Struggling, falling, crashing and breaking. Gluing the pieces of our fractured lives back together and carrying on somehow. Crawling back to the starting line, trying to rise, then inevitably getting knocked back down again. Each time thinking I’ve found my feet, can begin to build things up, only to be hit with another setback that brings everything crashing down again. This has been the debilitating pattern of the past five years, each fresh round feeling harder, bringing me down further. The last few months have seen another mental health crisis, the worst yet, this time brought on by struggling to deal with events at school. The Head of Pastoral lied on Lily’s school record in order to cover up his own failings, in a way that makes me look like the world’s scummiest mother – but the school insisted that they weren’t going to change it. Despite having to fight so hard for my children over the past five years, having struggled (and largely failed) to get the school to provide both the academic and pastoral support they both need, school are essentially saying “We think you’re scum.” The last straw, anyone?
Knowing that this teacher is deliberately lying and misrepresenting our conversation took me back emotionally to having to fight Simon’s lies and accusations in court, the ongoing struggle to clear my name, to have someone, anyone, actually look at the evidence and believe me. In these situations you’re not only left fighting the abuse, or the failings of the school in this case, you’re then left fighting the ensuing lies about the situation. It re-triggered the PTSD that I thought I was largely getting over; back to severe depression, anxiety attacks, insomnia, daily life slipping through my fingers as I was left unable to catch onto the threads that hold us together.
Of course, it’s not just dealing with school that’s brought this on. It’s the ongoing battle to heal the PTSD caused by Simon’s abuse. The daily 24/7 difficulties of having a teenager with autism, ADHD, epilepsy and gender issues. The realisation that likely myself and my younger daughter are also on the spectrum, struggling day to day in our own way. The relentless battle of being a single mother, coping alone with the responsibilities. The same reluctant mantra playing through my head: It’s just too much.
My GP urged me to challenge the school, make a formal complaint, but I simply didn’t have the energy – my own survival was of more importance. Nor do I have any faith in the school’s ability to respond with objectivity. As I fought to recover, the realisation grew that I’m just too tired. Life here is too hard – trying to heal from trauma, cope with illness after illness, handle two incredibly challenging teenagers while struggling on with the daily demands, no support, no back up plan. When I get sick, whether that’s my physical or mental health, it all falls apart. And realistically, there’s nothing I can do to change it – we can’t afford to move house here unless it’s to a worse area, even further from school. Unless, that is, I opt for something more radical; shifting us over 150 miles North, to be nearer family, in hopefully a better house (heck, I’m just hoping for a parking space somewhere near my front door!), a school for Ivy within walking distance – or at least closer than 11 miles away, and the chance for Lily to attend a specialist music course. I’ve ummed and ahhed and agonised, but ultimately it seems the best option; the fresh start I was planning when we moved from The House in the Sky over two years ago, but never got the chance to have. For several weeks I found myself saying “I think it’s for the best, but I can’t quite decide…” before realising that the decision had already been made, deep down, and just need to be spoken out loud.
Advice on how to plant trees has changed in recent years; instead of being lashed to a stake that stands parallel to the trunk, it’s now thought best to put in a lower, diagonal stake that allows the growing tree to move with the wind. This way it will strengthen and gain more resilience, better able to withstand future storms.
I feel I have precious little resilience left. Looking at the storms I’ve had to weather in the past few years, some might say I’ve demonstrated incredible resilience – after all, I’m still standing. My answer is this: barely. In tree-speak, I’m like one of those wind-blasted thorn trees, gnarly and bent by Cornish winds, leaning at an alarming angle. Nothing is as it should be. Each setback seems to extract a higher and higher price on my mental health – and recently, the setbacks have been piling in on top of each other until breaking point has been well and truly passed. In truth, I don’t know how I’m still standing; my body seems to haul herself automatically through the days while my spirit remains curled up in the foetal position. Recent events brought me to a near-suicidal low after an argument with the children; apparently my attempts to get them into school on time and wearing the correct uniform make me unreasonable.
It was Ivy’s insistence that I was being ridiculous that somehow broke me, something she had no idea would trigger such a catastrophic state of mind. Of course, that was the word that Simon used almost non-stop during our disastrous mediation sessions, shouting me down with Ridiculous! Ridiculous! whenever I tried to speak the truth. I left that final session shaking and traumatised; the mediator should never have allowed it. Instead she seemed shocked that I had become upset and angry, that I wasn’t holding it together in the calm, rational manner that Simon was capable of, that so many abusers are capable of, smug in the knowledge that they are winning. There are so many aspects to domestic abuse that professionals need more awareness of, the subtle and insidious ways that abusers use to manipulate and control their victims. Simon’s ability to stay calm should never have been interpreted as proof that he was reasonable, nor that he was right – it’s only much later, with hindsight, that I can see the extent to which he was already lying, plotting and manipulating. You can’t win against someone who is willing to lie about absolutely everything, who will literally stop at nothing in order to get what they want (namely to destroy you) and all of the professionals involved were entirely taken in.
It wasn’t Ivy’s fault, she had no way of knowing the impact her words would have. To be triggered has become such an over-used buzzword, the millennial generation throwing it around for seemingly the slightest upset, the least bit of offence. To be triggered shouldn’t be equated to being over-sensitive, a special snowflake – realistically it means that you are unexpectedly floored by your reaction to what should be a non-event. It’s sudden, overwhelming panic, or shutdown or crisis. I should not have been upset by Ivy’s usage of one simple, inoffensive word, bad-mannered though it was. Instead, I spent the next few days feeling worthless, unable to carry on as normal in what seemed like an utterly pointless life. Feeling this low is exhausting and terrifying, and at times it’s only been the knowledge that I have kids to look after that’s carried me through it. None of this is a big red flag, a crisis call for help; I’ve gotten through it. Again. Resilience, I guess.
The garden is saving my life. Each time I go out there, I feel better. Gardening is a form of hope that the future will be better, we plant for the future. Having cleared the new flower bed for planting, I sorted through the plants I’d rescued from The House in the Sky to see what could go in along with the few new plants I’d bought. A lot of the old pots contained shrivelled up specimens of what used to be plants, or were overcrowded with weeds, and so I decided to take them down to the far end of the garden to get them out of the way. But as I picked up one pot and pulled out the weeds, I noticed a leaf. One single leaf poking through the dry soil that looked remarkably like a peony.
Back in the city years ago I’d tried to grow peonies without much success. They’re not keen on being moved and the plants I’d bought just wouldn’t settle in. When we moved to the House in the Sky though, there was a beautiful red peony near the front door, with gorgeous blowsy blooms. For seven years, I smiled at its flowers, not even wanting to pick them and bring them inside – they were too beautiful to cut. Once the decision to sell had been made, I had to agree to Simon sending in “gardeners” to tame the garden that we’d never fully taken control of, so overgrown was it by the time we bought the place from its elderly owners. Knowing that Astrid considered herself to be “good at gardening,” I had to specifically name her in the court agreement, that she was “not to attend the property” – otherwise Simon would bring her there each day so that they could get the house on the market as quickly as possible in order to buy their new home together. This woman who had been stalking me, spying on me, attacking me on social media, entering my home without permission, going through my belongings and papers – yes, Simon really was that tactless as to bring her to the house against my will. Even with the court agreement in place she still turned up at the house at least three times in the following week, at one point standing right outside the garden wall, shouting abuse at me in front of my children – You’re mad! You’re crazy! while Simon told the kids “Your mother is psychotic.” This because I objected to them breaking the court order, because I was upset and angry about being lied to and betrayed yet again, particularly as I had gritted my teeth and tried to be friendly towards Simon as he turned up at the house each day.
He hired “gardeners” to clear the garden, which they did using petrol-fuelled hedge-trimmers, slashing everything in sight. In desperation I tried to explain to them what should stay and what should go, otherwise they would literally have cut everything down to a stump, the old apple tree included. But they were Czech and barely spoke English, and my NO, don’t cut that was generally interpreted as No, I don’t want that. Meanwhile Yes, I want to keep this became Yes, please cut this down. I simply couldn’t win. I googled Czech phrases, we tied ribbons to the plants we wanted to keep and the kids hung signs on the apple tree, but it was too little too late. I sobbed indoors, hands around my head to block out the noise as they cut their way through the entire garden, then ran for my car and got the hell out of the destruction, unable to stop it, unable to cope with Simon strutting around the devastation like the Lord of the Manor, not even able to stop Astrid from constantly turning up. I stroked the leaves of my peony, trying to get them to understand, to save it. It was flowering, surely they could see how beautiful it was? When I came back, it was gone.
I’d dug up a few plants before the gardeners came, but wanted to rescue more plants to bring with me when I moved. I was too ill by then, bed-ridden with severe flu. Moving had become a disaster, Simon hadn’t even bothered to let the solicitor know that the money from the sale was supposed to fund my ongoing purchase. I could barely stand by that point, but was having to repeatedly haul myself off to the tip and charity shops. A last minute shout out to friends brought much needed help with clearing furniture that wasn’t going to fit into the much smaller new house. A friend offered to dig up any of the plants I wanted to bring – a few roses and a hazelnut were all I managed to remember; I didn’t even have the energy to make a proper list. But then, almost on the day of the move, I spotted something where the peony had once been. A small offshoot, a baby plant pushing through the soil where its parent had once sheltered it. A young seedling that probably would have been choked out by the dominance of the mother plant, if it had still been there. Carefully, I dug it out and into a pot. It was this same tiny peony that I found now, as I pulled the weeds out of its pot. One leaf poked up through the soil, so easily overlooked or thrown into the compost by mistake. I planted it in the new bed, whispered words of encouragement to it, watered it and crossed my fingers. Live. Please live.
Reading Think Small has reminded me of the need to set achievable, measurable goals (SMART goals) that I can tick off as they’re completed. Although I try to do this with the daily To Do list and often add tasks that I’ve already completed just so I can tick them off, Think Small has helped me to see how big dreams need to be broken down into daily habits if they’re ever to be achieved. As I’ve designated this to be A Year to Heal, it got me thinking about what steps I can take in order to help myself heal – I can’t guarantee that at the end of the year I’ll be 100% better, but I’m keen to move forward rather than stagnate. First things first – how will I recognise that I’m healed, what are the main issues that are currently causing problems?
I think the main clue that I’ve healed will be when I no longer feel the desire to drive a pickaxe through Simon or Astrid’s skulls. I wish I was joking. Anger and injustice still burn through me on a daily basis whenever the details of what happened creep into the back of my mind. At first I questioned why I felt so bad, so unsafe, after all there are many women going through far far worse and I wasn’t facing physical violence. However, the Domestic Abuse recovery course explained to me that the way Simon and Astrid were spying on me and stalking meant a violation of my sense of physical safety. That’s fundamental in terms of Maslov’s Hierarchy of Needs, the need for shelter and safety. Which means we’re dealing with something primal; the need to protect yourself and your children. If an intruder entered your home, went through your possessions, took things, threw things out, and threatened your and your children’s right to feel safe in your home, you’d wind up pretty angry – if you caught them in the act, you would be permitted by law to defend yourself, which basically equates to physically attacking them. The fact that the intruder was my ex-husband and his girlfriend doesn’t make the situation any more bearable – in fact, the violation is deeper, more personal. I trusted him. He betrayed my trust again and again, and for that I basically want to hurt him; of course I would never act on my homicidal urges, but at times the intensity of my feelings makes it feel as if I will never heal. The anger has nowhere to go, other than creating havoc in my mind and body. I will know I’m healing when the incessant rage dissipates.
Fundamentally I don’t feel safe. I don’t feel safe in my own home despite having moved house, a hangover from the past few years of being afraid to go out, of worrying that Simon or Astrid were waiting to swoop in and invade my home yet again. When we’ve gone away for the weekend to visit family I still worry that they will try to break in to my new home, I won’t let Lily have a key for this very reason. When I’m out and about, I don’t feel safe either, other than in a very few limited places that I’m fairly sure Simon and Astrid don’t visit. Hyper-vigilance is ever present, scanning the horizon like a meerkat sentinel, ready to dart back underground at the first sight of anyone who might be them. My chest is always tight with anxiety, my heart fragile and fast to the point where I’m scared about my health. I will know I’m healing when I start to feel safe in the world again – although given current global politics, this may be heard to achieve. At least, I will know I’m healing when I no longer carry this constant burden of anxiety and fear, when I don’t have a panic attack every time I see someone who looks like either of them.
My mind constantly replays the abuse, trying to explain what’s happened, trying to reason with Simon, rage at Astrid, rehearsing what I should tell the judge if I’m dragged through court again, and what I should have said last time. I struggle to get to sleep at night, resorting to listening to meditations and sleep hypnosis videos on YouTube. I wake in the early hours and my mind immediately picks up where it left off. This is part recrimination against my failures to achieve justice in court, and part preparation in case it happens again, protecting myself. In counselling, we discussed how Simon essentially tried to destroy me with lies and accusations, and that this constant inner voice arguing against him is a survival mechanism determined not to give up. Silencing it means killing off that small part of myself that has endured, has fought back. I need to find it a healthier channel, switch from PTSD 24/7 to Peace of Mind. I will know I’m healing when my mind is no longer caught in this incessant loop of recrimination and replaying.
Physically, I’m a wreck. I’m overweight from comfort eating and horribly unfit – particularly after developing plantar fasciitis last year which made it hard to walk. I have insomnia and am still prone to anxiety and panic attacks. It’s not possible to be this stressed for this long without a serious impact to health. I’m permanently exhausted, a combination of said anxiety and insomnia, plus two demanding teenagers and perimenopause. Self care has fallen off the bottom of the To Do list – I feel fat, frumpy and tired. I will know I’m healing when I start feeling fitter and more energetic, and able to better take care of myself. This includes a healthier relationship to food and making sure I get some form of exercise.
The house move was impossibly hard, made far worse by being bedridden with severe flu for the best part of two months while having to downsize to a house that was about a third of the size of our existing home. The stress around the move was unbearable, but I told myself that this was the worst part, once I’d moved I could look forward to a fresh start and take my time putting things in order, there was no hurry. What should have then been a year of gently setting up home turned instead into a second year of having to fight my corner in court and being consumed by stress and anxiety. Overwhelm is not a helpful emotion when trying to set up home. It’s now time to create a home that nourishes us, to reclaim my environment. One of Simon’s accusations was that I was a hoarder, which has resulted in a year of obsessively watching the Hoarders TV show – I think I can safely say that I’m not a hoarder, but ADHD means that I struggle with organisation and tend to be somewhat messy and cluttered, it’s hard to make decisions about what should go where, what to keep and what to let go of (and don’t get me started on the donate/sell issue.) When the outward circumstances of your life are acute stress, anxiety and chaos, it’s no wonder that your home environment begins to reflect this. I will know I am healed when I’ve been able to deal with the remaining clutter and feel like I’m managing on the domestic front; when our home feels nurturing rather than a source of stress, when I can let go of the feelings of guilt and shame that Simon’s accusations engendered. Also Simon – given the amount of old crap in boxes that you’d stashed in the attic which I discovered two days before the move, you should maybe not be throwing around accusations.
Previously I used to have friends round for impromptu bring and share gatherings, food, wine, laughter and good times, but that’s not happened for a long time, it stopped even before I moved house. It’s not just that my house is now too small, it’s also that having people in my home makes me feel anxious and on edge. Inviting a friend over for an Easter dinner was a major achievement, and even then I found it hard not to watch the clock. Having a workman here to fix the boiler was unbearable, particularly when he had to go into all the rooms, including my bedroom. I will know I’m healed when I’m able to have friends round without feeling that I’d rather be undergoing major root canal surgery.
My career, tiny though it was, has been destroyed. A post-divorce name change didn’t help, it feels like starting over, plus several of my existing contacts have moved on to pastures new. Stress meant having to stop working, I couldn’t focus on writing. My previous blog was used against me, a story of mine was used as evidence in court and I had the joy of a potential client turning out to be Simon and Astrid using a fake alias to try and entrap me. Now, at the point where I could be returning to work, it feels like my brain is entirely addled. It’s hard to focus on anything, hard to stick at things, difficult to know where I should be putting my energies. My confidence is at a low ebb, particularly with Simon’s insistence that I was deluded about my abilities as a writer. It’s hard to reach out to former colleagues, never mind forge new contacts – no, not hard, impossible in my current state of mind. More than that, I’m scared of putting anything of myself out into the world again in case Simon finds new ways to use it against me. I will know I’m healed when I’m able to write again, consistently and professionally.
I will know that I’m healed when I start looking forward to the day ahead instead of dreading it. When I no longer have to fight hard to find reasons to go on living, beyond looking after the kids. Ultimately I will know I’m healed when I’m able to leave the past in the past rather than having the abuse creep into every aspect of my daily life with its poisonous, painful reminders. And right now, it’s the hope that one day I will be healed that’s keeping me going.
“But you’re coping,” my Mum tells me over the phone.
“I’m not, I’m really not,” I answer, thinking of how every surface in the kitchen is covered in dirty dishes, that the living room is an obstacle course of clutter and empty cardboard boxes from the most recent DIY session, that every single room in the house is a mess, that none of us has had a shower all week, my grey roots are showing like a badger stripe, the kids aren’t keeping up with their homework, we’re risking intervention by the Attendance Officer due to Ivy’s recent bout of school refusal, Lily’s behaviour is becoming more and more problematic, I can’t get to sleep then wake at the crack of dawn so I’m permanently tired, that my heart feels like it’s racing out of my chest all day every day, I’m always on the verge of a panic attack, I look like a bag lady and also my car is now falling apart. The boiler is broken so there’s no heating or hot water, the shower is broken so we can’t wash properly, and I’m getting increasingly scared that the roof might need work too. Things are really not good.
“But you are,” she insists. “You’ve kept on going where others would have crumbled. You’re not hiding in a corner, refusing to come out.”
Hiding in a corner refusing to come out is exactly what I want to do. Before I even open my eyes in the morning, the wave of despair and nausea hits me. I can’t even bring myself to write my daily list of Gratitudes any more, having spent one evening scrawling I hate my shitty life all over my journal. The only reason that I haven’t taken to my bed and refused to come out is …drumroll… fear. Ah yes, fear and its cousin, anxiety, my constant companions of these past four years. The only reason I’m getting up and carrying on is the fear of what will happen if I don’t. Fear of further trouble with school, of social service intervention, of what Simon might do next if he suspects that I’m struggling to cope. Fear is not a great foundation to structure your life around; it’s exhausting, depressing and soul-destroying. Yet there it is – my life is a life spent in fear. Fear of what will come next. Fear that Simon will find yet another financial loophole and cut the child maintenance again, or another spurious reason for taking me to court. Fear that my kids are falling apart after everything we’ve been through and that I’m failing to get them the help they need. Fear that one or both of them will resort to self-harm, alcohol or drugs, even suicide. Fear that someone – Simon, probably – will report his concerns to social services, resulting in a dawn raid and child welfare officers inspecting every last messy, cobwebby corner of my home; this happened to a family I know, whose only crime was that their neighbour didn’t understand that they were home-educating. Fear that I’ll get into debt and potentially lose the house because of the costs of fixing the house up in the first place. Fear that I’m basically fucking up in ways that I don’t even know about yet but which are guaranteed to bring disaster to my doorstep.
Given Lily’s most recent episodes of challenging behaviour, which include threatening me with a knife, locking herself in her room with said knife, plus an increasing refusal to cooperate with even the basic tasks of cleaning her teeth and brushing her hair, school are keen to refer us to Early Help. From what I can gather, this is a low level of Social Service intervention – the soft, fluffy side of the SS, as it were. It would involve meeting a social worker to put together a CAF identifying the needs within the family – from prior experience, this would actually involve endless meetings with several different social workers as they keep quitting before the job gets done. Countless form-filling. A lot of box-ticking. And a whole lot of promises, most of which are never fulfilled due to staff shortages or funding falling through. It would also involve school informing Simon.
Ah. No, no, and no again. This would basically be handing Simon a nice shiny dagger so that he can stab me in the back far more effectively.
“Legally, we have to inform him as he has parental responsibility,” the pastoral teacher informs me. I want to scream. No. No he doesn’t have parental responsibility. Ivy hasn’t seen him in over a year, at her request, and he kicked Lily out of his house last December. In real terms I’m bringing the kids up on my own. Simon pays child maintenance and takes Lily out to lunch once every few weeks; that’s not parenting. The endless round of shopping, cooking, washing up, laundry, school runs, cleaning. Doctors, dentists, therapists, parents’ evening, pastoral meetings, endless chauffeuring. Nagging about homework, bedtimes, teeth-cleaning and showering. Making sure that they have fully-equipped pencil cases, that music lessons are paid for, school uniform provided, new trainers bought for PE. Listening to their problems, to their constant stream of chatter about TV shows, YouTubers, memes and bands. Straining the budget to try and provide the occasional treat, trying to give them positive experiences, good memories. Trying to provide them with the love and stability they need. Worrying. More worrying. Breaking up the fights. Begging them to help out occasionally. Guiding them through the angst of growing up. Always feeling that you’re never quite good enough, never quite managing enough, could never ever give them the childhood that they deserve, the perfect world you want them to live in. That’s parenting. If Simon had Lily to stay at his house for even one night a week, I would have to bite my tongue and accept his involvement. School makes a lot of noise about safeguarding; I understand how and why informing Simon is a legal obligation, yet ultimately it puts the children and myself at risk of further emotional, psychological and financial abuse. The only person they’re safeguarding is Simon.
We need support. I know from bitter experience that support is hard to come by. Both of the kids need more help than they’re getting, both of them have had referrals knocked back by CYPS – the Children and Young People’s Services. From what I understand, CYPS are now so over-stretched that they’re only taking on new referrals once your child has actually committed suicide, or so it seems. I’ve been taking Ivy to the GP for well over a year now for her anxiety, depression and OCD behaviours- all we’ve had is a referral to a local charity that offers a limited number of free counselling sessions. A couple of weeks ago we left the GP’s office feeling thoroughly patronised and frustrated after he more or less entirely ignored Ivy, didn’t ask her a single question, but told me in front of her that she “wouldn’t get any help unless she took a knife into school and threatened to kill herself.” That no help would be forthcoming until she was in crisis.
“How would he know whether or not I was in crisis” Ivy later pointed out, “He didn’t ask me a single question.”
I pointed out to him that his “advice” ran entirely counter to the advice that would be given to an adult with the same symptoms. No adult would be sent away with a pat on the head or be told that they wouldn’t get help unless they took a knife into their workplace and threatened to kill themselves. They’d immediately be referred to counselling, given medication, signed off work, encouraged to get all the support that was available. The sad reality is that, locally at least, there is absolutely no support for young people; the happy result of Tory cuts. This current generation of young people are having to endure a ridiculous amount of academic pressure in terms of both performance and attendance, record numbers of family break-ups, economic and environmental meltdown, and increasing global and political instability as well as watching the rise of the Far Right, racism and misogyny. I thought my teenager years were hard enough, my family’s various crises as bad as it got, my school as demanding as it was possible to be – I was wrong. My kids have got it harder. It’s heartbreaking to realise that their childhood is in fact harder than your own, their experiences worse, your ability to help them diminished.
Support then, is limited to whatever charities have sprung up to fill the gaps, or what you can pay for. Money might not buy you happiness, but it sure as hell solves a lot of problems. I’m paying for therapy for Ivy while watching Lily’s behaviour get worse; I’ve been trying for over ten years to get Lily the help she needs, with no success. I can’t even afford to pay for a dyslexia specialist to assess her, something which should surely be happening automatically in schools rather than being left to parents to pay for. How can anyone on benefits afford to pay around £500 for a dyslexia assessment for their child? Or £40 a week per child for a therapy session? No one should be told to wait until they’re in crisis before seeking help, let alone a child. No one should be in the position of being afraid of seeking support because that would mean the potential involvement of an abusive partner, or fear of reprisal. I’m left scared of taking up the offer of Early Help, particularly as there’s no concrete proof that it will result in any tangible help – yet I’m also scared that if I don’t willingly sign up to it, it will only take one more inevitable incident with Lily before school goes over my head and makes a referral to the not-so soft and fluffy element of the social services. Damned if I do, damned if I don’t. Meanwhile I’ve lost count of the number of people who have asked me “What support are you getting?” and reacted in alarm when I answer None. “Oh, but you need support, you must get support,” as if Support was something you could pick up off the supermarket shelf like a can of beans.
Yes. I am painfully aware that I need more Support. I am aware that my children need more Support. But unless you’re actually going to offer me some Support, you’re really not helping. Support for too many families has become a Holy Grail, a mythical unicorn that everyone has heard of but no one knows where to find. Or worse – that setting off on the quest of finding Support will bring further danger rather than help, Ralph Fiennes being imprisoned as a suspected spy while Kristin Scott Thomas lies rotting in the cave with her broken leg. “I’ll just pop you down here while I go and seek some support.” What could possibly go wrong?
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.
It’s no use pushing on too hard, trying to get back to normal without feeling all the feels. Neither does it help to stay in the dark room, wishing it was light.
What doesn’t kill you doesn’t necessarily make you stronger. Often it leaves you curled up in a foetal position, or sat rigid, staring into space, immobile. Fight, flight, or freeze. I have frozen.
In Britain we have a strange attitude to snow. Old news reels will show freezing winters, people trudging to work through drifts of snow, or skating on frozen ponds (I don’t know anyone who owns a pair of ice skates, so this one always puzzles me.) That was the Old Days though, and I can only remember one severe snowfall in my childhood; for the most part we’ve gotten used to Winters being relatively mild. We’re not Canada, or Norway, snow isn’t guaranteed, so when it does hit us, we’re completely unprepared. The entire nation stops. There are no buses, no trains, schools are closed. Snow Day! If you’re lucky, you live on a road that the gritters have passed through. If not, you have to question what is more important to you; fresh milk or your intact hip bones. As a child it’s soooo exciting to get in the snow and play. As an adult – especially as a single mother – it’s terrifying. Do we have enough food in the house? Will it be safe to drive if school opens tomorrow, or will there be ice on the hills? Is there a clear route to the shops? What if I fall and break my leg, how on earth will I look after the kids? It’s not economical to create the infrastructure necessary to keep the nation moving in heavy snow, when snow isn’t guaranteed every year, or might only sit for a couple of days. It snows, we stop. Frozen. We don’t seem to expect snow.
We don’t expect trauma.
We don’t expect a once loving husband to become a sociopathic stranger intent on destroying us. I didn’t.
We don’t know how to cope with trauma. Instantly we’re in a survival situation, the usual rules and routines no longer useful or appropriate. The ship has hit the iceberg and we’re left floundering in the icy water, trying to grab on to whatever will hold us up. Sometimes it takes a while before we even understand that the ship has gone down and we can’t understand why the usual routine isn’t working, why we’re up to our necks in water instead of sitting on the sofa. Overwhelm can drown us before we’ve got our bearings.
I fought, initally. I fought to hold my position, to prevent myself and my children being crushed by his selfish, vengeful actions. I refused to quietly give in and do as I was being told.
It just got worse.
Each of his lies was an attack, undermining me, destroying my reputation, maliciously unpicking the life we’d created together. Massive court documents with lie after lie on page after page. Literally every single statement was a lie, or a gross distortion of the truth. Reading it was traumatic. Trying to constantly defend myself was exhausting. Running around trying to get proof of my innocence was both exhausting and humiliating, writing to people I’d previously worked with, asking for statements confirming that I was no longer under any kind of contract to them. More running around trying to get proof of his guilt, struggling to get evidence from the police, the schools, the hospitals, the GP; the inability to afford a solicitor means that you’re easily ignored and no one will risk sticking their neck out. Meanwhile, the attacks kept coming. I no longer felt safe in my own home. I didn’t feel safe outside the home either.
Eventually, I broke. I froze. I don’t even remember the precise moment. Just the awareness that the most recent court papers required me to complete my statement. Now. Trying over and over again to put into words everything that had happened, to counteract all his lies, to set down the truth, each time giving up and starting over because it was taking too long, the judge wasn’t going to bother to read it. Sitting curled up on the sofa, unable to face opening the laptop and trying again, while time ticked away and the panic grew larger. My lawyer announcing two days before court that he wasn’t going to use any of my evidence. Lily, threatening to run away to her Dad’s in the week before court after an argument with her sister – not because you’ve done anything Mum, I just need a break – and me begging her not to leave because Simon would use it against me. The horror of fresh allegations thrown at me in the waiting room and realising that Simon had already won before we even set foot in the court room. Realising how stupid, how naive and trusting I’d been. Realising he was laughing at me. Realising that he had got away with it. All of it.
Life carries on. No matter how bad your situation may be, the world doesn’t stop. You want it to, you desperately want to press pause on your life, catch your breath, rest, but you can’t. Eventually you realise that life has become a series of days to get through rather than something to be cherished. You go through the motions, dragging your weary body out of bed, trying to push yourself through the tasks of the day. Usually, only the barest of essentials get completed. Time seems to disappear. You’re not sure where it goes, what’s happening to you. You feel like a failure. Frozen. If only the world would freeze alongside us.
Am I, as Jack Canfield says, waiting? Or am I frozen? Unable to make decisions, unable to move forward. Wanting to heal, but not knowing how. Does time really heal? From where I sit, it seems as if I could easily spend the rest of my life in this frozen state, alive but not really living. Surely it’s life that heals, not time? The decision that I will heal, that I won’t allow him to destroy the rest of my life. I have faith that it will get better. That one day, I won’t feel the tension and anxiety in my guts at the merest thought of him and all that he’s done. That perhaps one day, I won’t think of him at all. And yet, I’m not so sure that it will happen just by waiting. Healing is an active choice that needs to be made moment after moment after moment. We take as many steps back as we do forwards, and yet we must continue to move on. We have to learn to sit with the pain, allow our bodies to process what we’ve been through. It’s no use pushing on too hard, trying to get back to normal without feeling all the feels. Neither does it help to stay in the dark room, wishing it was light. It’s a balance – dark, then light, then dark again. Trusting that the light will shine again, while also doing our best to strike the match and hold the flame to the candle. Taking each gentle, tentative step, no matter how small, how slow. Waiting, yes, but also moving. Rubbing our frozen fingers over that tiny flame, encouraging the warmth of life to seep back in.
I will heal. I will find that new path. I will be patient with myself, knowing that it takes time. But I won’t wait, unmoving, in the hope that time itself will do the trick. My waiting will be born of self compassion and faith, not of being frozen in fear. I will learn to listen to my body, my heart, my soul and start to give myself what I need.