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Child Abuse:Truth is Stranger Than Fiction

Child Abuse: Truth is Stranger Than Fiction

November 4, 1999


Dear Dr. Irene,
My name is Joe and I'm from Europe. First of all, I'm sorry for the misspellings, English is not my mother tongue.  

I suffer from PTSD (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder) due to years and years of verbal, emotional and physical abuse from my parents. My father is the usual angry man, with unpredictable outbursts of anger. The eldest of 3 siblings, I was - and I still am - his favorite target. According to dad, I am responsible for every wrongdoing. He is so disturbed, he interprets even neutral comments as a direct attack to his ego, and argues any minor "attacking" gesture.  My mother has always complained of how bad we (the siblings) are and blames us for everything too. To her my father is almost God: he's caring, loving, and works hard for our sake without asking anything in return.


I am 30 now. As a teenager I really hated my father for his verbal abuse, but I believed in the goodness of my mother. Most of the time she convinced me that my father's behavior was due to his difficult working conditions as a laborer; deep down he was in fact the most loving father on earth. I tried to understand him and waited for him to change.


Guess what happened? He got worse. Over a span of a few months his anger escalated into destructive wrath. He told us that he was going to leave because he couldn't stand our malice and constant attack anymore. Mother also changed. She would wait for him to come home from work and cry and weep whilst telling him that we kids were responsible for her suffering. She urged Father to do something! I urged her to stop blaming us whenever he arrived - we had done nothing to cause the fuss. She replied that she despised us kids and especially ME - for ruining her perfect marriage! 


Something's missing? Right! I later found out later Mother had refused to have sex with him and intended to ban sex with her forever (she often told us that men behaved like rapists). I guess one day she told him "Enough is enough" and that drove him crazy. That's why he couldn't stand it all anymore and threatened us with leaving.


They should have gone to therapy, but they didn't. The situation worsened day by day. The kids (especially me, since my sibs were much younger) lived in constant fear for months. Both parents blamed us; my father said that he loathed my mother. Until one day. He came home and gave me a sound beating. He insulted us all but only beat me up. He spared the others. Later, mother convinced me -one more time - of how loving he was and that it had only been a "mistake" due to his hard work. Well, I was naive and believed her and forgave him. You had to believe her and forgive him. What else could you do? Who else did you have to turn to? While you are furious with dad for being such a selfish jerk, at least that's about all you feel. But mom...she's another story. You are especially furious with mom for sacrificing your hide for her needs - and "lying" about it! There is conflict here: you have to "believe" her since she is the only one you have; you have to make believe she is there for you, even though you know she sold you out to save herself; you feel guilty for having rage at her since she is the so-called "good one." Deep down, you know life is dangerous and there is no protection. You know you have to sacrifice your reality to accommodate the only person who can somewhat be there for you. On top of all that, you are mad at your sibs since they were spared, isolating you more. And, you have to wonder "Why me? What's wrong with especially me that I should get the beating?" This last one kills whatever little self-esteem esteem dad didn't stomping on. 


Next? Two days later I got another beating and this time the whole family was terrified. I was still a teenager and he was like a giant - I couldn't face him. He kept on beating me till I decided to run away from home into safety... but I couldn't. I couldn't because I saw terror in my siblings' faces and I was afraid of letting them alone with my father. I couldn't fight and I couldn't flight. When you're in the middle of such a situation you are likely to develop acute PTSD. Yes. And more conflict. You are compelled to sacrifice yourself for them, even though you are mad at them for not getting beat up! Your choice is to die of bruises or die of guilt.


Well, Mother finally calmed down after the beatings and went back into the old story about the loving father and the "mistake." Dad's strategy probably worked. She beat you up so that she was overcome by guilt herself and started sleeping with him again. I begged her to ask for outside help, she refused. She can't go for help. The idea of losing her source of whatever she gets from him is too terrifying. This lady doesn't think she can make it alone.  The next day father was happy Yeah, he "won" and told me why: because he left no marks on my body and I had no proof whatsoever of physical abuse. He "won" and got away with it! I knew what he meant: from now on I'm going to beat you up whenever I'm in the mood. I wasn't mistaken. The next day his expression told me it was time for the third beating. I stopped him by saying, "If you touch me one more time I'll leave the house and everybody will know everything about you". He insulted me like never before but he didn't touch me. He was a coward and he was afraid of being found out as what he was. Yes. a big bully. Good for you for standing up to him.


The insults ceased and father acted as if the rest of the family didn't exist. Yes. The drama is over; now he can forget all about it. The beatings had left scars deep inside of me and I needed help from my mother and from some therapist. Well, according to her nothing had happened and father still was the most loving father in the world. She told me that I would kill her and/or destroy the family if I told what had happened to an outsider. Of course. The truth might destroy her existence. Once again, you were asked to distort your perception for her. After all, she's probably putting up with being raped by him again for you. Mom is so codependent, she gives the skin off her back and has trained you to do same. No boundaries.


What happened? Nothing over the next six months. But then I felt dizzy. I had frequent headaches and nausea. I acted like a robot: I went to classes and studied but nothing really mattered to me. I felt numb. Even when I saw a sexy girl, I felt nothing. I was also unable to feel tenderness for any girl. As I said, I was numb. Of course you did. Deep down inside, you knew the sacrifice required by "love." 


Three or four years later in College, I managed to get good grades the first year. By the second year, something happened: father's wrath came back. He consciously selected a new battle ground. Just before I had the examinations he acted as if he was going to beat me up once again. Result: I panicked and was unable to study (I couldn't memorize the stuff nor concentrate) and didn't pass the tests. As soon as I failed, he resumed his "normal" mood. He told me that he would make sure that I didn't ever get a career or a decent job. Sure. You had to hate his job, but do it anyway, just like he did: for the family who would then owe him. He repeat the threats every finals began. According to my psychiatrist, my experience of his antics were as though I was receiving a physical beating. The same story repeated itself three times a year over 7 years.


In my family, beatings are taboo. So my beatings never existed. I was just acting odd. Over the next few years I abused alcohol and self-medicated to cope with what was going on.


Finally I went to a psychiatrist. She told me my problem was that I didn't study. She was obsessed with sex (I asked her why but she said she just "knew."). I saw her three times and realizing she had no clue about her profession, I stopped.


Now the best part. Two years ago my parents forced me to go to a hospital for an examination. I know that my parents told the doctors a lot of lies about my behavior (e.g., That I heard voices telling me weird things, I made up events, and I felt persecuted) because the doctors didn't believe a word I said. They told me I suffered from paranoid schizophrenia and put me on medication. Both of my parents felt very happy when the doctors told them I was officially nuts. So sad...


I knew this had been arranged by my parents, but there was nothing I could do. They forced me to accept temporary, poorly paid jobs. Their behavior didn't change. They were the perfect protective parents and I was the crazy person who made them suffer. Now it was official. My guess is they got you hospitalized because you were out of control between the inner turmoil, the panic and anxiety, the depression and despair...and the substance abuse. 


At last, 10 months ago I went to see a different psychiatrist. I told him the whole story as I saw it. He first made sure that the others were wrong (my parents know nothing about this new therapist). Then he told me that I had chronic PTSD. He told me that the medication did me no good and advised me to stop taking it.  He has since taught me how to feel less anxiety. Two months ago I went back to College. I am anxious all day because I know that my father will try to sabotage my exams in February. My anxiety grows day by day. I've had two full weeks of severe insomnia and feel exhausted. I've tried acupuncture and relaxation techniques, but still I fear the testing season. I fear HIM. Thank God you met a doctor who took you seriously! Its obvious from your insightful letter that you have already made many gains. Your experience is being validated! Calm down about those tests and concentrate on not giving your crazy dad so much power. You are young and strong and no doubt could beat him up now if you needed to, though I know that's the last thing you are going to do. But focus on getting angry, not frightened or mad (as in crazy). Don't act out and deal with the feelings that come up for you. Pay attention to your inner experience. Most important: You are no longer alone. You have a guide now. You can trust him. 


My psychiatrist tells me that my reaction is normal Yes. and that it's going to take me several years to lead a "normal" life. Yes. He says that leaving the house would be of no use (my parents would use it as an excuse to bring me again to the hospital). I agree. First, he says I must stop fearing him by controlling my anxiety. Yes. Get angry, not scared. (But make it your business to not act out your anger, like dad!) Then, I'll make new friends, find a job and a woman (because, at the moment I have no hope of ever having a decent job or of dating again). I've found info on the Internet about PTSD and it fits me 100%. Yes. At least I know that somebody (my therapist) believes my version and he's confident that I will recover... in time.


He says that in time sadness and hatred will replace anxiety, Yes. and, in more time I'll get over my sadness and my hatred Yes. and will be able to socialize and date again. Only then, my true self will emerge. Healing takes lots of time, but he is confident I'll recover. I'm confident, also. Me too.


When I'm able to lead again a normal life, how should I feel about my family (and about my siblings, who are happy to be spared all the time), especially about my parents? Could you offer further advice?  

Dear Dr. Irene,
I forgot to tell you in my last email why I wrote you (your site is dedicated to couples and I'm single). I'll explain why.


First: I've had several serious relationships and little by little I've noticed that the gals behaved just like my parents did. I thought that I could mend their verbal abuses by being caring and loving but I was wrong. Each relationship ended the same way, I got really angry at the girl, couldn't stand her abuse anymore and left her. Each came back to ask for forgiveness, but I would say, "No, enough is enough". They didn't even realize that they were being verbally and emotionally abusive. 


I was aware that I attracted these people like a magnet, and I didn't want to become an angry man like my father. I could have married some of these women, but something inside me told me that in time I would become a man full of wrath towards his spouse. I was looking for a loving relationship. I just didn't want to repeat my parents' mistakes.


Second: There was one special girl from a nearby country. It was love at first sight! The first thing I thought is that if I date that woman, she'd break my heart. And that's exactly what happened. She was also verbally abusive, but she appeared to change little by little. 

Since we didn't live in the same city, I visited her from time to time. We intended to marry and we planned on my relocation. I always told her when to expect me, except one time. I wanted to surprise her and showed up at her door stop with flowers and the ring

I rang and rang and she would not open the door. I knew she was home, so I asked the neighbors what was going on. Well, it appeared that between my visits she cheated on me with other men. This ended our relationship. I felt very angry but did nothing. I returned home and tried to get over her.


The result is that I don't trust any woman now and I cannot feel any tenderness towards a woman. I felt very angry with her for several months. This occurred about 6 years ago. One year ago I got a letter from her telling me that she was very afraid of me when I found out about her cheating. It took her 5 years to ask my forgiveness, and she added that she loved me then and still loves me now. She said she knew that I would never give her a second chance. For the first and only time, she took all of the blame and wished me well. I never replied to her letter.


In my first email to you I focused on PTSD and said nothing about my relationships with women. I know that had I married her, the marriage would have been a disaster. As I said before, I don't want to become an angry man that loathes women. So I no longer intend to date until I recover fully. I want to stop attracting abusive women and I want to be happily married one day. I know the only way to achieve my goals is to get rid of my inner anger and develop powerful boundaries so I no longer permit abuse in my life. I also want to learn to identify loving women - so one day I find one.


My parents' marriage has been full of abuse and denial. Abuse and denial are therefore "normal" to me. Well I'm fed up with this distorted version of "normal." I'm fed up with people who think "love" gives them permission to abuse.


I tried to explain the effect that my very troubled parents had on me. Their life is miserable and mine is, too. I wanted you to know that my parents chose not to divorce and chose not to see a therapist. I think they were very wrong. They didn't face their problems. They chose denial and faking. The result was more suffering for the whole family. I refuse to repeat their lessons.


I hope that this addition to my original letter helps you understand why I sent to you my first email (your site is about troubled couples and I didn't mention that I found myself several times dating -and even intended to marry- abusive women).  Thanks for all.  Joe  Joe, first of all, stop explaining, defending, and apologizing for  yourself. Its not necessary. Ever. I'm glad you wrote. In fact, your touching account prompted me to expand the scope of the site and change  troubled "couples" to  troubled "families."
P.S.: Should you include my story in your site, could you include my e-mail address?  I'd like to know what other people think about my story. I'm You got it! Also, I'm putting up a form for people to reply on line.

Dear Joe,

The crazy-making stuff you describe is shocking - truth is often stranger than fiction. This, unfortunately, is the stuff of child abuse. Child abuse often results in PTSD, in anxiety disorder, acting out, in substance abuse, etc. Child abuse also often results in living one's life as a victim and/or abuser. But you already know that and are determined to break the cycle. You can do this; you are doing this! Good for you. 

Part of your problem is that you were healthier than your family members. That's why you challenged them - and then ended up as the main target. So, your health worked against you as a child, but it is certainly is  working for you now.  Keep up the great work.

Thank you for letting us into your life and may God Bless you - and your shrink.   -Dr. Ire

I'd like to read the comments others submitted.