I'm here to vouch for this statement. Holy shit is it hard to heal after a toxic relationship - and not only heal for yourself, but heal in a way that allows you to enjoy and embrace healthy and beautiful relationships.
The toxic relationship often holds hands with emotional abuse, and with that comes a whole range of psychological trauma that has to be addressed and worked through consciously so that you are able to unite with another person and not a) self-destruct or b) shut it down.
The difficult thing about abusive relationships - of any kind - is that the fight isn't over just because you left the relationship. I remember saying to Sam a few weeks in that whilst I had done so much work on myself and been on such a beautiful self-healing journey, some things I wouldn't be able to heal or work through until they arose. There are some areas that you can only address once that new relationship arises, so it can cause some difficulties, and I think it's important to be aware of that.
It might not be the case, and I hope it isn't, but in my case there was a lot of emotional spillover that I could only work through when it came to actually putting into practice the art of trusting someone, experiencing for myself that all the good times wouldn't be followed by an explosion etc. and I wanted to share some of that so that if you're thinking about or have just left an abusive relationship, you can hold onto the faith that there is hope, and healing is possible.
Despite the many challenges we've faced (in large part because of my relationship history), my relationship embodies everything I hope each person in this world finds; it is so many beautiful and wonderful things that if I were to write a list you'd be here all night. So i'll refrain. But 7 months ago today I met my soulmate - the love of my life - my twinflame. And whilst I know i'm 24, not 14, I wanted to take some time to celebrate that. Because we've come a long way, and I'm so proud of myself, but also so eternally grateful to the man I love for guiding me towards higher levels of consciousness, for opening my eyes to what love should be like, and for loving me as wonderfully as he does. I know that if I hadn't found a man so conscious and so kind, that the realities I live everyday would not be the same.
Our pain and trauma isn't something to be ashamed of, and finding someone who is willing to travel down that road with you as you learn to trust again, and enjoy living a wholesome and fulfilling love, is one of the most rewarding, inspiring and magical experiences you will have.
I've written a mini list of some painful spillover realities that took place for me as I (/we) navigated the new waters of a healthy relationship after a toxic one. Firstly, I want to celebrate how far we have come together, and how the right love for you holds a wealth of healing that can take you to greater heights and more beautiful destinations than you imagined. And secondly, so that if you're thinking about or have left an emotionally abusive, narcissistic or toxic relationship, you can keep holding onto your faith that there is hope, you will heal and good things take time, but you will get there.
So here are a few insights into the PTSD I experienced in my healthy relationship after toxicity, and how we navigated them together. I'm proud to be sharing this with you because 7-months in, and everything on this list no longer exists in our life as a result of all the patience, effort and love we poured into each other. So if you take nothing else away from this piece, let it be that; always lead with love and it will guide you home.
Some things that may happen in the healthy relationship after the toxic one that you CAN overcome
1. Trauma rising to the surface
My experience: Whenever Sam says something to me that relates to areas where I used to be critiqued, put down or degraded, I instantly revert back to this past version of myself. I become defensive, I raise my voice, my face screws up - my claws come out and my teeth are bare ready to protect myself because I was so used to having to essentially argue my worth that even the most irrelevant critiques - I didn't shut the window properly - feel like attacks that I need to defend against. But, I've developed a few really great ways at managing this so it doesn't really rise as much as it used to; and Sam's been amazing at supporting me on that journey as well.
Advice: This can be really difficult one, especially for partners. When something happens that triggers our 'traumatised self' to rise to the surface, we can revert back to old ways of reacting and existing in relationships that are no longer applicable.
Our trauma tries to protect us by rising to the surface and becoming our 'default' way of reacting, responding or communicating - and this can happen even after significant time has passed since your abusive relationship because it does take a lot of time to fully heal and reprogram your mind.
The worst part about this particular reaction is that it feels involuntary, because whatever you're doing was a 'default' for you for a long time which makes it feel difficult to step away from. But you can. And you've gotta remind yourself it's not involuntary and you do have the power to change it. Each time you notice yourself getting defensive, or whatever this 'trauma-rising' looks like for you, even if it takes a couple of moments, just draw yourself back from it. Name and shame it. Something we discovered works really well for me when I notice this 'trauma' overwhelming me is saying it to Sam. I now say to him "I'm being defensive and I don't know why." We figured out that even if it takes a few moments for me to actually say it, if I do, I take away its power. We both know that it's not me, and it's not how I want to behave.
I would also encourage either speaking to a therapist to help deepen your awareness of what might be triggering you (i'm a BIG therapy fan, if you don't already know), and/or also investing time into journaling, incorporating mindfulness etc. into your life so that you can begin to enhance your awareness of how you feel, how you react and from there begin making different decisions when such situations arise. You can create visualisations, in your mind or in writing, of what you'll do next time X happens. This is a practice I used often in the beginning stages of my relationship because I didn't want to react and respond in a destructive way - not only because it could jeopardise the relationship I wanted to build, but also because Sam has always been so amazing to me, I couldn't bare to put him through the undeserved pain.
2.Panic Attacks Out of Nowhere
My Experience: This was a really bad reoccurring experience for me at the beginning of my relationship with Sam. Whilst I'm no stranger to panic attacks, I remember my first one with him as clear as day because no-one had ever reacted or responded the way he did.
We were dog-sitting in this beautiful house on the outskirts of Wellington, it was about 10-days after we met (and began our relationship), and we had just arrived back at the house after a night out. We were both drunk, me more-so (which is usually the way *eye roll - someone teach me how to handle my drink pls?) and I can't even remember what was said to trigger me but I know it was completely irrelevant. But before I knew it I was full on in the midst of a panic attack and all I can remember is that I couldn't breathe. For some reason, my go to reaction when I panic is to put my hand to my throat - i'm not sure if this is some odd psychological reaction I'm unaware of from the times I have had hands, not my own, gripped around my throat, but for some reason, that's my involuntary reaction.
We were in the kitchen and my breath as so short I couldn't breathe. Every time Sam came near me I backed away. All the normal symptoms of a panic attack for me were in full motion. Sam was speaking to me, trying to calm me down. He reached out his hands, which I took, and told me to look him in the eye. "Breathe with me."
He started breathing in and out slowly, not once taking his eyes off me. I followed his lead. His eyes held me, and I knew I was safe. We kept going, syncing our breaths until I calmed down enough to be able to speak. Our noses were touching. His cheeks were also wet with my tears. And then he held me; he was there. "I've got you."
I don't remember the specifics, although I wish I did, but I knew that I loved him in that moment. I'd felt the feeling growing for a few days, but in that moment there was no question in my mind that this was the man for me. He just got me, and despite not knowing each other for very long, he knew what I needed in that moment, and it transformed my life.
Even now when I cry or feel even slightly overwhelmed, he does the same thing. Not only does it force me to come back to the present, but it's a really connective experience that has definitely strengthened our bond as well. It also incorporates meditation; a practice that I teach and adore, so all those things combine to make it a really powerful healer.
My Advice: Speak to your partner about your experience of panic attacks. Maybe they have some knowledge/understanding of them, or maybe they don't - it doesn't matter. Sam didn't really have much experience with mental health or panic attacks when we met, but he was open and willing to learn, and support me where he could. Learn what works for you. Think about what would be your perfect situation next time this happened - would it be for your partner to leave the room; to hold you; to bring you water. Take some time to think about what you would LOVE for them to do, and then communicate that with them. Communication is key, especially in these cases because the last thing you would want is for your partner to do the total opposite of what you need in that moment, and that cause you to panic more or push them away. So be open and be honest, and consciously make the decision that you're going to trust that this person cares about you and wants to help. Don't give in to the panic or the fear - remember how strong you are.
3. Sabotaging the Good Times
My Experience: In my toxic relationship, every single time something good happened, or a day passed without a row, I feared that something big and bad was about to happen. Each good time was tainted with the knowledge that at any moment the penny could drop and i'd find myself hysterical or abandoned. So when I entered into this relationship, after a few weeks of nothing bad happening, I began to freak out. Doubts overflowed my mind. I started almost trying to ruin the good times so that I would have control; I would know that I started an argument so it couldn't come out of nowhere. I had the power, I wouldn't be caught off guard.
Thankfully this ended pretty quickly because all I needed was the reassurance that came with the consistency. So much healing and trusting comes from consistency, especially in cases of emotional abuse recovery. As the weeks turned into months and nothing bad happened, I realised that actually the difference wasn't that the explosion was still impeding, it was that it wasn't coming at all. This relationship was the one meant for me. The love I was being shown was genuine and didn't want to hurt me. And quite quickly I decided that I wanted to enjoy being in love, and growing in this relationship, and I'd be damned if I'd done everything I had to get here just to ruin it.
Advice: Write it all down. Get it out on paper what you're afraid of and face it. Talk to your partner about it. Tell them where these fears come from and build trust and build faith by connecting and opening yourself up. To love is to be vulnerable, and it's the greatest journey. A key thing you need to focus on is how amazing the good times are; focus on your reality, not the way things used to be. Get that reassurance from your partner. Live in that reassurance, and keep on noticing and enjoying all the wonderful things you're now experiencing. You were strong enough to leave; now be strong enough to stay present.
My experience: I suffered with nightmares every night for a year before I left England - it was very rare for me not to wake up panicked. But once I left England, the first month I was in NZ before I met Sam I slept soundly, apart from a few nights. But the tables had turned completely. Then once I got with Sam, for the first few weeks I had a lot of nightmares. They varied, and weren't always related to him leaving or attacking me etc. But some of them were real life examples of things I had experienced before, but this time it was Sam. I cried a lot. My insecurities were very high on those mornings. And he just listened, and talked to me, and tried to open up conversations about what he thought had triggered them. We have wonderful communication, which I think is the most important thing for a relationship, and in the right relationship it comes easily and naturally. It doesn't have to be some big sit-down, it's wired into the way you interact and the way you love.
As time passed, the nightmares became more infrequent - maybe once in a blue moon now. They still happen, but with much less frequency and normally much less ferocity, too. And when they do arise, I wake up, crawl under his arm, tell him I had a nightmare, feel his kiss on my forehead, and channel the gratitude I feel that my mind can play all the tricks it wants, but I am here now and I am more than happy.
Advice: Talk, talk, talk, talk. Again, see a therapist if your nightmares are consistent, I promise it helps. Talk to your partner. Write about it. Think about it. Talk about it. The more light you shed on these darker parts of your emotional body, the easier they become to manage, to work through and to finally process so they don't impact you on a daily basis. Nightmares are directly linked to psychology, so for this one, more than the others, my advice really would be go and speak to a professional. It's a liberating, beautiful experience and will absolutely help. I also got really interested in understanding dreams, and the psychology behind them. I wanted to enhance my own understanding and awareness of what could be causing them so that I could take steps to heal the parts of me that needed it, or work on techniques to enhancing the quality of my life.
Despite all the difficulties we have faced together in my healing journey, I'm so unbelievably proud and happy that we overcame them all, and continued to grow in strength, connection and in love.
Sam created an environment for me that was safe, and that allowed all the toxicity and destruction I once worried were stained on my skin to wash away.. permanently. And without the patience, consistency, understanding, kindness, guidance and unconditional love from Sam, coupled with my desire and effort to heal the scars left on my soul, we wouldn't be where we are today.
I figured recently that I reckon the first year of a relationship is probably the most difficult. You're in this awkward stage of figuring out exactly who each other is, what makes you tick, the novelty of a 'new love' wears off and what you're left with is whether or not this is right and this is a person you want to go the full mile with. So i'm grateful that I can say that this is the man I want to marry, and I will be forever grateful to have journeyed with him as I learned what a healthy relationship was and to have reached a point where healing is no longer a focal point. Our journey has been the most magical one - and whilst this piece is all about highlighting the painful spillovers and healing we've done together, it hasn't been a hugely impacting journey. In the moments it was necessary it absolutely was, but largely our relationship has been made up of all the happiness and contentment that we feel when we're together.
This love that was meant for me has enjoyed a beautiful evolution since that day 7 months ago, and my heart is so full, and my soul is so happy with you, my love. Thank you for not giving up on me in those moments of healing. I'm so grateful that despite the little hurdles, what is supposedly the 'most challenging' relationship, never seems to feel like it with you. You're the greatest thing that's every happened to me, and I look forward to loving you forever.
So here's to finding the courage to leave those people, places and things that aren't meant for us. Because it's only when we do that we can ever create the space to welcome home those things that are. I hope you choose yourself & trust your instincts - and never stay somewhere you feel unwanted, or that doesn't feel right, for too long.
Our self-worth defines our life. Value yourself & the experiences in your life because great things are meant for you, and you deserve to find them.