VIII. Effects of Abuse: Trauma, Mental Health
Part VIII of Living and Dying with Abuse
Trauma and Mental Health
Abused and traumatized people often do not recognize their symptoms or experiences until they get their hands on resources and learn about it. Trauma and mental disorders can take years to be recognized, especially if they cannot be traced to a singular event, and the increase of severity and symptoms can at some point become exponential.
My childhood was filled with strange behavior which I can now classify under trauma. With age I unwittingly became better at hiding it behind an emotionless mask, but my depression and complex trauma responses to abuse seemed to skyrocket once I was in my 20ies, untreated, the effects culminated and became irrepressible. And it is an insufferable hell to finally see abuse tactics for what they are and continue to live with and witness them, to continue with the inability to recover because the source of it all remains in your life. Why was I so sensitive to the effects of abuse? Was it my age and being old enough at the time to remember the more blatant abuse before it became less overt, or any neurological difference that made the emotional wound more severe or added to it with its own problems? And why couldn’t I take it a bit longer?
Unlike abusers, the abused cannot treat past events as if they never happened or aren’t relevant anymore, especially if the present doesn’t look so different. The weight of all that remains. The need of the abuser, the narcissist, the emotionally immature is for anything to fade into the past and oblivion.
“They act inconsistently, as their consciousness hops from one experience to another. This is one reason why they’re often indignant when you remind them of their past behavior. For them, the past is gone and has nothing to do with the present. Likewise, if you express caution about something in the future, they’re likely to brush you off, since the future isn’t here yet. (…) with each new moment they leave their past behind, freeing them from any sense of responsibility for their actions. Therefore, when someone feels hurt by something they did in the past, they tend to accuse the person of dwelling on the past for no good reason. They don’t understand why others can’t just forgive, forget, and move on. Because of their limited sense of the continuity of time, they don’t understand that it takes time to heal from a betrayal. You can see how hard accountability would be for these people; it’s a flimsy concept for those who don’t feel a temporal connection between their actions and future consequences.” (Gibson, pp. 64–65)
The antithesis to their consecutive dismissal and gaslighting is one’s trauma or mental health problem or any other consequence lingering into the present and future. “The past is alive in the form of gnawing interior discomfort” (Bessel van der Kolk, The Body Keeps The Score, Chapter 6). Abusers create trauma, frustration, and stress, bind you to them, keep you isolated in dealing with them — or rather, not dealing with them, to further exploit the consequences and confusion — , and refuse accountability. They create a cycle of control and justification by producing negative impacts on the psyche of the abused which can brand them as “bad or crazy”, and with that justify abusing and controlling them further.
But prior to becoming aware of abuse there are the honeymoon-phases. “An abuser of any type can have days when he turns loving, attentive, and thoughtful. At these times, you may feel that his problem has finally gone away (…). However, abuse always comes back eventually unless the abuser has dealt with his abusiveness” (Bancroft, p. 105). Abuse casts you in a state of survival, and through isolation it is the abuser’s breadcrumbs of emotional relief that can even become the sole means of that. But those are self-serving cover-ups, grand gestures for the public, or basic kindness elevated to special gifts. They are meant to lower expectations and standards, and to buy justifications for the abuser to not be criticized, questioned, or opposed. When the abuser is kind it’s not because kindness is one of their core values, it’s just that being kind to you during these moments doesn’t contradict or interfere with their core values of control and entitlement, it is in fact serving that.
The honeymoon-phases, when meant for partners, can work on children as well. They can make you gaslight yourself, when the true amount of pain and devastation is so great and frightening one simply has to think it isn’t that bad in order to cope with the abuse. Until the effect is one day lost, either because it was time to ask questions or because the trauma became too strong; at some point the depression just lingered on, making it impossible to let yourself be gaslit into the short lived joys. If you stop falling into comfortable gratitude during the honeymoon-phases, and keep remembering, it feels like a win. You may feel restless and weary but at least steadfast in your perception of reality. Unfortunately, holding on to your trauma and depression may feel like keeping your only evidence that emotional/psychological abuse ever happened or still does happen, and in its familiarity your pathology will feel like a comfort or a part of yourself.
When my mother was still there there was some relief, and trauma and C-PTSD were easier to ignore — but now there is only that. It’s even worse that the abuser is completely and in every aspect a trigger (his voice, his abuse tactics, even having his surname and seeing any sign of his existence in my life) which has made being in the presence of him a constant battle with anxiety, anger, depression, suicidal thoughts (and it has also extended to other instances of feeling anxious and enraged).
“To people who are reliving a trauma, nothing makes sense; they are trapped in a life-or-death situation, a state of paralyzing fear or blind rage. Mind and body are constantly aroused, as if they are in imminent danger. They startle in response to the slightest noises and are frustrated by small irritations. Their sleep is chronically disturbed, and food often loses its sensual pleasures. This in turn can trigger desperate attempts to shut those feelings down by freezing and dissociation.” (van der Kolk, Chapter 6)
Especially as a developing child you have no control over how your reactions to abuse manifest. Maladaptive coping mechanisms and negative symptoms are a typical result. Whatever your traumatized mind comes up with may be by chance, or by unwittingly mirroring your abusive environment. This can lead to a developmental lack in showing emotions, empathy, compassion, reciprocity, and mutuality, because of getting used to those not being valued and taught but instead mocked or invalidated, as they do not have a function to and aren’t developed or reciprocated by the abusive parent. Keeping the peace, like avoiding confrontation and agreeing to things, is also a trauma response, with which you disrespect your own boundaries and continue to validate the abuse. The alternative is suffering retaliation. Both comes at an emotional cost within an abusive environment.
“Managing your terror all by yourself gives rise to another set of problems: dissociation, despair, addictions, a chronic sense of panic, and relationships that are marked by alienation, disconnection, and explosions.” (van der Kolk, Chapter 13)
The cycle of peace and explosion for traumatized people is often just putting tremendous effort into keeping themselves together and then failing when everything boils over. Abusers practice double standards which includes giving themselves the right to have no self control and act on their emotions as they please but expect you to control yourself and your pain, rage, and terror at all times. Abuse victims demonstrate incredible feats of self control, which doesn’t mean that suppression is infinite. Expressions of trauma don’t necessarily or commonly reveal themselves in the presence of the abuser, or in real time during one of their abusive actions, as they deny you the environment to feel your emotions during the situations they arise and afterwards to work through them. After years of entrenching in us the fear of criticizing the abuser and showing anger in front of him, I only felt free to express negative emotions in front of my mother, which means she had to bear the brunt at times.
As she was the primary target of abuse, trauma and traumatic events were often linked to her as well, and because (witnessing) the mistreatment of my mother and therefore my mother herself were tightly knit with my own trauma, the symptoms could get triggered by something she did as well, if it was reminiscent of the abuse or its effects in any way (like talking about him or silently enduring another of his abuse tactics), or rather if she didn’t act towards the ultimate solution of abuse: getting free. Even when I finally realized it and actively tried to control it there were moments in which I forgot and was too irritated to keep my trauma outbursts back. Thus, in addition to the abuse, our own disorders can further harm ourselves and others (and the existence of abuse may be known or still unrecognized at that point).
Another effect of trauma and abuse is feeling alienated from yourself and your surrounding. Alienated from your environment you may feel disconnected from moments, or they may also feel too intense and people too intruding and only looking back was it as if you were running on autopilot. Besides the abuser’s gaslighting, trauma can also create a fragmented narrative. The lack of being in touch with yourself can intensify into dissociation, excessively seeking escapism, and being spaced out, as living with an abuser for so long means you have to cut yourself off from reality to a certain degree to cope with it. Alienated from yourself you feel fragmented, feeling as if you don’t know yourself or as if you don’t have a center or core, the frames of your sense of self seemingly whimsical and shifting. You do have a singular self and you remember your past, but you feel no direct connection to your previous states of mind. It’s as if any part of that past was a completely different person with a different thought process, and at each new stage in life you have to build yourself up again as if you were new. The sinister part of my dissociation is that for decades I had no words to describe it and wasn’t even aware of its harm, it evaded my perception as it made me evade reality. It is difficult to realize that it is a trauma response, and to know its source because it feels as if it has none. Amnesia is an often forgotten side effect of trauma, depression, and anxiety (memory problems can also be a symptom of ADHD), and deprives you of your own narrative.
A possibility of trauma and mental health problems are suicidal ideations or feelings. As abuse feels caging and escape hard to obtain, suicidal feelings can derive from the powerlessness to change one’s life: “Suicidal feelings often express a powerful and overwhelming need for a different life. Suicidal feelings can mean, in a desperate and unyielding way, a demand for something new. (…) a need for change so important, so indispensable, that they would rather die than go on living without the change” (Will Hall, Time for a new Understanding of Suicidal Feelings). So even death can become a much more desirable state than living with the abuser:
“Sometimes children of emotionally immature parents repress their anger or turn it against themselves. Perhaps they’ve learned that it’s too dangerous to express anger directly, or maybe they feel too guilty about their anger to be aware of it. When anger is internalized in this way, people tend to criticize and blame themselves unrealistically. They may end up severely depressed or even have suicidal feelings — the ultimate expression of anger against the self.” (Gibson, p. 53)
Suicide is not the solution to the wider problem, just the last resort for the individual, but if abuse remains a problem to be tackled individually then suicide will remain a viable option of escape for the individual.
How long term childhood abuse develops into complex trauma: https://ibb.co/SfGp8fQ
Lindsay C. Gibson, Adult Children of Emotionally Immature Parents (2015), New Harbinger Publications
Bessel van der Kolk, The Body Keeps The Score (2014), Viking Penguin
Will Hall, Time for a new Understanding of Suicidal Feelings (2013), https://www.madinamerica.com/2013/04/time-for-a-new-understanding-of-suicidal-feelings/