Wednesday, May 1, 2013

On Child Abuse

This morning I graded two essays that brought about this post. One was about adolescent violence and the other was about foster children and how they come to be there. In the first, she stated that children that experience four or more events of physical, mental and/or sexual abuse and/or neglect and drug abuse are more likely to become violent in adolescents. In the second essay, the student stated that children of abuse react in different ways, some becoming violent and distrustful, exhibiting behaviors seen at home. Others become withdrawn and termed as "shy." I fall into the latter category.

She also referenced a woman that wrote about her experiences. This woman, Brenda Della Casa, described an evening in which her father held a gun to her 8-year-old head and threatened to end her life. I wondered how a child could be left in such a situation. How is it that no one saw what was going on? How is it that no one tried to help her out of this nightmare? And how can I possibly think my own experiences even come close to what this poor woman experienced as a child?

But that's the thing. Abuse is abuse. It's horrific and the scars left are unique to each child touched by abuse. We carry them with us, even if we miraculously manage to move beyond the statistic that is supposed to be our lives.

When I was in college, I had a conversation with my grandmother. We were talking about my brothers. Likely, the eldest was in trouble with the law again. My grandmother felt sorry for their childhoods because the boys had been beaten. For some time, I could not remember a day when they weren't hit in some way or another. "We all had it hard, Nan," I said, "but look at me; I'm not in jail." She had a way of not holding them accountable for their adolescent actions because they were beat as children. "It was different for you," she said, "you weren't beat. That's worse." Because sodomy somehow doesn't equal physical abuse. Granted, I don't believe my grandmother realized the extent of my abuse. And I think she was reasoning something else in her head that is not my story to tell. Nonetheless, my wounds were opened and my pain was real. My hurt at her disregard of my own abuse stuck with me.

That wasn't the last time she made such a comment. I know she didn't understand what she was doing to me. And don't get me wrong, I loved my grandmother in way I can't truly describe. She was my rock for so many things and in so many ways. But in this, she was wrong.

One of the essays I read said that few fight for normalcy. That few make it beyond the bounds of their lives. This I know is true. I know that where I stand today is so far from where I should statistically be. I often say, "If I were a statistic, I'd be living in a trailer park, barefoot and pregnant with my fourth or fifth child drinking a beer and smoking a cigarette high on cocaine." Because by all rights, I should be. And I know it.

The problem with moving beyond the binds that tie a person to a life of hardship is that those things that happened don't move. They stay firmly planted within your mind. They color your world in shades imperceptible to those that haven't been there. They shape your decisions and the way you interact with those around you. They bleed into your heart. And just when you think you've moved beyond the pain they caused, something will happen or something will be said or something will be read that opens those wounds because they never really healed. The trick is learning how to make sure they don't fester within your mind spreading the infection throughout your soul.

I do not pretend to have experienced the worst of abuse. I do not pretend that what I experienced far outweighs what other abused children experienced. We all perceive our own abuse in our own ways. And mine lives on in me. It challenges me more than I'd like it to. It controls me at times and I am in a constant struggle to keep the control I have gained over my life and my past. But there was a time when I had so little control.

I have a student that has an obvious chip on her shoulder. It screams, "you have no idea what I've been through. You can't understand anything from that perfect little pedestal of a life you've experienced." I recognized it because I had it. In college, I was angry when people would talk about money or their childhood or their great relationships with their families. I would cringe when they would talk about what needs to be done for the poor. Why? Because most of these people were getting help from mom and dad. Most of these people lived in what I considered perfect houses with perfect families and perfect high school careers. And I had none of that. I was bitter. And I had something to prove. I want to tell that student to hang on tight to that chip because it will get her through. It will push her and drive her to be more successful than anything she came from.

Until it doesn't. And that time will come when that chip firmly planted on her shoulder will begin to create roadblocks in her life. There will come a point when she will have to let go of the pain and the bitterness. I know because I had to learn to do the same.

I still get defensive when the "rich" people start talking about how to save the kids. The people who have never experienced the kind of life their trying to save them from. How can they possibly understand? But I also realize that we need these people. Because despite their lack of experience, they are willing to do something that a lot of these kids don't have. They're willing to care.

Regardless of experience, it's these people that are so willing to care for and encourage abused children that can make such a huge difference. Because with the right connection with the right child, these people have the potential to give a small inkling of hope to a child living in a hopeless situation. No child should ever feel hopeless about where they are and what their future holds. Is it always easy to love and break through the barrier of an abused child? Hell no. We're a sketchy lot. We don't trust anybody and we don't think anybody has our best intention at heart.

Yet for me, there were people who broke through my barriers. There were people who gave me hope and believed in what I could be some day. And to them, I am eternally grateful. I cannot begin to express in words how grateful I am for the gifts of just a few people that could see beyond my shy behavior, my tattered clothes, my run-down house, and my white trash life.

And while I will always struggle with the memories firmly locked in my head, I know that I am in such a good place. There are times when I get so upset that I can't just forget all of this. Because it doesn't matter how great an abused child is doing in adulthood. Even then, we're plagued by a whole host of things. As an adult, I know nothing that happened to me as a child was my fault. I know I did nothing to deserve those things. I know it because I'm rational and as I moved into adulthood, I gained the cognitive ability to realize that I was a product of my circumstance. I was forced into situations I had no control over. But that doesn't mean my mind always agrees with this reasoning or that my heart wants to listen to logic.

I am fortunate because I have gained control over most aspects. I have moments that spread further apart than they used to be and I will always have these moments, but the time they are allowed to fester has become shorter and continues to grow shorter.

These days, I see the major impact my childhood had on me in my parenting. I'm constantly striving to be that "perfect" parent, even though I rationally realize perfect parents are non-existent. I feel so much stress in that arena of my life, realizing the impact that a parent's decisions can have on a child. The lasting impacts that will follow them throughout the rest of their lives. While this kind of pressure is probably hard on any parent from any background, the impact to those of us that survived abuse is exponential. We have few strong resources to fall back on and we're in a constant struggle to make sure our children feel loved and healthy and whole. But there are those brief....very brief....moments when I think, "I'm just going to beat the hell out of him. Then he'll get that I'm serious." Of course, I never would do this, but to describe how much I chastise myself for even allowing such a thought to enter my mind is impossible. In those moments, I feel like the lowliest of parents.  And there are times when I want scream: "You have no idea how good you have it!" Because they don't. But that's the thing. I don't want them to know my life. I don't want them to feel the things I felt as a child. I don't want their adulthoods tainted by abuse. And I will do anything and everything in my power to ensure that. I'm constantly aware of that goal, and it's exhausting.

There is a war raging within me most of the time. It's between the me that I've become and the me I was supposed to be. As I get older and continue to grow, I can feel the me that I've become winning the war, even if the me that I was supposed to be wins a few battles here and there. I imagine I will always struggle with these things and that those wounds carved into me as a child will always be just below the surface, ready to break open, but the me that I've become refuses to let them sit and fester because I have so much to be thankful for and I have so much love to give and so many people that love me in return. I am a product of circumstance, but I am also the creator of my present and my future.


  1. I can not imagine sitting with your grandmother, hearing her go on and on about your brothers while she didn't see your pain. I am thankful for those people who came into your life who gave you hope and believed in what you could be some day. I am sorry for the struggles you must overcome each day.
    ((HUGS)) Excellent post!

  2. I am so sorry for your pain and would like to commend you on your recovery and strength in posting about this. Brenda Della Casa (the woman your student referenced).