Barely seven years old, my mother decided I was a good enough ashtray as any other dish. I was not yet ten years old when I was asked to kneel on salt as I balanced an encyclopedia on my outstretched arms. I was not yet 13 years old when someone decided I was good enough to practice punches on. All of this happened, interspersed with whispers of all my failings—stupid, untalented, lazy and never able to measure up to something, without a single soul outside of my house knowing. While Social Welfare reported an increase in the number of child abuse cases from 2015 and 2016, a lot of these abuses happens without them knowing. The numbers most likely greater than what society perceives it to be, for child abuse encompasses more than just sexual abuse (cases reported by social welfare mostly fall in this category), it includes physical abuse and the hard-to-detect emotional abuse. It is likely that cases of self-harm, suicide, depression, and isolation are related to a history of child abuse for the effects of such a childhood are carried to adulthood.
Individuals with a history of child abuse do not realize its impact at the get-go. Most often the initial reaction is survival. How to live through the day, how to address the physical wounds and how to sleep at night. Only when they are asked to live in the world, to mingle with society, be part of its workforce and build relationships that these effects come to surface. Victims of child abuse grow up with no self-worth, with anger issues and dysfunctional relationships.
When most children are embraced, and protected from the evils of the world while you are treated worse than an animal off to the butcher, one can only believe that you are not loved, that you are not worth much. When the very people who created you and who were supposed to love you reject your existence one can only conclude that you are worthless. The regularity of this treatment merely reaffirms this truth and for the victim of child abuse no truth can be so absolute as what your parents show and tell you. As an adult, abused children, learn to mask this insecurity with nonchalance towards the world, but each friend rejection, unapproved project proposal and failure echoes a truth they learned in childhood, that they are not worth anything leading to behaviors that would numb these feelings—alcoholism, drug-abuse, self-harm and isolation.
Numbing—ignoring the pain is one of the first defenses an abused child learns, while they successfully adapt this skill they fail to learn the art of regulating their emotions. Regulating emotions, knowing the appropriate reaction to situations, is learned from the early attempts of a mother to calm her child as the baby cries in discomfort or pain. It is learned through that soothing stroke on the child’s back, the cooing sound and the gentle rocking mothers give as they calm the child and reassure him/her that everything will be okay. Abused children do not get this, nor do they learn the skill, hence the sudden burst of anger for minor offenses. Cut them in line and you are most likely going to be on the receiving end of a hurl of insults and possible physical violence. It doesn’t help that this unregulated emotion is fed by learned violence at an early age and fueled by an unresolved power struggle. As an adult, this once helpless child, finds an outlet to defend themselves from offenders to the detriment of the unknowing victim. Superficially, the rage is an anger issue. Dig deeper and one will find a helpless child finally learning to bite.
The combination of a barely-there self-worth and these sudden outbursts result to volatile relationships. Often enough friends and lovers may feel burdened by the hot and cold attachment emanating from the formed abused child. Abused children do not learn love as naturally as most people, where most people learn unconditional love from a parent, an abused child learns to buy and beg for it. An abused child learns to behave as best as they could in hopes to get some affection or some praise from their parents. It did not matter what it took to get a bit of sweetness, so long as they could get some. The infrequency of these signs of affection twists the heart of an abused child in their understanding of love. Love then does not become something given freely, but something one must buy and beg for. Relationships then are founded on conditions, while at the same time plagued with distrust on the frequency of affection. Abused children learn to distrust affection, to wonder at its genuineness. This cycle then becomes a burden to both friendships and romantic relationships, making it difficult for the abused child to build and maintain lasting relationships.
One may argue that we all suffer in a lack of self-worth, in fits of anger and even in difficulties in building relationships, that these effects are not the sole property of abused children. There is truth to that, but if one is to look closer the difference lies in the magnitude of the experience. People who have painful histories do not merely experience insecurities, they believe in their worthlessness. Their anger is not some slip of the moment, it is blinding and overwhelming. Their difficulty in building relationships is not something some self-help book can solve, but something they believe they are never able to succeed in. These experiences while may be manifested by other people suffering in some trauma, taking notice of them and bringing this to surface may help unreported abused children to a path towards healing. That, I believe is all that matters at this point.
Children who were abused do not grow up to be completely functional adults unless they are treated for the trauma of that experience. They may hide it, cope with life and forget about their history, but experience has taught me that in time that unattended history will surface itself in the worst possible way. Child abuse, unless sexual and brutal is rarely reported. Pelts on the back, burned skin and constant taunting from one’s parents are easily hidden. While the wounds may heal and the abused child grows old enough to free herself from the clutches of her abuser, the arms of that experience stretch out into the future affecting the individual and the people they want to love. There is no real end in the journey of regaining one’s life from an abusive history. It took me over 10 years to learn how heal and to this day I continue to choose to heal. While many of us survived our ordeals, abuse is never deserved, not by anyone and not by children.
[I wrote this piece originally as an example for my students in writing cause & effects essays]
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