Written by: Cally Worden
Survivors of domestic abuse must initially focus on the practicalities of establishing a new and safe living environment for themselves and their children. Although vital, this focus leaves little time or energy for dealing with the emotional fall-out from the domestic abuse. As the dust settles, survivors may be expecting to feel relieved and free, but this is unlikely to happen immediately. Surviving domestic abuse and moving on is a long-term project.
Understanding Where you Have Been
Domestic abuse systematically erodes the self-confidence of its victims. They may feel betrayed, scared, lacking in self-esteem, and unable to trust easily. After escaping the abuse, a deep sense of loss can ensue, akin to that experienced following a bereavement. Victims can become so used to the mental and physical violence that the removal of it can make normal life feel very alien. Often, survivors of domestic abuse find it difficult to express their feelings – they have been so used to concealing their true emotions as a mechanism for survival. It takes time to heal, and time to feel again.
The Importance of Self-Care
Being gentle with yourself is essential to a healthy recovery. Survivors of domestic abuse are often keen to make radical changes to their lives, but may not be emotionally ready to do so to begin with. Take things at your own pace, and don’t be concerned about what others may be thinking.
If you do not have children, or they are relatively independent, then the sudden absence of another adult presence can feel lonely and isolating, even if that adult was abusive. Re-establishing contact with old friends, or family members can be a great way to start building a support networks, as can attendance at domestic violence support groups, or joining a club in pursuit of a favourite hobby.
Making sure you keep your energy levels high is important too. Getting enough sleep, and eating a healthy diet will all help you to feel energised and equip you to deal with the emotional highs and lows of the early days and weeks following your escape from the abuser.
Survivors of abuse have often been subject to constant criticism, controlling behaviour and put-downs. These behaviours, along with physical abuse, are incredibly damaging to the self-worth. Confidence can be at rock bottom. Suddenly living a single, independent life can be both liberating and scary – suddenly you find yourself responsible for all the decisions, and may feel out of your depth.
Take time to step back and look at what you have achieved in leaving your abuser. Use that knowledge as a building block in your confidence, and remember to congratulate yourself for every success you have in your new life, no matter how small. Organised the telephone connection? Well done you. Evicted a spider from the bath? Give yourself a big pat on the back. Got through your first week/month/year on a budget? Fantastic!
Rebuilding self-confidence takes time, and is all about small victories. Talking to others who are, or who have been, in a similar situation can help – seeing that you are not alone, and how other survivors have rebuilt their lives can sometimes offer just the inspiration and boost you need.
Helping your Children
If you have children then it is important to also help them in adjusting to their new reality. This can be a burden or a welcome distraction from your own challenges, but however you are feeling, it is essential that you are there for your kids when they need you. They may be experiencing a change of home, school, or friends, and may have had to leave treasured possessions behind in order to safely escape the abuse. Processing and dealing with these issues will not be easy for your children.
Any abuse they witnessed, or were subjected to themselves will also have deeply affected them, and they will need time to deal with their emotions in relation to this. Therapy, support groups, or any other safe place where they can express their feelings can all help.
Children may also miss the abusive parent, even though they may be simultaneously relieved to be away from the abuse. If it is safe to do so, and your children express a wish for it to happen, then controlled contact should be considered.
Surviving domestic abuse is first about getting yourself to a safe place. Beyond that it becomes about steadily rebuilding your life in the way they you choose, without the dominant presence of the abusive partner. Take it slow, be kind to yourself, and look forwards. The crucial step of leaving your abuser was just the first one on the journey to your new life. What happens next is up to you. Embrace your newfound and hard-won freedom with both hands.