Eight days pass from Thursday morning, when I drop my kids off after our overnight, to the following Friday when I pick them up again. Eight days to miss them, ache for them, worry about them. Eight days in a quiet house a few miles away.
My mental health depends on my ability to cope with the abuse that characterized my first marriage and now surrounds my children. Now the trauma of my history is heightened by watching my children experience emotional violence in their relationships with their father. And knowing that no matter how hard I have tried to expose the abuse, protect them from it, keep them safe, at least for now it continues.
Staying strong and healthy isn’t simply a matter of my wellness. I need to be strong for my children. To show them that you can survive abuse and flourish afterwards. Making sure they know I will always be there for them, understanding the unique chaos and stress of the environment they live in with their father and helping them navigate an abusive home.
Coping centers on a few key strategies. First and most important is my sobriety. Learning how to deal with pain, regret and stress, feel the feelings, not stuff them and not drink over them. Journalling, pouring all my thoughts and feelings onto paper heals and encourages my truth telling. Exercise – like everyone else I try and often fail to stick to an exercise schedule. But wow, when I stay focused and make the time, I feel the difference. Less migraines, better coping with anxiety and feeling more equipped to deal with all the bumps coming my way. And I’ve become a wellness sponge. For both my own self-care and to check out coping strategies for my kids.
Daily FaceTime calls are our lifeline. Often fun conversations about their day or tours of their rooms at mom’s house. But every few days there’s an heartbreaking call and again, I’m seeing my daughter’s tear-stained face as her truth tumbles out. Her dad has been taunting her, calling her names and worst of all terrorizing her dog. No matter what he does to her, how deeply he wounds her, it’s when he hurts her dog that she breaks down. Now the dog is being kept in her cage, and if the dog whimpers when he goes by, dad kicks the cage. The dog is now scared enough that she’s started having accidents in her cage. This cruelty from a man, who not only calls his daughter an idiot, but to teach her a lesson on what idiots do, fed the dog chocolate.
Spend the rest of our call sharing all the ways I love her, what a good person she is and that it’s wrong for dad to hurt the dog. Then I get both her brothers on the phone and remind them to be kind. All of them, including my daughter, have the tendency to lash out at each other when they’re hurting. Weaponizing the shaming words their dad uses. I tell them, holding back my own tears, that no matter how much they drive one another crazy, they must take care of each other. And we say our good byes.
My husband’s out at a client meeting, I’m alone. Feeling like a trapped mama bear, pacing back and forth, my mind racing, anxiety rising. My heart breaks for my children and I panic each time they experience emotional violence. I am terrified. What happens when they can’t handle anymore? How much more can they take?
Start reviewing my mental calm down list. I head outside, taking deep breaths and focusing on the trees, grass, stillness that’s all around me. After a few minutes my breath settles and my thoughts focus. Analyze my feelings and know that I am both experiencing my own PTSD and feeling my daughter’s. Must put my own mask on first. I start writing these words, calming down as I type. Reach out to a close friend. Self-isolation has always been a struggle, and I know every day to keep making the choice to connect. And when my husband calls after his meeting, I’m honest and tell him. For a long time I hid all my messy feelings. That habit, along with the isolation, dragged me into the depths of depression and alcoholism. Radical honesty and transparency is not a choice, it’s an absolute must for survival.
Now my oxygen is flowing, and I turn to supporting my daughter. There is such a sense of powerlessness when she has a day like this one, when I know she needs me. I can’t see her, can’t hug her, can’t make it better. Constantly fighting those feelings of helplessness and panic. Dive into all the wellness techniques we practice – mantras, motivational quotes, anything to help her head and heart. I’ve been writing mantras and quotes she likes on brightly colored cardstock, so I find more for her to read. She shows me how she decorates her room with them on FaceTime. I earmark a few new articles on teen wellness for us to read when she comes home on Friday. Think of some fun activities we can add to the list of things she wants us to do – crafts, errands, hikes, cooking – a great way to have things to look forward to.
Then I stop. And employ the number one survival technique I’ve learned through years of domestic abuse, alcoholism, fighting to bring my children home and keep them safe. I compartmentalize. Knowing I have taken all the action steps possible for this moment, I visualize tucking my fears, grief, and anxiety in a box, placing that box on a shelf and walking away. Living in an unending nightmare of loss and worry takes everything from you – happiness, health, mental wellness – and most of all it robs you of your ability to find and feel joy.
I won’t accept that outcome for my life and certainly not as an example for my children. Compartmentalizing allows me to live. Stops all the stress and pain from seeping into every aspect of life. Creates space for a few minutes of peace. Compartmentalism has a place in our wellness toolboxes. Especially now, because the pandemic isn’t going away. And in the meantime, we all need to live the fullest lives possible.