What I would have given to have been handed this book 23 years ago when my confusion and pain were just kicking in. Even all these years later, after the past four years of reading well over 50 books and countless articles, and after talking with hundreds of women in person, via email, and through survivor forums, knowing now, knowing that I know that I know that I know, I still struggle with the long-term effects of being weakened emotionally, spiritually, and physically by abuse that only I (and some of my kids) could see.
Do you know what could have made all the difference in the world? Being heard. Being supported. Being believed. It would have been life-changing. But most of us suffering from hidden abuse won’t have that luxury. All because of that little word, “hidden.”
To stand strong in the truth (lay aside denial no matter how easy it is to slip back into it!) and to work and work and WORK to extricate oneself from hidden abuse is to be willing to lose everything to gain that freedom and peace. Marriage, friendships, church membership, security, and reputation. And it hurts like hell. If you have experienced this, you know the inner ache for justice, vindication, Truth, and restoration to the normalcy you had before you entered into your sick union.
The funny thing is, the secular world gets this, and they are supportive. The Christian world? Not so much. The Church, in general, comes alongside a survivor and kicks her down, stripping her of her dignity, her voice, her personhood. Why? Why do they do this? Why do they think any woman would lie purposefully when she knows full well that she’ll lose everything? And how can they say out of one side of their mouth that they are “glorifying God” and out of the other, “You don’t matter, and your story is meaningless?” How can they say they stand for truth and be happy to comfortably marinate in lies? It’s uncanny. It’s incomprehensible.
A friend of mine recently wrote:
“When churches fight women seeking freedom and try to prevent us from separating and divorcing, where God has given grounds, they not only delay our liberties, they also actively work in ways that cause emotional, mental, and physical harm that makes it much harder for us to do the hard things needed to care for our families alone. I was stronger and healthier when I first tried to get free. Much stronger, and far more healthy.”
Last fall Shannon Thomas, LCSW, released her new book, Healing From Hidden Abuse: A Journey Through the Stages of Recovery from Psychological Abuse. This book is a priceless resource for anyone who has experienced an emotionally or spiritually abusive relationship as well as anyone who has a loved one in that boat.
Generally speaking, people understand physical abuse. If a woman shows up with two black eyes or a broken wrist, most folks aren’t going to say, “You’re making a mountain out of a molehill, woman. Really, you need to stop complaining.” But emotional, spiritual or financial abuse? Nothing to show for it. No proof. It’s your word against his, and if he’s a nice guy people pretty much like, you’re out of luck. You get to look like a crazy person while he looks like a victim of your insanity.
Because of the madness of this situation, I’ve actually pulled my hair out. Literally. I’ve banged my head against a wall. Literally. I’ve rocked on the bathroom floor with physical pains in my stomach after crazy making altercations. I’ve felt like my head was going to explode, lost sleep, and had to get up the next morning with a splitting headache and neck and back pain from the tension and stress. My heart used to regularly go into tachycardia episodes for no apparent reason when I lived with my spouse.
Emotional abuse is definitely physical. It’s all on the inside, where nobody can see it. Another name for it is ambient abuse, or hidden abuse.
This book doesn’t just define the problem, it lays out a practical roadmap to recovery forged from her years of experience working with survivors in her counseling practice. In the back of the book you’ll find an index of helpful websites and resources for further study, and she’s also got a journal section with probing questions to help you process your own experiences in light of the new information found in the book.
If you like great quotes that really nail it, you’ll love this book. Shannon has been churning out memes on Facebook with some of the best quotes. (I’ve sprinkled a few of them in this post!) To give you a flavor for what’s in this book, I thought I’d just copy a few of my favorites.
On why it’s hard to spot a personality disordered emotional abuser in your local church:
“Many people still believe all narcissists, sociopaths, and psychopaths are overtly grandiose and obvious in their toxic behaviors. After spending decades immersed in church culture, I can assure you not all psychological abusers are outwardly grandiose. In a religious setting, the appearance of humility is highly regarded, and grandiosity would be frowned upon. Therefore, toxic people hiding in church communities will take on the mannerisms and communication patterns of those around them. These psychological abusers do not fit the standard image. The normal teachings of how to spot a personality disordered person do not apply. We must become educated as to the various personas toxic people can manifest in order to hide their abusive behaviors.”
On why counseling through your local church will more likely harm you further: (I hit a wall with every single church elder/pastor I tried to get help from. Not one person could see it. My church is currently in the process of excommunicating me because I finally left my husband in a desperate attempt to survive the rest of my life in a place of healing and sanity. Abuse is okay while divorce is the unpardonable sin. What a pathetic twisting of God’s Word.)
“Men and women are being harmed in some churches and ministries. More attention needs to be focused on this area. Not so embarrassment can come to the collective Church, but so healing can happen. Harm in the name of God must be called out for what it is: Spiritual Abuse. This form of abuse occurs in many ways. The most common I have witnessed is the misapplied application of Scripture regarding forgiveness, divorce, and acceptance of intolerable behaviors. Not only are church leaders ill-equipped to recognize situations where one of the parties is personality disordered, but a common career path chosen by narcissists is that of the pastor. Survivors are receiving very poor advice from ministry staff and volunteers who have no professional training in mental health. Church leaders cannot be expected to give good counsel regarding the type of abusive relationships that many therapists struggle to recognize and treat.”
On why it is impossible to address the subject as abuse – either with the abuser OR with those on the outside who listen to the abuser. (This was the main reason I couldn’t get help from anyone for 24 years. Everything was all about the small details. The single incidents that, by themselves, were no big deal. I read somewhere that it’s like getting stung by a million bees. One bee sting isn’t a huge problem. Get over it. A million? You’re dead. Nobody had the wisdom, the time, or the concern to put the entire picture together.)
“Toxic people like to isolate one incident at a time. They argue that what they said, or did, was not that big of a deal. They want to deal with one pebble at a time, and not look at the entire weight of the abuse. They accuse survivors of “focusing on the past” or they say things like, “The problem is that you won’t forgive me for my mistakes.” No, the problem is that psychological abusers keep making the same “mistakes” or choices to harm other people. They may want to focus on one incident at a time but it’s impossible; just like one cannot separate out a single raindrop while in a thunderstorm.”
On why boundaries are so important:
“We need to set healthy boundaries if the behaviors of others show their lack of respect for us and our health. Boundaries do not have to be melodramatic or forceful in their application. Boundaries can be quiet and steadfast. Example? We are setting good and healthy boundaries when we simply refuse to engage in a useless argument with a toxic person. Another reason setting boundaries is difficult to do? We internally worry that we are withholding forgiveness and staying resentful. Boundaries have nothing to do with forgiveness or resentment. They have everything to do with the quality of our interactions with the people in our lives.”
I hope you can see how rich this resource is. I’ve read dozens of great books on this subject, but along with The Emotionally Destructive Marriage by Leslie Vernick, this would be my top recommendation for anyone desperate for some help in how to deal with the crazy painful experiences in your marriage.
Another fantastic resource for understanding and untangling the effects of abuse is the Flying Free Support Community. Joining gives you access to a long list of courses that will empower you and help you find freedom. You’ll also get to know women who know your story because they’ve lived it too. There’s nothing more healing than being seen and understood. Click HERE fore more details.