So you have made the difficult transition and had the courage to leave your toxic relationship. If this is the case, I’m really proud of you. When I was finally “free” from under the same roof as my ex, I think the idea of that freedom was very different than the reality. It was all totally worth it, and I never questioned my decision – but I was in for more than just a feeling of freedom and joy.
If you were like me, and married for years to a toxic, negative person who made you feel crazy, or made you feel ‘less than’ – you may be feeling what I felt. Or maybe a whole other set of emotions (we all have our own story, after all). I thought I’d share what I felt and how it surprised me.
The awesome: I was finally free!! I could open the windows in my own home and let fresh air in and not worry about someone chastising me because ‘bugs could get in’. I was able to cook and make some noise in the kitchen! I could get a little water on the countertops without fear of a screaming match (and yes, this was a thing)! This was the greatest feeling – a new life was starting, and I didn’t have to look over my shoulder anymore. I threw open the windows, I took naps on the weekends, I watched shows that I wanted to watch on TV (bliss!!!).
The ugly: I wasn’t prepared for the other part. The paranoia. The anxiety.
The onslaught of hatred and evil that would be thrown at me from the other side was unreal and I was unprepared. This person would try to spread rumors about me (that I was unfaithful for instance, because no one could possibly leave him for any other reason, right?). He would bring up crazy made up issues, or old issues via email, via text, trying to get a rise out of me (successfully, in the beginning, I might add). He emailed coworkers of mine, telling them not to date me (because in his mind I was dating my male co-workers) telling them that I needed to focus on my children. My reputation was something I valued deeply and this was traumatizing. I didn’t realize it back then, that this is what toxic people love. Attention. Negative or positive, they thrive and need it for their parasitic supply. Sensitive people, caring, empathetic people are very good suppliers. We’re also generally inclined to have a hard time saying no and making decisions.
I wasn’t prepared for the level of fear that I was feeling. That he might have gone off the deep end and was plotting my death. I had a hard time walking by uncovered windows at night – feeling like I was being watched. Being nervous walking to my car alone at night. I couldn’t sleep. I was fraught with nightmares paired with sleep paralysis and deep anxiety. I was on edge most of the time, and snapped at my kids more than I ever did when I was married. What the f*&ck? This was supposed to be a step in the right direction – what was going on?
I also felt like a bad mom. And not a ‘cool’ bad mom from the movies, either. I just didn’t feel PRESENT. I felt like I was a hologram of my real self.
You know what? It’s OK. This is a blip on the radar of your life. You are not what your ex says you are. Do you want your ex to control how you feel about yourself? Only you decide how you will feel in any given moment. You are stronger than you feel right now, trust in that, and in all the others that made it through and would tell you the same. So what if you fed your kid a pop tart for breakfast and tossed a Lunchable in his lunch bag instead of a perfect healthy 4-food-groups-and-minimally-processed-foods. Congratulations! You fed your child and sent them to school! Good job, mama. Give yourself a break right now and keep it simple.
What you can do NOW to help yourself through this: First, know that A LOT of emotions are surfacing – everything is bubbling up at once. It’s totally normal to go through this. We’ve focused so much on ‘getting out’ of our relationship, that this other unwelcome part is completely unexpected. You are healing and you are learning how to be stronger than you ever had to be before.
Second, post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a real thing. We have heard it mostly when talking about military service people returning from dealing with traumatizing and horrific events. It happens in abuse situations, too. Not that it needs a label, but you should know that this may be a big part of what is happening to you.
Third: your goal is to feel safe. First off, you are not helpless. You are not hopeless. Visualize that giant bully and shrink him down to size in your mind (really do this). Talk to friends and family you trust and who will listen. Drop the ones that do not support you. Write things down, journal your thoughts. Find a good therapist (and if you don’t mesh with the first one, or second, keep looking – this is an invaluable resource). Learn how to respond (or not) to your ex (more on this in a future post). Read about toxic relationships – so many amazing books out there and web resources too! Look into meetup groups. Guess what I did? I got a dog to help me feel safe. It did wonders for me…an intimidating looking sweetheart that did double duty as my alarm when the doorbell rang, or when he heard something unfamiliar, but also my cuddle monster which I desperately needed so much.
I started seeing that my ex was not powerful. That it was me that was actually strong and powerful. That he really was a bully. Visualizing my ex as this giant monster hovering over me had been all-consuming. I learned to understand that this was not reality. My power would lie in how and when I responded (if I responded at all) and getting resources in place to help in keeping him “boxed in” so that I could parent and live without harrasment, and more tools to help me move on. I cried a lot. So hard that I would grab my bed sheets in agony. I felt like I would fail at everything I attempted (work, raising kids, even daily rituals). But I persisted and learned to live again, for me and my kids. That giant bully looming over me before? Give me a microscope.
You will not be a victim anymore – you have started on a path of taking control of your life, and learning your value and worth, and it is going to be an amazing journey. Keep persisting.