Becoming an Abuser

I wince at the images of female strength and power in the media. Women in armor swinging automatic weapons over crowds. Women in bikinis shouting into microphones that respect means spending thousands on a ring you can’t afford. Women in Spandex punching other people into submission.

These aren’t so much portraits of strength as they are displays of entitlement and violence.

Strength is cradling the bodies of our dead and weeping. And then, when we are done weeping and we are ready, burying them ourselves.

Feeling what we feel.

Dealing with our own shit first.

Not by taking up guns or crushing our opponents or coercing people to give us what we want.

But by sitting with ourselves until we calm the fuck down.

No productive conversation can happen until the anger is handled first. The addiction to control and getting what we want, the rage and bloodlust and thirst for vengeance—no healthy relationship is even possible while these are the forces that drive us.

Show me a person who is calm and clear-headed on a sinking ship.

That is strength.

*          *          *

I was not calm.

I didn’t want to be calm.

After I got back with Top, I wanted to fucking hurt people. I wanted to make them pay.

People asked if I believed in God, and I answered, “God is dead, and I killed him” and slid my sunglasses down over my eyes.

I was 24 years old, and the first person I could hurt, the easiest person to hurt, was my brother.

“What the fuck is wrong with you? You’re such a pathetic excuse for a human being.”

The next person I could hurt was Top. “God, you can never do anything right. Do I have to do everything for you?”

I had been assaulted, harassed, abused, shunned, and stalked. I may have been an adult, but that doesn’t give you a clean slate. Abuse was familiar. It was comfortable. And as an adult, switching roles from abuser to abused became easy as double-dutch. This rope, that rope. Back and forth. Hour by hour. Now I hurt you. Now you hurt me. Round and round, where it stopped, nobody knew.

Child abuse is easy to sort out. The adult is wrong. Nice and crisp and clear, black and white. This is your job. Don’t berate a child until they collapse into helpless tears. Don’t beat them. Process your own feelings on your own. A few simple boundaries. And my parents just couldn’t do it.

But adult abuse is this: Shards of glass in everyone’s hands. Threats to use it on you, on myself. Smeared blood. Yours, mine.

We’re all wrong. We’re all victims.

The only way out is out. Grab your coat, drop the shards of glass, bandage your hands and jam them deep into your pockets, leave the keys on the kitchen counter, and walk out. For good. Don’t look back. Just keep walking.

But it would be six more years before I had the strength to do that.

In the meantime, there I was, my father’s face staring back at me in the mirror. The same jut to my chin. The edge in my eyes. The snarl on my lips. Hurting everyone I could, just to make my own ache stop for a few minutes.

Rage can feel so much like power.

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9 thoughts on “Becoming an Abuser

  1. Your story continues with such rawness it shreds as we read. All past experience brings you to this place. We are honored to part of it. Thank you.

  2. I don’t know though. It makes me think about how after I went away to college then had to come home to live for 6 months while looking for more permanent employment (I had a 35 hour work week but not making enough to live on my own). My father was the abuser and my mother His protector. I was trying to emotionally survive a soul killing household. I tried fighting back with words to my father but it seemed to always escalate things. Next I tried to completely ignore and never be around him but my mom wouldn’t allow that. I see your fighting back as trying to survive a sould killing place. You were gasping for air in anyway you could get it. What do you think?

    1. I think this is a really important point, BrokenYetCherished. I totally identify with your description of adult child abuse. I do think, because of the power imbalance with parents, that abusive sibling, friend, and partner relationships are different. No matter our age or financial stability, we’ll never have a true peer relationship with our parents. This is especially true if we are in any way dependent on them, as you were. In such a situation, there are no good options for the victim.

      But in peer relationships, we do have more agency and choice. During the two years I shared an apartment with my little brother, I was not dependent on him and could have moved out. Yet I stuck around and verbally and emotionally abused him. I was also in no way dependent on Top, towards whom I also became toxic. Top had abused, assaulted, and stalked me. But I have to believe that cruelty does not justify further cruelty. I could have walked away. I could have asked friends for help. Instead, I made a choice that cemented my worst impulses.

      In my own healing process, I’ve found it important to acknowledge the cycle of abuse that has played out in my own life, and to recognize that the path I had started down was the same path my father took. My social skills had been so shaped by abuse that, when given the opportunity in peer relationships, I resorted to the behaviors modeled for me and that gave me a modicum of safety and power, even if that was an illusion, rooted in the intentional harm to (because I did mean to harm) others. I have found Judith Herman’s “Trauma and Recovery” extremely insightful on the subject of child abuse survivors who struggle to engage in relationships outside the abuser-victim dichotomy, which was definitely my struggle during those years.

      1. That’s very insightful but also brave to be able to look at your own behavior. I’ll have to look that book up. I think I might be in a place in my healing that I could start look at that….maybe.

    1. Thanks so much, Roxana! It was a bit scary to write. I think it’s tempting to depict victims and survivors as pure and innocent, but the truth is it gets complicated when everyone is an adult. Patriarchy encourages ugly behaviors in both men and women. It doesn’t justify anything, but I want to try not to shy away from that.

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