I am writing this now, one day after I decided to go full no-contact with my family of origin, because I am still so close to the feeling of “before”, which I know will fade with time. Two days ago I anonymously published a short essay detailing some of the abuse I endured throughout my childhood. I published it anonymously because I was afraid – mostly of being rejected and called “attention-seeking” by my friends and acquaintances, or even worse not being believed. In the still fresh aftermath, I realize that those thoughts were just projections of my horrible inner critic, still sharp even after so many years of putting in the work to heal. In reality, telling my story was for me and for other survivors of abusive family systems. The most important person that needed to believe it was me, as painful as it is to acknowledge that I could both come from an abusive and loveless home and actually turn out to be a decent and empathetic human. I do realize that I wrote this in a way that sounds like I’m an authority. I just want to clarify that I am not an expert in anything except my own experience. I write this in a “you do this” kind of tone because I am writing the perspective of the chorus of healers, therapists, priests, monks, shamans, friends, researchers, and that arc of the moral universe that eventually got loud enough inside of me to drown out the destructive voices of my abusers (including the ones in my head). I’m excited to begin this new chapter in my life surrounded with the love and support of so many people, including myself.
We might have clear memories of certain parts of our childhood trauma histories, but often it is buried deep inside of us because we had to do that in order to survive – showing anger or fear would only lead to more abuse. The deep feelings of rejection and betrayal and worthlessness imparted by our abusive parent(s) sunk deep into our developing brains, leading to self-hatred and a distorted sense of self we carried into adulthood. This pervasive fear and stress was not just damaging to our minds, hearts, and skin – but also our nervous systems. This means panic attacks, autoimmune diseases, and addiction. If any of this sounds familiar to you, I want to tell you again that you are not alone and that what happened was not your fault. You can find help and support.
- Educate yourself about trauma, narcissistic abuse, mental health, PTSD/C-PTSD, and how your brain works. You don’t have to buy books or become a published author on the topic – you just need to have a basic understanding of how your brain and body process traumatic experiences, what narcissistic abuse looks like in family and romantic relationships, and how the collective trauma of oppression experienced by different groups impacts and exacerbates individual trauma (eg racism, poverty, heterosexism, etc.). There are so many resources you can find for free online these days. I started a YouTube collection of the ones I found most helpful.
2. People will tell you that the most important thing is to “love yourself first” and it will hurt and frustrate you. Even if you think that comment is trite and unhelpful, just accept that the comment is coming from a place of good will and move on. It doesn’t actually matter if they have the perfect intention or truly understand your suffering – this is about you. You do, in fact, already love yourself. You would not have gotten this far, through so many horrible things, if there wasn’t a glowing core of love inside of you. The problem is that you cannot feel it right now and that is ok. It makes sense that you have erected walls to protect your heart – your defenses have kept you alive.
3. Protect your
empathy compassion. If you find yourself annoyed hearing about the suffering of others or the thought comes up in your head like, “Oh, it probably wasn’t that bad,” or “They just want attention,” or “I’m so tired of hearing about racism,” – take it as a sign that your mental health may be on a downward trajectory and pay attention to it. Humans are social animals who need to give and receive love in order to survive. You will never heal if you allow the abuse you experienced to destroy your connection to society at large – and if it’s left unchecked you’ll find yourself repeating the cycle as an abuser yourself.
4. You are not “too smart” to end up in an abusive relationship (and if you were born into an abusive family system, you didn’t have a choice in the matter anyway). This isn’t about intelligence – most of us rationally know that we shouldn’t let our natural impulses such as selfishness or the need for connection dominate every other aspect of our lives. Sometimes a little selfishness is good – particularly when you set boundaries: we check that impulse against our own empathy and respect for other people. But if you grew up in an abusive household that lacked unconditional love and care, your brain was affected and you likely became conditioned to chasing that love in a way that is mirrored in your adult romantic relationships. Obviously it’s more complex than that, but you are already educating yourself on how your brain works so you get the basic idea.
5. You need love more than anything, but it probably feels so far away and impossible right now. Cultivate platonic intimacy instead of chasing sex and romantic relationships, which can become addictions of their own. You probably have a few
friendships situationships that aren’t actually supportive or nurturing – those are not what I’m talking about. There are people all around you – well right now they are all online, of course – but there are good and caring people with open hearts that would love to hold space for you and to have you hold space for them. They might be acquaintances that you are Facebook friends with, but never really pursued because they were not “cool” or into partying (numbing) pre-Covid. Maybe they are more introverted. You are not going to find that in reactionary online spaces or even some of the more liberal political spaces, so don’t expect it. Explore your own softness in the safety of solitude. Learn about radical self-love and entertain the possibility that we all need a bit of it these days. Make yourself a Spotify playlist of songs that have big nurturing/mothering energy and listen to it often – Beyonce, Bjork, Lizzo, and (newer) Ke$ha. Sing all those love songs to yourself, as if you are whispering a lullaby to a scared child.
6. Rationally accept your friends love you, even if you don’t feel it right now. I know it’s hard to trust on the worst days – especially if you learned growing up that love is transactional and inconsistent. If there is a possibility that this is all an elaborate ruse on the part of your close friend to one day humiliate or abandon you, there must also be a possibility that there is something about you that they find so delightful, so worthwhile, so endearing that they stick around because their life is better with you in it. If both are possible, it doesn’t actually risk anything to go with option B because that pain is inevitable. When you choose option A, you suffer twice – in anticipation of the pain and when the pain actually happens.
7. Sit and breathe. Exhale with force and even noises if you’re feeling it. Don’t bother reading too much about mindfulness or meditation, as judgement often arises from all the different theories and ideas. What is important here is to remember that breath is life – we do it all the time and never stop breathing until we die. I held my breath without knowing it for most of my life, always holding in my rage or anticipating some other disaster. When you just let yourself breathe, feeling the air fill your chest and flow out, you can calm yourself if you are triggered into a state of hyperarousal. This is especially important if you know you need to confront some really ugly things in your past one day. These things might be really scary and painful and they might fill you with rage. Good – you need to finally feel those feelings in order to stop them from haunting you. If you practice deep breathing now – 2 minutes here, 5 minutes there – your mind and body will be more prepared for when that time of feeling your anger finally comes.
8. Learn about self-compassion. It might be awhile before you feel it and that’s fine. First you can practice having that compassion for other people. For instance, it might be really hard to identify your own abusive childhood or manipulative relationship. But what if you saw a stranger treating a child that way? What if your friend’s partner was talking to them in a really demeaning way or gaslighting them all the time? You would probably do something about it – maybe seek out a person to talk to or if it was right in front of you and really bad you might intervene. When you look at it from this outside perspective, with compassion in your heart, it no longer matters that the abusive person had an abusive childhood or suffered from depression. What matters is getting the child or your friend to safety and making sure they get extra love to help them heal. Think about this often. Journal about it. Read the accounts of people who were abused and got out. Let yourself feel sadness and anger for their suffering. This will prime you to start seeing it in your own life.
9. Get a therapist and understand that they are human and limited. I signed up for Medicaid and got a therapist that I see about once a month. It’s not much, but it’s better than nothing. Even once a month can give you the time to vent all of your ugliest darkest feelings to a compassionate listener that isn’t your friend or partner. Our loved ones cannot be the only people you talk to about your trauma and abuse. They are only human and cannot possibly carry it all, no matter how much they love you. Pretty much any therapist will gently push back against your cognitive distortions, keep you accountable as you try to change some habits, and remind you of your progress. If you aren’t connecting with your therapist – if they are racist, don’t take you seriously, or don’t remember you, etc. – get another therapist. The process takes time, but its worth it. You are investing in the happiness of your future self.
10. You are the only person that knows the depths of your suffering. Sometimes it will seem like nobody but other survivors will “get it”. But the validation of other people is not what will be healing – it’s the validation you give yourself. For me that meant “going back in time” to re-parent myself. And since I don’t have a healthy experience of parenting, I decided to imagine myself as a tough and loving foster mom who adopts that brilliant and scared little girl, taking her away from the danger and giving her all the love she never got. And part of that love was to give her a new name, which is why I decided to change my name.
I’m sure I will have a lot more thoughts on this in the future, but like I said I wanted to get it out while it was all still so fresh that I can feel both the before and after states in my mind and body.
Heather Squire is dead! Long live Madelyn Mae!