“When you turn the corner / And you run into yourself / Then you know that you have turned / All the corners that are left.” ~Langston Hughes
Nearly two years ago I left a long-term controlling and abusive relationship.
I didn’t know that I was in one. I just knew that I was desperate.
Abusers take everything away from you. I don’t just mean your money or your home or your children, although they take those as well. I mean everything, including your sense of self.
Toward the end of the relationship, I wrote in my journal: “I have nothing. Nothing. No future. No family. No home. Nothing. I don’t know what to do any more. There seems to be no hope.”
When I first left I had nowhere to go. I stayed in a hotel for a while and then moved to a pay-by-the week residence. I genuinely could not see any future for myself at that time.
When you read about leaving an abusive relationship, there is a lot of information about how hard it is to leave. It takes someone, on average, seven attempts.
It also can be dangerous to leave. Abusers escalate their behavior when they fear that they are losing their control over you. These are important things to be aware of.
What nobody seems to talk about, and perhaps there are good reasons why, is how hard it is to recover once all the dust has settled.
I have spoken to the police and been to court and had some excellent support from a domestic abuse charity. I have been to support groups. I feel like I’ve processed a lot of the abuse and that I am now able to move on from that trauma.
I have a truly amazing therapist, who recognized the situation I was in even when I was trying to hide it from myself. He helped me escape. I credit him with saving my life.
I have my own flat now that feels safe. I live in a nice area. I’ve made new friends and I am starting to feel part of the local community.
But two years on from this relationship, I still don’t know who I am.
Someone recently asked me what I like to watch on TV. I have no idea. I surrendered all TV-watching decision-making to my ex-partner because he had a tantrum if I put something on that he didn’t like.
I don’t know what I want to do for a job. Up until recently, I worked in my ex-partner’s field, even though it is a field I know little and care less about, because that’s what he wanted me to do. I don’t know what I care about.
Why am I telling you this? Because I am certain that I am not alone, but sometimes I feel very alone. And if you out there reading this also feel this terrible confusion about who you are and what you want to do, and you also feel alone, I want to tell you something…
You are not alone.
This is normal. This is okay. Not okay in the sense that it’s enjoyable or good, but okay in the sense that it is an understandable consequence of your journey.
You don’t have to feel like there is something especially wrong with you that you aren’t now skipping through the fields gleefully enjoying your freedom. Hooray! I can do whatever I want!
This is, I think, what people expect a domestic abuse survivor to do once they’ve gotten away from their partner. It’s what I wanted to do. The idea of finally having the freedom to do what I wanted was so exciting.
It fell down pretty quickly when I realized I didn’t know what I wanted.
Other than pancakes. I love making and eating pancakes. Hot pancakes with fresh lemon juice and sugar.
And therein lies an anchor that you can use to start rebuilding yourself and your life.
Start with something small.
When you are rebuilding yourself, it feels like this should be profound. You should find out what your values are. What your aspirations and dreams are.
This is like running a marathon without having done any training. You can’t start with the massive things. Start with the small things.
What do you like to eat for breakfast?
Even that is a big question for me because my ex-partner controlled my eating. I wasn’t always allowed to have breakfast. He didn’t do mornings, and if I woke him up making breakfast, he’d start screaming and threatening suicide.
One day I discovered by pure chance that I like pancakes. And I am sure of this. This is something small but something solid and real.
I can use this with other things in my life, to find out whether I like them or not. Do I feel about this the way I feel about pancakes? It sounds ridiculous but it works for me.
It’s okay to change your mind.
This is a big one. When your life has been unstable because you’ve been constantly gaslit, and subject to the shifting and changing rules that a controlling person indulges in, you want stability.
You want things to stay the same. And you think that who you are and what you want should stay the same.
Pro tip: It doesn’t. Not even for “normal” people. And your mind has been infected with the thoughts and ideas of another person.
When you ask yourself what you want, sometimes it’s not your voice that replies. You may not recognize this at first. Later, you think, wait, that doesn’t feel right anymore.
You can change your mind. It’s okay. It’s normal.
I desperately wanted a cat for months. I bored everyone to tears telling them how much I wanted a cat. I looked up pictures of cats and mooned over cats and planned out names for my cats.
Now I don’t want a cat. Not that I don’t like cats, I just don’t feel ready to take on the commitment of a pet. And that’s okay.
Try stuff out.
Do you really like chocolate, or is it that your ex-partner liked chocolate? How do you know?
Try it out.
Do you like to sing? Try that out.
Maybe you find that you love to sing and you hate chocolate. Great. You’ve learned something about yourself.
I like pancakes, chocolate, and singing. I do not like marmalade.
Give yourself time.
I am eternally thankful that a lady in one of my support groups said, “It took me about six years to start feeling like myself again.” At that point I was about nine months out of the relationship and convinced I was a failure because I still felt completely unstable.
At this two-year point I catch myself feeling frustrated with myself for not having made more progress. Come on, Lily. Why don’t you know what you want to do with your life yet?
I don’t know because someone emptied out my mind and filled it with their ideas. And made the consequences for thinking differently from them completely catastrophic. I am still scared to hold the “wrong” opinion, even though these days nobody is going to throw heavy objects if I do.
My brain was rewired over a long period of time and it’s going to take time for me to fix that. This is okay. It’s not fun. It’s hard work. But it’s okay.
In the meantime, I am going to sing, make pancakes, and eat chocolate.