From the Brother:
I was a young kid seated tensely in the backseat. My younger sister was to the left of me, silent, behind our mom who was pleading with our dad as she drove. The front seats filled with anger and shouting as we climbed the highway’s first big hill on our long drive home from Dad’s auto shop, where he’d spent more time drinking than repairing cars. As the yelling grew louder, the back of Dad’s hand shot out from the passenger seat smacking mom’s face with a solid blow. I was stunned, stricken with fear at the sight of the hit. My young brain tried to make sense of the situation, but shut down from the shock instead. The battle escalated as the tears slid down her cheek. He then lifted his left foot and slammed his steel toed work boot on mom’s little foot covering the accelerator. The car sped up as the engine revved high, mom screaming in pain, begging him to stop as he spewed obscenities at her.
My mind raced. Everything is so loud! What is happening? Are we going to die? Why is he doing this? When will it stop? Climbing that hill felt like summiting Mt. Everest with the peak still far beyond the clouds. The seconds that passed seemed like eternity. He finally let go as we crested the hill. Mom’s foot was free to back off the pedal enough to get the car back to a safe speed. My body numbed as the memory faded into darkness. My mind went blank.
That was just one of many mind numbing experiences growing up in a broken home. I once watched in terror as my dad aimed a loaded shotgun directly at my mom as she tried to get out of the way. He tracked her with the barrel as she moved. I stood stiff, not knowing if he’d actually pull the trigger. There were nights of comforting my little sister, telling her that the shouting and fighting would soon stop, but not really knowing what was happening and when it would actually end. I didn’t want her to be scared anymore.
The silence that filled our home in between these bouts of rage was long and deafening. Almost worse than the actual fights. We were unable to communicate with each other on any sort of ‘normal’ level. The energy was dense with an uneasiness and strenuous anticipation of the next inevitable outburst. In the aftermath, I was left with strong feelings of abandonment and disdain. The emotional turmoil and neglect that I experienced was enough to wish for it to be me that was hit, just to be able to feel. To be acknowledged that I existed.
Domestic violence is frightening for a child. You are trapped in an environment of sadness and spiraling emotions, with nowhere to run. Whether it is an isolated episode or repeated occurrences, these events can scar a person for many years, blocking positive development and a sense of connection. For me, living this way resulted in a long road of isolation from the world without a clue or any sense of purpose. I was wandering aimlessly, stuck in survival mode. I went through school and into adulthood in a constant state of fear. I was always on edge. My mind couldn’t comprehend a confident and calm flow of life. I was unaware of my body as if looking from outside myself through clouded lenses. I was spiritless. Today I continue to break free from a past that cannot be undone.
Fortunately, with guidance and love, I have picked up some tools and practices that have helped me become attuned to myself and others. My younger sister has been at the top of my lifeline where she still resides. With each other’s help, we have become more aware and comfortable in our own skin and exposed to a world of freedom. Having someone to share experiences who can relate to what I’m feeling, especially someone who grew up under the same dysfunctional roof, is paramount. We are our own little support group leaning on one another as we heal. We have found that we are definitely not alone and that millions of people have experienced some sort of domestic violence or abuse in their life as well. Although we still have our struggles as we continue to grow, we are in a much better place and can actually look ourselves in the mirror without being ashamed. There is too much life left to let it pull us down any further into the dark hole of isolation.
I’ve learned that healing is absolutely possible. And I want other people in my situation to know that it IS possible to learn how to feel again or for the first time. To genuinely laugh, to cry, and to love unconditionally. To feel sorrow as well as joy.
Today, I’m no longer trapped in the backseat behind my father in a state of fear. I’m in the driver’s seat next to my son as we cruise down the road chewing gum and chatting it up on our way to make homemade applesauce with Grandma. This is but one of the rewards of being liberated from the effects of trauma. It’s my hope that by sharing our experience, we can work together to make a difference. We hope to be a brother and sister to you as you break free from the chains of abuse, too.
From the Sister:
The violence doesn’t stop when the last shard of glass is swept up. It continues on in your psyche, your physiology. The way you view the world and how you interact with it.
For so long I accepted the way I was living as just the way it was. I lived with constant mental torment, detached from my body, stunned in my surroundings. I walked with debilitating anxiety. Slouched posture. Hunched shoulders. Head down. Hair across my face. Fast steps. I couldn’t look in people’s eyes. I couldn’t bear the thought of being seen. Of being exposed. Of having my secrets known.
I dreaded the night. Deep into my late twenties, I still slept with a light on. I still checked under the bed and in the closet. I locked and double locked the bedroom door. I made sure the blinds were completely closed, no sliver of window showing. I would lay there, eyes winced shut. Body tense. Mind spinning. And wonder why it took hours to fall asleep. On most nights, my dreams were filled with terror. I knew that most people didn’t live this way, but it was such a part of me that I believed it was me.
So I stayed disconnected, dissociated. I couldn’t get any smaller if I tried. But I tried.
You learn to live this way in the quiet moments between the outbursts as a child. You learn to live this way by constantly anticipating violence and, for me, carrying the dead weight secret of sexual abuse. You learn to survive.
From our separate bedrooms we’d interpret sounds from the kitchen. Is the clanking glass just dishes being washed or frustrated warning sings? We’d diligently tune in to the sound of her laughter. Is that laughter? Or her muffled cries beginning again? Please, please say it’s her laughter. When the volume rose on the record player we deciphered whether he was reliving the glory days or fueling his indignation and anger, which she would soon bear the brunt of.
We stayed as silent as could be, but our minds were anything but quiet. We were on high alert. Constantly.
And of course we never talked about “it.” We walked around as if nothing was amiss. As if a helicopter had crashed landed through our roof, smoke billowing out as sparks singed our skin. But we just stepped over the twisted metal as if it wasn’t there. We went through the motions of life. Breakfast next to the propeller lodged in the table. Dinner on the living room floor where the smoking engine landed. Watching television from the fuselage. Pay no mind to the gas leaking all around. Waiting for ignition.
We had a blind loyalty to the pilot. We’d never let anyone know he failed. We spent all of our energy tending to his injuries, hoping with all our might that he wouldn’t take flight again. But knowing better all the same.
And it’s not like you just walk away from the crash unscathed. Especially when the hits keep coming. You take the pain, and the scars, and the fear, with you.
Until over time, as the interminable shock receded, we started to actually see the wreckage and acknowledge its impact. We began the process of healing our own wounds. We reached out to each other, slowly at first. Did you see that? Do you remember? Are you okay? It was how we began to accept that it really happened. And stopped accepting our suffering as a natural part of existence. As an inherent part of our identity. We started wanting better for our lives.
I stand proud today. Most days. I look into your eyes because now I’m deeply interested in seeing you and genuinely connecting with another human being. I walk with my shoulders back and my head up. Sometimes I have to remind myself, but I do it! I sleep with the window open so I can feel the breeze. With the lights off.
Domestic Violence Awareness Month ends October 31st, but for those affected, it’s a daily journey that knows no calendar year. I always thought awareness was about getting the word out to people who didn’t know about domestic violence and might be able to help. What I know now is that the most powerful stand I can take to raise domestic violence awareness, in addition to helping others see the enduring impact of childhood trauma, is to elevate my own self-awareness. To see the ways that violence and sexual abuse impacted my body, my life, my way of being. To act on that awareness as I shed those old habits, beliefs, and fears. To make an effort every day to let go a little more. To not only survive, but to thrive. And to be a force for others to do the same.