It’s difficult to hear that so many folks are struggling out there. People are triggered by isolation, and people are triggered by the idea of isolation ending. Physical symptoms of anxiety seem to be increasingly and bringing hypochondria along with them, even in otherwise health-secure folks. Worry for family members and friends is on everyone's minds. There are more fears and realizations of dissatisfaction than usual, it seems.
One of the things I was forced to confront today was the reality of being trapped in quarantine with an abuser.
I’m going to be honest and say, I’ve been whole-heartedly, selfishly avoiding thinking about this scenario. It’s overwhelming to consider how many people rely on their outside obligations like school and work to get a break from their living nightmares at home, and how helpless they must feel being trapped with monsters every minute of every day.
Thinking back on the situations from my past when this shelter-at-place order would have been the most detrimental makes me feel awful. It’s incredibly triggering to start digging those emotions up, let alone extrapolating how much worse it could be with everyone sitting at home undistracted by life. Approaching the thought makes my stomach turn and my heart beat out of my chest. I can’t express how physically uncomfortable and foggy-brained I am, putting myself in those shoes.
But, that’s reality for some people. And as much as I don’t want to revisit how hellish my life has been at a few points, I will, because I might have something to offer, even though the circumstances were more individually confining than this world-wide quarantine has been.
It’s overwhelming to consider how many people rely on their outside obligations like school and work to get a break from their living nightmares at home, and how helpless they must feel being trapped with monsters every minute of every day.
Obviously, there wasn’t a pandemic when I was a child/adolescent, but I lived in a household of complete unpredictability and violence, which was entirely out of my control. Being a minor, I literally couldn’t get out. I didn’t have friends, in the area or in general. My extended family didn’t know about anything happening in ours. We lived in a shitty rural town where there was nowhere to go, even if I managed to leave the house. For all intents and purposes, I was isolated without hope for outside saviors or escape. So… maybe it’s not entirely dissimilar, yeah?
This leads me to say, kids are so resilient. At the time, I was able to cope with things pretty well, and appeared to be a normal-ish kid. All the while, my morphine addicted/alcoholic dad was violently exploding at the drop of a hat and threatening to kill us all, while my oldest brother dove into hard drugs and stole everything from our family, my middle brother went off drinking, and my mom developed her own unpredictable explosions.
How the fuck did I do that? Let’s count the adaptions.
Here are the coping skills I remember from my days being hopelessly trapped with monsters
... supplemented with some things older-me would be able to enact and new options thanks to the existence of the internet/phones.
Trigger warning. This list is fucked up to read if you’ve lived through similar times.
One final note, I’ll refer to “abusers” as “family” interchangeably, because domestic situations are close enough to family abuse in my mind. You get it.
1- Make a safe haven somewhere inside the house
Find somewhere, anywhere, that you can escape to when you’re at home and things start getting rocky. If your room is shared or insecure (boundaries aren’t really a thing in these circumstances), how about a closet, an attic, or an outdoor nook? The roof? The laundry room? A bathroom? Wherever you can find a private, somewhat secure location, make it somewhere you can relax, at least a little. Collect blankets, pillows and books, and keep them ready to mobilize in case you can’t store them in your sanctuary and you’ll have to get there quickly (see point 3). Tuck some bottles of water and granola bars into your hiding kit. Bring a coloring book and your phone charger. Whatever will help you to post up and happily stay in a place that feels safe, have it ready. Having somewhere that’s “yours” and feels even slightly removed from the chaos is a blessing. If your family is anything like mine, be ready to grab your shit and move when they start poking at your “mess.” You can try setting boundaries and telling them you need a place of privacy to calm down… but don’t expect that they’ll respect your space. (sorry) Try to take it neutrally; speak your words and then get out of the way if things escalate. It’s not worth lingering and becoming the center of the fight or encouraging the situation to get more emotionally charged. That’s why I recommend you keep a “kit” ready to go – don’t get into hotter water for moving too slowly for angry peoples’ preferences.
2- Make a safe haven somewhere outside the house
When you can’t stand being inside, you have to get away from the residence. There has to be a safe place for you to retreat to when the house is past the point of no return or you’re feeling physically unsafe. Find a local park, nature preserve, parking lot, bench, pretty tree, drainage ditch, shady staircase… wherever you can get away from humans for a while and feel peaceful enough to hang with yourself. If you have one, sit in your car when all else fails. Walk around the neighborhood. Go exploring and find yourself a piece of solitude, wherever it may be. If you can, don’t let your family know where you’re going. Be prepared for them to blow up your phone “with worry,” if not outright rage and threats, especially if they struggle with control issues. I’m a fan of airplane mode and blocking numbers for temporary relief, but I know those tactics have some downsides and retaliations, as well. If all else fails and they can’t get ahold of you, be prepared for third parties to be drawn in as pawns. You might get a call from your best friend, your grandma, or your sibling, wondering what’s going on. Be ready, and know who you can trust. Again, I recommend you have a “kit” ready to go. Read on.
3- Stock up
Yep, you’re going to become a doomsday prepper. Wherever you start to hide out – inside and outside of the house – you need to have resources. There’s nothing like running away from a horrible fight at home, only to promptly realize you’re starving and cold, or sitting in a closet with nothing but the sounds of desperate people screaming to drown out your thoughts. Get shit together. Keep it in a place that makes sense. Maybe that’s a backpack stashed outside, or a laundry basket in your room secretly filled with what you need. Maybe it’s your car.
Whatever makes sense for your situation, make sure you have:
a water bottle
some kind of snack
a source of warmth
a mode of communication
ibuprofen/commonly used meds and any prescriptions
elemental protection (sunscreen, bug spray, shorts)
indoor protection (pillow, blanket, ear plugs)
You never know what’s going to happen – just be ready to camp out in as much comfort as possible when home (or everything outside your bedroom door) feels dangerous.
4- Identify a trusted friend and an authority figure
You need someone to call when things are out of hand. Don’t try to shoulder the burden alone, don’t try to protect your abuser, and don’t feel like you’re a burden for needing to reach out for help. If you’re overwhelmed, having panic attacks, contemplating suicide, or walking down the street a 3am with nowhere to go, you need to call somebody. You need a friend and an authority figure; these can be two different people.
Your friend will always be by your side. You have them already, whether you know it or not. If you’re convinced that you have NO ONE who cares about you, I would challenge that thought. Someone out there cares deeply about you, even if you haven’t spoken in a decade or exactly had “the talk” about your crazy living situation. You might even be shocked to learn about the kindness of nearly-strangers, if you let them in. My coworkers twice saved my ass last year because I had no one to turn to and nowhere to go; I honestly didn’t know them very well before but we got pretty tight after living with one of them for ~10 months after they took me in like a lost dog. Give people a chance. You’d be surprised how quickly friendships crop up when you find the right souls.
Your authority figure, on the other hand, will have the wisdom to know when things have gone too far and/or the ability to influence the abuser through logic, legality, or force. For example, a teacher, an extended family member, a counselor, a lawyer. If you don’t have one to call on, go searching. Look for domestic abuse organizations in your area and try to connect with the folks there via email. They’ll know what to do in case of emergency, and you might get some free legal help if they have pro bono lawyers who volunteer with them. Look up an emergency hotline and store the number on your phone. The trained professionals who man those phone lines will escalate the situation if necessary. Think outside the box, these people are your protectors from your family and from yourself.
As a kid, I had no one. Nobody knew about what was going on until much later in my life. I didn’t have a person to call or a safe home to flee to. It was lonely and I developed this cool fear of being totally alone/suffering while other people standby. Do not recommend. As an adult, I knew my therapist, an authority figure to me and my ex, was on standby if I thought things were really getting wild. When all else failed, if I was ultra freaked out about an argument that was happening, I could always record the conversation. My ex never wanted anyone else to hear how he really acted; he would at least calm down a little if there was going to be proof to show our therapists or any outsider.
AN IMPORTANT NOTE: If you ever find yourself threatening to call the police, you should have already called. Don’t waste times with warnings and threats. It only teaches your abusers that you’re a pushover when you don’t follow through and enables them to push further. If you’re having any question about it, it’s already escalated too far. Pick up the phone.
5- Find digital support
Because it isn’t reasonable to get all your support in one basket, I recommend you find various sources to connect with people who have experienced what you’re going through. There’s nothing worse than feeling alone and individually wrong. Get online, it’s an excellent resource for finding people with any unique circumstances. You’re not the only one. I’m no internet or social media maven, but check these out, for starters.
Have you ever checked out the r/anxiety, r/traumatools, or r/traumaticchildhood strings? Keep digging, there’s a community for everything you can imagine. Whatever you’re going through, you can find a group that fits… and I only see positive, intelligent, insightful responses when people ask for help. Make an anonymous account, post your problems, comment on similar stories. You might find folks you really connect with – or at least you’ll find out you’re not so special.
Wisdo/mental health apps
I haven’t deeply explored mental health apps, but I have messed around on Wisdo before. It’s like reddit, in your pocket, for only mental health issues. People make posts about their challenges or helpful tips, and peers can send them love and support back. You can DM each other, if someone really seems to get it or offers to be a mentor. It’s pretty cool, but it does have a slight aroma of social media. Sometimes the posts that get a lot of attention are a bit flowery/heart emoji overloaded and the people behind them apparently are Instagram models? Just depends on which room you’re in and how many people need attention that day. Besides Wisdo, I mean, here’s 25 more to check out and decide for yourself.
Nothing like a silent house or the sound of people fighting in the distance. Fill your brain with something better, and maybe get some new perspectives on whatever you’re dealing with. There are niche podcasts for everything these days, so if there’s a particular issue (addiction, depression, even abuse) that you’re dealing with day to day, just Search and you shall receive. There are so, so many mental health and spirituality podcasts, if you’re just looking for general help. Do a search on your favorite app and follow the reviews. I happen to like The Happiness Lab, Anxious and Angry, Speaking of Psychology, and a lot of woo-woo podcasts for times when I’m challenged. But hell, sometimes you just need to escape. Try anything on the Last Podcast Network or dig through the backlog of This American Life. Add comments to the reviews section, email your favorite hosts, or find a Facebook group that shares your positive opinions about the pod.
Does this need explanation? Find music for your mood. Find music with personal meaning. Find music that gives you the community and comfort to make it through another few shitty months until shows start again. Punk rock saved my life and I will write about it one day. If it wasn’t for Alkaline Trio, The Lawrence Arms, Against Me!, and so many others, I don’t know what my teenage self would have done. But, probably hard drugs like the rest of my family. If you need comfort and connection, turn to music. If you want to find souls cut up the same, get on their fanboards and see who else needs a quarantine pen pall.
Email, chat, video, video games
Phone calls, texts, and comments aren’t ever enough. You can’t see people face to face. So, get on the computer and talk in other ways. Write long emails to your friends in lieu of your usual short, shallow text conversation. Let them in on more of your world and have a real discussion. Get a pen pal; find someone disconnected from your daily life to share your difficulties with. Go old school, use Chats to have a real time conversation in silence. It’s still easier to write things than it is to say them out loud. When you’re really craving human comfort, though, feel free to video. Even if you don’t have much to say, it helps to know someone is there. Stay on your web cam while you watch tv together, color, make art, or just chill out. Lastly, I know a ton of people who are using group video games to keep in touch with their friends and “hang out.” If you don’t have a fancy gaming system (coming from a non-gamer here), look into group gaming apps on your phone and interact there. Stay connected in as many ways as you can, and you won’t feel so fucked.
6- Escape to your inner world
You know what I’m blessed with after years of escaping my physical reality? A pretty interesting brain. “If you’re bored, you’re boring,” as my grumpy Economics teacher used to say. When I’m in a really bad situation now as an adult, I try to put myself back in my childhood mind… which was full of imagination, ideas, and innovation. I could dive deep into myself and get lost pondering big questions as a kid. There was no such thing as a miserable car ride or a boring day because I could entertain myself. When people were being wild, I retreated to my safe place (my room) and I kept my world contained to my head. I daydreamt a lot, and visualized fairy tale lives I might live. I designed houses and animal shelters in my head. I came up with ideas for art and bonded deeply with the lyrics of songs. I wrote chapters of books and imagined my life as the central character. I saw a life where I was happy and loved. I created and questioned everything. As an adult, I try to do the same thing. Now, I think about home projects and how to improve this blog… maybe less exciting. Sometimes I dive through old memories and deal with whatever comes up, good or bad. Oftentimes, I compare past to present, and look for the lessons I may have missed. Or I just consider how grateful I am to have taken this winding, drunken path to where I landed today. There’s a lot to think about if you learn to detach from the external and explore internally.
7- Develop self-soothing techniques
So, you’re not always going to have someone there when you’re flooded and ready to quit. You might need to calm yourself down to avoid disaster, or at least discomfort. There are a million ways to experiment with tapping into your physiology to return to baseline, but here’s what works for me. Try out your own approaches, find out what does the trick for you, and be sure to share if you strike some genius.
Weigh yourself down
Nothing new these days. Weighted blankets rule. If you haven’t gotten one already, try replicating the effect with whatever you have on hand. I always enjoyed being underneath heavy comforters and piles of pillows growing up – now I know why. Same thing. A little pressure on the skin puts your brain in your body and almost acts like one massive hug. It is so comforting, no matter what’s going on. See if it relaxes your body the way it does mine.
Decompress in the dark
Here’s an intimately fucked up fact about me, I like hiding in dark closets and bathrooms when I’m super freaked out. Generally, this is my response to aggressive conflict, physical intimidation, and chasing patterns. If I feel like I can’t escape a bad situation or I’m totally overloaded, I will be sitting in a small, tight, dark place by myself. It’s almost like a sensory deprivation and a fortress, in one. A lot of stimulation is removed, you can feel the tension of the space around your body, and no one can get you because you’re surrounded from all sides. Might as well give it a try. Get an open space in your closet, or just try sitting on the floor with your back against the wall and your eyes closed. Imagine a small, private hiding place where no one can reach you. Relax. Breath. Be grateful for your closet, as fucked up as that is.
Lie on your back
That’s it. Lie down, get your neck, back, and arms flat on the bed, and breath for a few minutes. Notice the bed underneath you. Feel how soft, warm, and strong it is. Let your thoughts come and go. Wait for your brain to quiet down and your pulse to return to normal. Breath into your belly. Try to feel the bottoms of your feet. See if you don’t’ feel better. There’s something about putting pressure on my back that immediately relaxes my body if I concentrate on it. I can feel the weight of my body pressing against something supportive, and it melts everything in my body, starting with my shoulder blades and midback areas. Laying down flat for even a minute or two will effectively reset my brain and chill out my physiology. It’s a little less effective if I’m pressing up against a wall, but it still works to some degree. Try any time you need to redirect your attention or address physical anxiety.
Another one that doesn’t need much explanation. If you need to calm down, if you're so tense that your muscles are aching, or if you just sat in a fucking closet for two hours... do some breathing and stretching to get back in your body. Just assume child’s pose if you’re too exhausted to do the whole kit and kaboodle. The point is to feel your body and your breath. To understand that your physical being is doing just fine, and there’s nothing hurting you in the moment. Feel safe and trust your body as its rooted into the floor. Let it return to a normal state. Release tension in every muscles of your body. Send air into your stomach and feel the way it extends. Know that if you’re still breathing, you’re okay.
About to sound LAME, but… A weighted blanket won’t always do the trick. Sometimes, you really need to feel some arms around you. Go ahead and give yourself a hug. It’s not quite as effective as another human’s presence, but it does give you a sense of security and comfort. Hold it and breath into your own arms. There will be a tension relief in your chest, I promise. If the motion needs to be more subtle, experiment with simply touching yourself on the arm, leg, or neck. Rub your shoulders. Find a soft touch that encourages you to be present and sensitive. Imagine it’s whoever makes you feel safe. Notice the warmth and the pressure. It might pull you out of a dissociative state and calm down your heart.
Alright folks. That was… kind of exhausting. I hope that my tips from more traumatized times can help in isolation, and anyone stuck in a dangerous situation has the resources they need to be safe until they can get out.
Please contact me if you do not.
Protect your brain and your body, and don’t ever feel like it’s a helpless situation. You’ll adapt, you’ll find a new solution, and you’ll do whatever it takes to change your circumstances. You’re strong and you will be okay.
If YOU have any abuser survival tips, please share!
If anyone out there needs a friend or a safety partner to make sure they’re still standing day after day, please, please, please, get in touch. You’re not in this alone.