Recovery is often defined as a path, like Dorothy and her friends seeking the Wizard of Oz along the yellow brick road. My recovery from an abusive relationship felt less like a path, and more like a meander through dense woods. No consistent signs, pavement, or guides defined the way. Sometimes a vantage point let me recognize progress, but more often I felt disoriented and unsure. Haven’t I been here before? Isn’t that gnarly old problem the same one from last week?
After exiting an abusive relationship, it’s tempting to think that we simply took a wrong turn from the beaten path and need to rejoin everyone else. Once we recognize the need for recovery, offers to help come from all directions: systems for personal effectiveness, courses of therapy, contracts with life coaches, and subscriptions to video and book series. But beaten paths are also lined with parasitic ticks waiting to drop on the unsuspecting hosts passing below. Predators embed themselves in recovery institutions. It’s no surprise when we leave one abusive relationship only to take up with another we met them through a substance abuse program, at church, or in some sort of organized recovery program.
I began my relationship with an abuser when I was a gullible 18-year-old, and my intimate relationship skills remained stunted for the next 30 years. Skills outside of the relationship developed more normally; but, when the abuser killed himself, all systems temporarily shut down. Stunned, I spent days gazing at the horizon from my front porch unsure of where to begin, who to trust, or what direction led to recovery.
Since self-blame is a huge piece of the abuse experience, it felt risky to take responsibility for my recovery. If I failed, I’d have no one else to blame, and I didn’t think I could shoulder more failure. Offers from others to share responsibility for my recovery began to look attractive.
While many empathetic and genuine people are engaged in the helping industry, sprinkled in among them are the exploiters, the virtue signalers, and the disordered.
Exploiters recognize that someone in pain will pay greatly to make it stop. An apparent friend’s offers to help me quickly turned to a discussion about billing rates. One counselor interrupted me mid-sentence to note that our time agreement had ended and to engage further she would need another 15 minutes of compensation. I wondered why her clock fetish hadn’t surfaced when she rattled on about herself the first 30 minutes of our appointment. Many of these offers were simple common sense marketed into an income stream.
Some helpers I encountered seemed to gain virtue through the appearance of helping. While focused on assisting me, they were seemingly blind to their own gaping issues. I felt like a consulting class flocked to my side, eager to gain status and money off of my trauma recovery. Sometimes these services were offered outside of the parameters of licensing or formal training, which they discounted as limiting and out-of-date.
Freshly removed from an abusive relationship, I was a mark for any passing con job, a specialty of the disordered. I was not skilled in perceiving deceit, distraction, or deflection. I couldn’t relate to the sense of control that a con gets from taking a mark. While in a survivor support group, the facilitator took advantage of our vulnerability to evangelize her political views. Being held captive to her message felt like another round of abuse, adding nothing positive to my recovery, but certainly giving her an outlet for controlling our beliefs.
As I sampled the various recovery paths offered by the helping industry, I learned to listen to my intuition about what was helping and what felt off. I got better at leaving a path when it no longer served me. I discovered that promises of easy recovery didn’t develop into true recovery. That’s when my journey of joining, leaving, and wandering in between paths began to look like a meander. I’ve come to believe that our journeys are spectacularly unique, and that an effective route for one is not the same for another.
It became important for me to retain responsibility for my travels. I gaged my progress not through units completed for a mediation recovery program but whether I was feeling congruity between my actions, feelings, intuition, and values. Guidance for my journey came by asking questions and divining answers from reflection and intuition.
I like how Socrates assumed that much of what we seek is inside us, accessible through thoughtful questions. I look back with gratitude at the thoughtful questions posed by family, friends, acquaintances, neighbors, counselors, self-improvement seminars, domestic violence shelters, law enforcement, self-help books, and internet forums. Their questions helped me meander east when drifting west, slow when spinning out, and accelerate when stuck. Their questions often exposed uncomfortable truths, which led to progress.
My intuition had shut down from years of ignoring it while surviving intense abuse. I’d forgotten about the information available from gut feelings. Getting in touch with my intuition meant awakening to clues in my body. A heaviness in my stomach often translates to dread, indicating danger in that direction. Weariness indicates obligation and guilt, a direction I will not be able to sustain.
I learned the importance of sampling different approaches. I read from multiple sources and asked questions of a variety of people. I worked on my critical thinking skills so I could detach my listening skills from my reasoning and decision skills.
In our culture, we are rarely close to extended family, which used to supply the circle of eccentric cousins or the outspoken uncle who posed helpful questions. I needed to rely on the helping industry to generate questions. I met weekly with a skilled counselor for over a year, and she was the source of many relevant questions. Through personal effectiveness seminars I gained new approaches to old problems and an appreciation for how many of us are searching for answers. But those efforts laid the foundation for the real work yet to be accomplished – practice.
Practice makes perfect gives practice a bad rap. We don’t practice to be perfect, I think we practice to transfer the ideas in our heads to everyday actions. Muscle memory in a pianist’s fingers twitch long after the brain has forgotten the notes on the page. What if we practice until a healthier way of acting and reacting becomes part of our muscle memory?
For example, I deal with a consistent urge to retreat from conflict. My dear partner does not. When a neighbor pulled over and her angry body language hinted at confrontation, I noticed myself stepping back while my partner stepped forward. I could spend years in therapy talking about why I avoid conflict or I could practice taking a step forward with the next confrontation.
Measuring progress is a strong motivator for me. Naming my recovery journey as a meander has helped me let go of that. I wish all of you well with your own meander.