During a soccer game when I was thirteen years old, I stole the ball from a defender on the other team and found myself on a fast break toward the goal. I can still remember the rush of excitement through my entire body, my legs pounding down the field as I told myself that no one could stop me, I was going to score. Then suddenly, a defender slid into me from behind, completely missing the ball but sweeping my legs out from under me. I fell backwards, landing directly on my back as the wind was knocked out of me.
The defender was given a red card, dismissing her from the game. After a moment I caught my breath, stood up, and took the penalty kick, scoring a goal for my team. I played the rest of the game, somehow uninjured by the nasty tackle.
The next morning, however, as I picked up my backpack and took a step up to climb on my school bus, I felt a pop in my back followed by a pain so sharp it was like someone had literally stabbed me with a knife.
The pain was so severe that I couldn’t go to school that day. My mother took me to the doctor, where I found out that two of my vertebrae had been knocked out-of-place, causing my hips to fall out of line and the muscles surrounding the trauma to spasm and tighten, locking my left leg two inches lower than my right and leaving my body in a crooked mess.
I didn’t understand. I had gotten up and played a soccer game after being knocked down, but I crumpled to the ground in agony while trying to take a normal step?
The doctor told me that the injury happened before the pain started, informing me that sometimes after a trauma occurs everything can seem fine, and then, while doing a seemingly normal or routine thing like bending to pick something up or walking up a stair the injury can suddenly be set off.
So, what does this injury story have to do with surviving abuse? Everything.
One moment I was at the top of the world, and the next I was blindsided by a blow that left me flat on my back trying to catch my breath.
Like most victims, I somehow got through the initial trauma. I stood up again and I went on with my life as if I was fine. And then, out of nowhere, everything caught up to me and my world came crashing down. The depression sank in. The anxiety. The hatred. The feelings of being unworthy and unlovable.
I did not understand any of it. I had survived, hadn’t I? I had succeeded despite everything, hadn’t I? I had kept it all together through the worst moments—when there were weapons in my face….when I was scared for my life….when I thought I might die before the sun came up again— and yet, here I was, falling apart because I lost my gym ID; furious that my new boyfriend had decided he loved me; panic-stricken at 4am from a bad dream.
What I have learned about abuse is that at its core, it is like any other serious injury. The sad part is that the internal damage often prevents us from seeing it as such.
1. What happened to you is NOT your fault. You did not cause it. It didn’t happen because you are weak or stupid or because something about you is flawed. When the defender tackled me during my soccer game, I never blamed myself for being injured. I knew that what she had done was wrong. I might have struggled with the unfairness of being hurt, but never once did I think, why did I let this happen to me?
As a victim of abuse, however, I was conditioned to believe that what happened to me was my fault. There was something wrong with me. I somehow deserved what happened, or was responsible for it in some way. I felt as if the abuse was somehow a reflection of me. I was ashamed and I tried to downplay the things that happened or keep them a secret.
Throughout the recovery process, it is important to keep reminding yourself that the abuse was something that happened to you. It was not your fault and it is not a reflection of you as a person.
2. Nothing is permanent. Pain is temporary–you will heal. There were days when I felt like I would never be ok again, and the little things I had taken for granted before the injury seemed so far away. I was mad that I couldn’t run. Frustrated that I was forced to lay still, but day by day I started to feel better.
After the abuse I struggled with the same feelings. If I let my mind wander, I become overwhelmed with fear that I might never be ok again. The pain was so strong that it was hard to see any sign of an end to it all. It was important for me to remember that nothing lasts forever. Everything is temporary. Pain will lessen. Time will heal. You can find happiness again.
3. Like any trauma, recovering from abuse takes time. After my back injury, it took several days before I was able to walk around again, and several weeks before I started feeling normal. I met with a physical therapist almost every day who helped realign my back and begin to strengthen the muscles around the damage. If I tried to rush through the recovery process, I put myself at a high risk of re-injuring myself and ultimately making the process longer. As hard as it was, I continued to do my exercises, ice and stretch and give myself time to heal. Slowly, I got better. Some days the pain was worse, and I adjusted. I listened to my body and I rested. As time went on, the pain got less and less, and I kept moving forward after each setback.
As you are recovering from abuse it is important to understand that the process can take time, and you should allow yourself the time you need to heal. For some people, this might mean waiting to begin another relationship. For others, it is accepting that there will be bad days, even years later. Instead of getting angry with yourself or thinking that you ‘should be over it by now,’ understand that recovery is a process. The best that you can do is to be good to yourself. There will be good days and bad days, ups and downs, but gradually, piece by piece, you will recover and the internal wounds will heal.
4. Setbacks happen. At first, it was difficult for my physical therapist to get my back realigned. Each time he was able to manipulate it into place, it wasn’t long before it slipped back out-of-place again. Gradually, the manipulations became easier. As I strengthened the muscles in my lower back they began to hold the discs in place for longer periods of time, until everything was healed. Since that time, my back has gone out again. Sometimes it happens after I overdo it, and sometimes it comes out of nowhere, but each time, I make adjustments, rest and give myself time to heal, and before I know it I’m better.
Same is true as I recover from abuse. I might do well for a while, but then I have a bad dream, or I start to get down on myself, or begin a new relationship, and I slip back into the depression and the fear. Each time, I have to realign my negative thoughts and feelings and give myself time to heal, reminding myself that setbacks are part of the process and I will get past this one just as I have gotten past setbacks in the past. Nothing has ever been as bad as the first time because I know what I need to do to get it back in place. I also know that things are going to get better.
5. Sometimes the pain gets worse before it can get better. When my physical therapist adjusted my back, stretched out my muscles and massaged the places that were especially tight, it was painful. So painful that I often had to bury my face and squeeze the edge of the manipulating table to keep myself from screaming. If someone would have given me a choice, or told me ahead of time the level of pain I was going to have to endure, I would have been tempted to say ‘screw this! This hurts too much, I will just learn to live with my back the way it is.’
In the end though, I knew that I wanted to run again. I wanted to play soccer again. Staying the way that I was and learning to live with the pain instead of being opened up to even more pain so that I could heal, meant that I would have to sacrifice what I wanted most. So, instead of remaining where I was, I told myself that the injury was going to heal and I was going to play again. I told myself that I was strong and that I could handle the therapy because in the end it would be worth it when I was back on the field with a ball at my feet.
As a survivor of abuse, it can be tempting to try to stay where we are. As bad as we sometimes feel, the thought of opening ourselves up again seems overwhelming. Talking about the trauma is like massaging the tight muscles. Sometimes it hurts like hell, but it helps the tension release and it allows us to heal. Pushing ourselves to trust people again, even though we know it puts us at risk, is like stretching out the muscles. It takes time to loosen them up, but in the end, it too releases the tension and the fear and allows us to heal.
I knew that I wanted to fall in love again. To meet a great guy and to have a healthy and loving relationship, just like I wanted to run again and to play soccer. Sometimes we have to keep focusing on the long-term goal, trusting that if we give ourselves time to heal, and to work through the trauma, it will be worth any pain or discomfort it in the end.
6. The muscles you strengthen are the ones that get stronger. As I worked to strengthen the muscles in my lower back and core, it was vital that I strengthened the muscles when my back was in place. If I performed my strengthening exercises while my back was out of line, the muscles that got stronger were the ones that held it out-of-place. I might have been getting stronger, but I was actually doing more damage in the long run. Instead, I had to make sure that my back was properly aligned before doing my strengthening exercises. Sometimes, this felt uncomfortable or unnatural because of the damage that had been done, but it became easier as the muscles strengthened and held the discs in place.
As a survivor, this is important to remember. The muscles that you exercise are the ones that get stronger. If the messages that you send yourself are constantly degrading and negative, ‘I can’t do this. I am stupid. There is something wrong with me. I am unlovable.’ then the fear, and the depression, and the anxiety grow stronger and stronger. However, if the messages you send yourself are positive, ‘I’m going to get through this. I’m more than what has happened to me. Setbacks happen and I’m going to give myself time to heal. I am an amazing, strong, beautiful person and I have so much to offer the world.” then you become stronger and more confident. Even if it feels manufactured at the time, repeating positive affirmations strengthens the positive voice and over time it becomes more natural.
7. Injuries are not fair, but they are part of the game. I was frustrated after my injury. Why did this happen to me? I ended up missing a big game. I had to sit on the sidelines in pain while my teammates ran around and played. As much pain as I was in physically, it made me things even worse to watch everyone else play because it didn’t seem fair. Had I been injured because I was a bad athlete? Was it because I was weaker than my teammates or because I had somehow made myself more vulnerable? Did I get hurt because I was a bad person and there was something seriously wrong with me? No. It was just part of the game. I was in the wrong place at the wrong time and another player fouled me.
The same is true with abuse. What happened to me was not fair. As a victim, it is natural to wonder why things happened the way they did. Was I abused because I was a bad person? Was it because I was weak or because I made myself vulnerable? Was there something fundamentally wrong with me that meant that I deserved what happened to me? No. I was in the wrong place at the wrong time and someone made decisions that hurt me.
There’s no way to be a competitive athlete and eliminate the risk of getting hurt. It’s part of the game. Injuries come in varying degree, they happen to professionals and amateurs alike, and usually there is nothing we can do to stop them.We can lift weights to strengthen our muscles, stretch out and warm up to prevent pulling a muscle and we can learn to how to protect ourselves from hard tackles, but still, sometimes we get injured. The same thing goes for relationships. We can look for warning signs and red flags when we begin a relationship, we can practice standing up for ourselves and we can speak our mind and be strong-willed and loving and independent, but still, sometimes we get hurt. If we take ourselves out of the game, we might lessen our risk, but we lose the chance to feel the thrill of scoring goals or falling in love. In love and in sport we have to find a balance between doing what we can to prevent injury or abuse without missing out on the what we want and deserve in life. A chance to be and to have something great.