The cycle will remain unbroken until you break it…
I have written much about the trauma behavior of abused children. But what about the abuser? Who bothers to think of the “why” behind their actions?
Jan grew up as the middle girl between two other sisters for the first 13 years of her life. When her little brother was born, she remained “middle (ish) as the three girls who came first continued in their life paths at a different time than he did. Jan had some good memories of early childhood she could access when the bad memories intervened.
She often thought of her father and his influence on her life.
Jan remembered her early childhood as being happy. Her dad was funny and charming, playful, smart and (as best he could) he loved her.
She remembered how he loved to watch Road Runner cartoons on Saturday mornings. He made “cat head biscuits” on the weekends, which they would slather with butter and drench in maple syrup (better than any pancakes). He called her sister bell.
And he was an alcoholic.
It was not evident to the kids when they were small children. But as his disease progressed and they grew into pre- teens and teens, Jan and her sister’s knew something was very wrong.
The funny, loving dad came out less and less, giving way to the secretive, unhappy dad who once told Jan (during a drunken binge) that she was pathetic and that he never loved her. That comment devastated her and drove a wedge between them that lasted for years.
Later in life, as she studied for her Master’s in counseling, Jan realized that he had been striking out to hurt her so that she would leave him alone. She hadn’t understood, at the time, the pain he was in.
Eventually, the entire family granted his unspoken demand and disappeared from his life while he fell deeper into the abyss of self medicating and self loathing.
Until she got a call from the local hospital. Jan’s dad had a heart attack.
The wake up call of near death shook him to his core. The one thing Jan’s dad feared more than intimacy during this period was dying alone.
So he quit drinking.
He didnt go to AA. He didnt go to counseling. Fear of death was his new drug of choice. He went through withdrawals and clung desperately to sobriety by teeth and toenails. He never dealt with the pain and anger in his life. Basically, he was a dry drunk. Sober, yet still fighting a daily battle.
Yet, even as some of the negative personality traits persisted; over time Jan got to see glimpses of the daddy she had always loved. He set forth down a path to reconnect with all of his children. But by then, the road to reunification had become overgrown with brambles and boulders of his own making.
Jan did make an effort to visit and talk with her dad. She held unconditional forgiveness tightly to her chest with clenched fists, still hearing his hurtful words and remembering his angry outbursts. But she desperately wanted to give him another chance.
Once, during a visit, in a very rare moment of honesty, her dad told her a story that finally opened her eyes to the incredible trauma that he had tried to “drink away.”
They had been talking about vague unimportant things…weather, politics, sports teams…when he abruptly changed the subject.
He told Jan, that as a child, he had been the victim of a child abuse perpetrated by a person outside of the family. This person, was trusted and liked by the family. When he disclosed the abuse, the message was made clear to him by his parents, that, as a child, he was not to be believed. Children lie.
As he recounted the story, Jan, who was by then, in the mental health field, fell out of daughter mode and into counselor mode.
“Daddy,” she told him gently. “I am sorry no one believed you. You need to know, it was not your fault. You were a kid and they were the adult. Nothing you said or did made this person hurt you. You did nothing wrong.”
And then, inexplicably, her daddy started to cry.
Like other child victims she had worked with, he admitted that he thought he was to blame somehow. His parents blamed him as well. Jan knew that child victims often have to cope with guilt and blame after abuse. She hadnt thought to hear her own father going through the same thing.
They talked a few minutes more. Then, as if it had never been said, her dad switched the conversation back to the New Orleans Saints.
But Jan had been affected. She understood so much of the inner turmoil and shame that had plagued her dad for years.
He spent his entire life fighting a battle of self worth based on the actions of adults in his early life. Anger, depression, guilt…all led to the slow decay of his self worth. Alcohol dulled the pain at first. However, soon consumption of alcohol became the driving force in his life. Pushing away those who cared about him with emotional and sometimes physical abuse assured him that no one would stop his now constant self medicating.
But knowing the why so late in life, did not undo the years he spent pushing others away. Jan knew this, and it broke her heart.
Challenge: When you are working with clients who abuse their children, I encourage you to look deeper than what is evident above the surface. Blaming and Labeling people with substance abuse problems, anger issues and even abuse is short sighted and counter productive. Most parents dont set out to be bad parents. Most dont set out to hurt their children. There is often an underlying issue that they are ” not dealing with” that results in recycling the hurt and anger rather than facing and dealing with it.
Children must be protected from abuse, dont get me wrong. And sometimes protection means temporary removal. But protection doesnt mean we vilify their parents or that we isolate them from those they love.
Successfully working with families means that as a social worker you must commit to helping families discover the underlying issues and work together to address the unsafe, unhealthy behavior interfering with their ability to function as a healthy, safe family.
Jan realized that her father’s descent into becoming a distant, angry, depressed man had been a slow journey stemming from a lifetime of guilt and shame. Guilt and shame, that didnt belong to him, was perpetuated by adults he trusted. Because of this self loathing, he hurt his family emotionally until they all left.
Understanding and working in partnership with traumatized adults will not always be successful. Some adults have been fighting their demons so long, they dont believe there is another way. But for those who are given a chance to look deeper and face (with a helping team,) the issues behind the behavior, the success can result in reunification of families and restoration of safe family functioning.
Before he died of a second heart attack at age 78, Jan’s dad had begun repairing the damaged relationships with his other children. But it was never completely whole again.
The cycle will remain unbroken until you break it…
Be the one who listens, digs beneath the surface and joins with a family to help address and break the cycle of abuse.