Anyone who has freed themselves from an abusive intimate partnership is familiar with the expression “reinvention.” It is a staple, these days – an optimistic buzzword that conjures images of a silk-spun chrysalis wrapped tightly around a flawed self, followed by the emergence of a new and improved version, a lithe butterfly born of a lumpy caterpillar. But in the context of partner abuse, there is a fundamental alternative to reinvention that sets the bar at a more reasonable level - it’s the return to who you were before you became entangled in the disorienting hell of a skewed power dynamic, one that chipped away at your confidence and destroyed your sense of identity.
The animated genius of Disney captures this idea in a segment entitled The Firebird Suite, music by Igor Stravinsky, from Fantasia 2000. It’s a nine-minute vignette that features a magical sprite who decorates the planet with her outstretched arms, spreading a verdant explosion of life and color to a grey and frigid landscape. When the innocent sprite encounters a menacing firebird at the bottom of a volcano, the malevolent creature transforms into flowing lava, viciously consuming the sprite along with all she has created. Beauty and joy are destroyed; nothing remains but scorched earth. Spoiler alert: the story ends well, but let’s be clear, the sprite has help. It’s tough to return to the grandeur of one’s spirit without assistance.
If you have left a toxic situation, reinvention would have you take up paddle surfing or perhaps an improv class. Reinvention might also encourage a career change or a move across the country. These things are not inherently bad, but they will do nothing for you if you meet another abusive personality in your ceramics workshop, or abuser in a quaint seaside town, fall in love and return to old patterns of behaviour.
It’s critical that you accept responsibility for your role in the abusive relationship from which you have extracted yourself. You gasp, “but I was the victim.” Yes, you were – and you neither asked for nor deserved to be abused. No one is trying to diminish or invalidate your experience. Recognise, however, that you were a party to a power and control tug of war with a terrorist who sought to make you submit. Find a therapist or a local counselling service so you can process your experience with the help of a professional. You do not want to repeat the patterns established in your previous relationship, so step back and take inventory of all the nuances that contributed to the intimate partner abuse you suffered.
In all likelihood, you remained in an abusive situation at the expense of friendships and other positive relationships. It is common for abusive partners to try to alienate anyone who might threaten their quest for absolute dominion. Reinvention implies finding a new group of pals, maybe at the shiny gym you’ve just joined, but if friendships and family relationships were casualties of your abusive relationship, seek to repair these bonds and reestablish your network. There is nothing wrong with branching out, in fact, support groups can be hugely beneficial. If it helps to tell your story, organisations like the non-for-profit HER (www.wearher.net) encourage victims worldwide, both in and out of abusive relationships, to tell their stories, if even anonymously. Sometimes putting all out there is cathartic when you are too ashamed to disclose details to even your long-time compadres.
You are already on the path – you have realised that the relationship dynamic was dysfunctional and that you were being abused. This is where I caution: try not to identify solely as a victim. Instead, think of yourself as victim emeritus; don’t let your suffering distinguish you or define you. You are so much more than that. Come back to the essence of who you were before you were targeted by a desperately insecure partner. Recognize your ghastly experience for what it was, and then give yourself a title you’d like to see on a freshly minted business card for the you to whom you’ve come home – YOUR NAME: Survivor, Warrior, Grand Inquistrix or maybe even Sprite.
Laura Holtz's book Warm Transfer is out now.
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