The Cycle of Abuse

As a self confessed nerd, I love a good statistic. Recently I’ve seen some shocking ones. According to the ONS, 51% of people abused as a child go on to suffer domestic abuse as an adult, over a third of those abused by a family member go on to be abused by a partner, this is more common in women who were abused as children.

Other statistics tell us that over 30% of children abused, will go on to be abusers as adults. Frightening.

It’s got me thinking about where my childhood abuse came from. It’s easy to point the finger at my parents as the obvious source, but really, did it start with them? Did they wake up one day and decide ‘you know what, fuck it, I’m going to be the worst kind of human being’ . Of course they didn’t. Their behaviour stems from their own experiences of abuse. Very different experiences, but abuse none the less.

My father’s history of abuse is somewhat of a mystery. He has surviving siblings, none of which have, or indeed likely ever will, talk about their childhood. I know the children in the family were split at one point (my father included). I know times were tough. I know that my Grandfather died, leaving his wife to raise 5 children. But no one ever seemed sad about this. Indeed my grandmother never talked about her husband when we were kids. Neither did my father. I can never remember any of my aunts or uncles taking flowers to their father’s grave in the family plot in the village, even though we all went to church together on a Sunday. I never really questioned it until my adulthood. Could this man have been a monster. It seems likely. The details I’ll probably never know. But the silence in the family is deafening. How can not a single one of my aunts or uncles talk about their father? Especially if they lost him earlier than expected. My father grew to be an addict with narcissistic tendencies and had an attraction to young girls. I draw my own conclusions on how his father treated him and what behaviour he may have witnessed.

My mother’s childhood, by all accounts, was a tragedy of epic proportions. One of 7, she was pushed through the foster care system when all the children were removed from the care of their biological mother. I’m sure most people have heard tales of the standards of care in the uk foster system in the 60’s. Not great. Eventually she ended up on permanent foster with a couple that I came to call Gran & Grandad. And here is where the story gets worse for her. During this foster placement she was repeatedly abused by her foster father, who’s sexual preference, it seems, like my father, was young vulnerable girls.

Knowing the tragic upbringing of both of my parents offers little comfort to me. As a human being I can empathise with their past. But as a daughter,and a mother, I can neither understand their behaviour fully or forget it, although I have come to largely accept it. Their past does raise more questions than answers for me though.

As kids we would often go and stay with my mother’s foster parents. Our Gran and Grandad. We would eat penny sweets from Woolworths (when they were still a penny!) , have dinner, play in the communal garden of the bungalow, and often, stay over. There were times when we would sleep on camp beds in the spare room and hear my Gran pacing around at night (I always presumed she was a poor sleeper). There were other times, when we shared my Gran’s bed at her request. These times would coincide with my Grandad already being a third through a bottle of Bell’s whiskey on our arrival. At the time I guessed she didn’t want to share her bed with a snoring husband on these occasions. The truth is far more sinister. I now believe, knowing what I know about his penchant for young girls, that she put us in her bed to protect us from him.

This leads me back to those who protect and enable abusers (see previous post for more about this). Gran had married a paedophile. They remained married until his death. It begs the question just how many children had he had access to? For me it also begs the question of why my own mother would allow us to go and stay with them. If my Gran couldn’t protect my mother, why would my mother believe she could protect us? Maybe she was living in complete denial. I’ll probably never know.

My point after all of this, is that the cycle of abuse is strong. It runs through generations like wildfire, consuming all. Is it coincidence that BOTH of my parents suffered abuse and went on to be abusers themselves? Doubt it.

I saw a statement last week that resonated so strongly with me it almost brought a tear.

“It ran in my family, until it ran into me”

Too fucking right it did.

The Beginning of Neglect

I’ve written before about some of the types of abuse I experienced as a child, and the hardest for me to write about is neglect. There are 4 main types of neglect. Physical, Emotional, Educational and Medical. I was unlucky enough to receive my fair share of all 4. The evidence behind why neglect happens can be a complex combination of a lack of education, a cycle of abuse, financial pressure, drug or alcohol addition, criminality and a whole list of other joyous things. Neglect became a part of my life,but it wasn’t always that way. We had a fairly good life before the catalyst of events that sent everything spiralling out of control, my mother at the helm. An average life. Parents, school, home, dog, pretty standard.

A marital breakdown (the 2nd for my mother) meant that the family home was no longer our home. We moved a few miles away to something more affordable and it was a few months before I realised my mother wasn’t really coming home anymore. I would see her from time to time and she would act normally, saying she was working and dodging any questions about why she wasn’t home. In the mean time I went about my day as normal, school, home, friends. I would’ve been around 9 or 10 at this point. Luckily there was still a loving parent at home doing day to day care as well as 2 jobs. I had no idea that this would be the last time I felt loved and cared for until I reached adulthood.

One day my mother collected us to go and live wherever she had been living all these months. Her marriage to my loving step father of 8yrs was over and she was building a new life. In the car on the way over she caught my eye in the rear view mirror & explained that she’d been seeing someone else for some time now, and that we’d all be living together. For a while there I thought she’d just vanished and left us. But that couldn’t be true could it? No, I was definitely imagining it. She’d come (I now know under duress) and brought us to share her life again.

Well, I thought, can’t be that bad……. Fuck. Little did I know.

The neglect came on slowly at first. Small things. Clean clothes, meals, that sort of thing. A general lack of interest in parenting. All of which were solved fairly easily by just looking after ourselves. Tinned meatballs and rice were a favourite of my 10yr old self. And toast. Lots of toast. Now I realise that these small things were the first signs of what was to come. After what seemed like endless months of being dragged around to sleep on the floors of various family member’s homes and other caregivers, we finally settled in a flat. Most of my time was spent on the now 2hr commute each way to school. Finally, a new home. But it wasn’t OUR home. It was HER home that she shared with her now boyfriend and her new life. And everything about it confirmed that. She became more and more distant, stayed out for days at a time, sometimes up to a week. Often, her boyfriend was with her, but other times, he was at home. It was just the opportunity he was clearly waiting for to indulge his perversions. He had easy access and nothing in the way, least of all, my mother.

The Shadow Child

I’ve always referred to my inner child in the third person. The Shadow Child. The neglected version of the inner child. She’s me but doesn’t feel how I feel. We don’t share our thought patterns, fears, reactions or dreams so I guess I feel like she’s a version of me but not current enough to identify with daily.

So I talk about her. And sometimes I talk to her.

There’s lots of evidence out there to show that addressing the inner child in varying methods is useful for recovery for trauma survivors. Some therapies work towards acknowledging the inner child in order to help process the feelings you felt during childhood trauma. Another method is to write a letter to them, in the hope that they write back eventually – nothing weird about that at all, right? I can’t even be bothered to read the reminder emails I send myself so not likely to get far with that method personally 😉

I have however, done lots of inner child work to aid my recovery. This meant addressing and, most importantly, acknowledging the feelings I had towards my life as a child.

My shadow child protected me, defended me, and even saved me. She didn’t overreact (infact she didn’t react at all), didn’t let in any situation that could be damaging, and kept people at a comfortable distance. Her and I are pals. She got me through the hardest times of my life by building these unshakable walls. Her courage, resilience and problem solving were commendable. The problem was, once I became an adult she did too. I was untouchable, unreachable and immovable. She built me a fortress in which to hide. If even a hint of something emotional came along, a life event, family gathering, anything where I might be required to give my feelings freely, she did her utmost to make sure I was otherwise engaged so I never had to trip over any rogue feelings left laying around.

Sounds great right?

It was. Right up until I realised I was half a person. The other half, my shadow child, was busy sunning themselves safely tucked away inside a fortress. This was a turning point for me in my healing journey. I knew I’d have to face her. But she had such a gob on her I wasn’t sure I could. Turns out she’s all mouth, and actually her and I have come to an understanding. She has nothing to be angry over anymore, so she isn’t. But I’m grateful. Grateful she was there. Without her walls and blindingly good defences, I don’t think I could’ve survived. So I thank her daily. And remind her that her work is done, I don’t need her anymore. Maybe I never will.

The Topic of Abuse Enablers

One of the hardest parts of accepting my childhood trauma, was accepting the fact that I wasn’t protected. There were various enablers in my life, those who were in a position of trust or care and yet allowed this abuse to continue or even facilitated it.

Those who protect and defend abusers are often close to victims, either friends or family, which makes sense as statistics show us that most people who suffer abuse do so at the hands of those they already know and have regular, often unsupervised contact with, it’s rarely strangers in these circumstances.

But the question I’ve mused for so long, is why? Why do these people protect abusers? I think of someone hurting my own children and it fills me with incandescent rage. So why doesn’t it fill others with the same?

I’m no expert on this topic, but I can only assume narcissism is one cause, as narcissists tend to see their own children as extensions of themselves and not as individual beings. There is also evidence to say that enablers or abuse facilitators have also to some extent been groomed themselves by abusers. Often abusers form strong relationships with those they groom, normally in order to get access to their target, this can be a co- dependant friendship or a sexual relationship, depending on the circumstances. They confess secrets in order to win the trust of those they groom (a great way to demand that other ‘secrets’ be kept later on), all the time getting closer to their actually intended target. Sometimes I do think abusers just have blind luck though, for there are many desperate people out there looking for the kind of attention abusers give, and sometimes, these people have children themselves or access to children.

In my case abuse came from multiple sources. My mother’s partner was a source of abuse, another was his ‘good friend’. Coincidence that abusers are friends? I think not. Abusers tend to seek out other abusers as friends, it validates their urges and gives them more opportunities to act upon them. It also invalidates victims concerns, as there is often an echo chamber of enablers around repeating whatever narrative the abuser has planted. These are often statements like :

He/she doesn’t mean anything by it. They’re harmless. They’ve got daughters/sons. They wouldn’t hurt a fly. They’re just friendly. It’s just how they are.

All of these statements invalidate abuse concerns. Sometimes I think enablers say them more for their own peace of mind than the victim’s.

In my case I finally got up the courage to speak openly about it to my mother. She seemed angry and frustrated at first. Then sad. She said all the right things. She even said he would be gone. The relief I felt was immeasurable. Finally. Finally after all these years I wouldn’t have to live under threat anymore. It was like someone turned a light on. We headed home and I went straight to my room whilst she went to hers (where her partner was sitting). She closed the door and I really truly believed that she was giving him marching orders.

Alas. It didn’t happen. When the door finally opened she marched out down the hall as if nothing had happened. I left my room after a few seconds, walked past the open door to their room, glanced in, and there he was. Sat on the bed, smiling. I knew then she’d made her choice to stay with him. I went straight past the room down the hall, my heart racing and head reeling in disbelief. I found her in the kitchen.

‘Well?’ I said. ‘Well what?’ She replied. ‘He said nothing happened’

That statement was like a knife to the heart. I’d been through a lot by that point. But after that, I was a shadow. An empty, souless, lifeless shadow.

The power of words is immense. In one statement she’d single handedly invalidated my abuse and decided that it wasn’t a deal breaker in her relationship.

I’ve recovered from this. But I’ve never, ever, forgotten it.

All Types Of Abuse Count

I used to look back and count myself lucky that worse hadn’t happened to me. I now know it’s a way of minimising my trauma.

I spent so long dismissing my childhood as a traumatic experience that when I stopped and thought about it, I mean really thought about it, I was so overwhelmed I could barely function.

I believed abusers were people who beat their children, or raped them. I had no idea that actually there are many types of abuse.

The four main types of abuse from neglect are Physical, Emotional, Educational and Medical. I got 4 out of 4. Lucky lucky me.

I didn’t consider the physical neglect as the worse case scenario so I just dismissed it, after all, there were people out there that routinely beat their kids half to death, right? So I was quietly grateful that I’d never had to endure that. In a way I still am.

But all types of abuse are relevant. They all have an impact on children, especially when the perpetrators are primary caregivers. Caregivers. A word with great explanation. Someone who gives care. It’s almost laughable at times. If it wasn’t so sad.

I look at my own children and routinely wonder How The Actual Fuck could anyone treat their children with anything other than love and care. It’s beyond me. Clearly that level of shit parenting is above my paygrade.

Let’s talk dissociation

If memory serves me correctly, I would’ve been around 10 when I first experienced dissociation. I was at a relatives house, people were talking, and the most bizarre thing started to happen. The voices started to become louder and the words repetitive . This continued until the words were repeating in an echo that was deafening. Just as I thought I might scream, the sound faded off, the room faded out, and I was no longer present.

I don’t know where I went even to this day. But I wasn’t there anymore.

At some point I was aware that I was back. The sound was normal, the room looked normal, but I felt tired.

These episodes continued for years.

I never told a single human being. I never asked for help. Children of trauma can find it difficult to ask for or even accept help, especially when primary caregivers are a source of abuse. Now I look back and I understand that my experience was likely a direct result of my trauma, my brain had decided that dissociation was a good strategy.

Luckily for me it didn’t last into my adulthood, but there were some really dodgy moments I can tell you.

I simply thought I was going mad.

Do you see your parents much?

I spent over 20yrs ignoring the first chapters of my life. Choosing to forget them. When strangers casually ask about my parents, I tell them they’re dead and buried. They then apologise with “I’m so sorry, I didn’t know” and look sheepish for the next 10seconds before I awkwardly change the subject.

But it’s a lie. One is dead and buried, the other estranged, but somehow I can rarely be assed to discuss it. I’m exhausted by the thought of it.

The truth is it’s a relief I don’t have to talk about them.

I mean, what would I say? Where would I even start?

‘Well my father was an addict, suffered from depression and had a questionable moral compass’

*Cue awkward silence*

And I wish my mother was dead.

*Cue even longer silence*

So generally, I lie. I make out that I’m sad about not having them around, but really, I’m not. I’m relieved. Relieved that I don’t have to deal with their poor life choices. Relieved I don’t have to make small talk with them. Relieved that I never have to avoid leaving my kids with them. Not having them in my life makes my life easier. I’ve already grieved them both, even though my mother is still alive. I’ve grieved what could have been.

It took me 20yrs to finally realise that I needed to be the kind of parent that my own parents could never, I now know, have been.