When I was forced to flee my 27-year-long abusive marriage 4 1/2 years ago, I never could have guessed how difficult my path would be. There was no way for me to know how devastating the fallout from an abusive marriage could be, both for me, and for my children.
I am learning how to manage my own Complex-PTSD, the result of being trapped in an abusive marriage for so many years. I am also navigating single-parenting my 12 children, with the youngest 6 still living at home. In addition, I am doing my best to support and advocate for my adult children who are themselves dealing with the fallout from abuse, manifesting itself in their lives as depression, PTSD, anxiety and OCD.
It’s all tremendously overwhelming and has flattened and incapacitated me more times than I can count in the past few years.
In hindsight now, there are 7 key things that have kept me afloat in the raging storm of my life.
Perhaps your life is peaceful sailing right now ~ I truly hope it is. Odds are though that all of us will find ourselves living out “plot twists” at some point in our life story that we never could have anticipated and definitely didn’t sign up for. Perhaps the some of the things that have been helpful for me will also be helpful for you.
Relationships with Others
This is the one thing that has kept me afloat more than anything else: nonjudgemental, empathetic friends who don’t feel like they need to “fix” me. My most valuable friends are the ones who are willing to simply listen and sit with me when I am too upset to even articulate myself.
My parents and children have consistently supported me. I have also been privileged to have several other friends who have steadfastly walked alongside me, even when I had very little to offer in return.
Relationship with the Lord
If I had to describe my relationship with the Lord in the past few years I think I’d have to say “it’s complicated.” And it is. Very.
All of the abuse that my children and I endured was wrapped up in and justified with verses from the Bible. Twenty-seven years of that makes things very complicated.
I can say this though; while I don’t have answers to the hard questions, I know that in spite of my weakness and in spite of my struggles, in spite of the pain in my past, I am confident that God is faithful. He has “shown up” for me in my neediest times, over and over again.
Ultimately I have found myself echoing Simon Peter when Jesus asked him if he wanted to turn back from following Him: “Lord, to whom shall we go? You (alone) have the words of eternal life.” (John 6:68)
Writing my Story
I’ve shared how writing my story saved my life. And it did.
I am continuing to find healing as I learn how to bravely articulate my story. Brené Brown says, “When you deny your story, it owns you. When you own your story of struggle you get to write your own ending.” She also wisely wrote, “Owning our story and loving ourselves through that process is the bravest thing that we will ever do.”
Your story matters too. Be brave. Tell your story.
Art: Watercolor, Mixed Media and Photography
I have found so much value in making art, both with paints and with my camera. Creating art helps me to focus on and delight in the beauty which surrounds me.
When I am searching for beauty through the lens of my camera or capturing the essence of a landscape or flower with my watercolor paints, the focus needed for those tasks provides relief from overwhelming CPTSD emotions like anxiety and depression by shoving them aside temporally.
Exercise and Being Outdoors in Nature
Exercise and the resulting endorphins have been a necessary lifejacket, saving me when I’ve felt like I’m about to drown emotionally. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve sat and cried as I laced up my running shoes, so overwhelmed by CPTSD anxiety and depression, but went out to run anyway, knowing that a good workout can keep me afloat.
Sometimes the weather forces me indoors for my workouts. Indoor workouts are still beneficial, but I’ve found that if I can get outdoors, the same amount of time and effort yields much better results. Being outdoors in nature clears my head. I’ve known this for years and I’ve come to rely on it like a lifeline in the past few years especially. Studies are confirming what I have experienced over and over. There is something calming about being outside… hearing the sounds of wind and birds, watching trees change with the seasons and feeling the sun on my face.
In the past that has looked like gardening and training for crazy-long events like IronMan competetions. Now it looks like swimming or riding my ElliptiGO and walking my dog, at least once a day. Exercise pretty much always saves the day for me, at least temporally.
Even when it feels monumental to simply get out of bed and keep putting one foot in front of the other, I know from experience that if I can make myself go outside I will return home in a much more peaceful frame of mind.
My new pup, Winston!
Last fall, after doing a ton of research, I chose to adopt an Australian Labradoodle puppy which I am training to work as a service dog for me.
Even though he’s only 9 months old and not fully trained, Winston has already been tremendously helpful in mitigating anxiety and depression. I’m looking forward to sharing here more about our journey together a we learn to work as a team.
Learning to listen to myself
This has been my newest focus. For the longest time after I fled my abusive marriage I was struggling so much that I couldn’t even begin to identify my emotions or how I actually felt about things.
It was not safe for me to have “negative” emotions or to trust my intuition for many, many years. I was using all of my emotional energy to protect my children and simply survive. Now I am learning to identify my emotions ~ even the “yucky” ones, and to accept them as valid.
Many times PTSD emotions aren’t logical in real time, but they are real and make sense based on the trauma in my past.
Not a cure, but gives me margin
These lifesaving things I’ve listed here are tools in my arsenal as I learn to manage CPTSD. I don’t do all of these things every day. Sometimes it doesn’t matter how hard I try to be proactive… sometimes my CPTSD is triggered and my anxiety and panic level go through the roof. There are days when I am forced to admit temporary defeat, retreat to my bed to rest and regroup there and text a faithful friend to ask for prayer.
Here’s the important thing to know: These things aren’t a cure… instead they give me margin.
They allow me to be more fully functional for my children and keep me from turning to less healthy coping mechanisms.
In the past I’ve struggled with feeling guilty for doing these things but I am learning that they are not selfish, overly-indulgent activities; they are actually necessary in order for me to keep functioning.
Hopefully my list of survival tactics is helpful and doesn’t make anyone feel guilty about what they aren’t doing. I’d love it if you can find a list of life-saving resources that work for you, tools that add margin to your life and enable you to keep your head above water when the storms are raging. I’m sure that your list of margin-building, life-saving tools will be different than mine.
If you want to share here in the comments, I’d love to hear what is “saving your life” right now. What things give you margin?
I, too, am learning to acknowledge understand, manage and accept life as it is. And I, too, am working toward the time when my present will no longer be dimmed by the darkness of the past.
Let’s continue onward, dear Susan. The best is yet to come – because God is faithful.
Leslie, thank you. I know that you understand, and you have summarized my hopes well. “… working towards the time when my present will no longer be dimmed by the darkness of the past.”
Good tips. Glad we connected. Is there a way to follow your blog? I couldn’t find a way to opt in.
Joy, thanks so much! You can sign up for my email newsletter on the right-hand column of my blog or at the bottom of each blog post (on mobile). I will be sending occasional blog updates, links to encouraging and informative articles, updates on artwork added to my shop and even occasional freebies!