The Cycle of Abuse
It is massively confusing when the pain of the abuse you are experiencing, is so immense that the need to hide and protect yourself, clashes with your default yearning to be able to love the person hurting you; this is especially the case when your abuser is your parent. When the person hurting you is one of the people you should be able to rely on for safety and security, the effects, fundamentally shape your development and can be haunting for an entire lifetime. I am aware of the life-long effects and the nature of the cycle that sees me swing from OK and coping one minute, to overwhelmed and drowning the next. But what is the cycle of abuse? And is it possible to break it?
The following picture from TherapyAid.com shows one of the many different variations of the concept available on the internet:
This concept and this picture, accurately depict my marriage, although I couldn’t see it at the time. I married a man with a multitude of different issues, because I believed at the time I could help him. I know now, that this was a huge distraction and a successful way of me not looking at me and not dealing with my own history of childhood sexual abuse, at the hands of my father. Naively, I believed that I had suddenly become the person I wanted to be when I got married and the name change created a degree of separation from my abusive past. To a large extent I could not be found, by the people I considered to be my real threat (my parents) and I perceived my level of safety, to have increased a notch. It took me a while to realise that the relationship I was in, was, indeed, abusive too and I had not become the person I wanted to be at all. I was caught in a cycle which bought familiar thoughts and feelings, however it was different to my childhood, because I made a choice to stay in the relationship.
There were issues in that relationship from the beginning, but I was blindly and stupidly, not willing to give up. The relationship was flawed with issues of dependence and co-dependence and it was never really going to work, despite me desperately trying to make it. My husband was very verbally aggressive which was toxic and damaging and occasionally, our problems turned physical. There was a pattern of behaviour, that saw all the fight and determination sucked out of me and I eventually made a choice to get out, but only when my husband’s behaviour starting having an effect on my child (my eldest). There were many periods of tension, followed by an abusive incident, a honeymoon phase of remorse and I lived from one period of calm to the next. The relationship was exhausting and situations changed and escalated very quickly. I can clearly see the ‘cycle of abuse’ in that relationship now. I made a choice to step out of that cycle, which culminated in divorce.
For traumas that remain unresolved from childhood, it is not hard to see how there could be difficulties with every single relationship that proceeds, both platonic and romantically. I think it is interesting that I sort out this kind of relationship and fought so hard to keep it, following such a distressing childhood. Maybe it was the feeling of chaos that was familiar and what I expected life to be like? When needs are fundamentally unmet, we create a layer around ourselves for self dependence and protection, and I don’t think I was emotionally literate with my husband. I was not ready or able to focus on myself and I buried myself in trying to fix him. It was not until my current relationship, where there was a sense of calm, did I realise how chaotic life before it had become.
For a long time I think I have been in denial about the existence of a ‘cycle of abuse’ in relation to my abuser. I think this is because the very nature of the words, suggests that there is some kind of pattern to abusive behaviour, or a way out, and for me I could see neither. I spent so many of my formative years scared, or in pain, to the point that I did not know what safety was, until I was ‘dumped’ at my grandparents and I suddenly found myself safe. Maybe I had trouble accepting the concept of a ‘the cycle of abuse’ in relation to my childhood, because I didn’t make the choice to get out of it? The decision was taken by my mother, who struggled to cope with the angst inside me, whilst she was not seeing what was actually happening right under her nose.
Children believe everything centres around them and that they must be the cause of other’s reactions, whether those are good or bad. I rationalised the abuse I suffered, by believing that there was something inherently wrong with me, because that is what I had been told. As a direct result of this, I was left listening to the thoughts that told me I was not good enough, worthless, inadequate and insignificant. I believed I could not get out of the situation I was in, or that I would not be believed if I had told anyone, or maybe I simply didn’t try hard enough to escape because I hoped things would change? I was under the impression that if I could have been better, done better, said less, the abuse would have stopped. I blamed myself for how ‘he’ treated me. The truth is I was controlled and manipulated, which in turn kept me quiet.
Thinking and reflecting now about this concept, I would say that a more accurate depiction of my reality, would be a ‘triangle of abuse’, because there was never a ‘honeymoon phase’; there was never an apology or any feeling of remorse, or indeed any feeling of guilt from my dad. Being able to say sorry, when you have done something wrong, is a quality I knew my dad did not possess:
As a survivor, I have tried to fight against the shame I have been consumed with, by fighting for perfection in many aspects of my life. I used to be extremely house proud and had an obsession with cleanliness, tidiness with an affiliation with bleach (until my best friend said to me one day how much of a waste of time my daily rituals were). I have felt that my children are products and reflections of me and my parenting ability. How my children present themselves and behave is judged by everyone who sees them and this directly links back to me and the way I bring them up. I like my children to take pride in their appearance and they are always clean and presentable and I have used this as a gage, to evaluate my own competence. This endless pursuit of perfection is doomed to fail, leading to a feeling of being constantly disappointed, which is self damaging.
I found my purpose, power and my voice in therapy, whilst working very hard on my self esteem. I am no longer overwhelmed by the events in my history and to a certain extent, I feel empowered. I am getting better at separating the rational from the irrational (although this is still a challenge). Having said that, I may know intellectually that the abuse was not my fault, but do I really know it emotionally? I have regained some control over my life and ‘he’ no longer holds any power over me. Absolutely nothing I did warranted that kind of treatment as a child and my rational brain tells me it was not a fair fight; I was just a child and they were the parents. I am now more self aware and I am viewing the world and my own experiences in a very different way. Now I can unpick my thought processes and patterns of behaviour. But I am left with the effects however and I have to manage them and deal with the fall out. This leads me to the following conclusion………
I believe that there are 2 cycles that have been running concurrently for me; the ‘triangle of abuse’ that I was removed from at 15 years old and the ‘self punishing cycle’, that I have continued to perpetuate myself, as a direct consequence of the abuse. This ‘self punishing cycle’ is a pattern of self loathing, self blame and self doubt and self harm. I have adapted my earlier ‘triangle of abuse’ to the ‘triangle of distress’ because I am no longer in an abusive situation. Below is a picture of how I see my ability to cope with any distressing situation now:
The ‘any distressing situation’ could be the threat of confrontation, or fear of rejection, or the many times the lid has threatened to fall off of my box, before I was ready. Triggers are something that I have to face on a daily basis and some of these can be very distressing. Even beautiful moments, such as giving birth and falling deeply in love with my children in those first precious moments, caused massive waves of non-understanding of my parents treatment of me. I waste so much time worrying about things that have not yet happened yet. I question my own competency as a parent. I look for things that are not there. All of these things are fine though; I know where they come from.
I would rather stay inside the ‘triangle of distress’ now, because I think that is pretty normal, but the ‘self punishing cycle’ threatens to pull me in on a regular basis. There are a few things which make the pull stronger. My default thought is still what have I done wrong? or what could I have done better? I still have a very loud critical voice. There are a lot of people who are so caught up in carrying the chip on their shoulder around with them, that they don’t stop to question why it is so heavy, or even why it exists at all; I am not one of them. I have desire for change. I believe that this ‘self punishment cycle’ is a cause and effect response to the abuse, but also to having narcissistic mother and being a HSP (Highly Sensitive Person).
My mum was narcissistic. My sister was always the favourite child growing up, the one child my mum really connected with and the one my mum used to be in cahoots with, against me. (My brother had health issues and was also the baby, so always had a special place in all of our hearts). This created a massive division amongst siblings, that maybe could otherwise have been very close. I felt constantly blamed for all of the families problems and this was exacerbated when my mum took me to the G.P. several times. My mum liked making out that I had the latest thing she has seen a documentary on, until she was eventually given her way and was given a referral to Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services; I have the medical records of doctor visits and the referral paperwork, as evidence of this.
My mum never gave the impression that she particularly enjoyed motherhood. She used to take delight in telling me that she “gave up a good job to have me” and she would “never have married my dad if she was not pregnant with me”. There was always the severest of punishments for me, because “I was the oldest” and I “should be showing the others how to behave and leading by example”. Despite this, I always had fight in my belly to stand up for myself, against her injustices. I remember saying to my mum a lot, “this is not fair” and I remember asking her why she treated all 3 of us children so differently. I try very hard to show my children that I treat them all equally and I give them all the safe level of care, love and understanding.
On the very rare occasion my mum had caught my sister doing something she did not approve of, there were no real consequence. This has not done my sister any favours though, as the ‘golden child’, is now wallowing in a pit of her own self-created despair. The one child, that was lavished with praise and approval, has not done too well for herself. My brother still resides with my parents (and I am told has no further health issues). He has not flown the nest, nor reached a life of self dependence.
Every normal sibling disagreement between me and my sister, lead to my mum taking my sister’s side. I was consistently and constantly told that I was a disappointment and that I would never amount to anything. I desperately sort my mother’s approval which never came, but I think this only sort to give me more determination to disprove her; I went to university; I run a successful and busy private tutoring business; I have 3 wonderful children. Hearing praise is still very difficult, although I am getting better at accepting it. Those early on experiences are very hard to get out of the mind, but I have turned out OK despite the rocky start.
The ‘self punishing cycle’ has stemmed from the lack of praise, constant blame and a lack of empathy and affection. In some ways, this kind of psychological torture was worse than the sexual abuse I endured. It was a completely toxic relationship with my mum, where I felt crushed and belittled. It was a situation that was never going to change, despite wishing for it to. It was this that made me feel more worthless, hopeless and useless than anything my Dad ever did and this that has had a longer lasting effect. I internalised all of the guilt, shame and blame of the abuse, because my mum was a narcissist. I think my dad knew my mum was a narcissist and in fact he was her enabler, because it suited him.
As a result of an abusive upbringing and from a lot of recent reading, I am now aware that I am a Highly Sensitive Person and I have just learnt that this is an actual thing. I think this feeds in to my treatment of myself, which is often self punishing. I am very different to others, compared with how I treat myself. I am often told that I am very hard on myself and highly self critical.
I pay close attention to my physical environment and I almost have hyper-sensitivities to subtle changes. I often sense things are going to go wrong before they do and I can sense the slightest negative atmosphere. I know when one of my children open my bedroom door in the night, because I can sense the air pressure change in the room. I use so much energy processing these sensory sensitivities, that it is exhausting and it often becomes overwhelming. As an example, life in my world is like the 2000 film, starring Mel Gibson, “What Women Want”, where Mel’s character, Nick, can hear the thoughts of all the females around him. There appears to be no way to quieten down, these environmental sensitivities.
For as long as I can remember, I have had an ability to read people. I remember being very aware and hyper vigilant with my parents and I used to spend ages, just watching them. I was trying to identify their mood, as a way of pre-empting what treatment was to come. I can tune into my emotional environment like a radio; I can also see what words often hide. An extension of this is my sixth sense for pain that people are holding. I definitely absorb some of the unpleasant emotional energy, when people start to open up and share their stories with me, which they often tend to do. I know what it feels like, to feel so desperate and hopeless, so consumed with painful memories and stuck in a personal hell, that never ends. I know what it feels like, to be surrounded by people and to still feel so alone. This means that I can really feel the emotion behind the story being conveyed. I put myself in the position of the person telling the story and I get physical pain that accompanies it. I feel very hard and very deeply.
I find it very hard to let things go and it can take me weeks to process a situation, looking at it from many different views points and seeking council from trusted, significant others. I sometimes needs someone else to say, “you did all you could”, in order for me to give myself permission to let something go. This deeper level of cognitive processing, mixed with a higher intensity of empathy, is not only exhausting, but it also means I have a tendency to fall in to a pattern of setting unhealthy boundaries.
I used to hate my own company and being lost in my own complex inner life and I’d fill my days by visiting ‘friends’. Some of these ‘friends’, I have realised, are not actually friends, but people who only wanted me around, to fill a purpose in their own lives. I couldn’t see this at the time, because being around people, was fulfilling a need in me also. Now I actively seek out time on my own and away from people, simply to reduce the constant stimulation, which takes its toll emotionally, physically and mentally on my body.
I really understand the pain, the torment and the twisted thought processes, that consume many of us, and some days I feel ideally placed to offer some hope, but I have to remember that I can’t fix the world as much as I want to. I am drawn to watch extreme news and often feel compelled to act, but the everyday humdrum news, that is very depressing and draining, I can’t seem to watch. I am the one that wants to right the wrongs I witness and hear about. There is a level of discomfort that comes from feeling completely useless.
In my first article, “Trapped emotion”, I wrote: “I feel like I really need to cry when the physiological effects take over; a proper, deep, soulful cry, but as much as I want the tears to fall, and as much as I perceive the feeling will be released or lessened by them, they never come.” This isn’t the case any more. My extensive emotional vault, was unlocked towards the end of my therapy last year. Now, I cry easily and I have strong emotional responses.
HSP’s are often overwhelmed by negativity, whilst remaining highly compassionate people. I am told that I am all or nothing in nature. I am too much out or too much in, in the world; I think too much and I feel too much. HSP episodes do not happen all the time, but neither do my fibromyalgia flares. I have read that HSP’s make great friends, are great listeners and are fiercely loyal (all of which I am told I am). I never expect anything in return for good turns, because the good feeling that comes form them is enough.
I have several masks that I have to put on, in order to be able function every single day, in the various roles I play. Without this distinct differentiation, all the lines become blurred. I may present a tough girl image, but part of this is about preventing people seeing how much things really hurt. Even though my illness prevents me from physically moving the whole time, my mind is always active and even at rest, I am either, knitting, writing, doing crosswords or talking on the phone (often all at once). HSP’s never relax and I am no exception. Some of these activities block out the over stimulation from my immediate environment.
I think quite early on in adult life, I discovered that alcohol slowed everything down and for a while I was using that to cope with this over stimulation. Mindfulness and grounding techniques have helped with the chaos of having too much going on, at one time. HSP’s are also prone to depression and anxiety, both of which I have suffered from (at different times). Some have a need to withdraw after a busy day to a quiet, darkened room to reduce stimulation and I can see why.
Lastly, I find if difficult to forgive when I feel wronged. I need to be pushed right to the edge before I stop trying to maintain a relationship. I think most of this is about fear of rejection, which correlates to my childhood. I feel like I am constantly looking for clues and patterns; if I work out the pattern then life becomes very simple. I think the key to understanding HSP characteristics, lies within self awareness. It is easy to understand the notion that being brought up feeling inherently flawed, brings about a sense of low self esteem and low self worth. It is also easy to see how this all would effect the pull of the ‘self punishing cycle’.
Continuing to perpetuate the cycle
I believe that part of breaking these cycles will come with a certain level of forgiveness. I will never understand how anybody can treat a child, the way my parents did me, but I think I have learnt a lot about the type of people they both are, while writing this article. I have found myself spending some time, thinking about what must have happened in my parents lives, to make them dish out the kind of treatment they did. Maybe if I understand the position of where they came from, I will move closer to forgiveness. I watched an interview with Oprah Winfrey recently and she said that forgiveness was “giving up hope that the past could be any different”. I think I am starting to agree that the past could not have been any different, and I have stopped wishing that it was.
In my last article ‘Advice and Rhetorical questions’, I stated how I was still allowing ‘him’ to invade my thoughts and how I felt about my self. I was still allowing ‘him’ the control and I was continuing the ‘cycle of abuse’, whilst continually beating myself up. Even though I have adapted the concept to be a true reflection of my reality, now I see that I have allowed that cycle to continue and I have perpetuated that, with this ‘self punishing cycle’.
I mentioned that there are things that exacerbate this ‘self punishing cycle’ and it’s pull. A sense of injustice really knocks me and means that I can never find peace. If I haven’t done anything wrong and yet everything has changed, I just can’t settle. I have an unrelenting need to understand, but it is not possible to understand every-bodies behaviours and the thought processes behind them. I had a situation recently where I allowed someone to treat me in a way that hurt really badly. It’s almost like I was holding on to all the good things and ignoring these bad moments. I was clinging on to the little tiny snippets of good, almost like I could not believe this person could behave in such a way. While speaking to another friend about this upsetting situation, they asked me if it was like that with my Dad and had I latched onto the good moments to get me through the bad, and it really made me think. I didn’t want to believe bad of the person who had upset me, despite having been so badly hurt in childhood; you think I’d had learnt my lesson by now and maybe be more guarded.
Even though I have been through shit, I still let people in; I still try and see the good in people and that says more about me than anything else. Sometimes I have unrealistic expectations of others and unfortunately this leads to being let down. I do what I say I am going to do, but I expect others to do the same, and when they don’t, I don’t trust them any longer. This only perpetuates my distrusting tendency, and fundamentally only continues to hurt me. It takes me a long time to trust somebody and when I do, I really do; so when they then do something that hurts, it really hurts.
It takes me a long time to process situations and my first thought is often, what have I done wrong? Sometimes I need someone on the outside, to assess the situation for me, almost like I don’t trust my own judgement. I need to hear someone else say to me, “it was not your fault”, before I give myself permission to believe it.
I have a tendency to minimise on the outside, but be fully in the grasp of the ‘self punishing cycle’ underneath. I don’t like talking about, or showing my vulnerability. I’ve noticed recently that I keep thinking that all of my moans and aches and pains, are nothing in comparison to what some people are going through. I am acutely aware, that everyone has their own shit going on and my first thought is, “they don’t need my shit on top of their own”, so I have every intention of not voicing mine at all. But with close friends who are annoyingly good at reading me, they just know what to ask and everything ends up spilling out! I get wrapped up in this idea, that I am insignificant and now I know where that comes from.
My mind and body had a huge disconnect recent and it was very frustrating. My body has been riddled with various health complaints, some new and some long standing and I allowed the pain and worry, to take over. There is lots of research about the link between trauma and chronic pain conditions, such as fibromyalgia. I could not think, I could not feel, I could not write, because of this disconnect. This level of disconnect, create discontent. Pain, tiredness and periods of low mood, make these disconnects more long lasting and intense.
I don’t like others seeing my vulnerability, but sometimes even I forget that I am fragile too. Just because it may seem that I have my shit together, appearances can be deceiving. I still have bad days where I consumed with the critical voice, I still have days where I am triggered by everything, I still have days where the only release of the frustration I feel is through self harm.
I am very grateful and appreciative for all the time and care that I have been shown, before, during and after my therapy journey. It is very important, to let people know the difference they make, but this leads to a vulnerability. If you start letting people know their importance in your life, you become exposed. I am finding that I am only wanting to spend time with people who understand me, or who are like me. The inspiration for this piece stemmed from a negative situation with somebody who I thought was. It took me a very long time to start letting down the walls, but I felt really hurt by this situation. I felt like I have started to let people in, I got burnt, it hurt and I felt rejected by someone I was not expecting, which started a downward spiral. It is OK though, because now I am more aware of what goes on and where it originates.