How to Survive Acts of Cruelty

This is what it feels like: Someone reaches into your chest, grasps your heart, yanks out a chunk (they always leave some behind so you can really feel the pain), throws it on the ground, and stomps on it. You are used to this feeling because it has happened before. For some people it happens on a daily basis. For others, the pattern is once every few weeks or months. An act of cruelty inflicted by a spouse or lover, a former partner, a current partner. How do we survive? I mean, we only have so much heart to rip out, right?

Breathe.

It seems our hearts might have the capacity to regenerate. Yes, it is painful to regrow bones and it is painful to regrow myocardium, but when it does regrow it will be stronger. And our abusers are not counting on that.

Cry.

When an act of cruelty is initially inflicted, it is important to feel our feelings. For me, that generally shows up as tears. Sobbing, actually. Big, deep, gulping-for-air, holding onto the wall sobs. Ideally, a beloved friend will be nearby to ask if you want support, to hold you if that feels good, to wonder at someone’s calculated ability to rip out a chunk of your heart. Cry it out, feel the pain, let it move. If we don’t move the pain and sadness it gets stuck somewhere in our body and will leak out later in an unproductive way.

Get angry.

This might show up immediately or it might not manifest for months or years. Whenever Anger decides to present xemself, let it move. Write about it. Speak it. It’s OK to feel and express anger. It’s not OK to turn that anger towards another living creature, so be careful how it gets channeled. It’s easy for people who have been bullied to turn around and bully others. Don’t perpetuate the abuse.

Make art.

I cannot stress how important this is for survival. Paint, play music, write poetry, dance; engage in whatever artistic endeavor feeds you. Paint your anger, dance your sadness, collage the pain, sew your future… there are an infinite number of ways to foster healing through creativity. Even if you are not the recipient of personal acts of cruelty, the people of the United States are currently in an abusive relationship with the White House (in case you were wondering what an abuser looks like, look no further than Trumpie Wumpie) and we need art to maintain our sanity.

Go outdoors.

There is solace to be found in nature. The unfolding of a fiddlehead fern, softly falling snow on a pond, the scampering of squirrels or the grazing of deer can all offer balm for the heart. Even a short moment of mindful connection with a tree can be the medicine needed for heart regrowth.

Breathe.

Acts of cruelty have forced me to examine my beliefs and values. What matters in life? The material things that were destroyed? Loss of money? Slander? Stolen ideas? Despite the intense pain of loss, I have had to admit that ultimately, none of this matters. I am not here to amass wealth, lie and cheat my way into a powerful position, or remain emotionally or spiritually stagnant. Sigh. So I take the long view and attend to the ways that survival will strengthen my heart. I will not be crushed by cruelty. I will notice yet another lesson in non-attachment. My heart will grow.

Breathe.

It also helps me to recognize that I am not alone. Acts of cruelty are inflicted on people all the time, every day. My white privilege ensures that I do not endure racial taunts by strangers, nor do I fear deportation or harassment by police. As a non-disabled person I move through my world with ease and do not have to face daily microaggressions pertaining to my body. Perpetrators of intimate partner violence tend to follow a script. I sometimes wonder if they realize how stereotypical they are in their cruelty. So anyone who has survived such acts knows what this feels like. You are not alone.

First we survive, then we heal, then we grow. No one’s heart deserves to be ripped out. No one’s spirit deserves to be crushed. You did not deserve to be treated cruelly. Breathe, cry, get angry, make art, go outdoors, breathe some more, regrow your heart.

Love before hate.

Always.

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