The Long Arms of Child Abuse

          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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Child, Love Hasn’t Failed You

Love failed you again, hasn’t it? You haven’t called since we last spoke and I felt trouble was brewing on your side of this world. How have you been? I wanted to cloak you in comfort, but you chose independence. That choice bears the joy of being on your own, and the burden of bearing the pain on your own.

You told me last time you were doing better. You told me last time; you aren’t about to do anything crazy for love. But you’ve told me so many things before and how you ate your words again and again. I worry. You don’t call often, but you do at least once a month. The month is about over and I haven’t heard from you. Love failed you again, hasn’t it? Continue reading Child, Love Hasn’t Failed You

Today, the Dragons Came

Today, the  dragons came. I stood by the hill, overlooking the sea when from the horizon I saw a shadow—majestic, massive and overpowering. In that moment, darkness overcame the land—as if the mother of dragons swallowed the sun as it flew towards the hill.

I stood frozen, frightened by the sight of its wide wings, impenetrable scales and its powerful  claws. I was too tiny, too insignificant for its presence and yet, here I stood unmoving. What can my weak arms do to overcome such power? What kind of fight can a spirit overwrought with fear be able to do?

Continue reading Today, the Dragons Came

I Never Knew

“Like air” he said as he raised his hand in a graceful surrender to the breeze sweeping through the tiny hill we stood on.

“You want to be like air?” I asked as I watch his hair fly in disarray. He hadn’t cut it since September, and now it was a mess of brown curls sweeping across his face.

“Yes, then I’d be essential to you.”

I laughed and stared into the horizon he had been staring at since we started this absurd conversation.

“You already are. You always have been.”

I feel his eyes on me. I keep staring into the horizon, wiping my mouth with my hand and feeling the growing beard I was too lazy to shave this morning. I look down and watch our shadows meet as the space between us fill with the words we kept inside.

“I never knew.”

“Now you do.”

The Weight of Memories

Memories, what are they for?
To him, they were ghosts plaguing his mind. For there was no choosing. The happy recollections came with the painful ones. He despised it.

At night he lays staring at the empty space beside him. He hears laughter and feels the tears well up in his eyes. His stomach turns. Anger seething beneath his chest. Running to the kitchen, he opens a can of beer and gulps it down. One after the next.

Six empty cans on the sink. A few sleeping hours free of memories.

Four hours later, he wakes up to the sound of an intruding alarm clock. He throws it across the room. Silence, then throbbing. His head pulsating with its own heartbeat. Splashing water on his face, he stares at the mirror. Black circles, swollen and empty eyes stare back. The mirror breaks, shattering to a thousand piece. He washes his hands, watching as the water turns pink.

He goes down for coffee. Opening cupboards in search of the cereal box that was usually in the middle of the breakfast nook when he wakes up. The sound of cabinet doors opening and shutting, rhythmically mimicing a man’s angry heartbeat. He throws the cereal bowl on the sink. Breaking. He drinks his coffee. His hands still bleeding. He wraps a towel.

Sunlight streams through the glass doors. He hears that soft voice speaking out his name before that light giggling laughter. Stillness. He drowns himself with his coffee. Then, brings himself to the shower. Soaking himself beneath it, muffling the sound of his wailing.

A robe would do. He wraps himself in it and begins to sort. Each piece of clothing warm to his cold skin, burning him with fragments of a fast fading memory. Each piece perfectly arranged in a box marked with bold letters STORAGE at its side. The rustling sound of clothes hanging in the closet echoes the sound of a wedding train dragged across a church. He stops midway. His hands sliding down the garment he held. His knees giving in. A silent scream leaves his mouth. He curls on the floor, fetus-like. His breathing short and rapid. His eyes sore. His heart heavy.

The phone rings. The answering machine takes it.
“Hi, you’ve just reach Dave and Joan. We aren’t here right now, please leave a message.” Her voice reverberated through him. Freezing every inch of his body, then breaking it. “Hi dave, i heard the news. I’m so….”
He pulls the cord, as life had pulled his.

Holding on to a piece of white satin, he mourns.

Original written in 2008

Exactly

She told me she falls in love easily, it could take a short glance, a brief conversation or a meal shared. She tells me this in between drags of her slim cigarette. The words ‘shared’ hang between us.

Leaning back, crossing her legs, and after two drags from her Virginia Slim, she steals a glance–catching my eyes, asking for me to look, as if there was something between us. When all there was, was smoke shrouding her.

Like a heavy sigh escaping her nicotine lips she says: “It’s the case with you.”

I look at her mouth as it forms those words only to hear them a beat after. I watch her go through her purse in search of another stick. Catching her wrist, letting my eyes focus on hers, letting my thoughts run free and words slip through my parched mouth.

“I’m a girl.”

And she lets her head fall forward, hair covering her face, exhaling softly she whispers,

“I know.”

In that moment, I leaned my head back, let go of her wrist and stared into the starless sky.

“Amazing.” I said.

She found her cigarette it seemed, as I witness a cloud of smoke hovering above my face. I reach out with my hand touching it. I hear her say, “It really is.”

Cutting through the silent cold air, I let my words fill the space, “I am not like you. I don’t fall easy.”

“I know.”

I let the words guide me back to her face. Searching her beneath the evening sky, I catch the moonlight’s reflection on her wet cheeks.I make no move to comfort her. I stare at her tear-stained face, her trembling fingers wrapped in smoke, and continued speaking.

“It takes me at least a year and two months to fall in love, and we’ve known each other for only, what?”

I let the words float into the evening sky, leaving her to complete the statement, “…one year and two months.”

Stillness.

I draw close, entering her cloud of smoke, held her gaze with mine and smiled.

“Exactly”

“But, I’m a girl?” She says.

“I know.”

original written on 13 Sept 2016