He stole my childhood: Side effects of domestic abuse
Everybody has an earliest memory. For many it’s a pleasant reminder of the the fleeting feeling of adolescence; about how childhood is a dream where you have no responsibility and everything you want is available to you. For me, my earliest memory is the exact opposite.
I was maybe five or six, I can’t remember anymore. My entire childhood seems like a puzzle that I can’t put back together. I’ve managed to lose many of the pieces over the years. Now, I try not think of the missing pieces. I lived in a small town in Ontario, with my mother and my stepfather, George*. My dad had left my mom very early in my life, so early that I wasn’t really affected by it. All I had ever known was my mother being married to George.
I was making a peanut butter sandwich, which in retrospect is still something I’m not sure is normal for a five (or six) year old to do. George was doing renovation work, maybe painting the walls inside the house. I vividly remember him at his angriest moments when doing work on the house, either because he wasn’t sure how to do it or because he wasn’t drunk enough to be doing it.
I had made my peanut butter sandwich at the table in the dining area where George was working. As I finished spreading the peanut butter onto the bread, I decided to lick the butter knife clean. When George saw this he turned to me, his face twisted with disgust. He began screaming, “What the fuck do you think you’re doing? Are you some sort of pig? Why would you do that? That’s disgusting! You’re disgusting!” At one point, I remember him oinking like a pig at me.
This is the earliest recollection of what would become the next 10 years of my life. An experience that consumed my life and made sure I was robbed of my childhood. Being so young meant that I was incapable of fully understanding the situation. I didn’t realize that George was abusive, I didn’t see it that way. Instead, when my mother and George were screaming at each other, I thought that was how all couples fought.
I remember one fight in particular where I stood at the bottom of the stairs to listen. They were screaming at the top of their lungs over something I don’t remember, and then they began to throw vases and dishes. I was terrified to the point of immobility but I stood there on the stairs and listened to the fight in it’s entirety.
My stepfather was a deadbeat. He was from England, and while he had his Canadian citizenship, he didn’t have a license. In our small town public transit was essentially non-existent. So George depended solely on my mother to take him anywhere, to work, to run errands, and anything else he needed. Years later, I realized how easily he could have gotten his license. In fact, when they divorced, he immediately took his driving test.
The worst part of this situation was not the abuse we were forced to live with. But rather, the lasting effect it has had on me. I resented my mother because she would make excuses for him. When George would yell at me for things as small as peanut butter, she would be the one to apologize for him and how he was overreacting. I also remember taking care of my two younger brothers, and when my first younger brother was an infant, I often had to rock him to sleep. It doesn’t seem like a difficult task, but for a seven year old trying to carry a child until they fell asleep, it becomes exhausting.
The marriage finally ended after 10 years. One evening when my brothers and I were visiting my nanny and papa, my mom suddenly appeared at their house. She was in tears and all she had with her was a small plastic Walmart bag. She rushed upstairs with my papa and I heard him starting to cry, speaking with such concern in his voice. The story, which I was told later, started when George purchased my mom a ring. Later that night when the inevitable argument started my mother threw it across the room in anger. This made George furious, and he thought he was owed something, he tried to attack her, but when she managed to fight back he hit her. She eventually pushed him out of the room and held the door closed. He went out for a smoke, at that point she grabbed whatever she could take and raced out the door.
The aftermath of this event is the part of my life that I remember the least about. Likely because I don’t want to remember it anymore. For a week or so, my family stayed in a women’s shelter. My mother filed a restraining order, but George still showed up at her work and he ended up having to be put in jail. When we did return home, my mom put pots in front of our doors so she would be able to hear George if he tried to break in.
We even tried to move, but because my two younger brothers were his children, the court refused my mother’s requests. I remember telling everybody that I wouldn’t be coming back to school the next day because I was moving, but when I did come back, I made up excuses why I didn’t. I couldn’t tell my friends that the court had denied my mom’s request to escape her abuser.
When we were finally able to move, I was forced to make new friends in a brand new town. I had a very difficult time in my teenage years. I was drinking, experimenting with drugs, and became a terrible influence on those around me. I held on to the feelings of resentment that came from George and my mother’s relationship, as if my mother’s abuse was her own fault. I spent much of my time caring for my brothers, cooking and cleaning at home. My mother wasn’t at fault, she truly had to make the best of an awful situation, but as a 15 year old girl I didn’t see it that way.
Now I’ve come to terms with what happened to us. In the final years of high school, I moved to Calgary to live with my dad. I felt that I didn’t know my dad or his family, and I knew moving meant I would be able to experience a different life. I would be lying if I said I didn’t like living without the responsibilities I had to take on for my mom, but I still miss her and my brothers constantly.
I’ve learned to compartmentalize and separate parts of my life from others, so much so that I feel I have become different people in different areas of my life. My childhood affects me still, I am clingy and anxious about my friendships and I constantly fear that my friends don’t actually like me. I’m working on the self esteem issues that the abuse has caused but the hurt still lingers in the relationships I build. Now I believe every issue caused between friends and myself is my own fault.
I always worry about my brothers, because they are still forced to see George, as he is their father. At the start of this new dynamic I would hear stories of my brothers being yelled at or punished for unnecessary things just as I was. It hurts me to know what that man is capable of. To the world, George, is a kind and caring father but to me, he is the person who abused my mother and took away my childhood.
If there is an upside to this experience it was that I witnessed my mother muster the strength to leave that relationship. I lived through the terrifying reality of my mother and stepfather’s fights. I was the constant subject of verbal and emotional abuse but I saw my mother grow into a strong, single woman who was able to fight her own battles. I watched as she navigated the legal system and fought back against her abuser and with her help, I realized what it meant to be strong and independent. Most importantly, I learned what it meant to be a woman. I attribute so much of my success and accomplishments to how I was raised by my mother.
* Names have been changed.