Fight or…No, Just Fight: Part 2

In families where there has been domestic violence, children often grow up, go their separate ways and never look back. I was the first to leave, joining the Army at 17, with my mother’s signature and a camouflage farewell cake topped with plastic army men. I wanted to pay for college. I wanted to escape a small town history. But mostly I wanted to fulfill my personal mission: To be strong enough so that no one could ever hurt or threaten me again. It was an illusion, this external pursuit of power. Everything twisted was on the inside.

My military intelligence unit was flush with immature, aspiring alcoholics like myself. My boyfriend was always that guy that would get drunk and bust his hand punching the wall near my head at a party. He was the one who quickly reverted to calling me a whore or bitch when I looked at him wrong or didn’t leave with him when he insisted. I had re-created home. I could spend six months out of the year out in the field, drink grown men under the table and haul heavy gear with the best of them. I was tough. But I was very afraid and very alone.

Change cannot be dictated – it comes in tiny shifts of consciousness. In 1987, a little girl named Elizabeth (Lisa Steinberg) Launders was killed by her adoptive father. She was 6 years old and her picture showed up in a lot of magazines. She looked a lot like me at that age. I kept a picture of her in my journal. I began to have vigilante dreams. Occasionally I would gun down my stepfather in a gory fight. Sometimes I was a superhero, stopping muggings and beatings. When I saw the movie “Prince of Tides”, I had a panic attack during the dysfunctional family dinner scene. The fear and the violence was leaving my brain and getting into the rest of my body.

I started to run. If Forrest Gump just popped into your head, well, that was in my head, too. I ran and ran, getting stronger, giving up smoking every other day and giving up drinking entirely. Little choices for positive change on my behalf yielded to bigger decisions – moving, changing jobs, shaking off relationships. Sometimes, it seems a mystery to me how I got here from there. Each step was so small, so incremental.

I met and married a good and honorable man. I had a beautiful child. But becoming a parent had awakened a sleeping giant. I began to dream about the first time I ever saw my mother beaten, when I was 7. I feared that I would not be a good parent for my daughter. I went to therapy for a year. I went to parent education classes. I did what I needed to do to fix myself.

Three years ago, I decided to become stronger, not tougher. I hired a trainer. I got a membership at the local Y. I began to workout regularly and strenuously. Two and a half years ago, I started training in taekwondo. And that brings me to my current black eye.  Getting hit has a way of tapping into my personal rage against powerlessness. I feel it at the edges of my brain – this desire to cause pain. I feel it whenever I read a news story about another hurt child. It’s there and I don’t think it will ever go away.

There is no neat bow to tie my story up. Violence taught me to lie to avoid getting hit. Violence taught me to hate perpetrators. It did not teach me discipline or self-control. Desire to be something more than a victim made me whole. Love made me whole. Love of myself, love of the life I wish to live. I’ve found ways of dealing with the rage that lurks within. Sometimes it’s humor. When my daughter acts up, I’ll say “Alright, it’s time for a stick beating”. She runs away laughing, a child who has never had a hand raised against her. I channel my frustrations into a pounding run or a session on the speed bag or sitting down and writing it out. Rage and violence informs my life, but so do love and compassion and self-control. It’s a fight I can win.

Fight or…No, Just Fight: Part 1

Today, I’m a fighter, sporting a black eye and a lot of bruises. Sparring at Taekwondo was not pretty last night and my inexperience resulted in me being kicked in the face.

This morning at the grocery store, between a few curious, sympathetic looks from people, I felt inexplicable shame. It took me off guard. I cannot, at times, penetrate the inner workings of my brain. Then I looked in the mirror.  I’ve seen this face before. Not my face, but the face of someone I have loved my whole life. I’ve seen her bruised and bleeding and crying. I, with my little clenched angry fists – absolutely powerless to protect my mother. This is a story of my rage and like my sparring, it is not pretty.

I was a witness, and sometimes a recipient, of domestic violence as a child. There was a lot of alcohol involved, followed by angry threats that the whole family would be killed. I try to see it through adult eyes. Was it bluster? Was it idle? It doesn’t matter. I believed we would die. I believed that I would be shot, strangled,  or beaten senseless. I wanted more than anything to be invisible and all powerful. I went to church every week and I prayed first that he would stop drinking. Then I prayed that he would die. I was young and I believed.

The longest nights in the world were waiting for him to come home. I’d lay quiet, listening to the escalating drunken arguments downstairs. We’d all pretend to be asleep, hoping against all hope that he would not do what he had done so many nights. He’d roust us all from our beds, mocking us, yanking on our arms, sneering in our faces. The fear of what would happen was greater than what usually happened, which was that he’d get tired and pass out. One time he passed out over the gas stove, leaning on the knobs until the smell woke us.

On the nights when violence seemed imminent, I’d scoop up my younger siblings while he was distracted and load them in the car so that we could run. But I could never leave without my mother. Once, when I was 13, he started to come at me and I snatched up a cast iron frying pan, preparing to knock him straight into hell. She prevented him from reaching me, a fact that I bitterly held against her for a long time. The flame of adolescent rage had been lit. I began to plot the many ways in which I would kill him.

It was over before I managed to follow through on any plans, most of which involved shovels and shotguns. I hadn’t started my P.D. James English mystery phase or else I would have been all over poisoning him. We finally left one sunny afternoon while he was at work, after enough social service interventions and my mother had saved enough money to rent a place for us to live. I was beginning a new chapter in my life, but like ripples in a pond, the past continued to touch my present and my future.

It’s always a concern when I write family stories. I was supposed to wait until they were dead, before dredging up the past and ripping the family myths wide open. But it’s MY story, too and until I tell it, until it is exhaled out of me, I will not fully embrace a creative life. I am lucky enough to be able to tell it and to walk away with what I need to continue evolving as a person.