A Child Abuse Survivor’s Struggle with Self-Care. . .and the Essential Key that Helped Me Understand

Last week, I got in trouble from my husband, Derek.

I had just finished the blog post STOP: 4 Simple Self-Care Strategies. I asked him to read it as I wanted his perspective as an abuse survivor

I wasn’t expecting to hear this:

“You don’t get it.”

“O-k-a-y.” After five years of living with and learning about childhood abuse and PTSD, I assumed I understood a lot of things.

“It’s not that easy,” he said. “For abuse survivors, self-care isn’t that easy.”

The Struggle with Self-Care: Exercise

For years I had been at Derek to exercise regularly. In other words, I nagged. The pattern was:

  • I would barrage him with the reasons he should exercise.
  • He would agree that exercise would be good for him, especially as a stress-management tool.
  • He would say he was working out, but would barely break a sweat.
  • He would say he got his exercise while gardening. (Nevermind that we have snow seven months of the year.)
  • He would begin an exercise regime only to let it drop. (That explains the elliptical sitting in our basement.)

20161205_205352A year ago, I became extremely alarmed about his lack of commitment to exercise for three reasons:

  1. I read several studies and books about the importance of exercise in trauma recovery.
  2. Derek’s recovery journey was clearly going to be a lot longer than anticipated.
  3. He struggled with stress management. CLUE: a diagnosis of Post-Traumatic STRESS Disorder!

Wasn’t it obvious? Exercise!

It was a bad sitcom: Me, the nagging wife; Derek, the stubborn husband.

I didn’t get it. And neither did he.

5rkpefcssty-curtis-mac-newtonWhat was really going on. . .

Last spring, the real reasons behind Derek’s apparent aversion to exercise began to surface.

Thanks to the involvement of a skilled trauma therapist and reading on my part, Derek and I started to understand the underlying issues. It wasn’t laziness, stubbornness, or that he didn’t care.

It was the trauma in his body.

Trauma and the Body

In the same way that our minds store memories, so do our bodies. And in the same way, our minds try to avoid unpleasant memories, our bodies try to do the same.

For an abuse survivor, a memory, feeling, or physical sensation can feel overwhelming and dangerous. These sensations are called triggers. As triggers feel so overwhelming and scary, avoidance takes place in milliseconds without conscious awareness of the connection to the past.

In his book The Body Keeps the Score, trauma specialist Dr. Bessel van der Kolk writes:

The trauma that started ‘out there’ is now played out on the battlefield of their own bodies, usually without a conscious connection between what happened back then and what is going on right now inside.

For Derek, the physical feelings of exercise were a trigger.

It wasn’t about avoiding the act of exercise. It was about avoiding the trigger.

With the help of his therapist, Derek slowly gained tools to reconnect with his body without overwhelm.

He began to exercise! I stopped nagging!

Today, Derek runs four times a week. He has a bunch of crazy outdoor running stuff for our extreme climate. (Our elliptical still sits unused, but so what?)

The Key

Often, the behaviors, reactions, and responses of a trauma survivor are not about the surface situation. They are about something deeper.

Survivors: With help and practice, you can learn to identify your specific triggers and gain the skills so that you don’t respond out of triggers.

Supporters: With education and information, you can understand the underlying dynamics of abuse.

You can learn to look below the surface.