*POSSIBLE TRIGGER WARNING!!*
I discuss my abuse in this post, not in a graphic nature, but it could be triggering for some folks.
So next week (if the gov't shut down doesn't interfere), I'm going to be giving a talk on domestic violence at the Marine base here in town. I haven't been in a domestically violent relationship myself, but I was raised in a dv home setting, so it definitely affected me. I'd like to share my talk here, complete with pictures, because C doesn't want to hear it. It's not that he doesn't care, it's that it upsets him too much to hear the actual story. I've told him everything, and he's compartmentalized it away, but he doesn't want to hear it again. It makes him very angry, and there's nothing he can do about it, so it's better to just not say. (That's not to say that he doesn't listen when I need to talk, but outside of that... I pretty much keep "work" away from our conversations, except in a general sense.) I'm really proud of him for coming along and supporting me during the trial. It was very hard for him to hear all the sordid details and to actually see G, to see me up on the stand and to watch me get cross examined by The Snake. He's such a good guy. Fun fact: he saw G at work while he was in the county jail waiting to be transferred to the state prison, and had to ask to be transferred to a different unit to work. Conflict of interests, you see. He might pulverize the guy. Heh. (Not that any of us would have minded, but they generally frown on that kind of behavior from officers...)
So anyway, here's the talk I'll be giving next week. It's not word for word, really, but I wrote down the story.
Recently married, co-running non-profit agency. Emotionally healthy and stable, have many fulfilling hobbies, a solid support system, and several close, meaningful friendships. Also have two cats. Looking at me, you’d think I am a happy, successful young woman with a bright future, and you’d be right. This was not always the case.
Teen years and early twenties: intense depression, uncertainty, paralyzed by fear of failure, low self esteem, delinquency, risky behaviors, suicidal thoughts, escapism, no sense of self, directionless. Felt responsible for family and mother, yet a failure. Codependent, dealing with PTSD unaware, zero boundaries, unrealistic expectations for self and others.
Very few safe people in life, one of them being now-husband, C. Met at 15, began dating later that year. Kept me safe and on the straight and narrow as far as he could- got me to work and school, kept me from drinking and drugs, from unsafe situations and friendships.
Another safe person E, met after disclosing childhood sexual abuse at age 17 and pressing charges. She was my victim advocate and maintained a friendship with me after my abuser received a conviction and the case was closed. It was while preparing for trial and telling the details of my childhood to her that I first began to realize that what I and my family went through was not normal, and was in fact a terribly abusive situation.
Some of earliest memories are of being physically abused, but by a different man, my younger sister’s father. He was extremely abusive to my mother as well, and almost killed her at least once. One incident I remember clearly is the time that he placed me inside of a heated oven, resulting in burns on my back that required a doctor’s attention. Another time, he tried to force me to drink urine. On multiple occasions and for reasons I can’t remember, my mouth was stuffed with wadded socks. I was somewhere between 1 ½ and 3 years old. He was not the only abusive presence in my life- physically and I suspect sexually abused at day care, and in one abusive temporary home after being removed to foster care when the domestic violence situation with mom and my sister’s dad became apparent.
Mom got custody of me back and we moved to Y, where my younger sister K was born. We had a year or so of peace until my second abuser entered the picture. I was afraid of him from the beginning, as something about him triggered an innate sense of wrongness. Nevertheless, Mom got pregnant with my younger brother and married him.
I do not recall seeing him beat her the way he beat me after a while, but he did make her life hell in many other ways, such as forcing her to pack and move all of the household goods and furniture right after she got out of the hospital from delivering my brother and was suffering from a severe kidney infection. He refused to go to work frequently so my mom worked as much as she could to keep us in food and clothes, but he took most of her money to spend on his own hobbies. She had a secret stash of money for groceries that only she and I were privy to. He ignored us kids unless he was high or wanted to impress someone, and he pretty much ignored mom as well. When mom was working and he was supposed to be caring for us kids, the duties fell to me and I became the secondary mother of the home.
This role was exacerbated even more when he began coming to my bedroom around age nine and molesting me. Years later, when I confronted him via phone call, his excuse was that he and mom were “having problems”.
His parenting style was erratic and wildly unpredictable, often meting out excessive punishments for trivial offenses that hadn’t been offenses previously. I bore the brunt of this, being the oldest, and the punishments ran the gamut from isolation to beatings (excessive “spankings” that brought heavy bruising and bleeding welts) to food deprivation. He acted as a grown child, with petulance and unrealistic demands of all the members of the family, favoring or ostracizing on a whim.
In one instance, he returned from a trip with the three younger children and announced that he didn't like my younger sister and never wanted to take her on a trip again. I believe that she internalized this message, as her previously loving, outgoing nature changed drastically from that time on and she became sullen, withdrawn, and painfully unsure of herself. She has spent her dating years emotionally promiscuous, dating younger men who tend to idealize her and put her on a pedestal but who have serious emotional problems themselves and required her affection to fuel their self worth. She was in a long term domestically violent relationship (unbeknownst to the rest of the family) that resulted in the first grandchild.
As for myself, these formative years in such an emotionally, mentally, physically, and sexually abusive environment seriously warped my sense of self, my perception of healthy relationships both romantic and non, and my ability to cope with life stressors. In many ways, I was still the toddler and the child who did not know how to handle life or relate to the world around her, because I was denied the opportunity to learn these things. Instead, I was taught that I didn't matter, that what I said had no value or weight, that the mistakes I made while learning something new were to be punished and thus to be avoided (so trying new things was to be avoided, for fear of making a mistake), that words and promises are not to be trusted, and neither are actions. I learned to mistrust and fear authority figures, to accept violence and manipulation as a part of everyday life, and to believe that women and children are inherently inferior to men, especially men in positions of authority. I learned to keep secrets, to keep quiet and clean up the messes of my dysfunctional family rather than seek help for genuinely distressing situations. I learned that I do not have the right to say no to anyone, no matter how outrageous the claim or the imposition on me. I learned that I was helpless, always helpless. I learned to give up before I even tried. I learned that I was only as good as my contribution, that my acceptance or rejection depended on it. I learned to be a piss-poor member of society.
This is one of the great problems with domestic violence; it doesn't just affect the women or men in the abusive relationship. It fundamentally changes the children who witness it, who live with it day in and day out. Society is built on the backs of the family unit, as it is the family unit that produces the citizens who make the world go round. When the children are taught false and damaging “truths” about themselves and their relationship to those around them, they will grow up to act in negative, damaging ways. They will not respect laws or those who make them. They will not treat people with courtesy and respect. They will not build up, but they will tear down. Why? Because that is what they are taught is “normal”. That is what they see as being the basic model of the world.
I was raised to be a victim. I didn’t go out and hurt others, but I was the one that allowed myself to be hurt. I was part of the perpetual cycle, because wolves only survive if there are prey to devour. I didn’t understand why I always felt so burnt out, how I kept getting screwed over and hurt, why I felt so paralyzingly guilty that I couldn’t say “no” to anyone. I didn’t know why I felt like such a fake all of the time, why I didn’t know who I was or felt that I was always pretending. I didn’t know what a personal boundary was. Literally, I didn’t know.
It wasn’t until I moved to Id and lived with a family there for several years that I began to understand how a healthy family functions. They had struggles and flaws, like any normal family, but they truly were a healthy, functioning family unit. It took quite a bit of adjustment on both our parts to get used to the arrangement- I didn’t know how to relate to a real family, and they didn’t know what to do with a girl who didn’t know how to be in a family! But we ironed out the wrinkles, and as I began going through counseling and intensively focusing on healing from my past of abuse, I began discovering emotional health and, more importantly, the real me.
I grew and I thrived within the cocoon of that family, but the time did come for me to leave. I moved back here to Y, supposedly temporarily on my way through to CA, but I ended up staying as I got involved with The Healing Journey and in a relationship with my husband. I’ve continued to intentionally heal from the abuse that I suffered and grew up around, and part of that is using what I’ve learned to try to help others. I know that there are people in the world who make bad decisions. That’s not going to change. So I know that there will continue to be people that abuse other people. What I hope to do is help those who have already endured abuse to heal and become stronger, as I have, and in the process remove some of the people from that pool of possible offenders.
It’s more than just working with The Healing Journey, though I adore my job, as hard as it is. To me, the most important thing I can do with my healing is to help my family. My ex step dad is behind bars, and I’m proud to say that I put him there. He deserves every year of the prison sentence that he got, and some more on top of that. But my mom was also abused, by him, by my sister’s dad, and by her parents and others before them. She is broken, too. My siblings grew up in the same household that I did, and they are broken. Through my urging, they’re all getting counseling now, and I share with them what I’ve learned when I can. When I go home to visit, we talk, and they can see the growth and healing in me. The ways that I interact with them have changed. The ways that I respond to them have changed. The way I think about things has changed. But most importantly, the thing that gives them the greatest hope for their future is my marriage.
They’ve seen my mom go through one bad relationship after another, and, like I was at one point, have become cynical about the possibility or reality of a truly happy relationship. They see that C and I have done it, we’re making it, and we are genuinely happy despite the different setbacks that we deal with. I’ve had conversations with all of my siblings, and even my mother, at one point or another regarding my marriage, and they all express hope that they can have something like that someday. Even our friends say that. I make sure to emphasize to them that what we have is possible because we both insist on being happy and healthy within ourselves first and foremost, rather than looking to the other person to fix us or make us happy.
I think the thing that makes me the happiest is knowing that my children will never, ever have to experience what I did, or even my husband to a lesser degree. My children will not live in uncertainty and fear, will not nurse bitterness and hatred within themselves over very real injustices. My children will grow up in a steady, safe home filled with loving discipline and genuine acceptance. I honestly don’t know what they’ll turn out like, because nothing in my experience has prepared me for knowing the outcome of living in a home like that, except for my few brief years in Id. But I do know that my kids will also be very aware of the issues of domestic violence and sexual abuse, and that they and all of their friends will know that our home is a safe place for anyone to come to. So maybe my ex step dad tried to destroy my mom and our family, but it is possible to take destruction and turn it into a gift, if only we are brave and just plain stubborn enough to do it.