One of the qualities of life that children who were abused, especially by one or both of their parents did not receive, is stability. There is a constancy, a steadiness that is lacking in a dysfunctional family system. Without knowing it they unconsciously crave dependency. A baby knows they will be fed, their diaper will be changed, they will have a safe crib to sleep in. They need love and nurturing. This is an ingrained need, an expectation of a young life.
Our son recently presented my husband Tom with a six-week-old Yellow Lab Retriever as a Christmas present. This little guy, missing his mama and siblings, cried at night as he lay on our son’s sofa. After three days of this Tom decided to accept the present. Traveling from the Los Angeles area to our home in Arizona was easy as Stuart Lee (as he was named after two friends from the UK and our Scottish Stuart ancestry) slept the entire way while our other pup Rocky glared at him from the front seat. Once home we discovered in no time that this little guy needed stability. We bought him an X-cage which is sort of a nursery for young pups, a large many-sided cage with a door that locked. He took to it instantly seeming to like the safety of it. We put a piddle pad and numerous toys in it next to his little bed with a fluffy gray blanket. He liked that too. He thrived under being regularly fed, put to nap at the same time every day, put outside at certain times to potty and then receiving a treat for having rewarded us. As he grew and walked on wobbly legs Tom took him up to our horse arena and let him run. This too was a regularly scheduled event. Now, a bit more than a month later, despite the stress, the middle of the night potty times, cleaning up numerous messes (you who have raised a puppy can relate to this) he is a treat to be around (don’t ask Rocky, our 4-year-old Shih Tzu what he thinks as he is busy letting Stuart know he is the Alpha dog). The stability Tom gave him has made him feel safe and loved.
Humans are no different. As babies, as toddlers and as little children we are dependent on our parents to provide us with everything. Even as we learn all the new basics of life, we still have many more bridges to cross, more roads to travel before we are ready to be on our own. Children growing up in a dysfunctional home experience chaos, neglect and abuse as a regular part of their life. Stability is alien.
The first thirteen years of my life were fairly stable and healthy. Even with my father going off to war, moving in to a home near my grandparents while he was gone, then traveling around from town to town following my father’s work after six years in North Dakota, our life was stable. We had a happy Catholic family, were deeply loved by both our parents and our grandparents plus a huge Finnish clan that surrounded us with attention and warmth. It was wonderful. Despite the continual changes in moving from one town to another our home life was stable. We followed the ceremonies and rites of Catholicism. Confession every Friday night, Mass on Sunday mornings, Lenten observances and nightly prayers in front of our parents. We had meals at the same time, bed at the same time, chores at the same time and all holidays were celebrated with great gusto, always the same, always stable and enduring.
Then, when I was thirteen my father entered my bedroom and raped me. As I write in my memoir, I Never Heard A Robin Sing (found in paperback and Kindle form on amazon.com):
“No longer did Mom get out of bed and fix us hot cereal and chocolate in the morning. No more did she avidly question me on how my day went when I returned home. Now, she was asleep when I went off to school. We fixed our own breakfast, stumbling through burnt toast and soggy cold cereal. When I came home, the house was dark, Marine Corps blankets covering the windows and the breakfast dishes sitting on the table in an accusatory manner. There was no dinner happily cooking in the oven and no cheerful sight of Mom listening to her soap operas, shushing me until they finished their fifteen-minute segments. Instead, she lay in bed in an emotional stupor, depressed and withdrawn.
Dad had begun working a new job, one that took him away from home during the week. He returned on Friday nights to a house heavy with despair, a long line of crimes related by Mom about his children, who waited for him to hand out punishments. The change in Mom slipped into our lives almost as if programmed. Was this just another stage in mothers? I wondered if she was ill. With little or no communication amongst my siblings and me, we didn’t dare discuss it. As time passed, I realized that Mom had indeed changed for good. My heart was frightened and hollow when I approached our home and saw the Marine Corp blankets, signaling that mom was still in bed. I tried to waken her, to get her to eat, oftentimes grooming her as I would a pet. She’d lie in a state of apathy and sorrow, and have me shave her legs, wash her face, or comb her hair. I felt someone had taken my mother from me and left this strange lady in her place. What had I done? Was she angry with me? Didn’t she love me anymore? There was no more affection, no more interest, no more “my mother”. I grieved deeply. As time went on, my sorrow and bewilderment, planted seeds of a neurosis that only grew with the passage of time.
My family life reminded me of a camp of mutilated and injured soldiers from some obsolete war, indescribable in its agony. All the figures were shadowy and disoriented, as if only half alive and that half living in a well of misery. We moved in and out of our days appearing to wait for some catastrophic happening, all of us knowing that once it did, we were ill-prepared to handle it.”
This then was the difference between a stable happy life filled with love and the downward spiral of a family impacted by incest. Patricia McKnight of My Justice speaks of the impact child abuse has on its victims:
These offenses if beginning in the early years of a child’s life, even inside the womb, can and do cause an ingrained emotional alteration in our frontal lobe cortex. In young children you can see how living in this every day or week, month, year can affect every person differently. Some might become adult or teen offenders, others might stay in that trained sense of ‘VICTIM’ pattern and submissive behaviors. Either way these young persons grow up to become those who run our businesses, our police officers, judges, and political leaders of our nation. These are the people everywhere around us today, and we are creating the next generation of tomorrow.
When I say stability, I don’t mean “stable” abuse. Getting hit by Dad every time he comes home drunk might be predictable but it isn’t stable. Watching Dad beat up Mom when he’s finished with you might also be predictable. Profanity and beatings when you do something considered wrong might be accepted behavior but it isn’t stability. Neither is any kind of abuse, no matter what kind, no matter what constant. The kind of stability we crave as children contains harmony, healthy discipline, consistency, dependability and balance. It is steadfast and solid, perennial, something to rely on that provides a shelter from the storms of life. For those who still wonder what constitutes child abuse I offer the following from Childhelp USA:
Child abuse is when a parent or caregiver, whether through action or failing to act, causes injury, death, emotional harm or risk of serious harm to a child. There are many forms of child maltreatment, including neglect, physical abuse, sexual abuse, exploitation and emotional abuse.
Stability is the wall around which we build our identity. It is the buttress and the anchor that life provides, giving us courage, optimism, direction, wisdom, confidence and the ability to make healthy choices. Abused children who grow up and don’t enter a program for recovery have zero chance of obtaining any of this. Have you been REPAIRed? See our website at www.thelamplighters.org for further information on the REPAIR recovery program.
The wounded child seeks a home, wanting to be part of a stable world. This truth often doesn’t surface for many years as we wander in the darkness, searching endlessly, never realizing we had only to look inward.