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Domestic Violence: Breaking the Cycle For Good

For Domestic Violence Awareness Month, Pamela Jessen shared her story of partner abuse. In her post entitled Domestic Violence (It Affects Us All), she included some of the more covert forms of partner abuse and provides some tips on how to begin working toward making a clean break. Many people assume the story ends there, but it’s really just the beginning of the long process required to heal from domestic violence. In today’s post, I will discuss breaking codependent cycles in your life so you can begin leading a healthy new life.

Abuse victims don’t have to remain victims. You don’t have to continue to put yourself second to the needs of others and there’s nothing selfish about it. It’s quite natural and healthy (but your abuser doesn’t want you to know this). The reality is that no one will ever care for you right if you don’t care for yourself.

Anyone can learn how to become a survivor and live in their own truth instead. You can have a healthy mind and lead healthy life with a healthy partner. It doesn’t happen magically. It takes a little work and a lot of change, as does anything worth achieving. I can tell you firsthand the work is more than worth it and pays off heavily in happiness dividends. Change can be scary, but the alternative is even scarier. From 2014 to 2017 murders by intimate partners has risen more than 19 percent in the US. Every day, we lose an average of 6 women to partner violence in the US. Don’t kid yourself into thinking you could never be one of them.

Tips from a survivor of domestic violence who overcame her codependency and found true self-satisfaction and happiness, and then found the relationship of her dreams. You do have choices; put yourself first without feeling guilty. Begin your journey today.

Ritual Abuse Creates Perpetual Victims

As a child growing up in an atmosphere of ritualized abuse and neglect, I was quick to recognize how these patterns repeated from me throughout my life and in all of my relationships. As the family scapegoat and black sheep, I was used and abused by everyone including my siblings and extended family, select teachers, friends and boyfriends. By the time I hit high school, I’d been molested and raped, bullied on a regular basis at school and landed myself in several unhealthy relationships with boys.

By the time I was 18, I was planning my first wedding, to a man who had already tossed me out of a moving pick up truck and beat me over the head with a glass coke bottle. I thought it was simply what I deserved because I’d never known anything else. What I was suffering from is known as distorted thinking, and it’s something that happens to all victims of abuse.

By this point, I even knew about codependency; I’d been going to CODA (codependents anonymous) for teens, a group organized by a couple of the counselors at my school, as well as individual counseling. But I didn’t yet understand or believe that I had the power to change these cycles; I was simply desperate to be loved and that desperation lead me to take many risks and accept the good treatment I could get, even though I knew it wouldn’t last. I thought I could work on these problems and still seek that love and magically everything would somehow be okay. It wasn’t.

After less than a year under his heel, I knew that I would die by his hand or maybe even my own. I got the courage to escape one night during a fight that began to escalate. I returned the very next day with my mother and brother in tow. On my way out, I dumped all of his guns in the dumpster. Maybe not the safest thing to do, but the last thing I wanted was to be stalked by someone fully locked and loaded.

Even after leaving, I didn’t take my own codependent issues seriously. I knew I had them, but I felt that if I simply became hard, I wouldn’t fall into the codependent trap anymore. I became very particular about who I’d date, but I swung too far in the wrong direction, letting the chip on my shoulder take the lead, thinking that if I proved myself tough enough, no one would dare ever try to abuse or use me ever again. In my ignorance, I hurt some very nice people, because I assumed all men were the same and deserved my wrath for all I’d experienced.

From Domestic Violence: Breaking the Cycle, a must read for all victims of partner abuse.

The truth I eventually had to swallow was that unless I put in the hard work of healing my own codependency and non-existent self-esteem and learned how to love and respect myself, I only had two choices: I would be miserable and alone or miserable and abused. I didn’t like those answers, so I got to work. Here is a list of the things I had to do to get healthy and finally find a relationship that I can maintain without falling into the classic patterns I kept falling back into.

  1. I had to process through my trauma, all of it, in a safe and supportive environment. For me, that was therapy.
  2. I had to accept that the trauma I experienced left me with a lot of protective mechanisms that only worked in dysfunctional relationships.
  3. I had to have a genuine desire to examine and change those protective mechanisms before I could attempt a healthy, successful relationship with someone.
  4. I had to accept that while I wasn’t responsible for creating these protective mechanisms and unhealthy habits, it was my responsibility to work toward changing them. A bonus; taking responsibility actually feels pretty good.
  5. I had to remove from my life and influence all those people with whom I was still conducting unhealthy relationships. In my case, this was my entire family and even some friends and it was a must to avoid being triggered by old traumas and falling back into old habits.
  6. I had to learn about what healthy relationships were in order to begin to try to emulate one with someone.
  7. I had to accept responsibility for the abused little girl who lived inside me that I’d been trying so hard to run from. I was still her, no matter how much I began to change and I couldn’t just leave her behind. She needed my unconditional love and acceptance, my nurturing and my respect so I could become a whole person and accept all the parts of myself. To feel safe, she needed to know I would never, ever allow anyone to abuse her again, that she had my respect, loyalty and love. All things I had been denied throughout my life.
  8. I had to stop seeing myself through the eyes of my abusers to see who I really was, by changing the distorted thinking I developed and examining it under an objective lens.
  9. I had to accept that I deserved good things in my life in order to attract them.
  10. More than anything, I had to forgive myself for the things I’d done wrong and would continue to do wrong as I tried to live a new kind of life.

My Blueprint for Overcoming Codependency

Everyone needs to follow their own path to defeat codependency, but these are the things that worked best for me after much trial and error. Perhaps they can help you to build your own roadmap to success:

  1. Commit to rejecting any and all new relationships for at least 1 year. When the year is up evaluate your progress and consider whether you need to continue for another year. Do whatever you need to stick with this.
  2. Find a counselor who specializes in codependency. You need a counselor you feel comfortable and safe with, but who will also push back and offer strong guidance. You aren’t looking for a mother or a yes man and definitely not someone you can manipulate. You’re looking for someone who’s going to tell you when you’re wrong and call you out on your shit, and then they need to be able to offer good exercises to offer to help change it. It is very important to process through all of your experiences, but it’s never enough. You must begin working toward change, as well.
  3. Get to know and nurture your inner child. Love them unconditionally by accepting and forgiving him or her for all their faults. Place the blame where it belongs; on the people who hurt you and failed to protect you. Give the shame back to those with whom it truly belongs and forgive yourself for ever carrying it.
  4. Utilize cognitive behavioral therapy exercises to train yourself on how to identify and change codependent behaviors and distorted thinking.
  5. Work with your counselor to remove those people from your life with which you still have codependent relationships. You’ll begin to identify and recognize these relationships as you work with your therapist. If you absolutely cannot terminate a codependent relationship due to extenuating circumstances, work with your counselor to develop strategies to resist falling into the same old habits with them and how best to set boundaries.
  6. Practice building healthy new boundaries with coworkers, friends and new people in your life.
  7. Do the work. Put in the time with workbooks and exercises and try to figure things out on your own as much as possible. You won’t have that counselor forever and relying on them too heavily can be a form of codependency itself. You want to become your own person and that means accepting responsibility for your choices and their outcome.
  8. Accept that it’s an ongoing process that you have to continue to work at with the people in your life. You will never “graduate” and no matter how well your life is going. It’s imperative to check in with yourself every now and then and evaluate whether you’ve fallen into any old, unhealthy patterns.
  9. Be vigilant of how life changes can lead to setbacks. For me, becoming disabled by my chronic illness caused me to digress because it was such a big hit to my self-esteem. I was naïve about how that would prey on past and reassert old bad tapes and distorted thinking.
  10. Even when you’ve achieved a healthy relationship, that doesn’t mean you won’t experience new challenges to your mental health or that of the relationship. Be honest with your partner about everything you’ve experienced and respect when they feel like you might be practicing some self-sabotaging behaviors. If you feel it’s a relationship issue, enter into counseling together. It’s up to you both to maintain a healthy relationship.
  11. If you find yourself in an unhealthy relationship, get help right away. We all experience setbacks. It’s when we choose to ignore them that they become a problem. Remember it takes two to tango and if your partner isn’t willing to accept their part of the responsibility, you probably won’t be able to achieve the relationship you want with them. Remember, your ultimate responsibility is how you behave and what you allow in your life. No one has to stay in an unhealthy relationship. Ultimately, it is a choice and your responsibility. Get the help you need to get out.
From Domestic Violence: Breaking the Cycle for Good, a must read for victims of partner violence.

Overcoming Objections

It never fails that we humans resist change and the easiest way for us to do that is to come up with reasonable objections as to why we can’t do something. The truth is we’re really just afraid of change and will resist with everything in us if we let ourselves.

#1: I can’t afford Therapy

This is probably the number one complaint I hear, but the fact of the matter is there are free counseling services available just about everywhere. Check with DV/SA (Domestic Violence/Sexual Assault) organizations. If they don’t have a free of charge or sliding scale counseling program in house, odds are they know of a few in the area. If you don’t have a local organization, call the national hotline for your area. They will have options for you.

#2: I didn’t grow up abused, so I won’t have any problem creating a healthy relationship

Even if you come from the world’s most loving home, experiencing violence at any point in our lives impacts how we think and feel long term. Every person who has experienced relationship violence needs counseling. Sometimes we even find that our seemingly bland and benign childhood was actually filled with covert forms of abuse and that our parents still managed to transfer all their shame onto us. It never hurts to give therapy a try, even if you think you don’t need it.

#3: I don’t need counseling. I need someone to love me

We all need love, and in truth is does help, but we can’t really be receptive and accepting that someone truly loves us until we’ve learned to love ourselves. After all, if you can’t truly love and accept yourself, how can you trust that someone else possibly could? Incidentally, I learned that self-love is by far the most rewarding kind. My relationship with my husband means a great deal to me, but it comes second. I know I can survive without him because I know who I am and that I’m perfectly able to take care of myself, even with all my health limitations.

#4 People don’t really change. I am who I will always be.

If you think that way, you’re probably right. You will always be the same and your life will continue to be mired in the same problems. Change takes hard work and responsibility. It can be scary. But you can change and you can achieve happiness. The only thing holding you back is the courage to try. I’m certainly very glad I tried and I can’t imagine my life without having done so. I anticipate it would be a life filled with regret. The only thing I regret now is that I didn’t do the work sooner.

#5 I can change him/her

As I stated in #4, change is possible. However, it’s only possible if you want to change and fully embrace it. You can’t change someone else, no matter how hard you try. Concentrate on you. You are the only person you are truly responsible for, unless you have minor age children. If you have minor age children, then you owe it to them and yourself to get free and break those patterns. Dysfunction breeds dysfunction and no matter how young they are or how well they pretend they aren’t affected and don’t notice, THEY DO.

Life can be terrible, long and hard living with abuse. Break the cycle. For yourself and the generations that come after. You don’t have to be a victim anymore!

Additional Reading on Codependency:

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Improving Your Mental Health despite Chronic Illness, Post 1

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It’s been a while since I’ve discussed any mental health topics on the Zebra Pit, so I’m glad Mental Health Awareness Month has come around to help get me motivated. As many of you know, I have a complex PTSD diagnosis and because of this and several of my other diagnoses, I also struggle intermittently with depression and anxiety. I spent a few months in therapy recently to try to get some help to better control these issues and have picked up several new tricks that seem to be working wonders. In this two part series, I wanted to share with you some of the things that have worked well to bring me to a more stable and positive place in my mental health journey.

While I’m sort of a lifer when it comes to therapy and DIY mental health improvement, I found myself struggling when my disability became severe enough to rob me of a life and career outside the home. Between the deep sense of loss I suffered and the onset of dysautonomia and MCAS, my old bag of mental health tricks were failing. As it turns out, I needed some help to get things back in order and the changes I had to make were both related to my physical and mental health.

You don’t have to have complex PTSD to benefit from the techniques I discuss. It probably doesn’t matter how the depression and anxiety got started, either. What’s important to understand is that these conditions are NEVER “all in your head” or “imaginary” and you can’t “just get over it” when you’re suffering from actual clinical depression and anxiety. Can it heal naturally on its own? Sometimes, but healing is much faster and more thorough with active intervention. Generally speaking, these conditions take hold when there’s an imbalance of key hormones in the body such as seratonin, glutamate, and GABA.

My anxiety and depression stem from a combination of genetics and environment. I experienced long-term abuse and neglect as a child and can also experience wild hormonal fluctuations brought on by the central nervous system dysfunction. The most likely culprits are my suspected autism, POTS and MCAS, as these all can have a big impact on the erroneous release of chemical mediators in the body. While the triggers are slightly different, the results are always the same, big fluctuations in mood and even bigger guilt when those fluctuations drive me to behave badly.

What I needed to get my anxiety and depression under control was a way to control my misbehaving mast cells and POTS, some CBT techniques to get me out of negative self-talk cycles and some mindfulness training to help keep me firmly grounded in the present rather than wallowing in the pain of the past.

My Mental Health Journey

If you’ve watched my video on PTSD and Chronic Illness or my post The Toxic Shame of Being Disabled, you know that my mental health took a big hit when I became too disabled to work, after I had done years and years of hard work to improve my mental health.  You’ll also know that I already realized my original toxic shame (that heaped on me by my abusers) was somehow connected to my inability to accept my chronic illness and the recurrent PTSD cycles I was entering every time I had to face a doctor or any sort of disbelief when it came to my conditions. I was so close, but I couldn’t quite make everything fit.

It may have been in my first therapy session that my therapist simply handed me the key to the puzzle about why I was still occasionally fighting those rage demons and being so hard on myself. In essence, I was being constantly retriggered because I was being treated by doctors, family and friends the same way I was treated by my mother, my only caregiver. In some cases, even the same words or phrases were used. That’s all it took to unravel hundreds of hours of hard work.

My mother didn’t care enough to pay attention or spend time with me or learn about who I was or even ensure that she was ever home to supervise, prepare meals or anything else. I was largely abandoned at age 4 and left to care for myself the rest of my childhood, as my mother always ensured her jobs were 2nd shift so she didn’t have to be home with us. I wasn’t allowed to use the stove until I was 10 and was left hungry often. When she was there, she struck me constantly with her words and occasionally with her fists. She chose always to believe the worst of me. I was attention seeking when I was ill. I was stupid, worthless and lazy when I did poorly in school (never mind that I had no one to tutor me at home and was moved from one school district to another year after year). And when I had difficulty working under the weight of all the emotional baggage and untreated genetic conditions, I was just plain lazy and slovenly and would never amount to anything.

Having a doctor tell me they didn’t believe me or summarily discharge me or behave condescendingly, immediately transforms me into that helpless 5 year old. Without doctors, I was lost and I knew it. Abandoned, unloved and disbelieved, just as I had been as a child. After a while of dealing with this from doctor after doctor, the anxiety I began to experience before my appointments grew until I was having full blown panic attacks every time I even thought about scheduling an appointment; a very bad place for a person with chronic illness to be.

Techniques for Mental Health Improvement

It has helped a little to finally be diagnosed and connected with doctors with knowledge of my health conditions. Unfortunately, it didn’t help enough. Understanding that my reactions were shame based also helped and let me feel a little less guilty about it. However, it wasn’t until my therapist helped me clearly connect the dots that I could fully accept my behaviors and stop the self-defeating cycle of being triggered, sometimes behaving badly because of it and then beating myself up about it and only fueling that shame more.

I had really begun to feel bad about myself. Even if I could still list the positive attributes about myself, they were all in past tense. I couldn’t feel them or feel like they still existed. I participated in frequent negative self talk that wasn’t even true. In psychological terms, this is known as distorted thinking and many people fall prey to its trap. My therapist helped me with that, too. She assigned me exercises to help me identify when my thinking was distorted and reason out why. This has helped me significantly and I no longer need to pull out the worksheet to do it. If I need to utilize it now, it happens in my head. The true beauty however, is that I find I rarely ever need it anymore. I guess that’s why the workbook it came from is called Ten Days to Self- Esteem! It’s a great cognitive behavioral technique and I’ll probably post about it in more detail going forward, but here are some copies of the worksheets in case you want to try it.

On this sheet you describe the thought and then assign which types of distorted thinking you’re participating in. Often, there are several categories that fit.

While working with a therapist is probably my number 1 recommendation, there are a variety of ways you can work on these issues alone and buying workbooks like those these exercises came from is a great way to get started. I always learn things from these books. Here are a few that I’ve read or completed and recommend, including the two from above:

The other psychological tool that’s been invaluable to me is practicing mindfulness meditation.  Meditating can be tricky for people with chronic illness. Most of us utilize mental blocks to help regulate our pain whether we’re conscious of it or not. Because of this, when we open ourselves fully in a meditative state, we get flooded with pain.  There is a work around for this, however: practicing ACTIVE meditation of some kind. It sounds complex, but it really isn’t. You just have to choose an easy task—crafts, arts, coloring, a guided meditation, tapping, gentle exercise or simple movements—and discourage any distractions or outside thoughts. Anytime you feel your mind wandering, you just bring it back to the task at hand.

Active meditation isn’t just for spoonies, either. It probably works better overall for people in the current age where we’re always busy and constantly bombarded with information.  You can find a wide variety of apps, programs and websites to help you learn how, but I will also write about this in more detail, later. Here are a few great books on mindfulness and active meditation to get you started,now.

Another technique which sounds really simple, but often isn’t for people with anxiety and/or dysautonomia, is deep breathing. Deep breathing exercises are only helpful if you know how to utilize the technique and your central nervous system and muscles aren’t so locked that it’s physically impossible to take a good, deep breath. The 90/90 balloon exercise below will help you learn how to breathe deeply and will actually help you to build your core and helps to address several musculoskelital concerns:

Once you’ve been practicing the 90/90 for a little while taking a good, slow deep breathing exercises should no longer be a problem. When you begin to feel anxious taking several slow and measured breaths helps to switch the autonomic system and park it in rest mode. Doing this several times a day can be very helpful in maintaining peace. Be sure when practicing breathing exercises that you’re engaging your diaphragm and most importantly, going very slow and steady so you don’t hyperventilate. You can ry the breathing exercise below first to see if you need to practice the 90/90 exercises.

Pinterest image with blue sky and clouds is overlain by text. The text reads: "Breathing Exercises: 1.	Sit or lie flat in a comfortable position. 
2.	Put one hand on your belly just below your ribs and the other hand on your chest. 
3.	Take a deep breath in through your nose, and let your belly push your hand out. Your chest should not move. 
4.	Breathe out through pursed lips as if you were whistling. Feel the hand on your belly go in, and use it to push all the air out. 
5.	Do this breathing 3 to 10 times. Take your time with each breath. 
6.	Notice how you feel at the end of the exercise. The Zebra Pit"

How Exercise Can Help:

Exercise has many powerful attributes which are beneficial to spoonies, when done gently and with healthy consideration given to avoiding post-extertional malaise (PEM) and joint injury. Spoonies should exercise regularly despite pain and other problems unless your doctors tell you otherwise (for example people with NMH need to be evaluated before they take on exercise). It is important that you go slowly, pace yourself and protect your joints. For more information, visit these guides specific to POTS and EDS (the EDS one is probably good practical advice for most connective tissue disorders, but I would consult with your medical team to be sure.

Participating in a regular exercise program can improve overall mood, help balance hormones and raise endorphin levels, providing an overall feeling of wellbeing and happiness. It can improve sleep, something else which is essential for positive mental and physical health.  Exercise can also help to loosen tight muscles and help us relax and feel less anxious. It can also help get things off of your mind, especially if you work to stay present and focused on the tasks at hand instead of letting your mind wander to less pleasant ideas.

The activity doesn’t necessarily have to be “exercise” in the traditional sense. Anything physical that gets your heart rate up a little, blood circulating through your body and good deep breaths into your lungs is a great way to combat anxiety and depression. If you prefer to take walks, hike, garden, bowl, canoe or rent paddle boats, go for it! So long as it’s safe for you to perform that activity (see the articles above for some tips).

Spending time doing anything you enjoy is always a great way to turn around poor mental health, at least temporarily. Whether you consider spending time with friends and family, reading a book, taking in the fresh air and flowers at a nature preserve or going shopping to be great fun doesn’t matter, so long as you choose the right activity for you.

There are some great techniques here and I hope you find them helpful, but for most spoonies with some form of dysautonomia and/or mast cell disorder, you’re going to need some help from mother nature’s pharmacy. In part two of this series, I cover a number of over-the-counter natural medications, vitamins and minerals you can take to help with both depression and anxiety. I also discuss how medications can impact mental health and what to do about it when you realize something you’re taking is causing a problem:

References and Further Reading:

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