All that I am, all that I ever was…

I am more than my mental health. I am more than my homelessness. I am more than any one aspect of me. I am Addy. And this is…


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How forgotten victims of emotional abuse are building new support networks online

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Home comfort. (Shutterstock)

Written by Ria Poole, Research Associate, School of Social Sciences, Cardiff University

Two women are murdered every week in the UK as a result of domestic violence. The issue affects one in four women and one in six men at some point in their lives. Domestic violence also has more repeat victims than any other crime and costs the public £23 billion every year. And of those victims who have received hospital treatment for domestic violence injuries, 400 will go on to commit suicide within the year.

Such statistics are shocking, but what they don’t tell us is how many additional victims suffer from emotional abuse, which is another form of domestic violence. Emotional abuse is not regarded as a criminal offence in adult relationships but it is just as destructive to victims’ mental health, as a review in The Lancet revealed. It affects their self-esteem, emotional well-being, relationships with others and personal freedom.

Emotional abuse features across the entire spectrum of domestic violence. It can take the form of destructive criticism, put-downs and name calling, but also isolation, harassment, monitoring behaviours, and lying to a victim and their friends and family. It may also go hand-in-hand with sexual abuse.

But because emotional abuse is not a “crime”, its victims find it especially difficult to receive protection or even to be taken seriously by others at all. Research suggests that this may also be because emotional abuse lacks the public and political profile of physical and sexual abuse.

Limited support

Unlike victims of these crimes, emotional abuse victims may not seek help because they are unprotected by the law. The government hopes to address this lack of support as it introduces a new domestic abuse law later this year. This will criminalise the emotional abuse which underlies many abusive relationships.

Emotional abuse is a common occurrence affecting a fifth of intimate partner relationships. Despite far-reaching effects, there is a surprising lack of research on emotional abuse in adult relationships. At present, emotional abuse does not receive the attention from researchers and health services that it needs to enable victims to be recognised and professionally supported.

So, where do people go to receive the support they so desperately need? If victims are not protected by the law, if they are misunderstood by family and friends, and support from health services is lacking, then to whom do they turn?

Call for help. (Shutterstock)

Online groups

In the digital age, one obvious place to look for support is online. Through numerous online forums, “victims” of domestic violence become “survivors” who seek the emotional support from others they lack elsewhere in their lives. As with forums for patients with long-term conditions, these websites offer common components of support. This comes in the form of sharing experiences, seeking and offering advice, comparing coping strategies, and signposting to professional resources, as well as simply letting users know they are not alone.

Another of the more interesting uses of these forums is discussion of the perceived personality disorders of abusers, such as antisocial personality disorder and narcissistic personality disorder. But rather than focusing on the perpetrator’s issues, forum advice commonly concerns the victim’s self-protection. This makes sense because these personality disorders are typically thought to be resistant to professional treatment.

Many of these forums have been created by “expert survivors”. These people have escaped and recovered from emotional abuse, and now aim to support others by sharing their experiences and creating a platform for others to discuss their own. Crucially, alongside nearly all of these forums is some form of psychological education in the form of blog posts or other websites with information about how survivors can be helped in the longer-term.

Empowering and advising

There are multiple ways these forums may help victims or survivors of emotional abuse, but further research is needed to explore these mechanisms more fully. It may be that support from an online group validates victims’ experiences and empowers them to safely confront or leave their abusers. They may feel protected by an anonymous online identity as they confide in sympathisers about the abuse, perhaps for the first time.

One way to describe these insightful and empathetic forum users is as “enlightened witnesses”, who help others understand and accept their experiences and regain their independence. And with online forums, this support is instantly available. Advice and coping strategies may help victims rebuild their confidence and increase their self-efficacy. Their self-worth may increase as they realise they are not to blame for the abuse. As well as reducing feelings of isolation, a shared perspective may also develop compassion, friendship and humour.

So how can these “survivor forums” contribute to the services provided by health professionals? As a starting point, they give victims a voice that could help highlight needs unmet by the health service. But they could also give health researchers another way to study the nature, prevalence, language and outcomes of emotional abuse, and the coping and exit strategies survivors find to be most effective.

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This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.


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Reflections on being homeless, Epilogue

In August 2009 I became homeless. It was not a choice I made, it was a situation born out of mental illness, the trauma of emotional abuse and other factors beyond my control.

I was homeless until March 2012, when I finally gained a privately rented unit. In that time I slept in parks, alleys, boarding houses, tents and everywhere in between. I attempted suicide, lost all sense of reality and learned to both despise and love this world.

In this series I am looking back on my homelessness in an effort to understand what has happened to me as well as holding onto the hope that others will learn from what I have been through. Some memories are stronger than others, some more painful than others whilst some have been blocked completely.

Today, in this special epilogue, I look at an aspect of homelessness many people overlook…

PREVIOUS INSTALLMENTS
| PART 1 | PART 2 | PART 3 | PART 4 | PART 5 | PART 6 | PART 7 | PART 8 |

The first week

The first meal I cooked in my new house – on the 24th February 2012 – was jacket potatoes with cheese and butter. Ever since I was a teenager, this has been a tradition of mine. Whenever I move into a new place, I cook myself my favourite meal in celebration. I used to do it when I moved rooms in my parent’s house. I indulged in it throughout my backpacking odyssey and in every new unit/home I’ve had since. Usually I would have a table to eat off. Usually I would have a plate and cutlery. But on this occasion, after moving into my new unit from homelessness, I had nothing. All I had were my hands; so consuming such a meal was a decidedly messy (though thoroughly enjoyable) experience.

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Me; not long after moving into my unit in 2012.

In fact, that first weekend, the only thing stopping people from realising I was homeless was that I had a roof over my head. I had nothing else. No furniture. No nick-knacks. No nothing. I didn’t even have electricity for the first 24 hours I was in my new home. All I did was sit on the floor, sleep on the floor and stare at the ceiling of my new abode. It wasn’t until the Monday after I moved in, five days of being in my new house, was I able to organise for some furniture for this next chapter of my life. Courtesy of a local charity, I was able to obtain a bed, sofa, table, fridge, portable cooler, crockery and cutlery, and moving these items into my new premises was a delightful and (dare I say) orgasmic experience.

No longer would I have to sleep on a hard surface wrapped in disheveled blankets. No longer would I have to sit on a carpeted stone floor. No longer would I have to eat my food like a mindless savage. I could live like other people did.

So why did I spend the next four weeks sleeping on the floor?

The mindset of a homeless man

I had been sleeping rough for nearly three years when I moved into my unit. My bed had been benches. My bed had been patches of grass beneath trees. My bed had been the cold hard concrete beside toilet blocks. All I had for comfort and security were my blankets. I had no mattress. I had no duvet. I had nothing that most people would associate with sleeping comfortably. And throughout it all, complete strangers to me, random people on the street, had continuously hurled comment after critique after insult at me; they had abused me into believing I didn’t deserve to have any of the comforts most ‘normal’ people take for granted. So when I moved into my unit, when I gained a bed that I should have been overjoyed to sleep in, I wasn’t able to enjoy the comfort. I felt I needed to be punished. I felt I didn’t deserve to have a bed. So I didn’t sleep in it.

For four long weeks I slept on the hard, carpeted stone floor next to my bed. It was uncomfortable, to say the least, but the years of abuse had made me believe this was all I deserved. Whenever I thought about venturing into the bed, my mind was quick to rehash all the abuse I had received, it was quick to point out dozens of reasons that I didn’t deserve to sleep in the bed. So I didn’t. I just kept sleeping amidst my assortment of disheveled blankets.

But that wasn’t the worse of it.

On three nights, after moving into my unit, after finally gaining somewhere secure and indoors to sleep, I ventured outside to sleep rough in the park close to where I live. It was because of the abuse I received, it was because of the same reason I slept on the floor; I didn’t feel I deserved anything better. Parks had been my home for years. Parks had been kind to me. They had offered me protection.  So in those early days of ex-homelessness, I returned to the solace of the outdoors to soothe my troubled soul.

I can still remember the day I stopped doing this. I can still remember the moment that I decided, finally, that I should start sleeping in my bed. It was late one balmy summer’s night, the heat had been suffocating me all day and I was dead-tired after four weeks of little to no sleep. All I wanted was to sleep through the night. All I wanted was comfort. Was security. All I wanted was to feel loved. So after tossing and turning on the floor for several hours, unable to get comfortable on the hard, carpeted stone, I threw my blankets aside, rose up and jumped onto the bed. It felt weird. It felt wrong. It felt anything but natural. But I stayed there, curling up into the mattress, covering myself with the duvet, and almost instantly fell asleep.

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My bed, and improvised bedside table, circa 2012.

From that moment on something must have tripped in my mind, for the next night I immediately went to the bed, rather than the floor. And the night after that. And the night after that. I never slept on the floor again. I never ventured outside to sleep in the park. My days of homelessness, of lack of comfort, of not-sleeping rough, were over. I had a home. And, finally, I had a bed.

The Meaning of Life

When you are homeless your life revolves around one thing; survival. Everything you do. Everything moment of your life is about that one thing. It is about surviving the minute, surviving the hour, surviving the night. You don’t have time to do anything else. You don’t have the energy to do anything else. You sleep with a weapon close to your body in case someone assaults you during the night. You find somewhere to stow your bags during the day, hoping that your hiding place will be good enough to keep them hidden. You fill your time with pointless activities, such as reading newspapers at the library, or the odd spot of begging on the street. Everything you do becomes about survival. Everything you do revolves around keeping you safe. You don’t have conversations with people out of fear they will abuse you; and they often will. You don’t do anything that ‘normal’ people do, such as work, such as meet for drinks, such as kill time with friends. All you do is survive the minute, survive the hour, survive the night.

But when you get a home. When you finally succeed in doing what everyone has been telling you to do; to get off the streets. What do you do?

My life was no longer about survival; I had a roof over my head, I had access to cooking facilities, I had space and time to do what I pleased.

But I did nothing.

For three long months I did absolutely nothing but stare at the walls, stare at the ceiling, stare at the floor, and go slowly insane in my ‘home’. I couldn’t muster the energy to do anything. And even if I could have mustered the energy I didn’t know what to do. My life had been about the same thing for so long, my life had revolved around survival for so many years, that now I didn’t have to survive – now that I could live – I didn’t know what to do. I read some books. I read some more books. I twiddled my thumbs. I didn’t have a television so I couldn’t watch TV. I didn’t have a computer so I couldn’t surf the internet. I had nothing to do but stare at the walls and wile my hours away.

And it was boring; really, totally, unimaginably boring.

What saved me was my counselor. For months I had been seeing him to deal with my gambling issues. Every week, without fail, I would venture down the road and spend an hour discussing ‘life’ with my counselor. We would talk about what I had done (nothing), what I wanted to do (something) and what I had been doing for the last few years (surviving). We talked about how difficult it was to live after spending so long surviving. How people don’t understand how difficult it is to learn how to live again after being homeless for so long. People seem to think that you get a house and everything is better; but we talked about how this wasn’t the case. How it’s not as simple as that. How difficult ‘life’ is after feeling like death for so many years.

Then, out of the blue, he phoned me one afternoon. The organisation he worked for was upgrading their computer system and there was a PC going free, if I wanted it. I leapt at the opportunity immediately and within days he was bringing me a computer. All I had to do was obtain a copy of Windows and it would be good to go. This was achieved with a phone call to my parents, who tracked down a free copy courtesy of a contact they had. Weeks later it arrived in the mail, the disc was inserted into the drive and within an hour it was up and running.

And the first thing I did was type in a website address: http://www.wordpress.com.

My blog had saved me once before. My blog had given me direction when all had felt lost once before. Hopefully, it would do it again.

After months of feeling lost; after months of doing nothing; after months of nearly giving up; I had found hope again.

The first year

Being homeless had been one of the most brutal, unforgiving, periods of my life. There had been little pleasure. There had been little joy. What there had been was days of endless, incessant abuse; weeks of non-sleeping on concrete floors; months doing nothing but survive; and years feeling like a sub-human animal, an entity that deserved nothing but punishment and pain.

Getting my unit had taken time. It had taken energy. It had taken a huge amount of hard, dedicated work.

But finally I was able to start living again.

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My lounge room, about ten months after moving into my unit.

It wasn’t easy. It never is. That’s what people don’t understand. They think that getting an apartment, obtaining a home, is the be all and end all of homelessness. That if you just give a homeless person a home that will see their life sorted completely. But it isn’t as simple as that. Homelessness is all-consuming; it affects every aspect of your life, it affects your ability to live. Your life, when homeless, is nothing. It is beyond nothing. You are nothing.

After homelessness you not only have to learn how to live again, you have to learn that you deserve to live again.

Without my counselor, without his sage like advice and dedication toward helping me, there is a good chance I would have left my home and returned to life on the streets. It would have been easy for me to do, really easy. On the streets my life was sorted; it was all about survival. I didn’t have to worry about bills. I didn’t have to worry about what to cook, what to do or how to fill my day, because all of that is decided when you’re homeless. You don’t have choice. You have nothing but yourself.

But I was determined to live again. I was determined to learn how to live again. And with my counselor’s help I was able to get there. It took time, very nearly a year, but I was finally able to get to a place where I felt comfortable in my home, where I felt I deserved to have a bed and was able to fill my days with useful, worthwhile activities.

My time on the streets was in the past; and my future lay ahead of me.

But it wouldn’t have been without the support I’d received from my counselor. Without my counselor I would have ditched my unit, packed a bag and returned to life on the streets. That’s what people don’t understand. That’s what people need to start understanding. Giving a homeless person a home will not fix their problems. It will do nothing but give them a roof over their head. What homeless people need, what homeless people deserve, is support. Someone who will listen to their issues, understand the complexity of the problem, and assist them to start living again.

Fortunately, I had someone to help me. But not everyone does.

The solution to homelessness isn’t just housing; the solution to homelessness is continuous, professional support.

And people need to start understanding that for anything to change.


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31 Days of Bipolar: Day 27. My lifeline to the outside world

Day 27: What do you see as the most important thing in your treatment regime, and why?

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At this stage of my life, with my treatment regime currently revolving around medication and a weekly session with a support worker, I would have to say the most important of these two options would be the latter.

Without my weekly sessions with my support worker I would have no human-to-human interaction whatsoever. This interaction, as forced and clinical as it is sometimes, keeps me alive. It gives me something to look forward to. It gives me the opportunity to share my thoughts with another soul. It allows me to not feel quite so alone in the world.

Without my weekly sessions with my support worker, my life would be less than what it is now, and given how little value I place on my current life, that’s saying something. My support worker is my lifeline. My umbilical cord that keeps me attached to this crazy, often chaotic world in which we live. Without her, I would be nothing. So yes, she is definitely the most important aspect of my current treatment regime.


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How to cope with PTSD flashbacks?

I feel it pertinent to point out that this isn’t a ‘how to’ post. You may feel slightly jipped to discover this, especially since the first two words of the post title are “how” and “to”, but I did place a wee question mark at the end of the title, meaning I need your help. And with your help, perhaps we can write the ‘how to’ post that you were probably expecting.

My PTSD is a complicated beast. It doesn’t just come from one traumatic incident, but several, the memories of which have combined to form an almost impenetrable wall of trauma that I have no idea how to deal with. Firstly (and foremost) there is the emotional abuse that I was the victim of. Without question this causes the most damaging of my PTSD symptoms. Secondly, there is the assault and rape I experienced when I was in Adelaide in 2007. Thirdly, there is the recurrent memories of being homeless; of being ostracised by society and forced to exist in a sub-human state on the streets of Melbourne and beyond. Fourthly, comes the various physical assaults that I received during this homeless existence. On a daily basis I am hounded by flashbacks of these four incidents; flashbacks that occur without warning, leaving me a quivering, delusional wreck.

Over the last few months, ever since becoming unwell, the memories of the emotional abuse I received have been impossible to contend with. I have been regularly conversing with a hallucination of my abuser to the point I devolve into a fuming, shouty monster. Lord knows what my neighbours think of me, for the walls between us are thin, and my voice is raging. I will scream, yell, holler, bellow, bawl and shriek as I replay specific abusive events and attempt to discover why she saw fit to abuse me. I am desperate for answers, desperate for closure, but I know I can never receive it so my voice rages ever louder. I want to know why she decided to destroy my sense of self, why she was so cruel and callous in her criticism and insults, why she worked so hard to drive a wedge between my friends and I, why she decided I didn’t deserve to be in tertiary education and why she decided I should die because “my voice is so boring and monotonous it inflicts pain on everyone I talk to“. I need to know why I deserved the abuse she gave me. But like I said, I know I will never discover these answers, I will never have the closure I need, so how do I cope with it? How do I live with the trauma rather than let it control me?

At least fourteen hours a day are lost to these fuming, shouting sessions. They occur when I’m home, they occur when I’m walking down the street and they occur when I’m surrounded by people in the high street. And I have no idea how to stop it. I have no idea how to cope with these intolerable flashbacks.

My GP believes a new anti-psychotic will help – a week into taking it, it hasn’t. I’ve tried mindfulness techniques. I’ve tried my usual coping mechanisms. I’ve tried CBT and DBT techniques. I’ve tried flooding myself with distraction. But nothing has worked. I always devolve into the shouting, always devolve into the trauma and always allow it to control my thinking, my actions and everything in between.

Hence the question – how to cope with PTSD flashbacks? How do you cope with your PTSD flashbacks? How do you stop it controlling your life?


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30 Day Self Harm Awareness Challenge: Day 08

Today’s prompt in the 30 Day Self Harm Awareness Challenge asks
What the most supportive thing anyone has said to you about self harm?

This is an impossible prompt for me to answer because I genuinely cannot recall an occasion where someone said something supportive to me in regards to my self-harm. I can recall many occasions where the response was the opposite of supportive; where their words cut so close to the bone I wanted to self-harm all over again, but never a moment where I felt supported in spite of what I was doing to myself.

The closest would probably be when an old friend acknowledged what I was doing to myself and that, if/when I wanted, they would be there for me to talk to, but they did all this without actually using the term self-harm or any variation thereof.

Perhaps one day I will find myself in a situation where someone is supportive. If I do, I’ll be sure to let you all know! :)


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Day 20: Where do you get your support?

The 30 Days of Mental Illness Awareness Challenge continues, with:
Day 20: Where do you get your support?

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The support I receive for my mental health issues comes from four different fronts:

#1: Gateway Community Health

Gateway Community Health is a local community health hub, containing GPs, pathology, counseling (for drug, alcohol and/or gambling problems) and youth and indigenous services.

The mental health aspect of Gateway Community Health is called GT House, a psychosocial rehabilitation day program that provides group and individual psychosocial rehabilitation and recovery services.

Through GT House I undertake a number of social and support groups as well as receive one-to-one support through my keyworker, one of the few human beings that I trust. The fact they operate using a recovery-orientated approach – meaning they view me as a whole person rather than individual labels – has been a massive help to me, given my dislike of the psychiatric approach to mental illness.

In the seven years since my breakdown, Gateway (and GT House) are the only organisation that have offered me any support with my mental health and trauma, and without them I’d probably be dead.

#2: My parents

Although they live on the other side of the world, my parents have done their absolute best to support me over the last seven years. It hasn’t been easy – especially when I’ve been trapped in manic, hypomanic and depressive episodes – but they’ve always done all they can, despite the problems they face in their own lives.

#3: My people

Some may consider my people part of the problems I face, and certainly this is the case in respect to Vanessa and Shay, but since February of this year Meadhbh has become one of my primary supports.; she soothes me when I’m upset, distracts me when I’m overwhelmed with self-harm urges, rewards me when I do something awesome and chastises me when I’m pushing myself too hard. Audrey, also, has become a friendly voice in my ear over the last few months.

I also count the Hearing Voices Support Group I attend as part of this front, as my collaboration with them has not only enabled me to understand my voices better, but helped me forge the relationships mentioned above.

#4: Myself

I’m not sure how contentious this front will be, but having spent the better part of the last seven years completely on my own, I’ve learnt that sometimes the only person you can rely on is yourself.

Over the years, I’ve developed a number of strict coping strategies (both healthy and unhealthy) that help me manage my sometimes distressing and uncomfortable mood swings, anxiety and PTSD.

Without this determination (and self-compassion), it is doubtful I would be writing this today.

And as I type these words, it occurs to me that if I had answered this post last October, it would include only items #2 and #4; which is an indication of just how much things have changed (and how hard I’ve worked) over the last twelve months! :)