“I have a loved one that I fear is stuck in this situation, what can I do, how can I help?” That is a tough position and I will do my best to answer it from my own experience in the matter, as a survivor. While there are striking similarities in abusers’ patterns, each situation is markedly unique.
For loved ones, the most frustrating part can be that no one can simply drag a person out of the deep water. Even if you see signs of abuse, you are literally looking at a tiny fraction of what is happening. Physical and verbal abuse are generally the most prominent outward signs. (I will also note that physical abuse, especially in the case of children, should be addressed immediately with protective services.) However, the emotional abuse is mostly silent to the public and where the most complicated facets come into play.
When I was in my period of drowning from the abuse, I had one certainty. As strange as it may seem, the instability of finding the next foothold to get my head above water, was also a sense of security. I didn’t fully understand the situation that I was in. It wouldn’t be until my 18th year of marriage that my eyes started to open to the fact that this wasn’t “normal” in a relationship and that it was abusive. My security came from the fact that, even though I was drowning, Joe was a constant. He was there, right beside me. Over the years I had come to believe that it was my fault for my precarious situation: I wasn’t a good enough wife, a good enough mom, I couldn’t clean correctly, I couldn’t interact with others correctly, I wasn’t intelligent, the list goes on. Furthermore, he made me believe that he was keeping me in this deep water out of love for me. He “put up” with my complete lack of worthiness and I would never be accepted or loved by anyone else. He even went as far as to twist real events with family and friends to show how little I was cared for. It was the most isolating time in my life. I couldn’t see a beach anywhere. I had friends, family and had people I interacted with, but I hid most of my life. I hid it in shame. I didn’t want anyone to know how awful of a human I had come to believe I was. There were a couple of fears in that. The first being my own insecurities. The second being that Joe was still pulling me out of the water from time to time, giving me glimpses of respite when I was meeting his criteria. If anyone knew and could get past how I was, it could either make Joe leave me or increase his disdain for how I was. I wasn’t there. I fully believed I needed him, that I needed the methods of correction to be the wife and mom that I’d always dreamed of.
This leads to the question, what could anyone do to help me? Directly, not much. I was firmly planted in my reality of the deep water, struggling to figure out how to alter myself to become worthy of not drowning. What I needed was support, love and acceptance. As I withdrew to focus on not drowning, I isolated more and more. My family of five did EVERYTHING together. It was priority, control, and survival. What I really needed is what eventually happened; to find some self-worth. What others could have done is to quietly support me. Not leave me to swirl in the water. I needed someone to look past the survival skills that I was building and help me find myself. I needed to not feel alone. By speaking poorly of Joe, that drove me further into isolation. I couldn’t risk the one source of security that I had. Getting someone out of an abusive situation is a lot like fishing. You have to cast your line (support) and wait patiently. Sometimes you need to refresh your bait, check your line and recast, but you have to keep casting it out. It makes a difference.
If someone you love is drowning in an abusive cycle, the number one thing is to not give up on them. Please, do not take away your support. It might be frustrating and may seem so obvious to you as to how it should be handled, but the situation is incredibly complex. Be patient, keep reaching out just to offer simple support. Try not to judge because you cannot fully understand the reasons as to why they are in the deep water. Let them know they are not alone. If they start to tell you some of what is happening, listen. For as much as they tell you, it is most likely a drop of water compared to the ocean that is really there. That one small drop could be a test to see if they can open up even more. Try not to force solutions. Be empathetic. Above all, let them know they are worthy and they are loved without any disclaimers. The real battle is within themselves to accept it. The key factor to getting out of the deep end of the water is for the person being abused to have enough self-worth to know that they deserve better; that there is better waiting for them. When they start to ask for resources, provide them, but still give them time. That first swim towards the beach takes a lot of courage and strength.