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Gift From Within - PTSD Resources for Survivors and Caregivers
Trust After Domestic Abuse
© Anna Potter
In my recently published book, Cans In The Dryer, I tell the story of my dysfunctional childhood and how it kept me trapped in an abusive marriage. Anyone reading my book might be tempted to think I now live the fairy tale of "happily ever after." Most days that is how I feel and most mornings, upon waking, I tell myself that life is more wonderful than I ever dreamed it could be. But sometimes the monster of Complex PTSD shows its ugly head and the past invades the present and my trust flies out the window. It is most always my emotions coming into play rather than something someone else has done to me. With my insecurity comes shame. And shame is what caused trust issues to begin with. And so I step on to the hamster wheel once again. I want to get off and never experience insecurity again because I hate feeling powerless on that wheel of mistrust and fear. Most of all I hate how my insecurity hurts those I love, most often my husband.
As I say in my book, "I suffer at times from insecurity and trust issues. Joel doesn't get offended by that, but makes it his mission to prove to me that he is the man I think he is."[i] The sad truth is that my insecurity hurts him at times. He is the strongest, wisest and best man I have ever known, but I am sure my hypervigilance and insecurity must try his patience at times.
Throughout my life shame was a constant theme because those who cared for me as a child often disdained and criticized me. The men I revered and depended on were the very ones who frightened me. Consequently I both needed them and wanted them gone. I constantly struggled to prove I was worthy, rather than being flawed, imperfect and stupid. I saved my father's life, only to have him try to kill himself again. My ex-husband twice threw his wedding band across the room and stormed out. The first time, a week into our marriage, I felt heartbroken. The second time, a couple of years later, I hoped he wouldn't come back. He did though and he clung to me like a Venus Flytrap, entangling me like a vine and nipping at me constantly. Each bite he took left a hole where self-esteem should have been. By the time I escaped I was missing parts of myself that most self-confident, successful women take for granted. The world was a scary place for me from my earliest memory until I found the first person to ever love me and make me feel safe. In the shelter of his love and the safe environment he has given me, learning to accept I am worthy and trusting that the world is safe is a work in progress.
So what do I do when the past invades, making me view myself through the eyes of those who harmed me, undermining my sense of safety and filling me with doubts about my own worth? After feeling the shame of failure as I see the look of hurt on my husband's face as he wonders how I could take something he said so completely wrong, I set to work. I have to lick this because I can't bear, after having been a victim, now being the one doing unintended harm with my unintentional weapon of insecurity. If insecurity is my crime then shame is my punishment. I grit my teeth against the gut wrenching fear, determined that my scars cannot scar the first healthy and most important relationship in my life.
I apologize. I resolve to do better. I hold my tears for when I am alone, lest I place him in the position of having to comfort me when he is the one who was wronged. I try to forgive myself rather than giving in to self-hatred, reminding myself that I deserve grace and forgiveness as much as anyone else. After all I am quick to offer grace to others who hurt me. Why shouldn't I show myself grace as well? I step back and give him space and time even though I long to throw my arms around him and feel his love, acceptance and forgiveness. Wishing I had some forewarning so that I could stop the flood of emotions as soon as they are triggered, I remind myself of the skills I've been taught. I open the vault of my arsenal and look over my defenses:
I go to my Gift From Within community because it reminds me I am not alone. I set a goal for myself to make it a certain amount of time without giving in to fear. Having that goal enables me to be more diligent when emotions start to flood me. I keep some tangible symbol on me to touch and remind myself that my fearful thinking is based on emotions I needed in the past to survive, but now are flooding me unnecessarily. I remind myself to put into the play the skills I have tried to teach myself, such as imagining a huge brick wall in front of me, stopping me and making me choose another direction when things feel overwhelming. After all, practice makes perfect, right?
I reread my bible for complex PTSD, "No Comfort Zone", in which author Marla Handy expresses the shame I feel so well: "To me, my life has been defined by vulnerability. My greatest achievements have only been efforts to prove to myself that I'm not a wimp. My moments of deepest shame have been when I've been overpowered by others, or by my own neediness."[ii] She expresses our struggles so well that I feel validated and comforted to know I am not alone and that my injury is very real, not something I can will myself to "get over".
While my behavior is my responsibility, the anguish that floods me unexpectedly is not something I can always predict or control. On this journey I will never be completely free of complex PTSD, but I do grow stronger with every fall. I pick myself up faster and recover more quickly. I am better able to talk myself out of self-doubts that threaten. Lack of trust, for me, equals shame; but self-grace is like a soft blanket that can be shaken out, warm from the dryer, and placed over the fear, smothering it's influence...one day at a time.
What happened as a child was not my fault. I could have left my first marriage but I felt I had no choice, having been robbed of my sense of power and control first as a child and then, daily, by my abuser. While trust issues arise life is better than I ever believed it could be. I look forward to every day because I am loved and I am safe. I know how it feels to be happy and enjoy life.
And so the most important defense against lack of trust is self-grace. It releases the hold of shame and fear of abandonment. When I learn to show myself grace I can truly believe that those who love me will not give up on me, knowing I am trying my best to be whole for myself and for them. Each day I am more convinced that what happened in the past will not happen again.
[i] Potter, Anna. Cans In The Dryer (Why Can't I Just Leave?): From Traumatic Bonding to Freedom. Xulon Press,
[ii] Handy, Marla. No Comfort Zone: Notes on Living with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Mocassa Press, 2010.
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