When You Don’t Recognize Yourself Anymore
That moment comes for different reasons. It may arise as part of your dday experience. It may come later in a moment of inner stillness or self-reflection. Some feel it in the doing of something mundane like wiping the counter, finishing a shift at work, or driving the kids to school. I remember sitting on my bed , exhausted, broken, and looking at my hands as if they didn’t belong to me at all. I didn’t recognize this life I was in. When I looked in the mirror I didn’t recognize the woman looking back. I remember whispering “What happened to me? Where did I go? How did I end up here?”
One moment you are in a family, loving and learning how to love more, working in partnership to build a life together, sharing dreams of the future and lived history together. In the next moment, he has not only pulled the rug out from underneath you, he is showing you that the rug was never there at all. Every investment of your life into this relationship—the love, loyalty, sacrifices, support, physical effort, risks, forgiveness, compassion, etc.—went into the black hole of his con. None of it matters. None of it built anything but a convincing cover for his secret life. And somehow, discovering that he isn’t who he presented himself to be at all, means who you don’t recognize yourself, either. It’s pretty scary.
Once the truth of the lie starts to unfold, the wear and tear of that lie on you over the years you’ve been together becomes visible. His slow steady grooming into service has claimed your energy, your zest for your life, your youth, your physical well-being and appearance. He has literally sucked the life right out of you, and he did it right under your nose. You aren’t who you once were. And you don’t recognize who you are. I cried and cried and cried about losing myself, and losing all those years of my life.
In fact, the more I cried, the more it pissed me off. And I decided to get myself back—with a few improvements! It wasn’t fast or easy. And 8.5 years later, the job’s not quite done. But I recognize myself again and the good news is that you can too. So I’m going to share a couple of key ways I achieved this.
The first thing I did was get away from him. I had to recognize he was a con man, and that his con was toxic to me. Coming to grips with that was not easy. It was a road of grief I wouldn’t wish on anyone. The person he presented himself to be was his own survival con, created out of years of emotional abuse and cemented in place by religious socialization and dishonest theology. The person he could have been wasn’t available. The kind of therapeutic journey he would have to take to become whole required an honesty foreign to him now, not to mention a therapist up to the challenge. The grief that came with reframing the reality of him, and of my marriage came from a well with no bottom. I had to get away from him—literally put physical distance between us to get out from under the cloud of manipulation and boundary violations that were his bread and butter. Only when I did get away, did I begin the long journey of getting better myself. And it was a year and a half before I could permanently let go of any hope we could try again.
The second thing I did was make a deliberate and visual effort to remember myself. I got an empty photo album and pored through all the photo albums from my life. I avoided pictures of our family together as they triggered grief episodes that set me back. I was looking for pictures of me from my own childhood on up into recent years. The criteria for getting into this special new photo album was that the picture had to:
· Celebrate a happy event or special occasion in my life
· Celebrate people in my life story
· Celebrate me because it was just a good picture of me
· Celebrate my achievement(s)
The only thing that couldn’t be in the picture was my (then) husband.
Slowly the album came together. I stopped at about fifty pictures, but covered the arc of my (at the time) 53 years. And every day, I would look at a picture or two , or more, from that album. I would enjoy the memory from my life, the person I was in that picture, and how great I looked.
It took nearly three decades for him (and his mother) to groom me so I didn’t even recognize myself anymore. It took only three months to remind myself who I really was. I remembered that I was someone with lots of energy and optimism about what my life could be. I remembered that I laughed and smiled more than I cried and frowned. I remembered how many people had been a part of my life, and started to re-connect as was possible. I remembered what made me happy and what brought me the simple joys of being alive. I started to recognize myself again.
Oh, there were still bad patches when I went down into numb despair, but I learned to get out faster. Over time, those bad patches became less frequent. I don’t think we are ever fully out of the woods once we’ve had post-traumatic stress, but you really can manage it more effectively and diminish the symptoms if you remember who you are and be who you are, again.
So, find the pictures that make you remember yourself. Celebrate everything you’ve done with your life. Give yourself credit for achievements and the relationships that made your life so rich. Look at that picture that really captures your spirit, your unique beauty, your presence and tell yourself “I look great in this picture!” Keep looking at those pictures, and one day you will look in the mirror and see her there.
When you don’t recognize yourself anymore, get re-acquainted. And if you need support on that journey, remember your story is safe here.