That’s not intended as hyperbole, nor is it flippant. I can always tell a survivor who is either still in or has recently exited an abusive relationship, as she/they appear drained of life, alternating with a distinctive, hypervigilant look, like a frightened rabbit. When I treat clients who are still in these relationships, they universally complain of a deep fatigue, down to their souls and their bones, as well as strange physical maladies that appear to defy any medical explanations. Headaches, vertigo, gastrointestinal issues, chronic fatigue, thyroid issues, autoimmune conditions, and hormonal imbalances are all commonly cited. My personal symptoms were insomnia, crushing fatigue, heart palpitations, and the worst stomach pain I’ve ever experienced. None of these had any medical explanation or were caused by any physical condition, many tests and doctor visits later.
Once a survivor is successfully free (for some this process can take years) of the toxic relationship, there is a lot of healing to do. Many complain of a kind of fog that seems to permeate their thinking and how they move through the world. I would argue that this is still shock and denial hijacking the body, as well as the ongoing processing all abuse survivors go through, resolving the “cognitive dissonance” of the person they fell in love with vs. the real person behind the mask. However, once a survivor is in a safe space and has had sufficient time to rest, I see color return to cheeks, the light return to eyes, much-needed weight gained, and an almost immediate feeling of physical relief. ” Observationally, the fact that a person’s health improves upon leaving or or modifying such relationships certainly suggests there are benefits to stepping away,” writes Dr. Ramani Durvasula in “Don’t You Know Who I Am? How to Stay Sane in an Era of Narcissism, Entitlement, and Incivility.”
I’ve heard many survivors describe this exhaustion as a kind of soul fatigue. It’s unbelievably taxing on a person’s nervous system to always be walking on eggshells, never knowing what would set their abuser off, in their own homes. A place where we very much expect and deserve safety. I compare the effect of this experience to combat, and while some may take issue with that, I’ve seen nearly identical PTSD symptoms in both domestic violence survivors and combat veterans. Sleep can feel impossible, for a long time. Nightmares and re-experiencing are common. Irritability and even rage at times. Difficulty navigating intimate relationships. Substance abuse to numb.
Abuse, at the time it is happening, pilfers a piece of your soul. You are not the same after; though I do believe deep healing and integration is possible, it’s difficult to go back to the trusting person you once were. Your worldview changes. You know for certain that there are bad people in the world, one of whom was your intimate partner. For some of us, this is the experiences that truly takes our innocence. It can take years to just admit to ourselves that we are in an abusive relationship, because no one thinks it will happen to them, and no one wants to believe it is really happening. To be perfectly honest, I still find it to be a surreal experience, and I lived it.
Survivors need warmth, respect, authenticity, support, and nurturing to counteract the exhaustion. Going to bed early, eating nourishing foods, engaging in a relaxation practice, and spending time in nature, with pets, and safe people are all good choices during this refractory period. Isolation is common post-abuse, and I think some of that is absolutely reasonable and normal for some period of time. Survivors are extremely vulnerable at this time, and isolating is a logical attempt at self-protection. If it becomes too protracted, however, it can hurt more than help. Part of how we heal is through connections with safe others. But in the beginning, you might only feel safe in your bed. With your dog next to you. With all the doors and windows locked, and many a night-in.
One of the things we process in therapy is how the exhaustion was an alarm bell our body was sounding, which we often repressed. Healthy relationships should feel supportive, energizing, and comforting, not taxing. Sure, some conflict from time to time is normal in a healthy relationship, but perpetual tension is a hallmark sign of an abusive relationship.
To survivors who are still in these relationships, and to those who recently left, put your needs first for a while. Rest as much as you need to. See only who you want to see. Stay away from anything that feels unsafe for a while, until your nervous system can heal a bit. Listen to your body; it often already knows what our minds and hearts have yet to accept.