By Joyce Alexander, RNP (retired)
Years ago I used to think that healing from an emotionally devastating experience, like tangling with a psychopath, was like recovering from a physical illness or injury. If you cut yourself, you put a band-aid on it and a few days later, the cut was “healed” and you didn’t need to work on it any more. Or if you got the flu, once you were over it, it was all done; you didn’t have to worry about it again. Or if you got the measles once, you could not get it ever again, because you were immune.
Now I realize that healing from an encounter with a psychopath is not like a simple cut that heals, never requiring any more care or even notice. It is also not like having the measles and becoming immune to that kind of disease. Having an encounter with one psychopath does not convey immunity to the rest you will encounter in your lifetime. It isn’t something that you “get over and never have to think about it again.” It changes you.
Tangling with a psychopath leaves serious emotional injuries that are not “healed” easily or quickly, never to be thought about again. Serious emotional healing is a continuing process that lasts a lifetime because emotional trauma literally causes the brain’s chemistry and structure to change.
Emotional wounds are different
Psychological and emotional wounds are wounds of a different kind. First, they are not “visible” to others. Also, others may have strong opinions about how long your emotional or mental wound should take to heal. In fact, society in general, and your friends in particular, may tell you that you should “be over that now, it was just a break up” and give you “medical advice” about emotional healing which they are not qualified to give you. Many times the wounds left by a psychopath need to be dealt with by a professional therapist who “gets it” about psychopaths! Just as you wouldn’t try to treat your own broken leg without professional medical help, or continue to limp around on it saying “oh, it will get better if I just give it time” we shouldn’t try to treat our own emotional wounds either. (This is coming from someone who tried to self-treat for way too long, but who finally got the help I needed.)
If you had an unhealed and grossly infected wound on your arm, I doubt that many people would try to give you advice on which antibiotic to take (though there are even a few of those people), but most people would recommend that you go to a physician for treatment. With emotional wounds, though, everyone is an expert and tells you to “just get over it.” I can’t see them saying the same thing about your festering cut on your arm or your broken leg.
Physical cuts do, with proper treatment, heal and scar over, never again requiring any care or work, but emotional “cuts” will always to some extent, require a continual maintenance, if nothing else. In addition, deep emotional wounds leave behind invasive memories.
Memory — good and bad
Memory is a good thing in many, many ways, bringing back enjoyable experiences from the past, bringing back warm feelings when we think about loved ones who have passed away or the fun experiences we had when we were children or on a special vacation. Yet, memory can be a two-edged sword, also bringing back the unhappy memories of being abused, the emotional voids of being neglected as a child or the devaluation and discarding done to us by a psychopath. Sometimes these memories become “invasive” and intrude into our “today” and our “now” to the point that we can’t seem to think about anything else.
I don’t mean that we can never overcome the damage done to us or that the memories must always be invasive, but what I am trying to say is that we must continually work on keeping our emotional health healthy, that we must not let these unpleasant past events recur in our memories and minds to bring about emotional pain. We must also overcome the emotionally dysfunctional ways of coping that we learned to use in order to survive the abusive relationships previously in our lives, and learn newer and more functional ways to think and live in the present.
We must develop new tools, one of which is NO CONTACT with people who are dishonest, unkind, abusive, or in any way toxic to our wounded souls and spirits. I have found the “hard way” that some of these people are members of our families, people that we wanted close relationships with and people that we love(d). The truth is, though, that we can not allow anyone, no matter what the blood or other relationship is, to continually emotionally wound us. We must set boundaries. If boundaries don’t suffice to keep these people from acting in toxic ways to us, then we must cut them from our lives with NO CONTACT.
Peeling the onion
I’ve also realized that as I heal one level of dysfunction in my life and in the way I handle things, I find that there is another layer underneath that one that I should “improve” on. Al Anon calls this “peeling the onion.” I had picked up that phrase somewhere not knowing the origin, but a friend who is in Al Anon told me that she thought it came from there. I think it is a very good analogy, as it is to me like peeling an onion’s very thin layers, and when we get one layer peeled off we find—ANOTHER LAYER that needs to be worked on.
So, healing becomes for me a continuing process of self-improvement. I learned to set boundaries … so there is always practice to perfection on doing that and as I practice, I get better. There are self-esteem issues, and again, as I practice, I get better and feel better about myself. Each layer of the onion I peel and each improvement I make in myself gives me a new awareness of the next thing I need to work on in Joyce.
Acceptance and grief
As I focus on improving Joyce, I also realize that there is nothing I can do to improve the dysfunctional people who abused me … and I can’t do anything to change the past. So I must also start working on the acceptance of what was. I grieve the losses that go with my emotional injury. I work on coming to acceptance and peace with that loss, the way I have finally been able to accept the loss of my late husband and my late step-father, and the loss of the aspirations I had for my son Patrick, and the dreams I had for the relationship I wanted with my son C.
Some of the losses I have suffered due to the behavior of my psychopathic son, Patrick, weren’t losses of anything that was actually “real” and tactile. They were simply my dreams for my son, who is so bright and talented that he could have done or been anything he wanted to be. He was blessed with the smarts and intelligence to do or be anything! I guess it was selfish on my own part, because I wanted to say, “Oh, yes, my son Patrick, who invented the way to run cars on water, cured global warming, cured diabetes and cancers of all kinds…” so I could, in mock humility, be so proud of him! LOL
Of course my continued working on “healing” doesn’t take up my entire life or thoughts any more, but it makes the rest of my life more fulfilling and more fun because I am slowly eliminating the people and the behaviors that make my life difficult or painful. It is amazing just how much time I have now to do things that I enjoy, when I am not dealing with the drama and dysfunction of people who are not healthy, or people who are actively abusive. I have more time for the fun and enjoyable people and experiences, since my time and energy are not taken up by the drama of dealing with dysfunction.
Tired in body and mind
The cost of emotionally unhealthy relationships and unhealthy people is very expensive in terms of time and effort. Just as digging a ditch with a shovel will make your body tired and sore, emotionally “digging a ditch” in an encounter with a drama king or queen, or an abusive person, will also make your mind tired and sore as well. If you dig the ditch physically, when you come in the house and shower and sit down, you are not able to handle mental or emotional tasks; the body is so tired that the mind doesn’t work well either. The reverse is also true: If you are emotionally tired from dealing with dysfunctional situations, your body is also tired. There is no big dichotomy between body and mind. We are one!
We are well aware that emotional stress puts great strain on our bodies as well as our minds. So it is important for us to continually take care of both our emotional and physical health. Just as we wouldn’t go to the gym one time and work out and expect to have “abs of steel,” we would also not expect to read one book about psychopaths and expect that we would instantly be healed emotionally from an encounter with psychopaths.
Applying the knowledge
Knowledge is what we must acquire by study. Wisdom is the ability to use that knowledge to our benefit, which is acquired by reflection.
Learning about psychopaths, learning about ourselves and then applying that knowledge for our emotional and physical well being is a life-long process.
I’ve frequently said that the healing process starts out about “them” (the psychopaths) but ends up being about “us,” changing our thinking and behavior. I still think that is true, and when we start focusing more on us, and less on them, we are well on the way to growing and “healing,” but the road continues onward as long as we live.
While none of us would wish an experience with a psychopath on our worst enemy, and while it has been a painful process for us, it can be the impetus for us to go on to greater and better things.