Au revoir!

When I left my husband, I realized that I had lost much more than a marriage.

Now I understand that successful relationships involve people growing together as they work through their issues, face difficulties, celebrate successes, and find a shared identity as a couple while maintaining autonomy as individuals. But when you are in a codependent relationship, things are very different and when I walked away from my marriage, I was struck by a deep sense of not knowing myself.

In my relationship with the man who became my ex-husband, I molded myself entirely to how he wanted, or how I thought he wanted, me to be. I stopped doing the things I enjoyed doing. I stopped saying how I felt about things. I questioned my intuition. I lost faith in my ability to do anything. I became exhausted by the effort of trying to maintain the status quo (i.e. keep the peace and/or keep my husband happy). I had done this in previous relationships and friendships before (had I ever!), and at the time of my separation, the only thing that felt true about my identity was that I had become an expert at being passively codependent.

Yay. 

I was so lost when I was left on my own. I didn’t know what I liked to do anymore or what I was capable of. I felt dumb and useless and tired. The overwhelming sense I experienced was of being a complete stranger to myself, and I spent more time feeling triggered or completely drained than anything else.

I’ve always had a high level of self-awareness. In fact, even in the worst periods of my life, when I was shrouded in intense depression and anxiety, when I was beholden to my abusers, when I was contemplating suicide, I still had the knowledge that something was wrong and that I needed something to change. But since I framed my identity using the parameters my boyfriend/husband/parents/friends gave me, I couldn’t determine what was true and what wasn’t.

After many years of counselling, an amazing mental health day program, a consistent treatment plan, incredible support from some of the quality people in my life, and an unwavering sense that I absolutely could NOT give up, I began to unpack my experiences and rediscover myself.

And I realized a few key things…

  1. I could recognize that there were parts of me from my past that were still true, but that my experiences had fundamentally changed me. The core parts of me were still there, but they had to be rediscovered and given a new, healthy framework to exist in.
  2. There were things I had considered “core” parts of myself that I needed to throw out and replace with other things that came from a place of authenticity.
  3. I couldn’t continue trying to be the person I felt other people thought I should be.
  4. I had the capacity to discover my identity again, if I chose to work at it.

So I began to work diligently at figuring out who the hell I was now and who I wanted to be post-separation, post-abuse, post-youth, post “Life 1.0.”

It started with identifying how I had allowed myself to be defined in the unhealthy relationships I had before. What, if anything, was true about me based on those parameters? I started trying to throw out old, bad habits… goodbye passivity! See ya later mandatory politeness! Au revoir overextending myself!

I also grabbed some of my “bad” traits that had been misused and misinterpreted, and created new, healthier frameworks for them. For example, I had bought into the belief that being sensitive and empathetic was a bad thing. It led me to be overly emotional, hot headed, and too accommodating. Not true! Being emotionally sensitive and highly empathetic is a gift! I just had to learn how to use it well! I renegotiated a new understanding of that quality in myself and have set to practicing this new way of thinking.

The second (or third?) step was to unearth good qualities that I wanted to embrace. This wasn’t an extensive list…more like, an exclusive one! I prioritized things and made sure I was focusing on a few, core traits that I felt were latent in my being, but which were also underrepresented or misunderstood. Basically, I dug up the good qualities in myself, like independence and determination, dusted them off, and put them back in my emotional tool-belt so that I could grab them instead when I went for one of my old, unhealthy, codependent habits.

And I realized that there were some skills I really wanted to have that I would need to work at embodying. I had to learn how to be assertive. I had to learn how to be alone. I had to learn to be angry in healthy ways. I’ve put time into teaching myself these new things, folding them into my identity as they become more and more familiar.

Leaving my emotional abuser was the catalyst in finding a new and healthy identity for myself. I am in no way complete, nor am I an expert in self-discovery. And I don’t expect myself to stay exactly as I am right now, but I do expect myself to keep working on living in a healthy way that supports a healthy sense of self.

It’s possible for you to do this too, no matter your relationship status, your history, or your future plans. Abused or not, we can all love and accept ourselves while striving to improve.

Your identity is not something that should be handed to you.

It may seem easier or more familiar to continue existing in the frameworks other people craft for you, but over the long term, you’ll do yourself a disservice in allowing others to define you.

So take a moment, envision yourself as you wish to be, and start taking steps, small or big, towards your a truer, more vivacious self!

xxJ

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The flowers in my garden, like this Teddy Bear Sunflower, remind me that I’m always growing and that sunshine can always be found if you look for it.

looks like/sounds like/feels like

People have a hard time understanding what emotional abuse is. In fact, I’m going to confidently state that most people really don’t get it.

Like, at all.

Because to most people domestic abuse = physical violence. To most people, domestic abuse is loud and nasty and BIG and leaves bruises and cigarette burns, broken lamps and smashed dishes and holes in walls.

And yes, sometimes (too often) domestic abuse is vociferous and physically violent. But what if I told you that domestic violence isn’t always physical? What if domestic abuse can be subtler? What if it’s relatively inconspicuous? What if the victim is so good at compensating and pretending that EVERYTHING IS OKAY ALRIGHT?! that no one has any idea what’s going on? (Not that I’ve ever done that before…)

I think emotional abuse is usually misunderstood because most people don’t realize that neglect or silence can be just as vicious as a punch in the face.

I  want to try to explain more about what emotional abuse is and how people may experience it, so I’ve drawn upon my past as a teacher and what follows is basically going to be like a kindergarten circle time where we all gather together to talk about what something “looks like/sounds like/feels like”. Except instead of discussing “Goldilocks and the Three Bears,” or how a bean seed grows, we’re going to tackle emotional abuse. Decidedly not a kindergarten-appropriate topic (Or maybe it is? I mean, kids are never too young to learn about consent and showing respect!) but I’m hoping you’ll find it insightful.

So, come join me on the carpet. Please sit criss-cross applesauce with your hands in your lap, eyes up, and mouth closed…Ms. J is going to start the lesson…

Emotional abuse looks like:

  • Absence
  • Stifling
  • Codependence
  • Intense control
  • Financial control
  • Manipulation
  • Vindictiveness
  • Pettiness
  • Insecurity
  • Narcissism
  • Lack of intimacy
  • Withholding (affection, money, time, etc.)
  • Lack of consent
  • Isolation
  • Patterns of negative behaviour
  • Idealization
  • Chronic forgetfulness
  • Posturing
  • Grandiose gestures that are out of context or used as leverage
  • Forced affection
  • Saving face
  • Hypervigilance
  • Disdain
  • Perpetual indifference or apathy

Emotional abuse sounds like:

  • Shouting
  • Silence
  • Harsh words
  • Lies
  • Backhanded compliments
  • Gaslighting
  • Indignation
  • Name calling
  • Threats
  • Put downs
  • Reprimands or punishing
  • Criticisms
  • Punitive statements
  • Questioning
  • Comebacks
  • Rationalization of unhealthy things/ideas/behaviours
  • Scapegoating

Emotional abuse feels like:

  • Loneliness
  • Despair
  • Confusion
  • Anger
  • Craziness
  • Self-loathing
  • Low self-worth
  • Lack of purpose
  • Rigidity
  • Fear
  • Shame
  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Mood swings
  • Self-harm
  • Suicidal thoughts
  • Needing to be in control
  • Surreal
  • Duress
  • Pain
  • Exhaustion
  • Stress
  • Being overwhelmed
  • Worry

People who exhibit these behaviours (or other similar ones) chronically are perpetrators of abuse. Those who struggle continually because of these feelings and behaviours, are victims of abuse.

My own experience of abuse was insidious and cumulative and I’m tired of feeling like I have to prove that my experience was real.

Emotional abuse looks/feels/sounds real.

Abuse = abuse.

And accepting that helps people like me by letting us know that what we’re going through, or what we’ve been through, is just as real as a punch, kick, or slap.

You can now un-cross your legs and go have free-play time. Just don’t hog the Lego table and remember to use kind words with your friends.

xx J

2018-07-24 13.24.28
Feels like belly rub time for my pup, Kara.


Do you have anything you could add to the lists above? I’m sure there’s more that I’ve missed. Comment below and share your thoughts!

A Bundle of Sticks

I’m fortunate to live a very privileged life. Saying that makes me want to throw up a little bit BUT I’m leaning into my discomfort and admitting that as an upper-middle class white person living in the western world, I’ve been afforded an existence of material comfort and relative luxury. I’ve never had to question where my next meal was coming from, whether I’d have a roof over my head, if I could afford to go to university, or if my parents could help me out when I got into trouble financially or otherwise.

Materially speaking, my life is fantastic and because of this, I often feel guilty talking about my problems. When looking at what’s happening with things like the Black Lives Matter movement, LGBTQ2+ rights, the wars across the world, victims of natural disasters, the mistreatment of Indigenous Peoples, and so many other massive and terrible issues, my struggles seem like nothing. I mean, what right do I have to complain when I’m sitting on top amidst the current socio-economic and political climate around the world? What right do I have to talk about my problems when there is someone else who has it worse? How dare I not finish my asparagus when there are starving children in Africa? Amiright???

In the last two years, I’ve come out as a person who survived domestic abuse. In the last two years, I’ve practiced saying those words and owning them, adopting at first the persona of a victim, and now one of a survivor.

But…

Even as I’m writing this part of me wants to erase the whole damn thing and stop talking because I continue to be afraid that I will be called out as a liar or a phony or a drama queen.

Many people take their problems and sensationalize them. Or maybe I should say, many people in a position of privilege take their problems and sensationalize them. Real problems are not something you post on Instagram #firstworldproblems Real problems are ones that affect your life at its core; they undermine your sense of stability and your sense of self-worth. They may be violent and they may include trauma. They reveal your capacity to handle yourself in times of crisis, or they make you fall completely apart.

In my life, I experienced emotional abuse at the hands of a number of my romantic partners. Like I said, it’s hard for me to admit that, but I’m putting it here because I’ve realized that what I experienced, although it may seem subtle or questionable to outsiders, is part of a much bigger societal problem and therefore worthy of attention.

For example, the fact that my ex-husband can’t and won’t recognize that his behaviour was and remains abusive, speaks to the fact that he exists in a position of even greater privilege than my own. It’s a testament to the fact that no matter what financial threshold you exist in, our society as a whole is continuing to fail at addressing its systemic problem with misogyny. While the law where I live identifies emotional (“mental”) abuse as legitimate, my experience with the law showed me that many lawyers and judges and bureaucrats really don’t understand it or know how to handle it.

It’s not just that I need to talk about this for my own sense of catharsis; it’s not just about my story and my journey and my experience. This is about having more voices speaking up and talking about emotional abuse. It’s about engaging in meaningful conversations about all abuse. It’s about changing the landscape of our lives so that we feel more empowered to fight for change and help others. It’s about helping perpetrators of abuse, no matter what their status or rank in the world, learn how to behave differently. It’s about writing this all anyway, not just because I need to write it, but also because I can use my privilege to help others. It comes down to owning my story, knowing that it’s different from anyone else’s and recognizing that it’s still valid and still meaningful.

There’s an Aesop’s Fable called “The Bundle of Sticks” which tells the story of a father who, laying on his deathbed, hands his fours sons a bundle of sticks and asks them each to try breaking it apart. When none of the sons are able to break any sticks, the father unties the bundle and gives each son a single stick to break, which they do easily. The point of the story is to show that we are stronger united than we are apart. We can imagine that we’re each one little twig, snapped easily on our own, but bundled together, our twigs become much stronger. Lending my voice to the conversation about domestic abuse can only strengthen the bundle that so many in our society are trying to break, and I’m not going to let my stick get broken, even if I’m afraid to put it into the pile.

xxJ