'Big Little Lies' Helped Me Realize I May Never Move On From My Last Relationship, But That's OK
My 2017 New Year's Resolution was to try dating again. I'd not gone on a single date in years. A combination of gaslighting and intense emotional abuse in one of my previous relationships had left me anxious about finding a new partner. But, in 2017, years removed from my last serious relationship, I was convinced I had dealt with things and moved on enough to start that part of my life again. Until I actually tried going out with someone and quickly found about 100 reasons why we couldn't work — when really the main one was that I was still scared and wanted a way out. I thought I had moved on and figured my life back out and was ready, but as Jane reminded me in Big Little Lies, sometimes you just don't move on. And, that's OK.
When telling Madeline about her rape in Episode 3, Jane says, "There was a point that I had thought I moved on, that I'd worked through it and what not." But then she pauses and continues, "I know that I'll never be over it. But I know that I have to keep moving forward." To be clear, my history with my ex did not include sexual assault as Jane's did. I can't speak to exactly what she's going through. But I can speak to my own experience with (self-diagnosed) PTSD and attempting to move on, only to realize that time doesn't necessarily heal things.
I don't want to get into what my ex did to me, exactly, I'm still not ready to share that with the world. But I can say that what he did dramatically affected my life in a way that sort of fractured it into two parts. Martha before him and Martha after him. Even after we broke up, he refused to leave me alone. He'd send manipulative texts about missing me that further hindered my recovery process. It took blocking his number to get him to stop infiltrating my inbox. Unfortunately there's no block button for memories.
I know that traditionally people associate relationship trauma with sexual assault or domestic abuse, but I know firsthand that's certainly not the only scenario that can negatively affect you for months and years to come.
According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, there are over 15 types of trauma and violence that can affect a person. Among them, and perhaps less generally recognized, are emotional abuse or psychological maltreatment, which often includes verbal abuse; a serious accident, illness, or medical procedure — some people who contract STIs in relationships have spoken of suffering from PTSD or trauma-related issues after the fact; and the domestic abuse category in general encompasses many types of abuse, according to the Department of Justice's Office on Violence Against Women.
"Domestic violence can be physical, sexual, emotional, economic, or psychological actions or threats of actions that influence another person. This includes any behaviors that intimidate, manipulate, humiliate, isolate, frighten, terrorize, coerce, threaten, blame, hurt, injure, or wound someone.”
So, there are many scenarios aside from sexual assault where a person would leave a relationship feeling traumatized, though that is certainly one of the unfortunately common reasons.
As for my own relationship, after we ended things, I spent months putting myself back together, aiming to be resilient. I wouldn't let him break me forever — I was strong. I was determined to deal with things, move on, and get back to normal life. My brain didn't get the memo.
Even years after the fact, I suffer severe anxiety related to everything that happened with him. I haven't been clinically diagnosed with PTSD or with anxiety, so I don't want to speak on behalf of other people, but I know what's been real for me in my recovery process.
My own brain was my enemy.
The flash of panic I have at hearing someone with his same name. The anxiety I feel whenever I see something that reminds me of him (that show we watched together that one night, the Forever 21 top that I wore on a date). It was over a year before a single day passed that I didn't relive our relationship in painful flashbacks. I wanted so desperately to be free of any thought of him — even for just 24 hours — and yet my thoughts would always go there. Usually it was at night, right before bed, when I was forced to unplug from the distractions of life to try to sleep. Then, there he was. Other times it was during the day. I would be doing something totally unrelated to him in any way and bam, there he would be. My own brain was my enemy.
Having lost so much at the hands of that relationship, I wanted nothing more than for it all to go away. So, I cut myself off from any hope of romance, and I went through the motions of my life convincingly enough that I thought I was over it, over him. Until I tried dating again this year and all those anxieties came flooding back and I was forced to realize that, in my desperation to move on, I never actually dealt with the circumstances. I hadn't processed anything. Maddeningly, I was no further today than I was two years ago. And I hated myself for it.
His face will still flash on the backs of your eyelids when you try to sleep.
I never thought that my failure to move on, or my false belief that I did, was something shared by more than just me. Of course Jane is a fictional character, but what happens to her is all too real for many women. Years ago I interviewed a rape survivor for a Seventeen article, way before my life took its own dramatic turn, and she told me about her attempt at moving on. "I was trying so hard to get past what had happened to me, but my brain wasn't allowing me to," she said. At the time, I had no way to relate to that. I was empathetic of what happened to her, but I didn't understand the power trauma can have over you. You may want with every fiber of your being to never think about a person again or to move on or to "get better," and his face will still flash on the backs of your eyelids when you try to sleep.
It's a very powerless feeling to not be able to truly put something behind you, to still be thinking about the person who destroyed you long after he's put you out of his mind. It makes the pain of what happened to you fresh every single day. A wound that never scabs over. But, it helps to realize I am not a failure because I didn't bounce back in two years. In Big Little Lies, Jane is six years out from her assault and it still plagues her. There's no timeline for healing, as hard as that might be.
But the onus shouldn't be on women to just suddenly get over it, anyway. Deep trauma takes time to sort through, to process. The road to recovery isn't easy and it isn't singular. Sometimes recovery doesn't mean moving on, it just means moving forward.