How does a child process violence? What does a child learn about their world as a witness to violence in their own home? What goes through the mind of a child who is touched and hurt by an adult in a way that should never be? How does a teenager respond to violence thrust upon them? And how does this affect the choices that child will make as they grow, from child, to teenager, to young adult, and on? How does the mind cope with repeated exposure to violence, as a witness and/or as a “victim”, especially a developing mind, the mind of a child?
I can only tell you my response. I do not speak for others, only myself, but by doing so, my hope is that someone will know that they are not alone.
The violence began in my home, my sanctuary of safety, at the age of 6. This was when a man of great impact entered my life, and another man of great impact was distanced. My parents divorced that year, and prior to that, I could only infer that my life was good . . .good for a 5 year old. But the 6 year old began to learn different. When Frank entered my life, I believe he consumed my family. The alcoholism that tortured him produced violence and rage. It was unleashed on my mother, and I was a witness.
Violence defined: 1. The quality or state of being violent; highly excited action, whether physical or moral; vehemence; impetuosity; force. 2. Injury done to that which is entitled to respect, reverence, or observance; profanation; infringement; unjust force; outrage; assault. 3. Ravishment; rape; constupration.
Synonyms of Violence: Vehemence; outrage; fierceness; eagerness; violation; infraction; infringement; transgression; oppression.
All of the above apply. Alcoholic binges, late nights out running his bar, brought Frank home in a bad state of mind. What I recall most, is not what caused the outbreaks, but the waking to them. From a sound and comfortable sleep I would awake to violent attacks on my mother, words unleashed that scalded my ears, and sounds of pain, anger, and household items being shattered, thrown, or perhaps items just in the way as my mother would try to catch her fall after an especially tough blow. The sounds reverberate in my mind clearly still. The sobs of sadness and heartbreak coming from my mother’s body were perhaps the most awful, as I was too afraid to leave my room and comfort her.
As I grew, and certain life circumstances changed, the violence continued. Often more verbal than physical, yet the physical did still remain. Profanities, broken promises, and objects were hurled through space and time, never knowing where exactly they would land. But no matter where they landed, the day after would be filled with tension and constant anxiety, not knowing what the next night would bring.
As my bad luck would have it, my dad moved into an apartment, with an elderly man living across the way, eager to put his hands where no man’s should go on a young girl’s body. After an innocent bike ride around the complex, he lured me over, and at the tender age of 7, all I knew was that he hurt me.
The marriage between my mother and Frank continued until I was 14 years old. The marriage continued to fulfill all definitions of the word violent, as I continued to exist in this home. At the same age of 14, I found myself in situations that I was not prepared for. A young girl, with too much freedom, I spent time with friends who were not well supervised. I found myself eager for attention from almost any male that would give it. And as it happened, one 4th of July, a young man, 8 years older than myself, found me enticing. He was correct to assume that he could have his way with me, for my voice had yet to surface, and when I tried to use it, my voice was ignored. A few months later with a new social group, at the age of 15, and now drinking alcohol as often as it was offered, I found myself in a similar situation. Although, with a peer closer in age, and completely intoxicated, this time I found my voice. I tried to use it. I tried to use my voice repeatedly. But my words were not heard, and in a small pick-up truck on a dark residential street, I was forced, completely against my will to give up my innocence, whatever was left, again.
The bulk of the outright and obvious violence in my life slowed dramatically around the time of this incident. My mom remarried a kinder, gentler man. And aside from some instabilities that came with living my life as me and as a member of my family, things became relatively stable.
As a teenager and young adult I found alcohol to be my numbing agent. It allowed me to be social, to welcome any attention I received from the opposite sex, and to partake in an activities that I normally would not consider. It dulled the constant anxiety and social phobias that lurked beneath the surface. It dulled the pain of the past. From driving while intoxicated, to taking hits of LSD, I was playing a form of Russian Roulette under the disguise of a straight A student and well adapted teenager.
The bouts of severe depression began in my teens, with my first suicide attempt at the age of 18. I spent a month in a psychiatric facility and came out ill from all of the medications I had been given. At one point during my hospitalization I lost my vision, vomited profusely, and then was left in a wheelchair, unable to move my own body, for a period of several hours. This prompted my release and my efforts to act normal again, for as long as I could.
It didn’t take long for alcohol again to become a tool for me to muster courage to be social and participate in college life as “normally” as possible. But my “normal” life could only last so long.
I somehow found myself engaged, then married and I moved away from my past. I had my first child and suffered from a horrible bout of Post-partum Depression. When my daughter was 2, my husband left our marriage, undoubtedly tired of my mood swings, my periods of severe depression, and my overwhelming dependence on him as my source of happiness. I was devastated and could not imagine my life would ever have a chance for happiness. Having a daughter to provide for, I found myself healthier though, than I had been for some time. I started to really discover my faith and live my beliefs for the first time in my life. I began medication that worked well for my depression and my daughter and I were thriving. When I met my (now) husband, I was completely over-joyed with the prospect of having a family again, a consistent father figure for my daughter, and a partner in life for me! We married in 2003 and I became pregnant with our son in August of 2004.
Prior to my pregnancy I was working full-time, I was caring for my daughter, gardening, enjoying time with my husband, and only occasionally was my life interrupted by illness that was likely stress related. But with this pregnancy came a new experience, chronic illness. From almost the very beginning of the pregnancy I was struck with non-stop morning sickness, also known as hyperemesis gravidarum. This condition progressed and was not able to be well controlled. Mid-way through the pregnancy I became quite depressed, anxiety stricken and struggling with severe insomnia, on top of all else. By the end of the pregnancy, I was in ill health, mentally and physically. I was induced at 37 weeks and how I hoped my life would return to “normal”.
As my son was healthy and doing well, we were all a pretty happy bunch. But the fatigue and pain I had become accustomed to during my pregnancy did not dissipate, in fact it worsened. I woke to pain in my feet each morning. My arms and hands would hurt so badly that I often would cry as I held my baby, praying that I would be able to hold him well and safely despite the pain. The fatigue did not relent and it worsened. My life was changing dramatically, and not returning to “normal”. After a long process, but shorter than many I know of, I was diagnosed with Fibromyalgia.
Receiving this diagnosis plummeted me into a depression darker and deeper than any I had ever experienced before. My sense of worth and value was completely depleted, replaced with thoughts that had followed me all of my life, “I am worthless”, “I am not lovable”, “I would be better off dead”. I was very ill, mentally and physically. And on a hot August day in 2006, as I lay bedridden, desperate for relief, I attempted suicide again. This time I took a lethal dose of a benzodiazepine, feeling certain that my family was better off without me. I ended up in the trauma unit of a local psychiatric hospital. For the first time in my life, the idea of “trauma” was introduced to me, but I was just at the beginning of my journey to wellness.
Since this month long hospitalization in 2006, my faith has been strengthened, my relationship with God has been greatly deepened and my zest for living life well has improved dramatically. It is a process, a journey that I am on daily, in an effort to achieve wellness. But, different than before, I have no desire to give up, I want to fight. I want to fight for my life, my family and our future. I see more beauty than I ever have before, even though I am living with chronic pain and a very limited lifestyle. I have hope.
From a life filled with violence to life now seemingly defined by my illness, there is still so very much to learn.
I carry labels of PTSD, depression, anxiety disorder, and fibromyalgia along with me, but I am no longer violently ill.