When Old Trauma Returns

The following interview is with a friend named Anne.  She is facing the re-emergence of an old trauma in her life.  She survived an abusive relationship with unusual strength, helping prosecutors hold her abuser accountable for his crimes against her, resulting in his prison term.  The corrections system is now considering releasing him early for good behavior.  Anne’s security from knowing him to be in prison is threatened.  Read along to appreciate the strength and grace she exhibits in reprocessing some freshly unearthed old traumas.

  • What is the situation with your abuser’s pending prison release?

A parole board hearing is scheduled within the month.  Depending on the parole hearing, he may be released early or they may require him to fulfill his full sentence.  I recently found out that the soonest he could be released is a year from now.  He has family in the area, so he may end up paroled locally.  If so, I have no doubt he would attempt to contact me.

  • What was your reaction when you first heard he could be released early?

I couldn’t breathe, and immediately had terror and anxiety followed by a lot of tears.  I was caring for my granddaughter when I opened the letter about his potential early release.  It was all I could do to divert her attention elsewhere while I processed these feelings.  

Even though it’s been two months since the letter, I continue to have a high level of insecurity.  Many of my PTSD symptoms are recurring.  I have terrors at any noise in the house, especially at night.  My short-term memory is affected, which impairs my ability to be effective at work and I maintain a high level of anxiety that spikes with new stresses and doesn’t seem to lessen often…a steady hum in the background.

  • How have your feelings changed since then?

I am doing better with time, but waves of emotion and PTSD symptoms ebb and flow, triggered by a memory or even for no apparent reason at all.  What also ebbs and flows is my resolve to take care of myself or to take forward steps.  I don’t want to be a victim, but it’s a struggle to want to self-protect and be well.

  • What is your definition of being well?

To feel well, I need a reduced level of anxiety and to flatten the ebb and flow of emotions.  The emotional swings are very difficult to endure.

I see physical wellness as a consistent healthy diet and regular exercise, using alcohol only for recreation.  I’m not well when I avoid exercise or enjoy too much comfort food or medicate with alcohol.

  • What steps have you taken to address these difficult feelings?

I reached out to my close circle, both friends and family.  Everyone rallied to help keep me safe, give me love and attention, or simply to be present when I need someone.  When I am low, I tend to avoid reaching out and don’t have energy.  I lift myself by doing something that is creative.  Whether creating through cooking something from scratch, being in nature, or making music, creativity is uplifting for me.  My sister is highly tuned into my psyche, and she checks in when I’ve gotten too quiet.

I also let everyone at work know what’s going on, including discussing a safety plan if my abuser were to approach me there.  Most coworkers didn’t need to know much other than a person who has hurt me in the past may be released soon, and we need to be prepared. As hard as it was to tell people about this, and knowing they haven’t experienced it themselves, empathy still flowed.  I was surprised in a nice way the amount of empathy for me.

I also initiated formal counseling.  I’d previously sought counseling soon after my abuser was imprisoned and I began to feel suicidal, but I didn’t find the sessions helpful.  I needed someone to let me participate in my own recovery, and the sessions weren’t doing that so I stopped.  I then read the book Why Does He Do That by Lundy Bancroft.  Every form of abuse the book described resonated with me, other than the severe physical abuse.  I shed a lot of tears while reading, and gained a lot of understanding.

Still, once I received the letter about my abuser’s parole and the old strong feelings came rushing back, I recognized that I needed to strengthen my resolve and ability to get through the parole hearing.  I have to make a convincing case to require him to serve his sentence because I don’t feel safe.  I asked the local mental health authority for a recommendation, and they connected me to someone with 30 years experience as a trauma specialist.  I told her I needed help to get through the parole hearing as well as the long-term.  She helped me with breathing exercises when I’m having a lot of anxiety.  She’s bringing me more understanding of why this happened to me.  She’s also explained the polyvagal nerve and why our minds and bodies react the way they do to abuse.  My body is holding on to its flight response and getting stuck there.  She is helping me get unstuck.  We will soon try some EMDR sessions to address further traumas. 

Another step I’m taking is changing the location where I live.  Even though I had repainted and redecorated my house, the memories of the abuse were still there.  I wanted to get rid of the hum of anxiety I felt in the house.  Starting over in a different house felt like a part of healing and would possibly make it less easy for him to find me if he is paroled.  It will also be easier to set up security systems in the new location.  

I also realized that I deserve to give myself a break.  I’ve reduced as many stressors as possible.  I still need to work and am in a job that requires me to be available.  Still, I am silencing my phone more often for my own time.  I allow myself to relax and protect my time more than before.  

I’m addressing some health concerns by focusing on eating well, taking some supplements, and getting regular exercise.

I have a more defined personal safety strategy.  For example, instead of leaving my weapon in the locked safe at night, I take it out before I go to bed and make sure I can easily get to it.

  • Which of your personal strengths have you relied on to help you through this time?

My strong initiative is helping me right now to keep going.  I also tend to use strategic thinking to figure out what next steps should be taken, and that has helped.  It’s not always easy, because my initiative ebbs and flows.  Sometimes I would rather curl up with a bowl of comfort food and do nothing but watch TV.

  • What strengths from others have you relied on during this time?

My partner has been incredibly generous with his love and attention.  He previously knew all of my background with abuse, and he has stepped up to help me.  He is so far from being abusive himself, he can’t understand how someone could do that to me, a strong woman.  He’s absolutely focused on helping me feel safe.  After getting the letter, my ability to be intimate was affected, where I even experienced flashbacks.  I was worried about how long that would be present.  It’s taken months, but we are beginning to bridge that issue.  His reaction has always been “we’re going to get through this together”, and he’s not going anywhere.

  • Has he defied any old beliefs you might have that in order to be loved, you have to be perfect?

Anne laughs and agrees.

  • What challenges do you foresee in the near future?

I’m currently feeling pretty strong and have engaged my network of folks for help.  I started working on the outline for my statement to the parole board hearing and have a lot more information on the parole hearing process.  If I had another career lifetime in me, I would take on the criminal justice system for how poorly victims are treated.  I’m sure victim advocates are intended to soften the effect, but they must be underfunded.  It’s been difficult to get clear answers.  The initial letter about his pending release had no dates or timeframes.  I spent 2 months trying to find out specific dates, often with phone calls not returned for days and days.  Why put someone through that anxiety?  I had to ask friends and outside sources to intervene for me and help me get the answers I needed, including the prosecuting attorney in the case.

Being consistent is another challenge for me.  I’ve pulled together a lot of resources to help me, but, if I don’t consistently use these resources, I’m not going to achieve an improved mental and emotional state.  With their help, I have created a safe place. 

 

  • What other advice do you have for someone facing encounters with their abuser long after the active abusive ended?

There’s no silver bullet.  I don’t have all the answers and it’s not always easy.  Things ebb and flow.  Stick with it and find that place where things are on the upward trend.  It’s important to recognize you are responsible for pulling yourself up by your bootstraps, but it’s okay to ask for help when you need it.  Which is completely opposite of what abusers want.  They don’t want us self-sufficient or connected to help.

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