Overcoming the Effects of Abuse

Silamy
asks:
I come from an emotionally abusive home that occasionally gets physical. I was sexually assaulted by a family member when I was nine -not one who lives with me, and almost no one in the family knows. About a year ago, I cut the strings on a friendship that had gotten out of hand and turned into an abusive situation. I have been battling with depression for at least nine years. I'm nineteen, and a few months into my first relationship. I'm terrified. NOT OF HIM! I'm the one who initiated -and we were friends for years before I did. I'm worried that I have a predilection to seek out emotionally abusive situations. I'm scared that I won't know what's healthy give and take and what isn't. I'm scared that I won't be able to stand up for myself. I'm scared I won't be able to just walk if it's too much or if I'm hurting. I'm scared of being the abuser. I'm scared of getting hurt yet again. I'm still in that home situation, and for health and other financial reasons, I'm stuck in it until I finish school. Because it is what it is, therapy isn't an option. I'm lucky to have some external support network, but it's all emotional only. Far more -and far better -than what I've had for most of my life -but not enough for me to cut my family ties. Where do I even START? (I'm not opposed to professional help. If I could get it on the table, I would. It's solidly off for now, though.)
Sam W replies:

First off, I want to say that it takes an incredible amount of strength to have gone through (and continue to go through) what you have and survive.  You've managed to grown and thrive in spite of other people doing awful things to you.  That's not nothing.  And that strength is going to come in handy for some of the steps I'm going to advise you to take.

Let's start with your fears about not being able to spot (or worse, being drawn to) abusive relationships.  It's true that growing up in an abusive household or being in a abusive relationship for awhile can warp your sense of what's "normal" in a relationship.  Sometimes that leaves you feeling as though you've got a giant sign on your chest that says "awful people, come find me!"  There are two caveats to that.  The first is that pattern has nothing to do with survivors being clueless or gullible and everything to do with the abuser and how skilled they are at manipulating and grooming their target.  The second is that the moment a survivor recognizes and names what's happening as abuse (or even as "this is not okay") is the moment that they start resisting the abusers version of normalcy.

You've already done that first step, so what comes next?  One approach I recommend is to take time to sit and think about what your ideal  partner and relationship looks like.  How are you treated?  How do you feel?  This exercise is not about helping you find a "perfect" partner.  No one will match all of our wants in a  partner because humans are beautifully imperfect creatures.  Instead, this exercise is about helping you  understand how you want to be treated by a partner, rather than focusing only on what you want to avoid (although that's certainly important).  You can do this exercise all on your own, or you can use the advice in this article to get you started.

As a side note, if you're concerned that growing up in an abusive household means you'll become an abusive partner I have some hopefully reassuring words.  In my experience as a sex educator and survivor advocate, people who are worried about becoming abusive generally don't end up that way.  Because they're monitoring their own behaviors and their effects on others, they're open to feedback from partners.  They're willing to correct a behavior if they discover it hurts someone they care about.  I'd be much more concerned if you saw nothing wrong with how the people in your house behaved and were not open to the idea that your behaviors could hurt another person.

The next step is to talk with your current partner about your worries.  Ideally, this would be part of a bigger conversation where you two share your needs, desires, and boundaries about the relationship.  Give yourself permission to be frank about your fears of replicating the abusive dynamics you've experienced elsewhere.  You can even agree to have relationship check-ins every now and then to give you structured opportunities to discuss any worries (or yays!) that you've been noticing.  Doing this will help you both foster a relationship wherein if something feels "off" you can talk about it.

A final step I'll suggest is to arm yourself with resources to help you build and maintain the kind of relationship you want as well as evaluate relationships for signs of trouble.  We have these four articles to help you do just that.  I also recommend Love Is Respect, an organization with lots of great information on how to sort healthy relationships from unhealthy ones.  All these tools are meant to help you spot the abusive relationships coming, or get out of them if you find you're in one.

Big giant caveat time: Even if you follow all the advice I just gave you to the letter, there is no gaurantee that you won't end up with an abusive partner.  I wish all it took was giving people that advice to keep abusers at bay.  Sadly, that's not how the world works, and abusers are remarkably good at hiding their true nature until you've become invested in them.  If you do find yourself in an abusive relationship, remember that it's not your fault.  The abuser is making the choice to treat you that way, and you deserve so much better.

Next up is getting you connected to professional help, since you're open to that option.  It might not be as off the table as you think it is.  You mention being in school.  A simple first step is to start digging into your school's resources.  If there's a campus health center, do they have counselors you can access?  If not, can they refer you out to one?  Larger campuses may even have resources for survivors of abuse and assault, so that's worth investigating as well.

If campus turns up nothing (and proves incapable of giving you a referral), your next step would be to research rape crisis or domestic violence resources near you.  Often those resources will have some kind of phone line where you can call and talk to a counselor.  It's not a substitute for a longer term, one-on-one counselor, but it's an excellent place to go if you're feeling triggered, down, or need a place to process feelings about the what you've gone through.  Those types of resources often offer some form of in person counseling, which may make them your "in" to seeing a professional.

If all that fails and you strike out on your own to find a therapist, you can narrow down your search by those who have a sliding scale for fees.  You'll also want to look for counselors who have experience working with survivors, so you'll have someone who's familiar with the feelings that survivors have to cope with.  If you haven't already, make a handy list of some general mental health hotlines, like NAMI that you can call when your deppression gets hard to handle.  Lastly, be sure you communicate to whoever you find about the situation at home so that they can take precautions when contacting you.

Now we come to the biggest, trickiest part of your question.  And it's not even the main topic you came to ask us about, but it's the vein that shoots through everything else you are and will have to deal with: your family and the situation at home.  It's hard to heal from abuse if you're still stuck in an abusive context.

Getting out of an abusive home situation is not easy, and for some people it really truly is not doable at a given moment in time.  Before I say anything else, I want to give you the Scarleteen Safety Plan.  That plan will walk you through all your options and the steps to take within them, whether you want to leave soon or try and hold out until you finish school.  I'd suggest that if physical abuse is still happening (or escalating), it's sound to get out as soon as possible, even if that means sleeping on floors/couches/bathtubs for awhile.  No matter what plan you choose, your safety is the top priority.

In addition to your safety plan, there are a few things I really urge you to do.

First is to develope your Team You.  That's a concept borrowed from Captain Awkward (whose blog I recommend you read, as it touches on many of the issues in your question), and it boils down to getting as many people into your support circle as possible.  You're already doing that, so hooray there!  As you've already noticed, support comes in many forms.  Some friends can offer you an ear, some can distract you from the hurt, some can help you reality check when the emotional abuse threatens to make you believe its lies.  You mention they can only offer emotional support for now.  If that's because of distance, then they really can't offer a physical escape (unless they have a trusted family member or friend whose couch you can use). The same goes for your boyfriend.  Does he have a place where you can stay if you need to get away from your family?  You don't necessarily need your supports to house you full time.  Just having somewhere to crash when your family becomes too much can be invaluable.

Next is to start socking away as much money as you're able to.  If you've been having trouble finding work, this is where campus resources come into play again.  They should have a student employment center that connects you to jobs that fit your needs.  If the health issues you mention affect what types of jobs you can do, checking in with a resource for students with disabilities might help you find a way of making money that doesn't aggravate your health issues.

Goodness knows that most work a student can get is relatively low wage compared to what you need.  However, the more you're able to save, the more freedom you buy yourself (or your future self).  Here's a place where your being legally an adult helps you out.  You can open bank accounts without your family knowing, and make the statements paperless.  If your family uses money or resources as a means of controlling you, having your own pool of it to draw from can help soften the effects of their behavior.  If you do end up staying until you're through with school, having that nest egg set aside can help you get out of there quickly once you graduate.

One other strategy is to be out of the house as much as possible.  What that looks like might vary depending on what kind of transportatiion you have access to.  Being in school helps with this (assuming it's not an online program).  Ditto having a job of some type, or even finding volunteer work or a hobby that takes you out of the house.  Heck, visiting the library is an excellent way to get away from a toxic household for the day.  It's quiet, there's plenty to read and internet access, and it's a "wholesome" activity that's unlikely to trigger objections from parents.

Getting out of the house is another place where Team You comes into play.  If you've got supportive people in the area, try scheduling a regular time to meet with them.  Perhaps a friend (or their parent) needs you to pet-sit/baby-sit/house-sit for them.  If your boyfriend is nearby, see if most of your time together can get you out of your house.

Hopefully, all those steps will get you into a place where you can break free of your abusive household.  As far as your worries about your relationship go, the approaches we've discussed should give you some tools to help quell those fears and build the safe relationship that you want and deserve.