If you’ve ever been in an abusive relationship, someone may have asked you, “Why did you stay?” It’s an unfair question. It puts blame on you when the abuse was not your fault. It isn’t your responsibility to entertain this question or to convince others that you were abused. But if you feel like you need to answer this question, or if you’re struggling to understand “why” yourself, actress Chloe Dykstra has a metaphor that may help.
Dykstra posted an essay on Medium Thursday night accusing comedian Chris Hardwick of emotional and sexual abuse. Though she does not name Hardwick, the descriptions in the essay imply that it is him. Dykstra and Hardwick dated for three years.
If you choose to read Dykstra’s essay on Medium, be aware that it includes descriptions detailing emotional abuse as well as sexual abuse, anorexia, and suicidal thoughts.
Because their relationship was long, Dykstra wanted to address the question of why she, or anyone, stayed in an abusive relationship.
Here is my answer: I believed that, to borrow an analogy from a friend, if I kept digging I would find water. And sometimes I did. Just enough to sustain me. And when you’re dying of thirst, that water is the best water you’ll ever drink. When you’re alienated from your friends, there’s no one to tell you that there’s a drinking fountain 20 feet away. And when your self-worth reaches such depths after years of being treated like you’re worthless, you might find you think you deserve that sort of treatment, and no one else will love you.
It isn’t uncommon for an abuser to display affection that makes the other person feel loved and wanted in order to prevent the person from leaving. If they’ve been alienated from their loved ones, they may only be getting this from the abuser. It’s a manipulative move, like when Dykstra said Hardwick told her he was planning to propose when she said she was leaving the relationship.
Dykstra wrote that these relationships are common and easy to slip into because “normalizing behavior happens incredibly quickly, and one can lose track of what is acceptable treatment.”
Since Dykstra posted the essay, writers for Nerdist, a site Hardwick founded and then sold to Legendary Entertainment in 2012, vowed not write for the platform anymore. On Friday, Nerdist tweeted a statement that Hardwick is not affiliated with the site and has removed any mention of Hardwick from the site.
If any of this sounds familiar to you, know that you aren’t alone and remember none of it is your fault. You survived, and you certainly don’t owe anyone an explanation for how you reacted to a manipulative situation.
They say recovering from trauma isn’t linear — but it can be easier to say than to accept. Whether you’re healing from childhood trauma, assault, an accident — or any of the experiences that leave our minds bruised and our hearts punctured — it’s frustrating when time doesn’t heal as fast or as consistently as we want it to. Sometimes it takes work. Sometimes it takes accepting things won’t always go as planned. You will fall. You will struggle. Your journey might not be easy, but it will certainly be worth it.
To get an idea of how “messy” healing from trauma can be, we asked people in our Mighty mental health community to share a picture that represented a moment on their recovery journey — good or bad. Wherever you are on your own journey, we hope these pictures remind you you’re not alone.
Here’s what they shared with us:
1. “I was emotionally, mentally and verbally abused for nearly two years. Near the end of the time of abuse, I was horrifically depressed, suicidal and had PTSD that was constantly being triggered. After the abuser was cut out of my life, I started healing. Soon after that, I cut my hair as an outward symbol of reclaiming control of my self-image, my mind and my life. Almost a year later, I’m finally happy again, and I love my short hair more than ever.” — Catherine K.
2. “Recovering from the rape that caused my PTSD has had lots of ups and downs. This is a picture of me with my service dog, Vicky. I had just gotten released from the hospital for suicidal ideations. I thought I was doing so well when this happened. It was a serious reminder that sometimes recovery can be one step forward and two steps backwards.” — Kindra L.
3. “I always wanted to help others and had an amazing career as a paramedic. I was married with four very young children. Then suddenly PTSD struck, threatening my life and leaving me debilitated with no hope for the future. PTSD is a severe injury that affects you mentally and physically. You need to learn to walk and talk all over again. Eighteen years on and I’m still struggling, but there has also been some movement in my recovery journey. I have a dog and chickens to care for, gardens to tend and I can manage some housework. I am going out more with my family and manage to make short trips out on my own without having a panic attack. Last year I did the bravest thing yet, and with my wife by my side, began supporting the suicide prevention charity R U OK? Even braver was completing a 10km walk raising almost $1,000. Imagine being amongst 30,000 people, it was terrifying! I spent the next week in bed, as you do with PTSD.” — Michael G.
4. “Wake up every night to nightmares. It started out as a messy awful thing. Starting a dream journal helped so much. It didn’t stop the nightmares, but getting them out on paper helped them not stay in my mind all day.” — Alicia E.
5. “I did a strongman competition for the first time in April. This picture represents sooo much to me. After years in an abusive relationship, I finally got out and rebuilt my life. I suffer PTSD from him attempting to take my life as well as years of sexual abuse. My recovery hasn’t always been easy, it’s taken a lot of hard work and consistency, but I’m doing it. Standing up and doing that competition was a huge step in me saying, ‘F@#K you! I’m a survivor and this will not beat me!’ And to me this picture says just that!” — Krista G.
6. “A daily reminder. ; and yet… I am a good mother. ; and yet…I have a career. ; and yet…I get up in the morning. ; and yet…they love me. ; and yet…I’ve forgiven. ; and yet…I’ve been forgiven. ; and yet…I’m trying. ; and yet…I’m surviving. ; and yet…God chose me.” — Cindy D.
7. “Working as a corrections officer, I was exposed to my first traumatic experience. I had anger, fear, guilt, anxiety and sleepless nights. I used the gym to distract me from the spider web of thoughts that consumed me every day. Trying to turn a situation that consumed me entirely to something positive for my body, mind and soul. It is a big factor to what pulled me through.” — Harley A.
8. “I had spent a few days decorating a gingerbread house to a high standard, then managed to knock it on the floor. Queue crumpled mess of me on the floor having lost the ability to think or make decisions because of how unexpected it was, and how much of me I had put into it, being the first thing I had motivated myself to do in a long time.” — Shannon S.
9. “For a really long time, I would freak out over being touched, especially if a man touched me. This shows how far I’ve come from nine, almost 10 years ago. The man in the picture with me is my fiancé and we’re now expecting a baby girl in August.” — Barbara L.
10. “After losing my foster son a few years ago due to my generalized anxiety, I fell into the worst episode I ever had of major depressive disorder (my sixth). I developed minor PTSD. I was in need of desperate help, which first came with EMDR therapy. It took a couple of years to begin to feel like myself, but I wanted my strength trifecta: Physical, Emotional and Mental. After working on the latter two for the last two years, I finally focused on my physical strength. I started barbell squatting last summer with just the 45-pound bar. This photo above is me recently squatting 135 pounds! When I’m physically strong, I feel mentally and emotionally strong!” — Stephanie T.
11. “Having to cut out chunks of my hair as the knots are too bad when you are in a massive flare and can’t even get out of bed.” — Steph M.
12. “Around a year ago, I decided to buy a necklace that could remind me of the fact that whatever happens, my one quality is that I keep going. Even when I don’t want to or don’t see the point. I still do it. And that maybe it isn’t about being happy (right now), but about not ever giving up. *That’s* something I can do, *that’s* something I’ve always been able to do. Reminding myself of that quality has helped me a lot.” — Fenna V.
13. “I call her my sister. We’re helping each other in trauma recovery. We cry together, we laugh together, and we’re in sync in every way. I finally feel at home with this beautiful soul that is my sister. For some time I’ve wanted a female symbol tattoo and my sister always wanted a semicolon tattoo. The day we learned this about each other, we immediately got this done. Mine is on my right hand and hers on her left. We also had our circles turned into hearts to match and be uniquely ours. My sister and this tattoo are both big parts of my recovery journey.” — Rebecca R.
14. “I took this photograph on my last day of EMDR therapy. My hair was greasy, I was absolutely exhausted and mentally drained, but I’ve never been so proud of myself for sticking through it.” — Rachel W.
15. “Healing is possible. It becomes tangible when we allow the doors of our past to open — photography, thanks to therapy, became my healthy go-to, when my PTSD flared up. It doesn’t disappear, PTSD, but there are ways of navigating in a healthier manner.” — Marina B.
16. “This is hard to see, but it’s skin all over my leggings. I just spent an entire EMDR session scratching myself. All because of something that happened 10 years ago.” — Kaitlyn R.
17. “This is me, I use to have long brown hair that I would hide behind. I got several piercings in a few month span and I’ve never looked back. I love the new me. My hair is pink now and I have actually removed some piercings.” — Katrina O.
18. “I didn’t come to terms with my childhood trauma of sexual assaults, verbal and physical abuse. It caused me to lose my memory, speech and my career in my 40s. It wasn’t until I admitted it to myself, sought treatment, including multiple inpatient hospitalizations, and began to speak out that I have begun to heal. It’s a long journey, but there is hope.” — Martha F.
Grounding, as it’s described in the mental health world, is a practice that helps you remain in the present moment. It is used for multiple reasons — anxiety, depression, dissociation and PTSD, to name a few. The technique involves using your five senses (sight, sound, taste, touch and smell), which helps interrupt the disruptive thoughts and symptoms of what’s troubling you.
I use grounding for both anxiety and depression. It allows me to get out of my head, stop or lessen panic symptoms or interrupt a crying spell. I don’t always remember to do it, and it doesn’t always help — but I’m glad I know how to do it, as it does often help. Personally the sensory areas that appeal to me are smell and touch. Everyone is different and may find one more helpful over another, or that they change over time. I’ve gathered a small collection of items I keep in case I need them, and I thought it might be helpful to share my list. If you have some special items, we’d all love to hear about them in the comments.
1. Essential Oils
I use essential oils as a quick jolt to my senses, which helps interrupt whatever mental difficulty I am having. I tend to gravitate towards peppermint and florals, but everyone will have their own preference. Some people even use scents they don’t like as a way to intensely interrupt themselves. These are some of the products I enjoy.
When they first started releasing the various fidget items, I thought it was pretty hokey. My therapist had one in her office though, and after trying it, I realized I kind of liked it. It gives me a place to focus some of my nervous energy. There are various options, at varying expense. The more expensive ones typically have a better feel to them, and are constructed better. But really it’s a matter of taste and finances. The original fidget cube is my favorite, check it out here.
3. Weighted Blanket and Lap Pad
These blankets serve as a nice weight that is cozy and calming, similar to the feeling of being tucked in with several quilts. These items don’t come cheap unfortunately. I had wanted them for a long time, but couldn’t afford it. Luckily for me, I had two separate friends come forward, who were able to sew for me at an affordable rate. Because they can be so expensive I’d recommend finding someone local, or if you’re crafty, trying it on your own.
4. Bath or Shower
These vary from bath to shower and from hot to cool, depending on time and need. I use baths, typically with some nice bubbles or bath bomb when I need to calm my nervous system. I may have a cool shower if I’m more in need of being brought back to reality. I also get anxiety headaches and find a cool shower or bath can help.
I find watching a flame to be soothing as well as a little a mesmerizing. There is some sort of camping quote about how you won’t get lonely if you make a fire. If like me, you find smells help, this is another option to add a scent into the mix. I prefer beeswax candles, as they are more natural, and long lasting.
6. Magic Sequin
This is something new, which I just recently stumbled upon. They come in various forms: pillows, pencil cases, backpacks and so on. It is a fun visual and touch item. I picked out a pencil case, as I felt it to be a little less flashy and it can double as a place to store some of my other grounding items. Here is one option.
7. Ice cubes
Ice cubes can be used in many ways. I personally chew on them. The coldness and crunchiness are helpful to me. Other folks hold onto them or put them elsewhere on the body. It’s an almost free option that is worth trying.
8. Five-sense technique
This is a tried-and-true grounding method, which will be found in most mental health workbooks. I use it largely in the case of dissociation or when my emotions are feeling uncontrollable. The premise of this exercise is that you deliberately take note of your surroundings, and begin listing off what your senses notice. This method may have some different steps or names based on who is teaching it, but the general principal is the same.
I have always had an affinity for stones, which in adulthood has lead me to having a small collection of gems. They are fun to look at, feel interesting, and some even warm-up as they are held. I find comfort and curiosity in them. There are actual “worry stones” that have a pre-made groove in them, the option of polished or raw, big or small. They are easy to keep in a pocket, wear on a chain, or kept on a shelf.
There are as many options for grounding as there are people, plus the numerous adaptations within the options. This list is a few of mine that I have curated over the years. There are probably some I’ve forgotten, and others I will find in the future. If you are now beginning on your journey or just looking for more options, I hope my list has given you some helpful ideas. Did I miss something? Do you have a favorite not listed? Share below.
While it’s definitely true some can use memes as a way to avoid addressing unresolved trauma or pain, a lot of times they address topics we don’t talk about openly, and can go a long way in reassuring people they are not the only ones struggling.
If dark humor gets you through hard times with your mental health, this one’s for you:
Self-help books are becoming increasingly popular. The U.S. self-improvement market alone was worth $9.9 billion in 2016. As a life coach in London, I regularly have new coachees recommending yet another new self-help book I haven’t heard of.
“Oh you should definitely read it — it’s life-changing,” my coachees say. I smile every time I hear this. If self-help books work so much, how come several of my life coaching clients are stuck when they come to see me? Answer: because most self-help books don’t work. I know this because I have been reading them from a very young age and it wasn’t until I actually started getting outside help that my life started to change.
My concern is that self-help books provide the idea that you can change your life by intellectualizing it and without reaching out for help. This could be damaging for men in particular for a few reasons:
1. Men already avoid asking for help.
Men seem to be predisposed to avoid asking for help, whether this is socialized or genetic. The Men’s Health Forum reports that men far less likely than women to seek professional support; only 36 percent of those referred to psychological therapy services were men.
The classic image of a man who is lost whilst driving comes to mind. He is so determined on not asking for help that he would rather stay lost and get frustrated than to admit he is lost and ask a stranger for directions.
Self-help books may be unintentionally reinforcing “toxic masculinity,” i.e., the belief that men need to just suck it up, be strong, “get on with it” and fix it rather than encouraging healthy behavior, such as reaching out for help, sharing the problem with friends and family, etc.
2. Men are socialized to intellectualize solutions.
Secondly, many men are socialized to use their rational thinking above all else. This makes self-help books potentially lethal as they provide intellectual stimulation but do not actually facilitate real change, all whilst giving the illusion that the reader has changed their life. As a result, self-help books are creating an army of men who know too much, but do too little.
One case of a coachee comes to mind here. Rather than take onboard my feedback and take action, they instead seemed to be paraphrasing advice they had read in a book. After they had finished their long intellectualized explanation, I asked them, “So if you know the answers already, what made you come to me for help?”
After a long pause, they sheepishly replied: “I don’t know.”
3. Men are socialized to be experts or face rejection.
Another issue is the “expert syndrome.” Traditionally, men have been socialized to become experts or to face expulsion and rejection from the tribe. Thus, self-help books can mislead men into believing they are experts and do not need outside help.
The impact which self-help books can have may seem trivial when we’re talking about just one person. But now imagine an entire society of men who believe they are experts on their own problems and can fix them all by themselves by simply reading books and intellectualizing the solution. Particularly where addiction is concerned, many found they could not recover on their own.
We are social and relational beings by nature. I believe we were not designed to heal or change in isolation. In fact, loneliness is linked to physical and mental illness, as shown by several studies.
I am not saying all self-help books are useless. In fact, I may even write one of my own. But if I did, the core message would be to stop reading self-help books and go and take action.
Some books which I have found very enlightening include Pia Mellody’s books, “Facing Codependence” and “Facing Love Addiction,” which highlights unhealthy behaviors which lead to toxic relationships and provides guidance (namely that both are so powerful that joining a 12-step recovery is a good idea because it is extremely difficult to overcome on your own).
Another helpful book is “Fear of Life” by Alexander Lowen, the founder of Bioenergetics. In that book, he describes how many fears relate to the original fear of castration as a child from the same-sex parent. This fear creates chronic tension in the body and creates feelings of anxiety and restlessness. The author shares how the solution is to do specific Bioenergetic exercises to release this trapped trauma in the body.
“A problem shared is a problem halved,” as the saying goes. Many of my coachees have insights from life coaching that books could never give them, because a book cannot challenge your assumptions, beliefs and behaviors in the same way a human being can, nor can it empathize with your struggle. A book also cannot keep you accountable for the actions you commit to in the same way another person can.
Knowledge is power. But action is far more powerful.
So go and get help, whether that’s seeing a therapist, a life coach or joining a 12-step recovery program. There’s absolutely no shame in admitting you cannot do it alone.
“I’m just going to go on home, I’m not feeling well.”
“I’m OK, I just don’t feel well.”
Those three blanket statements are 80 percent of my vocabulary and are in 100 percent of the conversations I have with people on a day-to-day basis. By any “normal” person’s standards, one would take one of those statements at face value and think, “Hey! That person doesn’t feel well. They must have a headache or an upset stomach. That’s too bad.” Then, just move along. Right?
This is what I mean when I say I don’t feel well:
1. “I can’t come, I don’t feel well, sorry!”
I don’t feel well because I’m uncomfortable with what could happen at this event. My mind is racing, filled with catastrophic thoughts and what-ifs. My anxiety is telling me I won’t fit in, I’ll be the odd man out, they’ll know something is wrong with me. My depression is telling me it’s not worth going to anyways, to just stay in bed all night long in the same pajamas I’ve had on for a week. My anxiety and depression and insecurities are laying into me, so make me tired and not feel well. So I don’t go.
Then I spend all night overthinking the decision to not go. Anxiety peeks in, concerned about what others had to say about me not being there. Depression could care less about what those people think.
2. “I’m just going to go on home, I’m not feeling well.”
I don’t feel well in my brain. My mind’s a mess. It’s all over the place. It’s cluttered and overworked trying to process the interactions I’m having and instructing me on how to respond or be involved in a situation so I don’t have a meltdown and helping me interact in a “normal” way. I’m uncomfortable. I feel like I’m being judged, even if I’m not. My brain is tired, and it makes me tired, and we don’t feel well. We want to go home.
Then I spend all night overthinking the decision to leave early, people’s reactions to it and what was said about me. Anxiety grows, self-doubt grows, self-esteem plummets until I can nod off to bed.
3. “I’m OK, I just don’t feel well.”
I don’t feel well in my mind, but I knew I had to be at this event. My mind is battling back and forth to keep me appearing like a functional member of society. My vulnerability is high, my self-esteem is at rock bottom, and there is no ounce of confidence in sight. I’m drained physically and emotionally and it took everything in me to get me here. I am here, but I certainly don’t feel well.
Mental illness is hard. It is tiring. It is complex. It is unfair. It is confusing. It is conflicting. It is misunderstood. I am fighting battles with myself, with my brain, with my bipolar disorder, my depression, my anxiety, with self-doubt, self-esteem and self-confidence constantly. I am continually classifying positives and negatives, and continually running and I am continually tired. So, sometimes, I don’t feel well. So next time, when your friend with mental illness cancels plans because they don’t feel well, take a second and think about what that might mean for them.
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Almost four years ago I was admitted to a psychiatric unit where I would spend almost a year detained in the hospital, I was told I would be a “revolving door” patient, and in a way I guess I am because I am going back soon, as a mental health support worker.
Support staff are the backbone of psychiatric units — they have the most contact with patients, up to or over 12 hours a day, it is their responsibility to observe them, support them and keep them safe. Their attitude and competence can make or break a ward.
So from an ex-patient to current or future support workers, these are the 12 things I learned in my admission from the staff and from my experiences that proved invaluable to my recovery; the principles and values I aim to stick to during my career, the principles I hope my colleagues agree with and principles that hopefully one day become standard practice.
1. Treat every person equally, with dignity and respect.
No matter who they are, where they come from, how they treat you and what they’ve done. You’re allowed to have favorites, it’s natural; but you are not allowed to make that obvious
2. Treat everybody as an individual.
What works for one may be harmful to another. Get to know your patients, learn what works best for them and share this information with other staff. You can’t be on shift 24/7 and everybody needs to be aware of patients individual needs to be able to effectively work as a team to treat that person
3. Listen to understand.
Don’t argue, blame or assume you know how they feel because you probably don’t. Pay very close attention to what they are saying as they may casually drop crucial bits of information into conversation because they don’t know how to bring up the topic, to see if you are really paying attention or they may not see it as significant. You must also respect their boundaries; do not pressure them into speaking about something they are not ready to speak about, they will open up when they feel safe and comfortable enough to do so.
4. Don’t take anything personally.
You are working with unwell people in an alien environment, often detained there against their will. They may feel confused, angry, scared, trapped — they will be feeling emotions you may not be able to imagine. They may be hearing or seeing things you cannot. 90 percent of the time patients don’t want to hurt staff physically or emotionally. They are feeling intense emotions that can cause them to lose control — it may be a result of a symptom of their illness, it may be a fight or flight reaction. Which brings me to my next point…
5. Every day is a fresh start.
You can never hold a grudge on a psychiatric unit. If a patient has done or said something to you in a previous shift, the next time you see them you greet them by name, with a smile, as you always would. Remember they are unwell, they are most likely feeling unbelievably guilty and ashamed, so go about your day as if nothing happened. Don’t bring up the incident unless they do. If they do, acknowledge their apology, let them know you understand it was a symptom of their illness, let them know that as far as you are concerned. It’s in the past and do not blame them, don’t dwell on it. Change the conversation by asking about their day/plans for the day, etc.
6. Expect the unexpected.
Be attentive — always. If they have a plan A, they most likely have a plan B and C as well. Just because you have removed a known risk doesn’t mean they won’t find something else to possibly harm themselves with. Mental health patients can be some of the most intelligent and creative people you will ever meet, however, when unwell this can create additional risks. Think outside the box, because they probably are — they know what we know and if they are determined enough they might search for new ways to harm themselves that are unbeknown to staff.
7. You can use it until you abuse it.
While maintaining patient safety, try to be as least restrictive as possible. Remember it is staffs responsibility to keep patients safe, not patients. Even if the patient has gone somewhere they shouldn’t or accessed something they shouldn’t have, you must never react in anger. If a patient has a restricted item or is in a restricted area it is often due to an oversight or even neglect by staff. They are under your care, they are in there because they cannot keep themselves safe and it is your responsibility to do everything you can to ensure they are safe.
Trust is essential in building a meaningful therapeutic relationship where your patients have confidence in you. Trust is a building block of recovery. If you say you are going to do something, do it. If circumstances mean you can’t, explain why, apologize and see if there is an alternative time or activity that can be facilitated. Never lie to your patients. If you have to do something or tell somebody something, make that clear to them and explain the reasons why. Trust is important but secrets can be detrimental.
9. Deescalation, deescalation, deescalation.
Alarms, response, restraint, etc. should be your last resort. Most situations can be verbally deescalated if staff have the right skills. More often than not it makes the situation worse for the individual and causes distress to others on the ward. However, do not be ashamed to ask for help if you feel you’re in over your head — patient care is more important than your pride. If your presence is causing more distress and it is safe for other staff and patients, remove yourself from the situation. You can address the reasons why when the patient has calmed down.
10. Build on the positives.
As I’ve already said, psychiatric patients can be the most intelligent and creative people you will ever meet. Build on this, notice when they’ve done something different that is positive, no matter how insignificant this may seem to you — but don’t patronize them. It doesn’t have to come in the form of praise — this can be seen as patronizing for minor things. A simple statement showing you recognize the change is enough. For example, “I notice you’ve done your hair today, it looks lovely,” or “Your room looks very neat and tidy.” However, if it is a big deal to the patient or a major thing and they are excited about it, get excited with them! Show them you are happy for them, you are proud. Celebrate every success just as you would document any incident. Sit down and work out ways to use their intelligence and creativity in a positive way, and express their energy and negative feelings in non-harmful ways. If they are aggressive they likely have a lot of pent up energy. Take them to the garden and play sports with them or take them to the gym if the hospital has the facilities. If you have noticed they are particularly creative in finding ways to harm themselves, sit them down and find out if there are any sort of creative projects they could do as a distraction. If you have noticed they like to write a lot or are very articulate, suggest they could try creative writing, poetry, letter writing or starting simple things like gratitude lists to get their feelings on paper so they are able to better understand and make sense of them. This can be particularly helpful for patients who aren’t good at expressing their feelings verbally.
11. Your patients need to know you believe in them.
I had comments made to me such as “you’ll be a revolving door patient,” “you’ll never be off medication,” “you’ll end up spending a long time in a secure unit” and more. I’m a very stubborn person — being told I can’t do something makes me determined to do it. For me, this sparked the seed of determination to prove them wrong, to not do what they expect, to make something of myself. It is rare that a comment such as that will ignite such a response from a patient. In most cases, to most people these are crushing comments to hear. You are often devoid of hope in a psychiatric unit, you already believe you will be like this forever or you will die as a result of your illness. Often, you want to die as a result of your illness. Regardless of how long they have been in the hospital, how severe their incidents are or what you personally believe, every patient on your ward must feel as if the whole staff team believes in them and are behind them to support them through their recovery. Sit them down and ask about their plans for the future, ask where they want to be in five years. If they say something self-depreciating or simply say “dead,” ask them again. Ask them where they would like to be in five years if they were still alive, ask them if they had recovered or their symptoms were managed where would they like to be in five years. Phrase it in as many ways as you can think of. Repeat yourself like a broken record, and try not to let them create a self-fulfilling prophecy. No matter how much someone may want to die at that moment in time, there is always a tiny seed inside of what they would like to do if they didn’t struggle with this illness, or a dream from before they were unwell. Remind them of their positive qualities, suggest things they can do with these qualities and skills they can build.
Do not give up, if you have to say it a thousand times, say it a thousand times; and when you have an answer, make them plan. Get them to set goals, encourage them, support them, show them you believe in them. This really works — an amazing support worker did this to me. It took days and most likely a lot of me screaming and shouting to come up with a response to her question of “Where do you want to be in 5 years?” that wasn’t “dead.” Eventually I came up with three goals — move to Manchester, volunteer abroad and work in mental health/become a mental health nurse. She made me print out hundreds of pages of information and things to motivate me. I still have it in a folder and I still look through it whenever I’m feeling low to remind me what I’m fighting for. And guess what? I’ve almost been out of hospital for three years, I’ve volunteered in the Dominican Republic, Tanzania and Jamaica in two hospitals and an orphanage, I’ve just signed my contract to do support work, I still plan on moving to Manchester, but I’m currently living at home to save for six months of traveling next year. I’m living my dream — I’m living proof this works.
12. Patients are people too.
Treat them as you would like to be treated. Treat them as you would like your parents/spouse/children/loved ones to be treated. Think about how you would feel in their situation, and how you would react if someone did to you what you are doing to them. Really think about it, try to understand, try to empathize. A quote I came across in a book, “The Locked Ward,” words this far better than I ever could:
“Patients are not just people like you and me; they are you and me — you and me and the guy next door and the girl you went out with, and your brother and sister, and mother and father, and son and daughter — just people who happen, sometimes once in their lives, sometimes on a chronic basis, to contract psychiatric illness. It’s been estimated that a third of us will meet the criteria for major psychiatric illness at some point in our lives. All of us know stress, anxiety and hopelessness. The fears and concerns, hopes and despairs experienced by patients are experienced by the rest of us. Sometimes it is just a question of degree.”
I am an ex-service user, going back into services on the other side. I have many friends who are also ex-service users who are working their way toward being on the other side of services themselves. Nobody knows the system better than we do. I believe service users of the past will be the best service providers of the future, and can contribute to long-term change in mental health policy and practice; and also contribute to improving the lives of individuals so they too can come out on the other side and see what life has to offer, just as all the support staff did for us.
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They say recovery isn’t linear — and when you’re recovering from childhood abuse, that statement often holds true. You may feel defined by the actions or words your abuser inflicted on you. You may struggle with things like mental illness that makes sorting out childhood trauma even more complicated. Or maybe looking back on the past has just been too painful to make peace with.
Childhood abuse recovery often comes in waves, but in that process, we often notice little things that remind us we’re moving forward. That’s why we asked our Mighty mental health community to share with us little signs that let them know they were beginning to heal from an abusive childhood.
Wherever you are on your journey to recovery, please remember your experience is valid, you deserve support and you are never alone.
Here is what our community shared with us:
1. “When I finally believed my own story and wasn’t willing to let anyone gaslight me, manipulate me, or brush it off as something other than what it was. When it became more important to own my truth and my story than it was to keep people happy, comfortable and a part of my life.” — Lulu B.
2. “When I spilled something and laughed it off for the first time (as a child I was berated until it triggered a panic attack whenever I dropped or spilled something). It was a turning point. I’m still recovering, but I’m getting better.” — Rebekah B.
3. “I’m no longer having nightmares of him abusing me. I no longer wake up in a panicked, sweaty state fearing he will harm me.” — Celena R.
4. “I realize it wasn’t my fault, that the person who did it has issues and just used me to ‘deal; instead of actually dealing with their own issues.” — Hannah H.
5. “I was able to talk about my sexual abuse without blaming myself. I was only a child and had to understand that it wasn’t my fault.” — Mary Kay L.
6. “When I realized I was broken because I was raised by someone who was broken. She hurt me because of her pain. I can’t have her in my life because she is still very toxic, but I can forgive her. She didn’t know any better. I no longer wish for pain for her so she understands what it felt like for me. Deep inside I know she already understands, even if she’ll never admit it. I only wish for peace for her. The moment I had that realization, while doing some self-reflection, my whole outlook changed.” — Anastasia A.
7. “When I could say ‘no’ to anything without my voice shaking or feeling like I needed to constantly apologizing just for breathing.” — Danielle D.
8. “Once I moved out of my moms house. Did not realize how much it helped me moving away. It hurts because I love my mom but my step-dad did so much to hurt me and sometimes it’s best to stay away.” — Rubi G.
9. “I could let people hug me without tensing up and feeling uncomfortable. A pat on the back or a squeeze on the arm stopped making me wince.” — Ruby F.
10. “Finally letting go of the anger.” — Kelli W.
11. “When I no longer flinched whenever others would yell and scream, even if it wasn’t directed to me. I no longer feel like I’m chained to my past. I feel as if I’m free and can live happily, something I never thought I could go through.” — Celena R.
12. “My panic attacks came with a lot of yelling in my head. No particularly familiar voice, just loud. Like if you were in an empty room with a megaphone, the voices filled the room. My anxiety hasn’t gone away but the yelling has after I made peace with my past by not letting it dictate who or what I should be.” — Maggie H.
13. “Learning to trust a father figure and not fearing every time we would meet that he was going to hurt me. A huge step was feeling comfortable with being embraced by him with an innocent hug.” — Nicki J.
14. “Being able to talk about it without crying.” — Bonnie E.
15. “I no longer slip into that deep depression or strong anxiety anymore. because of that I began to finally learn how to live and relate to people. Still working on it, and am now weaning off medication after 20-some years on it, but without it I would have ended my life.” — Bonnie C.
16. “I was sexually abused as a child. A family member performed a certain sexual act on me as a child and it scarred me. As an adult I had someone I loved who wanted to express their love and affection to me through this act and I wouldn’t allow it. I finally met someone I felt comfortable with doing it and now I see that it’s not a bad thing but something that adults do normally. But for someone who experienced it so young it was just a weird and traumatizing act.” — Lindy B.
17. “When I finally stopped telling myself it could’ve been worse.” — Stacey R.
18. “I was so use to letting people use me and put me down, the day I finally stood up for myself and started practicing assertiveness is the day I realized everything would be OK.” — Veronica C.
19. “Being able to express my emotions.” — Raj J.
20. “I’m 22 and still going through my fathers alcoholism. Every day I live in constant fear and worry. I think he’s the reason I started having panic attacks in the first place. But I guess finally acknowledging the fact that he’s an alcoholic was my turning point. I used to deny it when people would blatantly say it to my face. People I haven’t talked to in ages even caught on. I grew up with it, so it was all I ever knew. I don’t know my father sober. I guess I was blinded. I didn’t want to accept it. For so many years I tried to push it aside, and now it’s gotten to the point where my mental health is crap that I finally realized it needs to stop. I’m not sure if it ever will stop, though. It’s beyond my control at this point. But at least now I know.” — Brittany J.
21. “Setting boundaries and communicating when I need my space. It’s very hard to do at times especially when conversations are heated, but ultimately it’s healthier and more effective. Because of my borderline personality disorder (BPD) I’m constantly trying to incorporate dialectical behavior therapy (DBT) skills into my conversations but it is hard work and takes repeated efforts.” — Kelsey E.
22. “I realized I had to to take responsibility for my own actions and quit blaming my parents. They did what was did to them and I refused to repeat the pattern. It took time to let go of all the anger but recognizing I couldn’t keep blaming them was a huge turning point for me.” — Kelli E.
23. “When I realized her opinion of me wasn’t law, it’s just her opinion. I’ve always been insecure about my voice because she always told me to shut up. I sing competitively now.” — Rachael R.
24. “My ability to recognize abusive personalities and behaviors.” — Cherry R.
25. “I was finally able to tell my fiancé I loved him without having a panic attack. I was emotionally and mentally abused by my dad and my grandmother on my dad’s side. They would do/say things that made me feel worthless and then tell me I’m imagining things. They would make it out to be my fault when in reality it had nothing to do with me. They made it seem as though love was controlling and manipulative. I was terrified and still a bit scared to say I love you or hear the words I love you because of them.” — Barbara L.
26. “I’m going through a DBT program, and as soon as I started embracing radical acceptance and acknowledging the constant self-judgement, my immediate mental health goals were more clear. I feel good enough to finally seek the help I need. It’s taken decades.” — Amber M.
27. “Being able to openly talk about the abuse. Also being able to finally see my father as the hurt man he was and forgiving him for what he did.” — Sarah R.
28. “I felt happy when I did something nice for someone. I used to always insult myself when I tried to help someone or give a gift or do anything for someone else. The first time I did something nice and didn’t feel horrible about it and didn’t insult myself for it, I knew I was recovering from the abuse.” — Julia W.
29. “When it got easier to let others in and actually talk about my emotions. I started to feel comfortable telling people, ‘I’ll be fine in a second. I just need some time to get over it,’ when I begin to get upset because of anxiety.” — Kimberly K.
30. “Being able to listen to criticism without automatically breaking down into sobs and apologies.” — Lauren S.
31. “I don’t have a panic attack at loud noises as bad as I use to.” — Carolyn R.
32. “I began a halting journey toward health when I could remain present in the same reality as everyone else for any length of time.” — Sherry L.
33. “Seeing [my] emotional abuser for the first time in a while and not wanting to yell or rip their heads off. When I saw them I felt at peace and felt no anger or anything.” — Monica S.
34. “I can look people in the eyes now. Before it was made sure that I knew I was a piece of garbage and not worthy to look people in the eyes.” — Brandy A.
35. “I’m not responsible for other people’s happiness. Others people’s negative opinions and views on me is OK, and not a trauma reality coming back.” — Monica L.
36. “I was emotionally abused by my parents who are very strict, appearance-focused Christians. Though I am still Christian, I’ve left their legalism behind. I knew I was healing when I started being comfortable swearing, since I was both expressing my emotions and defying their hyper-Christian standards.” — Rebecca J.
37. “I was able to look at myself in the mirror and not flinch at what I thought was there — but see clearly what really was.” — LaNea W.
Recently I was reading something on social media where someone said that in regards to her mental health, she had finally given herself permission to be a victim. I thought this was such a profound statement. Like I sometimes do though, I got lost reading the comments to this declaration and was astounded by the people who made light of her comment, or told her to never be a victim, and to call herself a “survivor” instead.
I started thinking about the words survivor and victim, and how powerful they really were. I agree no one should ever be victimized. I agree you should not play the role of a victim for sympathy or attention. But I don’t think that is what this person meant at all.
I am a survivor, but I wasn’t always. For a long time I was lost in the haze of guilt and shame for the things that had happened to me. For years I blamed myself for things I had no control over and pushed it all down deep inside where I tried to hide it and ignore it.
That didn’t work all that well. Maybe it did for a while, but we all know that is not a long-term solution to trauma.
One day I woke up and it seemed like the past was alive and haunting me. It was all I could think about; the trauma I’d suffered was sapping all my energy and stealing my peace.
The “peace” I felt though was kind of a joke. It wasn’t real. It wasn’t born from handling my trauma in any healthy way. It was just avoidance. But the guilt was there, as hot and humiliating as it had always been.
It felt like it was my fault I’d been hurt. If I had done something differently, maybe it wouldn’t have happened. I didn’t tell anyone at the time. I couldn’t tell anyone now — years later — I’d be judged for my silence. It was so long ago it didn’t really matter anymore, right?
Those were the lies I told myself to try to stuff it all back inside.
But something stopped me.
I began to talk to someone about my past trauma. Things became so much clearer.
It was not my fault. I was not responsible for someone else hurting me. I didn’t do anything wrong and there was nothing I could have done to stop it. I was a victim. There it was — that elusive grain of truth.
I had to admit I had no control over the actions of another person. I was a victim of their abuse. I gave myself permission to be just that. A victim.
I no longer held myself responsible. It took some time, practice and patience, but I did it. I let go of the guilt and stopped trying to accept responsibility for the actions of others.
Once I let myself be a victim, my healing was much more powerful. I was able to move on to being a survivor. Being a survivor meant something after that. It meant while I had been a victim, it had no power over me and my life, because healing had turned me into something else.
As my daughter goes through her own healing process, I saw the same struggle in her eyes. The blame. The guilt. The belief that she deserved the bad things that had happened to her because she had done something wrong, or because she wasn’t enough. No matter how I tried to reassure her it wasn’t her fault, she didn’t believe me.
Her therapist had her do many exercises to get past that thinking and to see that she could only be responsible for her own actions and responses. She could not hold herself responsible for what someone else did. Even to her. She had to accept she had been helpless. Admitting you were helpless can be a scary thing. As a victim, it was not her fault. She could not change her past, but she could decide her future. She could use being a victim to become a survivor.
I think that is an important step. We see victims as weak and survivors as strong, but that isn’t true. We are survivors because we were victims that refused to give up. Admitting that we were victims; admitting we were once helpless, is what makes us strong.
I was watching a video this morning about how therapy has helped people, but I also saw comments about negative experiences or dread over starting therapy. So, I thought, maybe my experiences could help put some people at ease because, whether you’re starting for the first time or the tenth time, starting therapy can be anxiety provoking. As someone who’s done this process so many times I’ve lost count, this is my advice for you:
1. Don’t stay with a therapist with whom you don’t “click.”
Most therapists will understand if there isn’t a solid connection, and you need to move on. I always say to have two or three sessions before making a final decision (unless they do something like #2 on this list.) If it causes anxiety to say something to your therapist about this, write an email, save the draft and if you still want to send it the next day, do. If you think you want to give them another chance, you can. You are in charge of your therapy, nobody else; don’t feel guilty for wanting your needs met.
2. Don’t accept any of your issues being belittled.
You sought out therapy for a reason; you don’t deserve to be told that reason is not valid.
3. Go into your session with an idea of what you’d like to gain from therapy.
To “be happy” or “be recovered” is not a good reason. Coping, communication, learning self-care/self-love and gaining awareness of your mental health are good reasons to start with. Recovery is possible if you are realistic with the process.
4. Don’t force yourself to talk about things you aren’t ready to.
Do tell your therapist if there are issues you aren’t ready to discuss just yet so they can be prepared to work on opening you up to talking about it slowly, and in a safe way for your well-being.
5. Be patient with yourself. Be kind to yourself.
As I said above, it is a process. Sometimes you will start therapy and feel worse at times, but remember this is only because you’re facing issues and feelings you’ve been repressing. Trust the process of it.
As I said in the beginning: you are in charge of your own recovery. Be patient with yourself, be kind to yourself and speak up for what you need to heal. Always remember that seeking help is not shameful; it is a form of self-empowerment.
We want to hear your story. Become a Mighty contributor here.