Hi everyone, thanks for joining me once again for the final story in this series. Everyone who has contributed to this project has done a wonderful job and I am grateful to all of you, but each story has been from the perspective of a survivor in a violent relationship. I really wanted to include at least one story from the perspective of a child who had grown up in an environment of domestic violence, but unfortunately I didn’t receive any stories like that, so because I believe it is such an important perspective to include, I thought I would volunteer my own. I will caution you, this story may be triggering and is not easy to read. But I decided not to pull any punches, and to really lay out the truth about what went on in my home growing up. Even people who know me may be surprised at the extent of the violence; I just want to be clear that I am not ashamed of anything that happened. I did nothing wrong. My mother and sister did nothing wrong. We were the victims, we are the survivors. And I am ready for the world to hear our story.
Thank you to everyone who has written, commented, and read these stories. Just by witnessing these words, you are making a difference.
Growing up in a violent household isn’t easy to explain. It isn’t all like what you see in Lifetime movies; it isn’t all as obvious as black eyes and screaming fights. Sometimes- many times- violence is much quieter than that, much more insidious. It was that way in my house
I think the number one word that comes to mind when describing my childhood home is this: confusing. Damn, was it confusing. It’s not just that it was chaotic, though it certainly was. It’s that no one had a clearly defined role in the family. Mother, daughter, wife, big sister, little sister, friend, adult, child, lover, whore, caretaker, confessor, victim, savior, and others were all interchangeable roles for the three females in the family; that is my mom, my older sister, and me. We shifted personalities at the whim of my father, who also had his own little cast of characters that he played: father, husband, surgeon, family man, abuser, pedophile, rapist, philanderer, and general, all-around sociopath. We spent our days and especially our nights in a mixture of terror and exhaustion, wondering who was going to be what next.
As a child, I got extremely mixed messages from both parents, but especially my mom. On the one hand, she was very careful to make sure that she raised me to be a feminist, equal to a boy in all the opportunities I was given and the things she said to me. She gave me trucks along with my Barbies, made sure I admired Cinderella and Sally Ride, and said I was so smart I could be anything I wanted to when I grew up- no one could stop me.
Except while she was telling me all of this, I was watching her wither away in an abusive marriage. My father stopped her from seeing friends and her family, from taking a job outside the house or even working from home, from using any of the degrees she had earned. My mother is a brilliant, talented, educated woman, and he convinced her that she was worthless and stupid and couldn’t even do housework correctly. I watched him treat her like less than shit you wipe off your shoe my entire life. He slowly took away every little bit of control and happiness and sanity from her. I watched him screw other women behind her back. I dealt with him abusing my sister and me behind her back, which he knew was the worst way possible to hurt her.
When you grow up with a tyrant who rules your home like this, things are never safe. You don’t even know what that word means. Stable and secure are pretty meaningless too. Because one night your father might come home, get pissed off, and threaten to kill your cats. Or, just because he thinks it’s funny, he’ll hold an empty handgun to your six-year-old head and pretend to fire. Or while you’re doing your homework he’ll walk into your room completely naked and act like it’s no big deal. He’ll make dinner for himself and forget to feed you and your sister. He’ll pinch your ass. Pull your hair. Shove you into a wall. Molest you. Rape you.
And that’s just the stuff he did to me. He pretty much did the same to my sister. I don’t even know everything that he did to my mom, and I don’t want to. I know he abused her verbally, emotionally, physically, sexually, financially, and even reproductively, by forcing her to have her tubes tied which ended up in a hysterectomy after a post-op infection. It was horrifying.
It’s hard to really make someone understand what it is to live under the constant threat of violence unless they literally have. It’s terrifying, but it is also exhausting; physically, emotionally, and spiritually draining. Because you’re not only having to live with it, you have to keep it secret. You’re all living in this silent warzone, this strange compromise gets struck where you can be fucked up inside the house, but once outside it’s all pretend. It’s like a bomb in a Tiffany box; it may look pretty on the outside, but when you open it up, the contents will still kill you.
For those of you who have children who have lived in violent homes and are concerned about how they will be affected, I can tell you one thing: they are aware of so much more than you think. You think you are hiding the stress and trauma from them but you are not. They understand what’s happening and they want to help. They want to protect their parents and themselves and make it all ok. They think it is their fault that things are falling apart. They think this so they can have some control over a situation in which they have no control. Do not, I repeat, DO NOT try to “stay together for the kids’ sake.” The kids do not want two miserable parents together. They would so much rather have two separate, functional, happy parents, BELIEVE ME. They would rather have a struggling single mom in a safe home than a rich, extravagant home that is filled with chaos and violence. Do whatever you have to do, but make your kids feel safe. That’s all they really want.
As far as how I was affected by growing up like this, it’s hard to tell. I ended up with severe anorexia and bulimia, a dissociative disorder, self-harm issues (mostly cutting), a prescription pill habit, and horrifying posttraumatic stress disorder. But how much of that was due to witnessing domestic violence, and how much of that was being a direct victim of sexual violence myself? There’s really no way to know. Both affected me in deep and profound ways, ways that I still deal with to this day.
So how, you’re probably wondering, did my family’s violent situation end? Well, it sort of ended because of me. I finally went off the deep end at 15. I couldn’t take it anymore and I tried to commit suicide, which landed me in a psych ward, which began the process of family therapy with the therapist who recommended my parents get divorced, which finally began when I was 17 and ended when I was 19. It took many, many years of therapy for all of us and a lot of moving around and of course, cutting my father out of our lives completely to be where we are today, my mother my sister, and me. And where we are is a pretty good place: moving forward, looking to the future, hopeful, peaceful, and free.
Finally, gratefully, free.
© Sarah Ann Henderson 2011