endured. Some may not even realize that they are, in fact, depressed, because society goes to such lengths to pulverize anyone’s will to get help. We’ll be told we’re crazy. People make jokes. We are mocked, bullied, and cast aside. Somehow, we become “less than.”
We need to focus more conversation around stigma, depression, and mental health for all those who survive domestic violence. We need to know that when we escape the clutches of the devil that we won’t be exchanging one demon for another in our silence. We need to know that we matter, and we are worthy of sharing our experiences and getting help so we can recover without the wave of the ignorant crashing down on our heads.
I have not made my annual Domestic Violence Awareness Month post, because I have not been able to decide what I wanted to focus on. I have been caught up in fighting my own demons for the past several months and didn’t even know where to start. Today I decided that the story of fighting those demons is exactly where I should start, if not for the benefit of healing myself, then I can do so for those who do not feel safe enough to do so on their own. Survivors of domestic violence are 23% more likely to attempt suicide, and that is something that should disturb us all. Why should they take immense risk to free themselves of the danger of their abuser only to come out to suffer and try to end the life they risked everything for? Because they feel they can’t get help? Because they don’t know where to go? Because they don’t see others talking about it and think they are alone?
I want this to end.
I have battled depression and suicidal thoughts for the majority of my life. I am a survivor of failed suicide attempts. Being abused made it infinitely worse, but you can never make me feel ashamed or bully me into silence because talking about this makes you uncomfortable. I am worthy. I am strong. I rise above everything, and your snark, judgment, and hate can’t change that.
We need to accomplish more than awareness each October. We need people to take initiative to make a change. My challenge for you for the remainder of this month is to think about those in your life who have been abused and how it may have impacted their mental health. They need your support now more than ever. They need you be able to sit next to them in your discomfort yet remain open to their vulnerability. They need your compassion. They need to know and feel with every part of them that someone cares – that YOU care.
We are not our depression. We are not our symptoms of PTSD. But we do have to deal with them as a result of what we endured. When we go silent, do you notice? Do you withdraw? Do you dismiss it as “just something we do sometimes?” OR….. do you reach out and let us know you’re thinking about us? Do you ever just call us to say “I care about you?” Are you a soft place for us to fall, or are you pelting us with boulders in judgment and mockery?
If you are a survivor of domestic violence, and you suffer through depression (or have in the past) but cannot share because you worry your vulnerability will be mistreated, I want you to know that you are not alone. I see you.
You are not pitiful.
You are not a burden.
You are not worthless.
You are not weak.
You are a warrior, and you are worthy of being alive.
Sending love and light,