I left my abusive husband 4 years and a month ago, but I clearly remember those first few months of freedom. It sure didn’t feel like freedom as the anxiety and depression after leaving tore through me like tornadoes, first in one direction and then another. My emotions seemed to control whether I could take a breath or not. I lived in a spiral for about three months and feel lucky it lasted only that long. Leaving abuse is not easy to do. Leaving abuse is probably the hardest thing you will ever do. It helps to understand the process before you go.
What Happens When You Are Leaving Abuse
During an abusive relationship, not only do we come to believe (on some level) that we’re the pieces of shit our partners claim, but we also tightly wrap ourselves around our abuser’s emotional experience. I think of it as getting wrapped up in their axles – you know, like when you run over a large plastic bag or some rope in the road and your tire kicks it up, wrapping it so tightly around the axle that you think you’ll never get it out. In my situation, I’d wrapped myself around his axle for about 18 years. When I left, I immediately felt lost and afraid.
Why? Because I didn’t know how to feel my emotions anymore – I felt his instead. During abuse, we must be on the same emotional wavelength as our abuser so we can protect ourselves from an outburst (or rather, that’s what we think will prevent it). Six times out of ten we can prevent our partner from “losing it” if we pretend to feel the same way they do. Our abusive partners want us to be extensions of their minds, so if we can fool them into thinking that we are the same as them, then they feel in control and might not rage. So after 18 years of pretending to be him, I’d lost touch with me and my emotional experiences. (Download the Life Snapshot Workbook for help getting in touch with what you really want.)
I didn’t know how to feel without my husband’s demands to guide me. Lost and afraid don’t adequately describe my emotions. What I felt made me want him back just to end the confusion. Fortunately, I did not succumb to returning.
Ways to Feel Better Before Leaving Abuse
One of my saving graces was understanding what could happen to me after leaving my abuser. I knew that he could become more violent, stalk me, or kill me and possibly our children. I also knew he might not honor the restraining order (70% of them do, but you can’t tell beforehand if your abuser will). And I forecasted that my mind and heart would be pretty messed up and the urge to return to my abuser could be very strong. Fortunately for me, I did a few things before I left that made leaving him easier.
Things to do before you leave (if possible)
Sometimes abuse survivors are not able to escape their abuser’s control long enough to put these suggestions in place. But if you’re able to get online and read what’s on this website, then you are able to escape the abuse long enough to gradually carry out these suggestions.
However, sometimes we have to get out earlier than planned. In those cases, we may have to do this work after we’ve left the abuser. It’s easier on you to do these things before leaving, but it isn’t a dire drawback if you aren’t able. It is never too late to switch to a better path.
Create a Safety Plan
Verbal Abuse Journals has a great safety plan that will help keep you safer whether you stay or leave and helps you to understand the dynamics of the abuse in your relationship. You can also download safety plans, sometimes called emergency plans, from the major anti-domestic violence nonprofits such as the National Domestic Violence Hotline.
Build a Support Network
Before leaving abuse, I had a therapist and a support network from which to draw support. If you do not have a support network, I encourage you to build one by
- participating in online groups and a local domestic violence support group,
- telling your family and friends what is happening to you,
- calling hotlines, or
- going to therapy (alone).
Educate Yourself About Abuse and The Way Your Brain Works
Supplement your eye-opening interactions with other survivors by reading everything you can about the effects of domestic violence. Additionally, an understanding of how your brain works – how it “thinks” and forms neural paths – will bring you comfort as you work to think differently.
Here are some books that helped me:
- Emotions After Leaving Your Abuser
- Leaving Abuse: Ways to Feel Stronger So You Can Go
- What If You Can’t Stay Away?
- Self-Care Activities for Domestic Abuse Survivors
- Escaping Abuse Is (Always) the Best Thing to Do