Stepping Into The Sun: Moving Beyond A Violent Past & Trauma

September 28, 2021

Sparing you a litany of impoverished and tattered experiences which find me here, I am a survivor of abuse. A generalized anxiety diagnosis and hours of mental therapy later, I am finally able to process and address some of what has happened to me.

There was a period of time during my teens where my dad was physically violent toward me. At one point, the violence deterred me from home for days. I couch-hopped from friend’s house to friend’s house. Sometimes their parents would ask what was wrong and I would stifle a cry and shake my head.

I’m not sure I ever told anyone.

Because I felt bad for my dad. My parents divorced when I was 3, and my mom immediately met another partner. My Dad eventually remarried, but later found the woman drank heavily and became belligerent.

Then after his second divorce, my dad bought a house for himself. At that house, he gave me and my siblings each a bedroom of our own. (Considering we moved so much during my adolescence—I recall at least 10 times during my first 12 years of life—I rarely had my own bedroom.)

My dad rescued a cat from the local shelter (who would become the love of my life and ignite my journey towards veganism) and for the first time, I felt like I had a home. A cuddly moo cat with a perfectly black nose and four walls of my own.

As a child I watched my dad’s heart break, and yet I still saw him strive to provide for me and my siblings. I moved in to his house full-time around 13 years old, and my older brother soon followed. My Dad stayed single for several years, and we had some nice memories in that forest-green house. But he was angry and bitter. My Dad’s temper colored his world red, eyes bulging. Because his life was not what he imagined it would be.

I was sorry for him.

And I guess, recognizing his pain, I minimized the violence. In school they taught that “abuse” looks a specific way, and his physical assaults didn’t leave lasting marks. I rationalized with myself, “He just needs a place to put his anger.” The worst of it lasted for about six months, but there was no clear beginning or end. I simply disappeared long enough that when I returned, he was nice again. And we never spoke of it.

But over a decade later, finally armed with the resources to care for myself and seek therapy, I realized my anxiety was heightened around my dad. Living in different states, my dad traveled to my town to visit and stayed with me at my apartment. I did not sleep during that visit, my heart pounding all night. I mentioned this to my therapist and it was like I remembered for the first time all over again.

My therapist patiently listened as I described the violence. I concluded that I would like to have a relationship with my dad but I didn’t want to feel afraid around him. She advised a few things that have been incredibly helpful:

Set boundaries:

The past couple years, when my dad told me he wanted to come visit, I asked that he make other sleeping arrangements. And this is a struggle, to be sure. Denying accommodations to family doesn’t feel good. But preserving my home as a personal safe space gave me the emotional energy to spend quality time with him in neutral places. Similarly, setting boundaries fostered my sense of respect for myself.

Write a letter:

My therapist advised to write a letter to my dad, while keeping in mind that I didn’t have to give it to him. Ever. Writing allowed me to organize my thoughts and prioritize my needs. Ultimately, I understood that I didn’t aim to bring my dad down by focusing on the past. But I recognized the necessity of a conversation if I wanted to have a genuinely healthy relationship with him.

Talk to loved ones:

I addressed the trauma with my older brother, who has become my best friend and role model in our adulthood. Also, he is the only person who witnessed the violence I endured.

I apologized profusely as I spoke. Desperately hoping he understood how digging up heavy and emotionally draining pictures of our childhood did not make me feel good. But my brother reassured me. “You have me,” he replied, and went on to apologize himself. My brother was sorry for not protecting me.

But that wasn’t his job. We were children.

Eventually, the unwavering support from my loved ones, alongside my work in therapy, gave me the strength to confront my dad during his last visit.

My dad and I lounged on the beach and threw the tennis ball for my dog. Dad retreated to the water to cool off, and I nervously picked at an inari sushi. An understanding washed over me like a wave of the muddy water: it wasn’t going to become easier. Initiating the conversation with my dad was going to be scary, no matter how much time passes.

So, when he returned from the water, I asked, “Is it okay if I bring up something unpleasant?”

I told him everything. I explained my diagnosis, how I was scared around him, why I had been setting boundaries surrounding my home and my time spent with him, all of it. And I reiterated that I did not bring this to his attention to bring him down. Rather, I sought to cultivate a healthy relationship with him.

Initially, he seemed taken back. He sadly said he was sorry several times. Just left it alone.

Then, over the next couple days, we went to art shows and museums. Took yoga class and bike rides together. As we spent more time together, he started to bring it up on his own. Apologizing more. Admitting the guilt he has lived with for years. Validating my experience as a survivor of physical abuse.

And his validation felt like stepping into the sun after a ceaseless winter. I needed to hear the words out loud, witness his reckoning with our past after years of silence. For my fear and anxiety to be understood.

Research indicates the importance of validation, as it lets others know that their experiences and feelings make sense. During our silent years, the anxiety his presence induced felt like a shameful secret. But through his sincere apologies and acceptance, I gained confidence and a greater understanding of myself.

At one point, we walked around city center together, and he looked at me and said how proud he was of me for what I’ve become, despite all the challenges I’ve faced in my life. He apologized he wasn’t a better Father, with tears in his eyes.

We hugged and I asked him to forgive himself.

To be sure, such wounds don’t scab over and heal immediately. I anticipate there will be lasting marks. But we are well on our way to recovering. So I believe, sometimes, there can be love after abuse.

Please know, not all abuse looks the same. Physical violence is physical violence regardless of gnarly bruises and blood. If you or someone you know is hurting, call 1-800-799-SAFE or visit this secure website for 24/7 support.

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