"This is how I learnt to survive"

Learning to survive.

So here’s the thing. Once something is over, like, say, the years during which my Dad sexually abused me and my mum let him, it’s not really over. The nightmares, the fear, the rock-bottom self-esteem, the self-harming urges. The obsessive-compulsive door-locking. These stay. Until you can’t live around them any more.

At least, that’s how it went for me. I grew into a very angry teenager, and then a more-or-less functional adult. I  went to University and got a business degree. I travelled. I got a job. You know, grown-up, functional kind of stuff. I even got married! Clearly, I was doing just fine. Wasn’t I?

Well, no. I was often almost late for work because I had been compulsively locking and re-locking my front door. Did I check 21 times? If I hadn’t, it couldn’t be locked. Best I go back and check again. Lock-unlock. Lock-unlock. Must do it 21 times. Must do that ritual three times.

Can’t send a text message unless the number of letters in it are a multiple of 3. You have NO idea how time consuming that one was! The counting. The constant counting. It makes me anxious just to remember it. And no, I still don’t know what it was with the multiples of three.

When the counting/locking/repeating didn’t help, I went to sleep. I even found a job where I could work flexi-time, because I couldn’t be awake for more than six hours before the world overwhelmed me. It would get too loud, too bright, too much. That was just my normal. I had no idea there was another way to be: I had never been any other way.

And I could sort of live with it. Until my marriage broke down, and with it, the last of my defenses, the last of my desire to keep carrying my anxiety, my fear, my pain and shame around with me.

It was like I finally acknowledged that there was a big ole elephant in the room, and he kept leaving piles of steaming dung on my carpet. Elephant-sized piles.

The months after I left my husband were terrifying: I walked out of my marriage with a few thousand dollars in my bank account, a couch and table I had been moving from home to home since I was 22, and seven boxes. Not much to show for a lifetime.

I had been in Melbourne just over a year: I had some friends, new friends. No family. No old friends. No real support system or safety net. No money. I have never been so scared in all my life, not even when I was a child. And I started to unravel: the shame came out, wanting to be looked at (dating really activated that for me). The fear, it never went away. The anxiety.

Several times, once especially, after a man had been careless with me, I thought I wouldn’t be able to find the strength to carry on. Thank God for my yoga mat, because that was invariably where I ended up. Sometimes, I didn’t actually DO any yoga, I just crouched on that sticky, scuffed, safety blanket and sobbed.

I was deep, deep in the darkness of my own psyche. In a darkness I had been avoiding all my life. In those days, in that darkness, I finally realised that I had a choice. Live, become a survivor, or stay a victim and eventually, perhaps, not live anymore.

I wanted to live: I wanted to become a survivor. A survivor is hardy, resourceful, sovereign. A survivor can navigate in the darkness, and find a way into the light.

I wanted to stop feeling like I had no control over my world, over what people did to me (a logical conclusion when you have been victimised, just not a useful one). I wanted to claim my power.


I didn’t know how to do that, but I had an inkling that it might be possible, so I tried everything until I found what helped me.

A lot of things were not very helpful, a few were downright unfortunate. I visited three psychologists before I found one who helped me. The other two somehow managed to make me feel worse. I’m glad I persisted, though.

I also dabbled in quite a bit of magical thinking: I got my tarot read: I bought my own tarot cards. I slavishly followed my horoscope. These things, whilst they might have their place, made me feel even more a victim of my environment, even less master of my own destiny.

Eventually, I whittled my survivor plan down to these elements:

1. Exercise. My doctor tells me that my brain chemistry is fu…I mean, unusual. Basically, since I was a small child, I have been making neural pathways for anxiety, and making more stress hormones than you actually need. Exercise helps me burn off the anxiety, and it helps me feel physically strong and capable. Survivor traits.

2. Yoga. Not quite the same as exercise, although, of course, it is a form of exercise. But yoga helps me connect to my inner world, manage my breath, and still my mind. And there is considerable evidence that consciously changing how you breath changes your stress reactions, just as managing your mind with yoga or meditation or both can help.

3. Having faith. I am not a religious person, but I have chosen to believe in Something More – something that connects us all – and this faith helps me to feel that the world is a safe place and that people are inherently good. I think they are, you know. I think only a very small percentage of people actually mean to do the harm they do. They just don’t know how to do otherwise.

4. Taking action. For me, feeling that I am making a difference in the world is essential to feeling like I am a survivor. Because survivors have skills, skills they can share. Why do you think Bear Grills is so popular, people? Okay, I won’t mention him again.

5. Gratitiude. I can’t say this always comes naturally to me, but I do my best. I keep a gratitude journal – for a while I even kept it in public, on my blog. I remember all the ways in which I am lucky. It helps to rewire my brain from Doom! Gloom! to sunshine and butterflies.

6. Seeking community. It really helps to have people around me who allow me to be completely myself, even on bad days. It’s taken me a long time to find people like this, largely because it took me a long time to feel brave enough to show my true self. It’s worth working towards, though, because then, when you have a backslidey kind of a day, you know you don’t have to go through it alone. A support group is a great place to start.

7. Writing. I’ve kept notebooks for most of my life: writing helps me process my feelings. I suspect any creative pursuit might serve the same purpose: music, drawing, knitting, dance. Just a way to express yourself – once the feelings are out, they don’t hold the same power any more.

I’d call myself a survivor, these days. I like the ring of it. Some days are better than others, but on the whole, life is good. And I am so grateful.

Have you overcome any significant traumas? How did you do it?

Nadine Fawell teaches yoga, drinks coffee and has a very good life, despite her childhood. In her perfect world, no child would grow up unheard and unhelped. You can find her yoga-ing and raising awareness here

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