By: Samuel Smith, Contributing Writer
Views expressed in opinion columns are the author’s own.
Trigger warning: discussion of abuse.
In my experience and personal life, I’ve found that a lot of abuse survivors don’t realize they’re being abused when they’re in the thick of it. Rather, they realize it either at the end of the relationship, right before separation or they realize after the breakup when the reality of what has happened settles in. When you’re in a stressful situation, your brain has a few options it uses as self-preservation, which are fight, flight, freeze and fawn. But what do you do when it’s over, when you’re safer, and you’re able to take a deep breath? Then, you begin processing the trauma.
Some people may immediately bury away the fact they were abused. They may try to forget about it or to justify it. Many people will turn to alcohol or drugs to cope. This is understandable. It’s really hard to begin processing any kind of trauma, and it’s exhausting. It may result in conscious or unconscious repression. However, if you’re beginning to realize you were in an abusive situation, I recommend talking to somebody. This may be a therapist, a friend, family, a clergy member, a hotline or anybody you can trust.
You can also try journaling your thoughts and feelings in the beginning, or getting a workbook on Post Traumatic Stress Disorder or healthy relationships. I found this was really helpful for me when I was first realizing I had been abused. In the beginning, I spoke to my therapist a lot about my experiences, and I started writing down how I was feeling. I eventually got a trauma-informed therapist, and she helped me piece together the psychology of what had happened to me.
I also encourage you to take care of yourself. I want to reiterate that the aftermath of trauma can be a tiring process. Try to remember to take care of your basic needs. Remember to eat regularly, spend some time outside and get enough sleep. You can even throw in a little extra self-care. If I’m having a particularly bad day, I like to put on really nice clothes or go for a run while I listen to loud music. They don’t make the situation go away, don’t get me wrong, but putting a little extra time into things I enjoy and things that make me happy can go a long way.
A mistake I often made early on was beating myself up over what I didn’t do or blaming myself for the abuse. It can be really easy to justify what happened or wish you could’ve done something different. Throughout therapy, I’ve deconstructed these memories and my feelings surrounding them. With time, it’s become easier to stop myself and remind myself that abuse is about power and control, and I did not have the power, resources, or safety to be able to leave until I did. I did what I could do, I did eventually leave, and I’m now safe. That’s all that matters.
Abuse can feel isolating. It often is an isolating experience. Particularly as a trans man, there were many times I was speaking to my therapist about how I felt all alone. Not only can abusers keep you from seeing family and friends, but abuse is often stigmatized and not talked about. I also found that I felt sometimes I was making it up, because it seemed like nobody had ever gone through this before. What really helped me, especially early on, was to find books and videos by and for survivors. I read “Written on the Body” by Jeanette Winterson and “Know My Name” by Chanel Miller, and watched “The Hunting Ground” early on in my recovery. Not only did these help empower me to come out to people I’m close to, it helped me find words for my experiences and recognize I’m not alone.
The one thing I wish someone had told me when I first started this journey was that they understood. I’m going to tell you right now: I understand. Surviving abuse can be rough sometimes. It’ll often feel like the world’s worst roller coaster, with ups and downs. But I promise, there are people who understand and care. Try to give yourself the grace that you would give any other trauma survivor, and take each day one step at a time. Eventually, things will get easier.
For those looking for guidance in the situation of abuse, contact the National Sexual Assault Hotline at 1-800-656-4673, the National Domestic Abuse Hotline at 1-800-799-7233 or TUPD at 410-704-4444.