Living with Toxicity: The Long and Winding Road to Recovery

I decided to take a break from this series a while back because the material was too painful to continue writing at the time, and the decision to use our current president as an illustrative symbol was too easy and depressing. While I plan on saying a few more things about parenting, I'd like to move closer to wrapping up this series I've called Living with Toxicity. I chose this title for a few reasons, but primary among them is that toxicity can take many shapes in relationships. There is a sense in which you are living with the embodiment of toxicity as it has been incarnated in your parent, partner, or coworker. There is also the element of what happens when one lives or works in close proximity to this toxicity, for it begins to infect those with whom the toxic person comes in contact. While it may not be useful to get lost in the details of psychological diagnostic criteria, many of us know what it is like to have been in relationship with persons who fall somewhere on the continuum of Cluster B personality disorders.  

For those fortunate enough to have had those relationships come to an end, chances are good that there was no clean break. In fact, the vast majority of relationships that dissolve or blow up with toxic persons do so with little to no resolution. No explanation is given, apologies are nowhere to be found because these people are incapable of admitting fault, and one often finds oneself on the receiving end of an overwhelming barrage of projections (including being accused of the emotionally abusive behaviors that they themselves are leveling at you at that very moment). One day you're making plans as a family or as a couple, and the next day you're told that they never loved you. To put it mildly, this is a mind bending, soul crushing experience. The toxic person knows this, so they attempt to get out in front of the discontinuity through smear campaigns intended to discredit the other so that their abhorrent behavior will appear justified and the other's character will be dragged through the mud. They do this by claiming victimhood in the midst of perpetrating their abuse.  Because these persons are profoundly persuasive blamers, others gather around her/him as if s/he is courageous, and when the toxic person senses that s/he has perhaps gone too far s/he will enlist the help of others—humorously called flying monkeys—to continue this alienating and isolating process. An expeditious use of gaslighting against the partner (or child/coworker) who is usually empathic and self-reflective provides just enough space for the toxic person to escape unscathed while the target’s grasp on reality continues to be one of doubt, fear, and self-recrimination.

Toxic persons, especially those with manifestations of narcissism, know their targets well enough to use their self-awareness and reflexivity against them. In healthy relationships, both parties can hear feedback from the other with a wondering perspective that says, "Hmm...I've not thought of that before, but I appreciate you bringing that to my attention. Let me think more about and get back to you." Or, "You know, you're right. That was an awful thing I said. I'm sorry." Most persons in relationships with toxic individuals are more than willing to own their part in a conflict. The problem is that the toxic person cannot do this. They engage in constant splitting behaviors where the problem is located outside of themselves. You must be awful in order for them to be good. You must be sinful for them to be pure. You must be weak for them to be strong. You must be destroyed so that they can survive. And God help you if you have children with them because they will then need to take this splitting behavior to a new level to try to paint you as an abusive parent so that they can put forward an image of being the ideal parent. They are the physical embodiment of the zero sum game. As I've mentioned before, this inability to embrace their shadow creates a condition where the shadow literally takes over in manifestations that traumatize others. Long term relationships with toxic persons regularly result in chronic post-traumatic stress disorder or C-PTSD. With that brief(ish) recap of what toxic relationships look like, I'd like to move to what therapist Shannon Thomas calls the six stages of healing from hidden abuse.

Stage 1: Despair

This is the starting point for persons who are usually in the beginning of the end of a toxic relationship. These survivors are in the process of being devalued significantly by their partner (who is often engaging in an affair with their next source of supply and will even tell the partner who the other person is to create jealousy and competition, to the extent of toying with the other person like a cat might with a mouse) and are close to being discarded. Life feels overwhelming, they do not know what is real and what is not, their partner is acting erratically with repeated instances of  dropping their mask, yet they feel responsible for this poor behavior because of their propensity to take on projections, they are vulnerable to hoovering, they cannot sleep (or they sleep too much), they lose their appetite (or begin to overeat), their dreams are nightmares that are mirror images of their waking life, they feel depressed and perhaps suicidal, and they feel completely to blame for their relational state. Remember, this is the time period during which the smear campaign begins, so just as a person's psychological foundation is crumbling so is their available social support. Therapy and family (if they haven't also been conscripted in the smear campaign) become invaluable sources of support in this stage.

Stage 2: Education 

At this point, the survivor either stumbles upon information as they attempt to make sense of their despair and the disorienting behaviors of their partner (or parent/co-worker), or in their relationship with a trusted therapist are given materials that provide a container for all of the interpersonal and emotional experiences elicited by this relationship. As a trusted therapist once told me, in order to heal we must learn how to name things correctly. Moving from despair related to hidden abuse requires an immersion into a world full of words, concepts, and ideas that describe an experience that up until that point felt largely ineffable. When I could place my foggy memory into the conceptual box of gaslighting I had a better handle on disorientation. Similarly, other concepts like trauma bonding, flying monkeys, smear campaigns, splitting, idealization, devaluation, and discarding all speak to the experience of persons who have woken up from the bad dream of toxic relationships. In fact, once persons begin to connect the dots of their lived experience with the hard earned wisdom of other survivors, it almost feels as if there is a shared playbook these people use to make others' lives miserable. This educational process begins the next stage of recovery: awakening.

Stage 3: Awakening

Persons enter this stage when they can hold their despair as object and have moved past the need to spend hours and hours reading about toxic behaviors and their manifestations in relationships. As persons enter into awakening, they begin to integrate their despair and the information gathering in ways that illuminate their personal experience. While they may continue to be physically and emotionally isolated from their former social support system as a result of the smear campaign, they find new community among other survivors and new friendships with persons marked by greater authenticity. There is a sense of empowerment in this stage as the survivor needs less and less reality testing as s/he grows in trusting her/himself as the effects of the gaslighting begin to wear off. To be certain, in this stage people vacillate between stage 1 and stage 3 as the grief process changes shape. Whereas stage 1 despair may have to do with the immediate loss of the relationship, through education and awakening, one's grief changes shape as one realizes that the person one thought s/he loved was actually not the person s/he thought they were. S/he grieves her/his naïveté, lost time, the feeling of having wasted one's life with a person who was incapable of honest love. In this stage, persons feel connected to hope, albeit inconsistently. The thought, "Am I crazy?" that so clearly typifies Stage 1 is slowly being replaced at this stage with, "I am going sane." Gratitude for this awareness surfaces more readily in this stage, and one begins to see the world unencumbered by the deliberately falsifying lenses placed over one's eyes by the toxic partner. It feels like waking up from a deep and terrifying slumber and realizing that while you may continue to have trauma dreams for some time, your waking life is full of healing potential.

Stage 4: Boundaries

At this point in one's recovery process, people are well aware of and remember their despair, have read countless articles and books, have watched educational videos until late in the night, and know better than ever before what they contributed to the relationship and what specific behaviors they experienced that were toxic from their partner, parent, or coworker. They have woken up to a truth that resides within and that cannot be overwritten by their toxic partner. At the same time, they know that there are aspects of their personality that make them vulnerable to such efforts. As a result, persons at this stage begin the process of no contact (or limited/detached contact if children are involved). This decision allows the survivor to gain the distance (physically and emotionally) to work on severing the cord of trauma bonding that their partner helped to secure to them through their use of intermittent reinforcement. Some partners, even after the relationship is over, will attempt to re-establish contact (called hoovering) either to manipulate the former partner or to protect their image by trying to act friendly even after all of the behaviors that created the need for this recovery process in the first place. Like Odysseus tying himself to the mast, the decision to go no contact (or limited/detached contact) keeps the individual on his or her healing journey and less vulnerable to emotional manipulation (toxic persons' spiritual gift). If people aren't careful, the setting of boundaries can become an end in and of itself, which prevents them from moving toward restoration, the fifth stage of recovery.

Stage 5: Restoration 

As persons move further away from despair, engage in fewer bouts of data gathering, take seriously their awakening, and hold firm to their boundaries they are freed up to focus on restoring all that they have lost in the previous stages. For many, those losses include financial stability, material items, physical health, mental health, interpersonal relationships, and what some trauma professionals call soul loss. Toxic persons are especially adept at attaching themselves to hosts only to use them up, take everything they have, and then leave them bereft of any resource that may have supported them in the aftermath of the toxic person's final discard. During this season of recovery, persons slowly begin to piece their lives back together through prioritizing one's healthy relationships (including one's children), therapy, exercise, spiritual disciplines, healthy eating, a sound sleeping schedule, and facing head on the financial fallout brought on by a toxic person's obsession with winning at any cost. Restoration can last quite some time, especially for persons who find themselves in the unenviable position of financially supporting the toxic former partner. Since it is commonly accepted that traumatic experience is stored in the body, it is imperative for survivors to find ways to incorporate somatic experiences in their healing and restorative journey. I have personally found yoga, running, rowing, and reiki to be invaluable in this process. For many, the restoration process can be quite lengthy, so expectations often need to be altered in order to manufacture the patience and persistence necessary to continue moving toward health.  

Stage 6: Maintenance

As persons move through and beyond despair, education, awakening, boundaries, and restoration they experience maintenance, the last stage of recovery. People in this part of their healing journey may willingly return to previous stages as their integrative process necessitates in order to develop narratives thick enough to sustain their progress. Once persons have moved past the previous stages, they are more capable of experiencing relationships marked primarily by health, honesty, empathy, and mutuality. Persons in this stage are able to spot toxic persons much more quickly than they were in the past and are less likely to fall prey to their manipulative machinations. In maintenance, people experience wholeheartedness as they have learned how to care for themselves, have established appropriate boundaries, understand and own their story as true regardless of the number of friends and family they have lost in the process, and look forward to the future with confidence that developing and cultivating greater self-love will prevent them from being locked in the disconcerting and profoundly disorienting dance with toxicity. At this stage, persons are able to embrace their integrity, find their way toward whatever forgiveness looks like within the context of their boundaries, and understand that rather than being ruined by this experience they have been set free to experience life unmediated and in its fullness.