Friday, November 30, 2012

Child Abuse

For the last few weeks, I've been thinking a lot about child abuse, foster care, and parenting. I've decided to share my story, and some thoughts, in hopes that it might help someone out there.

I've spoken about parts of my story to many people, but it's hard to put all of this out in the open. It's hard to speak ill of your family, even when they are clearly in the wrong. It's hard for people who are abused to admit that it wasn't their fault. And it's hard to think about things that are much more comfortable to repress. 

My Mom was very physically abusive to me as a child. You know that feeling when you get super pissed about something, and you just want to punch someone or break a window or something? But you don't. Because that is BAD. Well, my Mom did. Whenever she got angry, she would hit me. I remember crying for some reason when I was 4, and she picked me up by one arm and threw me into my old crib, and kept hitting me over and over screaming at me to "Stop crying or I'll give you something to cry about!" I couldn't understand--how could I stop crying if she was hurting me and scaring the crap out of me? This became a regular pattern. She would lose her keys and get angry and flustered because we were late for something, and she would hit me because I couldn't find them. She would hide food and candy, and if I snuck something, she would scream at me and hit me. A lot of times I remember the "punishment" but I have no idea what happened to start it off. When I was in 5th grade I remember she threw me on the floor of the kitchen and was trying to spank me, and I was crawling and squirming away and crying, and she kept screaming at me to hold still so she could hit me. I had this 5-foot-tall inflatable T-Rex at some point, and once she threw me across my room, my head hit my bed frame, and then she tried to suffocate me with that dinosaur thing. Stuff like this happened several times a week. I would hide in my room until my Dad came home, or play outside as much as possible. I rode my bike and climbed trees with the neighborhood boys, and spent as much time as I could with my best friend, who lived next door. Her Dad always called me their "rental child," because they brought me to Great America, family reunions, vacations, and I was always over there. I ran away three times. I have very few memories of any other kind of interacting with my Mom--she was always watching TV.

My sister is 5 years younger than me, and as kids we didn't have a good relationship. On the one hand, I wanted to make sure my Mom didn't hit her. On the other, my Mom kept her away from me, and taught her to tattle on me--so a part of me hated the way she would unknowingly bring down more abuse on me. I actually had thought I did a good job of shielding her all these years. But just a few months ago she told me she remembered watching one of the times that my Mom hurt me. She remembered one time she told on me for doing something, and my Mom started strangling me, and she thought my Mom was going to kill me. She was screaming at my Mom to stop, and pulling on her, and couldn't do anything to help me. It kind of hit me then, that I had no idea that she had also been scarred. My sister was never in my mind in the moments when I was being beaten, so it never occurred to me that she might also have been traumatized.  

Now, you're probably thinking, "Where was your Dad? Why didn't anyone call CPS? She should be in jail!" Honestly, I'm not sure what that time was like for my Dad. I told him about it, it distressed him, he talked to my Mom about it. There were times when I called him from work begging him to come home. I appreciate the sucky place he was put in, and I don't blame him, but obviously the behavior continued, so more should have been done. Many other people in my family knew about it. They saw it. People at Target or the grocery store saw it. But it wasn't bad enough for CPS to get involved, even if someone had called. I never had any bruises. I remember my Mom once proudly telling a friend that she never hit me where it would show, and she never used anything but her hands. Her dad had hit her with hairbrushes and belts and had purposely slammed her foot in a car door--she would NEVER do anything that bad.

The thing is, my Mom could not control herself. Her problems had a long history. There is a known history of depression at least four generations back in my family. Her father was extremely abusive. She had lifelong health problems, depression, weight problems. She didn't have the tools to deal with the challenges of parenting. Every single time she hurt me, she would come back and apologize, and mean it; a lot of times she would stop in the middle and just burst into tears. She asked me a bazillion times if we could "just start over." I'm not trying to excuse her behavior. It was awful. But throwing her in jail or taking me and my sister away would have been the wrong answer. We hear of child abuse or other crimes, and our automatic reaction is to throw them in jail forever! In my Mom's case, having a Nurse visit regularly while I was a baby to help with breastfeeding, attachment, and to be a resource when she was having a hard time would have been invaluable. Having my grandparents, aunts and uncles, etc., offer help when she was yelling at me in their presence, instead of just waiting uncomfortably in another room, could have helped her to realize how bad things were. Having a social worker or general practitioner who was in contact with all of her doctors and could coordinate the different medications, could be in charge of her overall well-being, and make sure her mental health was addressed would have helped a great deal. Also, there were so many times that she would be screaming at me or hitting me in a store, and people just walked away. As a victim, that is so discouraging. It perpetuates the feeling that you deserve it, that you're bad, and that the behavior of your abuser IS ok, so there's no reason to try to do anything. I had thought about calling the police several times, but the fact that so many people had seen it and walked away convinced me that would futile. I even tearfully told one of my Mom's coworkers who I really looked up to. About 15 minutes later, her friend came over, and she laughingly told her friend how much she loved babysitting me, and how sweet it was that I told her about my Mom hitting me. I still don't really understand their reaction--why was this revelation and my trust in her funny? That made me decide that there was no point in trying to get help. The abuse finally stopped when I was almost 13. My mom pushed me across the kitchen, slamming me into the kitchen table. I ran at her and pushed her as hard as I could, knocking her down. I screamed at her that she would NEVER hit me again, burst into tears, and ran out and locked myself in my room.

My parents got divorced very shortly after that. My Stepmom moved in the same day my Mom moved out. My Dad and Stepmom are still alive and might read this blog, so I don't want to go into a lot of stuff, but my stepmom also had a horrendous childhood that left her ill-equipped to deal with my sister and I. She was very emotionally abusive, although she never "yelled" or hit me. She would bring up every wrong thing I had done in recent history every time I did something wrong. She would get right in my face and remind me of every time I had ever messed up or done a bad job or didn't listen. Middle school was pretty awful for me. I had three parents, but wasn't a priority to any of them. I made a lot of choices that I knew were just plain stupid, but when you're alone and constantly told how awful you are, you tend to look for any kind of acceptance, even though you know it's a lie. My Stepmom would also always try to "teach me lessons." For example, once I forgot to empty the dishwasher, so that night when I called to get picked up from work, she "forgot" to come. I didn't have a cell phone or change, and everyone else had left, so I had to walk home alone at midnight. I didn't thank her for making dinner once, so she decided she would show me how easy I had it by not making me dinner for a wekk or something and making me try to deal with it--because that would make me appreciate all her hard work! I moved out right after I graduated High School, but the abuse didn't stop until several years later. I had gone over to their house when Will was a few months old. She started talking to me about all the terrible choices I had made, and all the bad things I had done, and how awful my wedding was, and Will was in his carseat screaming and I was crying and I just was paralyzed, because that's what happens when you have someone like that doing that to you. And then I looked at my baby, and I decided that THIS SHIT IS GOING TO END RIGHT NOW. My baby would not suffer from anyone who had made me suffer. I picked up his carrier and walked out--and honestly, it was MUCH harder than fighting off my Mom years before.

My stepmom had NO idea what a good parent-child relationship should be. She had such severe abuse as a child, which hadn't been dealt with yet. Again, I'm not excusing her, but I see why she was so broken. Personally, I think that there should be court-ordered counseling for the whole family in cases of divorce when kids are involved. That would have been a good step for my sister and I, and hopefully a counselor would have been able to see my Stepmom's need for help.

My Mom died about a week after Will was born, and I haven't spoken to my Stepmom for several years (her choice). I see my Dad several times a year, and things are pretty good there.

I've wondered (and honestly so has Scott) why I'm not "more messed up" after having such awful mothers and such a traumatic childhood. I've come up with several reasons. Firstly, while I never attached properly to my mother, I did to my father. He worked nights until I was 4 or so, and cared for me during the day. He held me while he bottle-fed me, read me books, took me to the park almost every day. He loved me, and spent time with me, and talked to me, and cooked with me, and looked me in the eyes and made sure I KNEW that he loved me. He might not have been able, for whatever reasons, to stop my abuse, but he was able to prevent it from ruining me completely. Secondly, my Mom didn't enjoy hurting me. She wasn't sadistic or psychotic. She just didn't know what to do. She did the wrong thing, and she knew it. children who are maliciously abused often suffer from Reactive Attachment Disorder and other life-long issues. I was spared that, because I knew I was worth a lot to someone. And lastly, meeting Scott's family and joining the Church.

In high school, I was lucky enough to meet a bunch of good, dorky Mormon boys. They were nice. They rarely swore. They didn't drink. They said nice stuff about their moms. When my Stepmom decided I couldn't have lunch money for a while, Scott bought me food and Dr. Pepper. Once Scott and I started spending more time together and I met his family, I honestly thought it was fake. I couldn't believe that his parents both were that kind and worked that hard every day and loved each other like that. I couldn't believe that they had three boys who loved them and looked forward to spending time with them. Scott was a 16 year old kid who talked with and joked with his mom, and listened when she asked him to do something, and had birthday parties. They are such a typical family, but they love each other, and work to help each other. They didn't yell at each other, didn't hit Scott when he was a kid, forgave each other. Once I decided it was for real, I realized that it was possible for me, too. When I started investigating the church, I loved the up-front teachings on the importance of parents' roles and responsibilities in the Family Proclamation. Admittedly, I still made plenty of mistakes and bad choices, even after joining the church. Breaking through my selfishness and desire for self-preservation over all else is one of my biggest struggles. But I've gotten to the point where I am so content and at peace with my life, and happy that things have happened how they have. I have married someone who is amazing and good and loves me, and wouldn't ever even think of being intentionally unkind. And I finally got a mother who is an example of what I hope to be, rather than what I desperately DON'T want to be. And I have a chance to make things right in my own children, who are seriously awesome.

So, here are some things we all can do, in my opinion, to help prevent and heal child abuse:

--If you see someone yelling at, insulting, or hitting their kids, PLEASE say something. DO NOT go over and yell at or be angry at the parent, but kindly and calmly saying something like, "Hey, it seems like you're having a tough day! Is there anything I can do to help?" or "She looks very scared, and you seem like you're having a hard time" is good. Look the child in the eyes. Try to find a way to non-confrontationally let the parent know that the behavior is not ok, and that you'd like to help. They may tell you to piss off. They may take that kid home and beat them more. But that kid will be given a tiny speck of hope, that maybe it's not their fault, and maybe it IS wrong for their parent to do that to them. And you might be able to actually help someone get through a difficult time. Good people, with good families, don't just somehow end up being child abusers like the media so often portrays. Many have VERY high ACE scores that affect their ability to deal with stress. Be compassionate and empathetic, and don't assume that a person is just evil.

--Listen to your friends and family members. Thinking back, there were several times that my Mom tried to tell her friends how hard it was for her to keep her temper and how she didn't want to hurt me. But they just laughed it off with variations of "Oh, my kids drive me crazy too!" and "You have to punish kids or they'll never learn!" She was severely depressed and needed help, compassion, and understanding.

--DO NOT HIT YOUR KIDS. DO NOT INSULT YOUR KIDS. Please familiarize yourself with normal stages of child development. I love the book Playful Parenting by Lawrence Cohen. Remember that it is your job to teach your kids proper reactions to situations by word & example, not to punish them for not knowing. Think, now, about strategies for avoiding hurting your kids when you are angry. Think about the triggers that make you the most mad, and what you can do in the moment to prevent bad decisions. Walk away, put your hands behind your back, take three deep breaths, count to 10--think of ways you can avoid outbursts. Never insult your children. This is especially hard when you're talking to other people. It's so easy to say something that may be true, but is unkind or unnecessary when your children are present. Involve them in conversations if you're speaking about them. They are there, they can hear you! It hurts them to know that their parent is willing to share their inadequacies with others. Think of how you would feel if your spouse said something similar about you in front of your friends. Is it an insult that would make you feel hurt & angry? Or is it a compliment that would make you feel proud & loved?

--Admit it when you make a mistake. It is very important for you to apologize to your child when you do something wrong. This does not make you seem weak. It is a wonderful example to your kids, and shows how much you love them. Feeling that shame, apologizing, and being forgiven in order to move on, will be instrumental in helping you avoid that behavior in the future. If you ever do something, and think, "Geez, I'm glad my husband/wife/a social worker didn't see that...", you need to talk to your spouse or someone else. It's very important to admit your wrongs right away. The more little things abusers get away with, the more big things they will be willing to try. I'm not trying to say that you will become a child abuser, but it is important to you, your kid, and your spouse to admit it when you do something bad, and talk about it. Maybe talk about this together now, before something happens, so you both understand that when these confessions come, they are to be met with love and helpful advice on how to prevent future problems. We all make mistakes, we all do things we regret in parenting. Understanding that, and candidly looking a your mistakes, allowing yourself to forgive yourself and be forgiven by your spouse, and solidifying a game plan for the future will help you so much! Don't wallow in your guilt, don't blame your kids. You should never ever have any kind of variation of "Why do you make me hit you!?" going on in your thoughts. Accept what happened, accept that it sucked, and move past it, and try to do better. Because you CAN, and WILL. Also, be sure to forgive your kids, and let them know that they are forgiven. Help them learn about their mistakes, don't rub them in their faces. Don't bring up past wrongs. Trust me, they remember. Wait until you've calmed down and don't feel the need to berate or lecture. Remember that kids (and adults) all make mistakes, and our goal is to learn from them, make them right, and do better next time, NOT to make people feel really bad about how stupid they were to teach them never to do it again.

--Your children will not be taken away if you admit that you're suffering from depression. The world will not scorn you if you admit that parenting is freakin' hard, and that you need help. Please, please, reach out. Talk to your spouse, parents, friends, doctor, church leaders, or try to Google for resources in your area. Don't compare yourself to others. We all have struggles. We all are fighting a hard battle. For some people it is much less obvious, but that doesn't mean it's not still there. Only compare yourself to you. Some days you will feel like you are stuck and will always be an awful parent. Please, at these times, remember all the little good things you did. There are lots of them. Think about one thing you want to work on tomorrow, and congratulate yourself for your effort and any little achievement. None of will EVER EVER EVER be perfect, but we can be a teeny bit better every day.

--If you have been, or are being abused, please seek help. There are programs all over the world to help people in abusive situations, even if you're told by your abuser that it won't work. You deserve to be loved and treated kindly. Seek out counseling or someone you can trust to talk to. And as hard as it is to comprehend, I can confidently say that peace will be very elusive until you can forgive those that hurt you. It took many years, but I have learned this myself.

Now, I'm not a professional. I'm not an expert. My situation wasn't "that bad," and I know that. But what I want you to know is that hurting kids is BAD, we all can help in little ways that might not seem significant at the time, and that it IS possible to end the cycle of abuse. I still live in fear that my kids will hate me, and that I'm just a really terrible mother. But I also have hope, and a great support system, and the faces of 4 kids that actually love me and each other to inspire me to be better than my ancestors. And, someday, we'll be foster parents, so we can help other kids who have had it much worse than I did to know that they are loved and good worth it.

Email me at colleenamareena (at) gmail (dot) com if there's anything I can do to help or encourage you.