We were talking about fathers, and their legacies. I told her that I have recently discovered my purpose in life: to end the abuse of my past with me, to let none of it creep forward into the generations of my children and their children. Abuse has that way of climbing out of the past. Its shadows creep over every relationship, tainting them with roles and expectations never chosen. My friend worried aloud about a young woman she knew, bullied by her husband. She wondered what she could tell this young woman, how to change the course of her marriage, how to change her life. I began thinking about my younger self, and what I would have told her if I could reach back across time.
I was ten years old before I began to understand what was happening in our family, old enough for my father’s emotional abuse to have already seeded my inner landscape with its own organic destiny. I was forty before I developed the perspective, the determination, the balance and the skills to weed my own garden. Now at least I can pull on my gloves and wield my clippers with some deliberation through the overgrown wreck of myself. In the tiny clearing of today, I want to plant the flower of clarity and hope, a small shoot of wisdom that can reach back to the past, and guide me to safety and self again, any time that I need it.
This is what I would tell myself. This is what I want to remember.
No matter what form abuse takes–a husband’s emotional abuse and bullying of his wife, a mother lashing out at her children, an in-law you’re afraid to call, an addiction–you can climb out of the past, step by step. No matter whether you are the abuser or the abused, you can change and step forward into a new self, any time, over and over again.
Step 1: Recognize that a relationship is not the way you would like it to be.
Not right or wrong–that doesn’t help anyone, because it just encourages you to blame. Blame yourself and you become mired in guilt and helplessness. Blame others and you may never recognize the ways you carry the abuse in you.
Step 2: Develop perspective and vision.
You’ll need help with this–gaining a clearer sense of what you don’t like about your relationship now, and what you’d like it to be. When your first relationships with your parents teach you to live with abuse, it can be difficult later to recognize abuse for what it is. Abuse and love become painfully intertwined, almost inextricable. But the seeking soul will find friends, relatives, even books and blogs and strangers, who can shed new light on your past and present. You may go to a party with your husband, and find that his caustic comment–something you would take for granted at home, perhaps even been grateful that it was nothing more–turns heads in public. When people stop to stare, you may feel a sense of shame. That shame is really telling you: this is not how I want to be. You may feel it when you look down at your child’s arm and realize that your grip has left marks. You may talk to people about your relationship and find that the look on their faces is not the reflection of you that you wish to see. Let this feeling rise up in you and speak its truth–you are ready to change. You are ready to climb out of the past.
Step 3: Develop practices that support self-awareness, strength and balance.
Meditation. Therapy. Reading. Keeping a journal. Exercise. Spending time with friends. Doing meaningful work, for pay or not. It doesn’t matter what you do, just pick what works and stick to it. This kind of time with yourself is your lifeline. It is your connection to the you of the future–what you are becoming.
Step 4: Get safe.
To be safe, you may just need to find your center, the place to which you can return when upcoming changes rock your world. Or you may need to get far away. Drastic abuse requires more drastic change. You may need to prepare for it. You may have others to protect. Save the money you need, make the connections you need, reach out to organizations and people that can help you. There is no real order to this process of climbing out of the past. You just keep looking ahead to where you want to go, and keep moving in that direction, step by step, in whatever way you can.
Step 5: Rock the Boat, Rock Your World
You thought it was hard before. This is where it gets really difficult. The familiar is comfortable, and you have gotten comfortable with abuse. There’s fear in abuse, yes, but in many ways it’s not the worst fear. Because you know it. It has its patterns–its cycles, its explosions, its pardons–ultimately, it is predictable, and that can make it feel safe. But when you step forward out of this past, you are stepping into the unknown. And that is truly terrifying.
Go on ahead. Just take one step away. Say “No!” just this time. Speak up, instead of staying silent. Leave, instead of letting the fight escalate. Call the police. Put down the bottle. Spend the night at a friend’s house. Send the kids to their grandmother (the safe one). Just this one time, do it differently.
Don’t worry, you can go back to the abuse anytime. You probably will. You may go back to the very same beating you’ve always taken, or you may look for someone different to take the blame. Change is hard work, and you can’t do it all the time. You may need to rest in the familiar every once in a while.
But if you were able to step away once, you can step away again. With every step away from the self you no longer want to be, you create a stronger bond with your future self. Change is a cycle: you won’t go from flawed to perfect in a single stride. It’s okay to step back, to take stock, to catch your breath, before moving forward again.
Step 6: Be Prepared to Let Go
“In one transcendent moment…she saw the pointlessness of clinging to that life raft, that hooray-we-are-saved conviction of having already come through the stupid parts, to arrive at the current enlightenment. The hard part is letting go, she could see that. There is no life raft: you’re just freaking swimming all the time.” —Barbara Kingsolver, Flight Behavior, HarperCollins, 2012.
Remember, the person you are changing is YOU. Not anyone else. But when you rock your world, you rock everyone else’s, too. Some will embrace this change. Others will resist it. Be prepared for everyone to urge you back to the person you used to be. Your husband, your wife, your lover, your parents, your children, your friends. That neutral therapist comes in very handy at this stage–think of her as an emotional safety deposit box, a place where you can safely stash the vision of your true self, away from the tumult and confusion of change.
Not everyone will make this journey with you. Some relationships will not survive the new you. Untangling abuse from the bonds of religion, love, economics, and dependence is complicated and heartbreaking. You do not have to leave. But once you set your course on a you without abuse, not everyone will want to come with you. You may have to make difficult choices, over and over again. Know this: the closer you are to yourself, the more likely it is that those you love will join you in this journey. Because they will have chosen the you that wants to be healthy, that wants to be new, that wants to most true. And remember, especially if you have children, that you may be leading more than one way out of abuse.
Step 7: Become a Beacon
Many people don’t get to grow up in a healthy family. Parents may be dismissive, preoccupied, entangling or chaotic (Hartzell and Siegel, Parenting from the Inside Out, Penguin Group, 2003, p. 125). It’s often up to us to earn our own rights to secure, healthy attachments and relationships. For children in homes that are unsafe emotionally, physically or sexually, the key to earning security often comes from the outside. One special teacher or relative who provides essential perspective or protection at just the right time, or a community that gets involved when it should. As controversial as it often is, when Child Protective Services removes a child from his parents, that child receives an incontrovertible message that something about what is happening to him is not okay. This may be a confusing message, since even abusive or mentally ill parents can also give children an essential sense of love, connection and self. The work of that child’s life becomes to sort out the parts of his experience he wishes to keep and treasure from those he wishes to discard. Without that message, however, the child has no grounding outside of his own experience of abuse, nothing to eventually lead him out of abuse into something else.
According to Daniel Siegel, scholar and psychiatrist devoted to the study of an “integrated developmental framework for understanding the mind, the brain and human relationships” (Hartzell and Siegel, 3), secure relationships are characterized by people’s capacity for “integrated response” (Hartzell and Siegel, 47-8). That means the emotional, unconscious part of the brain (the limbic system) is fully integrated with the cognitive, conscious brain (the cerebral cortex). Everybody who has ever lost their temper knows just how difficult this is to achieve. But for parents, children, lovers, spouses, bosses, friends, people–how important it is to keep doing the work it takes to respond to others functionally and deliberately, fully keyed in to our emotion and intuition, and also able to make conscious choices about word and deed.
There is no perfection in this work, only reflection and intention, honesty and humility. We who have taken that first step out of the past owe something to our former selves, still tangled in the stories abusers tell to avoid this work. We owe ourselves the truth of our pasts, and the hope of our future. We owe ourselves a new story.
Author’s Note: I truly wrote this piece as a message to myself, engaged as I still am in climbing out of my own past step by step. Every person’s experience of abuse is singular and cataclysmic. In no way did I intend for my thinking here to represent anyone else’s experience of abuse or recovery. It’s up to each of us to speak for ourselves.