Recently I read "What Does Your Pain Demand?" by Marty Coleman about recovering from burn injuries. Marty was in the hospital back in the 1970's after experiencing severe burns. He explains that the further one gets into burn recovery, the more pain one experiences:
"When you are burned, your nerve endings are either burnt or retract. On day one of your treatment, your nerves are not recovered and you only feel so much. But each day your nerve endings come back just a bit, which means you feel more, not less, pain as the recovery makes its way." Marty explains his various therapies - whirlpool baths, painful creams, gauze wraps, and physical therapy to stretch to avoid scars from restricting his movements.
Burn recovery is blinding. He explains that patients are unable to look toward the future: "Not only are you focused on the immediate pain, but you are pretty much incapable of imagining life in the future. The constant pain contracts your ability to imagine...In my mind, I could not see ahead because the pain was too great and was growing only greater."
When I read his descriptions about burn recovery, my heart began to race. I've never experienced severe burns, but as I read Marty's words about that painful recovery process, it was as if he was describing my recovery from years of emotional abuse.
My kids tell me if you drop a frog in a pot of cold water and slowly turn up the heat, the frog won't notice the gradual change, or even perceive it's in danger. Instead, it'll slowly cook to death. Yet if you drop a frog in a pot of boiling water, it'll immediately jump out. Obviously some budding serial killer tested this theory, likely more than once, and it may not even be true, but the story does serve a point.
The frog cooking to death is a metaphor for a victim who is repeatedly exposed to emotional abuse, which, over time, becomes escalates. The day-to-day belittling, minimizing, isolating, demeaning, ridiculing, criticism, accusing, chronic deceit, gaslighting, intimidation and other abusive behaviors become a normal way of life. The abuse builds slowly and in order to survive, the victim's tolerance level for these behaviors increases. Ultimately, at the height of the abuse, just like a burn victim, the abused are no longer in touch with their feelings. For all intents and purposes, their nerves are dead. They have become numb as a self-defense mechanism. By that point, without even realizing it, just like the frog, they have been cooked subtly over time.
Becaue the abuse begins slowly and escalates, just like the temperature of the frog's water, the victim doesn't have an a-ha moment and leave the situation. So when people say, "Why didn't she just leave?" The answer is complicated. By that point, she has lost faith in herself, in her ability to make decisions, in her family (she's likely been isolated), and she may feel worthless and crazy. Feeling this low and helpless, it's pretty hard to pack up and go, especially if kids are involved.
One might think divorce, separation, or the end of co-habitation brings great relief to a victim of emotional abuse. Although one has room to breathe and has space away from the abuser, just like the burn victim, feelings slowly start to return. Feelings can't be ignored. Those bitches hurt. Sure, we can drink our feelings, eat our feelings, numb them further by abusing prescription medication, but at the end of the day, if true strides are to be made, like a burn victim who doesn't want scars to restrict future movement, a victim of abuse must break through the pain feelings in order to deal with life on life's terms.
To complicate matters further, for emotional abuse victims, if there is continued contact with the abuser, for example, the two share children, every interaction (text, call, email, etc.) has the potential to reinjure the convalescing wounds. Written words are just as harmful as those spoken. And if contact must occur, perhaps to discuss logistics of the kids or finances, the mere interaction with the abuser can reinjure the wounds, not only slowing, but actually reversing the healing process.
Despite physical separation from the abuser, the continuous reinjury can make it almost impossible for a victim of abuse to imagine a future, or have hope. Truly the pain can be paralyzing, or blinding, as Marty described. Concentration, planning, or just going about one's daily business become major tasks, yet outsiders can't see the infected wounds or the scars that have developed. But there is no doubt, movement becomes restricted. Hyper-vigilence develops, and circles of trusted friends become much smaller. And most of all, fear of the future becomes overwhelming.
I'm no doctor, but I've been told how to manage the pain. I take one day at a time. I don't plan too far ahead, and I try my hardest not to dwell on the past. My life moves at a much slower pace. Decisions, even though they take forever to make due to the low level of trust in myself, are deliberate, not reactionary.
Unfortunately, living in the moment can try friendships and relationships. Although one may feel (psychologically) safe and in a good place today, contact with the abuser at any given moment can wipe out that feeling of safety in an instant. Therefore commitments to tasks and events can be tricky. Friends don't always understand. In today's fast-paced world, people are planners and love their weekends to be endlessly booked with social events, especially around the holidays. Those days are over for me. In fact, those days are over for most people in any type or stage of recovery. After a traumatic physical or psychological injury, a quiet, simple life is an awesome (in the truest sense of the word) goal.
If you're suffering in any capacity, you are not alone. I encourage you to share your experiences to help others with their pain. As a result, we'll all feel less isolated. The toughest months for survivors are just arriving. During the holidays, the days may be shorter, but the pain isn't less sharp.
And for those excited about the upcoming months' festivities and who've had the good fortune not to be touched with injury or sickness, please have empathy for those around you. We will be warned and on the watch for snow and sleet, but big pots of water, especially those slowly coming to a boil, are much less obvious.