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Recovery vs. Abuse

The following is an article I posted to a recovery newsgroup in January of 2001 after I had read how other participants in the newgroup defined "recovery".

Just a few thoughts from GhostWolf... Your mileage may vary, of course...

Where to begin... so many potential places; so this will be flow-of-consciousness more than anything else, and is only about me, my perspectives, and observations, so please keep that in mind...

As many of you know, I didn't start any real recovery until the middle of 1995... True; I had indeed started emerging from my shell of denial, repression, reaction, and rationalization in early 1994, but real recovery for me did not start until I had realized, accepted, and took to heart some - until then - completely alien ideas...

I'll start with what "real recovery" means for me, and go from there.

Real recovery - to me - means (includes) several things:

  1. The ability to be introspective enough that I can see where I have a dysfunction, accept that the dysfunction is real and harmful, and either work on that dysfunction myself or with another to determine constructive ways of handling that dysfunction; be that finding a way to deal with it that heals the dysfunction, or at worst, finding a way to cope with it that minimizes the impact of that dysfunction (and this is a key point for me) to myself and to others.

  2. The ability to stop when triggered or having a button pushed, think it through, and separate the reaction from the one who tripped the trigger that results in the reaction.

    In most cases, having a button pushed or a trigger pulled says more about me than the person who triggered it; most people, in my opinion, really don't hunt for ways to set me off.

    Of course, there are exceptions to that; my ex-wife for one. We were both very good at knowing each other's buttons and pushing them, particularly when mad at each other for real - and imagined - slights and wrongs. The fact that neither of us were in any kind of recovery and that neither of us had any knowledge of any other way of being makes it understandable; and when I started learning other ways of being, of doing - and tried to share that with her, that was the beginning of the end of her and my relationship.

    The other exception, naturally, are those who intentionally seek out other person's buttons and triggers and use them for whatever purpose they have - we all know of at least one person like that, and undoubtedly more like that. I cannot but help wonder what unresolved issues and dysfunctions they have in their own lives that drives them to intentionally trigger others - and what events and factors formed those dysfunctions within them.

  3. Learning to recognize abuse in as many forms possible; some are very obvious - physical violence, sexual assault, and so on.

    Other kinds of abuse, though, are far more subtle - passive/aggressive behavior, guilt-tripping, insinuation, allegation, deceptive behavior, co-dependency, and so on.

    Why learn about them?

    So I can recognize when I am bothered, upset, or triggered by such actions in my environment and thereby cope with the feelings and issues that brings up for me - and;

    So I can also recognize when I am about to react and use those very methods on another, be it a straight reaction, or a desire to protect myself, or a desire to strike back, or seeking attention and affection by use of dysfunctional and unhealthy means - all natural feelings and reactions, but also all abusive.

    Humans being what we are, behavior that bothers me is also very likely to bother someone else just as much, if not more. Same thing with words and actions. The odds are pretty good after all; there's only, what - 6 billion folks mucking around, most of whom have no idea what recovery is?

    By recognizing what upsets me, I can then deal with not only the impact, but also learn to break the cycle and not pass that dysfunctional behavior on or at others.

Those are the three most major points about recovery, at least for me - so what does it look like in practice for me?

First and foremost, it means that when I've been triggered or have had a button pushed, that:

  1. I do my absolute best not to react and retaliate in kind. All that leads to in most cases is further retaliation, escalation, and triggering for all involved. It also perpetuates the abuse.

    I've also learned that, for me, it means that there are times I will literally step away, remain silent, because I have not figured out a way to constructively handle whatever has been triggered.

    That stepping away also occurs when I either have not been able to determine if the person who triggered me did so accidently, or if they did so intentionally.

  2. It means that whatever triggered me has ties to the past abuse; and that the triggering agent was similar enough to that past abuse that it threw me right into the fight/flee mode.

    What helps me here is remembering that even though similar - or even identical - in feel, tone, and substance, it is not the same incident, the same abuse.

    One exception, of course, is when that button is being pushed by the one who, by their abusive behavior towards me, or by actual abuse inflicted on me, are the one who created the button or trigger to begin with. Another exception, as in the relationship with my ex-wife, is when one knows precisely what the other person's buttons and triggers are, and intentionally pushes them. She and I are both guilty of that with each other.

    In most cases, and for me I put that at over 95%, the person who pushed the button is not the one responsible for the creation of the button to begin with; and that does help me step back, think it through, and deal with it - without counter-attacking; without perpetuating or escalating the abuse.

    Furthermore, I have learned the hard way that in most cases, the one who has pushed the button or been abusive was literally not aware that their actions, words, or behavior was abusive; all too often they have been raised and gone on to live in an environment where that kind of behavior or mode of speech was considered "normal." More times than not, when I have gently, reasonably shared with such a person not only why I found their actions or words abusive, but also take the time to provide examples; the person has been grateful, and taken steps to correct that behavior or terminology.

    The key point for me, however, is that when I have been triggered or upset - that is a very solid indication that there is something inside of me that I have not faced.

    Yes, sometimes the triggering occurs because the person who tripped the trigger is indeed unknowingly (or consciously!) abusive - and in some cases indeed, an abuser.

    Either way though, the act of triggering is a definite reminder that there is an unresolved issue within me. Even in the case of actual abuse, the evocation of the fight/flee reaction shows that I have yet to learn how to constructively deal with that particular trigger in such a way that the fight/flee reaction is not triggered at all.

  3. It also means refraining - on my part - from any kind of behavior, speech, and expression that bothers me in any way. This includes name calling, taking someone else's inventory, insinuation, allegation, projection (that's a hard one to admit, see, look at, and identify!) - because doing so is, bluntly said, perpetuating abuse, being an abuser.

    True, it is not fair; the abusers do not reciprocate, but instead continue in their abuse - abuse is not fair. Recovery is hard work, painful work - but it does pay huge dividends.


Over the years, I - and others I know personally very well - have made the greatest growth, experienced the greatest recovery by keeping the above concepts in mind as much as possible; by practicing them repeatedly...

What does it look like?

We've each talked about ourselves and our own feelings, our own experiences; made it clear, for example, that action x brings up feelings y in me - notice I did not say "x makes me feel y"; there's a very subtle difference.

That "makes me" comment is dangerous; (1) it implies "I'm powerless NOT to feel this way", and (2) "It's YOUR fault I feel like this." That is an all-too-proven way of inviting a defensive and abusive backlash - or more.

What's going on is that event or action x indeed has brought up feelings of Y for me, and - this is the key - I need to look at WHY those feelings were brought up instead of blaming the person or being defensive.

Again, yes, there are some people who intentionally push ones buttons, jerk the triggers, all to inflict pain for some imagined or real reason; sometimes that can be worked out - sometimes not. If a person persists in such abuse, the best thing to do is ignore that person to the best of ones ability. And yes, that is hard to do when emotions are running strong, harder yet to do when the abuser is someone significant in ones life (like my ex-wife); but it can be done.

When those feelings come up, it means there is something there that I either did not know about, or have not faced, or am in denial about - irregardless of what it is, if X brings up uncomfortable feelings for me, it means that there is something within me I have not looked at, regardless of whether or not the person responsible for X was out to trigger me or not.

The reaction, the feelings, is about me, about something I have not either faced or knew about, or simply have not yet figured out how to handle and cope with.

Each time I have successfully taken that mental step, separated the feelings Y from the person responsible for X, and separated my reaction and feelings from that in turn - all without retaliating - then I've then opened the door for recovery and broken the cycle of abuse.


When the person responsible for X is another survivor who is also doing whatever they can to work recovery, who is also consciously working these ideas - all I need say in response is something like:

"Those [ words | actions | whatever ] brought up feelings of Y, and I [ don't know why, but want to know | know why, but don't know how to deal with them ] - would you be willing to help me explore that?"

This is far different than saying:

"What you just [ did | said ] made me [ angry | depressed | pissed off | whatever ]"

Inevitably, in my experience at least, that second form is a button for nearly everyone; resulting in an automatic defensive (or aggressive!) reaction. That, in turn, starts and keeps going an abusive cycle in both parties that does not resolve anything.

The first form opens the door to discussion; and as long as both parties share about themselves without pointing fingers, placing blame (except where blame is due: on the original abuser); without name-calling, insinuation or allegation - then discovery of the source of the trigger is not only possible, but very probable; as is figuring out just how the button or trigger really works - and subsequently determining how to neutralize or at least work around that button or trigger.

More often than not, when two recovery-oriented survivors go through this kind of process, they discover (many times, much to their amusement) that the trigger or button is tripped because one person understands a term one way, and the other, a different way.

The same principle applies to the tone of voice and inflection; smiling wryly here; those not accustomed to hard Yiddish tonalities all-too-often find it abrasive, rude, and caustic; yet, within the communities where it is used, it's humorously ironic and self-satirizing, admitting to and of the human condition and foibles - and not at all caustic or rude... But to someone unaccustomed to it? Trigger city.

I often have to remind myself of this - all too often I've had a button pushed or trigger pulled that was due to a stock term or phrase. There are cases - too many, in my not so humble opinion - where a term or phrase is by its very context abusive and deprecatory in nature.

Just last week, my son was brought up rather short when he was describing a business deal he'd been negotiating, and how he "jewed the contractor down."

Martha very calmly asked him if he knew what the phrase really meant - he didn't, other than "driving a hard bargain" - and she then described what that really meant, how deprecatory it is, and the kinds of feelings she feels when she hears it; and acknowledged that she knew he had no idea what it meant other than his (until then) limited knowledge.

He was quite astounded - and grateful - for what he learned; and made a comment that, quite frankly, not only pleased me, but also made me very proud of him: "I'm going to pay close attention to my language, because I'm very sure there are other phrases and words I use that are like that." He then asked Martha and I if we would be willing to answer questions about any term he brings to our attention - and thanked us.

The bottom line is simply this:

If I cannot discuss my own feelings without resorting to blaming, finger-pointing, guilt-tripping, self-martyrdom, name-calling, insinuation or allegation - then I am most definitely NOT working any kind of recovery; and, I am perpetuating abuse, being abusive.

Inversely, if I can discuss my feelings, keeping it about me and my own buttons and triggers WITHOUT making it about the other person - then I'm on my way to recovery and healing.

This is why, btw, I rarely post any more; either on the newsgroups or in lists - because I'm still working on my feelings about a lot of buttons and triggers I have yet to figure out how to handle.

There have been many times over the last year that I've wanted to come in, guns blazing, flame-thrower on full, and tactical nukes armed -

But what would that achieve other than making me into a mirror image - a clone - of my abusers? An abuser in fact and deed?

And that, for me, is exactly the point.

Any time I start name-calling, guilt-tripping, pointing fingers, placing blame - then I am a mirror, a clone of my abusers; an abuser. No exceptions at all.

However - when I want to do that, yet refrain, and look at myself (it's hard, I admit!) to find out why I want to do that - and then deal with that instead; then I have won another battle against the abusers, against their conditioning and programming (be that intentional conditioning or not).

I win an even bigger battle when I can talk to someone about it or post about it without pointing fingers, blaming, etc.; when I can share the mechanisms that not only caused the button or trigger to form, but also how that relates to my current feelings as well as what I've figured out about dealing with those feelings - all without making it about someone else.

That's real recovery, at least for me.

YMMV, of course...

Take what you like, what works for you - and leave the rest...


January 30th, 2001

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