As a child abuse survivor, creating my own "perfect family" didn’t shield me from haunting memories of the past—it reignited them. Here’s how I learned how to cope.
This article was originally featured in the online magazine Woman Born on March 1, 2019.
I grew up in a house in which, on the surface, one might never expect abuse to occur. My parents are both accomplished veterinarians. We lived in a nice neighborhood, went to church every Sunday, and my sister and I attended a private school. But beneath the surface, it was a nightmare.
My father was often triggered into fits of rage for reasons that I still have trouble identifying. He was terribly emotionally and verbally abusive, and he often threw things or tried to scare us by threatening physical violence. I was the oldest and an empath, and I did my best to shoulder the brunt of his aggression and modify my behavior to avoid another incident.
Many years later, I would learn that he suffers from a mental illness called Borderline Personality Disorder, in which intense fits of rage and extreme narcissism are two primary symptoms. My mother, on the other hand, offered very little relief or solace. She was always very critical of me and seemed cold and distant. While I know that she suffered her own nightmare being married to my father, she didn’t seem to care that I was going through it alongside her. In fact, I think she blamed me for my own abuse, and I always thought that she agreed with his behavior.
Nevertheless, their demands for excellence were relentless. We were expected to be constantly busy “achieving”—perfect grades, social status, appearance and weight. A time earned by racing across a swimming pool were the ways to earn their love and admiration. It was never enough, it seemed. It’s as if my parents needed my brother, sister, and me to cover up the real truth of what they were truly like. After all, who would look for abuse in a house where kids were excelling?
In the midst of all of this, the desire to start my own family acted primarily as a crutch to help me cope. I will be different, I would say to myself, reeling from the latest wave of violence. I will right all of this wrong by having my own family and loving them in ways I've always wanted to be loved. I would cling to that mantra and fantasize about my one-day perfect family in the midst of my family’s chaos and instability.
Motherhood is what ultimately helped me identify my father as an abuser.
At the time, I didn’t fully realize what was happening to me. I didn’t know that I was dealing with abuse. While deep down I knew it was wrong, that sort of behavior and love was all I had ever known. So it must be true—I must deserve this somehow, I thought. All I knew was that I needed to survive and to get out as soon as I could. I internalized the abuse to be able to cope, and for years I suffered from eating disorders and extreme anxiety. But that singular, sad story only worked for me until I entered motherhood.
When that time came, my pregnancy and the birth of my son, Reese, was nothing short of an overwhelming spiritual experience. It had broken me open in a way that I still cannot describe.
Those first few months of my son’s life were sweet and blissful, but there was something sad and dark there. I couldn't put my finger on it, but it would surface occasionally as brief yet intense episodes of anxiety and fear that the hurt of my childhood would somehow reach my son. But in my fierce desire to keep my son's babyhood soft, sweet, and pure, and the nearly constant need to not shatter the house of cards that was my family of origin, I would always stuff it back down.
“My whole life I had thought that motherhood and marriage would hold the keys to erasing the memories of my past—but instead they amplified them. ”Then, when my son was about three months old, a series of unfortunate events finally caused me to identify my father as my abuser. Out of nowhere, he left my stepmother—a woman whom I had grown to love and think of as my own mother—for one of his students. This set into motion a cascading domino effect that revealed one horrific truth after another. The curtain was finally pulled back, revealing the narcissistic, abusive, hollow person he truly is. It was out in the open—finally. I couldn’t rationalize, hide, or defend my father’s behavior anymore.
The timing was uncanny. Why had this happened right when I became a mother for the first time? Why did this happen right before I was going to getting married? My now husband and I were planning to get married after Reese’s birth, and the turmoil with my father seemed to cast a horrible, dark shadow over what should otherwise have been a happy time in our lives.
I had a choice to make: continue to stuff down and dismiss these memories because they are too scary and painful and thus risk repeating the same abusive behavior towards my son and my husband, or deal with my pain once and for all, finally speaking the truth about what happened to me and my siblings, and rid myself and my family of the abuse once and for all. It was my love for my son and for myself that led me to instinctively choose the latter.
Recognizing the abuse I suffered as a child helped me to finally start to heal from it.
I quickly realized that if I was ever going to break the chain of abuse, I would need to start by looking at myself first, by naming and processing the painful events of the past, and by looking straight-on at how it has affected my life, my relationships, and my behavior. I could not run from these things anymore.
Here’s the thing about healing from abuse that nobody warns you about: once you are finally able to identify the hell that was your upbringing as abusive, you can’t stuff it back into that box you had nicely stowed it away in for so many years. You’ve got only one choice, and that is to face it. It’s like a roaring freight train that speeds your way, demanding to be heard and dealt with. Fury ushers it forward, and with it comes a dense, thick fog of confusion, sadness, and rage that consumes the mind. In its boorish attempts to not be held back, its surges forth with every life event that brushes up against a triggered memory.
For example, when my husband took our son Reese away from my presence to do something like change a diaper or give him a bath, and if Reese started to cry, I immediately panicked. My fight-or-flight instinct would take over. I eventually realized that this is because growing up, if I heard one of my younger siblings crying, it was pretty much my automatic assumption that my father was hurting them.
Or when my husband makes simple suggestions or comments on my own behavior (as spouses are bound to do from time to time), I immediately become anxious and defensive because, as my upbringing taught me, a terrible verbal assault laced with physical violence is close on the horizon.
“Here’s the thing about healing from abuse that nobody warns you about: once you are finally able to identify the hell that was your upbringing as abusive, you can’t stuff it back into that box you had nicely stowed it away in for so many years. ”Sometimes, there are days when it consumes me for reasons I can’t explain. It feels like a dense fog that rolls into my mind, and I’m unable to see my way through it. I clumsily stumble through the emotions of my day, not knowing what version of the story about myself and my life is real. I try to remind myself of what is true and good. The mental back-and-forth is exhausting, and I become overwhelmingly frustrated. Relief comes only with surrender, as my tears usher the conflict out of my body.
Ultimately, it was allowing myself to feel the sadness and anger, instead of fighting them, that allowed me to let them go.
I was in a pretty dark place emotionally for the first year after my son’s birth—and those normal postpartum blues did not help things either. My whole life I had thought that motherhood and marriage would hold the keys to erasing the memories of my past—but instead they amplified them. I knew intellectually that each day I was making the right decision by allowing myself to feel and reprocess the emotions and memories, but honestly, most days I felt like I had been swallowed up by a deep, dark hole.
As it turns out, creating your own "perfect family" doesn't immunize you from the haunting memories of the past. By researching the effects of adverse childhood experiences (or ACEs), and working with a therapist, I soon realized that I had been suffering from a form of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. I found tremendous solace in knowing that I wasn't alone, and and that there was a name for the waves of trauma that I was re-experiencing on a daily basis. It is actually quite a common experience for adult survivors of child abuse—their new families trigger memories of their own abuse. I felt strengthened by gathering as much information as I could on coping mechanisms and scientific research on how trauma and domestic violence works to shape lives of children and adolescents.
It is unreasonable to expect life and the people around you to spare you situations and circumstances that can trigger a memory of your abuse. So when that memory arises, I have to feel it. I must stay present in that moment, listening to what it has to say. Sometimes, it drives me to a quiet place to meditate and focus on my breath. Other times, I turn to my dance practice. I immerse myself in movement, and I let joy remind me of my goodness and value.
But sometimes it takes the form of a tearful child’s pose in surrender to my mind. I listen, and I learn. I give it its due, and in time it quiets down again. I know that each memory will be retriggered at some point, but the pain and anger are usually less severe than before.
My son has been a constant source of light for me. Seeing his face and feeling his trust in me as his mother has been my daily reminder that I am fighting the good fight for my own self-care and for his. There have been many days, though, when I couldn't wait for his nap-time so I could just sit on the couch and cry or scream into a pillow from all of the pain and rage, from the resurfacing memories that I live through every day—but my need to shelter him from my pain has kept me from expressing myself in front of him.
I don't know if that was right or wrong, but I can't stand knowing that I might do something to cause my son to worry about me or to see me in inexplicable pain. I want so badly to give him the luxury of a childhood that is free of my own anxieties and unhealed wounds. I do hide many of these raw emotions from him, and I have developed mechanisms to give myself space when I need to process what my body is telling me. One day I will share my story with him, but since he is still so young (now four years old), I don’t want to risk passing my own trauma onto him, presenting him with potentially frightful circumstances that he can’t yet understand.
I'm so proud of myself and of the progress I've made. I no longer walk through life expecting the people in it to heal my hurt. It is not fair to give those burdens to my husband or my son, for example. I know now that it is my job to grieve and heal my wounds from the past and to define my own sense of self-worth and value. I know for a fact that this will ensure that my son's life will be different from mine; he will be free to be happy, to be who he was put on this earth to be. And I'm also proud of my husband and how we have walked through this together as a family. He has had to work really hard to understand what I’ve been going through. It hasn’t been easy for him to make sense of it all.
My first few years of motherhood were not as I would have wished for myself, but they have re-laid the foundation for who I am. Ultimately, I’m grateful for what I’ve had to experience. It has given me my voice and has shown me my path. I have a better understanding of myself, of God, and what I was put on this earth to do. It showed me my Dharma, and an unfailing Grace from which I can never be separated. I now know that the only way to that "perfect" family is through love and a willingness to walk through the darkness together.
Katherine Hanson is a writer, speaker, and entrepreneur. She is also a noted Zumba® instructor, and leads a community dance experience to facilitate self-healing through joy. Through her work, Katherine advocates for child abuse prevention and recovery. She lives with her family in Thomasville, Georgia. You can follow along on Instagram at @KatherineHanson