I’d like to end this article by saying I am filled to the brim with knowledge. Though I never want to experience pain like this again, I’m thankful for all that I’ve learned.
I’m not gon’ lie…. I had a horrible headache while I wrote this article, and my chest felt like someone was sucking the oxygen out with a straw.
My left eye also twitches uncontrollably once I’m triggered. When I write or speak about my trauma, my body reacts, and I recently learned there’s a reason for that. Bessel Van Der Kolk’s The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma discusses the relationships between trauma and our brains, minds, and bodies.
I’d like to pull in a couple of quotes from the book so that you understand the magnitude and trajectory of trauma:
- “Trauma results in a fundamental reorganization of the way the mind and brain manage perceptions. It changes not only how we think and what we think about, but also our very capacity to think.”
- “Being traumatized means continuing to organize your life as if the trauma were still going on—unchanged and immutable—as every new encounter or event is contaminated by the past.”
Both quotations resonate with me, and I see how my experiences have changed me.
However, it is my responsibility to counteract the effects of my personal trauma. This starts with a keen sense of self-awareness. I need to know when I’m having trauma-induced responses (such as self-sabotaging) and what triggers those responses. Fortunately, this work does not require isolation; it is communal work.
Various You-tubers, authors, and social media influencers are profiting off of trauma and healing.
Let me say that again: there is a whole industry devoted to healing from trauma, so relational stress and traumatic experiences are clearly prevalent!
Those who have experienced trauma can still work towards a high quality of life! It’s not too late to prioritize your healing. It’s been almost a year since I left that relationship, and I have experienced concrete growth. I’m getting closer to self-actualization every day.
It’s probably easier to exist in chaos, [self] destruction, and confusion if it’s familiar; however, please remember that your decision to remain unhealed extends beyond you! You’re potentially affecting family members, friends, acquaintances, community members, colleagues, and future love interests, and that’s not fair nor respectable. As I was working to heal from my experiences, I did not date. I refused to desecrate somebody’s good and Godly son because I was angry and bitter. Part of healing, in my opinion, is rightful culpability.
In other words, assign blame and accountability accordingly, and this includes recognizing when you have to correct your own behavior(s)! You cannot carry the pain you experienced in your previous relationship to a new relationship; you cannot bleed on someone who did not cut you. This is how good men and women are contaminated….by dealing with unhealed, broken people. I refuse to contribute to that cycle. Some people are actively choosing destruction, and my heart breaks for them.
I would also be remiss if I failed to acknowledge my disposition; I managed an anxiety-inducing, catastrophic situation with the aplomb and equanimity of a public relations professional and with the couth and refinement of a renowned figure skater.
Admittedly, I marveled at the prospect of actualizing my revenge fantasies, but I won’t pathologize myself because it was a part of my unique healing journey. Though we live in a world that glorifies artificiality, posturing, and manufactured happiness, I dare to be audacious with my truth. Yes, these lessons came from an ugly, brutal experience, but I didn’t fold. I am still standing, with my integrity intact, and I am here to share the knowledge. It took me a while, but I finally understand why this happened and what I was supposed to learn from these experiences.
Here are a few things that I learned from this experience.
Again, this is not an exhaustive list; there are 30+ lessons I learned from this relationship. I will share those other lessons another time.
1a. Forgiveness is an act of self preservation; it should not be predicated on a desire to appease others.
Do not conflate forgiveness with reentry and access (this tends to be an issue for women because we are socialized as agents of forgiveness). Repeated noxious behavior (i.e. pernicious patterns) warrants ramifications including, but not limited to, departure. We know whether a relationship will nourish or deplete us within a month or even after a couple of weeks. Trust your internal alarm system.
1b. Do not forgive prematurely.
Forgiveness isn’t something you “talk yourself into”; it should happen organically. The decision to forgive should feel “light” because the healing process is “heavy.” Premature forgiveness can quickly turn into resentment (of yourself, of the perpetrator, of a belief/value system, etc.)!
1c. You may need to reevaluate and redefine your relationship to forgiveness, and that’s okay.
This is particularly hard if forgiveness is a fundamental component of your belief and value systems (I was reared in a Christian household and community, so this is applicable to me). It is likely that you may encounter what I call “the self-righteous crowd” should you choose to dabble with more radical approaches to forgiveness.
The self-righteous crowd can purchase a first-class ticket to the deepest and darkest crannies of hell and entertain Lucifer with their buffoonery. We must learn to mute irrelevant noise, to unabashedly denounce obsolete narratives.
1d. Pain doesn’t have an expiration date; therefore, forgiveness demands an adherence to your OWN timeline, which should be flexible and fluid.
1e. Who the hell said you need to forgive your abuser!?!?! Your healing process should actually deemphasize them and center you.
If forgiveness isn’t an important part of your worldview, it doesn’t need to be a goal for you!
PSA: You need to grieve your relationship prior to adopting/experimenting with this framework. This is not negotiable.
2. Learn to distinguish between history and memory.
This requires a bit of redirecting and practice, but it is a worthwhile framework.
My ex-partner is a sliver of history, not a memory, because history has an element of objectivity (I don’t really believe in objectivity, but bear with me for the purposes of this explanation). History, in its most primitive form, is something that happened/occurred at some point in time, “a…record of significant events…” (Merriam Webster) And that’s how I view my former relationship: as something that happened, an occurrence.
This is a well-substantiated, irrefutable fact just like The Civil War and JFK’s presidency. Part of the reason we study/analyze history is to understand virulent patterns and cycles so that we don’t repeat them; in other words, studying history carries sociological significance.
So… I analyzed every aspect of that relationship in great detail, and I’m confident that I’ll navigate dating and relationships with greater wisdom and clarity. Now, memory requires us to move beyond the primitive idea that something “happened” or “occurred”; it requires us to say something about the history! It demands the insertion of feelings, perceptions, dialogue, emotions, and details—some of the ingredients we’d need to construct a narrative! Memories are both collective and individual and are undoubtedly influenced by power and positionality (and a confluence of other factors).
They have the power to brighten, darken, or even neutralize history, and they are interpretive. This is why historiography, the study of how history is documented, is so important! It is a discipline that analyzes how events of the past are packaged and branded and the motivations for retelling history in those specific ways. Because I’ve made ample progress in my healing journey, I’m not fixated on shaping the narrative.
I don’t care to recall the good moments or the bad moments, unless it’s for someone else’s benefit (like this blog post :p). I simply acknowledge that the relationship existed, and I focus on the lessons rather than the details of the experience. After all, the experiences informed the lessons, right? Protect and preserve your emotional and psychological resources.
Here’s another way I see it: You ever had your new employer call your former employer, and the only thing your former employer can do is verify the dates you worked there? That confirmation simply means you have a history with that company or organization. That’s the time I’m on! Again, I acknowledge that we were together (the history) without harping on the details of the relationship.
I would also argue this approach helps you engage with others in healthier ways because you are not leading with the emotions that envelop those memories; instead, you’ll lead with wisdom and knowledge. I view history as lesson-driven and observational, while memories are emotion-driven and interpretive.
Public Service Announcement:
I do not promote suppressing moments of euphoric recall which are (a) a form of grief and (b) an important part of the healing journey. As I mentioned above, this is a framework you adopt after months of healing (I adopted this framework after 6-7 months of healing work).
3. Correct yourself on the spot OR make a note to correct yourself later if your current mindset does not permit that correction. Then, you must name, document, and embrace your corrective moments! This is a sign that you’re healing.
Deception fuels abuse; abuse cannot function under the premise of truth. To gain power, the abuser must bombard their target with non-truths and pseudo narratives, which have the power to dismantle and incapacitate their target. The target loses their power if they succumb and conduct their lives within the context of those lies.
And the lies intensify and proliferate under the abuser’s tutelage. Corrective moments are special because they represent a committed effort to unlearn and revamp, to discover a new you, to live without arbitrary restrictions. Sometimes your heart will move faster than your mind, which is why I won’t force you to correct yourself when you’re not ready.
Just take note of the thought/idea that is plaguing you and try to correct it when it feels more organic (usually when more time elapses and you’ve progressed in your healing journey).
4. Trauma changes you forevaaa (in my Cardi B voice).
As Dr. Ramani Durvasula asserts, “Healing isn’t a return to a baseline; it is an elevation to a new normal.”
Embrace this “…elevation to a new normal,” this metamorphosis, even though it stems from pain. Grieve the old you. Memorialize the old you. Hell, have a funeral if you need to!
That old person has died and the opportunity to breathe life into the new you has presented itself. It’s hard but SO sexy.
I can tell you that Chiara reincarnated is more pragmatic.
- Inquisitive and curious.
- Judicious and discerning.
- Healed, healthy, whole, and uplifted.
- Compassionate and empathetic (but not pathologically so).
- Affable and gregarious.
- Responsible and Informed.
- Level-headed and grounded.
- Cultured and well-traveled.
- Intelligent and educated.
- Generous (but not pathologically so).
- Loquacious and voluble.
- Resilient and Resourceful.
- Ambitious and goal-oriented.
- Adaptable and versatile.
- Supportive and encouraging.
- Steadfast and resolute.
- Social justice oriented and critically conscious.
- Raw. Helpful. Beautiful.
In an effort to compose a more holistic and authentic narrative about how trauma changes you, I must also name some of the ramifications (remember, multiple things can be true!). I do, however, believe these can be ameliorated with extended support.
- My excitement for life and living has dwindled. I trust people less. I move through the world more defensively. I’m less likely to seek and establish deep connections with others. New relationships feel temporary. I assume negative intent. My scars necessitate this “reformed” engagement with the world.
- I constantly feel like my body is not working in service of me. I am always fatigued, regardless of how much sleep I get. I ruminate non-stop. It has become increasingly difficult to get out of my head. I feel imprisoned by my own mind. I feel infinitely busy.
5. Culture. Is. Not. A. Proper. Excuse. For. Abuse, and I don’t care who this offends.
It’s no secret that cross cultural romantic relationships are not suitable for all; they require an unmatched level of commitment, compromise, empathy, patience, and reciprocity to function and thrive. I took on this challenge because I was galvanized by the idea of two Black people from different countries blending their lives. I was excited by what our union could offer the world, what others could gain from observing us, what we could challenge, and what we could change.
This is important to name because these narratives underpinned the relationship, and they kept me in the relationship for three and a half years. Now, I could discuss how I routinely exemplified the values I named above in my marriage. I could “quantify” my commitment to this marriage, but I won’t do that here. I’ll simply state I was an exemplary partner (to the extent that I was often lauded for my level of commitment).
Unfortunately, being an exemplary partner meant abandoning and rejecting the cultural beliefs and values that shaped the woman I have become, a woman I love real mf bad!
I come from a matriarchal family system and culture, so I was automatically positioned and prepared to grow into a strong woman. My partner did not care to identify or attempt to optimize the strengths of my culture; instead, he expected me to relinquish all that I had learned in favor of his worldview.
I remember one of our conversations where I reminded him that we came from different cultures and asked him to try and understand how my upbringing influenced my thinking and my decisions. I had already acknowledged how his experiences shaped his approach to the world in that conversation.
My desire for intentional and thoughtful communication was met with hostility and refusal. My request for compromise and reciprocity was deemed unreasonable and infeasible, leaving me confused and heartbroken and with an increasingly onerous duty: keeping the relationship afloat.
Being an exemplary partner meant living a life of paranoia, walking on eggshells.
As a Black American woman married to a West African man, I was well-aware of the power dynamics that would be an inherent component of our relationship, and I was well-aware that in order for this relationship to work, I would need to “check” some of the deeply ingrained beliefs that I acquired by living in a western country (related to language, intellect, economic matters, cultural and ethnic identity, etc.).
I was constantly at war with myself because I never wanted to make my ex-partner feel inferior. I never imagined that my devotion to social justice would be weaponized.
Many of our disagreements were attributed to my Americanness, which translated to unpleasant ideas like snobbiness, elitism, rigidity (i.e. the inability to understand and accept different worldviews), incongruence, and superiority to name a few. Rather than respond to accusations I felt were unfair, I chose to try harder.
If only I could be more compassionate and empathetic, more aware, and less argumentative and defensive, our issues would disappear. Trying harder looked like swallowing my discomfort and confusion for peace. It meant rationalizing his troubling behaviors as cultural and pathologizing my need for safety in the relationship.
It meant allowing him to demonstrate his “cultural expertise and knowledge,” often to my detriment. It meant resorting to unhealthy forms of self interrogation to ensure I wasn’t the “globally insensitive” American, even though many Sierra Leoneans told me I was different from other Americans they encountered and that my behavior was inconsistent with the global narrative about Americans.
Looking back, I’m so uncomfortable with how much of myself I sacrificed to create space for his manipulative behavior. He masterfully exploited one of the qualities I love most about myself, my commitment to a more just world. *cue Beyonce’s “Ring the Alarm.”* This is an unforgivable offense.
SN: I have a ton of thoughts about cross-cultural romantic relationships, but I’ll save that for another post!
6. Love NEVER requires a severance with self.
Stop shapeshifting and contorting for toxic people. I can tell you that I will speed-walk in the opposite direction if a man seeks to change me. And to be clear, I’m not talking about slight adjustments or modifications that work in service of the relationship.
I’m talking about the deep-seated, philosophical shit…perhaps it’s the way you understand and navigate the world or the qualities and characteristics you love most about yourself.
7. Do not allow yourself to be gaslighted.
Gaslighting, a glaring indicator of emotional abuse, seeks to disrupt one’s relationship with their memories, stories, experiences, and feelings. Gaslighting is intrapersonal, interpersonal, institutional, and societal. It is a psychological tactic that engenders chronic self-doubt and confusion.
The best antidote for gaslighting is cultivating an unshakeable sense of self! You’ve got to know, love, and understand yourself so that other people cannot alter your reality.
I watched the 1944 film Gaslight starring Charles Boyer and Ingrid Berman and documented all the ways in which Berman’s husband manipulated her. Many of the tactics were familiar because I experienced them in my marriage. I recommend watching the film and seeing if you can name the troubling behaviors/red flags. Some are more obvious than others!
8. Revision is healthy. Healing = Revision!
Our life experiences shape the stories we tell ourselves and others about the world.
Too often, those stories are stained with the ramifications of our traumas, and too often, our trauma-stained stories breed cynicism and hopelessness, an inability to imagine a world beyond the present. Part of our journey is recognizing that we are responsible for reevaluating and revising narratives that don’t work in service of our healing and our wholeness.
We can’t tackle every harmful narrative at once, but we can commit to revisions whenever we encounter those narratives. We can filter our thoughts through intentional frameworks. We can commit to the betterment of ourselves! And perhaps most importantly, we can choose love and light.
1. The Body Keeps The Score by Bessel van der Kolk
2. Should I Stay or Should I Go: Surviving a Relationship with a Narcissist by Ramani Durvasula
I later discovered that my partner was horribly narcissistic. If you are interested in learning more about narcissism or suspect that your partner is narcissistic (or even worse….. sociopathic or psychopathic), I HIGHLY recommend perusing Dr. Ramani Durvasula’s content (including her guest appearances). She has an amazing Youtube channel devoted to understanding pathological narcissism and a program devoted to healing from narcissistic abuse and antagonistic relationships.
3. “What Is Gaslighting” by Sherri Gordon
4. “Trauma Bonding: What It Is & How to Heal” by Shirley Porter
5. “What is Love Bombing” by Barbara Field
6. “How to Deal with Coercive Suicide Threats” by Chelsey K. Burden
7. Why Does He Do That? Inside the Minds of Angry and Controlling Men by Lundy Bancroft
I HIGHLY RECOMMEND THIS BOOK!!!!