What is abuse? And how do we move on?

Many folks who did not grow up with domestic violence, emotional abuse, or the like may assume that it’s “just” hitting, “just” yelling, “just” assault. They may think that “it only gets bad when your dad drinks,” like your life goes on as normal until Dad cracks open a Bud, and then suddenly it’s A Bad Thing. And it’s true that when your parent is an alcoholic, they are often their worst when they drink, but that doesn’t mean life is hunky-dory the rest of the time. It’s the same for any other type of abuse.

Frankly, for me, looking back eight years after getting out of my abusive household, it’s not the physical violence that really bugs me, even though it’s often the thing that I mention to other people, because it’s what they understand. When you tell someone, “my father didn’t teach me how to brush my teeth,” they will laugh at you and call you a whiny baby. When you tell someone, “my father smashed my face into a mantelpiece, pinned me down on the floor and choked me,” they do not laugh at you (unless they are horrible people). But even though I still have physical damage from the violence (my jaw makes cool noises!), it’s genuinely not the thing that hurts me the most. It’s so much subtler than that.

My father is an alcoholic, and he “raised” me and my brother. My mother, who is an incredible human being, essentially had to be the breadwinner for the family, even though my father did work most of the time. He simply couldn’t hold down a job because, well, alcoholism. As such, my mom worked her ass off, got ahead of the curve on IT consulting, and took jobs that unfortunately required her to travel probably 70% of the time. She thought that my father was only abusive to her, because he hadn’t been too abusive to us when we were younger (I say too abusive because there were … things … that happened, but can’t be fully corroborated, and are not the main focus here). Unfortunately, she was wrong, and never really learned the full extent of his violence against us until later. I do not blame her in the least. She was doing the absolute best she could for us, and now that my father is out of the picture, she is making up for lost time 7000%. I love her dearly. Anyway.

My father didn’t instill any sense of discipline in me, probably because he had none himself. There was very little routine in my life after probably age five, except for that provided in school. There were no bedtime rituals that I can remember. “Tucking-in” was a special treat. I was not made to brush my teeth every night, or clean my room every day/week. Cleaning my room was a punishment enforced on me every few months, which I hated and refused to do. Most of the time there was literally three or four inches of stuff all the way across the floor of my room when I was a child, all the way up to when I was in high school, when I finally started giving at least a little bit of a shit and tried to keep my room somewhat tidy. I remember once literally finding a fossilized piece of dog shit in my toy bin.

Every garage we ever had was filled with stuff. None of them ever saw a car in them, unless it was a car we weren’t using. Trying to find something you haven’t used in a year? Try the garage. Except be careful, because nothing is organized in a way that makes sense, and you may well have a 300lb dresser fall on you or get stabbed by a broken mirror that no one bothered to clean up. This collection of things we absolutely never used moved with us from house to house. Hoarders Lite, basically. Not a good way to teach your child about organization, tidying up, or discipline in the least. It’s taken me years to learn how to keep a space clean and how to space out cleaning so that a space stays clean on a regular basis, and I’m still working on it.

And again, I knew how to brush my teeth, but was never trained to do it every day. I went months – it could have been longer than that – without brushing my teeth once. No one ever told me to. I visited the dentist once a year, and that was it. It’s kind of stunning that I still have teeth at all, being as I haven’t been to the dentist in over 10 years now.

Help with my homework was not a thing. I entered the spelling bee in 7th and 8th grade (I won it in 8th grade, placed second in 7th) and had to practice with a long list. I had no one to practice with. My mom helped me once or twice, I think, and would have helped me more, but she wasn’t around enough. My dad refused. I tried with friends at school, but they didn’t want to and I wasn’t going to sit there and argue them into helping me. So I sat at home, looking through the words and spelling them out alone. Science fair projects? Alone.

I had my father’s help with finding a recipe for a “healthy recipe” book my 5th grade class put together. What did he choose? Peanut butter cookies. Okay, great. That’s not healthy. My classmates were laughing at the grease oozing into the napkins. I would have been better off just neglecting to do it and getting a bad grade than being mortified and ashamed.

Neglectful parents want to reap the benefits of your success without contributing to its processes. The only interest my father ever took in my academics was in the grades at the end of the semester. If I did well, he be satisfied. If I did poorly, he would say I wasn’t working hard. But yet, he never considered that it might be his role as a father to help me. It seemed that at kindergarten, I was off like a shot, and it was no longer his responsibility to help me learn in any way. He never took an active interest in my academics unless it in some way benefited him, like when I won an award and he could go to the ceremony and preen as a proud parent. Then he was delighted, and acted like an involved parent.

And more than the hitting, I remember the conspicuous absences, and the moments of resentment. When I was in the psych ward (three times as a minor), I can’t remember him visiting more than once, except when it was a mandatory visit with the family therapist. It was always my mom and brother. When the family came to pick me up, he complained about how much money it cost to treat me and how I was destroying the family finances by being “an attention whore.” After I had attempted suicide.

I ruptured an ovarian cyst my junior year of high school and had been hemorrhaging for over five hours continuously. After begging my friends to take me to the ER so I didn’t have to call my father (they, having healthy family relationships, obliviously refusing), I called him to leave work early because mom was traveling. He exploded in anger and demanded to know what was so important that I call him at work, and that I expect him to leave early to “deal with me.” He did come get me, but was fuming the whole time, while I, doubled over in pain, had to apologize for being hurt!

Being treated as if you aren’t important, and as if your needs (even the most vital and urgent ones) are inconvenient, has a massive impact on your psyche. Recently I had a panic attack in front of a loved one, shivering and going hot and cold alternately. He asked me what he could do to make me feel better, and I just kept saying, “Oh I’m fine,” even though it was completely obvious I wasn’t.

The last thing I’d like to mention is that for emotional abuse and sexual assault survivors, who have often been gaslighted by their abusers, it is so common to turn every situation around on themselves and make themselves feel like perpetrators, even in the most innocuous situation, and turn it into a life-or-death issue, where they are guilty of the worst crimes. For example, I have a lovely date with someone, we do the gradual from-the-couch-to-the-bed, slow shedding of clothing, and end up snuggling together. Then later, when we are all dressed, we are talking and something upsets them, completely unrelated to what just happened during our snuggle session. Suddenly, to me, I violated their consent during cuddling, I forced them to cuddle, and I am the worst person ever. I should be arrested. I need to print out a restraining order and give it to them so they can fill it out against me and get take it to the courthouse. They need to be protected against me, I am a dangerous person. I am just as bad as the person who hurt me!

Because of all the guilt and manipulation built up during the abuse, anything can be twisted by the survivor like this, and often is. If you’re in any sort of a relationship with a survivor, there are going to be so many apologies for so many innocuous things. So much second-guessing and panicking about hurting you and being afraid that they are a bad person. (At least, in Type Me Survivor. There are other types out there.) The terror, guilt, and anxiety that comes with Becoming The Abuser leaks out into every intimate interaction and can destroy relationships. I’m still working on not apologizing, panicking, and second-guessing everything, and my god is it hard. I am so hard on myself, and so afraid of being a bad person.

Being a child of abuse is about so much more than bruises and broken bones. It’s cavities, dirty dishes, and panicked text messages. It’s loneliness, cut off utilities, and that sickly sweaty smell of an alcoholic’s unwashed blanket. It’s second-hand clothes, no lunch money, and cutting in the bathroom between classes. It’s Child Protective Services visiting your house three times but closing the investigation because your dad’s a good liar.

So no, it’s not just bruises and broken bones. It’s a bruised heart and a broken spirit, and it takes many years to heal the unseen wounds of the soul.

Finding Nichiren Buddhism has been so healing because the Daishonen tells us that all of us have an innate Buddha nature, which we are each free to discover through the Mystic Law of Nam Myoho Renge Kyo. There is no predestination, no God’s Elect, no savior that determines our salvation: all of us are welcome to the enlightenment he has found for us through the Gohonzon and the Mystic Law. It is up to us to determine whether we have the courage to look at ourselves through the mirror of the Gohonzon and explore the depths of our spirit, which are as vast as the Universe and contain the essence of karmic law.

Feeling infinitely welcomed in the glow of the Gohonzon, feeling that I myself am the determiner of my destiny, is such a powerful release from the years of feeling unloved at the hands of someone who was supposed to be my greatest protector. Through chanting, I can reach deep into myself and discover all the strength that lay dormant all those years, and manifest my own human revolution – that of recovery.

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