The Letter No One Wrote My Mother was well shared. It had and continues to have international readership. Several of the people it has reached (with your help, thank you!) have contacted me to say that Fact Seven resonates with them.
Fact Seven: I am an almost-abuser. I choose every day not to abuse my child.
Becoming a parent is terrifying for any number of reasons. For many of us, those fears center around 1) losing ourselves or 2) our child getting hurt. Fact Seven is a combination of those fears. If I don’t choose not to become an abuser, I will lose myself, and my child will be hurt because I am hurting him.
Admitting this is no less terrifying than opening up publicly to say that my parents did abuse me. It is much, much worse. With regards to my family, they made an effort to change our dynamic. My parents were successful in ending physical abuse. Sure, there were periods of regression. Most of them occurred as I was going through puberty. I was seventeen the last time one of my parents struck me. I struck back. Once again, I make no excuses, but the real reason I am mentioning that abusive incident is because it had been more than a year since the previous incident. I was a teenager, pushing all the limits. As a product of abuse, I was extraordinarily angry. It was not unusual for me to bang my head through walls. In fact, I put my head through a wall some weeks prior to that incident causing my father to grab hold of me and cry. Why? He was afraid I would get hurt.
But back to this admission. I am an almost-abuser. What that means is that I have to be constantly aware of my own triggers. I have to dig into my demons and bitch slap them back to hell when the shit rains down. And it does. Children learn the rules by testing the boundaries. I have three. They are all beautiful, brilliant shining stars with the ability to locate any and all boundaries, fly past them and stand on the other side thumbing their noses and singing, “Nyah nyah nyah nyah!” The truth is, I have days where I want to wreck the house and scream in their faces to just. shut. up. Some days I do shout. But when I have those days, I reach out to friend, my spouse, or I isolate myself to prevent damage. If I shouted, I address what I said, how I felt when I said it, and why I will choose a different response next time.
I remember the first time I was triggered. My little guy was screaming at me and hitting me. I kept trying to calm him down. I would catch his fists and kiss him. He was a pudgy three-year-old, sweet-faced but stubborn. He wanted me to do something. I wasn’t going to do it. It doesn’t matter what it was. What does matter is what happened.
After about an hour, I sat down on the couch facing him. He kept hitting me. I disconnected.
I punched him.
I punched my three-year-old in his squishy-soft tummy.
I have no recollection of the actual punch. What I saw when it happened was my childhood aggressor standing over me. I felt and heard slaps on my skin. I remembered how much I hurt, all the stings and bruises across my torso. How my throat was raw from screaming for help. Screaming no. From terror ripping my voice away as someone who was supposed to take care of me hurt me.
And I punched.
I was not punching my child. I was trying to stop my childhood aggressor. I was having a flashback that I snapped out of when I felt my child’s softness and the way it gave way to my fist.
My son and I were silent. We looked at each other. Then I opened my arms, he stepped into them, and I cried.
Right there, when I saw the confusion on his face–the betrayal–I made my decision not to be an abuser. I called my husband, told him what happened, and began therapy with a woman who told me the words Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.
Over the next three years, there were isolated incidents. I learned not to turn my back when I already felt on edge. That was a surefire way to trigger a PTSD episode. If you want to know more about living with PTSD and how it’s not just for veterans, head on over to my friend Jennifer’s blog. Stick around here. I will be talking about it in more detail in upcoming posts. But the gist of what I am telling you about how I choose not to abuse is that first I had to discover that, even though I swore I would never ever not ever become an abuser and I wore my babies and breastfed for two years and made their baby food and read to them and made eye contact and smiled and learned their cries and I was shown how to not abuse after being exposed to abuse and knew the difference, my natural instinct was lash out and hurt.
In short, the long-term impact of child abuse is far-reaching, with some studies highlighting that the effects of childhood abuse can last a lifetime (Draper et al., 2007).
A study by (Draper et al., 2007) found:
- Child abuse survivors demonstrate
- Poor mental health: are almost two and a half times as likely to have poor mental health outcomes,
- Unhappiness: are four times more likely to be unhappy even in much later life
- Poor physical health: are more likely to have poor physical health.
- Childhood physical and sexual abuse
- Medical diseases: increases the risk of having three or more medical diseases, including cardiovascular events in women
- Relationships: causes a higher prevalence of broken relationships, lower rates of marriage in late life,
- Isolation/social disconnection: cause lower levels of social support and an increased risk of living alone
- Behavioural health effects: is associated with suicidal behaviour, increased likelihood of smoking, substance abuse, and physical inactivity.
That’s what abuse leaves us with. Even a little bit. Even for a little while. Even when we change the situation.
But changing the situation empowers the abused by giving them agency to continue changing their situation. Some of us grow up and don’t feel the intense rage when small things go wrong. Some of us don’t bash our heads through walls or our fists through glass. Some of us grow up just fine because we have some sort of tether that grounds us. But many, many, many of us do not. We grow up and become the statistic. The children who are abused are likely to be the ones who become abusers because we never feel safe, and we are always protecting ourselves from being hurt by the people who hurt us before. The longer they hurt us, the harder is to break through that perception of need; to trust outside ourselves and settle into life with any type of certainty.
The impact of child abuse does not end when the abuse stops. If you were abused as a child, the long-term effects can interfere with your day-to-day functioning. However, it is possible to live a full and constructive life, and even thrive – to enjoy a feeling of wholeness, satisfaction in your life and work as well as genuine love and trust in your relationships and more. Understanding the relationship between your abuse and your current behaviour is the first step towards ‘recovery’. [link]
It has taken me five years and multiple therapists to reach a point where I am more often not triggered than triggered. I am more conscious of all my interactions with my children. I step away if the memories crash in, or if I begin to feel confused and disoriented. One of my key cues is whether or not I can clearly request my children stop what they are doing. If I can’t get the words out, it’s time for me to get myself out.
For all of you who connected with Fact Seven, there is hope. Please continue writing to me. Comment here, on Facebook, or send me an email (firstname.lastname@example.org). I’m here.