I know that targets of abuse abound with resilience because it’s required in all relationships with abusers. To maintain some control over the abuser’s seemingly erratic behavior, we walked on eggshells. We went to extraordinary measures to accommodate the abuser’s preferences while neglecting our own comfort and preferences. After being raged at or subjected to stony silence for some perceived slight, we racked our brain for why our actions were so egregious today but not yesterday. Our coping mechanisms required a sustained level of mental and physical exertion, and a willingness to keep trying. Wouldn’t you call that resilience?
When in the throes of abuse, how do you find the energy to take on anything more: finding alternative housing, protecting our kids, pulling off the escape, or surviving the abuser’s expected backlash? It looms so overwhelming, little wonder that we decide to maintain the status quo. We work the wheel in the squirrel cage convinced that activity translates to meaning. We’re always churning, but never getting anywhere. But if someone shoved a stick in the wheel, all of our energy would suddenly propel us out the cage door and to a new place – where leg movement indeed translates into forward motion.
When I felt myself propelled out of the squirrel cage, I made initial progress. I felt almost giddy from my progress at personal development, putting my living situation in order, and learning new skills. But my progress soon slowed with the onset of intense exhaustion. I felt lead weights around my ankles and even feeding and grooming became challenging. Participating in abuse forums on the computer seemed my only solace. While taking sick leave from work, I stared at the horizon from my lawn chair and mourned for my prior resilience, medicating difficult emotions with doses of bourbon. My forward motion had stopped, and more frighteningly, I no longer cared whether it returned, believing I’d squandered it on an abusive relationship.
As much as I preferred my isolation, I forced myself to slowly interact with others again – simple acts like walking with a friend or phoning a relative. Motivated by a need to thin out the abuser’s hoards of collections, I began to sell his things on formats like ebay. To my surprise, virtually every transaction went well. Buyers were satisfied with the product, and everyone paid as agreed. Complete strangers treated me with more consideration than the abuser did.
While ebay helped me practice successful interactions with strangers, I began to expand other connections. These connections led to new experiences and outlooks. Only after a long period of recovery (about a year) did my resilience rekindle.
The greater task was to learn how to regulate my resilience. Years of adrenaline pumping through my system in response to physical violence from the abuser weakened the control mechanism. When I asked my body for adrenaline, it came in small doses and left me exhausted. My partner urged me to regulate my effort while we worked, “We’re not killing snakes here, you know.” I’d laugh at him, and realize that my life didn’t depend on getting the current task completed.
While my access to adrenaline remains limited, I benefit from clarity of conviction, which I believe translates into resilience. For me, resilience is no longer about producing outcomes, rather about the percentage of time in the day that I feel grounded and in touch with my intentions. This is not a passive state. Because I am someone who is quick to assist others, I must consciously manage my time and commitments to make sure I don’t overcommit. The adrenaline surge may never be back, but I no longer miss it.
For anyone feeling trapped in a squirrel cage or who feels overwhelmed after recently launching out of the cage, don’t despair. Your resilience may just be converting to a different form.