At 45 years old, Brian did not know who he was or what he wanted. From the outside looking in, he seemed to have it all: money, family, career, and friends. But in reality, life was very different. He managed to have a successful career at a job he did not like. His 20-year abusive marriage was devoid of any pleasure or intimacy. His kids followed their mother’s lead and routinely took advantage of him. And his friends were only available for good times.
This did not happen in one step, over the years Brian surrendered parts of himself in exchange for keeping the peace. It began as a child when his alcoholic parents neglected to meet the basic needs of security, protection, and at times, food for their children. Being the oldest, Brian stepped in to help raise his siblings, made sure they were fed, and shielded them from the parent’s abusive behavior. His strong sense of responsibility for his siblings grew and he often felt like a parent rather than a sibling. He didn’t know it then, but he gave up the ability to be a child during the most formative years of his life.
Brian then met his wife in college and they were married shortly after graduating. Early in the marriage, her temper tantrums seemed excessive but he excused them away thinking that once she had what she wanted they would stop. It did not. Her verbal assaults escalated into physical contact on numerous occasions, including some encounters in front of the kids. In an effort to ‘keep the peace’, Brian would cave in to her demands, push himself harder at work, and then come home to be the primary parent for the kids. Over time, however, his refusal to stand up to his wife’s abuse cost him the respect of his children.
Ashamed and embarrassed, Brian told no one about what was going on at home. He erroneously thought that if he could just keep the peace, the abuse would stop. Exhausted and depressed, Brian entertained thoughts of abandoning his life by running away or committing suicide. It was those imaginations that finally caused him to seek professional help. How did he end up here?
- No solid identity. Due to the trauma of needing to care for his siblings during his teenage years, Brian skipped the essential developmental stage of forming his own identity. Instead, he formed an identity of over-responsibility out of necessity, not a choice. According to Erik Erikson’s Eight Stages of Psychosocial Development, between the years of 12 and 18, a teen should work out who they are. If they do not, there is a confusion that lasts throughout adulthood. Brian was unable to answer simple questions like what did he enjoy doing, what were his favorite activities, and where did he see himself in the future. A lack of understanding of self contributes to the difficulty in responding to the questions.
- Perpetuating unresolved trauma. Brain went from living with his parents (he remained in his childhood house throughout college) to living with his wife. The lack of reflection on the damage he endured at his parent’s hand caused him to overlook red flags about his wife. He basically traded one abusive situation for another. This is why he often acted childlike when his wife would assault him. He just did with her what he did to survive as a child. His trauma was compounded, childhood abuse was added to present abuse resulting in an overwhelming and never-ending feeling.
- Constant survival mode. Each time an abusive behavior would occur, Brian would go into survival mode. There are 4 possible automatic responses: fight, flight, freeze, or faint. The automation of reaction happens in childhood and can be difficult to retrain without constant effort. When the body goes into survival mode, the executive functioning part of the brain shuts down. This is why it is difficult to make decisions or think clearly. It takes the body approximately 36-72 hours to fully reset once survival mode is activated. Repeated abuse causes a constant flood of survival mode responses and without sufficient time to reset, Brian frequently felt confused, forgetful, agitated, anxious, and insecure.
- Taking excessive responsibility. Brian willingly took on the responsibility of his parents and wife’s abusive behavior. He would say, “If I had done this …, then she would not yell.” He believed that by absorbing the blame, he could control the outcome. But abusive people do abusive acts out of their own pain. So controlling the circumstances won’t stop the behavior. The only way to stop abuse is to confront it and get help for the abuser. The victim’s behavior is not the reason for the abuse, no matter what the abuser says.
- Enabling an abuser. Because Brian was willing to take on responsibility for his wife’s abuse, she did not have to be responsible. His assuming of responsibility, with the intent to keep the peace, only reinforced her abusive behavior. In this way, Brian unknowingly was enabling the abuse. This realization shook Brian to the core as that was never his intention.
- Workaholic behavior. To deal with his pain as a child, Brian buried himself in his school work. The fairness of working hard and getting the rewards of good grades appealed to him. As an adult, he worked late in part to avoid home but also because he liked the approval from his superiors whom he saw as parental role models. Unknowingly, he became as addicted to work as his parents were to alcohol. He gave up all pleasurable activities outside of work in exchange for the next promotion. His hyperfocus at work fed the pleasure sense in his brain in a destructive manner.
- Stuffed anger. To keep from being like his parents, Brian stuffed his anger and consequently had poor anger management skills. At work, he was known as unflappable but the cost for this meant that others frequently took advantage of him. His desire for peace meant he took his anger out on himself by overeating. Just learning that it was OK to be angry was a hard step for Brian to take. Confronting his anger in a healthy manner was even harder as he lost several friendships in the process.
It took Brian several months to work through each of the above-mentioned issues. As he progressed, he grew stronger and the fogginess of his life cleared up. This resulted in some difficult life choices such as divorcing his wife and leaving his job. But several years later, Brian restored his relationship with his children and has a more balanced life with a job he enjoys. Life can be different, healing can occur, and there is hope for the hurting.