How does freedom feel?

By Alice Smith – survivor and founder of 361 Recovery and 361 Life Support

How does freedom feel?

Freedom is the survivor’s motto. Freedom is our goal. Freedom from the cage we made for ourselves with our decisions. Freedom is nothing we can catch or win. Freedom has no boundaries. Freedom is this wide open space. Freedom is letting go of chasing these things.

Freedom is letting go of our story.  

What is freedom? Can we define it? 

Well….have you ever seen a pet rabbit that has escaped from its cage? It goes round and round the edges of the garden waiting for a cat, dog or fox to eat it. This is because all that wide open space is just too big. Being in a cage has dulled its senses and taken away its ability to be alert, sense danger and keep safe. Being in the cage has taken away its ability to make decisions.

Any child who releases their pet rabbit has choices too. She cannot just walk away. She must choose between putting the rabbit back in its cage – its ‘safe space.’ Or letting it run around until a fox or dog finds it and tears it apart. Now the child begins to understand a little more about freedom. So what is freedom? And what is freedom without the emotional education to set boundaries in our own lives? Whether we like it or not we all need to set boundaries. So be careful what you wish for, little rabbits.

The big question for women in abusive relationships is this – should I stay or should I go? Should I take those first steps out of the cage? Will I feel free? Will I be free? What will freedom feel like? Do I have the emotional skills to survive in wide open spaces? One of the reasons we choose to stay is that we don’t feel confident in our own emotional skills. So we stay in the cage. We need to know that we are not lying on the key. No. I am here today to tell you that there is no key.

What does your freedom feel like?

Close your eyes and imagine it….pause  My freedom feels like the wind in the trees. It feels like wide open spaces in front of me. It feels like miles of silver sea stretched out before me and the wind blowing over it in ripples to greet me. Freedom is intoxicating at first. My freedom is a beach. What’s yours?

I am an optimist at heart.  

My freedom has been scary at times – ending up in dangerous places I felt unsafe in – over and over again. I have had to  learn how to protect myself – ‘street smarts.’ The emotional skills of consent are emotional skills I have had to relearn. Yes I ‘won’ my freedom but since then I have had to l live way out of my  emotional comfort zone. In abusive situations, we constrict and make ourselves smaller. We want to take up less space in the world. This freezes and stunts our emotional growth. So when we leave an abusive situation, at first we lack the emotional skills to survive. We put ourselves in danger – online dating, taking risks with our personal safety and maybe falling into self destructive or addictive behaviours. Post trauma, our freedom can feel very scary until we learn the emotional skills to enjoy it. I call this emotional evolution.

Freedom from labels

After 5 years in PTSD recovery from an abusive relationship, one surprising freedom has suddenly become clear to me. I want freedom from my story. It’s a victim story. I’m no longer sure that telling our story gives us power. I am becoming more and more certain that telling our story over and over again doesn’t help our emotional health. Our stories keep us in victim mode. 

Freedom is beyond our stories. Our new uk survivor network 361 Life Support asks – victim, survivor, what lies beyond? The vision is to create a network for survivors that can guide them to find their own emotional freedom. Freedom from their stories. We believe that there has to be more than these two limiting labels – victim and survivor. Because otherwise, why are we still here? Why did we survive it all? What do we have to teach society about fairness and injustice? Do our stories teach the world anything new? No. Do the lessons we have learnt? Yes – they could. The 361 programme I have written combines all these lessons I’ve learnt into a recovery programme for women. Now, isn’t sharing those lessons more powerful than sharing our stories?

We are so much more than our stories. We are so much more than our labels. There is emotional freedom in losing our story. By losing our stories we can gain our freedom.

So what does your freedom feel like?

However you define it, freedom is a feeling that doesn’t last. So don’t try to catch it or win it. It’s like jumping to grab hold of a balloon before it flies away. Freedom is a series of decisions we make every day – big and small. What to wear. What to say. Where to work. Who to love. How to be in the world. After loss we can lose our ability to make these decisions. At this point we simply don’t trust ourselves. 

And if we escape our cages, what then? Do we go back into another cage with another man who will control us? Or do we learn how to live outside the cage in the wide open spaces? After loss, the world seems a big wide open scary place. Freedom is so big and so without rules that many of us choose to stay where we are – dead marriages, toxic relationships and jobs we hate. Because we know the rules. There is comfort in what we know even if we hate it. 

361 Recovery shows us that we still have time to learn the skills we missed out on when we were younger. There is no shame in this. Emotionally we may need to unlearn or remember important lessons such as consent or setting a bottom line. This emotional education is learning to live outside the cage – and it is real emotional learning that we have to commit to if we want to recover. Because there are always plenty of cages waiting for us.. 

So what does freedom mean to you?                  

To the survivor it is a badge we wear. Maybe we even call ourselves ‘warriors’ and say we ‘won’ our freedom. But there is a saying, ‘The wise do not fight the world.’ The truth is – Freedom costs. The truth is that freedom is not a badge. It’s not a simple opening of the cage as the child with the rabbit finds out. Freedom is a series of decisions that never end. And those decisions have consequences.  This sometimes involves making mistakes – and if you can begin to make sense of your mistakes, you will discover that your true wisdom lies in your failures.

I have left the cage, felt that fear and kept on walking. I have written and developed 361 during three solitary years living by the sea. I became sober, started up my own business and felt that fear of wide open spaces. And kept on walking. Emotionally, I have had to learn things that maybe you learned as a child. There is no shame in returning to complete your emotional education as a woman. We may need to revisit and reframe grief or abuse as well as learn how to show love, how to trust and how to forgive betrayals. That’s a biggie. But I’ve done it. I learnt to negotiate all that space around me after loss. I found another way of living that doesn’t involve cages. With emotional education, you too can eventually find your own way in all that space, define your own boundaries and experience the thrill of freedom. Then you can truly answer the question – How does freedom feel to you? And I can tell you, it feels amazing. 

Alice Smith 2020