It’s now been three months since escaping my abuser. I don’t quite know what to make of that fact – it hardly seems possible it could already have been that long, yet at the same time three months pales into insignificance compared to the length of time for which I was being abused.
The sad truth is that these three months have been the first of my entire life free from abuse.
To me, that sentence is one of the most incredible things I’ve ever seen written down. Trying to put it into perspective on Twitter I realised it equates to less than 1% of my life. I don’t know which is more staggering.
Perhaps though that little figure helps illustrate why I am struggling so much, and the extent of the battle I have on my hands. Perhaps you can begin to imagine the depth of the trauma I am carrying.
The impact of the abuse did not end the day I escaped; it has not been erased in the three months since. I haven’t magically “moved on”. I do not spend my days running through meadows, climbing rainbows, and dancing with unicorns. I have not just popped back to the pre-abuse me – for the obvious fact that there is no pre-abuse me. There is only abused, controlled, brainwashed, frightened, broken me.
The nightmares have only intensified, the flashbacks are at times debilitating, the anxiety, the tearfulness, the depression, the fear, the pain haven’t much changed – at times they have been far, far worse. I have still had to deal with games and attempts at manipulation from my abuser.
I don’t have a clue what I’m doing most of the time. Each time I discover yet more ways in which my sense of reality was distorted by him – perverse rules I thought were just normal ways of being – I feel like somebody has demolished a building on top of me and I have no hope of ever really escaping him or rewiring my brain in the ways I undoubtedly need to.
But I’m not living under his reign now, which means I have a chance.
My former GP suggested keeping a log of achievements each day to help cope with my mental health issues. She didn’t mean the big, showy things that might ordinarily be classed as achievements; instead anything that was a struggle, but that I managed anyway. Some days that might just be that I got through the day, and on those days I am proud of myself for managing that. Whatever it is that makes the list though, it helps remind me that I am still achieving things, and there are still positives – I am not the waste of space I might feel I am.
In that spirit I would like to share some of my achievements, in no particular order, from my first three abuse-free months. Included here are some of the things I had promised myself I would do once I got out. Others are more ordinary. All have felt extraordinary to me.
- I adopted my first basil plant. The ‘dream’ of having a basil plant was one of the little beacons of hope I held onto for over a year while I was trying to find my way out. Finally buying that plant and bringing it into my new home was a hugely significant and emotional act for me. Never underestimate what can bring hope to darkness.
- I unpacked the emergency bag I had prepared after the police originally spoke to me. It took a while before I felt safe enough, or calm enough, to empty that bag; it had been like a friend to me, making me feel safer, for a long time.
- I went out to watch the sunset, then stayed up and went back and watched the sunrise in the same place too. The sky was beautiful, and so was the feeling of being free to make those choices that night.
- I planted strawberry seeds, which – much to my amazement – have actually germinated and are still alive.
- I ignored my abuser when he instructed me to return, even though ignoring him for the first time was one of the most frightening things I’ve ever done.
- I have made huge strides in overcoming my phone phobia and improving my ability to make phonecalls and talk to strangers on the phone. I had started trying to work on this before I left, but it was difficult with him still enforcing all the reasons I had to be afraid of using the phone. However, from my starting point – of being unable to be in the same room as a ringing phone, unable to even listen to a dial tone, having panic attacks if forced to use a phone – I am really proud of myself (and a little amazed) at how far I have come.
- I made up the bed after that first horrible night. Even though it took me a couple of hours. With rest breaks each time it got too overwhelming.
- I’ve had ice cream. (Very important.) This may have happened more than once.
- I got myself a small cross stitch kit and managed to complete it.
- I survived (sort of) everything that happened with the police after I left.
- I have started exercising more choice about what I wear when I leave the house. (Scary. Very scary.)
- I used a lawnmower for the first time and survived despite lacking my supervisor. Had he been there he would have been incandescent with manufactured rage at my distinct lack of finesse, but I found it to be a thoroughly hilarious experience.
- I upgraded one of the locks on the front door by myself. As I’ve since had comments of approval from both a locksmith and a carpenter, I’m taking that as a job well done. (So much for me being useless.)
- I have had days where I’ve managed to laugh out loud.
- I have started trying to reconnect with Girlguiding and have been helping at a new unit. I’m glad I’m doing this, but sometimes it can make me feel crushingly sad – it really brings home to me how much of a shell I have become even compared to a few years ago (and that’s saying something).
- There are times and places where I am beginning to feel safe for the very first time.
- I went out armed with a map to try a new walk. I didn’t get lost, despite the questionable qualities of the map. I have been out and repeated the walk since.
- I have been slowly and quietly working away on the issues he’s left me with surrounding food (in short – terror of pretty much every food going). To try and give an example, I have progressed from being too afraid to even walk down most aisles in the supermarket, to being able to walk along and stop to look at things, to feeling brave enough to actually touch things and pick them up to look closer. That last development left me wanting to dance with joy it was so significant. I’ve also managed to start trying new foods, which is even more miraculous to me.
- From my perspective, all of these are stellar achievements in their own right. I could write an entire list of its own just on food-related achievements. I realise if food has never been used as a weapon of terror and control over you, it must be hard to understand this. Food is frightening to me, mealtimes are something to be dreaded, and the thought of having to eat fills me with despair. Some days this feels one of the cruelest legacies of his abuse, as I have no way to take respite from it.
- I repainted a room in colours of my choosing and that make me feel calm and safe. I didn’t mess it up. Painted walls were not allowed before – and even if they were, I wouldn’t have been allowed to paint them.
- I have asked for help. I have kept asking for help. I have been repeatedly turned away. I have plans to ask again.
- I danced in the kitchen. Because I could.
- I laughed until I couldn’t breathe, because it felt so strange to have just been safe enough to dance in the kitchen. (And because it was terrible dancing.)
- I have almost trained myself to feel confident and able to believe there are none of his hidden cameras in one room of my new home. After close to two decades living with the threat of hidden cameras monitoring me, I feel watched everywhere. I can’t just switch that feeling off. Any relief from it is welcome.
- I spent a day in my PJs. Because I felt like it and there was nobody there to tell me off or yell at me.
- I am getting better at remembering to turn lights on, and at feeling confident I’m making the ‘right’ call.
- I have made some progress in my awareness of whether I am waiting for people to give me permission to speak and also in realising I’m not speaking but could. This is another one that will be a very long road, but I have noticed small improvements and that gives me hope.
- I tried going swimming. I made it from the car park, into the leisure centre, into the swimming pool, and then actually swam without requiring rescue by any lifeguards. I had promised myself I would at least make it into the building.
- I am slowly getting less panicky about staying indoors, and feel less trapped if I stay in. I don’t have to go and drive around late at night to remind myself I’m free to come and go. (Or not as often anyway.)
- I have found comfort in writing. Far, far more than I will probably ever share, and not necessarily anything that’s particularly good, but it is helping me cope, it is helping me understand what has been done to me, it is helping me process my feelings and reactions, and it is giving me a sense of control and a way to feel like I am not invisible and voiceless.
Most importantly of all the achievements of the last three months: I’m still here.