I have a freak-out buddy.
Whenever I begin to panic over something that may or may not be valid, I contact my freak-out buddy and she talks me down. Likewise, when she is panicking, she contacts me. I help her through. Up to date, we have not freaked out together. That would be bad. We joke about it all the time but, the truth is, former victims of abuse struggle with this phenomenon. Our minds and our bodies are wired so that panic sets in whenever we are triggered. Fear. PTSD (which can come in many forms). Panic attacks. I don’t mind sharing that I can have a racing heart, in the middle of the night. Nightmares coupled with irrational anxiety. And my PTSD comes by way of bad headaches lasting 2-3 days. Thankfully, I have not had one in a long time. And they are fewer and further between as I grow into health, emotionally.
I also have a friend who has covenanted with me to help me to discern when someone is truly attacking me and when someone is not. She is very gracious. The last time I spoke with her about an issue, she said this, “I get it. You were attacked by so many people for such a long time. You are tired.” I wept.
I have good and safe friends.
The truth is, former victims of abuse work hard to rewire their minds so as to discern between what is a true attack, what is not an attack and what is (probably) most definitely the other person’s problem. In fact, former victims of abuse, after spending many years working on rewiring, may be the most discerning folk out there. Their senses are on high-alert. They have fine-tuned their character-radar and can be the best judge of character in the world. But, right after leaving an abusive situation and (perhaps) suffering from post-separation abuse, feeling safe is an issue. Life has not been safe for a very long time. Hearts and minds can be broken to a tremendous degree after living with an unsafe person for years. Dr. Caroline Leaf writes one of the best books on rewiring thought patterns (“Who Switched Off My Brain”). I highly recommend it. Thinking clearly is a real issue for abuse survivors. Emotions threaten to take over . . . a sort of fight or flight reflex that feels uncontrollable. Who can they trust? Why should they trust us? After going through what some of “our” mamas have gone through, I wouldn’t trust anyone, either. For a lot of them, their pastors, their families and their churches turned on them after they left a marriage that was killing them. Can we blame them?
Helping others who have just left abusive situations is what we do. There are some things that all of us on the team know to do. There are other things we do naturally. But, here are some tips for helping an abuse survivor know that she is safe:
1. We call her by who she is. Literally. When someone packs a box for a mama, it will say, “To the Beautiful . . . . ” I don’t believe that I ever write a note without reminding a former victim that she is a “Beloved Daughter of a King”. We need to remind these gentle souls that they are NOT what they were called by those with black hearts toward them.
2. We never force. Most former victims of abuse will go into a tailspin if they feel threatened. When we try to “catch” these sweet mamas in our safety net, we do not preach. We do not chastise (heavens, no!). We do not do anything except love and remind them of how loved they are by Jesus. Sometimes, even the gentlest of rebukes will come across as a slap in the face. We are careful.
3. We do not make decisions for her. We ask questions . . . we pray . . . we help think through issues. But, telling a former victim of abuse what she should be doing is only enabling her to continue on as a helpless victim and reinforcing what others have told her — that she cannot make a decision for herself. And, when she does begin to express herself or assert herself, we recognize that it might not be perfect or look perfect . . . but she is trying. And that commands applause.
4. We try to protect her. Even from herself. Sometimes, we can be all flailing-like . . . drowning in a sea and calling out for anyone and everyone to rescue us. This can bring out the worst of people who prey on those who are most vulnerable.
I admit that I still work on all of these issues, myself, consciously. It is a constant thing I have going on. It is like an injury that must be worked around. A soul-wound. But, it is healable, with hard work and Jesus’ grace.
I also have to say that I have never seen an abuse survivor that is not highly and perceptively careful about not overwhelming anyone else. They know what it feels like . . . they would never do this to anyone else, which makes self-assertion difficult. We want to aid “our” mamas in this. We want to show them that there can be relationships where freedom reigns.
I am still learning; I think we all are. And I don’t mind sharing that.