Breaking the cycle of abuse – a holiday story
We often talk about domestic violence as a set of statistics, but do we ever really make the connection between a person’s ACE (Adverse Childhood Experiences) score and their propensity to become either a perpetrator or a perpetual victim? What leads someone, as an adult, to exist in a pattern of abuse? Why does this cycle repeat, repeat, repeat? A father or mother who breaks the cycle of abuse for him or herself betters the lives of his/her children and of his/her children’s children and so on.
Secrecy. Lies. Guilt. Shame. These are the cornerstones of any abusive family. It doesn’t really matter the type of abuse or the severity; the secrets, the lying, the overwhelming guilt, and the shame are there. In my case, during my childhood, it was sexual abuse that caused the secrets, the lies, the guilt, and the shame. I hadn’t even acknowledged my own abuse before I had children, but I knew I wanted things to be different for them before I ever acknowledged it.
If you ask my children, they will tell you I never lied to them. Sometimes, I bet they wished I would have. “Is Santa Claus real?” my then almost three-year-old asked. My answer was, “He is make-believe.” There is probably some appropriate middle ground between the lies, the secrecy of abuse, and the honesty that I required of myself, but I couldn’t find the way there, so I made truth the only option, no matter the circumstance. I told them anything and everything they wanted to know, but the lie I was living was something I didn’t even realize. I was convinced and subsequently convinced everyone in my life that I was fine. We were fine. It’s odd to hear, but I didn’t understand that we weren’t okay, and I felt like any “problem” that arose was just part of life. Everyone’s life. I wasn’t special or different. That’s how far-reaching the psychological damage is when you grow up and grow older with a skewed vision of safety, happiness, and love.
Something I look to as a summation of how I came to accept this pattern of domestic violence, and probably rings true for many other survivors, is convincing you that it’s your fault or that it was not on purpose. It goes like this – the first time he breaks your ribs, he will convince you it was an accident. The second time he breaks your ribs, he won’t try as hard, but still, he will convince you. The third time he breaks your ribs, you’ll be the one who does the convincing.
Breaking the cycle is not an insurmountable task, nor is it an easy one. One key component for survivors to remember is that there has to be a middle ground between abuse and never showing negative emotions. When my children were little, I thought if I was angry, it made me a bad person. It took me a long time to realize that I was allowed to be angry. It’s what you do with the anger, or in the midst of it, that makes you either abusive or not. Simply having a negative emotion doesn’t make you horrible; it makes you human.
The good news is that ACEs are preventable. We can’t go back and undo the damage from our own childhoods, but we can certainly break the cycle for our children, creating an impact for generations to come. No one way of parenting works for every child or every family, and I certainly don’t claim to know everything, but I do know this – every child deserves a peaceful, safe home, no matter how we create that for them. Peace.
Editor, Ask Lala