One of the surprising revelations that came from the recovery course I took with my local domestic abuse service was that it’s been proven that victims can suffer from a form of PTSD. Why this should be a surprise I don’t know, abuse is a form of trauma after all, so let’s put it down to the fact that Simon had been telling me for so long that he wasn’t being abusive, that I was being unreasonable etc. For a brief summary of PTSD symptoms head to www.adaa.org – I will hopefully eventually put together a list of helpful resources as there’s a lot of info out there, but for now, they sum it up as:
• Re-experiencing the trauma through intrusive distressing recollections of the event, flashbacks, and nightmares.
• Emotional numbness and avoidance of places, people, and activities that are reminders of the trauma.
• Increased arousal such as difficulty sleeping and concentrating, feeling jumpy, and being easily irritated and angered.
To which I will say yes, yes and yes again.
On a day to day basis I’m constantly re-living the abuse, whether that’s the actual events or more often, endlessly looping over what I should have said, what I should have done, the argument I should have had in court. A memory will sneak in and I’m suddenly triggered, lambasting both Simon and his new partner, Astrid, for what they’ve done to me and the kids. This will happen silently if I’m with others, my mind doing its own stuff while I drive the kids to school, or I’ll find myself yelling with rage as I drive back home again alone. At night, unable to sleep, I’m holding an imaginary conversation with the judge, telling him what he needs to know, trying to persuade him of my case. When I wake, none of it has been magically swept away in my sleep and I’m straight back into remembering how they are both insisting that they are the innocent victims of my abuse and harassment. Seriously? Was I coming into your home and spying on you? Was I taking photographs of your private documents while you were out of the house? Was I throwing out your possessions? Was I making malicious calls to the police and social services? Was I? …and now smile and make breakfast.
My mind is not my own, they have hijacked it. I have panic attacks, often while in the supermarket. I don’t feel safe. Hyper-vigilance is another constant, making me irritable, nervous and jumpy as I scan both real and imagined horizons for more threats. There are a limited number of places where I feel safe, there are places I avoid going. I feel drained, angry, exhausted and yet often numb, detached from those around me, unable to raise a smile when one of the kids tells a joke. Depressed.
And then, in the middle of it all, hopefully I become aware. Simon and Astrid are not actually here with me, unless my mind decides to let them in.
Mindfulness. Touted by my counsellor, by the domestic abuse team and endless Pinterest pins. Very effective, but so hard to achieve, particularly when all attempts at meditation are invaded by thoughts of Simon and Astrid AND ALL THE BLOODY THINGS THEY DID TO ME.
My mind is my own.
This is the basic tenet for healing. My mind is my own. They don’t get to take up valuable retail space in my brain. Beyond that, there’s a choice. Do I let thoughts of them continue to hijack my brain, or do I push them out? PTSD becomes a habitual mindset. Constantly re-playing events can feel like a safety valve, you’re preparing yourself in case it happens again. Because of course, there is no point in telling someone with PTSD not to worry, it might never happen- It has happened. It did happen, it was deeply traumatic, and now their brain is trying in its own screwball way to not let it happen again. Be prepared.Try and figure out what the heckity-pie you did wrong so you can stop it from happening again. So it’s easier to continue to allow those thoughts to dominate, even once we’ve become aware of what we’re doing – in effect, it doesn’t feel safe to choose a healthier mindset.
Healing requires that we push those thoughts out. And boy, at times it’s not easy to do so. We are entirely justified in our anger, in our anxiety, in our overwhelming sense of injustice. We can’t just let go, or move on, or forget about it – it doesn’t feel safe to do so, even if we knew how. Deep down, we can even worry that by letting go, we’re actually absolving the abusers from what they did, as if we’re now having to admit that none of it mattered, it’s all okay; this is particularly hard to deal with when it’s taken so long to recognise and admit the abuse in the first place.
My decision to heal does not make what they did any less wrong.
My decision to heal does not make me less safe.
My decision to let go does not mean that they were right.
My decision to move on does not mean that none of it mattered.
My mind is my own.
My top 10 tips for coping with PTSD repetitive/intrusive thinking:
- Recognise your main trigger activities – these are the times of the day when your mind is more likely to start chewing over what happened. For me, this is while driving or washing up. Make sure to plug up your brain against unwanted thoughts by having something else to focus on during these times, eg by listening to an interesting audio book, watching a movie (although not while driving!). I wouldn’t recommend just listening to music unless you’re going to sing along with it at the top of your voice as otherwise it’s still too easy for your thoughts to drift.
- Create a visual for pushing those thoughts out of your head. I literally imagine Simon and Astrid being swept out of my head by a large broom. Hell, sometimes I stick two fingers up, pull back the elastic and catapult them over the nearest hill. This visual helps to break up habitual patterns of thought. Whenever you catch unwanted thoughts creeping in, stop, take a deep breath and visualise getting rid of them; make this your new habit.
- Set aside an allotted time of the day/week where you are allowed to think about it. This can help to reassure the wounded part of you that fears being forgotten and therefore re-traumatised. Okay, I’m having intrusive thoughts. I’m not willing to go there now, but I’ll reschedule them for Tuesday at 7pm. If it makes you feel more secure, literally write it into your schedule. Tuesday, 7pm; worry, obsess and freak out. On Tuesday at 7pm, you might want to have a journalling session and try to process what you were feeling – or you might have forgotten all about it by then. Which is a good thing, by the way.
- Take up a new hobby, or deepen your skills with an existing one. Beginner’s mind means having to concentrate, which leaves no room for intrusive thoughts. Learn a new language with a free app such as Duolingo. Take up knitting or tackle a really tricky pattern or new technique if you’re already a knitter. Photography is a wonderful way of literally having to focus on something else. Soufflé. Yodel. Whittle. Don’t take any of this too seriously – the aim isn’t to stress yourself with a big new creative goal that you must achieve, but to gently distract your mind into a better place. Make sure it requires enough concentration though -colouring in probably isn’t going to get the job done.
- Chanting. Particularly while doing chores. Download a few Deva Premal tracks and chant along – it demands enough of your attention to distract you from your thoughts, but doesn’t stop you from doing what needs to be done. Try this also if you feel like you’re about to fall apart and don’t know what else to do.
- Use a mantra/gesture. Press your thumb against each finger pad in turn while chanting This too shall pass – one finger per word. Use whatever mantra/gesture combination works for you, although it’s best to keep it simple. Do this on repeat until it’s safe to stop.
- Beauty. More beauty. Even more beauty. No, not a new mascara, unless that particularly helps you. Surround yourself with gentleness and beauty. Avoid life’s harsher, uglier “truths,” stop watching the news until you’re feeling stronger. Be very mindful about what you’re taking in, and whether it’s ultimately going to heal or harm you. Go to beautiful, peaceful places such as flower gardens, sit and drink it in. You’re aiming to create a protective, beautiful bubble around yourself so that you can heal. Scary documentaries and depressing Oscar-winning dramas aren’t your friends right now, no matter how worthy. It’s also not the right time for grass-roots activism and protests. You can get back to fighting the good fight once you’re healed, otherwise you’re surrounding yourself with triggers and pain and will be sod all use to anyone.
- If the voices in your head are telling you that you’re at fault, you’re useless, worthless etc, don’t listen to them. Sounds obvious, but it’s not easy. Secretly, at least part of you believes you’re at fault, you’re useless, worthless etc – your abuser has invested a lot of time and energy into persuading you that this is the case. So you’re going to have to fake it until you make it. When you catch yourself thinking this way, just speak out loud, forcefully; No. I refuse to think this way. I’m healing and my mind is my own. It can be too hard to get ourselves to believe the opposite of the negative voices – I’m a precious Child of God! – meh –so focus on interrupting them and destroy the hold they have on you. Repeat; I’m healing and my mind is my own. No matter what counter-attack the voices make, what evidence they hold up in front of you; I’m healing and my mind is my own. You don’t have to start debating whether or not the negative voices are true, you’re saying that you’re not willing to be sucked into this particular argument, am I to blame or not? It doesn’t help and you’re not doing it. No debate, end of. I’m healing and my mind is my own. You might want to stick a Post-it of this on your mirror.
- You have insomnia, right? It’s really hard to control those thoughts at 3am when you’re exhausted and depressed. Use YouTube on your phone or tablet to play sleep hypnosis or meditation tracks, preferably ones with a voiceover rather than just instrumental. This can really help to drown out the unwanted thoughts, and who knows, maybe they’re having a positive effect while you drift off. A Gratitude journal just before bed, listing at least 3 things you’re grateful for, is also a good idea for putting yourself in a more positive mindset before sleeping.
- It goes without saying – get the support, help and therapy that you need. Don’t feel guilty about spending money on yourself as part of your healing. You’ve been through a trauma, you’ve been through abuse – these are things we shouldn’t have to deal with alone. See a counsellor (you can get a limited amount of counselling on the NHS here in the UK), go see a therapist. Talking therapy is known to help with PTSD and it’s soooo important to have your story witnessed and validated, especially when your abuser has tried to convince you that you’re the one at fault. Look into low-cost and pay-what-you-can-afford solutions. Contact your local domestic abuse helpline. Call The Samaritans if you’re struggling. Someone else’s actions have buggered up your brain, and you’re going to need help to un-bugger it (technical term.)
Basically, PTSD is like zombie mind-rats have taken over your brain. Your mind hasn’t been your own. You can barely remember what it was like before the zombie mind rats broke in, and have no idea how to stop them. All you can think about is Zombie! Mind-rats! In! My! Brain! It doesn’t help that everyone else is telling you to forget about the Zombie Mind-rats. They’re in your brain! They’re running the show, how can you forget them? No matter what you do, they’re still going to gnaw their way in and run round inside your head, causing havoc and pissing all over your mental health. You’re so used to them now that you don’t even question their right to be there. They’re your friends, after all, they’re trying to protect you from the even bigger monsters out there, or so they say, and even if you wanted to get rid of them, you’ve no idea how to do it.
You have to sweep them out. Every. Single. Day. As soon as you realise they’re there, sweep them out and plug up the gap to stop them from diving back in. No matter how overrun your mind has gotten, keep sweeping them out and filling up the holes, finding new positives to fill up the gaps. You deserve a brain that’s free of Zombie Mind Rats. You deserve a life that’s not ravaged by PTSD. You are healing and your mind is your own.