Feminism

a new normal: the aftermath of recovery

[content note: trauma, recovery, PTSD]

I’m almost twenty-nine years old. For fourteen years, around half my life, I experienced abuse in various ways. I was physically abused as a child and teenager. I spent my teen years in a spiritually abusive church where I was emotionally, verbally, and spiritually abused by almost every significant adult in my life. I was sexually assaulted twice as a teenager. As an adult I was in an abusive intimate relationship– the emotional and verbal abuse was intensified, and sexual assault and rape became the backdrop to my life. I went to a fundamentalist Christian “college,” where the spiritual abuse continued.

I didn’t escape abusive environments or relationships until I was twenty-three. I’ve been out for almost six years, but didn’t really start attempting to work through everything until four years ago, and I didn’t start making any real progress until two years ago. The healing process is slow, and sometimes excruciating. One of the counselors I went to a few times– the one who told me I was a “poisoned well” and I shouldn’t consider dating Handsome— said that healing would be like “unkinking a hose,” and a more understated metaphor I’ve yet to find.

Over the past few years, I’ve met a lot of people with stories like mine. For many of my friends, peers, and colleagues, we spend a lot of time looking for help, looking for things to help our lives make sense. In that search, I’ve frequently bumped into books, lectures, seminars, tapes, YouTube videos, blog posts, etc, that all talk about healing from abuse and trauma. The problem I’ve encountered is that many of those things aren’t honest about what this process looks like.

They’re not deceptive, by and large, but they do tend to leave one with the impression that healing is a gradual slope upward, and that it leads to peace and recovery. They paint a hopeful picture filled with grace, compassion, and love– and to be perfectly honest, I think those sorts of resources are needful.

But, when I’m looking in the eyes of one of my dearest friends who feels utterly lost and confused because “hasn’t it been long enough? Shouldn’t I be better than this?”– or other women who are beating themselves up one side and down the other because they “don’t want to be a victim,” and they want to “move on” … I have to look at them and say that

I don’t think better looks like other people’s “normal.” I don’t think you can move on.

Better looks like me cleaning out my bathtub. A fleck of mold got on my hand, and I started screaming. Handsome came into the bathroom to find me curled up in the fetal position with my hand stretched out as far away as I could get it. He carried me out of the bathroom and washed my hand for me in our kitchen sink while I sobbed, then tucked me into bed and cuddled with me for an hour before I could even talk.

Better looks like me washing my hair before every road trip and packing dry shampoo. It looks like me standing in the shower at a hotel, shaking and trying not to scream when the shower curtain touches me, while Handsome washes my body and I keep my eyes screwed tight trying to pretend that we’re at home.

Better looks like Handsome and I getting ready for bed, and he takes off his belt and folds it in half to he can hang it up– and I jump away from him and cringe. I don’t know what, but something about his hand movements has my body convinced that I’m about to be hit. He’s never even remotely done anything that could make me think he’d ever hurt me– not with his words, not with his hands. But it doesn’t matter. I jump away from belts.

Better looks like me turning off the subwoofer during Jurassic World because the throbbing bass makes my chest hurt and my anxiety spike.

Better looks like me searching all over my house desperately searching for my cat during my Fourth of July barbecue because as much as I know that she’s afraid of the outdoors and wouldn’t have run away while the door was open, I also know that I won’t be able to convince JerkBrain that she’s ok and still home until I see her for myself.

Better looks like reminding myself to eat even when I’m sick, even when I feel like I don’t deserve to eat. It looks like me playing Farm Heroes Super Saga while I chew and swallow the meatloaf for dinner last night while I try not to think about what I’m doing– hoping I’ll manage to clean my plate this time. It looks like taking small portions when I’m out with family so they won’t ask questions.

Better looks like a nightstand crowded with meds that I take, every day, even though every time I swallow the miracle that makes my days survivable a sliver of myself whispers that if I were a better, more consistent, more hardworking person, I wouldn’t really need them.

Better looks like getting toward the end of the day and telling Handsome “I can’t make any more decisions.” I can’t decide what I want to do, what show I want to watch, what game I want to play, what book I want to read, what snack I want to eat, what blanket I want to cover my legs … so he makes all those choices for me because he cares about me.

Better looks like being thankful for flexeril because I don’t seem to have night terrors anymore, at least not that I can remember. I can’t remember nightmares, and I’ve never been so thankful that I don’t have to relive my rapes once or twice a week any longer.

Better looks like fighting with JerkBrain every workshift because I know that my body needs me to be gentle with it, that working my fingers to the bone does not determine my value and worth as a person. It looks like reminding myself that my employer finds my contributions substantive meaningful, even though I have fibromyalgia.

Better looks like nearly jumping out of my skin every time I see someone who looks my rapist at an airport or national monument because as much as I know that the chances are vanishingly small that I’d actually bump into him anywhere, I can’t shake the idea that maybe just maybe he decided to fly somewhere at Christmas that would take him through that airport.

***

I’ve been afraid to paint this particular portrait of my life because I don’t want to be discouraging. What suffering person wants to be told some of this might be forever? I know all those studies that talk about the long-term consequences of child abuse aren’t exactly uplifting. My brain is fundamentally different because of the beatings I’ve received, because of the times he raped me, because of the hellfire sermons I had imprinted into my bones. I have PTSD, I’m an abuse and rape victim, and those realities aren’t ever going away.

This does look better though. It does. Not better looks like me drinking myself into numbness for three days straight and blaring rock music so loud I couldn’t hear myself think. Not better looks like a panic attack making me vomit in a school hallway. Not better looks like not being able to have sex with my partner. Not better looks like waking up screaming.

I am getting better. I’m not the somewhat-terrifying ball of rage I was a few years ago. Some wounds don’t bleed anymore, some scars have faded. I’m genuinely happier, more content, more at peace. But a large part of why my life is so blissful– and I do often think of it that way– is due to the accommodations I’ve made. I take medications. I play smartphone games to distract me from my anxiety and pain. I spent a ridiculous sum of money on my cat, who we nicknamed “Anxiety Sponge” because holding her makes something in my chest unlock. I walk away from my computer and my phone on the weekends and read fantasy books voraciously.

Healing, in many ways, looks like learning to cope. It means finding crutches and using them. I’ve learned, slowly and painfully, that I can’t meet an impossible standard. I’m never going to be like someone who wasn’t abused for fourteen years.

We got a little beat up by people, by life. If there’s one thing I want every survivor to know, it’s that your hurts are real, and they deserve to be treated. Maybe that means surgery, or walking with a cane, or cortisone injections, or whatever you find that works. Find what works and do it. Maybe, like me, it means smartphone games, taking Xanax with you everywhere, and packing dry shampoo so you don’t have to wash your hair in a strange place.

Whatever it is, it’s ok.

Photo by Mitya Ku
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  • This is not discouraging at all. Recovery is not a continual, uphill climb from plateau to plateau. That’s something we’ve inherited from bad systematic theologies of sanctification.

    It’s like I tell the guys in my group: sometimes, it’s 3 steps forward, 2 steps back. Sometimes, it’s 2 steps forward, 8 steps back. Sometimes, it’s a single step forward. Knowing that’s the reality coupled with being gentle with ourselves is ultimately very -en-couraging. Thanks for sharing this.

  • I think people forget that it’s possible to have the emotional equivalent of physical dismembering in abusive relationships. They may not blow off physical parts so other’s eyes can see the results; and still, the body knows very well what has been done to the systemic interconnection between mind and body. That “amputation” will result in a lifelong difference when it comes to the meaning of “normal” and “healthy” or even “doing extremely well.”

    Yes, there are crutches, compensating habits, support systems, and other things that can be constructed to compensate for that loss, but they’re not going to function the way everyone else thinks of as normal.

    When I try to explain what happens in an abusive relationship, I always link emotions to nerves and injury to blatant physical trauma for this reason.

    People know someone who has lost an arm can’t help carry boxes around. They know someone whose nerves are on fire with pain is likely to yelp and say “Watch it!” when they bump into an injury by accident, and kick them out of the room if they do so on purpose. So the physical parallel gives them an understandable parallel for how people with emotional damage act and react.

    *sighs* If it were that easy to regrow the emotional limbs that were chopped off so early, then I’d certainly be thrilled at that wholeness. As it is, I’ve learned to be pretty good at fencing out the people who just don’t get it, so they can’t routinely (watch others or themselves) poke their fingers into exposed nerves and say, “Why are you screaming?”

  • Catherine Cavanaugh Martin

    Congratulations on your recovery so far and best wishes as you keep going! I have chronic migraine and fibromyalgia (with it’s attendant depression). It’s not abuse recovery, but it’s kind of similar. Migraine and fibromyalgia have traditionally been looked down on in the medical community and mine are severe enough that I haven’t worked in 10 years (and I’m a family doctor). Thanks for sharing your journey.

  • Thanks for this. I’ve never been as bad as your “not normal”, but a good ten years after I left my abusive situation I’m still not “normal”. Sometimes I think I must be defective, why aren’t I better yet? It’s easy to forget how far I’ve come, how much healing I’ve already had to do. It’s hard to look at what I have and say “this is good.” Thank you for sharing that I’m not the only one

  • Thank you for this, for your honesty and vulnerability. As a fellow survivor and PTSD sufferer, I can relate more than I care to admit. It was freeing, reading this. Perhaps I should consider my own list of what better looks like? Anyway, I agree with you, for what it’s worth. Some of what we deal with isn’t going to go away, because, like a life-threatening injury that leaves physical scars and alters our bodies, PTSD alters our minds and emotions – our lives – and it just is what it is. Accepting that, seeking “better” instead of “fixed”, has helped me more than anything else in my own journey.

  • gexpl

    Thank you for writing this honestly. I feel like every 6 months or so I come back to the question “why am I not over this yet?” I’m learning to come to terms with the fact that I may never be “over it” and that’s okay. That some of this is just part of who I am and I just need to cope. It’s hard though, when you feel that you’ve ingested so many societal messages that you need to just “grow up and get over it.”

    • Jackalope

      ” I’m learning to come to terms with the fact that I may never be “over it” and that’s okay. That some of this is just part of who I am and I just need to cope.” Yes, thank you. This has been a freeing realization to come to. Knowing that I will have some scars that continue affecting me for the rest of my life means I don’t have to wear myself out making them go all the way away. After I got that perspective, I felt so much better; the trauma is still there, but I don’t have to hate myself for not being over it. And every now and then I’ll realize, “Hey, Trauma-Related Issue X is actually much better than it was 3 years ago; I can see actual progress.” Even if Issues Y and Z are still there, it’s nice to know that some things are getting better, at least. But it’s truly over the course of, say, multiple YEARS that I see the difference, and usually when I’ve stopped paying attention for awhile (because I have my ways of working around it, coping, doing what I need to in order to make it through, and then I realize I need those things a bit less).

    • Kevin

      “So many societal messages that you need to just ‘grow up and get over it.’ ”

      The couple I know that I frequently refer to gets these messages(I’ve heard people say that about the wife more). I actually sent the husband the link to this article.

  • notleia

    I offer up a picture of the floofbutt and her fuzzy muppet toes.

  • Thanks for writing about this. And the part about knowing what sort of “crutches” you need and then using them- that’s really important.

  • Kevin

    Thank you for your willingness to talk about these things; it helps people out!

    CONTENT NOTE: Trauma discussion, spiritual abuse discussion

    I texted this link to an IRL friend. Some of the people I grew up with have labeled our environment abusive. Upon reading about spiritual abuse I wonder if *I* was abused: I still want to believe the best, but I see a lot of bad fruit! But C. S. Lewis observes that a tyranny for the benefit of its victims is worse than a tyranny that is blatantly hostile.

    The wife of the guy I texted the link said that as a result of something that came up in a discussion at their new church she had to go to the bathroom where she broke down and cried(something she says happens); she and other friends who have moved on have said they have moments of anger and wanting to just run.

    Of course other people I know say that the people who moved on just need to get over it, that the anger will just eat at them. (One guy who says this is infamous for being angry himself.)

  • archaeologist

    people misuse and abuse the word ‘abuse’. it is tossed around like candy and is used to play the victim card when in reality the person claiming to be abused were just normally taught and corrected while rejecting that correction and teaching.

    It is also a great word to avoid providing the right details to prove one was actually abused.

    • Beroli

      You know, one thing no one could claim with any credibility here at all, is that Samantha hasn’t given details of her abuse.

      So it’s lucky you didn’t suggest she didn’t.

      In fact, you don’t actually seem to have said anything that relates directly to anything here. Just heavily implied it. Very passive-aggressive. Cowardly. And in light of the blog and post you’re commenting on…thoroughly vicious, too. I’m glad I don’t have to look in a mirror and see you.

      • archaeologist

        That is because you do not see clearly with your abusive ways. See I can call abuse too whenever I feel like it even though you may not have been abusive.

        • The irony here is hilarious.

          Please read my comment policy [samanthapfield.com/comment-policy/] before you continue commenting here, archaeologist.

          • archaeologist

            i really do not care to post here. I saw your article and made a comment on how people abuse the word ‘abuse’ and use it to distort what took place in their lives.

            If you can’t handle opposition to your position then get out of the public eye and stop blogging

          • If you can’t handle abiding by comment policies, you should get off the internet.

            😀

          • spacegal2003

            Which, while possibly accurate, doesn’t to anything to move the conversation along. By stating that some people overuse the word abuse, you are implying that that is the case here, without any background on what the author has gone through and whether or not she has actually experienced abuse. What was your comment supposed to demonstrate? That the things she experienced weren’t as traumatic as she thinks? Why would you disbelieve her without any prior knowledge of the situation?

    • J.B.

      I’ve been stunned by some of the details in Sam’s linked articles, yes they bloody well are abuse. But ptsd isn’t always due to abuse, it can be how someone’s brain is wired to begin with. At it’s core it is fight or flight, and as an adaptation to a horrible situation can be maladaptive once in a safer place.

  • Xtiannolonger

    One of the things I discovered as I progressed from evangelical (that was morphing into fundamentalism in our church) to progressive (and eventually deconverting entirely) was that remaining in any church at all was extremely triggering for me. When I realized this, I made the final decision to walk away and have felt healthier for it. It’s been more than 40 years since many of my traumatic events, and I still struggle with some residual effects that I have to consciously counteract, but I can honestly say I am healthier when I’m not around “faith-speak”. And I find it humorous that getting my MA from Liberty was the final straw in deconverting… all of this within the past five years as I approached the end of my 6th decade of life. I feel more alive than I’ve ever felt before. My only regret is that I was too afraid to even consider the underlying problem because it threatened what I had been taught about faith. I wish you well on your life journey!

  • This is beautiful. My church/school was my hope for so long, yet when I realized it was quite fundamentalist and some teachings were literally wrong… I literally can’t go back into a church. It physically hurts.

    No matter how kind and generous they are, I have anxiety attacks. I’m scared they’ll know I lean liberal on many issues and reject me. I’m sick every time they ask questions that make me think they view me as a potential unsaved sinner needing their care. I feel hatred for my body and withdraw into myself, yet I also long to belong again (despite that I’d have to throw away some core beliefs). It’s awful and I’m scared to tell my Christian friends I still consider myself a Christian but cannot. go. to. church.

    I’m alway sad I’m not over this. The idea of “better”, however, is encouraging. Thank you for sharing, and much love and hope to you on your healing journey. <3

  • J.B.

    Thanks for posting this, it gives me helpful perspective.

  • Larissa Morgan

    As someone who has had to recover myself, from multiple transgressions against my essence, I am glad to read you ‘telling it like it is’– which is, a process. An often difficult process. There are back-slides and new traumas REALLY can send you careening over the edge… but resilience can slowly be built up as well. And we who have PTSD have a very powerful compassion that we can wield as well. Really appreciate you sharing this.