Life is about choices. Who you are as a person may be outside of the realm of choice – you are you – but what kind of person you are is about the choices you make. I always feel a little perturbed when someone is on trial for something and they blame their childhood. The atrocities people commit with the defense of being abused or assaulted when they were young is not a defense at all. It is not an excuse. They still made those choices. Maybe I take it so personally, because of my own childhood. I was abused. I was assaulted. For years. So, I’m supposed to be some kind of monster who hurts others? Just because life was hard early on? I don’t accept that.
I think everyone has heard this excuse when it comes to people put on trial for murder, rape or other violent crimes. And every time I hear it, I cringe. And I feel like it promotes a dangerous misconception about survivors of child abuse and/or sexual assault – that many will go on to commit these heinous acts against someone else when actually the opposite is true. When I was college, I was a victim advocate for victims of domestic violence and sexual assault. In my role, I had to be familiar with all kinds of studies and statistics when dealing with male victims or people in same-sex relationships of either gender. One thing I stumbled upon (and the source is buried in a box, and since this was ten years ago, the actual numbers are probably irrelevant now, so I apologize, but I’m not just making this stuff up) was like a slap in the face. But in a good way. It stated that one out of every ten victims of abuse would go on to abuse someone else. Just one in ten. Not the majority. And what about everyone else? One in ten would break free from the cycle of abuse. Eight in ten would go on to be victimized by someone else. (The study focused on people who were first abused as children or young adults – under eighteen, and followed them for ten years if memory serves correctly.)
This was eye-opening for me at the time. How incredibly sad that the vast majority of children who grow up being abused go on to be abused by someone else as adults. Back then, I was still circling that eight out of ten. Now I’m in that small minority who completely broke away. But it was hard. And it took work. It took commitment. And it is a choice that I make every day going forward. But these are choices that anyone can make.
My own mother was abused by her father. I don’t know the details, but from what I have been told by people who knew him (he died when she was sixteen) and witnessed them together he was emotionally, verbally and physically abusive – though the extent of any of this… I have no idea. But I do know what was done to me. She would threaten me with kitchen knives, strangle me, throw me around, push me on the stairs, hit, punch, grab, claw at and kick me and that was business as usual. And the verbal and emotional abuse – so much worse than the physical. She could claim the whole “Well I was abused – that’s why,” thing, but first she would have to admit that she has/had a problem and she will never do that. And that’s fine – she is not in my life anymore. But I say this because I understand the other side. If she was never abused it is quite possible she would have never abused me. But she still had the capacity to choose to not be like her father. To work on herself. To seek out health and happiness and move on. These were choices she could have made at any time, she can still make them, but she doesn’t.
I have always been big on personal accountability, and I’m sure my experiences have played a large part in that. For a long time I was terrified I would become like her. As though it was some predetermined thing, because it happened to me and it happened to my mother and look at what she became – so I must accept I would become like that too. But I didn’t. I have always wanted my own children, but until a few years ago I refused to even consider it. Why? Because if there was even the smallest trace of my mother in me… I could never do that to a child. I would rather just not have kids than to risk it. And then I realized that there wasn’t any risk. I was different from my mother because I chose to be different. I was better than her, because I chose to be better. And it’s just that simple.
Don’t misunderstand that idea is simple and making the initial choice is simple, but the work and making that choice again and again, every single day is when it can be hard. If it was so easy, I’m sure more people would do it. I have never been violent or had violent impulses, but boy do I have a sharp tongue. Like razors have nothing on me. And I have a temper. Maybe because I’m a redhead. Maybe because I’m Irish. Most definitely because I was abused and I grew up in an environment where anger was constant. Violence and fear and abuse of power were also constants. So a great deal of energy goes into how I react to things. To pull back, and pause and think. And while I have a temper, and while I go there internally – I don’t lose my temper. I bounce back. Depending on why I’m upset it can be automatic (for years it wasn’t, but we’re talking years of work here) or it can take a minute or two. Sometimes I need to take a time out, just a few minutes so nothing long or drawn out, but I need to remove myself so I won’t say something unproductive or hurtful.
Am I perfect? Hell no. Sometimes I do lose my temper and I lash out with my words. But even then it is so “average” because I have spent time reconditioning myself. I may yell or curse when I lose my temper, but I don’t call names or demean someone. Instead of, “You fucking idiot,” it might be, “What the fuck? Doing (blank) is stupid and you know it!” In a perfect world neither statement would ever be said, but there is a better statement between those two things. And I keep track of when I lose my temper, which might happen once every six to eight weeks. I write down what happened and why I was upset and how I responded and how I wished I responded and I keep it in mind for the next time.
I imagine my process is similar to those in recovery for addiction. Because it is a choice I make every day, sometimes it is an impulse I fight (the sharp tongue, nothing physical) and no matter what it is something I always work at, and something I will always work at. It isn’t a choice I make and that’s it – it’s done. It is a series of choices or a choice I make repeatedly, in every interaction I have that involves tension or conflict. I make that choice. And making that choice is what makes me different. It’s what makes me better. And as much work as it is, and as much truth as it involves me facing about myself, and my past, I have never questioned whether or not it is worth it. Because that was never a question.
And every person has the choice when it comes to the kind of person they are. Even if it isn’t always clear (and rarely is it easy) the choice is there. Realizing the choice can be empowering and terrifying because you realize it really is all on you.
What kind of person do you choose to be?