How do you survive after you discover that lies have permeated your primary relationship?
How can you figure out your next steps when you feel frozen?
Can you even contemplate a way forward?
How are you able to function on a day to day basis?
My birthday is in August, and before I left for my first year of college my family threw me a big party. I have forgotten many details of that night, but there are two gifts from that party that stuck with me. In fact, almost 30 years later, I not only still have them, I still use them.
My favorite gift that night was from my parents, a compact set of scriptures, given to me so I could find God’s light while away from home. I read God’s word almost daily from that book, and could feel my parents’ love when I held it in my hands.
The second gift didn’t have the emotion behind it like the one from my parents, but it was the only other thing I kept and used regularly. It was from a neighbor I had known my whole life. She was my mothers age, and our two families had been friends as far back as I can remember. She gave me a box of useful things. I have forgotten most of what was in that box, but I do remember the sewing kit.
I used that kit to sew on buttons, stitch up slits, or improvise Halloween costumes in every college apartment I lived in. She didn’t spend a huge amount of money, in fact I’m pretty sure she got the items from the dollar store, but I used something from her box weekly while I lived on my own.
It’s graduation season where I live right now, and there are a few graduates in my family this year. I am in the process of preparing “survival kits” for them as they head off to their next adventures after graduation. Like my neighbor, I like to find things that will be useful to them as they leave home, as well as include some advice that can help as they explore the world on their own.
For example, I might give them a flashlight, and on the attached card explain how it can remind them to shine their light in dark places. Or a pack of erasers, to remind them it’s okay to make mistakes. I don’t want to give them just symbolism, but things they’ll actually use as they live away from home.
Betrayal Trauma Survival Kit
I started thinking about what I would gather for a Betrayal Trauma Survival Kit. If I could gather useful things for someone coming into this world of betrayal and recovery, what could I share to help them on their journey? What are the things that helped me the most as I first started dipping my toes into this world of recovery?
It didn’t take long to think of a substantial list, that I actually will split into two posts. I will note that part 1 focuses more on tangible items, there’s not a lot of focus on a Higher Power. This is not because it was not an important part of my journey. In actuality, it was a pretty major focus, which is why there are two parts to this post.
In the second part I will share what I put in my recovery kit that helped me find the light I couldn’t find anywhere else. It’s not short, which is why I split it into two posts, but I don’t want you to think that turning to a Higher Power was left out of this process. So, with that disclaimer, here’s what I would include in a “Betrayal Trauma Survival Kit”.
Not just one box, notice it’s plural. Boxes and boxes and boxes of tissue to mop up the ocean of tears that will be cried as we mourn the loss of what used to be. Because whatever life looks like from here on out, it won’t be the same as what it was. The life you have lived deserves to be honored and mourned as it is changing.
I know we all have different experiences, but speaking for myself, I wouldn’t trade the life I have now for the life I had before recovery. I have learned how to be honest about my emotions, and I am able to turn to my Higher Power in a way I didn’t know how to do before. I have the ability to see clearly, without the addict clouding my vision and twisting my view of the world.
But that doesn’t mean my life from before should just be dismissed. I had to grieve the passing of what I thought I had before I could open myself up to the potential of what could be. That requires time, and giving myself permission to cry. I had to allow myself to let go, to stop trying to hold all the emotion inside, to stop trying to hide any negative emotion from the world.
I had to stop hiding negative emotion from myself.
When I let myself feel the giant feelings of anger, grief, sadness, and loss that came after such a big betrayal, that opened the doors for all the feelings I’d been avoiding over the years to rise to the surface too. It took time, and lots of tears were shed. I even learned to be okay crying in front of other people, which used to be something I avoided at all costs.
Allowing myself to feel the hard things I had “stuffed” over the years made space for what I was feeling in the moment. It made space for all the emotion I had stopped being able to feel. I was starting to feel joy again. At first, just small glimpses of the possibility of joy. But the more I gave myself space to feel whatever it was I was feeling in the moment, the more my ability grew to feel ALL my emotions, positive or negative.
Those tissue boxes gave me freedom to feel. I cried more than I thought possible, and learned to feel again.
A giant bag each of paper plates, paper bowls, paper towels, and a huge box of disposable utensils. When I found out about my husband’s double life I could barely function. My whole system was in shock and most days I could barely get out of bed. A marital separation came shortly after his initial disclosure; I had children who were too young to take care of themselves, I had to keep my kids alive and nobody else was there to do it.
For about a year my kids ate chicken nuggets, frozen pizza, and corn dogs off of paper plates, and box mac n’ cheese out of paper bowls. And you know what? They survived. Their bodies are not permanently marred from that year of me doing the best I could on my own. Their diets are not permanently ruined because I didn’t cook nutritious, balanced meals every night. They survived, and so did I.
As I have continued to work recovery I have learned to accept the things I cannot change, and have found courage to change the things I can. My acceptance of things I can’t change has given me space to grow, and seek change in the ways that I can. One of these is setting boundaries for myself, deciding what I choose to accept and not accept in my life.
At the beginning I had to learn how to do this and it took so much of my time, attention, and energy. I poured myself into doing step work, journaling, therapy appointments, attending 12 step meetings, calls with my sponsor, and communication with the God of my understanding; I didn’t have anything left over for other things I used to do.
Some of those were habits I picked up to numb the pain of living a disconnected life, some were hobbies I sincerely enjoyed, and some were just basics of living life in a family. Doing laundry, cleaning the house, cooking dinner, or doing the dishes. Not to mention the necessity of taking care of my children while my husband was not in the home. (Which is not a complaint, the separation we had was a gift from my Higher Power, and I believe it saved our marriage. But it was still a challenge to care for the children while I was dealing with the shock of discovery.)
Using paper goods and forgoing cooking during this time was something I did to survive. If you find yourself in this situation remember this time won’t last forever. If your best is feeding the kids chicken nuggets 3 meals a day for a week straight and you haven’t figured out how to shower in 5 days, be gentle with yourself.
When your entire world view has changed, and you realize your life is not what you thought it was, you need time to adjust. I will say it again, be gentle with yourself. You won’t be here forever.
As I continued to work recovery I was able to move into a healthier mental space, and was able to start fitting the “normal life” tasks back into my life. I was able to make dinner without being completely overwhelmed, and even do the dishes it created. (Sometimes three days after I cooked, but I was taking baby steps.)
I was able to slowly incorporate the cooking, laundry, and house cleaning in with the recovery things I was doing (like meetings, therapy, or step work). I am back to cooking now, and for the most part, my kids eat the food I make. I can pick up a book and read for pleasure, without numbing out in an unhealthy way like I used to. This is a temporary moment in time, it will pass, and you will make it through.
A Notebook/Journal, and Pens
When I first found out about my husband’s betrayal we were in the process of moving homes, and were staying with his family on vacation. (Some vacation that turned out to be!) I felt lost, so alone, and didn’t feel like I had anyone I could turn to. The anger, rage, pain, sense of helplessness, and intense fear coalesced inside of me, feeling like a grenade in the pit of my stomach with the pin already pulled, ready to go off the second I let go of the handle.
Shortly after the discovery I found myself at the grocery store. (More to get away from my husband than to do any shopping.) While there I picked up a journal and something to write with. There wasn’t a lot of selection, and I didn’t love the color, size, or much of anything about that journal. But that small, ugly journal became a safe place for me to pour out my feelings. I would express the rage, the hurt, the disbelief, the self doubt; there was space for all of it and more in that little book.
The feelings were too big for me to hold inside of me, and I learned that writing down what I was feeling had power. The physical act of picking up a pen and writing on the paper made my feelings real, concrete, and valid. For me, something about writing with my hands sent a signal to my brain that helped me start processing those emotions. I was not held prisoner by them when I gave them a place to go.
A Comfortable Pair of Walking Shoes
Those first weeks after discovery were traumatic. (Well, really there is a lot that has been traumatic on this journey!) I had no idea I was experiencing betrayal trauma, I had no inkling there was a support community for women just like me that I could turn to. The concepts of surrender and boundaries were not a part of my vocabulary or life. I only knew I was flooded by emotion constantly.
Remember, I had been training myself not to feel things for years. I was drowning in a sea of pain that was particularly acute, as I hadn’t let myself feel in so long, and could barely make it to the surface to take a breath. Learning to feel again was obviously going to take some time. Writing made a huge difference, and started the ability to process, but that grenade with the pin pulled was still hanging around, and I had no idea how to diffuse it.
I started going on really long walks. Up to that point in my life I had never been a runner, but if speed walking were an Olympic event I could’ve taken gold. I covered miles and miles of ground in the little vacation town where we were staying.
I allowed the rage to propel me forward as I walked, funneling the fury into every step I took. A small piece of my anger was left behind on the sidewalk every time I lifted my foot. This was the “diffuse button” on that grenade I had been looking for. Funneling those feelings through my body as I walked helped to calm me down.
Don’t get me wrong, it’s not like the anger or pain suddenly went away; all those emotions were still very present. The difference was I didn’t feel like I would explode while I was moving. After I stopped walking and saw my husband again there was no guarantee the anger wouldn’t come pouring out, but at least for those moments I was moving I had a place for my emotions to go.
When I walked my brain focused on moving my body, and I didn’t have to think about anything else. I could concentrate on putting one foot in front of the other. Usually as fast as I possibly could. These moments of not thinking helped me breathe.
So, get out and move. Walk, run, swim, bike, hike, or maybe even find a punching bag! Give yourself a place to put all those feelings that are too big for your body.
This world of recovery is not an easy one, but there is nowhere else I’d rather be.
Because of my husband’s betrayal, and the decision I made to choose recovery, my life has become more beautiful than I could’ve imagined.
The smelly, rotten fertilizer was dumped in my garden, and I am amazed at the beauty that has grown from it. I have learned how to live with the blinders off, how to feel my emotions, how to validate my own feelings, how to speak up and use my voice, and how to have true connection with people around me.
I never would’ve experienced this beauty without others who heard me and held my pain at the beginning of this process. They helped me develop my personal “recovery kit”, and learn how to really connect with my Higher Power.
So, what about you? How did you survive when you entered this world? What have you added to your “survival kit” that helped you then, and what is helping you now? What are the unexpected beauties that have sprung up in your garden?
I look forward to hearing from you.
Your sister in recovery,