Breaking Free From Abuse: Finding Healing For Yourself and Supporting Others
By Ashley Easter
It was a story I hear far too often. Maria* was a young woman married to a Christian man. Their relationship had started out as a quick, breathless romance. He had a strong, alluring charm that instantly drew her in. He gave her the validation she had long craved as a woman coming from a dysfunctional home. He seemed like a Godsend and she couldn’t wait to spend forever with this man.
They married quickly but instead of entering a season of marital bliss Maria began to feel like she had been tricked into falling into a trap of fresh hell. Overnight her new husband seemed to change into an aggressive, controlling beast. Looking back Maria remembers a few instances of jealousy during their dating period but she had shrugged it off attributing it to his intense love for her. But the longer they were married the less she could chalk his control up for overzealous love. Things continued to become worse. He controlled everything from her cell phone, to her finances. He ruined the only job opportunity she had and became obsessive over small grocery store purchases. But it was his coercive and demanding sexual expectations that frightened her most.
It was about this time that Maria contacted me. As a trained abuse victim advocate with an online platform, I regularly receive messages and calls from abuse survivors in need of assistance. I assured Maria that the way her husband was treating her was not ok. This was abuse and it was not her fault. Maria seemed at her wit’s end, wanting desperately to leave the relationship but unsure how to do so under her husband’s controlling eye. I told Maria that if she wanted to leave I could help her break free.
Whether it is intimate partner abuse like Maria experienced, sexual assault from high-level judicial nominees like Dr. Ford experienced with Brett Kavanaugh, or clergy sexual abuse perpetrated by men like Bill Hybels, abuse is far too common
Whether it is intimate partner abuse like Maria experienced, sexual assault from high-level judicial nominees like Dr. Ford experienced with Brett Kavanaugh, or clergy sexual abuse perpetrated by men like Bill Hybels, abuse is far too common. In my advocacy work, I’ve helped quite a few women find the resources and strength they need to escape abusive situations. And it is out of this work, that I present to you the following steps to finding safety and beginning your healing journey of assisting someone along theirs.
- Get To a Safe Place
The first step is to get to a safe place. A safe place might be a literal, physical safe place, a mentally safe place, or both. Either way, you need space away from the abuser to have time to hear yourself think and consider your options. Abusers like to get into your mind and dominate your thoughts. They try to squelch free thinking and replace it with guilt, shame, fear, and confusion. They like to isolate you from outside influences, but they also like to overwhelm you with their own in influence.
It can be hard to leave a situation like this, whether it is because of fear, guilt, or lack of resources. Remember that, once you have distance, it will be easier for you to make informed choices regarding further contact with the dangerous group or individual. You will be able to think more freely with time and space away from the abuser(s).
Note: when an abuser or abusive group senses that you are considering leaving, they will often become enraged. This escalation can be one of the more dangerous times for a victim. Please read the next step for safety purposes.
- Acquire Backup
If at all possible, don’t take any of these measures alone. It is easier to find safety and healing when you have a support system cheering you on and caring about what happens to you. Additionally, expert support can sometimes determine life or death in a dangerous situation.
Backup can include safe friends and family who you know will support you in leaving this abusive situation, trained victim advocate who can help you devise a safety plan and put you in touch with your local safety resources, and law enforcement when a crime or possible crime has been committed.
Abusers use the tool of isolation to keep you under their control. By reaching out to safe people and professionals you have a much stronger support system to help you break free of the abuser’s control.
- Seek Professional Counseling
Counseling by a licensed professional is, in my opinion, the best first step in the healing journey. I look at it this way: if a person experienced a physical injury or was suffering from an infection, the best first step would be to visit a medical doctor. In this metaphor, abuse is like the injury, the damaged emotional and mental health after abuse is like the infection, and the physician is the licensed counselor. Just as it would stunt or prevent the physical healing of an injury to go without proper diagnosis and treatment, so can avoidance of this step prevent or hinder healing from abuse.
A licensed counselor can give a diagnosis to help survivors correctly understand their experiences and offer a plethora of healing tools and services. I enthusiastically recommend choosing a therapist with specific training in trauma response. In my experience, this type of expertise makes a world of difference.
These steps might seem basic and intuitive but when someone is under the influence of an abuser it can sometimes be difficult and even dangerous to take these steps towards freedom alone.
These steps might seem basic and intuitive but when someone is under the influence of an abuser it can sometimes be difficult and even dangerous to take these steps towards freedom alone. That is why I so strongly advocate for Christians coming alongside those suffering from abuse by helping to bear their burdens, offering empathy, support, and referrals to professionals. Sadly, I have seen too many Christians (including pastors and church leaders) who have turned a blind eye to abuse and even blamed the victim. This is not the way of Jesus. Surely, when Jesus said “love your neighbor as you love yourself” he was speaking of your abused neighbor as well.
If you are a survivor of abuse or someone who wishes to learn how best to support the survivors in your life, I would like to invite you The Courage Conference, October 19th and 20th in-person in Raleigh, NC or online via live stream. The Courage Conference exists to be a refuge for survivors, to educate and empower advocates, and create the conditions where this movement for change can become a Justice Generation that recognizes and resists abuse everywhere. The Courage Conference offers a unique opportunity to learn from advocates and trained professionals through inspiring keynote talks, Courage Conversations, as well as connecting attendees with reputable local and national organizations. The Courage Conference is an ideal place for community leaders, pastors, and church workers to become educated about abuse from advocates who confront it and survivors who live with its effects every day.
If you or a loved one has experienced abuse I want to you to know that it was not your fault, as lonely as it may seem you are not alone, and as hopeless as you may feel right now, please know that healing is within reach. You are a valuable reflection of the Divine and nothing can diminish your worth.
Ashley Easter is a Christian feminist, writer, speaker, and abuse-victim advocate who educates churches and secular communities on abuse, introducing them to safe practices and healing resources. She is also the founder of The Courage Conference, a judgement-free place for survivors of abuse—and those who love them—to gather and hear inspiring stories from other survivors about moving forward in boldness and healing and author of “The Courage Coach, A Practical Friendly Guide on How To Heal From Abuse.”
*Name and some details have been changed to protect the identity of the survivor.
As an advocate, I use the website DomesticShelters.org to help me locate abuse prevention centers around the country to connect abuse victims with trained advocates and community resources.