From Victim to Survivor

Survive
survived; surviving

intransitive verb
: to remain alive or in existence : live on
: to continue to function or prosper

transitive verb
1: to remain alive after the death of
he is survived by his wife

2: to continue to exist or live after
survived the earthquake

3: to continue to function or prosper despite : withstand
they survived many hardships

Survivor
\sər-ˈvī-vər\ noun

(Merriam-Webster online dictionary)


I am a domestic abuse survivor.

I survived emotional abuse.

I survived financial abuse.

I survived gaslighting.

I survived codependency.

I survived neglect and ambivalence, love-bombing, sexual assault, hypocrisy, and rage.

I survived depression.

I survived anxiety.

I am a survivor.

It had to be pointed out to me that all those statements are true. I pay a very good professional counsellor to help me with all this shit (a reminder here that we all have shit to deal with, this is just my shit) and he looked at me in one of our sessions and casually said these words to me: “Juliana, you’re a survivor. You are a domestic abuse survivor.”

It took me months after that to adopt those words as true—to hold them in my heart and my head…to feel them in my mouth and body…to repeat them and believe in their validity.

I have survived.

And, honestly, at times, I’m not sure how or why, but I did and here I am, still surviving.

The abuse I endured wasn’t abuse as most people think of it. It was neither violent nor physical; it didn’t shout and it didn’t bruise me. No, it chipped away at me, over many years, in many small ways, and kept at me until I lost myself and my body was depleted of all vestiges of my identity and my vitality.

Survival doesn’t mean that my life isn’t stress free, and it doesn’t mean that I won’t face hardship again, but I now proudly wear this badge of honour and state that I am, unequivocally, an abuse survivor.

I used to believe that I was crazy. I 100% bought into the garbage, bullshit notions that my abusive partners fed me. From the time I was 15 years old, I was told/shown/convinced by them that I was the problem.

That my brain didn’t work properly.

That I was irrational, hot-headed, controlling, manipulative, pathetic, stupid, and ugly.

That I was never good enough and I was never thin enough.

I was told that I didn’t eat right. I didn’t dress acceptably. I had no true friends. My family didn’t love me. And, of course, that I couldn’t exist outside of the relationship I had with my partner.

I’ve crawled out of that pit of horrible lies and found ways to shed the misused and misunderstood parts of myself that were previously held against me. I’ve learned how to forge authentic connections with people, to be more assertive, to perceive my intuition again, and to understand things like my very real and very legitimate struggles with anxiety and depression.

Survival has often felt more difficult than maintaining the status quo. For a long time, the things that were familiar felt safer and more reliable than what was healthy and fulfilling. I had to put a fuck ton of work into making changes in my life (and the work isn’t nearly done yet!) and I had to do it in the face of the abusive situations I was in. It wasn’t easy, but it was essential for me to keep living.

I think the most amazing quality I’ve discovered in myself in the last few years is that I have grit. And I wholeheartedly believe that you have to be gritty to be a survivor.

Movies tell us that gritty characters are dark and stubbly, with gruff voices and gruff attitudes. Men (usually) played by people like Clint Eastwood, or Bruce Willis, or Christian Bale (when he uses his Batman voice). But I think grit can appear to be gentle. It can be quiet and soft. It can simply mean that you maintain an attitude of not giving up—that you keep going and keep trying.

To survive means to have grit, full stop. One doesn’t exist without the other. (And you don’t have to maintain stubble-y cheeks or speak in a gravelly voice to be gritty in real life. My Batman voice is pretty spot-on though…just ask my kids and they will confirm.)

I don’t know anyone who hasn’t faced hardship in their life because everyone has traumas and failures. We all struggle at times and we all feel like giving up sometimes. I don’t wish for anyone to go through what I have or worse. I do wish for everyone to have a reason to keep going though. We all have to survive and then maybe, dear god just maybe, we can start to thrive.

Owning the phrase, “I am a domestic abuse survivor” has been a cornerstone of my self-development in this journey and I would suggest that if you’re struggling right now, you should try to find ways to remind yourself that you can survive. Seriously…you have to say it out loud, or write it down and practice it like you would a piano piece or a pie crust recipe. Try it on like a shirt in a dressing room, then walk around in it and feel how it fits. 

I used to feel defeated and I used to believe that I was. Now I’ve seen that I can survive and I’ve used the power of language to internalize a survivor’s mentality. To be honest, it’s something I’ll have to continue to remind myself of, but I’m edging towards “thriving” and my life is hinting that I could move beyond survival mode.

Some days it feels unbelievable—that I am where I am—but I am here.

I am surviving.

I am a survivor.

xxJ

surviving + thriving in this messed up world; come at me, bro!


Emotional Abuse is All About…

I’ve been thinking lately about how to succinctly describe emotional abuse. Wondering, how do you put into a few words the cunning and cumulative manipulations that an emotional abuser uses? How do you talk about it swiftly, without going into gratuitous details about the put downs, verbal assaults, neglect, withholding, and other revolting behaviours an emotional abuser displays? How do you talk about the lifelong trauma that results from being emotionally abused, or how to parent after abuse, or how to co-parent with an emotionally abusive partner? How do you say all that in a just a few words??

It seems it’s impossible for me to stop the torrent of descriptors that come out of my mouth when someone asks me what emotional abuse is all about, but I do want to try and find a clearer and more direct way of conveying my understanding of it.

I think we need to find ways to summarize and express what emotional abuse (sometimes called “mental” abuse) is all about without overdoing it. We, as champions of sharing our experiences of emotional abuse, need to draw people in by not overwhelming them, while still conveying the magnitude of emotional abuse’s insidious nature.

“A healthy relationship will never require you to sacrifice your friends, your dreams, or your dignity.”

source

In the talk I gave recently I spent 20 minutes or so sharing my experience, describing emotional abuse, and offering ideas for managing post-abuse. There was also a great discussion afterwards, with people offering truly insightful and interesting comments and questions that led me to further extrapolate on my understanding of emotional abuse and my identity as an abuse survivor.

As I reflected on my talk later, I realized that in the end I could sum up emotional abuse using just six words:

Emotional abuse is all about control.

That’s really what it comes down to. It’s one person creating a significant power imbalance between themselves and another person, exerting control and maintaining it for as long as possible and in as many ways as possible. It’s constructing a powerful codependence in which one person benefits immensely from the suffering of another.

I think about my past relationships and these are the kinds of controlling behaviours that come to mind:

  • Being told what to wear/what not to wear
  • Being promised things repeatedly and then having those promises undone
  • Being expected to report about my whereabouts and goings-on, even when in my own house
  • Having a partner who never showed up on time or who consistently procrastinated getting ready, making us both chronically late
  • Telling me who I could spend time with (and who I couldn’t)
  • Using sex as a bargaining tool instead of an expression of affection

…I could go on, but I suspect that the picture’s becoming clear.

Emotional abuse is about control. Full stop. And it is just as harmful and just as scary as physical abuse. It carries an intense traumatic impact and on top of all of that, it can be impossible to prove because it can  happen so surreptitiously.

How would you summarize emotional abuse? What other ways might we succinctly categorize and explain what emotional abuse is and how it affects people? Or do you think I’ve summed it up accurately?

Finding new and better ways to describe emotional abuse is something I will continue to work on. Not only so I can continue to improve my own understanding, but also so that I can increase the vocabulary we use when talking about it and so that knowledge and compassion about this topic can build and develop. So that everyone knows that emotional abuse is real and understands that what it’s really about, is asserting and maintaining control in the worst, most calculated and cruel ways.

xxJ

The chains of control exerted by our abusers often feel like they are inescapable, but I’m living proof that you can break through them, even if the word “forever” hangs over you like a prison sentence. Remember this: absolutely nothing is forever.

Do It Anyway

“You might put your love and trust on the line
It’s risky, people love to tear that down
Let ’em try
Do it anyway
Risk it anyway”

Ben Folds Five

When I was a kid, I was terrified of roller coasters. There was absolutely no way in hell anyone was getting me to strap myself into a rickety bucket seat and go hurtling along a bumpy, terrifyingly tall and twisty train ride.

Nuh-uh. No way.

The truth was that I desperately wanted to be brave enough to ride a coaster. I was embarrassed of being wimpy and emotional about it and I hated feeling left behind by my peers. It took me until I was 14 to get up the courage to try a roller coaster. In Ontario, where I live, the quintessential theme park is Canada’s Wonderland. Living nearby in Brampton, my sisters and friends and I spent many summer days hanging around this wondrous playground. Resolutely determined to NOT be left behind again, I had to come up with something that would make the big rides less scary.

So how did I do it?

I told myself that all I needed to do was get in line and nothing more.

If I could just get into the line-up (which often took 1-2 hours to work your way through), then I could consider myself committed and unable to back out. (I know that technically I *could* have backed out, but in my mind that was NOT an option.)

This idea—the idea of just “getting in line”—has become a quintessential tool for me whenever I face seemingly scary things in my life. When I’m feeling anxious in anticipation of something new or something uncomfortable, I can simply tell myself that if I just take the first step and “get in line”, I’ll be able to manage whatever comes next.

I mean, I haven’t lost a limb on a roller coaster yet, so clearly the technique works!

This week I’m doing my first ever professional speaking gig. Damnit I’m scared! And excited! (But mostly scared…)

This is something I’ve wanted to do for a long time, but I couldn’t get myself in line to do it. Finally, a few months ago, I felt ready to step into the queue and commit myself to whatever happened.

It’s been a slow climb to that inevitable drop at the top since then, and tomorrow, my stomach will lift into my chest and I’ll be free-falling into my first experience of talking publicly about my history as an abuse survivor and person with mental illness. Yikes!

The song I quoted at the beginning of this post, Ben Fold Five’s “Do It Anyway”, takes to heart the idea that I’m hinting at with my roller-coaster-line-up analogy. We all have moments in our lives that feel scary or uncomfortable, but we have to do it anyway. The cost of NOT doing it is far too high. And in a world of too many people ignoring or undermining what really needs to be done, those of us who are brave enough to speak up and face what makes us feel icky are desperately needed.

So tomorrow, I’m doing it anyway. I’m going for it; taking the leap. Jumping off the cliff. Putting it all out there… Choose your cliché; I’m doing them all!

And on the other side will be the thrill of the ride; the rush of trying something new and the pride of speaking my truth. All of head/strong is an exercise in speaking up and speaking out, so I feel armed and ready to take another big step (publishing my blog was one of the first ones, obviously) and reach out even farther into the fray.

xxJ

Here we go! Weeeeeeeeeeee!