Most of us left and returned to our abuser several times. When I left, my friends and family gathered in support, but when I returned to the abuser, their support sometimes turned to anger. I would wonder about their strong reaction to my perceived act of love. I was going to work extra hard to make the relationship work this time, and I couldn’t understand why that deserved anger.
Once out of the relationship for good, I better understood, because my own anger awakened. Groggy from its long sleep, it roared to life without control, often slopping all over myself. I came to dread the question, But why didn’t you leave earlier? I didn’t have a simple answer, which made me angry with myself.
Eventually I discovered that the reasons I stayed with an abuser are complex and illogical. As much as we’d like to see ourselves as logical beings, I’m convinced that our reactions are mostly emotional, convoluted by childhood conditioning. Only with emotional restraint and practice does logic prevail.
When a starved and battered dog arrives at an animal shelter, the staff doesn’t question the dog’s motives or why it didn’t run away sooner. There’s no anger. Instead, they understand that the dog did its best under the circumstances. But, people usually don’t mistake a dog’s experience with their own. They assume that, unlike humans, the dog had no agency.
That’s why I think anger directed at abuse survivors is based in the fear of becoming like us. This fear wants distance from our experience. They think, I’m a strong person and would never allow another person to steal my identity. And so anger places distance between their experience and ours. I won’t assume responsibility for that anger because it’s not mine.
Here’s the thing. As targets of abuse, we weren’t weak; we were just predictable. The military trains its special forces troops, with all of their physical and mental toughness, how to survive capture. If captured, attempt escape quickly before PTSD symptoms set in. Captivity and mind control diminish your ability to escape. If these tough-guys are vulnerable to abuse, why should we assume a civilian without training is immune?
I’ve lived with a sabotaged identity, and I know how it feels – like falling asleep and wandering in a dreamy fog. I’m generally a pretty tough gal, but I was no match for a skilled controller, especially when my grooming started at 19 years old and lasted for 30 years. Considering the depth of my stupor, I’m a little surprised that I woke.
We encountered skilled abusers who excelled at breaking down a person’s identity and replacing it with another. Why do we need to feel shame for being vulnerable? Could we instead feel anger at the abuser and pride in eventually beating the con?
And, by the way, why are we judging yesterday’s actions with today’s insights? We did the best we could with what we knew at the time. Without ignorance, there would be no learning. Without stagnation, there would be no fresh starts.
Anger isn’t bad. It’s informative, sometimes warning us of imbalance. When suppressed, anger finds another way to manifest itself. When I substituted shame for anger, I felt health-eroding stress, made self-destructive decisions, and attempted to manage feelings with booze.
Then I learned to respect my anger by directing it at the abuser and the con artist he was. He knew the game better than I, and I was losing for so many years because I didn’t know the rules. My childhood didn’t prepare me for this particular game; but, for the remainder of my life, I know the rules and the score.
Once properly focused, my anger pointed me to answers and motivated action. There is no shame in surviving abuse, and there is anger, which can be useful.