A Story: How Witnessing Domestic Violence Changed My Brain

I was 9 years old the first time I remember feeling truly unsafe in my house. Dinner had ended and my little brother and I were sitting at the kitchen table while my mom did dishes. My dad was sitting at the counter in his bar chair drinking beer. They were fighting about something. My mom was angry and she said something along the lines of, “Why don’t you just drink another beer?” and she knocked over the can he was currently drinking. Beer splashed over the counter and soaked his t-shirt. He moved towards her like you might expect a Grizzly to do before mauling its victim. She screamed and terror flooded through me as I watched him choke her. I sprung up from my chair and started pounding on his back and pulling at his shirt, screaming and crying for him to stop. My little brother was frozen in his seat sobbing. After what felt like an eternity, he stopped and things settled down. My mom rushed out of the house with us in tow and we sat in the car in the parking lot of our apartment complex. She sobbed while I begged her to leave. I just wanted to go but I think she was afraid of not being able to make it on her own with two kids. Eventually we went back inside and she forgave him after a lot of begging and pleading on his part. That was the first time I felt personally responsible for my mom’s safety and not the last time I would get involved in their arguments.

A short time after, I was at school when my back began to painfully itch. I told my teacher what was happening and she sent me to the nurse. When my mom took me to the doctor, I was diagnosed with hives. If you have ever had hives, you know how painful and irritating they can be. After some questions, the doctor asked my mom if anything had been going on at home to cause me any stress but my mom said no. Eventually the hives migrated to my forearms and then finally went away, but this was the first time anxiety gripped onto me in unexpected ways and refused to let go.

When I was 11, we moved to a new neighborhood and my parents bought a house. It was a split level and my bedroom was on the bottom floor. My brother had the room right across from my parent’s bedroom. The heating vent in my room allowed me to hear everything going on upstairs. When my brother and I went to bed, my parents would start arguing. My dad was primarily verbally abusive, but after that incident when I was 9, I was determined to never let anything like that happen again. In my vigilance, I would sit on the stairs and listen to everything they said. I knew that if I wasn’t there to step in, my mom would get hurt – at least, that’s the story I told myself over and over again. If I heard them arguing, I was on the stairs listening – no matter how late it was. I would assess the intensity of my dad’s words and listen for fear in my mom’s voice. If things got too intense, I was ready to step in between them and yell at my dad. Sometimes I’d curse at him or just yell at him to stop. The result would be that all the attention was on me and not my mom, who I was determined to protect.

When I was 14, my mom finally left. Oddly, it wasn’t physical abuse that finally pushed her over the edge – to my knowledge, there were only a couple instances of that since I was 9. During the winter of 1998, my mom contracted pneumonia and was bed-ridden for 2 weeks. She couldn’t shower, brush her hair, or take care of the house. My dad would yell at her to get up and stop being lazy and I would step in and yell back at him to leave her alone. When she was finally better, she started talking to me about leaving. I told her she was strong and could do it, and I begged her not to give up. Things all fell into place at just the right moment – a job offer at an apartment complex that would provide free rent in an exchange for cleaning apartments when people moved out. We left shortly after my 14th birthday and I finally felt hopeful that things would be better, but things only got worse for me.

Throughout my teen years, I struggled with depression and anxiety – the kind that leaves you lonely, in the thralls of deep sadness, and feeling like you’ll never do or be anything because you’re worthless and pathetic. When I was 16, I moved out with a boyfriend and lived with him for about a year before we broke up. My mom was living in a smaller apartment at that point and didn’t have space for me, so I moved back into my old room at my dad’s house. What followed would be 2 years of verbal abuse that left me wishing for death, both for myself and for my dad. Our arguments would get so heated that I would literally see red. I started locking my door before going to sleep so I wouldn’t wake up to my dad in my room screaming at me. There were several arguments in which he told me that I was a disappointment, out of control, and should be locked up because I was crazy. I felt crazy, too. As soon as my mom had space available, I moved out. I finally felt some relief from the constant barrage of verbal abuse that left me feeling worthless and exhausted.

When I was 20, I was diagnosed with Bipolar Disorder Type II, a mood disorder where the individual experiences highs and lows. Some symptoms include erratic, impulsive, and risky or dangerous behavior, distractibility and inability to focus, and depression. Just this year at age 35, I was diagnosed with PTSD, which finally brought me some closure as to why I can’t stop worrying. I have always had anxiety but COVID-19 increased those symptoms by providing a real and tangible threat to my safety and well-being that previously had only been hypothetical. I have trouble sleeping, constant nightmares, and can’t concentrate at work. I am taking 3 medications that will hopefully get me stable, but I’m not hopeful. I have struggled with maintaining employment my entire adulthood. I get a job when I’m doing well, and then lose it as soon as my mental health takes a dive. It leaves me feeling pathetic and hopeless, like I’ll never be able to amount to anything. I feel like a failure. I worry that I’ll always be a mess of a person just drifting through life, unable to have any control over what happens to me. I am constantly afraid that if I stop being vigilant, something bad will happen to me and the people I care about.

What I experienced as a child is what researchers call Adverse Childhood Experiences, or ACEs. ACEs are events that occur during childhood (before age 18) that can be traumatic. Examples of events include neglect, violence, loss of a family member due to suicide or a suicide attempt, or having a parent who was a drug addict or alcoholic. In general, the higher your ACEs score, the more likely you are to have health problems later in life. You’re more at risk for alcoholism, problems at work, obesity, depression, suicide, heart disease, cancer, and stroke. Research shows that children with trauma are sometimes misdiagnosed as having ADHD because they may be acting out in anger and impulsivity due to their trauma (source).

Source: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention | Credit: Robert Wood Johnson Foundation

What is really staggering is that ACEs are common. The CDC reports 1 in 6 adults surveyed had an ACEs score of 4 or more out of 10. Addressing risk factors early on could help prevent costly health and social problems such as depression, homelessness, addiction, and cancer. The CDC recommends several strategies that can help reduce ACEs, such as providing more economic support to families, early intervention, connecting youth with mentors, teaching children how to have safe and healthy relationships when they get older, providing parents with parenting skills, and offering preschool enrichment and quality child care options (source).

Every time I revisit my childhood, I wonder who I would have been had I not experienced the things I did. Would I have still been diagnosed with Bipolar II or was that a direct result of my trauma? I wonder who my dad would have been, too. He was abused as a child by his dad and witnessed his mom getting abused, too. Abuse is generational and affects the very fabric of our DNA. What we experience as children changes us from a biological level and if we don’t heal, we may go on to become abusers ourselves. I can’t help but feel sorrow for the childhood I lost due to domestic violence. Children should be filled with hope and innocence and dreams that will one day be fulfilled, not the chaotic painful mess I saw every day. I sought a better relationship with my dad as an adult, but we never quite made it because I wanted an apology that would never come. I wanted closure. I wanted a positive, loving relationship with a man I barely knew because he was locked in a mental prison of his own making, shackled by the sorrow that was his own abusive childhood. He died in 2016, and I’ll never know what kind of relationship we could have had. I’ll never know who he might have been had he not been abused himself. He will never fully know who I am. His death shook me in ways I couldn’t have imagined. At the end of the day, he was my dad and I loved him. At the end of the day, we both deserved better childhoods than the ones we were given. I hope he at least can rest peacefully knowing that the cycle of abuse is ending with me.

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