Bloom review: free healing by survivors for survivors

This post is a review of Bloom, a free, online, remote platform offering trauma-informed courses helping survivors heal from abuse. Just last year, 2.3 million adults aged 16 to 74 years experienced domestic abuse in the United Kingdom, while 1.6 million 16 to 74-year-olds had experienced sexual assault. With with domestic and sexual violence ever-present in the news, in the criminology program I teach and in entertainment, I realised that my past experiences still haunted me, and that I wanted to do something about it. Created by global, survivor-led non-profit Chayn, Bloom caught my eye and I decided to try it. Here’s what I thought about it.

Disclaimers, warnings and a story

This is one of my long, personal mindfuck posts – but a hopeful one, I think! Haven’t written one of these in a while and thought it was about time to put it in writing… not because you should care about my life, but because being open about trauma helps me process it and because I think that courses like the free ones provided by Bloom can help a lot of my readers. Which brings me to the next point: the course is free, and I haven’t been paid to write about it. I genuinely found it helpful and want to share it with my readers.

Those of you who have been following me for a while know that I’m an abusive relationship and sexual assault survivor. As a result, some of the traumas arising from those experiences are discussed here, so here’s a big shiny:

*Trigger warning for emotional, physical and sexual abuse.*

I was in an abusive relationship in 2014 and then briefly in 2016, an experience that has obviously really affected me and that I processed in a lot of weird ways, initially by Couchsurfing by myself in the United States, then moving to Australia to retrain as an academic through a MA in Criminology, through becoming a pole dancer, through writing a book inspired by it and, obviously, through therapy.

Although I did therapy on and off in the immediate aftermath of the abuse, I was struggling to access free resources at the time, and the Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) the NHS gave me was not the right approach for how I was feeling. After accessing some sessions through my university in Australia and then back here, I finally signed up for a (free) 12-week cycle of talking therapy with the Mind Charity and then another (free) 12-week cycle of CBT on the NHS.

So you can say I have done a lot of processing in the past few years.

Yet, some things still felt unfinished, and I wasn’t feeling 100%. I don’t think anyone will be surprised to hear that the lockdowns have really affected my mental health. I spoke about it extensively on this blog and on social media, and I did do some therapy, but in the back of my mind, I knew I was putting on bigger therapy cycles to days when I had more headspace.

Last summer, I finally had that headspace. Having just finished my PhD, and having just ended my most important the most important and positive relationship in my life so far, my brain could finally do some heavy lifting. I started a therapy cycle with Headstrong Hackney, an affordable online service that has been helping me massively in the past few months. But when I saw Chayn advertising the new Bloom course, I thought it aligned with my general therapy goals, and I took that on too.

About Bloom and its parent company, Chayn

Bloom is a free service offered by Chayn, an award-winning global nonprofit, run by survivors and allies from around the world. Chayn creates trauma-informed, intersectional, multi-lingual and feminist resources to support the healing of survivors of gender-based violence.

Initially a volunteer-run project, Chayn has now evolved into a hybrid organisation with paid staff and volunteers, many of whom are survivors. “Lived experience is at the core of our governance model and strategy, and shapes the organisation,” they say. “Most of our volunteers join because they experienced trauma first or second hand and they want to contribute to a feminist future free from violence and abuse.”

Started in 2013 by Hera Hussain, who was born in the UK but grew up in Pakistan, Chayn was inspired by her experience of helping two friends from the UK and Pakistan escape abusive marriages.

I first heard of Chayn precisely because of Hera, who is one of the women who joined the Who Writes The Rules campaign I’m also part of. Together, we are asking for better platform governance in the European Union. Given our shared interests, and my experiences of trauma, Bloom seemed like the right service to help me.

Bloom’s “Recovering from Toxic and Abusive Relationships” course

I took Bloom’s “Recovering from Toxic and Abusive Relationships” course, a seven-week online course where the facilitators discussed abusive tactics, the cycle of coercive control, the science of trauma, and how abuse can affect our relationships and coping mechanisms. The course was available to be done live – so, receiving weekly WhatsApp text messages with the latest course material – or via Telegram to be done at your own pace.

I chose the WhatsApp, live option to do alongside my existing therapy cycle. I really liked the fact that, even if listening to the videos and responding to the prompts via the Bloom Live Chat was a commitment to keep on top of, it was never a conversation I had to have live, in real time. That was a welcome change in addition to my existing talking therapy, because having already explored the trauma from my past abusive relationship through counselling, I really did not want to have to dig into it again. Instead, listening to the Bloom team explain situations, feelings and behaviours to me made me feel seen, understood and cared for without having to ‘prove myself’ or to say anything. That, in turn, helped me leave any remaining guilt I had with me behind.

Topics discussed in the course include:

  • Coercive control, or abusers’ tendency to show flashes of anger or to hint of being dangerous to manipulate their victims;
  • Love bombing, or when abusers shower you with love once you first meet them, to then pull back when you don’t appease them;
  • Stonewalling, or the threat of rejection.

The course also discusses leaving abusive relationships, and how to cope if for the moment you can’t leave. And while a lot of the behaviours and situations discussed may sound or appear triggering, the Bloom team somehow manage to make the course feel safe, even relaxing, like a conversation with a friend that wants to help rather than a list of traumatic episodes.

Since Bloom’s courses are informed by intersectionality, they constantly remind you of how systemic inequalities and particularly the patriarchy influence abuse. This mattered to me, because even though I teach criminology, I somehow still forget that my own abuse didn’t happen in a vacuum, but was a mix of poor mental health, job uncertainty and old-fashioned ideas about what a man should be. I loved how logical the course was in reminding us that abuse is a product of the society we live in, rather than of individual faults.

My favourite thing about Bloom’s “Recovering from Toxic and Abusive Relationships” course however was the emphasis on survivors’ agency. Not only does the course make you feel seen, like what happened to you isn’t your fault – it also features a set of measures to help you regain your power. One way the Bloom team does this is through self-esteem exercises, helping you question the beliefs about your worth that abusers put in your head, or through a very important section on boundary-setting, to identify when those boundaries aren’t being respected. In doing that, it’s probably been the best exercise in identifying red flags I’ve ever tried.

The course shows that having survivors on board with creating trauma-informed therapy really pays off. When I was living in and then exiting that abusive relationship in my early twenties, I did not want it to define me, I did not want to feel or look helpless. Because of my pride, I did not ask for help properly, and that stunted my healing. This is consistent with research showing that the stigma of being a rape victim prevents survivors from coming forward, leading to an unacknowledged rape epidemic that throws many of us into worse coping strategies, like drinking or ending up in worse relationships (see Rachel Thompson’s book Rough on this).

Survivors don’t want to feel patronised, they want to re-gain power over their own life. When abuse strips you of your sense of control, you want to be able to get your power back. This, I feel, is what Bloom helped me do.

My experience with the course

From day one, the Bloom course marked a shift in my understanding of the abusive relationship I was in during my last year at uni, in 2014. In the first session, the Bloom course leaders argued that the things we criticise ourselves for – e.g. “It’s my fault because I stayed, I ignored this or that” – are actually our strategies, our survival techniques to keep ourselves safe while we’re facing abuse. They added that psychological and emotional reasons not to leave or to come back to an abusive relationship don’t make you any more deserving of abuse.

That was eye-opening for me.

Even if I had stopped blaming myself for the abuse I survived, during the course I realised I hadn’t actively forgiven myself for ignoring red flags, not leaving and going back to that person. Knowing that these are survival techniques survivors use to stay alive felt like an awakening, and it set me free from the remaining feelings of guilt I had.

It’s so important to hear physical abuse is not the only abuse we face. It feels hard to justify that abuse is happening when it doesn’t meet “mainstream” or “ideal” patterns. I myself went through financial, sexual, physical, emotional abuse, but because the physical side of this happened infrequently, it took me a lot of time to accept the relationship I was in was abusive. But it was: it thrived on the fear of those bursts, and on the fear of loneliness instilled by someone who manipulated me so much I thought I was unlovable, and that only he could love me.

Another ‘revelation’ that dawned on me during of course was realising that, even if my experiences of abuse date back to 2014, my body still reacts to every loss of control through fight or flight mode. Despite years of therapy, my anxiety is so built on the fear of losing control that even a tiny disagreement or worry make me react as if I’m under threat. This manifests through both physical and mental symptoms and behaviours, such as loops of social media checking, shortness of breath (not great during a pandemic), headaches, feeling as if someone is squeezing my brain tightly, nausea and stomach aches. It was eye-opening to connect these feelings with the legacy of experiencing abuse, and not just me being me. Somehow, once I recognised this, I have been feeling progressively more relaxed.

Mainly, what I realised through the Bloom course is that I’m actually doing OK. The course discusses how, as survivors, we often experience contradictory feelings – love, loss, grief, pain, fear, numbness, hyper-arousal, the lot. There’s a focus on anger, too, which can take over when you are healing, and through the course I realised the way I manage mine is quite healthy.

It took me years to realise that my anger, my lashing out was a result of feeling out of control. I was always angry as a child and didn’t know why, which made me feel mean and unworthy of love. But that was just inability to express my needs. So now I just try to go away somewhere and scream, take a moment and breathe, and if I can, I have a dance. Having a pole in my house really helps because that way I can focus on movement and on making sure I’m not breaking my neck, instead of on feeling angry.

The abusive relationship I was in will always somehow affect me, but I’ve processed that trauma and it has stopped defining me a long time ago. Importantly, after taking the Bloom course combined with talking therapy, I feel like most of my coping mechanisms when I’ve got bad mental health, or even when I’m struggling in relationships with friends, family and loved ones, are quite strong. Even if my current relationship has ended, it was a positive experience that showed me there can be love after abuse. And even if now I am struggling to think I will be able to open up with anybody else after the relationship with my latest partner didn’t work out, I’m hopeful that I have now processed past traumas enough to be able to choose relationships that make me feel safe and loved, because I’ve already done it once after abuse.

My goals with Bloom and therapy

I signed up for both talking therapy and the Bloom course because I was tired of past feelings and past relationships influencing how I live my life, what I’m afraid of and, potentially, even my current and future relationships. My goal was to better process, understand and move on from my trauma so that it stopped defining me, and so that I stopped re-traumatising myself through the people I allowed in my life.

I think, after almost ten years, it’s finally happening.

Because the course is about recovering from abusive and toxic relationships, it was helpful to discuss how toxic relationships aren’t abusive, but they feel ‘off’ and make us feel ashamed. This can happen with any relationship: friendships, work relationships, family relationships or romantic relationships. I can already feel this new-found knowledge informing my choice of the people I surround myself with.

In her book Hunger, Roxane Gay writes about staying in abusive relationships even after experiencing abuse: “I stayed because they confirmed every terrible thing I already knew about myself. I stayed because I thought no one else could possibly tolerate someone as worthless as me.” Low self-esteem caused by abusive relationships can feel familiar and influence who we choose next, because we have less to lose by choosing what we know.

Particularly through talking about traumatic bonding – the emotional bond survivors you develop with an abuser that makes you accept their behaviour – I realised I have sometimes been looking for relationships that feel “familiar” to my old experiences, which were mainly characterised by loss of control, because I knew how to deal with it and because it was less daunting than seeking out something new. This though, both in friendships and relationships, really affected my sense of emotional self-worth.

With my therapist outside this course, I’ve been discussing how I place most of my self-worth in my work life, and in how hard I work. But because of my experiences of abuse, I used to value myself very little emotionally.

When you have been abused, it’s easy to feel mean, unreasonable or crazy for not wanting someone around. Because I’d let an abuser into my life, I didn’t trust my judgement about getting rid of people who felt ‘off,’ maybe for no fault of their own, but just for how we interacted. Now, partly thanks to the Bloom course, I trust my judgement, and I feel free.

After the course

One of the first things I learnt during my previous therapy cycle was that, particularly when recovering from abuse, it’s likely you will mourn both the ending of a very intense relationship, and the person you were both before it started and when it finished. I feel like that mourning is now complete, and like I am happy with who’s on the other side.

I feel like I am just starting to emerge from years of wanting to prove myself to the outside world and, mainly, to myself. To prove that trauma hadn’t “ruined me,” and that I wasn’t a lost cause.

The new-found post-PhD headspace has also probably got a lot to do with it. Depending on that piece of paper to be able to apply for jobs and even just have time for myself outside of the rat race of finishing my thesis and making money to support myself feels like a massive relief.

I am starting to feel comfortable in my own skin, like I’m worthy of love and like I can let my guard down every now and then. I used to escape stillness because it trapped me in my own mind, and having nothing to do was a guarantee for mindfucks. But now I’m starting to prioritise rest, and even when I have nothing to distract myself with, I am surprisingly OK. I know what I want from relationships with myself, with my family, with work. I know there is worth in me outside of how much I produce, and that I deserve rest, and that my boundaries are reasonable.

If you’ve made it to the end of this by now quite intense blog post, give yourself a pat on the back. You got this. And if you don’t (and also if you do, but need a helping hand) consider trying Bloom’s courses.

Other Bloom courses

The course I’ve chosen isn’t the only one Bloom offers. For now, I feel a bit overwhelmed with how much I have learnt about myself and need a bit of a break. However, in the future I will definitely sign up for some of their other courses, which include:

  • Creating boundaries
  • Healing from sexual trauma
  • Managing anxiety
  • Reclaiming resilience in your trauma story

You can find more information about them here.

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