Breaking the Cycle of Abuse

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Child abuse is an insidious multi-generational process – it is so ingrained, so much a part of the Shockley side of my family, it is accepted as a matter of course, and is as natural as breathing.   No one questions, no one thinks, no one acknowledges, no one discusses …

There is an unconscious compulsion to repeat acts of abuse – to perpetuate the cycle, that exists until an adult survivor actively and with awareness relives the trauma of his or her own abuse.  It isn’t enough for a survivor to simply acknowledge trauma and abuse, or develop an intellectual belief that hitting a child is amoral, he/she must revisit the events of their own childhood – relive the agony and pain to effectively disengage from the cycle.  (Alice Miller, For Your Own Good: Hidden Cruelty in Child Rearing and the Roots of Violence)

Survivors who don’t relive the trauma of their childhood, even if they somehow manage not to further the cycle with their own children, will turn their unresolved anger, frustration and pain inward, becoming depressed or developing mental illness(es) and substance abuse.  Even without being directly abusive to his child, this type of survivor subjects his family to the nightmare and emotional trauma of mental illness and addiction.

Still other survivors, due to their own repressed memories and refusal to acknowledge the pain they endured as a child on a conscious level, become blind to all abuse.  This is known as Betrayal Trauma (Jennifer Freyd, Betrayal Trauma: The Logic of forgetting Child Abuse) These survivors, almost without fail, go on to abuse their own children – then later, when confronted by their adult child, deny abuse or fail to recall everything they did out of an unconscious need to protect themselves from remembering the horror of their own childhood – a childhood full of pain they passed along to their child: Blind to ALL abuse.  These are the most dangerous survivors; they are the most likely of all to perpetuate the cycle.

Coming to terms with the maltreatment suffered as a child — be it physical, emotional or sexual — is the only way to effectively end the cycle.  When we manage to get in touch with own pain, fear, rage, frustration and anger, we no longer want to take it out on others.

Therapy is often the first step, and there are three distinct stages of recovery:  Remembering, Mourning and Healing.  In the first stage, survivors work through what happened to them as children.  The therapist emphasizes that the abuser was ALWAYS the responsible party, not the child — this is something we (survivors) have trouble dealing with on an emotional level; we believe our abuser when he tells us the beating is our fault, a belief that continues into adulthood.

In the second stage, we must grieve for the childhood we lost, mourn the fact that our parents failed us, betrayed us and hurt us.  It is in this stage where we begin to work on our own anger, finding healthy outlets for our aggression and self-destructive feelings. We begin to identify how our childhood abuse affects us today – things like having a mental illness as a result of the abuse, and we take inventory of the things in our lives we’d like to change.

And finally, in the third stage, we accept the fact that we have right to be happy.  We come to believe we deserve kindness, consideration and respect – things we were robbed of in our childhood.  We see our parents as they truly were, and we absolve ourselves of responsibility for their degenerate behavior toward us.

“As long as the anger directed at an abuser – always a parent or other first caregiver remains unconscious, minimized, or disavowed, it cannot be dissipated. It can only be taken out on oneself or stand-ins and scapegoats like one’s own children.”  (Shirley Beeman)

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