Domestic Physical Violence The Long Road to Recovery
After the wounds have healed from physical abuse, the emotional scars live on.
Abusers fit every category-rich/poor, celebrity/unknown- even in the halls of government.
Tara Culp-Ressler, “Experts in the area say there’s still a long way to go. While most of the discussion about domestic violence typically centers on the immediate crisis, and the issues facing victims as they decide whether to leave their abuser, there’s perhaps less focus on the long-term effects of abuse that linger for years or even for decades.
Long-Term Health Issues
When most Americans think of the health consequences of intimate partner violence, they’re likely picturing the bruises and broken bones resulting from the physical abuse in the relationship.
That’s certainly true, but it’s only part of the story. There’s a growing body of research that confirms domestic violence victims also suffer from a host of more long-term health problems, even though many of their doctors may not initially realize that’s the source of their issues.
“The research is really illuminating,” Lisa James, the director of health issues at Futures Without Violence, told Think Progress. “Now, we’re understanding more and more that if you experience domestic violence, you’re at a higher risk for some of the largest health problems that our country is facing today — including heart disease, chronic pain, asthma, and arthritis.”
Victims of intimate partner violence typically face high levels of stress, which can exacerbate any chronic health conditions they may have already had. After they separate from their abusive partner, they remain at risk for mental health issues like depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder. Compared to the general population, they’re fifteen times more likely to self-medicate by using alcohol and drugs. And even years after the abuse, many survivors are also forced to deal with lasting reproductive health issues. One of abusers’ strategies of control can involve interfering with their victims’ sexual health — experts call this “reproductive coercion” — that can result in becoming pregnant or contracting a sexually transmitted infection.” (Tara Culp-Ressler,The Hidden Consequences Of Domestic Violence Linger For Decades, Think Progress)
The Long Road to Recovery
Christine Hammond, MS, LMHC, “The first time Nancy came into counseling she had a hard time looking at her therapist. Embarrassed and ashamed of the bruises on her body, the mental torture from her spouse, and sexual acts he coerced her into doing, she struggled to talk. She believed that she deserved to be treated this way and her actions were causing his rage. Nancy minimized his acts by making excuses for his abusive behavior and blaming herself.
It took a while for Nancy to summon the courage leave her husband. Once she did, she thought that all of her problems would be over and she would be healed. However, what she thought was the finish of a race, was really just the beginning. It took her over a year to recover from her trauma and get to a place of feeling at peace. Here’s how she did it.
- Safety first. The healing process begins when the victim of abuse is finally away from their abuser. Unfortunately this step can take months or even years of planning and preparation before it can become a reality. Safety means the victim is physically away from their attacker and can sleep without fear. After Nancy left, she had a hard time believing she was safe and needed the reassurance of others literally saying, “You are safe,” over and over until it began to feel real.
- Stabilize environment. The temptation of therapists is to dive into the healing process after a victim is deemed safe. But doing this before the stabilization of a new environment can re-traumatize. Rather, the victim needs a period of rest to adjust to a new normal before the therapeutic work begins. The length of this necessary step is dictated solely by the victim and the amount of abuse endured. It took several months before Nancy felt like she could breathe again as the confused fog of abuse lifted.
- Support unconditionally. Between her therapist and two close friends, Nancy felt loved unconditionally even when she talked about how much she missed her abusive husband. It was as if Nancy was forgetting the trauma and only remembering the good times they shared. One of her family members became so frustrated with Nancy’s sadness that they yelled at her and pulled away. This was so painful for Nancy but the continued support of her two friends more than made up for the lack of family support.
- Share experiences. One of the most helpful steps to recovery from abuse is to find a support group with other victims of abuse. This shared common experience allows a person to realize that they are not alone in their abusive encounters. Abuse is very isolating, personal, degrading, humiliating, and shameful. Knowing that other intelligent, beautiful, talented, and kind people have been abused is both saddening and relieving. Nancy’s support group gave her additional people that she could lean on who understood from their own experience what she was going through.
- Settle incidents. This is often the most difficult step from an awareness perspective. As the obvious abuse is recounted, new obscure abuse comes to light. Most victims don’t even realize the extent of their abuse until they reach this step. When they do, it can be overwhelming and will likely restart the grieving process all over again. As Nancy examined each major traumatic incident, other types of abuse surfaced. She came to see that she was also mentally, verbally, emotionally, financially, spiritually, and sexually abused in addition to her physical abuse. Processing this information was hard at first, but it put a nail in the coffin of her abusive relationship for good. There was no turning back now for Nancy.
- Stitch wounds. In order to stitch the wounds of Nancy’s abuse, she needed to rewrite her internal dialog of what happened. In the past, she would minimize his contribution to an incident and take excessive responsibility for his behavior. When she stopped doing this and instead held him responsible for his actions, things changed. Nancy no longer believed that she was worthless or deserving of his abusive treatment. As time progressed, she began to take pride in her scars as evidence of her strength, determination, fortitude, and perseverance.
- Set standards. The final step towards Nancy’s healing was to set new standards for how she expected to be treated. These became the boundaries of what is acceptable behavior. Anytime a person would violate one of her limitations, she would confront them. If they demonstrated respect by their actions and not words, Nancy would remain in the relationship. If they did not, she ended things. These new standards helped to reduce her fear that she would reenter into another abusive relationship.” (Christine Hammond, MS, LMHC7 Steps of Healing from Domestic Violence, PsychCentral)
Whether currently in an abusive relationship or having left one, this is where Counseling on Demand comes in.
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