This may seem like a given, but I’ve run into quite a few people who, while they might be well-intentioned, tend to downplay the reality of emotional abuse. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard people make comments along the lines of, “oh, at least that’s not serious abuse.” When I talk about my childhood, I feel pressured to clarify that it was “only” verbal abuse, as if it somehow counts for less.
But verbal abuse is serious. It’s been linked to dissociation disorders, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder. A study done out of Harvard, led by Dr. Martin Teicher, concluded that:
“The effects of verbal abuse were worse than witnessing serious domestic violence and as serious as sexual abuse outside the home, but not as bad as sexual abuse by a family member… Verbal abuse may also have more lasting consequences than other forms of abuse, because it’s often more continuous.” (Martin Teicher, news.harvard.edu).
I was never molested or beaten with fists, but when you’re a child, being told you’re “useless” punches you right in the stomach and leaves a bruise on your soul. “Stupid” stabs deep like a knife into a child’s heart. At three, I knew more cuss words than any child should know–most of which I’d had lobbed at me.
My parents are not awful people, not deep down. My father was abused as a child, physically and verbally, leaving him a good man who happened to be crippled with an anger problem. My mother didn’t participate in the abuse herself, but she didn’t stop it either. Sometimes, I can even say that they were wonderful parents. But when my father’s temper roared, he stopped trying to control it and directed it onto whomever happened to be around. Which was usually me.
As I got older, I tried to earn my parents’ love. I gobbled up every moment they were proud of me and nearly worked myself to death trying to perfect myself–because if I were perfect, I might be useful instead of useless.
My father didn’t lash out physically, but his words created a monster inside of me, and in my teen years I turned to punishing myself physically. I carved physical scars into my skin, felt the sting and brought my own blood to the surface, a small glimpse of what my scarred soul felt like. I’ve battled depression, anxiety, and obsessive-compulsive disorder. For a brief time in high school, I came close to suicide, believing that I truly was “useless.” Thanks to God and a good friend, I didn’t go through with it and am now an adult in my twenties, living hours away from my childhood home. Slowly, I’ve begun to heal.
Many have told me that forgiveness is intrinsic to healing. But I want you to know that forgiveness happens on its own time frame, and it is a process that looks different for every person. It’s a journey to even be ready to begin to forgive, and accusing a victim of bitterness isn’t helpful in the least. For many people, forgiveness won’t include a restored relationship with an abuser, especially one who refuses to acknowledge the damage they inflicted. However, I will note that that is not my story. Over the course of many years, my father has slowly changed, and I thank God for it. Because of the softening in his heart, his own regrets and apologies, and yes, my own forgiveness, we now have a fairly deep relationship that I consider a miracle.
I also want you to know that forgiveness isn’t a magic balm that automatically fixes everything. Forgiveness and reconciliation do indeed remove the knife itself from the wound, but pieces of the weapon have flaked off and they’re still embedded inside of me. They might be inside me forever. I don’t know.
I still have flashbacks. I make mistakes like every woman, and then my mind echoes with my father slung at me so carelessly as I cowered under a desk at the age of eight, pricking my fingers again and again on the staple that was stuck in the wood. My fingers tremble with the urge to carve my inner anguish into the skin of my forearm, to punish myself, and I pray for the strength to resist. The ghosts of words, names I was called that I prayed were buried resurrect themselves. I berate myself using those same painful terms I grew up hearing.
There is one ghost that used to haunt me that almost never makes an appearance any more, though, and that gives me hope: anger. I can honestly say that I’m no longer angry with my father. Sometimes when I consider the man he is now, it seems so strange, unbelievable even, to consider the man he was when I was a child. For so many years I bristled with bitterness and hatred, and now it’s been gone for several years, and for that I am grateful. But still sadness lingers. I suppose I’m mourning for that childhood father-daughter bond, that “daddy’s girl” feeling that I never had and craved.
The fact is that I was verbally abused as a childhood, and it has and does affect me in adulthood. I can’t change that, but I don’t want my childhood’s only legacy to be negative. I’m currently nearing graduation, and afterwards I hope to continue work that I’ve been involved in the past couple summers, working with other children who feel unwanted, abandoned, and unloved. The girl I met last summer, who can’t bring herself to speak of her father without a grimace, the ten-year-old boy who clung to me–their tears are my tears, their suffering my suffering. By coming alongside them, I want to show them love and that there is hope.
No child should ever feel that way–yet there are millions of children like that all over the planet. Overseas. In your children’s schools. In your own church. One of my hopes is that more people will speak out against verbal abuse, more parents will be aware of the power of their words, and there will be less children crippled by wounds no one sees.