Do we ever “get over” our experiences?
Something odd happened last week. I was sat in a meeting when a vehicle pulled up on the gravel drive outside. I could see it plainly through the window. It was a big, black 4 X 4 Range Rover. It threw me. I lost my train of thought. I forgot what I was saying. When I took a gulp of coffee my hand was trembling slightly. I thought, how strange; this hasn’t happened for years.
I knew immediately what had caused this reaction. The gut-wrenching sound of tyres on gravel; the ominous black vehicle like a massive bird of prey. This is how I had reacted when my ex-boyfriend pulled up outside my place of work way back in the 1980s. What would he do today? Blast his horn until I was forced outside to talk to him? Throw dog excrement into the reception area? Threaten a colleague? Fire-bomb the building? That was a lot for a teenager to cope with.
Now that I’ve told you how he behaved at my place of work, you might be able to imagine how he behaved in the relationship – spoiled, selfish, violent, and encouraged by wealthy, entitled parents. But that was a long time ago. Since then I have grown, had a life and a family, become a psychotherapeutic counsellor, and a domestic abuse professional. I can barely picture his face; I don’t look over my shoulder; I’m free. Or am I?
I considered my fight or flight response to those tyres on the gravel, how the sound transported me back and triggered a vivid flashback. And although no harm was done and I continued my meeting with ease, it certainly caused me to reflect for the first time in years, even resulted in me writing this article. Do we ever truly get over our experiences of domestic abuse or do they intrude on our lives forever?
There are many positives to getting out of an abusive relationship. It can propel us to live how we want, be what we want, wear what we like, talk to strangers, go to parties, take up opportunities, travel, grow…eat breakfast cereal at 3am if we want. Feel safe.
Feel safe? Well, maybe not straight away, but eventually, yes. But, although professionals in the field don’t encourage survivors to dwell on it, there are also negatives. Ending a relationship is never easy, let alone when fear and control has played such a big part. After the relationship I felt sad, lonely, damaged and defeated. These feelings morphed into depression and PTSD. For a while I was scared of my own shadow; completely lost. There are few services to help with long term recovery, we are often on our own, rebuilding our lives block by block, day by day. Some of us do better than others; some of us have more support around us than others.
Now, more than forty years later, I’m reflecting again on what the effects have been. Am I over it? Will I ever get over it? The answer is both, yes and no. I think a more insightful question to ask myself is, would I go back and change things if I could, so I never had to experience domestic abuse at all? And surprisingly, the answer is no. I wish it hadn’t happened, but it did, however, from that misery has come a wealth of positivity.
I am more intuitive and can sense risk and danger; I am more understanding of what others might be going through. I try to be a manager who understands that employees might be going through some stuff; I’m more compassionate. I have developed firm boundaries and a thick skin – I walk away from red flags, uncertain friendships, bullies, and people who can’t control their aggression. And I’ve turned those early experiences around and had an amazing career working with both victims and perpetrators, as well as training others. My mission has been to help prevent other people going through what I went through. Most of all, those experiences helped shape the person I have become. They are a part of me.
So, although as survivors, we might need to carry the effects with us and learn to manage them; although something as innocuous as a vehicle pulling up can trigger a stress response forty years later, our experiences also enable us to see the world differently. If we’re lucky, we can carry the positives before us like a beacon, and manage the negatives when we need to. Some of us might need more help to do that, but every survivor is amazing; every survivor is awesome. And we should never forget that.
National Training Manager, NCDV