Can We Talk About Loneliness?

“Hear that lonesome whipporwill, he sounds too blue to fly…”

Do you know how hard it is to be alone? Do you know how hard it is to feel alone?

Loneliness isn’t just longing for a friend. In unhealthy relationships, it manifests as the result of being neglected, isolated, or unable to count on your partner.

Do you know what it’s like to be ignored by your spouse? Is your safety or your sanity at risk when your significant other is around? Has your partner isolated you from you friends and family? Do you have to cultivate and maintain your own self-worth and sense of security because you don’t have a loving partner to support you? Have you left an abusive relationship and experienced the double-edged sensation of having been lonely within that relationship and then finding yourself alone after it’s ended?

When you have a healthy level of interaction with others, you generally don’t feel lonely. When you have a partner or a spouse who is present and attuned most of the time, you don’t feel alone. Even if, within that relationship, you have times when you are physically on your own, you still have the knowledge that someone is watching out for you and cares about what happens. Your partner is your baseline and you are theirs. You can feel secure and know that there is someone around to listen and give you feedback and share the load of getting through life.

I don’t know what that feels like.

But I do know what it feels like to be lonely. I know what it feels like to long for partnership and equal investment from that partner. I know what it takes to get through life without having someone there to shoot the shit at the end of the day and help me get the laundry done. I know what’s it like to be with a partner who doesn’t know me and doesn’t care to, or isn’t capable of knowing me.

Sometimes I suspect that I’ve idealized romantic partnerships in my mind (haven’t we all? Thanks, Hollywood!), but I forgive myself for that because there’s a difference between romance and partnership. Unfortunately, my romantic relationships haven’t been partnerships. They haven’t been reciprocal, or secure, or healthy. They’ve been the opposite, in fact.

I’m a 33-year-old single mother whose friends and family are all in committed, long-term relationships. I have to admit that it’s a struggle to be surrounded by couples who have grown together as they’ve moved forward in their lives. (I think that was the most polite way I could have said that…) I have friends and family who care about me, but I know that regardless of how much they love me, or how much they want to help me, their partner takes precedence. Always.

Let’s be clear: I don’t hold this against them. I just want it for myself.

I know that no relationship is perfect and that is not at all what I’m seeking—compromise is part of any relationship! Ohhhhh, but I envy my friends and family! I envy those of them who have real, authentic partnerships. I envy them for having someone to make dinner with. I envy them for having someone to miss them while they’re gone. I envy them for the arguments they have with their spouses that don’t come from a place of fear, but instead come from a place of security, because the baseline of love and trust is so firm that the conflict doesn’t rattle it.

#tbh The people who have solid relationships kind of annoy the shit out of me sometimes, but it’s because I want what they have!

I want it! I want it! I want it! *cue adorable pouty face/pathetic foot stomping/obnoxious whining/arms folded over chest

Fine, I’m being ridiculous and dramatic on purpose. But I’m also being honest. And the feelings I’m trying to convey here come from a place of deep disappointment and frustration. I was promised partnership…it was promised to me quite a few times. And I jumped into those promises with both feet. I was there. I was with them. I was invested.

And they weren’t.

I had the rug pulled out from under me every goddamn time. Point fingers at me if you want, because yes, it takes two to make a marriage or a partnership work. I accept my role in those relationships. but I also know that I put everything I had into them. I was honest and present and giving and affectionate and resilient and reliable… I made my partners feel secure, but they didn’t do the same for me.

I really want to shout a battle cry here—“I’m a strong and independent person and I don’t need anyone!”—or something like that. But you know what? It fucking sucks to be alone.

If you are alone, if you can relate to what I’ve been talking about, then what I really want to say is that I understand. I understand the feelings of sadness, anger, resentment and fear. I understand. And it fucking sucks, but it’s okay because you keep feeling those feelings, and I keep feeling them too, and yet we keep getting through the day. We keep facing the nights. We keep going. And every step builds resilience. Every moment brings independence. Every feeling teaches us something about ourselves.

There’s no magic way I can help you stop feeling lonely, but shared understanding brings some comfort, at least. I hope I’ve done that for you if you’re struggling with loneliness, and I hope you’ll do it for someone else if you’re not.

xxJ

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Climbing up or falling down, all I have is me. It might be lonely, but it makes me strong.

Now You Are Lost

Rediscovering your identity after abuse.

Emotional abusers make you into whoever they want you to be, so whatever identity you have is the product of the screwed up environment you’ve been in and the screwed up messages you’ve received. When you leave that toxic person and that toxic environment, you lose whatever person you were. You lose the identity you abuser gave you; when you leave your abusive partner, you leave yourself behind too.

I lost myself in every significant relationship I’ve ever been in. In each of them, I fulfilled my partner’s needs and wants to my own detriment. I took on, or was given, roles and responsibilities that I didn’t want. I was told and shown that I was worthless and stupid and wrong all the time, and that everything was always, always, always my fault!

I ended up believing that was who I am.

And when I found myself alone two and a half years ago (How has it been that long already?!) I realized that the only identity I had was the one I let other people make for me. And I came to understand that I had absorbed, most especially, the identity my abusers had given to me.

It was the worst kind of personal epiphany.

It was so hard to recognize how little I knew about myself; it felt shitty to see that I was screwed up and feel so completely unsure about myself.

As time has passed, though, and my life has settled a bit, I‘ve had time to learn more about my authentic self and I’ve gained a few nuggets of wisdom about rediscovering an identity after abuse.

Actually, I’ve worked really fucking hard to figure it out, so I want to share it with you. (Because caring is sharing, right?) Here’s the head/strong guide to finding yourself post-abuse, in six [not so] easy steps.

Enjoy.

HOW TO FIND YOUR IDENTITY AGAIN
(After Leaving That Shit-For-Brains Piece Of Slime Who Treated You Like Crap For So Long That You Learned To Believe It)

Step 1: Get the hell away from anyone who isn’t treating you well.

If you feel like crap around them, stop engaging with them! Or, if that’s not possible, get help establishing and maintaining some firm boundaries to protect yourself around them. Hopefully you have someone you can trust and call on at this time. If not, seek someone out at a shelter, hospital, doctor’s office, counsellor’s office, or mental health program. There is always someone to talk to, but you do need to be willing to ask.

Step 2: Make your home a sanctuary.

Or your room. Or wherever you spend the most time. You don’t need to hire a designer and bring in tasteful accents to make your space feel like an oasis, you only need to make it feel safe—whatever that means to you, whatever that looks like to you, whatever you can afford.

For me, having photos of my daughters and I, and our friends and family, up on the walls of my house was really important in asserting my identity as a mother and a single-parent. Getting a new bed and having comfortable bedding was also a priority for me, especially since anxiety often robs me of sleep. I love bright, rich colours, so the art and furnishings I‘ve found for my space reflect this (I also love me some secondhand treasure-hunting! A go-to for decorating on a budget). I need music in my life that reflects my moods, so having speakers and a personalized digital music library was an essential addition to my space. I also established very early on that all pick-ups and drop-offs with my children would happen in a neutral place or out on my driveway, so that the sanctity of my space was maintained.

There are so many ways you can manifest your sanctuary: colours, scents, sounds, art, food, furniture… As much as possible, be intentional with what you put in your space.  

Step 3: Surround yourself with people who are authentic and who bring you up instead of down.

It’s time to weed out the baddies. This part SUUUUUUUCKS and it takes some time, but it is massively important to revitalizing your identity.

You already took the courageous step of leaving your abuser/s (you’re such a legit badass!!) now make sure that everyone else in your life supports, loves, and nourishes you because you will be fragile at this time. You will be scattered and scared and messy, so the ones who show up and who leave you feeling better than when they arrived, those are the ones to keep around. Anyone who leaves you feeling worse than when they got there needs to be shown the door (good-bye!). We can’t avoid all annoying people (if only, eh?!), but we can control who we let into our inner-sanctum both literally (see Step 2) and emotionally/figuratively.

Step 4: Do something that you love.

Find something that you enjoy and just fucking do it! It does NOT have to cost a lot of money. It does NOT have to take up a big chunk of your time. It just needs to be something you can do reliably and regularly.

I returned to writing when my “Life 1.0” ended. I returned to making music at the same time. I began reading again. I gardened. I went out and started rock climbing with a friend. My life as a single mom means that I have limited free time, a limited budget, and a limited amount of energy to put towards things, so I found activities that were easily accessible to me and slowly increased the amount I time I spent on them. Regardless of budget or lifestyle, you can find a hobby you like to do. The only criteria is that it has to make you feel good.

Step 5: Put effort into rediscovering your identity.

Duh. That’s what this blog post is all about! And Steps 1-4 lay out some clear ideas for ways you can work on finding yourself after abuse. But Step 5 is here because the previous four steps don’t talk about the emotional work that needs to go into rediscovering identity.

Counselling, if it’s available to you, is hugely helpful with this step. Keeping a journal, doing monthly check-ins, picking up an inspiring and motivational self-help book, joining a support group, or participating in a mental health day program like the one I went to, can all be super-duper helpful in maneuvering the path towards self discovery post-abuse. You need to tune in and acknowledge yourself: your needs, your wants, your skills, and your faults (see my previous post for how to identify healthy self-beliefs). You need to take sometime and figure out not “who am I?” but, “who am I right now and where do I want to go from here?”

Step 6: Repeat steps 1-5, as needed.

Rinse and repeat, people! Check in with how you’re feeling and adjust as necessary. This is an ongoing process. The definition of yourself can change. In fact, it already did when you left your abuser! But when you craft your OWN identity, these changes happen fluidly, which means they’re a hell of a lot more manageable and you stay in control of how things flow and who you are.

Your abuser(s) may have handed you a shitty deal, but you now have the opportunity to trade some cards in and get a royal flush. Jackpot!

Okay, I know honestly know shit-all about poker, but you get the point, right? Your abuser was (is) an asshole, but you’re not (I’m assuming) and you don’t have to let that jerk control your life anymore. You get to rediscover who you are after abuse. You get to decide what your identity looks like. Confident, crafty, gritty, humble, kind, tough, simple, fancy…whatever! You can find your identity after leaving your abuser, you just need the right steps to follow and the right supports to climb them.

xxJ

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This cheery reminder hangs in my living room for my daughters and I to see every day. Artist credit: Becca Cahan for Society6

Turning Paper Into Diamonds

Or, “I Bet You Look Cute in that Emotional Tool Belt”

After my divorce, I spent some time working with an abuse counsellor named Alanna. She was one of the last stops on my roundabout tour of finding caring, knowledgeable support when I was at my lowest point and needed help getting up from rock-bottom. The partner abuse program she facilitated ended up moving to a different agency and she ended up moving elsewhere as well, but the months I spent attending sessions with her had a profound effect on my daily life.

The biggest take-away from my time with her has been a single piece of paper that I keep taped up above my writing desk. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve looked at this flimsy, white sheet and felt stronger because of it.

Good counsellors offer a wealth of helpful and insightful information, but great counsellors listen closely to their clients and offer little gems of wisdom that hit just the right note at just the right time and give the people they work with exactly what they need in that moment.

I bet you most of the time my counsellors do this and then giggle to themselves as they watch me unfold my understanding, thinking that I’ve come to some great realization all by myself, when really it’s because of their sly influence.

Damn they’re good!

Alright, I won’t keep you on tenterhooks (how’s that for a word of the day, eh?) any longer. Obviously you’re all dying to know what the hell is on this glorious, life-changing piece of paper.

Shit…now I’ve built it up too much! Ugh. Okay, it doesn’t matter, because even if you think it’s lame, it was/is totally the exact right thing I needed from this counsellor and she fucking nailed it.

Here it is, in all it’s simple glory:

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Pretty fucking awesome, right?

Okay, fine. It’s just a piece of paper with a some lines and a few very important words that suggest one simple idea: think about what your stupid, anxiety-ridden/depressed brain is telling you and then call yourself out on that bullshit and use objective proof to throw it the fuck out the window!

Or in different terms: figure out your self-critical belief, use that to identify what’s really true (your new, positive belief), and then prove to yourself that the new/positive belief is real by coming up with examples that support it.

It’s gotten to the point where I can just glance at this paper and be reminded that I’m not crazy. It reminds me that I can handle my shit. That what my abusers have told me isn’t the divine truth. That my mental illness doesn’t have to stop me from living well. That I can fucking DO THIS.

Feel free to borrow it.

Print it out, or draw your own fancy version, or scrawl the words onto a Post It and stick that shit up somewhere you’ll see it.

You’ll find that you’ll catch yourself glancing at it and thinking about its message, whether you have anxiety, or depression, or not. Whether you’re an abuse survivor or not. No matter your circumstance, you can use this tool to improve your life.

I like to think about techniques like this as tools that I keep in an emotional tool belt (a metaphor gifted to me by my other kick-ass counsellor, Daniel). My emotional tool belt used to be filled with rusty, dented, useless objects that caused me more pain and confusion than I ever needed in my life. I’ve been slowly scrapping those old, dysfunctional tools and refilling my tool belt with useful shit like this worksheet. I keep it next to my #2 Robbie (screw you Phillips screwdrivers!), a copy of Rupi Kaur’s “milk and honey”, my “DIVORCED AF” tank top, and the same stainless steel water bottle I’ve been slurping from for years (gotta stay hydrated!). I keep it with my dearest, most important possessions, but I know it’s better to share, so it’s yours to borrow now.

Use it to remember: you are more than your mental health diagnosis.

You are more than what your abusers say you are.

You are capable and smart and strong and brilliant.

You can change and you can get better tools to put in that cute-ass emotional tool belt of yours.

This paper may as well be made out of diamonds, because it’s become completely priceless to me. And I’ll keep it on my wall until it yellows and fades. I’ll keep it until I don’t need a daily reminder to re-frame my thinking, because I’ve got practices like this to grab from my cute-ass tool belt at any moment.

xxJ

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This is also usually found near my writing desk. It doesn’t fit well into my tool belt though…

What We Need to Hear

“I believe you.”

Once I started speaking up about my experience of abuse, those three words became a crucial message I needed to hear.

“I believe you.”

It was even better if they were followed by the words, “What do you need right now?” or, “What’s his address? My fists would like to meet him.”

Just kidding.

Sort of.

Not really…people did say things like that to me and I kind of loved it #sorrynotsorry

Violence is not the answer, friends! But dear god did it feel good to know that someone else felt as upset as I did!

I needed to know that the people I cared about understood what I was telling them.  In sharing my story with my trusted friends and family, I was able to gather support around myself. Even those tongue-in-cheek threats to go rough-up the people who messed with me helped me feel safe enough to ask for help and to open up about my experience. Overwhelmingly, the people I told treated me like my experience was valid and they stood by me as I disentangled myself from my past and started to recognize and deal with what had happened. 

Emotional abuse is most insidious when it’s subtle; it is difficult for outsiders to see and virtually impossible for its perpetrators to recognize (and tbh, even if they could recognize it, chances are they’d be disinclined to change their behaviour!). I didn’t have bruises or scars. I had, however, endured years of being controlled and manipulated through gaslighting, neglect, put downs, and blame…none of which were obvious and none of which left marks on my body. For a long time I yearned for my abusers to recognize what they had done to me. I wanted them to look at me and identify as abusers. Maybe they’d go to rehab, or AA, or therapy, or have an epiphany, break down, and beg me for forgiveness in front of all my friends and family…

Kidding again.

Sort of…

Eventually, my healing journey brought me to a point where I no longer craved that affirmation, but it wasn’t easy to reach that level of self-assuredness. I had to accept both my victim-hood and that fact that I would have to continue standing up for the legitimacy of my experience with outsiders to my community and with my abusers. I realized, too, that the weight of my truth came only from the consistency of my story, so I kept telling it! And I keep talking about it, because it’s real and others need to understand that! The more I spoke up, the more I wanted to speak up, and the more I understood about my experience. Now, I want to help other survivors feel like they can speak up and be believed and I want perpetrators of abuse to be held accountable. Because of the support of those around me, I can now share my story more widely and hopefully help more people understand emotional abuse. 

I often think about how our society has become incredibly adept at downplaying uncomfortable truths. We don’t want to hear the “bad” stuff, even if it’s true! I know my experiences could be dismissed by people because “nothing bad happened” (i.e. I didn’t end up in the hospital, or dead, or my partner/s didn’t go to jail). But even when faced with irrefutable evidence that abuse of any kind has taken place, people tend to dispel its authenticity, ignore its credibility, and treat its victims as though they are snotty, selfish whistle-blowers trying to slander the “good” name of the accused.

It pisses me off that at this point I feel compelled to point out that yes, a very, very, very small number of people claim abuse in order to stick it to another person out of spite or anger or selfishness. Because that does happen. It does, I know. But overwhelmingly, abuse victims who speak up do so from a place of honesty and authenticity and at great personal cost, so can we just move on from this technicality and support the people who have struggled to speak up in spite of the trauma they’ve experienced?

Mmkay thanks!

Imagine standing up in front of the people you care about the most and admitting your deepest, darkest secret to them. Imagine looking out at them and forcing yourself to share the part of you that brings you the most shame. Imagine that feeling of intense discomfort, the feeling of letting them down, of embarrassment, of anger, of sadness, of guilt… Then imagine doing this completely naked. In the winter. Outside. With all your neighbours looking at you. While your dog takes a dump and your children start to bicker about who got the bigger piece of cake for dessert while also complaining that they’re cold and tired and can we just go inside now pleeeeeeeeeeease???

Okay, okay, I’m being a bit facetious… forgive me for trying to add some humour here!

What I’m trying to express is that it comes at great cost to an abuse survivor to speak up. It is fucking terrifying to utter the words “I’ve been abused” or whatever other version of that you say. It feels like an admission of personal failure, regardless of how understanding your audience is. Chances are, your abuser taught you that everything is your fault (mine did!) so admitting to the abuse is admitting to being wrong—they weren’t who you thought they were, you aren’t actually happy, you stayed for way too long, you couldn’t “fix” them, you couldn’t make it better.

I tell myself everyday that what happened to me wasn’t my fault. That it was real and that the time I need to heal and recover is necessary and reasonable. I‘ve been very fortunate: my community has always believed me, even when I didn’t have the language I do now to describe my experiences. Even when I was a blubbering, suicidal, manic mess! Even though I pretended for a very long time that nothing was wrong.

They believed me.

And I believe me.

And if you speak up, I’ll believe you too.

And then we can have a conversation and I’ll listen and together we can unpack the experiences and struggles that caused you to speak up because I know how fucking hard it is to do that.

“I believe you.”

xxJ

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We, as abuse survivors, may feel scratched and broken, but solidarity from others can help heal our hearts and make us stronger.