When we’re trapped in an abusive relationship, none of our choices seem to lead to happiness. If we dare to escape from the abuser, life feels foreign and not at all happy like we’d hoped. We decide that the devil we knew was not as bad as this new-found hell, so we return to the abuser for another round.
I’m convinced that I left and later returned to the abuser four times because I was not yet ready to fight for happiness. In fact, if someone had told me I’d have to fight for my happiness, I’d have thought, That’s not fair! Not until my fifth attempt to leave the abuser was I ready to fight.
Relatives tell me that I was an unusually happy toddler, which I don’t remember. But, I do remember at age 19 when I began dating the man who became my abuser, experiencing 18 months of glorious happiness. That all changed once we married, where 30 years of brutal abuse and very little happiness ensued. By my fifth attempt to escape, I was determined to fight for that happy toddler.
Over the last six years, I’ve noticed a pattern to recovery from abuse. I first had to get off the abuse battlefield and then recuperate before I could engage in my fight for happiness.
Wounded soldiers don’t recover while still on the battlefield. In my unsuccessful attempts to leave the abuser, I didn’t know how to stop the continuing onslaught of abuse. Even when I cut off contact with the abuser, proxies like children, friends, in-laws, neighbors, and coworkers continued with the abuse. Wounded and worn down, I’d return.
When I left for the fifth time, the abuser killed himself, which seemingly ended the abuse for good. But his adult child from a previous marriage and several of his affair partners continued with the abuse. His final note expressing his dying wishes placed me in difficult situations with these proxies. I had to distance myself from them or they would have drained the energy I needed for my recovery.
Once I disengaged from abuse, I then had to recuperate. I wasn’t sleeping and my nerves were raw, so I decided to invest a year in recovery. I took early retirement from my job, avoided making other time commitments, and I spent the year reading, reflecting, and writing. During this detoxification period, I glimpsed moments of happiness, but they were fleeting.
As my energy reserves grew, I recognized how much energy I’d invested in the last 30 years in the futility of trying to change the abuser. When I invested that energy in myself instead, my readiness for the fight ahead grew.
At the end of my one-year recuperation, I tentatively waded into the fight. I experimented with some routes that initially seemed helpful but turned into blind alleys:
- Using alcohol to numb strong feelings
- Boosting my mood with sugar and caffeine
- Maintaining pointless busyness
- Entertaining relationships with new abusers
- Isolating myself
Like stopping any damaging habit, I needed to replace them with good habits.
I got a full physical, including consulting with a homeopathic doctor. I followed their recommendations for damaged adrenal systems. A counselor helped with my mental and emotional recovery.
By planting a garden and preserving the bounty, I was drawn to care more about what I ate.
An investment in improving my horse-riding skills motivated me to exercise regularly and to get outside.
Fascinated with the study of personality types, I read voraciously on how to type my own personality and how to understand other people. Information on narcissism and codependent personalities fascinated me. I made lists of red flags for identifying disordered people. Practicing my withdrawal from unhealthy people left me time and energy to connect with healthy people who supported my fledgling self worth. I started enjoying parody and irony and poking fun at myself.
With a spiritual practice of guided meditation, I quieted some of the mental chatter. I arrived at a simple explanation for my experience with abuse: It was meant to be. This allowed me to stop obsessing on why I’d allowed the abuser to mistreat me.
I still encountered blind alleys, but I began to recognize them sooner and got myself turned around earlier.
Along the way, I discovered that it is the fight for happiness that is bringing me happiness. The process of replacing old habits with new ones, following blind alleys and turning around, and failing and learning is the secret to happiness. It became less a fight and is now more an endeavor.
I learned that happiness does not appear once hardship is removed. Some happy people live in destitution and some unhappy people live in luxury. When I fought for happiness, I eventually found it, but it was never guaranteed.