Thursday, October 15, 2009

She Will Do as I Do

I wrote this some time ago, and have been undecided about whether to share it, or where. Today, I learned that October is domestic violence awareness month, and decided that the time was ripe to get my piece of the word out, in hopes that it will help someone to break a cycle that is passed down from generation to generation. It's not what you're used to here, but I think it's important.

The most significant moment of my life occurred in the fall of 1994. It wasn’t my marriage, the birth of my precious daughter, the day I was sworn in to the practice of law or when I held my first book in my hands and ran my finger across my name on the cover. No, the most significant moment of my life took place in an apartment-building driveway in a run-down town, well after dark on a week night.

A man I loved lifted a rock—a very large rock—and said, “Shut up, get in your car and drive away and don’t look back or I’m going to bash your head in.” The original statement, of course, contained a few colorful adjectives. I believed him. I got in my car and drove away without looking back, and as I did, I sighed.

That was it, that sigh. A man I loved and trusted had threatened to kill me with a rock, and I’d believed him, and it made me SIGH. It didn’t shock me, appall me, or even really frighten me. If I’d put that sigh into words, I think they would have been “here we go again.”

I’d grown up with violence, of course. And like every child who grows up with violence I’d sworn I’d never tolerate it and meant it from the bottom of my heart. I’d grown up to fight violence, training and volunteering in domestic violence shelters and sexual assault programs for several years. And then, when violence came back into my life, I greeted it much in the same way I would have greeted a flat tire on my way to work.

In my mind, of course, I knew all the things I’d been telling victims for years. But in my gut, in my physiology, deep in my psyche, this kind of thing was just part of life. I knew how serious it was, but I couldn’t feel it. And because I didn’t experience it as anything life-altering, it didn’t alter my life a bit. I left when I was told, to avoid getting my head bashed in with a rock, and then I returned the next day.

I didn’t recognize the significance of that sigh then, of course. It was years before I looked back and realized that my reaction was the result of a kind of programming that can only be erased by long, hard work and extreme awareness. I’d thought that in mentally rejecting violence, in my training and volunteer work and the way I saw violence in the lives of other women, I’d moved past that programming, but I hadn’t. It was only lying in wait. In fact, that programming has never entirely been erased; I’m not sure whether it ever can be. The difference is that I know now that my emotional and instinctive reactions can’t be trusted in that arena, that I have to have a concrete bottom line and stick to it as if it were a law, because my gut won’t tell me to do what needs to be done.

The other difference is that I have a child now, and because of that one moment—because I sighed when I should have screamed, and briefly retreated when I should have run—I know that what she experiences in her day-to-day life as a child will be what she perceives as normal, no matter how much lip service I pay to it being wrong, no matter how clearly she recognizes that herself. And it’s not just about violence; our children become familiar with, and comfortable with, the type of relationships we model, our financial stability or lack thereof, and every other aspect of the lives we live from day to day and thereby present as normal.

A thousand studies have told us as much, have told us that girls who grow up with violence enter into abusive relationships and boys who grow up with violence become abusers, and we think, all of us, “Not my kid.” It’s not just denial: children object, they see the problem, sometimes they’re more clear-headed about it than their parents, and it seems impossible to imagine that they’d ever tolerate that same pattern in their lives.

I was that child: the one who threatened to call the police, who advocated bolting the doors, who had a hundred suggestions for when and where and how to get away. And when the chips were down, more than a decade later, I sighed. And I stayed.


Meam Wye said...

Very insightful post. It's true that one's perception of life and people is closely related with the childhood experiences. I agree that it requires continuous conscious efforts throughout life to overcome any sort of negative childhood experience. Being a parent is an enormous responsibility and yet, unfortunately, there are many who decide to have children without giving any consideration to the responsibility that comes with it. Thanks for sharing.

Midwest Mom said...

Oh, Tiffany. Thank you for this very honest, heart-breaking writing.

It takes bravery to put this down and make it known. I know it will help someone that you did.

- Julia

Antonia Blanca said...

Thank you for sharing this. You have no idea how timely this is.


YaGirlNextDoor said...

It took a lot of courage to write this, thank s for sharing your story. I know it will help others know they are not alone.

Anonymous said...

What a wonderfully honest post. I have never been subjected to physical violence or threats but I have experienced well into my adulthood, how childhood perceptions and patterns are almost programmed automatically into me, and I find it impossible to press my over-ride switch. I grew up in an alcoholic home where my parents fought, albeit verbally, day and night. I had no siblings. Just me. This led me to develop zero ability to deal with conflict. I don't. I internalise and walk away. I am also an alcoholiic but am in long-term recovery and really believed I had dealt with all this stuff. But as you have written, intellectualising something is one thing but re-programming our safety systems is another. My ex-husband treated me very badly, he filed for bankruptcy rather than allow me to my half of the joint property. This is years ago, and i am still tryimg to get back on my feet financially. And inwardly I sigh. My head tells me I should want to go and scream at the ex-husband, vent my rage, hit him with a baseball bat... but inwardly I sigh. My loving new husband doesn't understand why I can't be angry. perhaps it is because my expectations are so low?I don't know, what i do know is that one phrase of yours "I sigh" - has touched a place that is so deep within me. I know exactly what you mean.
Smiles and blessings.