The anxiety post-abuse

“I feel like, if I even make the smallest mistake, I’ll end up destroying the whole world. I might put a little too much responsibility on myself.”

“Yes, you might. The whole world’s destruction will be your fault…just a little bit too much.”

I told this to my platonic soulmate last week. I am afraid that when I throw something out, I am personally responsible for the waste that will eventually destroy our planet. I am afraid, when I see others do the same. I am afraid of the future because of industrialization. I feel responsible for not being able to stop the whole world. I am afraid that the posts I write are incoherent and stupid. I am afraid to finish the stories I write for fear it will prove I can’t actually write. I’m afraid that when I speak, everyone realizes that I am incapable of understanding anything. I am afraid of my teeth rotting over every bit of sugar I consume, I am afraid I’m killing my body with my eating disorder. I am afraid of getting an infection or disease and the triggering nature of doctors. I am afraid of people, I am afraid of the future, I am afraid of slipping up and making mistakes. I am afraid of every dollar I spend that eventually money will run out and I will have nothing, and will be destitute and alone. I am afraid of every calorie I consume and how it adds to my body. I am afraid of the possibility that my brother might be or will abuse his children. I am afraid for every child in this world and who might be being abused. I am afraid that I am responsible for not being able to stop these things. I am afraid, I am afraid, I am afraid.

It is nearly impossible to function like this. Today I went to work for a little goodbye party that we’re having as people leave for other jobs, or transition to different libraries. Which meant that I couldn’t go and deposit my paycheck like a good little adult. One fearful situation a day does not make for productivity when everything is fearful.

I have been afraid my whole life. It’s one of the things I’ve been examining lately. I don’t have much memory of the abuse, but I do have the memory of fear. Fear of all the basics in life – eating, going to the bathroom, showing emotion, doing anything but staying right behind that chair as if I wasn’t allowed to do anything else. To do anything else would mean catastrophe. It would mean abuse. So I played games of stealth and fantasy to motivate myself to go to the bathroom and be quick and silent about it. I rummaged through the cupboard and hid the evidence of my eating in my room, and then begged forgiveness from my family and from God (eventually, I’m not sure how much understanding of the concept of God I had at that point) feeling sick with guilt.

I know that split-second fear when you realize you’ve crossed the invisible line, and you can see it in your abusers eyes that this is it and there is that slight pause before they slam their fist in your stomach, or grab the nearest object. Or when they break something or threaten to break something, and you’re afraid of the money it’ll cost to repair it, you’re afraid of what next they might break and whether it’ll be replaceable or not.

I know the wait for the next terrible thing that might happen.  And I know that it’s a valid wait, because the next terrible thing did always happen. Abusive families aren’t about “what if” they are about “when,” always. How long can this peaceful period last, and will you be the one to step on the detonator?

And now I find myself unable to get away from that fear. My brain only knows how to prepare for disaster. I only know how to think about the next terrible thing that happens, because that was all that was important before – trying to make it through all the terrible moments. In some ways that’s where the abuse is. It’s not just about the times when someone drops a boulder on your head, it’s the times when they position you in the same place it happens and tell you to wait for it, it’s coming. And you wait, and wait, and wait, your fists clenched at your sides, and your eyes screwed shut and your whole body tense, preparing for it. And that’s the abuse. They may never drop the boulder on you, but you’re being abused right then while you prepare for what they told you will happen.

And now I’m waiting for that boulder. When I go to work, when I go home to my room. When I take a shower. When I go to the store, when I go to the bank, when I try something new, when I’m surrounded by strangers, when I’m alone with my body. I wait, and I bide my time for the moment that boulder will fall, as it has always fallen, as my brain has learned it is destiny, it is inevitable, it is because I am me that this boulder will hit.

And the abusers fed on it – especially my mother. You are nothing, you are incapable, you screw everything up. You’ll never survive without me, you will mess everything up if you don’t have me. I have never made decisions without my mother’s input, ever. I  have never made decisions without checking first that I am not screwing it up, making sure that it is safe for me to do these things without creating disaster.

Like many others, I steadfastly believed that talking about the abuse would make Something Terrible happen. What Something Terrible was, I’m not sure. I’m also not sure how I got it into my head.

But now I’ve talked about it in a way that isn’t just a friend, or online – I’ve told my mother. I’ve done something physical, something that the world can see: I have left my family, and though I haven’t worked up the ability yet to tell anyone why, if they ask, I will probably give the truth.

And so now I wait, I wait more than I’ve been waiting for the past few years since I started talking about this. I wait for the biggest most massive boulder, the thing that will make everything come undone. I have crossed the biggest lines, I have done what would put that look back into my abusers’ eyes if one was still alive and the other was nearby. Put that look in their eyes and get me destroyed. I have put in motion that Something Terrible and I can just feel that at any moment it will occur – my body will break down, people will hurt me, I will fail at life and wind up poor and alone, the world will come to an end. And it will be all my fault.

I wait, and I clench my fists and I screw up my eyes and I prepare myself for it. I prepare myself for it because I fear that there are detonators across every inch of my path, detonators I triggered the second I broke the ultimate rule of abusive families: don’t talk about it and you can never get away from it because you will mess everything up on your own. I put the detonators there the second I broke the silence, the moment I first called and said, “Hi, I’d like to come look at the room you have for rent.” And if I so much as take the smallest step, that’s it. I’m done for. Everyone and everything is done for, and it’s my fault. And I am so afraid.

4 comments on “The anxiety post-abuse

  1. Sandra Crawford says:

    You have just described my world and how I live every day…I felt so alone even though I “Knew” I wasn’t. I take one day at a time, one step at a time, and sometimes one moment at a time. Thank you for expressing how I feel.

  2. Thank you. I see myself in this. My abuse was emotional not physical so it took me many years to recognize it as such. Now I realize why I have these anxiety attacks even when nothing is currently wrong. The message “you can’t function in the world” was so drummed into my head, under the guise of loving protection.

  3. […] routinely can’t sleep at night, who always sleep facing the door, who are afraid to even take a shower because it might trigger a flashback or worse. Tell that to survivors who can be triggered at any […]

  4. This is how I feel right now and this fear and worry and waiting for the other shoe to drop; in periods waiting for the abuse to happen or the abuse to get worse; for a year to pass until I can get the fuck out…is horrible and slowly driving me crazy. I dont know how to get out of my head or my memories or this constant feeling of fear…but thank you for writing this. It helps to know someone else has the same emotions out there and i’m not insane in being so so afraid.

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