I can remember sitting there, my head in my hands, feet in the sand, my thoughts spinning in my mind. . .
I feel “crazy”.
How can I be getting this so wrong?
Why do I feel so horrible?
Why can’t I figure this out?
Am I just ineffective at articulating my words?
Will there ever be a solutions-oriented end?
I was trying so hard. I was desperate. I knew I couldn’t navigate through the storms much longer. Conversation after conversation I entered into with my husband, I hoped for breakthrough or some sort of resolution. But each time, my attempts only led me to a dead end. He treated me like my words and thoughts had little value or were simply wrong; that I was oversensitive, or that my account of what happened did not actually happen. When I said something, he would redefine its meaning. No matter how hard I tried to explain myself to him, he would stonewall me again and again. He treated his perception as fact and twisted every conversation. I felt belittled, ignored, powerless, and broken. It had to stop. And somewhere deep within, I knew there had to be a way out of the chaos. But I could not do it alone. I desperately needed help.
I lived in this stressful state of confusion for years. My husband and I were constantly in couple counseling, but nothing ever changed because our therapist was, unbeknownst to me, not trained in matters of abuse or trauma. No one saw the trauma I was living in. And certainly, no one ever called it emotional abuse. As a result of the traumatic stress I lived with for so long, my physical health became compromised. I started having serious and unexplained health problems regardless of how well I ate or worked out. My immune system was failing. Thirteen times I was rushed to the emergency room due to fluctuating blood pressure, serious allergic reactions, auto-immune diabetes, a dangerously low white blood cell count, and I was even diagnosed with Lyme disease. I was thirty pounds underweight, my body shaking constantly. My health had deteriorated so severely that I finally decided it was enough. I ended couple counseling and made the decision to separate from my husband. I had to make my health and well-being the top priority and I knew I could not heal without stepping out of the toxic patterns we were living in.
I had kept my Bible Study group of several years aware of my growing health issues and they had been supportive until I set a boundary in my marriage and separated from my husband. Once they heard that, my spiritual leaders not only abandoned me but shamed me as well. I heard nothing but crushing remarks about how this was my fault, how I needed to be a better wife, submit, and how I was not trusting God enough. “Just try harder,” they said. Then there was our marriage therapist. When I finally reached out to him for support, telling him I had made the difficult decision to separate from my husband, his response was, “He never cherished you… Why would you marry someone who is emotionally unavailable?” I thought, “So my therapist is criticizing me for marrying him in the first place? Is this my flaw? Is this something my husband has to overcome? Should I not leave my husband? Will he cherish me at some point? Am I unlovable?” And when I tried to come back to my Bible Study group, hoping they had softened or that I could make them believe me, they met me with sarcasm, saying, “If you’re separated, why are you still wearing your wedding ring?” These responses were so painful. Here I was, falling apart physically and emotionally, and I had little support. I felt utterly alone.
These professionals and so-called friends I was supposed to trust not only abandoned me in my greatest time of need, but they added to the trauma with their condemning words and actions. They completely shut me out, like I did not even exist. Was I really supposed to put the institution of marriage above my own health? Is this what marriage is supposed to feel like? Should true love feel so contemptuous? The way these professionals and friends responded to my calls for help were far more devastating to me than the actual abuse I was experiencing. Professionals I believed I could trust for healthy advice only left me feeling more ashamed and confused. Several longtime friends I opened up to about the abuse doubted me, causing me to feel more isolated and alone. I did not know how I was supposed to help myself if those I had trusted with my truth refused to listen, understand or support me.
It was through a pivotal encounter I had with a 14-year-old child who reached out to me for help, that I received the clarity to move forward. This sweet girl had been molested by an older cousin. Yet when she told the abuser’s family what he had done, they discredited her, played neutral or took his side. They told her never to speak of it. She was met with immediate judgment from adults whom she had trusted. She was not supported and some did not believe her. I witnessed her health tailspin in response to her crisis, resembling my own experience. She was rushed to the emergency room several times for unstable blood pressure. I recognized the similar patterns in our failing health. We both were heavily impacted by the responses we received when we opened up about our trauma. No one was willing to listen to our words or experiences, much less validate our abuse. As a result, the symptoms of our trauma were exacerbated.
With this newfound realization, I dove into research. How could I try to fight what didn’t even have a name? I needed to understand what I was feeling and experiencing. I attended domestic abuse support groups and educational classes. Light bulbs inside of me turned on and things started to make sense, motivating me to dig deeper. I scoured the Internet, reading every blog I could find about trauma and secondary trauma. The turning point came when I identified the thread connecting these stories together. The responses people received when they reached out for help was often just as bad, if not worse, than the original abuse they had experienced. I read confessions like, “It was one thing when I was molested, but when my parents told me I wasn’t allowed to talk about it, pretend it never happened, and that I had to continue to be cordial with him at family events, that was ten times worse.” The victims’ deepest pain was often not from the original abuse, but from how people responded. In those blogs, they often identified the secondary abuse as the most traumatic and violating part of their experience.
Upon discovering this, I knew I needed to delve deeper into the trauma I experienced from the harmful responses I received from various people in my life. I interviewed eleven therapists until I found one who was an expert in abuse and trauma. I learned abuse terminology and began writing understandable definitions, which helped me to identify so much of what I had lived through as a survivor. I also worked together with the therapist to grow that list of terms and definitions, and I researched these topics thoroughly. This process gave me a newfound sense of clarity and empowerment. The fog I had been swimming in began to lift. It finally felt like I was being listened to and understood. I felt validated. I was not “crazy”. I was articulate and my thinking was accurate. After further discussion with this therapist about the major unspoken issue of secondary abuse, I gave it a name. I called it Double Abuse®, the traumatic event when a victim speaks up about abuse but is met with criticism, judgment, silencing and even shunning by their families, friends, church or professional communities.
Compelled by this realization, I started interviewing hundreds of victims, therapists, pastors, as well as other “first responders”. I spoke with anyone whom a victim may deem trustworthy enough to reach out to for support or advice. Surprisingly, the majority of therapists and first responders were never properly taught or trained to identify emotional abuse unless they pursued that training through continuing education. It is frightening to think of how many professionals are sought out by victims for help and support, only to be given improper responses. Many don’t recognize that Covert Emotional Abuse is abuse. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, nearly 50% of all intimate relationships involve emotional abuse. In fact, the CDC identifies emotional abuse as one of the most damaging forms of domestic violence. It causes PTSD and related physiological illnesses that often follow.
Enter the M3ND Project
After years of diligent research and hundreds of interviews, I wanted to be able to share my resources and knowledge with victims and first responders. I longed for victims to know they were not “crazy” but were actually having very normal reactions to very crazy circumstances. I also wanted to educate first responders on how to properly guide a victim through trauma, preventing the harmful act of Double Abuse®. I wanted to share with other abuse victims the list of terms and definitions I created. Each time I interviewed a victim, I gave them that list. Their responses and feedback were profoundly confirming. Each victim I interviewed expressed the validation they felt just through reading on paper the terms defining the exact feelings and experiences they had lived with for years. This knowledge and validation ended the stress they had been living with due to their constant confusion. They knew they were not alone in their journey. This list offered them a sense of support and connection.
Once I recognized the connection between victim trauma and first responders, the need became clear to provide help to both. It was through this process I found healing and redemption for myself. I could clearly see the full circle of a victim’s original abuse and then the Double Abuse® they experienced because therapists and other persons of authority responded to their cries for help in ways that, while they thought were best, were typically more harmful than the original abuse. My mission now is to build bridges and improve knowledge, supporting victims of abuse, by educating, equipping and restoring all those impacted by abuse.
As for my personal journey, it required a three-year marital separation from my husband where he delved into intensive individual therapy, a batterer’s prevention course, and group therapy. For my part, I did my own introspective therapy. These efforts combined enabled us to successfully return to our marriage. My husband has continued to embark on a path of self-discovery and has remained fully willing to work on a behavioral process demonstrating measurable change. Together, we saved our marriage. We are now able to recognize each other as having equal voices with mutual care and respect. We love and support each other well and he is a full supporter of The M3ND Project.