A few weeks ago I was out walking Sophie. The ground was still wet from the night's rain, and I was heads down, distracted looking through my phone.
Suddenly a chill ran up my spine, my feet stopped, and I pulled Sophie's leash back. I had instinctively stopped us moments from stepping on a copperhead snake.
Our minds and bodies have the most beautiful, powerful instinct to protect ourselves from danger, and (especially women) are taught to suppress these instincts. We're taught to be sweet and trusting. But my body knew, my mind could see subtle signs in my environment that alerted me to a nearby snake. I can use that power to protect myself from our violent culture.
This instinct is the gift of fear, and this is the first lesson I learned from M.J.
I came to M.J. the day I had struck myself three times on the side of my head. It had been over a month since I had slept at all. At all. Not a wink. I was walking around in a haze, scared and desperate. I was losing chunks of my time, not remembering much at all. And I was increasingly afraid of myself and the outside world.
Sitting on my kitchen floor, I rang through to every Boston therapist I could find online, until one picked up on a Saturday,
"I can see you in an hour," M.J. said, with a kind, yet determined voice.
By the time I reached her I was in a full panic attack unlike anything I've ever experienced. Hyperventilating, striking myself, unable to get words out. I collapsed on her floor and she calmly sat beside me holding my hand while I caught my breath.
Eventually she was able to calm me down a bit, and she ran through the basic questions:
When have you eaten? I don't know.
When have you slept? I don't know.
She talked to me about nutrition, which I wrote about here. And even though I avoid medication of any kind, she prescribed Clonapin to help me sleep. (This would be both a blessing and a danger in the future, which I'll talk about later.)
The next questions were:
Do you feel you're in danger? Yes.
Who are you scared of? Myself.
Between breaths and panic attacks I told her of how very vulnerable and powerless I felt. That I was losing control of myself and my world. That I couldn't have known what my abuser was going to do. That I didn't trust anyone anymore, let alone myself. The world looked dark and dangerous, confusing, and I hated myself for being so fucking stupid.
This was the beginning of M.J. teaching me about appreciating my body and my intuition.
She explained for the first time that what my body was doing - the sleeplessness, the panics, the black outs - it was trying to protect me, and that is a good thing, if not misguided. My central nervous system simply didn't know that I was no longer in danger, and we'd have to go through the long process of deprogramming flight or fight. Realizing that my body was trying to protect me was the start of realizing that maybe my body wasn't the enemy, and it was the beginning of mindfulness. I could start to see the panic attack for what it was - a survival mechanism, not a betrayal.
But, the delicate part of deprogramming flight or fight is in maintaining your instinct for danger awareness.
The author, Gavin de Becker, walks the reader through how violence is most often predictable, how we can pick up on early warning signs of violence, and how we must learn to trust our intuition.
So many women say: "there's no way I could have known I would have gotten hurt, abused, raped." This sort of thinking and belief creates victim mentality and renders us powerlessness. Learning to trust your instinct, your body's natural ability to spot danger, and your ability to choose to leave a situation, gives power back to the person both before and after violence.
Looking back, I knew my abuser was dangerous when we were dating. I saw him spit on a car, when I saw him destroy a phone, when I saw him throw a book through a wall. I can say I couldn't have predicted what he was going to do, but that is a dangerous lie I have told myself. In fact, during our engagement, I told a couple of people that I was feeling uneasy about getting married, but society told me it was just cold feet.
Take back this narrative: you could have known he would hurt you, and you do have a choice. If you're in a violent relationship, you can leave now. And even better you can keep yourself from stepping on that snake again.
Other things I learned from this session and this book:
Don't seek justice, seek safety.
Restraining orders won't protect you from fists or bullets. Make yourself unavailable to your pursuer.
Domestic violence and spousal homicide are the single most predictable crimes.
Shelters are the very safest place you can be when you leave your abuser.
The first time you're hit by an intimate partner, you're a victim. The second time, you're a volunteer.