Understanding the Marks Left by Abuse


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I didn’t think I had trauma. I’ve been in abusive situations and rough relationships in my life, but nothing I considered extraordinary. I believed that if the immediate pain of those experiences left me, I’d be just as I was before. Turns out, I was wrong.

I’m at a point in my life where I am coming to understand how many of my behaviors and beliefs are direct results of the abuse I’ve experienced throughout my life. Finally, I’m noticing how my past trauma interrupts the ease of connecting with others, and often injects my worldview with cynicism and suspicion.

Attachment theory can explain these effects. It maintains there are various ways people learn to be attached to and connect with others. Nora Samaran describes attachment styles using a chair metaphor:

“Just like the first time you walk on ice or sit on a new chair, at first your muscles are clenched, waiting to see if the ground under you is secure or about to fall away. If the ice has always been solid, or you have never had a chair break under your weight, you may assume that you can relax quickly into your seat, or head out onto the ice and skate. You have no reason to think otherwise. If, however, you have had a chair break under you, you may think hard about sitting down again, and may take longer to relax into the secure base. If the chair has never been there for you at all, you may decide you simply don’t need chairs and prefer to stand. These are insecure attachment styles.”

My attachment style is insecure. I grew up with constant emotional volatility in my household. I was always unsure of how I would be treated. This was my early experience of love and connection.

A while ago, I was in a bookshop feeling a little lost, and I picked up a book called How to Be an Adult in Love by David Richo. I was intrigued by the subtitle: “Letting Love in Safely and Showing it Recklessly.” I soon found myself poring over it, reading passages which described love in succinct language such as I had never read it before. I realized, I don’t understand love. I don’t fully understand where the line between love and harm lies, most likely because many people who love me don’t know where this line is either.

Perhaps this lack of understanding is why abuse is so commonplace in the U.S. On average, nearly 20 people per minute are physically abused by an intimate partner in the United States. During one year, this equates to more than 10 million people. This figure does not account for forms of emotional abuse, and only takes into account intimate partner violence. Familial abuse and workplace abuse are also common in the U.S., and both have deep effects on survivors.

Violence pervades our culture. Abuse is one head of that hydra, along with the prison industrial complex, gun violence, rape culture, environmental destruction, militarism, police brutality, animal agriculture, and most recently on the public mind, ICE and border policies. In a country that has literally set up for-profit prisons for children, you can expect violence to flourish. Violence and abuse also pepper our histories, both collective and personal. In a country built by slaves on land stolen through genocide, it is not surprising to me that violence, trauma, and abuse are passed down through generations. I have so often heard my dad tell me stories of being knocked across a room by his own dad. Of course the line between love and harm is blurred for him. It is for many of us.

I’m working through the messages I’ve received from others that impede my ability to connect, but it’s a messy process. I’ve learned it’s easy to accidentally take my trauma out on others. Trauma can be insidious that way – it’s easy to pass it on without being aware that’s what’s happening. My own trauma-based behaviors tend to be ignoring, neglecting, and withdrawing from my relationships, and in the past I’ve also lashed out at people in anger.

I still search for intimacy, closeness, community, and shared joy. Even acknowledging that sparks fear in me, but I keep reaching. Through my fumbling and my triumphs and despairs, I wonder, how often do we hurt each other? How often do we take out our past abuses on others, and thereby pass them on? I know I have hurt and neglected people before. The best thing I can do is continue to heal, so that I may no longer pass on the abuse. It’s important for me to understand the marks that my past has left on me, and the ways I express love and look for connection. It has affected all my relationships, including the one I have with myself.

So anyway, about that book -I bought it. I’m committed to healing and learning how to love well, fully, and recklessly. One concept from the book that I have really benefited from is this:

“We never lose our power and ability to let love into our lives and to act lovingly. The capacity to love cannot be canceled or erased by our past, no matter how damaging our experiences may have been. What can be damaged are our ways of showing love and our expectations of what it should be.”

This is comforting to me. It reminds me that I can heal from these damages and form more healthy ways of showing love and expectations for it. It is important for survivors of abuse to receive this message: we are not damaged goods. We deserve love, and we are able to love, but it is a practice we must work to grow.

The abuse we endure and inflict has lasting effects on our relationships with ourselves, each other, and in our communities. It directly affects our movements by dictating how we treat each other. In recent times, I have seen a few pieces of writing decrying “toxic social justice culture.” I believe this toxicity is due in part to the fact that our movements our organized by people who are still healing from oppression, violence, and abuse. Our connections are interrupted and our movements are shortchanged because we are still establishing the emotional literacy needed to healthily deal with our trauma and that of others.

Grace Lee Boggs has a quote that I repeat again and again when I think about how I’m engaging with community organizing work. In The Next American Revolution, she writes:

“We ourselves must begin practicing in the social realm the capacity to care for each other, to share food, skills, time, and ideas that up to now most of us have limited to our most personal cherished relationships…..We urgently need to bring to our communities the limitless capacity to love, serve, and create for and with each other.”

Understanding and enacting love is an urgent matter from this point of view. We benefit from actively healing ourselves. We benefit from learning how to not take trauma out on each other. We benefit from learning to communicate, set healthy boundaries, and trust and be kind to each other. If we can heal and reach past our old traumas and stories, we can open ourselves to more connection and become catalysts for positive change and growth in our communities. Building bridges of connection can help us accomplish the work of anti-oppression politics. It can open opportunities for collaboration and understanding and give power to voices without corporate or police/military-backing. At the very least, it can enable our organizations to work well together to achieve our goals. Openness helps us. Healing is a strategy.

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