How to Heal from Abuse and Why Claiming Abuse is an Important Start, but Not the End
It has been little over a month since I left. It has been almost two weeks since I came out about the abuse. It has been a week since I’ve been home. And now here I sit, repeating the words “I am safe, I am human” with my feet planted on the ground and my palms turned towards the sky.
Many things have happened in between those times. Many things I am ashamed of, many things that have hurt people who don’t deserve it, hurt people I love. So many things that it feels much longer than a month.
At that two week mark I was dead set on claiming the abuse, calling my abuser out, thinking they are horrible. Thinking in black and white. And in the moment it felt great. I felt the exhilaration of justice, I felt the righteous feeling of duty and the power of my own words. But slowly that feeling faded. And because it was the only feeling keeping me afloat, the feeling of a flame burning inside you, I chased it. I couldn’t let it go out. I tried everything to prove my story was valid. But what I was really doing was looking in the past to try to prove I am not a bad person, instead of looking at what I was doing in the present.
This was something I told my abuser they were guilty of during our relationship, and now I was doing it. It wasn’t until I called my best friend, my greatest support, that I was able to snap out of it. She told me that I did something that hurt her. She told me she was so angry at me for doing that. And when she told me that, a deep feeling of burning shame lit up my chest, a different kind of flame, followed by the feeling that she was going to leave me because of what I did. But what she said next is what changed everything. She said, “but I still love you”. She told me she did not forgive me for hurting her, but she still loved me.
This was a concept that was so foreign to me because of the way this toxic relationship functioned. It was so black and white. I bought into the idea that humans who hurt are bad humans. But my therapist told me this at some point in the relationship and now I see the power in it, humans who hurt are just humans. And my best friend reinforced that and expanded on it, saying that when you love unconditionally, you allow for the people you love to be human, but you also make it clear when they do something that hurts you and that it isn’t ok. By drawing that line, creating that boundary, you are holding that person accountable so that they can do the work to make sure they don’t do it again. And by reinforcing that you still love them, you are indicating that you believe they can do that work, you believe they can be better. You are giving them the opportunity to be more than just human, someone who makes mistakes, but to be a growing human, someone who learns from their mistakes to be a better person.
I sit here now, not to prove anything from the past anymore. I know I won’t find healing there. I sit here now with warmth in my heart, a small and gentle fire, that can grow into healing, because I know my supporters hold me accountable when I am not holding myself accountable. And now that they have opened my eyes, I am beginning to take responsibility for myself. I have attempted to reach out and apologize to those I’ve hurt. Whether or not the cause was because I was hurting, or because I was manipulated, or because I was being abused, it doesn’t matter. I still hurt them. It’s like an alcoholic attempting to become sober and follow the twelve steps. They must reconcile for the things they did while they were using, they must apologize for the hurt they caused. It doesn’t matter if it was because they were under the influence or they were actively using or that they were using because of unresolved trauma. Part of their healing is taking ownership of their actions, regardless of the cause. Part of my healing is to do the same. And also having enough strength in my own identity to not have to rely on their forgiveness to make me feel better about myself. In fact, they shouldn’t forgive me. The things I did were hurtful, wrong, unhealthy, and toxic, and I should know that. Forgiveness can sometimes be a way for a wrongdoer to excuse their behaviors. So what will really do me the most favors is if these people don’t forgive me, so I know that I must change.
This is why I am still calling my abuser an abuser. I don’t care about what happened in the relationship anymore. My mom called it a toxic soup. Sure, you can try to pick out pieces and place blame but everything is all mixed in there. And we did things to hurt each other. Part of my healing will be to acknowledge that. To acknowledge that I hurt them too, that I was toxic too, and that I am not a saint, I am human. I am safe and I am human. What defines me is not my toxic relationship. What defines me is not my rock bottom, which I do believe this year and a half relationship was my rock bottom. What defines me is how I choose to heal.
I have made an affirmations board that has these words, “my rock bottom does not define me” and “I am more than my suffering” and “I can take responsibility for my actions” and so many more. I wake up every day and go to sleep every night repeating these affirmations while I breathe deeply with my feet planted and my palms facing the sky. I meditate with my mother now, something we do because we both are healing from trauma, some of which I know I caused and have taken ownership for. I have a coping chart with things I can do to help deal with certain extreme emotions. I am trying so hard to heal. Because it is an active choice. Growing and changing and adapting is an active choice, and it is hard work. But I am willing to do that work to become content.
I tried to give all of these strategies to my abuser when we were together so they could grow, change, adapt. And they didn’t try any of them. I bought them the entire DBT skills workbook. And they never opened it. And although it doesn’t matter now, this is why I call my abuser an abuser. They had many opportunities to take accountability, with not just me, but with their previous relationships where they were also called an abuser. They had the opportunity when they were first called an abuser from these people. Instead they burned all reminders of these people in the woods. They had the opportunity when I told them “you have two options. The first is to take responsibility for the hurt you may have caused, identify those unhealthy behaviors, and try to change to become a better person. The second is to continue to never take responsibility, in which case, you might as well kill yourself, because you will never be a better person if you do that”. From this, my abuser chose to selectively hear me tell them to “kill themselves”, which they told everyone I said, including their therapist. The choice to edit what I said so it makes them into a victim, is an active choice on their part, because if they included the entire quote, it would actually put the onus on them because it shows that they were given the opportunity to take responsibility.
My choice to continue to call my abuser an abuser is not so much because of the things they did that were hurtful. It is because even when given the opportunity to change and grow, they chose not to. Instead they continued to hash out all the reasons why their exes or friends who they had falling outs with or I were actually the abusive ones in these relationships. They continued to see things in black and white, villain and hero, saint and sinner. But we are not saints. We are not heroes. We are human. We are safe and we are human.
If my abuser began to take responsibility, I wouldn’t use the label of abuser anymore. What makes an abuser is not what they do or say that is hurtful. It is their inability to see it is hurtful and make the active choice to change and grow. What makes a human toxic is not that they are human in that they will hurt people. It isn’t even if they hurt people on purpose. A toxic human is someone that hurts people then chooses not to take ownership and change their hurtful behaviors.
I admit that I did some of those hurtful things. And when I did them I told my therapist about them and asked for skills to help me change. I went to group therapy where they taught DBT, and I tried implementing those skills. I admit that I made excuses for myself. I admit I was battling that black and white thinking too. I admit that I believed I was a horrible person for causing pain, and there must be something fundamentally wrong with me because I did that. I admit that battle in my head made it hard to feel stable and healthy. I admit I made my suffering my identity. I admit I hurt my abuser and others. I admit that I contributed to this toxic relationship. I admit that I did those things and now I am actively trying to combat them. I have a coping chart to help deal with the emotions that cause me to act on an impulse that might be hurtful. I have taken ownership for the hurtful things I did to others. I have a support system that holds me accountable for things I have done that are hurtful. And I also have compassion for myself, which I think is a huge part of healing. I am trying to be gentle with myself. I am trying to tell the child in me that they are safe and loved, and I am also trying to have a vision for the person I can become. Someone who is content, secure in themselves, and constantly growing and adapting. I tell myself that I can be an avocado. I can have a strong core, with a solid identity, belief system, and ideals. But I can also have a soft outside that is compassionate and receptive to others, that can adapt, grow, change, make mistakes, learn from them, feel hurt, feel loved, and feel the complexity of the human experience.
It was a good first step to admit what I went through was abuse. It was good to just yell and scream and say “I hate you” over and over. It was good to just vent and let it all out. But living in the past every day of my life is not going to push me forward. Constantly dissecting and picking apart every piece of the relationship in order to assign blame isn’t going to do anything but make me feel stuck and helpless. It doesn’t matter anymore. I am out. I am safe and I am human. What defines me is not what happened in the past, but how I choose to heal from it. And I will not find healing from looking at the past. If I believe I am not the person my abuser says I am, then I won’t be that person. It doesn’t matter if I just say they are wrong. If I believe I am a strong, resilient, kind person, I will be a strong, resilient, and kind person. And it won’t be hard, because that is who I am.
I don’t think that any person is completely evil. I don’t think any person is inherently bad. I don’t think that any person is doomed to be abusive for the rest of their lives. But every person is responsible for themselves. And every person has the choice to determine who they are. Every person can be a good person if they choose to. This is what I told my abuser. And it should be said that it isn’t just one choice you make and then you’re done. Everyday I must make that choice, the choice to heal, to grow, to look forward. It is a constant choice. But I am completely willing to make it. I am responsible for myself, nothing is making me choose one way or the other. My willingness to make that choice is what defines me. What defines me is my commitment to being in a constant state of being and growth. We get to choose what defines us, and that is what I want to define me.