Like a familiar smell activates old memories, so can other visceral responses.
Nausea and pain are old enemies. The main difference is the nausea and pain I have today are a result of the disease and the drugs whereas the nausea and pain of my childhood were a consequence of a father who was an angry alcoholic. Fathers now seem so different from when I was a child. It’s not as though all fathers in the sixties and seventies were abusive. On the contrary, many of my friends had fathers who were very loving and involved in their lives. However, living in a British colony in Africa seemed to offer a protected environment for violent fathers at that time. There was a code of complicity among the ex-pats.
When I was about 13, the health department nurse played a surprise visit to our school. She was checking our smallpox vaccination scars on our arms. I claimed that I had no scar. I would not remove my sweater to show my torn shirt and bruises. She contacted my mother who supported the lie. We all kept the code of silence. It was not that my mother condoned the violence. She gave regular spankings but never left more than a red mark. When he would start to hit, she would sob and plead with him to stop. But when the anger took over and the alcohol made it burn too wildly, then he had to hit and hit until the anger burned out.
There is a scene in Mommy Dearest when the child is being hit with a coat hanger. I lived this scene with Daddy dearest and this scene in the movie is exaggerated. The coat hanger breaks much more quickly in real life.
Although I call the only parents I knew my mother and my father, they were not my biological parents. I was adopted when I was about three years old, along with my baby sister. I had been living in an orphanage after my biological mother abandoned us. My biological father could not raise two small children alone so we become wards of the state. We were adopted by relatives who became my parents. In exchange for a roof over my head and food on the table, I owed total gratitude. Implicit in the total gratitude was quiet acceptance.
The beatings were unpredictable which was why I often woke with a knot in my gut and why I dreaded weekends. I really would like to say that I defiantly stood up to him when he punched me in the face or hit me with whatever was handy. I did not. I cowered and wished him dead. The closest I came to defiance was when I planned to run away with the circus.
I was about 11 when the circus came to our sleepy village. They stayed a few weeks to make some repairs and my brother, sister and I would walk down to the fields where they camped. When they were ready to leave, I planned to leave with them. I was going to be a trapeze artist. My plan was foiled when my brother told my mother. She dealt with it by forbidding us to visit the circus folk again. When I think about this as an adult, I am sickened by the idea of a group of adults conspiring to help an 11 year old run away. I doubt a trapeze artist was their entire plan for me.
Looking back, I understand that this man only knew violence. His own childhood had been wretched and he never even graduated from high school. The beatings had been passed down for generations. He never hit my mother and I don’t think he realized that he had crossed the line from discipline to abuse. Even sober he never had a kind word for me. I’m not sure he even knew any.
I have had more opportunities. I have never raised my hand to another human being, and would never dream of hitting a child. At some point, we can break the chain of violence.