The period after you leave your abuser is confusing and often frightening – not only is it disorienting to find yourself rebuilding your life after a tumultuous, traumatic relationship, but it is also, unfortunately, a time when abusers often gear up their vicious behaviors, using whatever they can as a weapon to control you – finances, the kids, you name it.
Here’s what you need to know to keep safe at this dangerous time, and to care for yourself as you travel through the journey to recovery.
1. You need to keep safe; your life itself may be at risk. Most female victims of homicide are killed by a lover or former lover. You are 70 times more likely to be killed in the two weeks after leaving your abuser than at any other time in the relationship. This is a shocking but telling statistic: domestic violence is a crime of coercive control, and by leaving, you have asserted your right to live a happy life, free of fear and abuse. Your abuser has lost what they desire the most: control. You may think that your ex couldn’t possibly go that far, but it’s not worth taking that chance.
2. There are people that can help you. All too many women have found themselves in this horrific position, and there are excellent support services to protect you and to help with your emotional recovery. You could consider talking to the police about getting a restraining order against your ex, and to Legal Aid for advice about any relationship property or alimony that you may be entitled to. Find a domestic violence advocate who will help guide you through the process. Find out about services in your area specifically for victims of domestic violence. You should be able to access free counseling services and support groups (and the good news is, if you’ve got children, these services will often let you bring them along or provide a crèche.
3. Practice self-care. More than ever, you need some me-time. What you’ve been through is something that no one should ever suffer (even though far too many people have!) Recovery is an active process, and it takes time. Remember, there’s somebody who desperately needs your help right now, and that person is you. Don’t let her down!
4. Practice mindfulness. It may seem strange at first, but many survivors of domestic violence have found it key to their recovery. Think of a time in your life when you’ve felt perfectly safe, and imagine that you’re there; go for a walk in the forest and enjoy the birds singing, the scent of the trees and the beauty of the sunlight and sky. Enjoy sunrises and sunsets; do things that you love. Remember that this pain is temporary, and your broken heart will heal in time; you can’t change the past or know the future, but you can enjoy the many wonderful things in this world, and you can learn to be truly happy again.
5. Protect yourself for next time, but don’t let yourself become bitter. Some people who have experienced abuse close off their heart for good because the pain that their toxic lover has put them through has caused them to fear love itself. But don’t let the trauma of abuse turn you off love: in a healthy relationship, love is an amazing, beautiful thing. Give yourself time to heal, but be open to the idea that you will love again, and that you deserve to be loved. But learn from the past: don’t fall too fast or too hard in love, and if things turn sour, be prepared to cut your losses.
6. Learn to love yourself again. Abuse is a soul-destroying experience that shatters your confidence and leaves you a broken shell. Your abuser probably frequently criticized you and made you feel unworthy of love, and the love that you did feel for your abuser may have caused you to internalize a lack of self-esteem. Learn to accept and love yourself as you are, and recognize that you are worthy of a real, healthy love.
7. Imagine your 80th birthday. This might sound like some odd advice, but this exercise can be really helpful for trauma recovery. Close your eyes and imagine your 80th birthday. Who is there? Are you surrounded by people close to you, people that care about you? What are they saying? And as you look back at your life, did you live a life of fear, or did you live a life of joy, of purpose and fulfilled potential? You’ll note that one person who really doesn’t matter to 80-year old you is some jerk who messed you around half a lifetime ago. Now do a favor to 80-year old you, by keeping her in mind when things are getting you down. Be kind to her.
Most importantly; believe in happy endings. That doesn’t necessarily have to involve be a knight in shining armor: there are so many ways to lead a happy life. Be prepared for the idea that true love will probably enter your life someday, but don’t settle for anything less than you deserve: it’s much better to be single than to be with the wrong guy! So enjoy life (for the first time in a while, probably!) and remember that you don’t need to look for “your other half” because you are already a whole.
Good things come to those who wait; one day the pain will be long-gone and you will be able to not only survive, but thrive, and celebrate life.