Please share what happened to you:
What happened to me? My mother.
I was born to an 18 year old girl who had recently endured the unexpected death of her father and who had been raised a witness to and victim of domestic abuse herself. Unlike my father, who was essentially tortured by his father but had a good mother, my mother was not able to empathize with those she would now be in a position to abuse. So, she carried on the multi-generational legacy of physical and emotional family violence.
She told me once that she pulled my hair then smacked my face when I was less than 2 years old, because I didn’t get her a towel fast enough. When I was 12 and sad that I didn’t have a boyfriend, she said, “Fat girls can’t have boyfriends.” I mentioned two overweight girls who had boyfriends, and mom responded, “Fat girls only have boyfriends if they have sex.”
When I was 14, she could tell somehow that I’d been kissed by a boy and she wheedled it out of me. She wanted to ‘share.’ Two days later, I came home a few minutes late because of torrential rains. She greeted me at the door screaming at me that I was a whore and a slut. She slapped me repeatedly and in the process scratched my forehead deeply. She threw me to the ground and kicked me repeatedly in the stomach screaming that I was a whore. My sister finally got mom to stop and I was told to go to my room. The next morning, mom asked where I got the long scab on my face, and when I said ‘From you,’ she denied any violence or name calling.
Many years later, when I was telling my mom about a group on self-forgiveness that I was teaching at the time, mom asked me to suggest an event she could use to go through the self-forgiveness process. I reminded her of that beating and verbal abuse because frankly I’d never forgotten it. Her enraged response: “Your [now deceased] dad just sat there. Why aren’t you mad at him?” Then she wrote me a long email which I did not finish, but which began by telling me how awful I am.
In fact, my brain had decided dad must have been at work, but my sister confirmed he had been there and done nothing. It was later that same year, when she ordered him to beat me with a belt, that he came into my room, sat down, and cried, telling me he could not hit me anymore. He went on to do much better at protecting me, but she is a narcissistic whirlwind of anxiety and abuse that cannot really be contained.
Before his death, he had told her he wouldn’t bring her to my house anymore if she criticized my housekeeping while visiting. After his death, I hosted her, in her grief, for weeks at a time. Once, when she was pointing out my lack of housekeeping skills, I mentioned dad told me about not wanting her to do that anymore. She replied, “Well, your father’s dead now, isn’t he?”
He died while I was performing CPR on him and while she was repeatedly punching me on the back as I was doing the CPR.
She continued to hit me when it suited her well into my adult years, and only when she hit my kids did I call her out on her abuse. Her response was to hit me, laugh, say it was nothing and I should loosen up. She continued to blend verbal abuse with sexual guilt; six years ago, when I told her about a man I was dating, she grabbed my stomach and said, “Do you think he could love you with a stomach like that? Do you think any man could love you with a stomach like that?”
She took my oldest son to Italy and got him drunk when he was 14. She then proceeded to tell him for hours what horrible parents he had. He never had a relationship with her again, as he is very very good at drawing boundaries. I’ve learned a lot from him about that. One day, during her grief travels, she was again at my house and I heard her saying the same horrible stuff to my youngest son. He was 11. I laid in bed and cried, waiting until she went to bed and then I got my son and we went to 7-11 and bought kettle chips and coca cola, and ate them at the FDR Memorial, (which is quite gorgeous at night.) We talked about what she had done, and that I had failed to protect him, because I didn’t feel strong enough to confront her.
I told the man who liked me well enough despite my stomach of that event. He said, “How long are you going to let your mother abuse you and your children?” I was stunned. He’d listened to me complain for 18 months, and thank goodness he finally told me the truth: I was responsible for what happened from this point on. I started setting limits on the number of days she could stay on visits. She can’t keep herself together long enough to not be verbally abusive during her stays. Finally, last February, when she asked why I was not answering her daily emailed question about whether the gent who likes me despite my stomach was calling, I said, “I don’t think at my age, I need to tell my mom every time my boyfriend calls me.” To which she responded, “You are low.” Maybe I’m wrong about my responses here, but it feels dangerous to let her anywhere near my relationships. I’ve tried to share a few things with her about this man, and it never goes well.
After she told me I was low, she kept writing, and I didn’t answer her emails, but I posted something cute to her on Facebook. I chose that because every single email was a manipulation of drama, feigned concern, and even talk of (false) money woes designed to get me to answer the emails.
Two days after the post, she sent police to my house telling them to check on me because she hadn’t heard from me in so long. She warned me in a text that she would do this unless I called her immediately. I could not tolerate the manipulation another moment and allowed the police to arrive. I’ve not answered any of her calls, texts, or emails since.
It is probably not surprising that I rarely dated. When I was 19, I was living with a man who beat me so severely I had two black eyes and pain all over my body when he was done. He beat me at a concert while dozens of people looked on. When he got off my stomach, which he was sitting on in order to better punch my face and chest, people then asked if I wanted help. They disgusted me more than he did, I think.
I got back in the car with him because the concert was in a very bad part of town and I was in danger regardless of where I went and who I was with. The boyfriend only wanted to know, day after day afterwards, if I would leave him. I did eventually, because I found a man who was very smart, made me laugh, could earn a living, and wouldn’t beat me, cheat on me, or live off me as the violent boyfriend did. I married this second man, and he was terrifyingly emotionally abusive and extraordinarily manipulative. Within a month of our marriage, we were walking over a creek on a footbridge. He pushed me over the low wall and then grabbed me back. He denied what he had done and, perhaps in keeping with mom always denying what she had done, I convinced myself I was wrong. But I was afraid of him after that. Once, when I said I wanted to vote for Jesse Jackson for president, he screamed at me for so many hours, I finally locked myself in the bathroom and slept in the tub.
When I wanted to go to a show (with him, but he would never go) or out with friends after we married, he would say “I guess I’ll have to get used to being without you.” or “Why don’t you just divorce me if you don’t want to be with me?” He would become so enraged while driving, and always blamed that on me, that he would make left turns into oncoming traffic – left turns, you see, puts me closest to that oncoming traffic. Once, he ran a woman off the road he was so angry. I did stop driving with him, and do not, to this day, allow him to drive our children anywhere. When we were first married, he told me he knew how to kill people without getting caught. When I was leaving him, he said at the dinner table that he had read a story in a magazine. It was a horrifying tale of a woman leaving her husband and he broke her fingers so she couldn’t open the car door to get away. I screamed at him to shut the fuck up. And my kids said – mom, it’s just a story. calm down. He pulled a butcher knife out of a drawer, held it up, and said, “Hey, wanna be in a carnival? All you have to do is stand still.”
He only hit me one time, very early on – and again it was my fault; he had to slam his fist into my knee making me limp for a week because I had emphasized a point I was making by hitting the back of my palm against his shoulder. I did learn not to do that again! And I also learned to make my life very narrow to avoid enraging him. I think many people do not understand how abusive a home can be if they don’t see bruises. I lost a lot of friends when I made the decision to leave him, but then again, I lost out on a lot of friends by staying with him all those years.
He threatened suicide off and on during the marriage. I wanted to save him, help him heal, show him life was worth living. And in doing so, threw so much of my own life away. He threatened suicide in front of our children two years before I left. That night, I prayed that he would do it, then knowing awful for my kids it would be, I tried once again to get him to accept help. He told the doctor he was under stress. I told the doctor how he screamed at us all the time and the doctor put him on medication for bipolar disorder. When I moved out, he said he didn’t need it anymore because I was the only person who upset him.
I would wake up in the morning and there would be rage in the air. Rage that I hadn’t initiated sex with him. He could have initiated sex with me but never did. So, I would do it under fear of his rage. This to me was rape, coerced sex. Or sometimes I would just not do it and our house would seethe with his rage all day. He would sleep with his arm pushing down on my diaphragm, and when I complained that I couldn’t breathe, he told me I didn’t love him. Which eventually, of course, became quite true. He monitored my clothing, my makeup, my jewelry, all my comings and goings. He would make my young son run errands with me, even on snowy or rainy days. When I would say – he should stay home, my husband would say, “No, I worry about you. I want someone with you.”
I decided to leave when four events spread over about 4 years happened. No doubt, my father’s death at a young age alerted me to the fact that time could be running out for me. The other events included intense public verbal abuse in front of our kids and dozens of hikers. That was the last straw, I think, but I was also profoundly touched by the realization that strangers were nicer to me than my husband was. I especially saw this when he was yelling at me on the phone when I said I had a flat tire, yelling because he said he just knew I’d save the tire changing for him. As I was reassuring him I would never do that, two men knocked on my door, said they’d noticed I had a flat, and could they please repair it for me. Angels, perhaps they were.
How are you doing now?
I am doing very well. I am out of my abusive marriage more than 7 years now. I used to always say – “I just want peace.” About four years ago, I realized I was starting to feel it, to feel at peace.
I was lucky to be born with a very optimistic, sunny nature. I laugh a lot. I hope. Spending time outdoors is very important to me and it’s a commitment to myself I rarely forgo. I must walk. I must be outside.
Finances are a huge struggle for me, and a big source of stress since I ended things with my mom, because there’s no one to call if I need, say, four new tires, except the landlord to tell him I’m gonna be late on the rent. There’s no margin for error and no savings. The peace is worth this stress and my daily walks help.
I get immense satisfaction from my work as a psychiatric nurse, but I struggle with the authority figures. I keep expecting if I am good at my job, hard working and honest and manage to have a profound and positive impact on my patients’ struggles, then I will be treated with respect. This is not the case. Co-workers tell me it’s not personal, tell me how they struggle with abuse from our bosses, too. I can see my brain is different from theirs, my response to difficult people is to personalize it. Sometimes, I feel scared. I wonder too much about fairness. Fortunately, after years of therapy, I don’t really think there’s something wrong with me. I just can’t shake my futile expectation that things should be fair, people should be nice.
One other co-worker is a product of a violent, abusive parent. She struggles like I do with worry about treatment from the bosses, worries in a way our co-workers who weren’t raised this way just don’t.
My sons are good young men, and are smart and funny and enjoy spending (at least some) time with me. It makes me very happy to hang out with them and they always inspire and teach me. I try to do the same.
The man who doesn’t mind my stomach is still in my life. He has a troubled background too, and we continue to teach each other about vulnerability and trust and love – and most days, I think we’ll make it to happily ever after. In the meantime, we are smart and funny and loving and supportive for each other, and that is very good.
(My foster sister thinks I chose a long-distance relationship to stay safe. I say I hate that aspect of things, and just happened, because of a chance meeting in a game, run into the man I should’ve met so many years ago. There’s probably something to what she says…)
Is there anything about domestic violence you’d like to tell the world?
I know now, as a psychiatric nurse, which I became when I left after 25 years of marriage, that my husband’s suicide threats were more about a personality disorder than depression. I cannot possibly explain to you how I could leave my children at home with a man who I really believed might kill himself. In the end, he never has, so I suppose my tormented decisions were correct, but I opened my front door with trepidation hundreds of times.
Why do I say this? The precarious juggling of decisions about how to survive abuse, how to make it moment by moment, how to choose between all bad options is made even more challenging because abuse fills you with self-doubt. If it’s a parent that does this abuse, it’s a struggle to believe one has a right to happiness. And abuse is very isolating.
Don’t expect your friends who are or were abused to look at things the way you do. It changes us. We are by no means monolithic in response or opinions, but our calculus could be very different from yours. You can judge us, but it’s better if you walk beside us. Tell us hard truths, but don’t expect us to follow your advice right now. We may already know what we should do and are working on the strength to do it.
Kaiser Permanente did a study called the ACE study. ACE stands for adverse childhood events. The study proves that domestic violence is a public health issue. Experiencing domestic violence in its many forms increases exponentially the odds that one will be an addict, that one will die young, that one will have multiple illnesses of a psychiatric and non-psychiatric nature. Do what you can, do what makes sense to you, to fight this public health emergency.
AND! Speak up when you see a child abused. Speak up at least to the child when you can – whisper – “this isn’t normal and you don’t deserve to be treated like this.” I wish to God one person had said that to me when I was a child, and I’ve said it to a few children since becoming an adult. “How to talk so kids will listen and listen so kids will talk” is a wonderful child-rearing manual, especially for people who want to parent differently than their own parents did, but haven’t a clue how. I love this book and it made all the difference in the world for me and my children.
I think of this poem a lot. I’m not as cynical as Larkin. Domestic violence is undoubtedly a generational sickness, but every generation can do better than the last. You owe it to your children to try.
Philip Larkin – This Be The Verse
They fuck you up, your mum and dad.
They may not mean to, but they do.
They fill you with the faults they had
And add some extra, just for you.
But they were fucked up in their turn
By fools in old-style hats and coats,
Who half the time were soppy-stern
And half at one another’s throats.
Man hands on misery to man.
It deepens like a coastal shelf.
Get out as early as you can,
And don’t have any kids yourself.