My depression last year started with a sense of being haunted, haunted by the abuse of my past. In January 2017, I was injured. The injury technically occurred while practicing martial arts, but my ribs had been weakened by past abuse.
Haunted by Past Abuse
I heard his threats echo over the distance I had gained from my time as his victim. “Even if you leave me and think you can have some other life, I’ll be there. Just when you feel nice and safe, I’ll come knocking at your back door.”
There I was, feeling like he still had a say in my life, seven years after the last time he had attacked me. The happiness and sense of self I had worked so hard to establish fell away.
Due to my new physical injuries, I dropped out of my university classes and stopped working. My ghost of marriage-past was soon joined by the ghost of childhood trauma. By the start of summer, I moved twice and had a couple stress-filled trips to CA. A family issue had gone to court, and I wanted to offer what support I could. There, I was all-too-reminded of my father’s belief that he owns me.
By late summer, I wasn’t taking care of myself financially. I struggled to get back into the workforce, and I wasn’t in school. Echoes from my past filled each moment of every day. “You’re worse than worthless. You’re a taker.”
By the time I got back to working, Henry wasn’t in running order. I walked or bussed over an hour each way for work shifts. Every part of my day took everything I had to keep myself from completely breaking down as well.
I felt hopeless.
The ghosts told me I would never truly be free from my abusers regardless of how much time had passed or how hard I worked to heal from abuse.
My new primary care physician quickly realized my depression was severe. She encouraged me to consider a pharmaceutical anti-depressant. I didn’t think anything would help, and I was accustomed to being told I was a statistical outlier in many situations. I feared the worst side effects with no relief from the depression. I rejected antidepressants for months.
Another Part of My Past
Catching up with an acquaintance, I cried when she asked about my plans to return to school. I didn’t know when, or even if, I would be able to go back. Later that day, I realized that if I was that upset about not doing something (i.e. finishing my degree), then I needed to find a way to do it. My first mantra I made for myself back when I started therapy through the California Victim’s Compensation Program called out over all the ghosts haunting me. “I am willing to change in ways I cannot foresee.” That mantra gave me courage to get my life back.
“I am willing to change in ways I cannot foresee.”
I made appointments with academic advisors at my school and with my primary care physician. I told my doctor I had reconsidered trying an antidepressant. I was scared, but I had to try whatever I could.
That was over three months ago. I have had some side effects that passed, but most important, the deep depression has lifted. Now, I’m wrapping up my first term back in school, and I’m determined to graduate in March 2019.
Depression Kept Me from Seeing Myself
Therapy has taught me my abuse was not normal. In my depression, I didn’t see myself as someone who could get relief in such a normal, expected way. I had lost my ability to see myself as a college graduate. For a lot of 2017, I didn’t see myself being able to truly move on from my past abuse. But my mantra reminded me that lack of vision didn’t have to stop me. I could change in ways I had never imagined before.
Henry and I have been together more than twelve years. I often call him the love of my life. He has seen me through an abusive marriage, a long-term relationship, periods of homelessness, the loss of my dog — everything. He has seen my trials and tribulations and the countless times I’ve fallen short. I have relied on him, and he has not let me down.
Henry is my Volkswagen. He is a fully anthropomorphized 1969 Type 2, a hippie bus, with camper interior, a hard-top, and jalousie windows.
He has found his way into the hearts of And Be Happy readers. Chapter four, titled “Henry”, is the story of how we met. It chronicles my shift from wanting nothing to do with him to adopting him as a symbol of my ability to take care of myself. I lived most of my life without a sense of home, but in Henry, I can feel at home anywhere.
Everyone Loves Henry
As much as I love Henry, I had not anticipated the reception he has received from readers and new friends. I still get caught off-guard at the excitement they share when they meet him for the first time. Sometimes I will be flagged-down when new acquaintances recognize me at a traffic stop. We roll down our respective windows, and they yell across from their lane, “Is that Henry?” When I confirm that it is Henry, they invariably address him with something like, “Hi, Henry,” or, “It’s so nice to meet you, Henry.” Readers from out of my area have written asking if I still have Henry and rejoice when they hear that we are still going strong.
When I have a problem to solve, Henry usually has a part in its solution. A drive in Henry can cheer me up, take me to the ocean, get me away from a stressful situation, and hold all the supplies for the ridiculous number of things I want to accomplish on any given day. I have napped in him between double-shifts. I have had private space to meditate or even cry, and I have shown him off to fascinate my friends’ children.
He elicits smiles and waves from strangers passing by. He inspires story-sharing from passersby in parking lots or the gas station. He’s been with me since I was nineteen, and I can’t imagine my life without him. He keeps putting along, despite my low level of skill in maintaining him.
Henry Makes Everything Better
I recently had an all-too-real taste of what life would be like without Henry. I spent a few months without him in operable condition, and it was one of the biggest stresses in my already stressful summer. I felt so restrained. I couldn’t accept some of the work I wanted. I had to hike my groceries home on foot. I struggled to look at new places to live because public transportation took up so much time. Worst of all, I couldn’t freely visit my family down in California, and it was a summer full of family issues I wanted to be around for.
Now you’ve met Henry. I’ve referenced him in past posts, but he’s never gotten much of an introduction. Future posts will reference him and his influence in my life, and I didn’t want you to feel lost.
I generally hate touching. I don’t want my friends to hug me; I don’t like crowded seating, and don’t even get me started on people touching my hair. Still, I chose to practice jiu-jitsu, which requires I can best describe to the uninitiated as “hug fighting.” My training partner / opponent and I are all up on each other. We roll around on the mat like a blur of colors and limbs from a Tom & Jerry cartoon cat fight. It’s fast, up-close, and personal. It’s also dangerous if we aren’t both paying attention.
A fighter “taps” or “taps out” to signal they give in to their opponent’s attack. Since every body moves with different parameters, training partners (and competitors) rely on the tap to know when safe limits have been met. This is communicated either by clearly saying “tap”, double-tapping a foot on the mat, or using a hand to double-tap one’s partner. If I don’t tap, I can get hurt. Still, I took a long time to adopt this critical skill.
I am not at all used to my words listened to. I am not accustomed to being able to stop someone from hurting me by telling them it was time to stop. My father had a very “I’ll give you something to cry about” attitude. My ex-husband would intensify his assault when I asked or begged him to stop. When I hurt was when he started to have a good time. Why would these strangers stop when I asked them to? Because they should? Well, people say fathers should love their daughters, and that husbands should be safe company for their spouses. Yet all those “shoulds” mean nothing to those of us whose lives have been dominated by abuse.
But I couldn’t practice jiu-jitsu, the sudden and total love of my life, without learning to tap.
I finally realized it was a two-way street. My training partners trusted me. They trusted me to respect to their taps and to tap for myself. They couldn’t practice the finer points of their submissions (finishing moves) if they couldn’t count on me to cut them off in time. I had never been trusted in that way before. Accusing me of being untrustworthy was a tool of manipulation used by abusers in my past, but this is my new life.
I made myself try it, and it worked. It worked at my gym. It worked at gyms I visited while traveling. It worked at competition. Someone stopping when I told them it was time became. . . normal
One year later, tapping is second nature to me. The ability to remain safe while doing what I love hasn’t stopped at the gym doors. I noticed how often I had been keeping quiet out of fear instead of advocating for myself when appropriate. Now, I speak up despite that remaining fear.
In big ways: I ran for and hold a board position on my local community council. I voice my opposition to elements of the status quo that keep my neighborhood from being a place safe from domestic violence and from stigma against survivors. In the midst of any negative response, I am at least visible enough for allies to find me.
In small ways: I asked a smoker to move to the smoking area at the bus stop last week. He didn’t laugh a drag-full of smoke in my face; he thanked me for telling him about the designated area and moved.
Tapping serves as a constant reminder to me that relationships can go the way they “should.” My reasons for holding back on trust are valid, but they don’t necessarily reflect the facts in my new life. One tap at a time, I build on my new normal.
Everyone Recovers Differently
You might not see your own story reflected in my posts on recovery from domestic violence. That is all the more reason I invite you to comment below. I can only speak to my own experiences and relate what others have shared with me. The domestic violence in my past is just a drop in the bucket. I made AfterDomesticViolence.com for everyone recovering from domestic abuse. Since domestic violence comes in as many variations as there are victims, your story and your journey matter. Sharing your feelings and thoughts can help in two ways.
Share Your Story, Heal Yourself
Whether your thoughts are positive or negative, giving them a venue can help you. Letting out negative emotions like fear or self-judgement creates an opportunity for others to support you. At the very least, you have me. Also, naming stressors can give a new perspective on them. Sometimes thoughts circle round and around in our minds and become bigger than necessary. I, in those cases, can lower my stress by “trapping” (as I think of it) my problem as words on a webpage. The situation goes from being a boogeyman I can’t quite see to black lines and squiggles I can look at.
Share Your Story, Heal Others
Your participation in conversations about recovery from domestic abuse helps others heal. Back to my point that isolation and domestic abuse go hand in hand, there are others out there who have not heard from someone like you about escaping violence. When victims think they are the only people who suffer a particular abuse tactic, they are more likely to believe they deserve the abuse. The same holds true regarding beliefs about PTSD symptoms. By sharing the good and the bad of your recovery, you can give hope and inspiration to the rest of us.
So what do you need support with right now? What triumphs do you want to shout from the rooftops? What frustrates you? What resources keep you going through the ups and downs of recovery? I look forward to reading what you have to say in the comments below.
Rebecca encourages survivors of domestic to speak about their experiences and to lean on each other for support.