Damn, I Wish It Was Easier.

Grief is a tricky, messy feeling. It manifests in many different ways and goes at a pace that is unique to each person who struggles with it. I’ve personally experienced the death of loved ones and I know what that grief feels like.

I still carry with me a sense of loss for those people I no longer have in my life, but I’ve learned that grief can also be a response to things other than literal death. In the counselling I’ve done these last few years, I’ve come to realize that I am living in a cycle of grief. Not because someone I loved has died, but because the life I thought I would live ended.

Just as it does when we grieve the death of another person, my grief ebbs and flows; it changes, but it still persists. Some days are easier than others, but last week, when I wrote about struggling at Christmas time, my grief was very present. The holidays bring out all the symptoms of my grief because this time of year highlights many of the difficult and lonely situations I have to face in my post-divorce/post-abuse life.

I’m not sure how many people consider the experience of a break-up, or divorce, or another significant life change, as something to grieve, but I now believe that part of what makes these break-ups so difficult is that in these situations, we have to learn to accept life without the person or things we thought we were going to have. The plans we made, the future we envisioned, the expectations we created; these are all things that may contribute to our sense of grief at the end of a relationship or during a big change in our circumstances.

The grief I am living with now is for losing the life I envisioned as a mother and the life I thought I would have as a wife. It’s also because of a deep sense of injustice that I haven’t been able to get over yet.

Imagine being away from your kids every other weekend and committing to this schedule until your children have grown. Consider for a moment what it would feel like to wake up on Christmas morning and not see your own kids. Imagine how it feels to answer phone calls when your child is with their other parent and tell them, as they beg you to let them come home, that you can’t come and get them (because a court order says they have to be with your former partner). Pretend for a minute that your baby is sick and you can’t hold them because you can’t be with them during their other parent’s access. Imagine that you have to explain to your kids over and over again why you and your partner have separated, but at the same time, you can’t say to them that the reason for this is a long-standing history of domestic abuse. 

This is how I experience life in a family of divorce and I will readily admit that it has been a devastating change for me to try to accept.

I once had someone tell me that giving up Christmas mornings and living through those teary phone calls are “necessary sacrifices” in order to save ourselves from an abusive or unhealthy partnership. It’s become a small comfort to tell myself that and I’ve looked for other ways to help assuage my grief. For example, soon after my separation from my husband, I wrote a little sentence that has become somewhat of a mantra to me, and I keep it in mind whenever my grief bubbles up and I feel guilty, sad, or angry about my circumstances.

I tell myself,

“I would always rather explain why I left, than why I didn’t.”

These words offer a little assurance when I start feeling triggered, but my grief is a constant in my life. It is present all the time and every day that I miss with my girls, every Christmas I don’t wake up to their happy faces, every birthday when we’re not together, every time they call and ask to come home, every time I am surrounded by friends and family in loving, intact relationships, I am reminded of my loss and reminded that this is how it will always be from now on.

Always, in the corner of my heart, I hold my grief.

Always, I feel it in my gut.

It is always there.

Much like how we need to acknowledge and accept that mental health can be just as debilitating as any other disease, we also need to see that grief is a reasonable response to loss and not just to death. As I said before, I used to think of grief as something we only experience when a person we care about dies. Now I see that grief really means experiencing profound loss of any kind and trying to come to terms with it.

So I allow myself to acknowledge my grief and I know that’s the best way to deal with it. I also know that I need to give myself permission to feel shitty sometimes; grief has no timeline, no schedule, no checklist and I need to make space for it on the difficult days. The only way to move through grief is to live through it.

Damn, I wish it was easier.

xxJ

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“Some pain is simply the normal grief of human existence. That is pain that I try to make room for. I honor my grief.” – Marianne Williamson

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.