Written for the anthology We Have Come Far: Shared wisdom from survivors of extreme trauma edited by Ani Rose Whaleswan, 2014.
When I started healing from abuse, I was a grad student. After many years in school, I knew all about graduation requirements, prerequisites, and homework assignments. I tackled the project with youthful enthusiasm. Surely, as soon as I could do all the right things and get them checked off by the right people, I would graduate into a sunny, welcoming world of healed people. If I thought about time frames at all, I imagined it would take around 1-5 years, like a graduate degree.
I learned that it was my fault my relationships fractured, because I had never learned about boundaries and clear communication. I studied! I practiced! I agonized over my failures! Finally I learned that it had never been my fault, or at least, not only my fault. Once I had clear boundaries and clear communication, people got angry with me because they could no longer manipulate me easily, and that has become the reason I lack strong relationships.
I adopted the Serenity Prayer: “Grant me serenity to accept the things I cannot change; courage to change the things I can; and wisdom to know the difference.” It took a painfully long time to realize and accept that I could not change other people, no matter how hard I worked to change myself to influence them. It took even longer to realize that I mostly could not change myself, either. I could only begin to change how I treat myself. It takes courage to move from self-contempt to self-compassion.
I wish someone had told me from the beginning that I did not need fixing. I was fine just as I was right then, that minute. There was no way to fix myself enough to please the people trying to control me. I wish someone had told me from the beginning that body weight was not something I needed to fix or control. I recognize my need for those messages by the sense of relief and renewed possibility I feel when I encounter them.
I wish someone had told me over and over that the abuse was not my fault. Not the overt abuse, nor the subtle gaslighting, nor the abandonment either. None of it was my fault. It took years to name my PTSD, shame, and anxiety. A lot of healing has been about naming what happened, naming my responses, and most of all naming other people’s responsibility for their actions.
I learned that there is no unwinding back to babyhood and rewinding with the nourishing childhood I should have had. Time has passed. In middle age I carry neediness awkwardly, on my own.
My health has deteriorated despite my best efforts at self-care. My social networks have frayed and dispersed despite my best efforts at communication and kindness. I still seek for a future where I feel calm and whole, but it seems I missed the turnoff despite all my watching for it. Nobody taught me how to deal with failure or defeat in a healthy way. No one told me it is part of life sometimes not to get what I most want, no matter how hard I work to get it.
I learned that rather than being a tiny exception, abuse is woven throughout society in racism, sexism, homophobia, ableism, and all the other ways society is tipped to favor one group over another. I learned that many people deal with many kinds of defeat every day. “There is an abuse-free way to get my needs met,” sometimes helps me find creative solutions, and sometimes is simply not true.
I learned to patch together bits and pieces of support, and to grit my teeth through the times when the patchwork disintegrates. I learned to listen to my inner guidance about who to trust and who to avoid. Even when it changes. Even when it seems wrong. My relationship with myself is the one constant in a shifting world. I am grateful to the kernel of determination to survive that keeps me searching for the next bit of support.
In times of desperation, I can sometimes remember the mantra, “I give thanks for help unknown already on the way.” Comfort, support, and safety do come along, whispers in comparison with the shouts of trauma.
After years of thinking I could not possibly do it right, I am grateful I started meditating. During meditation, anything I do is right, even if it would not meet anyone else’s standards. It provides a tiny starting point of safety and calm. When, after all this time, I drop into a body memory or flashback, meditation practice helps me name it, and breathe, and know I will get through it.
I did not come out of grad school with the degree I initially sought, and my healing process did not neatly terminate in the warm, cozy life I aimed for. In the last twenty-three years, I have learned that healing is about undoing rather than doing, unlearning rather than learning. Unlearning the habit of looking to others for direction and validation. Unlearning the pervasive terror. Unlearning the leap out of my body.
Healing is not about getting somewhere else, but about fully being where I am, physically and emotionally, with all the flaws I thought I could erase someday. Healing is ongoing. I grieve for what I thought I could accomplish, and feel hesitant pride in what I have accomplished. It seems a small showing, but it is hard-won, and mine.
It has been a gift to know other survivors, and to help some of them heal. I stand with fellow victims and survivors and tell you that you do not need fixing. When you face defeat, I can tell you life is like that sometimes and none of it is your fault.
- We Have Come Far: Shared wisdom from survivors of extreme trauma edited by Ani Rose Whaleswan contains essays and poetry by 21 authors writing about their experiences after many years of healing.