“This is my story. This is my truth. What’s yours? Can you express it? Can you own it?
DAY ONE: I went from Day One to, ‘the one’ and, believe me, I am just as surprised as anyone else because I never thought I could escape my own behavior. Three years ago my nickname was, ‘Day One.’ It’s what I would text my friends when I fell off the wagon which always coincided with a new man. I always jumped from one man to another, but after leaving another abusive relationship and losing my house and job I spiraled downwards into a very rapid cycle of abusive man dates and heavy drinking.
I’ve since learned I had PTSD – post traumatic stress disorder – from living with a man addicted to the threat of violence more than the violence itself. He was financially abusive, keeping his own money offshore. He tried everything to destroy my emotional health – but failed. His favorite trick was to drive into oncoming traffic and then stop and get out of the car, leaving me in the passenger seat. If I managed to get out before him, he would drive off leaving me to walk 5 miles home. He would clap when I arrived. Abusers try to get you to betray yourself because then they have complete control of you. He never succeeded, and after 5 years I told him I wanted him to leave.
I’ve since learned this is the most dangerous time for survivors of domestic abuse. Of course, I didn’t know any of this back then. I didn’t even know I was being abused! I doubted my every thought by this point. We were supposed to be going away for his 50th birthday (paid for by me of course). I told him I wanted him to leave then went on the holiday without him. I returned to find my dog ill – he died very rapidly of what the vet called ‘poisoning.’
This is when I began to realize that I was living with a very dangerous individual.
I’ve since learned that abusers kill pets. Of course I didn’t know this at the time.
I have since learned so much…
I told him, ‘Hire someone and move your stuff out,’ – which he did – and as I walked outside he would throw heavy goods including a large TV and wardrobe out of the window, narrowly missing me. When I complained he said, ‘You shouldn’t get in the way.’ I’ve since learned statistically this is the most dangerous time for women. Two women every week are killed by their partners in the UK. Most of them are killed in this time period, when they decide to leave.
With him gone, the nightmare became more real, as it does for many women leaving abuse. I felt unsafe in the house because the law is on the abuser’s side. You can’t change locks on a shared ownership home. One day, I came home to find my bed had disappeared, along with all the mirrors, brushes and gardening equipment. I slept on a camp bed after that. He had also trodden on and smashed photographs of my sons. It seemed he would not stop until he had destroyed everything. After 2 years of court appearances, the house was repossessed and I received a Christmas card from him. ‘Hope you and your sons are cold on the streets this Christmas.’ He had created it himself and put a picture of me in the middle of the card. After this, I received a similar birthday card. ‘My new wife and I are spending her birthday in our new holiday home in Bali. She is much younger than you and we now have a daughter. Here’s hoping you prosper.’
Like many survivors, I joked about my post trauma behavior during that repossession slide and called myself, ‘Day One,’ which stuck. I would text my friends, ‘Day One’ after yet another car crash night. I was disassociated from my feelings and my body. My ‘friends’ couldn’t wait for the next installment. My behavior got more and more extreme and risky until I called time out, moved away from all my family and friends, and found myself in a small seaside town in January next to an empty, dark beach. I kept it so secret that my friends messaged me, ‘Where are you?’ from an exhibition where there was a huge 6 foot photograph of me displayed. I didn’t reply. I wanted to leave the crazy behind.
DAY ONE: Over the next two years I gave up drinking and dating and faced myself. It started as a normal Day One, I was sitting on the beach surrounded by couples in March on a Saturday. I knew I didn’t want to enter into another relationship. Nor did I want to go drinking with the people living there who had failed rehab. I thought, ‘You can either sit here feeling lonely and miserable, or you can actually work weekends.’ So I started to offer English tutoring on the weekends.
My new business ‘Goddesse Education’ flourished and became a success within a year. I was featured as a success story of the startup business world in a regional business magazine. The same month, I drank a beer overlooking the sea on Mother’s Day and thought, ‘This Sunday drinking is getting to be a habit. What would it be like if I gave it up?’ This time, there was no one to tell about my Day One. In fact, I didn’t really think of it as an endurance test. Instead, I did it more out of curiosity. It stuck. I can’t say I felt better at first – I felt worse. I had cravings and my body was quite sick and ill for about a year. Detox? Maybe. But gradually, my moods began to stabilize, and I began to feel better about myself from a combination of sobriety and my new business. It felt strange to experience success again after so much public failure.
DAY 215: 6 months into my new sobriety, my father died. I was there when he died and it haunted me over the next few months. Every time I put my head down on the pillow I would see him struggling for breath. The week after, I really wanted a whiskey. The addict voice inside me said, ‘No one will blame you. Just have one. It will make you feel better. It will help you sleep.’ The truth is, she was probably right. But I knew I couldn’t just have one and I needed to be there for my family.
Addicts can’t just have one. This is something I have learned by ‘just having one.’ And not being able to stop.
So, I resisted, This is when I sat and felt emotional pain for the first time in my life. Addicts numb that pain.
It was really painful…but it was a turning point. Having sat with the pain once, I could do it again, I wasn’t scared of it anymore and I certainly didn’t need to numb myself. This ‘sitting with the pain’ became the basis of the 361 Recovery Programme I eventually developed with all these lessons I was learning, SO many lessons over these years. I wanted them to stop, but they kept coming. Over the year, I continued to be sober and celibate. The first steps were the most difficult because I didn’t know why I was isolating myself and not having any ‘fun.’ Day One seemed to be fading into the distance and it was not necessarily a good thing because we like what we know – we like our 360 circles – every survivor knows this to be true. Even if it hurts, we know it.
Something told me I had to get to the bottom of my behavior instead of simply repeating it while staring at the bottom of a bottle. There are no real answers there. Maybe it was losing everything which pulled me up and made me do a very solitary and windswept 360 of my life. Whatever reason, slowly and surely over those two years I began to see ‘the one.’ Myself.
DAY 276: I began to realize I liked being single and being sober stopped me from making decisions I would regret. I began to date myself which might sound odd – but for survivors it’s not a bad idea. We need to relearn so much. What we like (writing in cafes, walking by the beach, vintage clothes), and what makes us feel scared (big crowds, certain types of men). A great way to do this is to take yourself out on dates. I went to theaters, cinemas, walked in forests, on islands, danced, swam, learned calligraphy, found favorite cafes, took a trip to Rome, and slept a lot next to an open window listening to the sea. As I began to spend more time by myself, I began to listen to myself and learned a valuable skill we all need – the ability to sit with yourself. Alone and lonely are two different things. We all need to learn how to be alone for our mental health.
DAY 333: I began to feel free and I discovered this thing called autonomy – something that survivors like me don’t really understand at first.
It’s a bit like always having an owner then suddenly owning yourself. It’s very scary, but it is worth feeling the wobble and then continuing to trust yourself. This trust grows as you begin to see that the decisions you make for yourself can be healthy ones. I started off just drinking tea in pubs and eventually decided not to go into pubs at all due to the triggers (smell, shiny bar, bottles marketed like a sweet shop). This was a healthy decision for me. I have regular spells away from social media. I take long salt baths. I switch off my phone more. One of the biggest decisions I have made for my mental health is not to chase friendships or lovers and to keep my inner circle very small. I think this is difficult for survivors as we have to learn boundaries. At first, everyone is our friend. I call it emotional education and, as survivors, we need to go back and relearn some of the building blocks like boundaries and consent.
Making decisions for myself was something I was not used to. In controlling relationships they are made for you, and there is some relief in it.
DAY 612: I started off rather awkwardly by asking myself: ‘Would I leave my 12-year-old self with this person? Would I take my 12-year-old self to this place?’ This helped me to make those first decisions and to say those first NOs. After an AA meeting (my one and only as I found the men predatory) a man offered me a lift home. I said no because I wouldn’t have trusted him to look after my child. Similarly, I no longer go into pubs or clubs I wouldn’t take my child into and I no longer take risks parking my car in badly lit areas to save money. I now know I am worth more.
DAY 660: This period of my life was the most lonely, most solitary and most emotionally painful, but at the end of it I found ‘the one.’ I want people to know when you go sober, there is an intense feeling of being alone because your friends leave you. Why? They have their reasons, but basically, loss is ‘unsexy.’ I found the courage to step out of the circle and to start a positive spiral. Some of the things I found when I looked in the mirror made me feel shame, anger, regret, self disgust, grief… but this was a safe place to feel them. For the first time in my life, I learned to sit with my feelings instead of numbing them with alcohol or men.
This is when 360 becomes 361.
- Sitting with self
- Listening to self
- Forgiving and accepting yourself
- Finding your autonomy
- Finding the one
Survivors need a different approach. As a teacher and a survivor I spent several years sharing my story all over the world in theaters. Now I want to share what I have learned in a different way. Not as a victim. Not as a survivor. As an expert.
With the joint experience of being both a teaching professional and a survivor, I developed the 361 Recovery Programme for survivors. On that beach. I want to use all the lessons I learned – I want to share them so they mean something. So I can say I survived for a reason. I’ve shared my story in 4 plays all over the world in spoken word theatre – EdFringe, Berlin, India, and Brighton. Now I have developed the 361 Recovery Programme to help women following loss of any kind, divorce, bereavement, as well as leaving abuse. I have just finished writing the 361 Recovery Programme book and have launched a 361 blog, podcast and Youtube channel. With a fellow survivor I have launched Life Support, which will be the first survivor lead national support network. We aim to provide emotional education to survivors as well as lobby government for change. With Goddesse Education I have been invited to comment on the draft domestic abuse Bill moving through UK parliament. I am a member of the Sheila McKechnie Social Change Alumni, as one of the leading uk activists for change re – domestic abuse. I have been invited onto their 2 year project Powering Change starting this month.
The 361 recovery is a gift to survivors from a survivor. By helping others, it gives my story value – otherwise what was the point of learning all those lessons?
I survived for a reason.
Back in my second show, a friend in the audience said afterwards, ‘You are the sort of woman who comes out of hell carrying water for everyone else.’ That sums me up.”
This story was submitted to Love What Matters by Alice Smith. She is a is a teacher, grief practitioner, writer and mother. Her first show, written and toured when she had severe PTSD, was recommended by the Sunday Times for its ‘unique portrayal of domestic abuse’ at Edinburgh Fringe Festival in 2015. In 2020, Alice is currently launching a uk based national survivor network with a fellow survivor – Life support. You can follow her journey on Instagram and blog.
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