I’m sitting here trying to collect my thoughts and feelings, so I can word them for you. Some of them are from before the age when a thought was known to be a thought, some from last week. As for making a narrative out of these, I’ve been trying to do that with my therapist for months, with my spouse for years, with myself for decades. What I have is analogous to a mumble if the actual experience were an opera. I’ll still try to share with some degree of coherence, what I know of my own life. I will not even try to be exhaustive, but I hope I can expose the tip of the iceberg. The tense and the personal pronoun changes with my mood and feelings, I’d like to keep it that way, apologies to the grammarians.
The first thing I want to talk about is the fake normalcy of it, a normalcy that is internalized to an extent that you can’t feel true ‘normal’ anymore even when you have it. A child has no baseline, to a child growing up in the amazon jungle, that is normal, to a child growing up with an iphone that is normal. In some sense, adults growing up in societies with certain ingrained values have no baseline too, but that is my mother’s story, not mine. I’m here to share mine. So back to the normal stuff, I had a dad, a mom, a precious kid sister, two doting grandparents and an adoring extended family to which I was the first grandchild. I went to the best schools, lived in a nice house (or houses), had plenty of household help, was spoilt silly, went for JEE coaching like everyone else, ended up in BITS, got a masters degree, now I work in the US and I’m married to my best buddy. Strangely, marriage is one of the best things that ever happened to me. I did not know I could enjoy anything so much, or that anything so beautiful could get tarnished by my parent’s marriage.
Outwardly we always maintained the farce. The farce, you see, is the most important thing in the world; the outside world must never know what goes on inside the family. Once that is achieved, one has succeeded. Internally, well, it was kept simple for me. My dad had a temper and I was to behave. He was the head of the family, he brought in the dough, and he did that quite well. So I thought very well, I will behave, after all mom tries too. As a child, I mostly only felt fear. Anger, guilt over anger, betrayal, hurt, sadness, all that comes later when you have the time, safety and understanding to experience all that. I might have thought that the belt is normally used as an instrument of torture for misbehaving, that it is important to hide the reason my mom’s face was as swollen as a pumpkin from my neighbours and that I deserved to be standing on one foot and have food shoved down my throat for not eating fast enough and then be beaten if I lost balance, that I should just sit in the back seat and pray when the car vroomed out of control with my dad and his rage on the driver’s seat. Yes, all this was expected and quite normal, because, after all my dad regretted his behavior later, he bought me toys and the books I loved, paid my school fees, later paid for college. He was a good dad, he gave me hugs and told me that he loved me. So yes, it was all normal and mom did a great thing by adjusting with him so our family could stay together.
Then it falls apart. You grow up. The god you prayed to is suddenly a proven figment of imagination, Christopher Hitchens has entered your life along with teenage and atheist friends. Suddenly, nothing makes sense anymore, the farce of normalcy is broken, but the mind still rationalizes and heals it. Did I say heal? I meant puts a weak bandage on it.
The physical abuses ended, but the verbal did not. The rest of the family still loves him, he has done a lot for everyone, monetarily: a bit of a Jekyll and Hyde, maybe? I got a job, got married, the fear never went away. Physically too, I became weak, prone to panic attacks and headaches from a lifetime of fear, the hormonal stuff behind that could fill many textbooks and PhD theses.
Behaviourally I couldn’t maintain a normal relationship with my husband, I had and still have trouble communicating my desires without fear. Sometimes, misdirected anger, and fear that I’ll genetically turn out into a spouse like my father. Dad continued to have a hold on me, emotionally, through fear. I was falling into the pit even though I was away and independent. My husband, I don’t like that word, so let’s just say my spouse, saw what was happening and said, enough is enough, we can’t have this man in our life. I started therapy.
Recently, I got the courage to come out with my feelings, tell my mother and grandparents what I really felt. They made excuses for him, reminded me of the money he had spent on me, I felt soul-crushing guilt, went for more therapy and confronted my dad. He was apologetic initially, then he went into a fit of rage, sent me the nastiest email ever calling me a ‘stupid dumb broad who will never succeed in life’.
Forty minutes later, he sent me an email, apologising. I recognized the pattern, the pattern I had been living with all these years. But now I knew more about psychology, more about right and wrong. I recognized him for who he was and the guilt disappeared. The anger and hurt haven’t gone yet, but I hope they will someday.
This is my unfinished, incomplete story as best as I could tell it. I hope it is of help to you if you are even in a remotely similar situation. I am not here to tell you what to do but to tell you that you are not alone. As a child, I was in physical danger. My mother is extremely smart and could have made it on her own, providing better than my father, had she had the support structure. We have evidence that trauma causes lasting changes to the brain, a child growing up with trauma will have a brain that triggers stress responses, even to relatively normal situations affecting among other things, their physical well being even as a grown up. I still deal with nightmares, strong stress responses which leads to physical pain. I have triggers as simple as a belt hanging in a wardrobe.
My spouse’s love has been a healing salve. He has been extremely supportive, working through my physical and behavioural issues with me, rephrasing questions so I know clearly that I have a choice. We have our lighter moments. “Gow, someday I’d like to wear a belt” he told me once, “my pants keep falling off”; and we burst out laughing.
Editor note: This is “Part II” of “Don’t romanticize domestic violence” article published last week, this one is from a child’s point of view.You can find previous article which was from a wife’s point of view here.
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- CHARLES A. NELSON and LESLIE J. CARVER (1998). The effects of stress and trauma on brain and memory: A view from developmental cognitive neuroscience. Development and Psychopathology, , pp 793-809.
- Perry, Bruce D. “Traumatized children: How childhood trauma influences brain development.” The Journal of the California Alliance for the Mentally Ill11.1 (2000): 48-51.
- Johnson, Sara B., and Robert Wm Blum. “Stress and the brain: how experiences and exposures across the life span shape health, development, and learning in adolescence.” The Journal of adolescent health: official publication of the Society for Adolescent Medicine 51.2 Suppl (2012): S1-2.