We recently received the following letter that expresses very well what many victims tell us they feel. Although I have written on this subject before, this week I would like to share new insights on healing and recovery.
I spent two years in a relationship with an antisocial psychopath. In the last four months, since I last saw him, I have built a new life, I get on with my life, I am successful in my job, I am a good mother, I am comfortable in my own skin, and, for the first time in my life, am content to live a single life.
This sounds like a success story, but in every minute that my mind is not occupied by the routine of daily life, I am totally consumed by thoughts of my “ex”. Most of these thoughts revolve around the things he did and said. As we all know – the words and actions of these people are almost always opposite. After all, someone who “loves you more than anything……wants to be with you more than anything…….wants to marry you….is 100% committed to buying a house with you”, doesn’t hit you, trip you up, get on top of you with is hands round your neck, spit on you, and leave you to pay $4,000 a month for a house you moved into a month before (just to mention a few of the nightmare scenarios).
I need help with two things in particular:
– Every morning now, for over a year (since he left me paying for the house, a day after my dad died and my ex said, “you should be glad he’s dead”), I have woken up, and the very first thing that enters my mind is him. I am totally emotionally exhausted. I dread going to sleep at night. How can I stop this? It is worse, in some ways, than the abuse itself. I have considered going to a hypnotherapist, but am scared that, like medication, there could be “side-effects”. What should I do?
– My ex and I had an amazing sex life. I know this is common with psychopaths, and losing this I can live with. What I can’t live with is remembering how we were together in bed, in a very deep emotional way. We could lie there for hours, just stroking each other, massaging each other, “grooming” each other. When we fell asleep we would move through our three positions every night, all the time touching and stroking until we fell asleep. I can’t get that out of my head, and I miss it so much. I can read over and over again that, “it wasn’t real”, but it doesn’t remove the fact that it happened, and the feeling was real. How do I disconnect that amazing feeling from the person who gave it to me?
I really need help. Being so completely unable to control my thoughts is killing me, and though I can keep thoughts of him out of my mind when I’m totally busy, I can’t be busy all the time as I’d be exhausted!
I hope you have some insight, and thank you for your help.
First let’s repeat the basics. You cannot heal mentally without also addressing your physical health. Our friend is wise to be concerned about her state of exhaustion. It is important to eat healthy foods and get 30 minutes of moderate exercise a day. Also consider taking a daily multivitamin with minerals like calcium. Please limit alcohol and do not use street drugs.
It is very common for victims to respond to the financial and other life stress by feeling like they have to be energized and vigilant. This feeling that we have to be “on alert” is magnified by what our friend describes in her letter. The minute we slow down, we experience “the thoughts.” In fact, hypervigilance is noted to be a symptom of PTSD.
For many victims the hypervigilance comes naturally at first due to stress hormones. But, since this feeling of energy and alertness becomes a habit, victims want to maintain it. To do so over the long run they turn to caffeine.
Excessive consumption of caffeine (more than about 120mg/day) leads to insomnia, anxiety and depression. It is not difficult to overconsume caffeine since a Starbucks’ Grande has over 300mg.*
Many victims are afraid to cut down on the caffeine because they fear that if they are not super-alert they can’t keep going, and the thoughts will come back. Victims are also afraid to fall asleep because they fear being attacked in the night.
So how do you end the vicious cycle? How do you stop wanting to be on alert? First, you have to convince yourself that it is necessary to slow down and you have to have a means of coping with your fear/anxiety. Acceptance is an important ingredient here. Unfortunately, we have to accept that we are going to feel pain, fear and anxiety. That is a normal and even necessary part of this process. We often spend too much energy trying to fight the pain, fear and anxiety. A good therapist will tell you that tolerating these is an important part of recovery.
It is OK to let yourself feel it. I can say that to you because I say it to myself.
Apart from tolerance, coping by using relaxation techniques, exercise, psychotherapy and friendship is important. I recommend Stress Management for Dummies. I use that book to teach therapy students about stress management. Everything you need to know is in there and it is an inexpensive book.
About sleep- if you don’t sleep well you will be too tired to heal and you will be even more likely to need caffeine. Please discuss these alternatives with your physician, but I will mention two over-the-counter sleep aids that are considered safe in the short term that is why you can get them without a prescription. I believe Melatonin is the best option because of few side effects. Diphenhydramine is another option found in over-the-counter sleep aids. Be aware that this medicine causes weird anxiety reactions in some people and can cause you to want to eat at night. Since it dries out your mouth, it can also be bad for your teeth if you don’t brush well before bed.
Now I will specifically address the good and bad memories. In many experiments researchers have shown that good and bad memories are part of separate brain circuits. When people are in a good mood they have better access to “good memories.” When they are in a bad mood they have better access to “bad memories.” That is why the more you fight the pain and the fear, the more you will only remember the good part of that sociopath you were involved with. The good experiences you had with him/her are stored in a different brain circuit from the bad experiences you had.
The more you tolerate the pain, the more integrated your recollections will be because you will have emotional access to both the good and the bad at the same time. It is best not to try to over-control your thoughts, let them flow. Manage the pain and anxiety with relaxation techniques.
I also officially give you permission to enjoy the good memories you have. Those memories don’t have to cause you to try to go back. They are there as a record of your very real life experiences. The fact that you may have enjoyed some of the time you spent with a sociopath is O.K. and doesn’t mean you are a bad or stupid person.
Having said all this, it can take many years to get beyond all these symptoms. 4 months is a very short period of time, though it seems like an eternity when you are suffering. I am glad to see our friend is fighting, questioning and seeking. As for many of us, the well being of a child will be enhanced by her healing.
Please know that your children are aware of and observe your struggles. How you handle memories, pain/fear and anxiety can set a good example for them.