It took years for me to be diagnosed with PTSD; one of many lasting affects a childhood riddled with domestic abuse has left me with. Up until I was 18 and away from my home, I hardly (if ever) talked about the toxic parent who ruled our household with a violent, manipulative, and relentless fist. We lived under a banner of fiction and avoidance; preserving the facade of the “perfect family": we went to church every Sunday, were active in the community, and from the outside looking in, it appeared as if we had everything we could possibly want. So, talking to someone about the moments my father hit me or choked me or slapped me or pushed me was uncomfortable and threatening and left me feeling vulnerable. But, eventually, one year out of college, I stepped into a mental health professional’s office, shared stories of a childhood that had been haunting me, and was diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). I could fill a book with all the things I didn’t know then, and how my PTSD would eventually affect my parenting was listed on the very first page.
I’ve dealt with PTSD in some form or another the majority of my life. If I hear a loud crash — a dropped pan or broken glass or a mishandled plate — I freeze or jump or some awkward combination of both. My body tenses, my heartbeat increases, and I feel an intense need to leave whatever environment I’m in. Even if no one is around me, I feel suffocated, like the walls are closing in and danger is about to arrive and I am powerless to escape. When someone goes to hug me or even come near me or makes a somewhat sudden movement — whether they’re a new friend or a long-time lover — I cringe. It’s second nature, a learned reaction to the unapologetic movements of an abuser, and it has caused many men to feel uncomfortable and guilty for actions they never committed.
And now that I have an almost-2-year-old son, I feel much of the same, and rather regularly. My wide-eyed, brown-haired, beautiful boy has started throwing — a common toddler reaction to stress or frustration or, honestly, simply playing. But when he throws a cup and makes a loud sound or throws a toy in my direction or throws and breaks something by accident, I’m transported to my childhood living room or bedroom or kitchen. I see my father throwing a dresser drawer down our stairs, I watch him throw a meal he didn’t find particularly appetizing at a wall, I hear him throwing plates and breaking furniture, I witness him throwing my mother against a wall. I have to make a conscious, sometimes laborious effort to remember that I’m not there and he isn't here and I’m OK and so is the precious life I’m now in charge of.
Every time my son slapped my face or punched my arm or hit my chest, I would sink into myself; reduced to the scared girl who would run away from her angry father or lay in the fetal position, eyes closed shut as she waited for it all to be over.
For a small period of time, my son insisted on hitting me. Thankfully, it was a short-lived response to his toddlerhood and the developmental changes that come along with it, but that stage was anything but easy to endure. Every time my son slapped my face or punched my arm or hit my chest, I would sink into myself; reduced to the scared girl who would run away from her angry father or lay in the fetal position, eyes closed shut as she waited for it all to be over. I internalized each small, feeble strike, unable to lash out or get angry, as if there was a hand over my mouth or an angered grip around my neck. I would leave the room, close a door, and cry. I'd tell my partner to take over, then I'd grab my car keys and drive until I stopped shaking.
My first memory is of pain and terror. I was 5, running away from my father, who eventually caught up to me on the wooden planks of our back porch and beat me until I urinated in my pants. It's memory I cannot erase, a memory that, sometimes, even at 29 years old, makes me feel like an ineffectual, broken child. But it's also a memory I'll ensure my son will never, ever have.
And while many may criticize me for not disciplining my child and putting a quick end to his “bad” behavior, I could not — and still cannot — bring myself to strike my child. I can’t spank him, or slap his little hand, or physically punish him in any way. I know what it's like to feel pain at the hands of a parent, and even if it may be beneficial (although a recent study has confirmed spanking does not work), I simply can’t. There is a mental block, a wall in my brain, fortified by years of domestic abuse, that keeps me from doing what many parents seem to do with ease.
And, perhaps, that's the the silver lining of my PTSD diagnosis. I am acutely aware of the long-term damage violence and abuse have on a child. My first memory is of pain and terror. I was 5, running away from my father, who eventually caught up to me on the wooden planks of our back porch and beat me until I urinated in my pants. It's memory I cannot erase, a memory that, sometimes, even at 29 years old, makes me feel like an ineffectual, broken child. But it's also a memory I'll ensure my son will never, ever have. We've found alternative methods to discipline, and though they are frustrating and require an insane amount of patience, they've helped us navigate toddlerhood in a way we're all comfortable with.
My diagnoses ensures that my son will never experience what I experienced. My diagnoses is a reminder of where I’ve been, how far I've come, and my steady promise that I will never, ever, go back there again.