My Aha! moment Part 2: Domestic Violence in a relationship

As I was perusing my blog the other day, I realized that I only shared half of my story of abuse. I have mentioned it off-hand a couple times throughout other posts, but I think it is finally time for me to share the story of my domestically violent relationship. This aha! moment is more difficult for me to share because it is the most recent, and therefore the most fresh in my mind. It involves a lot of guilt on my part, and anger towards myself for letting such a negative relationship continue for so long after I knew I needed to end it. I ask you, reader, to please forgive me, as I try to forgive myself.

It started out sweet; a cute guy, who I’d been friends with for a few years and had all sorts of mutual friends with. A guy I thought I knew, who I thought cared about me. I was so excited to date someone who I felt actually cared and would treat me right. He took me out, he called when he said he would; it was perfect. Or so I thought.

But then the switch flipped. He started getting more aggressive, more critical of me. The relationship was originally long distance, but it went downhill fast when he moved back to the same town as me. It started with little things. He would cut me down randomly. Call me clumsy, ridiculous, and crazy all the time. But in snide, “joking” ways so that I didn’t feel I had the right to be offended because otherwise he would accuse me of “not having a sense of humor.”

Then it moved into increased (and hypocritical) jealousy and a seeming lack of caring, which was so out of character in my mind for how attached he had been earlier. He took another girl (when he was still living out of town) to a wedding, and went clubbing with her until who knows what time of night, then didn’t tell me about it. When I confronted him, he told me jealousy was a stupid emotion that destroyed relationships, and didn’t think I had any right to be upset. However, when I hung out with one of my guy friends (and invited my boyfriend) along, Boyfriend refused to join, because he didn’t want to be “that guy,” but then called/texted me every 5 minutes. When I would hang out with my girl friends, he would completely ignore me, but the minute a guy was around, he couldn’t keep my phone quiet for more than a few minutes.

Later that same night, Boyfriend asked me to call him when I was on my way home and he would meet me there. So I called him, and after assuring himself completely that I was done going out for the night and on my way home, he said he would meet me there- he never did. He stood me up once he knew i was being a good girl.

But I put up with it. And this is just one example. We were taking things slow, he was out drinking with the guys and didn’t want to drive drunk. I should just “learn to be chill and be patient”-things that I wasn’t capable of according to him.

The escalation continued, until my birthday when everything exploded. He spent the entire night embarrassing me in front of my friends; he ignored me, hit on my best friend while refusing to touch me, and then left early. I went with him so we could talk about the fact that he ruined my birthday. It was the one time I had specifically stated what I wanted to do, and he couldn’t even be a good sport about it. Instead, he went off about how he didn’t get why birthdays were a big deal, that he didn’t want to spend money (though he later spent some on drugs), etc.

So we go to his place and I’m crying. He ruined my birthday, he embarrassed me in front of all my friends, he hit on my best friend in front of me. I felt awful. His friend was on his way over so they could continue hanging out. This was when the bad really happened. He interrupted my crying by saying we should just have sex. When I said “no, I’m crying,” he trapped me and attempted to force it on me. I managed to escape and lock myself into a bedroom. Sometimes, he would physically hurt me during, and when I would say something, he would blame me.

According to him, everything was always my fault. When he would push me, it “wasn’t his fault that I only weighed 20 lbs” and would therefore fall over. I couldn’t be patient. I couldn’t be this or that, or exactly, perfectly what he wanted in that moment. He told me I disappointed him. He made me believe that I wasn’t worth anything, that I would never be able to find anyone better.

And I…put up with it. For a while, at least. And that phrase is the hardest for me to say, because I am so humiliated, embarrassed, and horrified that I put up with it, even for just another few weeks. In a twisted way, I loved him. I wanted to believe things would get better, that things would be good again, like they were before. This was also before I was seeking help for what happened when I was little. In my mind, this was just how guys treated you. This was the best I thought I could expect from the male gender. I realize now that that is completely wrong, but at the time that was my truth.

So I put up with it, because I didn’t think I had the strength to leave. I cried every day during the last few weeks, because he made me feel so terrible about myself. And, (I have to take a moment to desperately defend myself) I was at a place in my life where I couldn’t literally deal with a break up. I had just found out about what happened to my little sister, was working on my last semester before college graduation, was not on speaking terms with my brother, was suffering from depression, losing weight unhealthily due to stomach sickness, was suffering from sleep deprivation, all while working, doing 2 internships, taking classes and being president of an on-campus organization.

I was exhausted. I was so busy I hardly had time to breathe and my life was crumbling around me. My family was shattered, several of my closest friends moved away, and loneliness crushed down on me. Boyfriend was my “cure.”

Finally, I left him because he wasn’t treating me right, but I had no idea it was a relationship that classified as Domestic Violence until much later.

I was looking into options for counseling for Sexual Abuse and I ran across SafePlace’s website. Here, I found a description of what classified as Sexual Abuse, and just out of curiosity, I checked the red flags for Domestic Violence checklist. I was shocked to discover that most of the “red flags’ applied to my relationship with Boyfriend. I knew things were bad, but I hadn’t realized just how bad until that moment. I spoke with a counselor over the phone, and she confirmed my suspicions.

Boyfriend was abusive. The thought hit me like a freight truck and terrified the living shit out of me. How had I found myself in another abusive situation? And only months after I had just realized what happened to me when I was younger? (see my Aha! Moment: The crushing blow of realization)

My world rocked, and I broke down. The feeling was awful. And I knew I had to find a way to ensure that he would never get me back; ever. No matter how hard he tried. So I told everyone what he’d done. So that, if my willpower wasn’t enough, my conscience and the judgment of my peers would stop me from ever going back to him. It has been months and I am just now beginning to feel healing arrive, after much effort. I have had to change my phone number, block him on Facebook, etc., to keep him away from me. It takes strength, and it has been incredibly difficult.

Realization hurts. Abuse adds another dimension to overcome after a break-up. The way he treated me affected me very deeply. Breaking up is hard to do, especially when someone breaks you down. But I am so glad I did it. And you wanna know what? The day I left him was the day I stopped crying. And the first time I’d felt peace in weeks.

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Fear of the Night: Sleeping Troubles

When I was little, about age 3 or so, I was convinced that you had to sleep with your eyes open. To my childhood mind, you couldn’t close your eyes or you wouldn’t fall asleep. I would therefore strain to keep my eyes peeled for as long as possible, until I literally passed out from exhaustion.

A couple years later, when my family moved to a 2-story house, we had a landing in the middle of the stairs where I could peek into the living room without being seen by whoever was in there. At night, after being sent to bed, I would sit there for hours while my parents were awake, watching tv with them, until my parents noticed and would say, “Lauren, we know you’re up there, now go to bed.” Shocked that they discovered my secret, I would run panicking upstairs and jump into bed until I was convinced that they were convinced I was actually asleep. Then, sneakily (in my mind anyways) I would slip out from under the covers and sneak back to the landing. This routine would go on for hours after my official bedtime.

I think the discovery that amazes me the most throughout my healing process is how truly and deeply abuse can affect and infiltrate your life. Especially in ways that may never seem clear to you. The stories above are just 2 examples of how the abuse pervaded and corrupted my life, and in this case, my sleeping habits. Nightmares formed another powerful link between the abuse and its affect on the reality of my life.

I have suffered from nightmares for most of my life-both childhood and adulthood-and most of them were repetitive. For instance, I was always running in my dreams. When I was little, I was always running away from big, scary animals; mostly alligators, snakes, bears and killer whales. In other words, the animals that were most often the villains of Disney movies. During these dreams I would run away from these animals, barely staying out of reach of their snapping fangs and claws, desperately wanting to fly but being unable to.

There were other variations of the nightmares as well. A bear would invade town, and my parents would abandon me/forget about me when they fled, leaving me to fend for myself and try to escape as best I could. Other nightmares involved me peeling layers out of my skin, trying to get whatever disease I had out of me. Trying to rip it out, claw it out, anyway I could. But it never worked. The secret of the abuse was still there, still hidden from those who might be able to help me.

Always, I woke up exhausted from these dreams. During them, I had been constantly moving, never able to rest, not for a minute, or I would be captured, defeated, hurt. And whenever whatever it was that was chasing me caught me, I would wake up feeling like I’d fallen off a cliff onto my bed in a panic as I jumped awake.

While dreams aren’t always accurate, I believe they can often be helpful coping mechanisms. In fact, it is quite common for victims of trauma to have nightmares, and they are perhaps a way of processing everything that happened on a deeper level.

For me, these nightmares affected my sleep, and formed a powerful connection to my abuse. The seemingly cute stories of me sitting on the landing because I didn’t want to be alone, and trying to sleep with my eyes open, point to something much deeper and more powerful. It was always at night when the abuse happened. When my parents were asleep. It always happened when I was alone, in my bed, vulnerable.

Over time, sleep became my enemy. Being alone became my enemy. So I coped with it by attempting the impossible; by trying to never sleep. By trying to stay awake so hard that I passed out from exhaustion. By being within sight of my parents on the landing because no one could hurt me as long as they were close. When I am worried about anything, the ability to sleep is always the first thing that goes away.

The abuse ruined my ability to rest.

How to Deal:

For me personally, I believe my nightmares point to why I have always responded so well to movement in my waking life (for example: ballet, other types of dance, yoga, bike riding, etc.). I was always running in my nightmares but couldn’t escape, couldn’t get away. These activities represent a form of mobility that I longed for both in my dreams and real life. I couldn’t run away from my family, from what was happening to me, so I “ran” through sports, dance, and any other type of movement I could fit into my day. Never stopping. Never resting.

The interesting thing is, this “movement therapy” is actually what the psychological world calls “semantic experiencing.” This theory of psychology holds that if a victim feels the need to run, or feels panicked outside of the situation, they should imitate running. It helps you to feel more relaxed and to release your pent-up emotions of helplessness, stress, tension, etc.

So how do you sleep again?

That is what I am currently testing out. My counselor gave me some good pointers, however. Find a way to make sleep a safe experience again. Now that I am no longer in any of the situations of sexual abuse or domestic violence, I am automatically much safer. However, the body does not recognize that immediately, and it takes effort to reclaim the night for rest.

Some things my counselor suggested were to find a routine that works for you, to calm you down. This routine could include lighting scented candles, taking a hot bath, listening to soothing music, writing, reading, meditating, praying, yogic breathing, anything. The point is: Take the stress out of sleep. Replace the terror and the nightmares of abuse with something beautiful, relaxing, and special to you.

If you do have a nightmare, wake yourself up and take a moment to relax. Take in your surroundings, go to your “happy place,” focus on an image and describe it to yourself in your head. Feel grounded in your feet, your legs, your mind. And take deep breaths. This exercise will help to calm you and make you realize that it was just a nightmare, and you actually are safe.

Finding a way to rest can be incredibly difficult. But it goes back to what I have discussed in numerous earlier blogs; take care of yourself. Love yourself. Let yourself rest, help yourself to find peace. And know that sleep will come and nightmares don’t last forever.

Healing Imagery: Find the calm in your “happy place”

Going to your happy place. We’ve all heard the phrase, and several associate it with druggie, hippie, mumbo-jumbo that’s just too airy-fairy for the realm of normal. However, the idea of calming yourself by visualizing situations in which you have felt the most calm, actually has a positive effect on brain chemistry, and how the human body reacts to stressful situations.

By visualizing a situation in which you have felt calm, you begin to feel calm in your present situation-whatever that situation may be.

Here’s how it works:

Think of the times/places in your life when you have felt the most safe. The most relaxed. When you can feel your shoulders relaxing down away from your neck and each breath grows deeper. It doesn’t have to be a specific moment, it could be a general feeling. For me, I imagine walking through the grass with the sun shining. You could visualize sitting on your parents’ floor when you were little, or the home of a friend, a relative. Perhaps even a coffee shop, a yoga class, whatever the scenario may be, picture it in your mind, step by step.

First, think of how this place affected your senses, how it made you feel. You already know it made you feel safe, now dig deeper. What did it smell like? Take my example, the grass smells fresh, the air smells fresh, crisp, light.

Now, how does it physically feel when you are in that place? For me, I feel the soft cushioning of the grass beneath my feet, the warmth of the sunlight on my face. Perhaps a cool breeze playing across my hair. Are you petting an animal? Does your body feel cool? Warm? etc?

How does the place sound? For me, the place is quiet, perhaps with soft laughter somewhere far off. Do you remember music playing in this place? Talking with a close friend?

The point is to remember as many details as possible about why that place makes you feel safe. What is it, specifically, about those situations that make you comfortable? For me, imagining this place, thinking about it, talking about it, I can feel my limbs relaxing, feel my mind sinking comfortably into that warm, lazy sunshine, and it feels wonderful.

I try to think about this place whenever I feel particularly hurt, angry, stressed out, etc. I believe that by recognizing the signs of being safe, of being comfortable, we learn to seek places, people, relationships, that make us feel the same way: healthy, happy, and safe. We also help repair the chemical rewiring that takes place when the body has experienced trauma.

Being happy in a current situation can be difficult. Sometimes, it’s necessary to borrow the memory of a happy place in order to bring those feelings into your present life.