Five years ago today, I wrote a Facebook status. It said simply:
"Deleted him from my friend list. And my phone. And my life."
It could have been just a random post break-up status, but this was much more than that. This was me parting company with the man who had abused me for well over a year and a half.
Sure, there was contact after that point. An emotionally confusing phone call in November, which took me straight back to square one, in terms of healing, plus the odd compulsive glance at his Facebook page (until I did the sensible thing and blocked him). But this was the moment that I realised that I had to wrench myself away from him, no matter how hard it was. It was time to rebuild my life again. Time to rebuild me again.
I would have been disappointed in myself had I not made a Sims reference, here.
Five years later, I am a different person. I may look pretty similar, but a whole heap of things have changed dramatically - and there's no going back. 99% of those changes are positive, too. Not only am I free from the guy who manipulated, controlled, threatened and emotionally drained me, but I'm a new and improved version of me, to boot. Win-win!
I wanted to celebrate this milestone in some way, but I struggled to decide how, for a while. I mean, firstly, I panicked that by even talking about it five years later, a few people would wrongly assume that I was somehow holding onto my victimhood. Then, I realised something important: by focusing on the positive changes I've made and the lessons I've learned in the last five years, I'm very much throwing my victimhood under the proverbial bus. I'm okay. I'm improved. I'm not clinging on to anything sorrowful and I haven't been for a while. More importantly, the people who might think that I was clinging on to some kind of victim status - that just by openly talking about abuse, I might be expecting everyone to get their imaginary violins out and weep profusely for me - are exactly the kind of people who probably know very little about abuse in the first place and have no sense of tact, whatsoever.
Even more importantly, I realised that talking about the lessons I've learnt in the last five years could actually help people who are still travelling the difficult road I walked to get here. I know that I appreciated the words of fellow survivors hugely whilst I pieced my life back together again, so if I can help anyone else, I very much want to.
So... What have I learnt, over the last five years?
1. Recovery is a LONG journey. And there are no shortcuts.
Thankfully, where we're going, we don't need roads...
There comes a point - any time from a few weeks to a few months - after leaving an abusive person, where you think: "This has to be it, right? I've done the whole five stages of grief thing, I'm over it now, aren't I?!" And then, something - often something seemingly insignificant - triggers you and makes you realise that you still have a long way to go.
Let's not forget, too: Even if you think you've been completely honest with yourself about what you went through, there is a very real chance that a part of your brain has been keeping the worst of it from you. And it can keep those memories under lock and key for as long as it takes for you to be strong enough to deal with them. I can recall having horrific things come flooding back to me as long as a year and a half after leaving my ex. I couldn't believe I'd "forgotten" such awful experiences, but in actual fact I hadn't; my subconscious brain just knew I wasn't ready to reminisce over the very worst of what I'd been through, just yet. Once I was, the memories I never even realised I was suppressing came back. And yes, with them came the emotions, the crying, the anger, the fear, the self-blame... All of it, in a big whoosh of the very worst kind. And after that, I had to "get over it" all over again.
There is no set time frame for getting over abuse. It could take months. It could take years. The fact is, it's not something you can predict, nor is it something anyone in your life can impose on you. I had people I love say things like: "It's been two years, you should be over it, by now." The fact is, you're not over it until you know you're ready to say you are. And that's going to take as long as needs to.
2. Actually, you don't entirely ever "get over it."
I know, right?!
Okay, so I know I said that recovery is like a long journey and that implies that there's an end to that journey, but... Well, there is, but imagine that before setting out on that journey, you got a tattoo. When you reach wherever it is you want to go, you still have that tattoo, right? It doesn't rub off, you just get used to it - so used to it, in fact, that sometimes you barely know it's there.
That's what recovering from abuse is like. There's an end point, at which you feel like you're over it and you're stronger and can move on with your life. But that tattoo hasn't gone anywhere and neither has the experience you went through. You're always going to have the odd moment where a song, a place or even a smell triggers a memory, or occasionally, you'll recall something and feel angry or sad about what you went through. That's okay! You know you're where you need to be when those memories or feelings don't set you way back (at least, not for longer than a day, if it's a really bad memory). You'll still have a reaction to them - that's totally normal - but you won't go through the whole "it was my fault, I should have tried harder, maybe I deserved it, I will never be happy again..." routine. Your reaction to the memory or the event will be different. You'll be mad not at yourself, but at the person who abused you. You'll be sad for yourself, but you'll know that you didn't deserve it and you'll be pleased when you remember what a good place you're in now.
When you go through abuse, it inevitably changes you in some way. The person you are afterwards might not be exactly the same as the person you were before. You carry those changes forwards in whatever you do next. That's the tattoo you got, before you embarked on the journey of recovery. It might be the kind of naff inking you'd get at a dodgy parlour that accepts drunk people going under the needle, but it's a permanent reminder, nonetheless. There's no removal procedure.
You can get over it, to a degree, but it'll always be a part of you.
3. Some people just DO NOT GET IT.
What are you gonna do about it?!
People are, on the whole, a pretty decent bunch. But there will always be folk who think of tactfulness the same way they think of Donald Trump's over-the-top spray tan: ridiculous and unnecessary.
I discovered this early on, when I went on a date, just a couple of weeks after leaving my ex (big mistake; I wasn't ready and the guy was weird in a BAD WAY). I wasn't using the term "abuse" for what happened to me, yet, because I was still in that very early stage, during which I blamed myself for much of what happened and parroted my ex's excuses for his behaviour to anyone who'd listen. On the date, the guy asked me how my last relationship had ended and, conscious that my ex's behaviour had been very bad and self-aware enough to know that I wasn't really to blame for it, I went with: "He told me he loved me, couldn't live without me, needed me in his life and so on... But then claimed we weren't in a relationship and he could sleep with anyone else he wanted and I wasn't allowed to feel jealous, because I was just a f*ck buddy."
I won't lie, I was kind of hoping for my date to scoff about what an asshole my ex obviously was. Instead, he shrugged and said: "Well, some guys don't want to commit and you can't force them."
And at that point, as far as I was concerned, we could quite cheerfully have gotten the bill and called it a day.
Since then, I've actually spoken to people - for a wide variety of reasons (it's not exactly my go-to conversation-starter) - about what really happened to me and have been shocked by the responses a minority have shown. They've ranged from: "Yeah, but it wasn't proper abuse unless he beat you as well," to: "I'm sorry for what you experienced, but I think you need to get over it and accept that you maybe just didn't love him enough for him to treat you better."
Over the years, as I've continued to recover and grow into a stronger, better person, my responses have calmed from: "F*ck you AND the demonic Hell beast you rode in on" to: "I don't think you can judge my situation, having not lived it. Asshole." It's a work in progress.
Look, some people are just going to be tactless, morally superior and arsey. That's just a fact of life. Having actually experienced something horrific isn't, sadly, enough to protect you from those idiots. They're going to listen to what you have to say and scoff, because they are the centre of their world and they're not interested in you or your past, particularly if you meet them online, during any kind of argument that touches on the subject of abuse. Because, as we should all know by now, the Internet is the place in which the worst trolls live.
Just remember that their lack of consideration for anyone's feelings but their own doesn't magically make them right. The majority of people you're brave enough to open up to are going to be kind, helpful and supportive. The people that aren't are not worth your frustration.
Be like Elsa.
4. There will be people who think certain aspects of abuse are somehow "sexy."
Four words, guys: Fifty Shades Of Grey.
Regular readers already know how utterly gross I find EL James' atrociously-written love-letter to abusive men all over the world, so let's just leave it at this: there will be books, films, fan-fiction, music and other forms of art, in which stalking is portrayed as "passionate." In which an excessive level of control is portrayed as "protective," regardless of whether the person on the receiving end wants to be told what to do, eat, wear or say. There will be fiction in which consent is coerced (or the lack of consent is ignored altogether) and there will be fiction in which a person's abusive behaviour is "excused" with a plethora of unsatisfactory reasons, such as "a sad childhood," or "a passionate, volatile personality."
You'll reach a point in your recovery at which you realise that there is no excuse for abuse. Ever. Say it with me, everyone: THERE IS NO EXCUSE FOR ABUSE.
The "sad childhood" bullsh*t was my own abuser's excuse of choice and it took me years to realise that actually, as a grown adult, living independently, holding down a job, with friends who were from healthy backgrounds and who were in healthy relationships, he had every idea of how he was supposed to behave, he just chose to behave abusively. And he also chose not to acknowledge his own abusive behaviour, meaning he was (and more than likely still is) incapable of change.
Fiction will also tell you that "true love" means sticking around and working through the abusive person's violent, threatening, manipulative or controlling behaviour, until you magically love them into wellness. Which is going to feel like one heck of a kick in the guts, seeing as by this point, you'll probably have spent a lot of time trying to accept that nothing you did was ever going to "cure" your abuser. They have to recognise their own behaviour and want to change, which, sadly, many don't.
If you're anything like me, seeing your experiences romanticised and being accepted as "twu wuv" by millions of people is going to hurt. Like, seriously a lot. It might be "just a book," or "just a film" to some, but to you, it's your worst experience of your life, being treated as though it's something to aspire to. You'll feel sick. And you'll get angry, which is good, because nothing will change unless more and more people stand up and call these dangerous tropes out for what they are.
And yep, the fans (and authors) of fiction that romanticise abusive characters and harmful behaviour are all-too-often also the kinds of people I mentioned above: THEY JUST DON'T GET IT. They will protect their precious fictional characters at all cost, even if that cost is insulting an abuse survivor and discrediting their lived experience.
Just know when to hit the "block" button online and when to walk away in reality. You won't win over the most deluded people and there's little point giving yourself a hernia, trying to. Just keep highlighting the truth about abusive people, keep shouting back against dangerous tropes and really, really just don't read Fifty Shades. It's not even worth buying as toilet paper. Trust me.
5. You are under NO obligation to forgive your abuser.
I've talked about this on my blog, before. People insist that forgiveness is a crucial part of moving on, but you know what? If you're talking about abuse, it's really not.
You do not have to forgive a person who purposefully hurt you, whether emotionally or physically. It is perfectly possible to move forwards with your life and reach a point where you're happy, free and stronger than you were before, without having to feel any kind of forgiveness for the way your abuser treated you. Anyone who tells you differently is a moron, trust me. The only person you need to forgive in this situation is yourself, because God only knows, abuse survivors are harder on themselves than most, especially in the first few days, weeks and months after leaving the abusive person. "I shouldn't have said that," or "I could have tried harder," and "maybe if I had been better..." and several variations on that theme will rattle around your head and there comes a point where you have to silence those voices and realise that you were NOT at fault. The abuser made the choice as to how they treated you. You did not bring it on yourself and nothing you did differently would have changed the situation, because abusers will always move the goalposts, to ensure that you can never win. Your slightest "foul" on them will always result in a massively over-the-top and unwarranted reaction. Abusers truly are the Christiano Ronaldo's of the relationship world.
So, don't feel like you have to forgive them for the way they chose to behave. If you reach a point where you can move forwards happily with your life without doing so, that's fine. Nobody should ever tell you otherwise.
Of course, if you want to forgive your abuser (especially if yours is a rare case in which the abuser has recognised their behaviour and actually apologised for it), that's up to you as well. Just please don't put pressure on yourself to try to forgive, if it's something you don't feel comfortable doing.
Forgive yourself. Nothing else matters.
6. You've got a clean slate, on which to write WHATEVER YOU WANT.
Abuse can, and all-too-often does kill. If you're someone who has survived a relationship with a person who abused you and are now in a position to rebuild your life, you are massively fortunate. Not because of what you experienced (obviously!), but because you have the chance to start over.
Yes, there's going to be a long and difficult road ahead, but my God it's one worth travelling.
You're going to reach a point at which you realise that you're free. Completely and utterly. Free to start over in any form you want. You can choose what sort of person you want to be, without anyone controlling you. You can decide if and when to start thinking about romance again and what sort of person you're looking for when it comes to future partners. You can re-brand yourself physically - get a drastic haircut, a tattoo or change the way you dress. Or, you can simply change your mindset, as you get stronger: know what sort of behaviour you will and won't tolerate in a relationship. Understand what warning signs to be looking out for. Realise your own worth and know that you're deserving of being treated properly. Learn - albeit probably slowly - to trust again (yourself and others).
What lies ahead of you are endless possibilities. The world is yours, once you're free.
Let's enjoy it!