I don’t have many happy memories from my childhood. For a long time, I thought this was the case for everyone. Manipulation, violence and overall abuse had been normalized for me since I can earliest recall, and anything contrary to that seemed inappropriate or unusual. I didn’t look at kids whose parents were supportive or decent as being lucky or happy; rather, I just saw them as different than me.
I didn’t understand the concept of abuse until I was twelve years old and another girl at my elementary school had been pulled out of her house by a social worker. Our teacher approached me shortly before the intervention to ask if she had mentioned anything about her home life out of suspicion of abuse and the lack of insight I could provide was largely due to how polluted my understanding of “normal” was, his inquiry suggested to me that how she was treated was wrong but I never truly understood why. I remember her bragging in the changing rooms of gym class about how the worker bought her new clothes and took her out to eat and I wondered why she was rewarded and the rest of us weren’t. It also further emphasized that leaving your home was more beneficial than remaining in it, and that whatever circumstances we shared in common certainly was not the norm.
I had seen depictions of abuse in TV, radio, music and movies. But how abuse is portrayed in popular media is almost never how it manifests itself in reality. I knew it was wrong for a parent to hit a child, but I didn’t know it was wrong for the reasons provided to me. My ethical understandings of violence were manipulated and shaped through conditions, if I did x then I deserved y. These understandings were cushioned by the belief that nobody else should do y to me with exception of my father. Or in other words, as long as my father was the one punishing me, things were normal. But if someone else did it, than it was very abnormal. This was a polarized understanding of good and bad abuse, it was a dichotomy that could easily manipulate someone into normalizing the violence carried out by them through the justification they belonged to someone and didn’t belong to someone else. It didn’t take very long after the incident in elementary school for me to come to the conclusion that anybody being violent toward me was bad, and that perhaps the violence I experienced was also bad. Once I could qualify this, I began learning and studying the resources around me. First I learned the lingo, “child protective services,” “social worker” and “child helpline” were all terms that I began to familiarize myself with. I memorized phone numbers, locations and names of people I could contact if I needed help and when the next face off with my father approached, I used this information as a means to highlight the wrong in his actions — I threw it back at him.
I will never forget how much this worsened my situation.
From that day forward, CPS would have an open and ongoing file for my family. We would be individually interviewed by social workers, therapists, psychiatrists and police for several years. While websites, pamphlets and helplines promised safe intervention for children in need, I was left in the household with my father, now provoked by my threats and outreach for help. The abuse would continue and worsen dramatically as I entered my teenage years, I would skip through group homes, foster homes and back home with him over a period of nearly a year and a half. He began to withhold food, lock doors and escalate physical violence and psychological manipulation as CPS workers became further disinterested with the case. I would be [illegally and without consent] placed on attention disorder medication and mood stabilizers without the oversight of a doctor, I would be alienated and ridiculed and be regularly reported to police by my father when I took any opportunity to run. Nobody came for me, nobody pulled me out of the home, nobody even did so much as a home visit with exception of a primary evaluation done at age twelve. And while the state held a “Custody Agreement with Guardian” status on my file — which notes a problematic or disruptive family life, while numerous group home workers, child psychiatrists and foster parents noted the need for intervention, children protective services would not see an urgency to intervene.
At fifteen years old I made what would be my finally attempt to escape. I fled my home, family and life in our small community and made my way to a northern town hours from where I once lived. I would be abandoned there by a friend and have to find a safe passage back to a nearby city where I would spend my first night in an emergency shelter. Due to my age, a notification would be made to my social worker — who I feared would notify my father of my location. I discreetly remained in the shelter for nearly a week before being accepted into an attached long-term living program. I cannot recall how I managed to remain there but I can recall the many months I lived in fear that he would find me, and although my father was now vaguely aware of my location I depended entirely on the protection of the workers to ensure he would not come to retrieve me. But it worked. I had finally escaped. And while the workers in the program were bombarded by his threats and denial I stayed, and I was safe.
It has taken me many years to analyze and accept that my father is abusive. From a young age I had no concept of abuse, it had been completely disrupted in my mind and the violence I experienced, both physical and psychological, were ones that existed due to the proprietary understanding of children and their parents. Had it not been for another student’s experience, I may never have understood violence as a tactic of ownership and I wonder frequently if I would still be alive, or physically the same. Up until my early twenties I was still charmed by my father’s explanation of his behavior, I still believed that I was a “difficult child” and that what he did was “tough love” or simply, “corporal punishment.” I allowed him for many years to control my behavior, actions and choices even from afar; limiting my future, isolating myself and preventing myself from leaving the city he also lived in. I am still reminded of his actions through my own to this day, often overly apologetic, anxious over uncertainty, unclear on other’s emotions and worried to upset loved ones. Recovering from such ingrained and long-term abuse requires constant introspection and regular analysis, it is remarkably easy to slip into a pattern of questioning my own behavior, limiting my own choices or acting in a reactionary abusive manner to those around me. My understanding of the world, how to behave, how to be social and how to form relationships is constantly informed by the things I learned as a child, and being able to enter into new experiences and recognize these behaviors and unlearn them is regularly exhausting yet constantly rewarding.
Abuse is not simply the action. It is so many more consequences than we wish to believe. While government underfunds social workers and children services, and limits their aid and service to minors under the legal age, most any survivor of abuse would stress the significance of early intervention, preemptive intervention and an urgent need for constructive and on going supported therapy past the legal age. We would stress an enormous weight on the stories of children and the belief we invest in them. And finally, we would emphasize that the principles of parenting, as a means of ownership of a child, is the foundational justification for violence against a child.
He could never have hurt me had I not been his. And it is time we start evolving our understanding of both parenting, abuse and children as survivors.