Growing up in an abusive environment normalized it for me, whether I was the victim or perpetrator.
The first time I came home drunk, my brother called me names. I was raised in an over-protective bubble. Its walls were not dreamy, soapy, rainbow tinted like a bubble but made out of concrete that had been hardening for years with values intrinsic to an orthodox Indian family.
The lines between standing up for myself and disrespecting my parents were as blurred as waves on sand. I was taught not to argue. But that Saturday night, I was drunk for the very first time in my life and returned home late. My guard was down and the walls that I had grown up within were inebriated. Even before I knew it the words slipped out my mouth and I said, “Who the fuck do you think you are preaching to me when you’re drunk out of your mind right now, as we speak?”
The palms of his hand landed on my cheek with a resounding thud, as I twirled around and fell on the floor, passing out. However, the hazy image of my mother staring down at me with fierce eyes as she mouthed the words “serves you right!” remain more clearly ingrained in my brain than the rest of that night.
When I woke up next morning I fully came to terms with the feeling that had been gnawing at me for months. I was a victim of domestic violence.
I cascaded into adult hood, with a heavy heart and an increasingly curious mind. As a result the transition period from questioning things to opposing them was almost negligible. It wasn’t uncommon for my family members to resort to violence when we disagreed. Aggression perhaps is the quickest way to pressure someone into bowing out, but shortcuts have their risks.
Visible and invisible scars. Image source: pinterest
Without a fight, and I mean fight, my wardrobe would not have transformed into a colorful array of dresses with plunging necklines from the boring salwaar kameez sets or plain jane t-shirts I grew up with. The night my father hit me after chancing upon some ‘revealing clothes’ when I was just 16 is clear as day. Perhaps clearer is the next morning when I woke up to a pile of rags that had been my favourite new purchases only hours before he mercilessly ripped them off before I could wake.
Disobedience had become the license to use violence in my household. The tacit compliance of my parents had made this thing so ‘okay’ that my brothers too could resort to it at will. Once my brother had a fight with his girlfriend and I wanted to get into the room to change my clothes after a bath. Somehow in my persistent knocking he saw disobedience, so when he opened the door he pulled my hair and gripped me by the small of my neck, then swung me till I hit my face on the door. I had done nothing, but, when I complained to my parents they told me what they always did - “You are the younger one, learn to compromise.”
I wasn’t young per say but naivety and age is not mutually exclusive. For the longest time I believed all this was for my own good, it was normal and it wasn’t something terribly wrong because this was my family. They couldn’t mean any harm. Sadness however, is something you cannot reason with. It was natural that I was sad and friends in school saw that. Soon I began sharing things with them and the shock and bewilderment on their faces for the first time made me realize that what I thought was normal, was really not that rampant in all families. In fact, I didn’t know a single friend who was going through what I was and the subconscious knowledge that these things that were happening to me were terrible. The pitiful eyes of my friends often made me abstain from sharing, because I was embarrassed.
Learning to fight back. Image source: thecurlychristian.files.wordpress
Questions I asked myself were similar to the ones most teenagers have, even if the circumstances weren’t. Questions like: Did I deserve this? Was I really that bad a child or sister? How was my family capable of inflicting so much physical and mental pain on me, when they were supposed to love me unconditionally? Should I be questioning my own character?
I was a child. I loved my family (and I still do) and I reasoned with myself - “No, they love you. You have done something wrong. Maybe they shouldn’t have hit you that hard! They should have just slapped me but they are family and it is time for me to show my unconditional love to them. They hit me but it’s okay. I need to understand why they did so. I need to forgive and I need to learn. My mistake!”
The thing is, I was going to one of the fanciest schools in my city, surrounded by girls who had an entirely different upbringing, meeting boys, drinking and all of this with their parent's knowledge. It was hard for me to continue being a ‘modestly-dressed’ law abiding girl when I was spending the majority of my day with such people. It was even harder because I had begun thinking for myself. I saw that even though the character assassination of women – who are not only free but are assertive of and unabashed in their freedom – was rampant, in reality, they weren’t really doing anything wrong.
Their grades were fine, teachers liked them, nobody at home hit them or called them out for doing any of these things and they were all, largely good people. And as it happens with teenage, I soon began to flutter my wings- albeit a little a clipped- inside my golden cage. I was beginning to want to break free and this feeling grew every day, gaining more gusto. In no time, I was your quintessential teenage rebel, but not one without a cause.
It wasn’t easy breaking free. It warranted many more sessions of being tied up like a rabid dog, or being punched like a sack of potatoes, or being abused, being called names that they themselves taught me were ‘bad’. I wasn’t just being judged, I was going through a lot of pain and it was hard coming out of it without any support within the house.
Then I met a guy. I fell so deep and hard in love with, that I wasn’t going to understand until it was over. This was the last straw. I needed to speak with him, see him, meet him, hold him and when my family came in the way of that, I went full out. I packed my bags and left for the first time, despite having considered it a hundred times because for once I had somewhere to go - his house.
Soon my parents became tired of fighting and the thought of me living in a boy’s house shook them so deeply they met me halfway. They gave me my freedom without taking away the roof over my head. I was so thrilled to be free and to have someone who supported me through it, my boyfriend - the first love of my chaotic life.
Months went by and as is with any relationship the honeymoon period was over. He had his own share of problems, struggling to finish school and come out of his addiction. What I didn’t know then, was that he was an angry person, an authoritative person who valued my freedom at home but not my freedom to do things he disliked or didn’t agree with. It was going to be another two and a half years till I realized I had entered another loop in the same story.
The first time my boyfriend hit me because I yelled at him, I did exactly what I did at home. I made excuses for him, I reasoned with myself. The second time he hit me, I told myself about the tenets of unconditional love - “love him irrespective of everything.” The third time he hit me after a year of mental abuse, I almost choked to death and lay unconscious for a few minutes until I woke up and saw him crying because he was worried he had gone too far. That was it. We were over, but it took me a long time to get there, to finally say no and it only happened when he had robbed me of all excuses.
What came next in my life was a long session of being drunk and violent. Often breaking things that weren’t mine, including hearts. And even if it wasn’t physical, I was being violent with my words to anyone who made me feel vulnerable and mostly without good reason.
For the longest time I told myself it was because I was “going through a bad phase” or because I was over-compensating for my experiences. Sometimes I even felt no remorse because at least I was standing up for myself. But it took me a little more time to understand that there is no justification for any kind of violence- mental, physical or verbal. Then why did I tolerate a guy I didn’t know a year back to throw me around? And why did I turn into a walking erupting volcano myself?
The thing is violence had become so familiar, so intrinsic to my surroundings, whether it was against me or perpetrated by me, it felt like home.
I am not telling you this story because I want you to feel sorry for me. I am telling you this story because it is important for every parent, every man, every brother, every boyfriend and every single girl to know that when you raise a child in an abusive environment, you normalize it for them and when you do that, then you cause them a lot more harm than they would have caused themselves if they came back home an hour late.
Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are independent views solely of the author(s) expressed in their private capacity and do not in any way represent or reflect the views of 101India.com.
By Zahra Sultan
Cover photo credit: cdn.newsapi.com