Child abuse is not normal

I have met many survivors who didn’t realize that they were survivors of child abuse. They knew they’d been beaten, ignored, neglected, treated like property, but they believed that’s just how children are raised or that they deserved it. I believed I deserved it, too. For me, it was normal. Just one of those things. You shake it off, pretend it never happened, and get on with life.

Only, I wasn’t living. I was in constant survival mode, a state of being that had become as natural as breathing. Just getting through each day, task by task. I was well-trained for it. It was the life I deserved. No sense complaining about it. 

Confronting Memories of Child Abuse

Memories come whether you want them to or not. Frequent nightmares are not normal. I’ve had them most of my life. Sometimes, one of my daughters will shake me awake. It’s unnerving for them to hear their mother scream. For years, I thought nightmares were normal.

Being beaten with a metal cooking spoon at six years old is not normal. Being beaten again and again, with whatever was handy, until you are a sobbing, begging, pleading puddle on the floor, is not normal. Being beaten for years, throughout childhood, is not normal. Praying that God would take me so I wouldn’t wake up is not a normal bedtime prayer for a child.

Physical abuse is bad enough, but hearing others being abused was worse. On those nights, I would fall asleep imagining that I was brave enough to stab my mother with her sewing shears, my own Grimm fairy tale. 
In the mornings, I would be ashamed that I ever thought such a thing. Even when I was young, I could see my mom’s pain behind her angry or hungover eyes. I was more her parent than she was mine.

Ella Enchanted: Obedience and Child Abuse

Sparing the rod spoils the child. I was taught that was normal. We deserved what we got. If we wanted to avoid a beating, we had to obey. So we obeyed and pleased authority. Whatever was asked. We scrubbed and vacuumed and cooked and folded and swept and did it all over again and again.

I was left alone with a male guest after a drunken party when I was 10 years old. There was no one sober enough to rescue me. He told me to keep quiet. I obeyed. I pushed the secret down so deep that it nearly ripped my life apart 35 years later.

We had to learn how to gauge moods, so we would know when to laugh like children and when to creep quietly out of the way. We were mice living in a learned helplessness experiment. 

I was a quiet, obedient child who grew into a nice, compliant woman. Employers loved me. I would roll up my sleeves and do everything from cleaning toilets to working 100-hour weeks. Not exaggerating.

Education is Freedom: Escaping Child Abuse

I buried myself in my books to escape. High grades were met with sneers. I was never good enough. No college would ever accept me. I was not worth the investment.

I believed them. After years of “or-else” obedience, I had learned not to question. When I finally ran away for good as a teenager, it was out of fear, not out of a sense that I didn’t deserve that life.

Finally, at age 27, I went to college. I was a single parent, struggling to provide for my child on a high school diploma. She was waiting for me, so I double-majored and graduated with honors in 35 months.

College taught me to question authority. In college, I met other survivors and learned that child abuse isn’t normal. I realized that I am smart. I sought counseling. I had been living with undiagnosed PTSD for more than 20 years. I had normalized my abuse. Individual and group therapy changed my life.

Accepting a New Normal Without Child Abuse

Now, nightmares are fewer and far between. It’s quite rare for me to be triggered into a frozen state of fear by memory or stress. When I am triggered, it’s hard to breathe. My veins feel carbonated. I’m slightly disoriented as if my airy blood is trying to make me float. My chest pounds. I don’t want to do anything, think anything, feel anything. I just want to sit and breathe, very still, with my face buried in my hands.

I know, now, how to get through a day, a week, a month without freezing. Without rising memories. Without having to involve my whole body to keep those thoughts at bay so I can focus on work, family, paying bills, and doing dishes. Through counseling, I learned to breathe and ground myself. Like this:

The floor is beneath my feet. I can feel the floor. Music is playing in my daughter’s room. I notice the song. I notice my daughter is humming to the song. I am warm. I can feel the temperature of my skin, sending signals that the room is too hot. I open my eyes. In front of me is my coffee cup. It is solid. It is blue. It has a flower pattern. It is empty. I can smell overripe bananas. I remember that I meant to toss the bananas out this morning. My head turns toward the kitchen, and…

I’m snapped out of it. I rise naturally toward the kitchen, not dizzy, not scared. I feel myself again. I toss the bananas, wrap up the trash and easily lift it to the front door. Okay, back to my day. Life is good. The future is in my own, confident hands. I am safe. I survived—and thrived. You can, too.

Child abuse is not normal. Don’t let anyone try to tell you that it is. There is a better way. 

Almost two-thirds of respondents to the landmark CDC Adverse Childhood Experiences Study reported surviving at least one ACE. People with six or more ACEs die nearly twenty years earlier (on average) than those without ACEs. You can help make sure this never happens to another child. Learn how by subscribing to our newsletter and supporting our work. Read about the ten categories of ACEs by following our blog. Do you know your ACE score? Take the ACE test here.

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Norreida Reyes

Norreida Reyes

Campaign Strategist

Norreida is a writer and fixer, helping organizations strengthen their communications and advocacy programs. She has been advocating for women and children for more than 20 years as a legislative analyst, professional lobbyist, and journalist. Her joys are her children, her sisters, Star Trek, brie & blackberries, and breathing fresh sea air. 

Norreida has an ACE score of 8.

Authors express their own opinions which do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the Stop Abuse Campaign.