The Scars of Abuse

Even when wounds heal, they often leave a scar.

This morning I was searching old files for something specific and stumbled onto an old file I thought had been deleted years ago. I read it and was amazed at the degree of emotion that was triggered simply by remembering specific past abuses. The emotion isn't anger or resentment. In fact, I'm not sure I could even define it for someone who has never suffered abuse. It's more like a post traumatic stress experience. For a few moments -- maybe even an hour or so -- your emotions travel back in time. And it's as if the event happened yesterday. My heart rate goes up. I have anxiety. It's like a tidal wave.

Many times I have shared just one story or example of past abuse with someone (usually to let them know I understand how they feel) and have not been able to get it all out without breaking down. Someone who has never suffered emotional and psychological abuse may not be able to understand or relate. It's as if you relive the experience every time you revisit it. But one of the rewards of having experienced abuse is the ability to connect with, relate to and hopefully help other victims of abuse. So never revisiting or reflecting on the past is not a realistic option. This is one of the reasons I do not believe that you haven't forgiven if you haven't forgotten. I see no value in forgetting. You're able to empathize with another hurting person because you do remember the pain. That's not the same thing as constantly dwelling on it and perpetually feeling like a victim, harboring resentment.

I have a portable hard drive where I've saved the content of numerous old hard drives every time I've gotten a new computer. I used to have all kinds of documentation saved from my past. I had always saved things in files, as my own personal (dated) validation/evidence of the abuse I lived in for so many years. It consisted of personal journal writing, emails I had written detailing specific incidents to a friend and making pitiful pleas to the abusing party to treat me differently, as well as writing I had done for counseling detailing specific examples of my abuse and the ways I was coping with it.

For instance, my counselor asked me in 1999 to put in writing all the ways I was abused and what it would take for me to return to my previous marriage after a six week separation. I had left that time because I had been struck in the face and I was seriously considering not going back. For many reasons, I was the most afraid I had ever been for my safety at that point. And I was very low emotionally. But I was feeling a lot of pressure to stay in the marriage and I agreed to at least consider another attempt at reconciliation. Counseling was a part of that.

In the first joint counseling session after the physical abuse and separation, I had been asked by my counselor to read out loud the 14 page "letter" I had typed out (single spaced) giving examples of abuse and what it would take for me to consider trying again. When I was asked to put it all in writing, I had no idea it would wind up being 14 pages long. But I was asked for details and specifics. And there had been so much fresh abuse. I didn't struggle to give examples.

I remember crying and trembling as I read it out loud to the abusing partner in the presence of the counselor. I expected denial and anger in response. And I was shocked when the abusing partner acknowledged to the counselor that it was all true, every word. I remember him saying it was typical "_______ behavior." He said he heard and saw himself that day and felt disgusted. He swore he would change and he would keep the fourteen typed pages forever as a reminder of how he never wanted to treat me again. I was sufficiently touched and impressed with that response to go back shortly thereafter. And, of course, there were many more disappointments and further abuses until I finally left and filed for divorce in 2002. (One day after I returned I found the 14 pages torn into tiny pieces, spilling out of a trash bag. It hit me like a ton of bricks. I knew it was left that way intentionally, as a statement.)

I am an extremely trusting and believing person. If you tell me you're truly sorry and will not hurt me again, I will believe you every time. People have always asked me, "Why did you stay?" Well, I believed this person every time he made promises to change for 27 years ... until I finally lost all hope and completely shut down emotionally.

I learned later in college courses and in counseling training that this is a cycle of domestic abuse and it has a name. It's referred to as the honeymoon phase. You're being promised everything you have always hoped for. And the reason it's considered a form of abuse is that you're being set up to hope for something that isn't going to happen. You're going to have your hopes raised really high, only to have the rug pulled out from under you again. And this can go on for many years; especially in a situation where someone is very forgiving, long suffering, committed to the marriage and endlessly hopeful that change can occur. My coping style (focus on the positives, rise above the negatives, lower expectations, make the best of everything) was a huge contributing factor to being caught in this cycle for so very long.

There were several apologies and acknowledgments of the truth in more recent years. But in between apologies, there was also denial. Most abusers struggle with an inability to face their inadequacies and a fear of vulnerability. They constantly guard against being vulnerable to others. So even though an apology can be very sincere in the moment, the vulnerability felt as a consequence of that humility results in the return of false pride and a denial of the truth they can't face about themselves (because it reminds them they are inadequate and flawed, which makes them feel weak). Anger is the emotion of choice because it is empowering.

I kept all of my "documentation" for years, even after I was remarried. For some reason, I could not delete anything for the longest time. I think I wanted to be able to remind myself (as if I might forget) how hard I tried and how bad it was.

I also thought I might one day write a novel (a true story concealed as nameless fiction). And if I ever did, all of those files might come in handy. But when John and I moved into a new house in 2007, I had to make a decision about the printed documents. Did I really want to keep them and move them into our new home? Or did I want to make a clean break with the past? I had a new life. It seemed healthier to throw it all in the trash and move on. Put it completely behind me. So I did. And I deleted many computer files at that same time. But every once in a while, while searching for something, I find a file I missed (like I did today). And I have to "decide" to hit delete again.

But before I do, there is usually an impulse to share it with someone and say, "This is how I lived. You have no idea what it was like." Why I still have that impulse I don't fully understand. Once the impulse passes, I realize that I do not have anything to prove to anyone. Especially now.

Even though I occasionally still entertain the thought, I know I will never write that novel. I have no desire to dig up the memories and relive the trauma. But I will always remember well enough to connect with other abuse victims and feel their pain. And that is something I would not want to change.

After writing all of this, I wondered if I should post it or just delete it. But sometimes the posts I think no one is going to benefit from wind up being the ones people tell me they appreciate most. I lived so many years believing I did not have choices. Now I know I did. The choices I finally made nine years ago were choices I could have made at any time. But I did not believe I had choices and I was immobilized by fear.

If it has ever taken you a long time to realize you had choices, don't waste time beating yourself up over that. Just be thankful you realized it at all. Some people never do.

One of my favorite lyrics from "Already Gone" (Eagles) ...

So often times it happens that we live our lives in chains,
and we never even know we have the key.


Robin said…
Shari, you have articulated well in paragraph two what I have had problems explaining in past conversations. Sharing life's joy and pain are powerful bonds.
Kathy said…
A past abuser poured beer into my journals and memory boxes one year. I didn't find them for years and the abuser was long gone. They were green and moldy and stunk like an old funeral home. I found comfort in knowing those memories as well as my recovery memories were with me forever. Now and then I feel the crush flooding back-- the sense of loss, loneliness, helplessness. It's still difficult to pull myself up and fall forward. It's like Alice in Wonderland. Moving away from an unwanted memory or experience into a peaceful space in your head. Anything is possible and everything is beautiful! Enjoyed your post!
Brittany Wilson said…
Thank you for sharing your story, Shari. Everyone (including myself) has either known someone, or has themselves been a victim of physical, sexual, or verbal abuse and it can be very crippling. The biggest question is always WHY did you stay so long, why didn't you tell someone...... Until you've been there, it's difficult to understand the control the abuser has over the victim. You have and amazing way of putting into words what others are thinking or feeling and that is a gift! I am secretely wishing you would write the novel....I would love to read it. <3

DeeDee said…
I relate to you in so many ways and you know that I do. Thanks for sharing this. I know that it cannot be stopped, all those memories. Sometimes it's a song, or a smell, or a voice or passing through a place, and suddenly, it carries you back to a painful moment, one you can't forget even though you really, really want to.

I have come to believe it has nothing to do with forgiveness.

I like what you said. It's PTSS. Counseling won't fix that and neither will time. So, I guess that makes us scarred. So show 'em your beautiful scars because in them, there is truth and from them can be help for others. It's a unique and wonderful form of giving.
Shari said…
Thank you, friends! I so appreciate your responses to this post.
Simply Taunya said…
Shari, so beautiful. Thank you for sharing. This weekend I realized that my wounds are beginning to scar...and I have hope.
Shari said…
Taunya, that is wonderful. Your comment prompted me to read your blog tonight and I was glad I did. I felt so proud of you! And I had to chuckle about "feeling old" at 37. Oh, to feel THAT old again. : )
Anonymous said…
Shari, I have been absent from your postings for some time and have come back to read some to catch up. Ah, ya gotta love technology.

Excellent posting. Thanks for sharing.

Deleting and moving on in those circumstances is always the best way I have found. We like to come up with excuses like I need to remember where I came from but in the end is that what the Lord would want? Just like revisiting our past forgiven sins. Why? I think Satan loves to try and point us backward.

I love that Eagles lyric as well. It would be cool if it went:

"so often times it happens, we live our life in chains, and we never even know God has the key."

and follow up with "But God .....
Shari said…
Totally agree, Barry. Thanks for coming back. : )

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