8 Self-care Techniques to Heal After Abuse
An amazing guest post by Elizabeth Brico from bettysbattleground.com
Disclaimer: This post is not meant to replace the advisement of a professional therapist or other appropriate services, but act as a supportive guide and encouragement. If you're in an abusive relationship the belief of the author from Makeit218 is the first and foremost importance is to leave your abusive partner.
One of the scariest parts of being in an abusive relationship is leaving.
If you have left, congratulations!
If you haven't yet but are considering it, I know how terrified you are. I know that you are divided in two; there's a part of you that lives in constant fear and wants to be free, and a part of you that is more scared of what will happen if you leave. A part of you that maybe even still loves your abuser.
It doesn't make sense to people on the outside, but I understand because I've been there. I was in an abusive relationship for four years, between the ages of sixteen and twenty. He fathered my first son, re-shaped my self-image, and left me with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
Let me tell you right now if you can at all avoid it, don't develop PTSD.
That may sound like a weird thing to say. You may even think it's cruel, but hear me out. PTSD doesn't only arise out of having experienced severe trauma. Just because you have lived through trauma does not mean you will be scarred by it.
PTSD arises from the combination of experiencing trauma and not having proper support afterward.
Once you have left an abusive relationship, you will need support. Part of the support is going to have to come from you. It took me nine years to realize how I can take care of myself after having been abused. These nine years have been grueling, sad, and scary, and if you add in the four years of abuse, I have lived thirteen years of my life in a state of utter misery.
But let me tell you this- If I can use what I have learned these past thirteen years to help you avoid developing PTSD, it will be worth it. So please, chica, listen. And if you already have PTSD, I am right there with you in that darkness. These are the things I am doing to help navigate back towards life.
This list is for people who have already left their abuser. If you are still figuring out how to leave, that needs to be your main focus. The best thing you can do to help yourself right now is to devise a safe action plan and enact it. The Aspire News app disguises as a regular news app on your phone but contains links to domestic violence resources that can help you create a safety plan.
Once you have done the bravest and most important thing for yourself, leaving your abuser, these self-care practices will help you heal.
Final disclaimer: These tips are not intended to replace therapy. Abuse is insidious. You will need professional help and that's okay. Don't be ashamed to seek it! These self-care techniques are things you can do at home to help yourself in concert with professional help.
1. Reach out for support
I remember how isolated I was after I first left my abuser. When I began dating him, I had more friends than I could count. By the end of our relationship, only a small handful was left, and many of those friendships were strained by the distance I had placed between us.
Abusers are notorious for isolating their victims from friends and family. It is a common tactic employed by most abusers. The more people in your life who you have influencing you, the less control he* has over you. You may have lost friends to silence, or you may have ended friendships either because he forced you to, or because you felt too ashamed or alienated to continue to see your friends/family.
I guarantee that if you tell your friends and family the reason why you have been distant, they will not hold it against you. You don't have to give them the grizzly details if you're not ready; just tell them the basics, and that you need help healing. Anyone who truly cares for you will be happy to help. I wrote an article (you can read the full article here) about ways in which someone can help a loved one who is being abused. Feel free to direct your friend and family there.
*Abuse does not discriminate, including sexual preference and gender. It can occur within any type of relationship and be perpetrated by any gender; however, statistics show that abuse is most commonly perpetrated by men against women. For the purposes of writing this article I will be using he/she pronouns, but know that if you do not fall in that dynamic, this can still apply to you.
2. Look in the mirror every day
And tell yourself two things. (Yes, out loud. You can't cheat.) You have to speak this. You have to hear these words. You have to feel the hum of their utterance. You have to draw them out and put them into the world. You don't have to believe them. You won't, not at first and probably not for a while. You're probably going to feel awkward and silly, but it's just sixty seconds, or less, out of your day, so do it. Vocalizing is a form of real-life magic, and right now you need some magic in your life. Here's the incantation:
-"I am beautiful."
This is probably not the first time some blog post has told you to say this aloud to your reflection. If you're anything like me, you rolled your eyes and scrolled on. This time, don't scroll. Roll your eyes if you must, but this time do it. Being abused chips away at your self-esteem. Whether it's physical, emotional, sexual, verbal or any combination, abuse is demeaning. It makes you see yourself in a different, uglier light. Seriously, trauma changes your brain. Your actual physical brain. There is a very good chance that what you see in the mirror is not even real. So you need to tell yourself the truth, that you are beautiful, over and over again, until your brain changes back. Here's the next one:
Remember how I said trauma changes your brain? (Like, right up there? ^) Besides making you see yourself as ugly and disfigured, it also makes you feel different. That can range but in some cases (my case) it can make you feel totally alien from the rest of humanity. As though you actually are, well, an alien. Or it can just make you feel dirty. Like there is a layer of filth embedded under your skin, and you start to believe that if people can't see it, they can at least sense it, like an aura of disgustingness that follows you everywhere. You need to remind yourself that you are not a freak, that your trauma does not define you, and that you do belong.
-"It's not fault."
Maybe say that one a few times. I remember the first time I went to the hospital because of my abuse injuries. My ex had been abusing me for a while, but this was the first time I had been able to slip away afterward to get checked out. I was seventeen, and one of the nurses paused while examining me, looked me directly in the eye and said: "It wasn't your fault."
"I know," I said, my voice weak and raspy from tears.
"No really," she said, "It's not your fault."
I didn't understand why she repeated that or why she was so forceful in stating it. I knew, of course, that it wasn't my fault. Intellectually, I knew that. But later I would catch myself thinking things that implied that it was my fault. Things like "if only I hadn't made that joke" (yes, he once beat me for telling a joke he didn't find funny), or "I shouldn't have worn that dress." I wasn't thinking "it's my fault," in those words, but I was still blaming myself. Chances are, you're doing the same in one form or another. But it's not your fault. So tell yourself. This is going to feel weird. I know that. But do it anyway. Do it until you believe it, and then keep doing it. Once a day, every morning. Again at night, if you can stomach it.
3. Do something you love, that your abuser hated
Don't misunderstand this one. I'm not telling you to act out of spite. That's not healthy. I don't mean for you to go out and do something your abuser hated that you don't really like yourself, or that you feel blah about. But if your experience was anything like mine (and abusers are honestly not that unique, so it probably was), then your abuser criticized or outright forbade you from doing something that you loved. Even if he didn't directly stop you from something, the abuse may have gotten you so depressed that you stopped enjoying the things you loved.
Whether it was visiting with a particular friend, taking acting classes, eating certain foods, wearing a particular dress, painting, or whatever; go do that thing you love! It is probably going to be scary at first. Scratch that: terrifying. Your neurological pathways have been carved to re-associate what you once loved with fear. That's exactly why it's so important to do it, and keep doing it, again and again, until you genuinely love it again. It is really important that you work through the fear now so that your brain doesn't become further programmed to associate what you love with danger.
4. Keep a journal
Maybe you're already an avid journaler, but chances are that you either started lying in your entries or stopped journaling altogether, while you were in an abusive relationship. It's dangerous to keep a diary when you're being abused. There's pretty much no chance your abuser will respect your privacy and a high likelihood that he'll use what you write as an excuse to belittle or harm you.
But now you're free. And keeping a journal is an important part of your self-care routine. I don't suggest that you start writing directly about your abuse unless you feel comfortable doing so and definitely want to. Personally, I found the abuse memories too difficult to visit on my own. Instead of writing about your past, write about now. Write about the day you have just experienced. Keep a record of the ups and downs. That way you will know what is making you happy, so you can do more of it, and what is causing your problems, so you can work through it.
Trauma blogger Sheila O'Donnell recently introduced me to the G.L.A.D technique I'll be honest, I haven't gotten around to trying it yet, but I trust Sheila, and she swears by it. It sounds pretty helpful, so I'll share a quick outline with you.
G.L.A.D. is an acronym and it stands for: "Gratitude," "Learned," "Accomplishment," "Delight." You write something about your day that you're grateful about, something you learned, something you accomplished, and something that delighted you. They can be big or small. An accomplishment could be getting out of bed, or it could be landing your dream job. The purpose is to change your brain from sadness and anger to joy and gratitude, and there's a lot of new science to back it up. I'm going to give it a try, so why don't we start together?
5. Fictionalize your trauma
This I have done. A lot. Besides blogging it has probably been the single-most healing self-care technique I have done. In fact, I would not have been able to start blogging about my trauma if it had not been for fiction writing.
Personally, I have gone to tons of school for writing and I aspire to be a professional fiction writer. But writing doesn't have to be your big dream for this to be helpful. Writing about your traumatic events is an established therapeutic practice, but it can be pretty difficult and possibly re-traumatizing without supervision. Writing my trauma through fiction has allowed me to get the benefits of the practice, without the re-traumatic side effects. It allows me to process my experiences while also putting distance between them. I get to see the events from an outside perspective. Don't be afraid to radically change the events. I love sci-fi, so I will often write about my trauma in the background of a post-apocalyptic dystopia or an alien planet. Don't worry about it being "good." This is just for you. If you decide you like something and want to edit it later and send it out to be published-awesome! But if not, that's fine too. The purpose is to explore the emotions and experience of abuse surrounding your trauma while putting some distance between you and your trauma.
If writing about your trauma even as a fictional event is too difficult for you at first, try drawing it. This doesn't have to mean drawing literal depictions of the events, though it can if that's what you feel is right for you. It can just be scribbling with crayons or splattering paint onto a canvas. It's about the process of expression, not the final product.
6. Practice mindfulness
Meditation is a wonderful tool for helping with trauma. But I don't mean meditation in the way that most people think of it. Most people hear meditation and imagine someone sitting with their eyes closed, fingers looped above crossed knees, serene expression on the face while magical flowers twirl out of their skull. Okay, maybe not the last part...but seriously, sitting meditation is what comes to most people's minds when they hear the word "mindfulness."
Sitting meditation is great, and if you can do it, go for it. Be aware, however, that many people who have experienced trauma have a lot of trouble with sitting meditation. I know I do. The stillness of it causes my mind to wander back to the traumatic events, and because I have PTSD, it can even cause flashbacks. There are other, safer ways to be mindful so if you find that sitting meditation doesn't work for you, don't worry.
I enjoy moving meditation. That includes yoga, which you can do at home or in a studio. It can also just be walking while focusing on each step and the breaths you take. I recently shared my mindful version of cooking with another trauma survivor and she reported that it helped her too! Basically, you cook something. Yep, that simple! Well, there's a little more to it, but not much.
Pick something flavorful and filled with many different "anchors" such as texture, scent, etc, a herbacious Indian curry is a great choice, for example. While you are cooking, focus intently on each action. Feel the texture of the carrots, inhale the scent. Make sure to take note of each small thing. Try your best not to pass judgment (positive or negative) as you do this, although if you do, don't fret about it. Just move on to the next action. It is a wonderful grounding technique, and yes, it does count as meditation.
Whatever your preferred method of mindfulness, and yes, you can rotate between methods, try to do 5-15 minutes of mindful meditation each day.
7. Do something which involves being touched gently by a stranger
Sound weird? Don't worry, I don't mean anything to off-color. I just mean something like getting a massage. This is an important part of self-care after abuse because you have been isolated by your abuser, and you are no longer used to gentle touch. You may not realize it, but being touched in gentle ways by a stranger is actually a normal part of life within society. Abuse takes you outside of society, and if you don't force yourself to return now, you will find it much more difficult to engage in normal communal activities later.
I rarely get my hair cut because of my PTSD. I am that afraid of being touched by strangers. It's something I am working on now. I used the example of a massage earlier; if you want to do that, great, go for it. But know that trauma gets trapped within the body, and getting your muscles massaged may cause some of it to be released. That's ultimately healthy but could make for an uncomfortable experience. If you're not ready for that, just book a hair cut. Yep, that totally counts for this self-care exercise. Pedicures or manicures count too. Even a dentist appointment counts, though that may not be as much fun as the others.
8. Date yourself
Take yourself to that cool new restaurant you had been wanting to try out. If that's not in the budget, cook yourself a delicious meal. Send yourself flowers. Take yourself to the spa. Get to know yourself again. While you were in your abusive relationship, you were overshadowed by your abuser's desires and his fear of being caught, which you undoubtedly adopted. Now, get to know yourself again. What do you like? What don't you like? What makes you happy? What bugs you?
It's important to remember who you are and why you are a valid, important person.
Get to know yourself in the bedroom again too. I won't go into too many details here but...you know what I mean. Chances are, your abuser wasn't taking much care of you in that department either. It's going to be uncomfortable at first, but as long as "uncomfortable" doesn't mean painful or triggering, work through the discomfort until it's, well, pleasurable. If it painful or triggering, then you will need to bring this up with your therapist. If that's something you need to do, don't feel ashamed. A lot of sexual assault survivors have trouble with sex after leaving their abuser, myself included. It won't be anything your therapist hasn't dealt with before.
Remember: It's important to connect with others, but it's also important to connect with yourself. As much as you may want to rush into another relationship or "rebound," try to wait. People who have been in an abusive relationship are more likely to enter into another abusive relationship. The best way to ensure you don't fall into that trap is to wait before starting a new relationship until you have healed some and built up your self-esteem.
Self-care is important for everyone, but especially after abuse. What happened to you was not okay. You did not deserve it. It was not your fault. Nonetheless, it happened, and even though it's not fair, it is in your hands to heal from it. There are people who will help you, but the journey, ultimately, is your own. These eight self-care techniques will help you heal and reconnect with that wonderful, and so very important person: You. Don't ever forget that you deserve to feel better.
Good luck on your journey.
Elizabeth Brico is a multi-genre writer, feminist blogger, vegan, mama x 3, and DV survivor based out of the Pacific Northwest. When she is not actively momming or blogging, she is probably reading, writing, or watching speculative fiction. She writes about living and parenting with PTSD on her blog, Betty’s Battleground. You can also go there to find some of her fiction and reviews of her favorite books.