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GROWING UP IN VIOLENT FAMILIES

Over the decades, in my clinical practice as a psychotherapist, I have met numerous men and women, who grew up in violent family environments. They suffered as children by not only witnessing violence between their parents but also experienced it themselves. The effects of such violence remained with them throughout their lives and they needed professional help to overcome the negative effects of such traumatic experiences. Some of those effects were fear, shame and anger. Dysfunctional relationships with their family members made it difficult for them to have affectionate and loving relationships with their friends, colleagues, spouses and even with their own children. They were unable to resolve their interpersonal conflicts peacefully. In some cases the cycle of violence continued from one generation to the next.

        It has been my observation that children growing up in violent families generally have poor self esteem, self confidence and self worth. They have poor boundaries and are afraid to lose control. They frequently feel vulnerable, nervous and scared. Some of them remain angry with their parents all their lives. Let me share a couple of stories of the people I worked with in therapy. I saw them as adults but they were suffering because they had grown up in violent families. (I have changed the names of the people to respect their privacy and they have given consent to use their stories in my article)

        When I met Siobhan she was suffering from chronic depression as she had experienced a number of losses in her life. As her depression improved she realized she had been harboring anger all her life. When she got in touch with her underlying anger I asked her to keep a journal and write down her feelings. One day she brought her journal that said,

“I have held onto my anger so tightly-stroking the fires on a daily basis-that my rage has taken over my whole life, coloring all my thoughts and actions. This has been the case since I was a small child. Anger was the only protection that I had in my daily life to help me cope with the uncertainties of life with mother. I weigh every action of others to see how much emotional or physical harm they might inflict upon me. I have used anger as a shield to protect me from hurt. This shield is so pervasive that I am not even aware that I am using it. It has become part of me. My question is how do I learn to cope with this anger? I know the key lies in properly understanding the roots of my anger and in finding constructive ways to express the hurt and disappointment. I realize that anger can really be a very healthy and positive tool, but my destructive use of it is scaring people away and alienating them from me. I need to learn how to have anger for me, not against me.

        Anger has been my shield. My anger has suppressed other vulnerable feelings that may be too hard to deal with. It has probably been easier for me to feel angry than to feel lost, confused and worried. I need help to begin to feel those emotions I have suppressed and to learn to move past my anger.

When I encouraged Siobhan to recall some of her childhood memories she came up with a number of them. One of them is as follows.

 I was six years old then.

Seemingly mum and dad had a fight and she had gone up to their bedroom. Bill was a baby and he was in his cot. I think it was fall or winter. Mum was on one side of the bed throwing clothes into a suitcase and dad was on the other side of the bed throwing the clothes out of the suitcase. Bill was in his cot screaming his head off. Mum was yelling that she was leaving. Dad was yelling that she had four children and responsibilities and she had to look after us.

        My brothers Walter and Ed and I were outside the bedroom door listening and taking turns looking through the keyhole at them (the old fashioned very large key holes). I remember thinking why wouldn’t my father let her leave as she was no use to us anyway. Looking back I cannot believe that I had already dismissed my mother at such a young age. It still bothers me that those feelings were so strong and that I have carried them with me all of those years. As a child and as an adult I have often wondered why my father never left our mother.”

                                ………………………………

It took Siobhan a long time to deal with her past anger and lead a healthy and peaceful life. After her recovery she fell in love and is now happily living with her husband leading an enjoyable retired life.

        I met another lady who suffered because of her childhood trauma. When I asked her to share her painful childhood memories , she wrote,

I remembered the times mother would gather us up in the middle of the night. How very quiet and silent we would be as we snuck out the door in only our pajamas. I always looked at him passed out on the couch, and worried he would wake up and catch us. Somehow, either he found us, or Mom would be forced to go back to him. It would be o.k. for a while, but gradually it would go back to the way it was. I remember the last beating. I could hear them from my bedroom. Mom was begging him no, stop. His drunken slurs were inaudible. I got out of my bed and went to my brother and sisters. Each one was also awake, shaking under their blankets. I had an idea, there were five of us and one of him, I figured he was outnumbered. They were too scared to do it. I didn’t know what I could do, but I wanted him to leave her alone. I snuck down to the bottom of the stairs to listen. I crept close to the door. I could hear Mom, “No Wally, No Wally, don’t.” As quiet as a mouse, I gentle pushed on the swinging door just a crack to see in.

Through the cracked door, I peaked in with one eye. Mom was on the floor and he was on top of her punching her face. I saw blood coming from her mouth and her eyeball hanging out its’ socket. I thought to myself, he’s killing her! She groaned then went silent. I panicked!!! I ran to my wooden rocking chair and ripped one whole side off, spindles and all! With every ounce of strength in my body, I ran at him. I went ballistic! I started hitting him in the back and head. I was screaming as loud as I could, “GET OFF HER! GET OFF HER! YOU’RE KILLING HER!” “I HATE YOU! I HATE YOU!”

He grabbed my left ankle and pulled me to the floor. My head hit the floor hard. I was stunned for a moment, but started screaming again, “I HATE YOU, YOU’RE NOT MY FATHER!” He turned his body around facing me. I kept screaming as loud as I could, “LET ME GO! LET ME GO!” His thick brawny hand held me tighter, then with both hands he picked me up by my ankles. I was hanging upside down in his tight grasp. I tried squirming and jiggling, but he held on tighter still. I just kept screaming at the top of my lungs. He carried me to the front sitting room and with great force, he threw me onto the couch. The back of my head hit the wooden part of the arm rest. That’s the last thing I remember. Everything went black.

Debbie was in therapy for a long time to recover from her past hurts and improve her self esteem. The more she recovered the more she was able to accept her special talents and develop healthy relationships. In that process she was also able to forgive her family members and transcend her victim role. While celebrating International Women’s Day this year she wrote the following for her deceased mother.

So, Happy Woman’s Day Mom

You did the best you could with what you had. And you got us through the hard times. See you in my dreams. I love you.

Debbie was lucky to have professional help to deal with her past wounds and create a peaceful future. She worked hard to

…learn to trust others

…improve her self esteem

…develop a positive self image

…get in touch with her creative talents

and

…become a loving mother and break the cycle of violence.

Debbie was in an abusive loveless marriage and was depressed. With Green Zone Therapy and 7 steps program she grew stronger and left the abusive marriage and started to respect and love herself again. She shared her progress in these words.

My physical health had deteriorated, I was depressed, I was unemployed, I had no money of my own, and I had no friends or family support. I felt trapped. My choices were: I could stay in a loveless marriage with no hope of resolution and continue on a downward spiral leading to my own destruction. OR: I could take a leap of faith, learn to trust again, trust in others as well as myself. I felt the fear and I did it. I found the help and support I needed though my crisis. I wanted to live a “Green Life.” (Ironically, green has always been my favorite color.)   Working through the 7 Seven Steps in the book, I have discovered so much about myself. I have learned about My Who and My Do. I found in answering the questionnaire, (you must be honest), and willing to make the necessary changes in your life, one can have a peaceful green lifestyle. Accepting the responsibility for the choices I make, the decisions I make, and how I react/respond to the world around me has been a liberating experience for me. In my months of recovery I have learned the benefits of forgiveness; it improves the emotional, physical, and spiritual. I have learned treatment is transforming and hope is believing there’s something better. I am learning to love myself again.

There are many who never receive such help and suffer all their lives. Time has come for all of us to raise social consciousness about the negative effects of family violence on children so that such incidents can be prevented and people can get professional help sooner than later.