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Healing Strategies After Narcissistic Abuse

How I Engaged in Recovery from Narcissistic Abuse

For the first couple months after I left my abusive relationship, all I could really do was survive. I was having a moral and spiritual crisis and I was viewing the world with new cynical and suspicious eyes. I retreated. It wasn’t until I began to look at  my condition more scientifically that I realized it wasn’t only a “time heals all wounds” situation. I could take steps to help the healing process along.

I tried a lot of things, even things I was skeptical of. I wanted desperately to feel normal again. Some things worked better than I imagined they would and some things were about as effective as putting magic crystals on my head. I was fairly unimpressed by aroma therapy, for example.

I was adrift for too long and didn’t immediately appreciate how important stabilizing my housing situation was to my well being. Living out of bags in motel rooms was not at all conducive to healing. I needed a space to make my own.

I had to come to grips with what had happened. I was so confused that nearly all of my brain power was devoted to unraveling what had been years of reality-warping gaslighting. Then, realizing the depths of deception and depravity I’d been entangled with led to deep shame. I was so disappointed in myself for being deceived and manipulated. I didn’t trust my own judgement anymore. Getting that back required learning about cluster B personality disorders and connecting with other people who’d suffered narcissistic abuse. I read so many personal stories and began to see how similar all those experiences were to my own. I wasn’t alone. Coming to understand how the pattern of behavior plays out helped me forgive myself for becoming entrapped and then debilitated by narcissistic abuse syndrome.

Even understanding the darkness of narcissistic abuse that I was dealing with, I still suffered from intense feelings of loss and loneliness. This was no ordinary breakup. The relationship was more like an addiction than love. That’s a trauma bond and it had to be broken.

I had firsthand experience with chemical dependency and I recognized that just like when I quit drinking, I was going to have to commit myself to a period of suffering in order to break free and begin recovery. Maintaining no contact was first a physical endurance challenge.

I came to learn that narcissistic abuse leads to physical brain damage. The hippocampus shrinks while the amygdala grows. This leads to chronic confusion, short-term memory loss, anxiety, anger, panic attacks and even bouts of rage (see Symptoms of Narcissistic Abuse). Reversing that damage is crucial to recovery and that’s not a matter for magic crystals. It’s scientifically, physically quantifiable. It’s all about stress hormones, which a person’s brain is continually marinading in while in a relationship with someone with a cluster B personality disorder. This physical change explains why I found myself very jumpy after leaving Tina. I was never physically afraid of her, so I couldn’t understand why my complex post traumatic stress disorder was manifesting as if I’d come out of a bloody war zone. I never had to dodge bullets, so I didn’t get why I’d jump so easily at certain sounds, wake up gasping in adrenaline-pumping fright or jump backwards like Jason Vorhees had lunged at me with a machete, just upon noticing people I wasn’t ready for. It’s because the amygdala controls the fight-or flight response and thanks to a steady diet of overflowing cortisol, mine had grown out of control. These reactions aren’t psychological. They are physical! They are chemical. The amygdala doesn’t distinguish between physical and emotional. A threat is a threat. That revelation changed the course of my recovery.

I began to study what causes increased cortisol production and what can mitigate it. Stimulants are an obvious culprit. Caffeine, nicotine, taurine, etc. All of those (and illegal drugs like methamphetamines or cocaine) elevate stress hormones. Those chemical precursors had to be eliminated, or at least curtailed.

I had to evaluate situations that induced any physical stress or anxiety. That required really paying attention to what was going on in my body. I realized that I was producing a stress response sometimes just by playing intense video games. From that, I learned how to identify other things that were stressing me out and then to limit their impact on me. 

I was happy to learn that there were other things I could do beyond just changing some habits. Fish Oil, for example is an effective cortisol-reducer. I began taking it daily and found it almost immediately beneficial. Magnesium deficiency is a common culprit for elevated stress hormones, so magnesium supplements can also help. I was already taking magnesium as a migraine preventative, but I dabbled with some other supplements for stress-reduction and found some use for Kava Kava and vitamin D.

I gave up energy drinks, but couldn’t quite manage without a cup or two of coffee in the morning, so I allowed that much for myself, but in the evening, I found Hawthorn Tea to be particularly soothing.

Quitting nicotine required a compromise of sorts. I had to forgive myself for gaining some weight. Snacking replaced smoking and vaping, for a few months. That was hard. It was almost three months before the cravings were gone, but it wasn’t as hard as breaking the trauma bond. If you can do that, you can do anything!

Having undertaken some steps to repair my enlarged amygdala, I began to research ways to address an impaired hippocampus. Many years back, I’d seen a documentary about London taxi drivers which claimed learning the haphazard maze of roads in that city caused a measurable increase in the size of drivers’ hippocampi. So, I knew deliberately, physically changing this part of the brain was possible. I’d had a part time job driving limos for some time and I found it satisfactory, so I was already engaging and exercising my hippocampus with that occupation. I also had an affinity for crossword puzzles and with an app on my phone, I finished at least one a day. Little did I know I was perhaps instinctively engaging in the very activities I needed to repair my hippocampus. Crosswords and logic puzzles are cited by doctors as activities to strengthen that region of the brain!

Light therapy sounds like new agey hocus pocus, but it’s actually helpful for depression. Getting outside on a nice sunny day is best, but when that wasn’t possible (like dark winter days), natural daylight simulating full-spectrum lamps made a noticeable difference for me.

I needed a lot of alone time at first, but as I gradually began to grow stronger and more confident again, getting supportive friends and family back into my life accelerated my recovery and tipped the balance of good and bad days or even hours in my favor.

During the deep depression that set in when I’d first left Tina, my body atrophied. I eventually had to force myself into physical activity. I began getting some light exercise every day (or at least every other day).

After I got settled into my condo, making improvements to it were like an analog to improvements I was making inside myself. Putting up decor that reminded me of my history – of who I am – mirrored and reinforced the reconstruction of my very personality.

I gravitated to a lot of elements from my youth. My therapist called it regression, but that seems to have a negative connotation. I restored my operating system to an earlier state that was known to work!. I was buying Cookie Crisp cereal and Eggo waffles like I used to eat before school  as a kid.

I was binge watching 70’s science fiction television. Star Trek, Doctor Who, Battlestar Galactica. The old stuff was good. It had a straightforward morality to it. The good guys always won and there was nothing too vicious that could trigger an overblown response of stress hormones. Those kind of things also helped me remember who I was – before the narcissist took over my life. Immersing myself in things that I enjoyed before the trauma helped me reconnect with my good, less damaged self (see also: Regression on the path to Healing).

If I wasn’t watching nostalgic sci-fi, it was comedies – just not the romantic varieties.

I had to avoid a lot of music for a while, because most songs are love songs and every love song was about her. Fortunately, I like electronic dance music, because a lot of that is just instrumental.

Writing proved to be instrumental in setting order to the swirls of gaslit confusion in my bleeding brain. Writing my stories helped me reestablish objective reality and hold on to it when emotional and trauma-bonded responses would try to convince me otherwise. It also helped me to segregate the emotions connected to those memories and thereby reduce their impact (Also see: Write it Out for more about writing to heal).

My therapist always counseled patience and self-forgiveness, which are easy enough words to say, but surprisingly difficult to put into practice. I did eventually learn. I was eventually ready to be patient. Though I’ve learned that time isn’t the only factor, it’s still an important one. There is no rushing some healing.

I discovered that I had some delayed mourning to do. I was so wrapped up in all the chaos and confusion of Tina’s making as well as the responsibility of dealing with my Mom’s estate that while still embroiled in the relationship, I never allowed myself the time to fully accept and mourn my mom’s passing, or losing my dog, Clyde to cancer. Delaying the processing of that kind of grief had the unfortunate side effect of prolonging it.

I still practiced kindness and generosity. That’s just who I am, but I gave myself permission to set limits and even to be selfish. It’s OK to be selfish sometimes, especially in times of need. My wellness and comfort could come first. I doubt I’ll ever be exactly the person I was but after a year, I found myself stronger, more confident and having more good days than bad ones. That’s pretty good progress for only a year after narcissistic abuse. I’m certain that being proactive about my recovery instead of just waiting for it made a huge difference.

I’d had my doubts that I’d ever be ready to become romantically involved again, but I’d even started dating after 6 months or so.

After coming to better understand cluster B personality disorders, in a way, I felt safer in the world because I knew how to recognize them and knew to stay away. On the flip-side, knowing that these people exist and in larger numbers than I would have imagined (6 to 15% of the population, depending on the study) made the world seem a darker place, though.

When I first moved into my own place, Amazon became one of my best friends. Here are some of the exact products I found helpful in my recovery.

For important reinforcement of some ideas you may need to disabuse yourself of, check out Kim Saed’s tips for people new to recovery, “Real Self-care Ideas for New Survivors of Narcissistic Abuse.

Find out about more ways to get help for narcissistic abuse, here.

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21 comments

  • B

    Omg,thank you!! Its been two years out of that crazy fog and I’m still so confused,feel crazy talking about my abuse,its one big mind game.I spent 15 yrs. Living with pathological gaslighting and cluster B abuse,antisocial mother who gets a high trying to destroy me.I never felt love,I was hated and near the end of this abuse I knew and saw straight evil,her eyes bugged out just staring off while i told her i dont hate u mother,I feel bad for you and she just turned her head towards me and said “u need help” it was then I realized she cant comprehend anything I’ve said.They slowly (mother and enabling father) sucked the life out of me and I litterly felt like I was dead.Take my belongings and displaying them in their house and denied everything.I cant believe how much I’ve lost and I’m still in shock.I isolate and feel like I’m gonna explode,its so hard to explain this kinda abuse even to therapist,I still haven’t found the words to explain this hell and its built my mind into mush,I cant think straight,very very bad short term memory loss,watching a movie that u finish watching the next half the next day,having to start it over because u cant even remember what u watched the prior day.I cant remember how to spell many words.Two years later and I still cry every morning and every night.I believe I have a trama bond because I still want to have normal family,but I know I never will have that.where do u get help for this without sounding insane?? I’m truly struggling…very good explanation of my exact abuse…thank u!!!

    • Dan

      For starters, I’d recommend calling some psychology clinics and ask specifically if they have a therapist experienced with C-PTSD or narcissistic abuse.

      Maintain no contact with your mother (or “gray rock” if that’s not possible).

      Be selfish for a while. Focus on what makes you happy and healthy. Reduce stress and exercise your mind.

      If you’re on Facebook, here’s a support group you might find helpful: https://www.facebook.com/groups/2086262928054302/

    • Shell

      Abuse like that will even throw your central nervous system off, as the constant fight-or-flight hormone being released off our kidneys, and going to the brain, sending protein transmitters across our bodies causing tension, heart palpitations, jumpiness, anger, memory loss, etc. It’s hell man, but it IS healable!!!
      Gray Rock your earthly mom, and lean into your spiritual family. It was the only thing that helped me survive. Best of luck to you on your healing journey!!!

    • josie

      There’s a very helpful subReddit called raisedbynarcissists.

  • stacey

    Great article! i do find crystals healing tho. i learned how to work with the frequencies. Lepidolite is great for stress. Bach flower essence like Rescue Remedy helped me too.

  • Audrey Gonzales

    I am going through all of this as I write this message. I am in need of help. I can’t eat , sleep..he has taken over my life. Nine years. I finally left tho…but We got back together two years ago…I thought he changed. I thought he realized. I was wrong. It’s worse and yet he is constantly on my mind, in all that I do. I didn’t know what I was going thru til I found out what a narcissist was. I’m going thru everything they say a victim of narcissist goes thru. Everything!!! I am a broken mess. I want to get better. What do I do? Please.

    • Dan

      I understand how difficult this is. Breaking a trauma bond, some say, is harder than kicking heroin. A large part of what you’re going through is physiological. It’s like chemical withdrawals. You have to be prepared to face some suffering if you are going to come out OK on the other side, but there are things you can do to ease the passage. I wrote this piece in the hope that others in similar circumstances might be helped by my experiences.

      I suggest that you get in touch with a therapist who’s experienced in narcissistic abuse or C-PTSD. If it gets to a point that you feel you can’t manage, get yourself to an emergency room and they’ll get you going in the right direction.

      Since a lot of what you’re experiencing is physical, you can use physical means to reduce the pain. Believe it or not, even simple aspirin or other over the counter analgesics can help. So can antihistamines, like benadryl.

      Learn about narcissism, take walks or otherwise, get some light exercise. Start putting your wellbeing first.

      Even if you do everything exactly “right,” healing is still going to take time. Give yourself time. Every day you suffer is a day closer to breaking free of the trauma bond!

    • Lori

      I’m sorry and I know exactly what you are going through! I’ve been 3 months out of a 3 year relationship with a NARC! It’s hard. I wanted to straight up commit suicide. It consumed my life, I’ve lost friends. I had to see a counselor which has helped. Every day gets better and better is the best thing I can offer. I literally try and focus on the BAD the lies the cheating and the mental abuse! Seriously hang in and focus on getting your life back in order.

  • Marty

    I’m 54. I’ve been married for nearly 19 years. I can’t leave right now, as I am in a custody battle for my granddaughter. That should be resolved in a year, with custody going to her mother( court keeps getting pushed back etc) I’m cut off from friends and family. I’ve become riddled with panic attacks and anxiety. I don’t have a job, but I keep looking, even if I get one, it will be low paying. I am not sure that I can afford to take care of myself. I’m trying to be realistic, and smart about things…but I feel like I am losing my mind. My self esteem is nil. I’ve gained a lot of weight. I feel empty, fat, and featureless. I don’t trust anyone anymore, and live in this dreary repeat cycle of mental abuse and depression. I don’t know what to do. I have no access to money, he controls every aspect of my life. I have no autonomy. I know logically what he is doing to my soul…but I don’t know how to fix it. I wrote this in a hurry, forgive me if it is garbled. I feel so lost and alone. Any thoughts would be appreciated, and thanks!

    • Dan

      My heart goes out to you. It sounds like a crushing situation to be in. I’m wondering if you’re as cut off from friends as you say, or if the barriers are more a matter of perception. Narcissistic abuse can make us feel isolated and can cause us to self-isolate. I’d test that. Try to get back in touch with people. Friends can be a HUGE help. It sounds like you’re going to have to rely on the “gray rock” method for dealing with your narcissistic partner. Getting a job sounds like a great idea both because it will provide you a means to work towards freedom and because it will get you out of the house and around other people for a while.

      Your message doesn’t seem at all garbled. I understand perfectly. If you’re on facebook, there are a couple support groups I’ve found helpful. Maybe check them out, too:
      https://www.facebook.com/groups/2086262928054302/
      https://www.facebook.com/groups/198860354210215/

    • Veronica

      I can feel your sadness and your despair Start listening to daily meditations and healing 10 minutes a day if you can Check out 528 hz music for inter healing Read all you can on mindfulness and self compassion. Get a big teddy bear that you can hold and pretend it is you and talk to it love it. You were going to have to love yourself whole and do not let him see that you are rebuilding yourself from the inside out keep it all to yourself. Learn detachment imagine a big safe plexiglass all around you and none of his words or his behaviors can get to your soul your spirit your heart. Learn about grey rock. Pray and give your fears to God ask him to give you strength

    • Ms D

      Yes I’m the same age and exact same situation, no job, raising our 14 yr old son alone, no family or friends cuz iv been a stay at home mom, us who r suffering from these narcissist need support, so if I could help, I’m here to listen, we need to b heard, cuz as we both no a narcissist is alot about them. Stay strong and start doing for you!! God bless 🙏

  • Annonymous

    I just went through practically the same thing! Mom died, cat died, and then clusterB. I lost so much weight and felt inept at everything. Physically I have never felt so much pain and mental confusion from the c-ptsd. I couldn’t even write my hands were so shaky. I had to move across the country and wouldn’t look any strangers in the eye walking down the street.
    After reading your post, I keep forgetting that I didn’t get to properly grieve death and clearing an estate as well. It all happened at once. I’m 4 months No Contact and dealing with the worst smear campaigns because my SO is high profile, but slowly able to move my body again and have moments where I don’t obsessively read on Quora. Taking nootropics (responsibly), B vitamins, and getting massages helps a little at first when trauma is at it’s worst.
    Thanks for letting us know there is hope, and sorry this happened to you too. Bums me out that little is known amongst therapists and the public in general about this abuse. Also that science hasn’t caught up with a cure. I still fight the feeling of wanting to find a cure for these miserable people. So far Eleanor Greenburg is a therapist with a lot of insight to narcissism. Check her out!

  • Robin

    Hi Dan, just wanted to say this was one of the better and realistic articles I’ve read on actually getting through. I continue to reflect and googled narcissists and ownership as I continue to realize I don’t think there was ever love only ownership. Anyway, I am also struggling with the aftermath related to the cortisol release. Luckily I’ve gotten really good as noticing what stresses and stimulates me. It’s actually quite interesting. Some people immediately make me sweat and I realize my body has always had this “pre warning “ system I never paid attention to. Congrats on your progression through removing some harmful to your health behaviors. I can’t seem to ditch the coffee though either, as much as I probably should. Gonna try this crossword puzzle thing out though. I’ve taken the holistic route and am also working on healing. Thanks for the article.

    • Ms D

      Yes thank you, I’v been doing research and been learning about this and now it all makes sense, 14 yrs of marriage with the last 10 being hell, the emotional abuse is awful and no one sees it but me, and yes I feel a negative impact on my brain and that scares me, I used to b a vibrant and fun lady, now I’m always tired and grouchy, hate it, so I’m looking for ways to better myself, and pray for all who are suffering 🙏

  • Heather

    Omg I want to thank you for sharing this🖤I am so lost right now and this gave me hope that everything could “wake up” , that’s what I call it, I just feel like everything is sleeping; my brain, my feelings, my heart, basically everything that makes me a functioning person😔

  • Dan

    Even with help and determination, it can be a long road, but hope is step one towards recovery. Once you believe you can get better (and truly want to), you can start taking steps forward.

    This article has had more of an impact than I might have imagined. I’m so glad people are finding it helpful. Thanks for your feedback. Good luck on your path back to yourself!

  • Tana THOMASTON

    This article and the responses are so helpful in recovery. I am very thankful someone referred this on to me. It is a new week and a new day and I am very thankful for receiving this today!

  • A J Alford

    Oh my goodness, I am in the process of ending a 17 year relationship with someone I believe is a narcissist. He and I had a conversation yesterday and I started to believe that I was the one who messed up our relationship. That is was my fault. It doesn’t matter that we have had a volatile relationship for years. He has angry out bursts. I have walked on eggshells our entire relationship. He has betrayed me 4 times. Holy crap. I was starting to believe this was my fault.

  • Erin Conway

    After 4 devastating years of his abuse, I finally went NC & set myself free. The Dr Jesse Lefever & Mr Hyde dynamic wore me thin.
    Months later, when I diplomatically informed him he had given me chlamydia in both eyes, his final words to me were:
    You stupid Bitch. No one cares about your fucking problems. Just go KILL YOURSELF and leave everyone alone
    You pathetic, psycho loser
    DIE!
    Just DIE!

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