I can hear the garage door opening. I start my rapid checklist of things I was supposed to do. Kids have been fed, their rooms are clean, homework is done and checked, I got most of the laundry done, but not all…..maybe he will let that slide. I have a little bit of a panic, but I only have two loads left. Emma was sick again today, so I had to bleach and disinfect the surfaces. I got that done. I have no idea what I’m going to say when he asks how I let her get sick. The dogs are in their kennels with bones, that should keep them from barking when he walks in. I can hear the boys starting to aggravate each other, so I quickly yell up, “Dad’s home.” They immediately quiet down, thank goodness. Back to my checklist. His dinner is plated and warming up. The dryer dings, but at the same time I realize too many lights are on in the house. We are in 3 rooms, but lights are on in at least 5 or 6. I don’t have time to start pulling the clothes and run around the house to turn off lights. He will hear me if I yell up to the boys and ask them to turn them off. Then I notice the door is opening. He’s home. I feel panicky. I can’t breathe. I’m drowning. At that moment I wake up with a start, my eyes quickly searching my dark bedroom. My brain is trying to piece together what I am seeing, what is reality, what is the ghost of days before. After I reassure myself that I am safe, my breathing starts to slow. I start my checklist. It’s a different kind of checklist; the kids are doing well and are happy, I am happy, I am married to a wonderful man, the house isn’t perfectly clean, there’s laundry on the floor, I am the boss of me….
What does surviving domestic abuse look like? You wouldn’t be in the minority if you assumed that it’s just about getting on with your life. Unfortunately, it isn’t that easy. The toll that it takes to be in survival mode for any length of time reshapes perceptions and reactions to even benign situations. For me, surviving has been complicated and has come in stages. It’s an everyday self-talk and processing form of upkeep. After being in the water for so long, those sea legs aren’t quite gone. Just as each person that has found themselves trapped in the undertow has a unique experience, the aftermath of that experience is equally as unique. There are a few common threads and mindsets, but even in the commonalities, how and when they manifest depend on the individual.
My independence day anniversary is quickly approaching. It’s been almost 5 years since I last shared a life with Joe. That means it’s been half a decade of learning, unlearning, relearning, therapy, and feeling the sand beneath my toes rather than gasping for breath in the deep water of domestic abuse. My life today is a beautiful one. It might sound trite, but it is perfect in its imperfections. Still, it’s work. My brain struggles to make sense of my journey. I have nightmares. While some are nonsensical, most are more of a memory. My nightmare I described above is a memory. A vivid one that I hadn’t thought about in years, but my brain decided to rehash. I have a few similarities in my present life. I had done laundry that day and Emma had been a little under the weather, but there’s no pressure on me for either of those. It’s just another day. That’s one of the more complicated natures of surviving. The fight or flight response might be dormant, but my mind sometimes works at keeping it at the ready. A life preserver just in case I end up back in the deep water.
In continuing to work with other survivors, I’ve learned that it’s important to shed light onto this part of the journey. The complex PTSD and learning what’s “normal”. This will be the start of a series of posts that dives into what life is like after the undertow. I will talk more about the pull of the deep water, setbacks, and learning to live out of the water.