This is the second of a three-part series on domestic violence. Read Part 1 here.
Three days after I initiated my divorce, there was a thunderstorm. I found myself on my knees in the soft grass and pouring rain, feeling a complete and total sense of release and freedom. I prayed for a new life, feeling at that moment that this cleansing rain was sent just for me.
Although my journey through healing has not been as simple as this, it is the image that I hang on to when I feel like things are falling apart. I was not prepared for what life on this side of abuse could be like. Stories of survival often end at the moment the abuse ceases or when the victim escapes, and focuses on the realization that the abuse was not deserved. The rhetoric that abusers use often includes accusations that the victim is truly the one at fault for the actions of the abuser. The problem with the word “deserve” is that it can suggest that it is, in some way, possible for abuse to be deserved. “She did nothing to deserve this” could suggest that s/he did nothing, but could have. In my opinion, the word “deserving” must be eliminated entirely because there is no such thing as deserving abuse in any sense of the word.
For me, my struggle was not in believing that I didn’t deserve the abuse, but that I wasn’t entitled to a better life than one in which abuse was a part. My worldview had been shaped by abuse, and when I escaped it, I truly had no idea how to live without it. It wasn’t that I couldn’t live without my ex-husband, but rather I didn’t know how to live without fear. It was not simply that an aspect of life had changed or ended, but the paradigm in which life existed had been dramatically altered. This is what was most difficult for me to communicate; people assumed that I might struggle a little after the divorce but would be okay.
In the beginning, I couldn’t communicate my suffering, which led to me feeling more isolated and assuming that I must be weaker or more foolish than I thought, and kept me further from the tools that could help me heal. I felt overwhelmed but isolated, lonely but fearful of people, confused, and at times, desperate for any kind of peace or safety, even if the only place I could find it was in death. Yet, even at my darkest moment, I felt pulled back from a place of desolation to one of hope and strength, and my journey toward healing began when I was given the space to switch from pure survival to intentionally entering a space of recovery. What follows are three key aspects of my healing that have been the most profound. I hope this will illustrate that the journey to wellness is multifaceted and greatly varied.
Prayer & Mindfulness
You cannot pray trauma away. You cannot pray away pain that is so deeply ingrained that it has become part of your nervous system. Prayer is peace and introspection, opportunities to unburden the soul and seek strength, but it is not therapy.
At first I believed I could pray away the symptoms of my trauma, and that when those symptoms resurfaced, then I must not be praying hard enough or my prayer must not be pure enough, which added a dangerous and potent component to my anxiety. As I became more aware of the symptoms of trauma and how they work in the body and mind, I began to understand that prayer alone could not solve them. However, prayer did give me a safe and reassuring place to return to when I felt afraid. In that way, prayer became a source of strength rather than anxiety, offering me a space of quiet and allowing me to connect to God in a way that brought me peace and made me feel loved, the complete opposite of what I’d felt all those years in marriage.
In prayer, I found a space to feel the stillness around me, which helped me clear my mind and become more aware of myself and my thoughts. Mindfulness, a practice through which you become aware, without judgment, of your feelings and thoughts as a way of working through them, worked well with the peace I found in prayer. For me, mindfulness and prayer go hand in hand because they require a peaceful and focused mindset, but they wither in the face of self-judgment or ridicule. They provided me a space to be self-aware without fear, and to respond to myself with the same compassion and kindness that I sought from God or that I would offer someone else. Even today, this practice creates a source of calm and clarity in my life that has helped me from becoming mired in anxiety, fear or painful memory, and instead, I use that energy to help pick myself back up.
Engaging Mental Health
Nothing weakened my recovery so much as not understanding the impact of trauma on a human being. While some footprints are clear, like nightmares or flashbacks, at other times, I felt like I must simply be crazy and, as a result, treated myself with disdain, or felt hopeless and beyond. For example, I felt intensely hypersensitive to every emotional stimulus and was unable to control my emotions. I craved human contact and relationships but felt like I simply didn’t know how to have a healthy one, and slowly I came to understand that I had no idea what healthy love, of any kind, looked like. Conflictingly, I also felt disconnected from my physical reality, as if I existed in different realms; when I was not hypersensitive, I felt entirely numb. Prayer and mindfulness helped me feel calmer and identify where my triggers were actually coming from, but when a psychologist diagnosed me with post-traumatic stress disorder, I began to learn that not only was I not crazy or beyond help, but that my symptoms were very typical of survivors of domestic violence. Suddenly, I was not alone and was being provided with tools and support to handle my symptoms.
I found it helpful and supportive to research PTSD and symptoms other survivors struggle with, but reading and learning on my own was not enough. I wanted it to be, most of all because I was sure no one would be able to understand me, but by trying to go it alone I was assuming that I could be impartial and educated enough to fully access all the tools and resources available for the treatment of PTSD.
I was at first very resistant to working with a psychologist. I was especially concerned about a lack of cultural tolerance or sensitivity, or blatant Islamophobia, and unfortunately the first two therapists I worked with fit into this category. With the first, I felt like I had to constantly defend my choice to be a Muslim, among other things she did that made me uncomfortable. My second attempt was not much better. Fortunately, my third attempt was successful, and I found a therapist who was familiar with my cultural and religious background and who had a strong history of working with survivors of trauma, specifically women. She became my advocate. When I am not feeling strong enough to be mindful or calm, she helps me process my thoughts and emotions, and when I have moments of hopelessness or fear, she helps me remember that healing is a process and it is going to take more than a year to heal from 10 years of domestic violence.
The most challenging aspect of my recovery was in developing self-compassion. I wrestled with feelings of guilt and inadequacy around my trauma, sometimes treating myself with the same disdain and anger I received from my abuser. Interestingly, I met other women who seemed to believe that bullying themselves would somehow create a path to wellness. When my therapist asked why I treated myself so harshly, I realized that the only answer I could give was “because I am supposed to,” even while I cognitively understood this answer to be unjust and ugly. I learned this attitude from a variety of individuals, including my abuser and the self-bullying women I met. While at times it may have brought an immediate result (such as trying to be brave in a moment of fear), that result was always short-lived and ultimately irrelevant because it could not reasonably be sustained. It gave an illusion of healing in the same way that a drug may give a momentary feeling of happiness.
In my life, the antidote to this worldview was to develop a sense of self-compassion. Instead of treating myself with ridicule and cruelty, I would reflect on the fact that suffering is a part of the human condition. Would I treat other people who are suffering with the same harshness I was treating myself? If not (and of course not), then I could treat myself with the same support and compassion that I would for a dear friend. Instead of bullying myself when I experienced a symptom, or when I had a bad day or a difficult moment, responding to myself with compassion helped me accept the difficulty of the moment without judgment, which led to me finding a way through it and learning from it with greater ease and strength. I at first worried that self-compassion would lead to me making excuses for myself and hindering growth, but what I found was that when being self-compassionate, I was more inclined to be honest and forthcoming with myself because I no longer feared my own malice.
Recovering from trauma is not like recovering from the flu. I cannot take a medication or get two weeks of rest and then simply “let the past go.” The memory of those 10 years is in every cell and every neuron. I have my good days and bad days, and do my best to use the tools I’ve learned to manage my trauma so that I keep moving in a constant, progressive and positive direction. When my abusive relationship ended, I had no idea what would come next. I did not know how to live without abuse, and in many ways, I simply created my own. I understood that I did not deserve the abuse I suffered from my ex-husband, but I did not understand that I could live a life without any abuse at all, or that I was worth anything better than abuse in some fashion.
One of the most valuable and cherished results of my journey toward recovery is the realization that not only have the tools and techniques I’ve learned helped me heal, but they pushed me toward others who are suffering. Suffering that begins to heal can help create empathy, and that empathy can help create change. My hope is that by sharing a little part of my journey through recovery, someone else may find that not only do they not deserve to be abused, but that a life free from abuse is possible. It is easy to exist within the familiar, no matter how painful or frightening the familiar may be. Half the battle is fighting past the familiar and rebuilding it into a new reality. This can take years, but I find it comforting that the tools and techniques outlined above, as well as innumerable ones that I have not yet encountered or used, were forged and refined by others who survived and passed on their experiences, handing them down so that we would know we are not alone.