Written by Sarah Snow
CW: Suicide, Rape, Cancer, Intimate partner violence
After leaving an abusive relationship, I developed a plan to create healthy relationships as a way to heal past traumas. I was determined to never choose another situation where I would give away my power to someone else, and by using my background as a psychology major and the years I had already spent in therapy, I came up with a personal plan to heal. I embarked on a year long journey to become trauma informed, heal my trauma, and then create new relationships that would support me in my growth.
Trauma is when a distressing event causes extended long term damage to our brain and nervous system, resulting in poorly regulated emotional responses and long term issues. The more helpless you feel, the more likely you are to be traumatized, and our bodies will replay the event repeatedly through our behavior until it is healed. When childhood trauma is not resolved, a sense of fear and helplessness will follow us into adulthood. When trauma isn’t healed, over time it can look like personality, family traits or culture. Healing is ultimately a lifelong discovery of learning the ways we have been holding ourselves back in our lives, and overcoming all of the limits placed on ourselves by our own minds.
In my own life, I experienced many traumatic events and have a long list. When I was 3, my mother drove off of a cliff and was crushed between a truck and a tree, resulting in a head injury and her being permanently physically disabled, which meant many responsibilities fell to me as a child, due to my father being absent and neglectful. My mother’s bipolar went undiagnosed until shortly before her suicide in 2018. I was bullied and socially ostracized by my peers while growing up. All of this and more impacted how I function today.
I was late diagnosed with Aspergers officially in 2007 when I was already 26, and thus share a story that is common with many other autistics in my age group of millennials who grew up being the scapegoated child, whose behaviors got them labeled as the “bad” one in the family, when all they really needed was empathy and more effort from those around them. All of these traumatic experiences added up to me scoring an ACE’s (Adverse Childhood Experiences) score of 8. Adverse childhood experiences, or ACEs, are potentially traumatic events that occur in childhood and are linked to chronic health problems, mental illness, and substance misuse in adulthood. According to the CDC, nearly 1 in 6 adults reported they had experienced four or more types of ACE’s, and the economic and social costs to families, communities, and society totals hundreds of billions of dollars each year. (Find out your own ACE’s score here.)
I then went on to have cancer twice as an adult, before leaving my psychologically and emotionally abusive marriage of over ten years. My marriage taught me that if someone only “loves” you when you do what they want, it’s not love, it’s control. My entire story is one of survival and overcoming my circumstances to make the best of what I was given. We all have different starting points, but almost every single one of us carries some form of trauma that is waiting to be healed.
“We’re all stories in the end. Just make it a good one, eh?”Doctor Who
The single biggest risk with trauma is the fact that it causes a chronic belief in the idea that paranoia and mistrust are actual prerequisites of survival. You start thinking that assuming good faith in anyone is actually dangerous, because it leaves you open to being dominated or exploited. This generates a negative feedback loop, which ultimately means that you no longer have the ability to trust anyone, because you assume that the only outcome of attempting to do so will be pain.
Trauma is healed in safe environments where we feel seen, heard, understood and accepted. I knew I would need to have healthier models around me for the behaviors that I was trying to create in myself. Because trauma shatters your sense of security, it’s important to create supportive non judgmental environments that give us opportunities to experience feelings of safety and trust. Surrounding myself with people who could offer me grace and understanding that I’m always trying my best even when I’m not always at my best became a priority in my recovery. I didn’t know what healthy was yet, but I knew that it was what I ultimately wanted, and I wasn’t willing to settle until I had it. But because I didn’t have any relationships to begin with yet, I began with myself instead.
“Attract what you expect, reflect what you desire, become what you respect, and mirror what you admire.” – Deb Sofield
Despite a decade of being told daily by the man who I married that I wouldn’t make it out of our marriage alive, I was still deeply shocked and traumatized when my former husband reacted to my request for an amicable divorce by raping me and then throwing me out into the cold a few days later on October 14, 2019. My world turned upside down and was suddenly a terrifying and unpredictable place. I was immediately very afraid of men in general, I felt they were all out to get me somehow, but I didn’t want to have that crippling fear of people anymore. I went out of my way to reach out to a few select men I already knew who seemed fairly non toxic and self aware, and could model for me the healthy boundaries that I was trying to emulate. During the early days of being homeless in my van in the winter of 2019, a dear friend from high school reconnected with me and agreed to help to guide me through my healing process by providing me a friendship as a safe place to process my trauma, and I will always be grateful to him for the time and effort he invested in me to do so. Around the same time, I also approached a local facebook friend that I trusted to spend time with, and he helped me to trust in my process and my spiritual journey. In 2020 shortly after I found stable housing I sadly lost both relationships due to being emotionally reactive and having trauma responses before immediately regretting burning my bridges, but the reasons for my actions don’t matter, ultimately I am responsible for the consequences of lashing out at them.
Both of those men practiced a relationship style called polyamory, having consensual loving relationships with more than one partner, which led me to discovering a relationship style called Solo Polyamory, the practice of having multiple loving relationships while still maintaining independence and living as a single person. As someone recovering from Intimate Partner Violence I found the idea of putting my autonomy and freedom first empowering, and embraced the concept of dating myself. I never really understood hierarchical ranking the importance of human beings by applying specific labels to them anyway. Everyone is a partner. Love is love!
Dating myself meant setting fun dates to focus on self care, but it also meant becoming the kind of partner that I would want to date, so I had to get very honest with myself quickly about what would potentially hold me back once I actually was dating other people again. In order to attract what I wanted, I had to first become it. I learned the difference between loneliness and being alone when I started enjoying my own company. I started journaling lists of my triggers and areas I still needed to grow, but also listed the things I was doing right, and wrote myself love letters. Finding a balance and practicing self compassion was so important! I made a list of goals and went back to therapy. I started following mental health professionals on social media. And I started reading self help books on codependency and attachment theory as well as childhood trauma. One of my favorites is “Unf#ck Your Brain: Using Science To Get Over Anxiety, Depression, Anger, Freak-Outs and Triggers,” by Faith G. Harper, Phd LPC-S ACS ACN. This taught me that an underlying issue was my own boundaries. Boundaries are limited rules within our relationships, and can be rigid, porous, or healthy. They can be physical, emotional, sexual, intellectual, or financial. In addition to being extended to others, they also apply to ourselves. Learning healthy boundaries was a key factor in my eventually finding healthy relationships.
The Four Principles of Healthy Boundariesunknown
1. Let people down, but don’t let down the people who matter.
2. Make conscious compromises
3. Be comfortable with discomfort
4. Don’t be the elephant in the room.
Also instrumental in my recovery was in teaching myself green flags. I knew about red flags from my earlier classes in preventing Intimate Partner Violence and the patterns I had already seen in my marriage to my ex husband, such as lovebombing, gaslighting, shaming or belittling, isolating, testing boundaries, blame shifting and fault finding to not take responsibility, among others. But learning that there were also green flags to look for allowed me to create standards for myself and identify things to look for in the healthy relationship I wanted but had yet to experience. These relationship green flags include open communication, vulnerability, empathy, integrity and personal responsibility, self sufficiency, healthy hobbies, spirituality, long standing friendships, the ability to self reflect, honors boundaries, practices self care and has long standing friendships. Affection, maturity, confidence – suddenly I knew exactly what I was looking for.
I became very intentional in my search. In the early fall of 2020 I created what I called my “recipe for a mate,” a list of qualities I wrote out to narrow down my search. I became specific and in addition to green flags, I identified my own values that I wanted to see reflected in a romantic relationship, such as understanding consent, being a child at heart who likes to play and a best friend before anything else. I knew my standards were high but I also knew that I was able to reciprocate anything that I was requesting, so I refused to compromise until I found it.
I slowly began to put myself in situations where I would meet other people, but I did not use dating sites or apps because I knew I wouldn’t find the love I was looking for amongst people just trying to fill a void of loneliness. If I wanted to find someone like me, I was going to find them in places that people like me hung out in. The search began by letting my friends know that I was starting to look and was open to finding someone else again, and then due to it being a pandemic I simply began being more active in Facebook groups created for people with similar interests as me. Then I was patient and just leaned into the pause. I knew I was ready so I waited for love to come and find me, and eventually it did!
“An old alchemist gave the following consolation to one of his disciples: no matter how isolated you are and how lonely you feel, if you do your work truly and conscientiously, unknown friends will come and seek you.”Carl G. Jung
I learned by trial and error. Success is a function of correction; try, try again! The first relationship found me by commenting on a post I made. We discovered things in common and mutual interests but then I started overlooking red flags once my feelings got involved. Things started escalating quickly which should have been another red flag, but at the time I didn’t know any better. It ended badly after a few months but it taught me a lot about searching for partners who appreciate things rather than judge them, and who can take responsibility instead of justifying and laying blame. This was the relationship that taught me to recognize trauma bonds, the process through which you begin to confuse abusive behavior for love. In healthy love, your affection for one another grows over time. In a trauma bond, it’s instantaneous because it’s not love, it’s attachment, an idea of love that makes you feel better about a preexisting issue in your life. With every failure I was able to narrow my search, and every time I walked away from toxic it got easier. Already having several newer healthy relationships to walk towards helped to leave the toxic behind me where I left it.
After learning to identify and walking away from trauma bond relationships, my patience and resilience paid off, and love started showing up in my life, usually in unsought for and entirely unexpected ways. This led to an entirely new challenge, how to navigate healthy relationships for the first time, which ended up being much scarier than I first anticipated. Being autistic, I had to teach myself small talk for essentially the first time, and in the beginning I would bombard my dates with infodumps as a way of attempting to bond. Many of the people I had started talking to were neurotypical and not on the spectrum at all, and while they were willing to meet me in the middle this also meant I had to learn more effective ways of communicating, such as using “I” statements that didn’t come naturally to me. However, I keep trying to do better than I did the day before, and things get a little easier each day.
My new healthy relationships are teaching me how to be a better person and a better partner, which in turn makes me a better parent for my children. Each of my partners is showing me with effort and not words what it means to care for the people you love. One of my relationships is about five months old and he has yet to actually say I love you, but he shows me daily in how he shows up for me and is present in my life that he already does, so I know it will come eventually when he’s ready. He’s been the literal opposite of my ex’s love bombing and future faking, slow and steady was everything I needed to teach me how to trust.
In summary, healing trauma will only happen in an emotionally supportive environment, and to achieve that we have to be selective about the people we surround ourselves with, especially during the dating process. Invest your time in yourself first to become who you want to attract. Take a personal inventory of strengths and weaknesses, then turn those weaknesses into strengths and goals to smash! Learn to be okay with being alone. Brush up on your own relationship skills. Get intentional and know what you want before tuning in and broadcasting your signal. Take it slow and put in the time to get to know someone. Be willing to walk away when things aren’t working. Don’t chase or force anything, trust in the timing and most importantly, expect the unexpected!
Sarah Snow was previously a psychology major, before becoming a mother and teaching preschool. She had breast cancer twice before leaving her ex husband and becoming an advocate for intimate partner violence and trauma education. When she isn’t spending time with her wonderful kids or volunteering at her local library, she loves writing and painting, and living a peaceful and intentional life!