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Rubble… or Building Blocks?

It’s a decision that requires unbelievable determination, commitment and love of oneself (or at least your children). It has the potential to be incredibly destructive, creating the feeling that you are devising some sort of bomb and have to decide just how much explosive to put into it. Frequently, it involves multiple tries and a few different plans before it actually comes together and you can carry it out one final time. Getting out of your abusive relationship is no less strategic than escaping from a building that has fallen down around you. Kind of feels the same, too.

Maybe this is what it feels like to be dead.

Richard Picciotto, FDNY Deputy Chief, September 11, 2001

The aftermath can be very much the same. I was reminded of this when I recalled reading Last Man Down, by FDNY Deputy Chief Richard “Pitch” Picciotto. It is a gut-wrenching account of how he and a few others survived and escaped the World Trade Center North Tower after its collapse. I think I cried through half the book, because it created such a strong mental picture for me that I couldn’t help but feel incredible empathy and imagine the sheer terror and helplessness they must have felt. Many times, I experienced those sensations when feeling completely trapped by my situation. I know that at the time I finally mustered the courage to really, actually end the marriage (on the fourth try), I felt as if I had just unleashed a wrecking ball onto my own life.

But is that really what it was? My life was already nothing but a string of shattered dreams and denied hopes, of pain and ridicule and fear. When you were a kid and imagined being married with a family, how did you envision it? Were you hopeful? Did you picture kids and a house and dogs and a yard and family cookouts with lots of laughter? I’m from a very small family, but I remember with great longing the many good times we had when I was growing up. Everybody loved everybody else and it was fun. My family had just the right amount of goofiness to keep things enjoyable most of the time. We had plenty of tough times, but nothing that really came anywhere close to outweighing the good. One thing I remember with absolute clarity, even now, 29 years after my father’s death: my parents absolutely adored each other. Hand to God, I can only remember one time when they argued really angrily and my mom ate dinner in her room… after cooking it for everyone, of course.


So maybe I was already living among a shambles and simply, as they say, “rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic”. It was clearly barely afloat but I continued to believe that there would be some sort of rescue. I remember after dropping him off at the train station at the end of the weekend when I finally told him I was done and gave him a set of almost-completed divorce papers, I came home and sat on the floor in my bedroom, stunned but somehow hopeful and relieved that it was finally, mercifully, over. I knew it for sure this time. I went from feeling one minute like the sky had fallen in and the next that I had been given a precious opportunity for a life do-over. Were the imaginary bricks laying around me rubble or building blocks?

I would venture a guess that each of us has felt both ways. Some days, it seemed as if everything had fallen completely apart and we sat among the ruins of what we thought our lives would be. Other days, we have had the vision of a much better life and how we can reorganize and stack those imaginary bricks into a new, better, stronger formation with wonderful opportunities for growth. There is one thing I am for sure, and that’s resilient. No matter how bad things have been at certain times in my life, I have managed to claw my way back and create something at least a little better than before. I don’t think that’s anything special about me, I think that’s the human condition. People want to feel fulfilled, which is what gets abusers into so much trouble. They go after fulfillment in all the wrong ways: dominance, control, acquiring things, making money, sexual and emotional affairs… all of these describe the typical malignant narcissistic abuser. Meanwhile, you can ask any abused partner and she or he will tell you that they just want to be loved, appreciated, treated with respect and care, and above all, to feel safe both physically and emotionally in their own homes.

Many of you are either still in the abusive relationship or in the early stages of recovery, so I ask you to think about this: do you look at your life as being in a shambles, or do you look at all the great, usable “building materials” around you? What can you do with those bricks? Those bricks can be labeled and used to build the life you want, the one you deserved to have in the first place. The labels can be things such as lessons learned, wisdom, strength, courage, love, clarity, creativity, drive, focus, support, encouragement and faith.

The first thing a builder must have is a design. One of our members, K, who is well down the path in her recovery journey, shared with me that each year she makes an “intention”. I thought on that a little while and I think that’s a much better way to look at it than a fixed and overly structured plan that is subject to outside influences. You must have intentions and take specific steps toward them, but as I was reminded several times over the years, “put your goals in concrete but your timeline in sand”. It doesn’t mean to become wishy-washy, but rather allows for the fact that stuff happens and you shouldn’t beat yourself up. Just pick up where you left off and take another step forward.

A final thought as you consider your upcoming (or ongoing) project: When you are finished rebuilding, do one last very important thing: paint it any darn color you choose!


This is a chapter from Bodies in the Basement by Aubrey Cole, probably the first “screw you” series for survivors of abuse, in which she hopes to teach, arm and empower with a hint of sass. It is about abuse, about escape, and about recovery. It is about a really intelligent girl with a big heart, but a level of trust and empathy that made her the perfect target for a predator. It is a true story, no embellishments, no holds barred, no swearing spared.

The whole collection of essays can be purchased at Amazon - Bodies in the Basement by Aubrey Cole

About Aubrey Cole

Aubrey survived a quarter century of psychological, emotional, economic and sexual abuse. When she got out, she vowed to help others do the same and founded the Emotional Abuse Survivors Network project in 2012. Now, she offers hope and healing on to others on their journey as they rediscover themselves. Her books, Bodies in the Basement and Define Winning (forthcoming), chronicle her experiences, escape, and recovery. There is nothing so special about Aubrey, she usually says, that others can't emerge and thrive, too.



SwanWaters is a platform for people recovering from (emotional) abuse. They welcome you to join them and to connect with their Community of Survivors for support and to gain access to numerous resources to help you cope with, and recover from, abuse and toxic people. They provide both public and members only sections. The founders of SwanWaters are all survivors. They began their healing journey together years ago, and wish to share the support and relationships they found through that process.

We are not here to sell you a certain path to healing. We are not counselors or lawyers. We are here to listen to your story, and to share our own. We talk about methods that worked for us, share what we have learned, link to resources we found useful, but mostly we listen. - SwanWaters

Bodies in the Basement - providing a platform for people recovering from (emotional) abuse
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