Straight Talk TNT

Abuser seeks help to break pattern

Feb 12, 2013

Dear Straight Talk: I grew up with my stepfather regularly knocking my mother around when he was drunk and being emotionally abusive to both her and me. She would never stand up to him or leave him and I hated both of them for participating in this sickness. In college, I joined a group dedicated to ending rape and abuse, but I find myself emotionally abusive to women who try to get close to me, especially when I drink. I am ashamed to talk to my friends about this. Please help. — Anonymous, San Francisco

Ashley 25, Auburn, Calif. Ask me a question

Much of men’s anger toward women stems from anger toward their mothers — in your case, she didn’t defend herself or protect you from abuse. Definitely stop drinking. You may be genetically predisposed toward alcoholism and things could escalate out of control, especially if you black out.

To learn to respect women, you need professional counseling to break the cycle of abuse. It can feel impossible, I know. I’m getting help for co-dependency after divorcing an alcoholic who constantly degraded and talked down to me. When I finally realized I was sacrificing my life to excuse and protect his, I left him. It is absolutely not okay to treat others or let yourself be treated this way.

Justin 26, Redding, Calif. Ask me a question

Examine your level of self-worth and confidence. I used to tease my girlfriend about her weight because I subconsciously wanted to 1) lower her esteem to “keep her around,” and 2) feel better about my own appearance. I felt pretty stupid once I realized what I was doing. People talk down to others out of a need to feel superior. It’s so destructive that a turtle population is going extinct because, when they cross the road, people run them over on purpose.

Katelyn 18, Azusa, Calif. Ask me a question

First, stop drinking. It just increases the tendency for violence. Then, find a counselor to help you understand and change your behavior. Your emotional abuse may be a defense against your own emotional pain. I know I verbally lash out when I feel cornered or pressured. When this happens, I find a quiet place to calm down or use an outlet like music, journaling, or a hobby. When you catch stuff happening, step back and breathe.

Colin 19, Whittier, Calif. Ask me a question

The thought of hurting someone I love, emotionally or otherwise, is totally abhorrent and foreign. But then, my parents’ relationship is entirely healthy. It is quite natural to model one’s upbringing.

Christina 19, Marysville, Calif. Ask me a question

An acquaintance is in a relationship with a guy who calls her names, puts her down, threatens her, and more. She is constantly breaking up, then getting back with him, saying it’s true love after all. The abuse has really changed her. She has stopped and started college a couple of times, quit a steady job, and drastically lost weight.

You’ve taken a huge first step by writing. Recognizing your upbringing as the source of the problem is great — so many guys don’t even see it — but don’t use it as an excuse to continue. Counseling is your best bet and college provides if for free.

Dear Anonymous: Thank you for your honesty and courage. According to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, boys who witness domestic violence are twice as likely to abuse their own partners and children when they become adults. The panelist’s advice doesn’t get better. See a counselor. With perseverance and professional help, I’m confident you can break the pattern.

P.S.: There are surely many recovering co-dependents in your college group dedicated to ending abuse. Why not come out as a recovering abuser? Most domestic abuse is an interlocking system between abuser and victim. Sharing your process will inspire deeper understanding and healing.

Editor's Note: Ever noticed how much you learn when you blow an answer on a test? You never forget that concept again. Or when you screw up at work? That becomes the thing you lie awake at night figuring out how to master. When we get A’s or never make mistakes, our learning is shallower and less dedicated than when we fail at something.

Failure is the big teacher, not success. This is what makes me excited about this letter from “Anonymous.” He admits a failure that most people won’t admit.

Statistics from the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence indicate that one in four U.S. women experiences domestic violence in her lifetime. Each year, 1.3 million women are physically assaulted by an intimate partner. While some domestic abuse targets males, 85 percent of victims are women — in fact, it is the single largest killer of women. This epidemic crosses generations and stays alive like a disease. Witnessing it as a child is the biggest factor in repeating the pattern as an adult, thus infecting one’s own children.

While these NCADV statistics document physical abuse, the far-reaching ACE test and study demonstrates that emotional abuse, alone, without the physical component, can deliver equally damaging trauma to its victims — which then also repeats and infects the next generation.

How are you failing regarding domestic abuse? Are you co-dependent, as Ashley was brave enough to admit? Do you harm your partner to feel superior, as Justin caught himself doing? Is “lashing out” a reaction to past emotional pain as Katelyn shares? Or are you repeating a childhood pattern, like “Anonymous”?

We’re all damaged and affected by this disease. May today’s column lift the shutters on blame, shame, and denial. I invite you to admit your involvement and failings and start actively working on personal healing and positive change. It’s our biggest hope for ending this epidemic and creating a just and joyful world. —Lauren

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  1. By Tom from Petaluma, CA on 02/12/2013

    I grew up in a home like this and it has had the opposite effect on me.  After seeing what it did to our family, I am determined that I will never abuse women and will never get drunk. I had an alcoholic stepfather who physically abused my mom and me, and sexually abused my sisters.  My mom was also afraid to leave him and was financially and emotionally dependent on him. 

    He wouldn’t allow my sisters to have a lock on their bedroom door and he would go in their room at night and with my room being right next door, I could hear enough to know that things were going on that shouldn’t be.  Now that he is gone, my sisters have told me that he would make them take off all their clothes and take turns giving him oral sex and they were too afraid of him to refuse or tell anyone, but I can’t believe that our mom didn’t know.  I always felt guilty that I couldn’t do anything to protect my mom and sisters, but what could I do against a grown man much bigger and stronger than me who had a terrible temper when he was drunk?

    The only way we escaped him was that he left to take up with another woman (who also has teenaged daughters).  Believe it or not, our mom was devastated that he left.  Even though it has put us in a very difficult financial position, my sisters and I are still very glad to see him gone.  Growing up in this type of environment (as our stepfather may have what I know) is no excuse.  It makes me more determined not to be this way.

    Tom

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  2. By Claire from Santa Ana, CA on 02/12/2013

    My mom grew up in a home like this, and guess what?  She’s married 2 men like this.  She finally left our dad after years of abuse, but within a year got involved with another abusive alcoholic who she ended up marrying.  He hasn’t sexually abused my sister and me (at least not yet), but he verbally abuses us.  We can’t stand being around him when he’s drunk (which is just about every night) and just stay in our room most of the time.  But if he wants to yell at us, he just barges into our room since it doesn’t have a lock, so we really can’t escape him, and he’s even barged in on us when we’re undressed without even leaving or apologizing. 

    We’re too ashamed to invite friends over, and we now seldom get invited to friend’s houses anymore, because we can’t reciprocate.  Our mom has given no indication of leaving him, so we’re stuck until we’re old enough to leave.  I agree with Tom that there’s no excuse regardless of your upbringing.  The one good thing is that my sister and I are determined not to fall into this trap like our mom did not once, but twice.

    I’m glad that Anonymous realizes that he needs help and hope that he’ll follow the advice that is being given to him.  I sure wish our father and stepfather had gotten this kind of help.

    Claire

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  3. By Amy from Westminster, CA on 02/15/2013

    My best friend is in the same position as Claire and her sister.  She wants to get away from her abusive home as much as possible, so she was spending almost every afternoon and evening and every weekend as well as many weeknights at our house.  She also has to share a room with her step-brother who takes after his dad and she’s scared to death of him, and it’s very uncomfortable to have to share a room with a boy at her age.

    However, my sister got tired of her spending the night in our room so much and complained to our mom.  Our mom agreed and said it was time to put a stop to her trying to make our house her “second home” and that it’s not right for her to spend so much time at our house when she never invites me to her house.  She says that she sympathizes with my friend’s plight, but she cannot take her on as an additional responsibility and let her become too dependent on us. My mom now says that she can only come to our house for sleepovers one weekend a month and only spend 2 afternoons and evenings here during the week. She says she thinks this is very reasonable.

    I really feel for my friend since she’ll be stuck in her abusive home most of the time, since nobody else will invite her over because she can’t reciprocate.  I understand what my mom is saying, but I wish there was some way I could help my friend.

    Amy

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  4. By Lauren Forcella from Sebastopol, CA, USA on 02/22/2013

    Dear Tom, Claire, and Amy,

    These are very serious letters that you’ve written. I hope you all will be leaders among your siblings by getting help for yourself as soon as you have the means and/or opportunity, and encouraging everyone else to get help, too. The things you are describing have a huge impact, even if you don’t connect it to behavior. They result in drinking and drug problems, inappropriate sex, high-risk sports, depression, inability to learn, violent behavior, etc., not to mention repeating the pattern into adulthood. (Amy, am so sorry that you are not able to help this friend more…  show her this column anyway… and encourage her as you would a sibling to get help.)

    I had a very tumultuous childhood also, and my older brother was instrumental in getting my younger brother and I into some group therapeutic work (a bit like the Landmark Forum) when I was about 24. It was the beginning of always working on myself. From then on, I regularly engaged in some sort of therapeutic work on myself—still do. Seriously, I don’t know where I or my brothers would be today without it.

    Love, Lauren

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