real life

Berated and beaten: At 66, Steve still lives with the scars of his cruel, abusive mother.

Warning: the following details instances of child abuse and may be triggering to some readers.

"Get on the ground!"

The thieves had already knocked the manager of the McDonald's unconscious when they turned towards the diners. One among the four thumped his baseball bat on a table in warning.

"Get on the ground!"

Diners scrambled under their tables, some screamed. But one, who we'll call Steve*, just sat there. Even as one of the thieves approached and wound up to strike him, he stayed put.

One blow came, then another, and another. 

He looked closely at the attacker's face, making observations that later proved critical to police catching the group. But there was no fear coursing through him, no urge to fight or flee; he felt little other than perturbed that they'd interrupted his lunch.

In between the strikes, a thought echoed in his head.

My mother used to hit harder than that.

***

Steve knows his reaction that day, some two decades ago now, was not exactly 'normal'. 

'Normal' is something he's been approximating his entire life.

As a survivor of childhood physical and emotional abuse, the 66-year-old father of two is still grappling with the effects of what he endured. For years, he'd hide it in professional and social settings; he'd pretend. But the numbness he felt that day in McDonald's roughly two decades ago, compelled him to better understand why.

Along with conducting countless hours of research, he's more recently become involved in moderating forums in which other survivors tentatively reach out to one another, looking for validation and a sense they are not alone in their ongoing struggles.

"We manage to cling to the hope that all will be okay one day," Steve said. "We enter the workforce, we partner up, and if that works, we try to have families. We try so hard to fit in. I can't emphasise that enough. We bury this stuff so deep, but the effects of it are there and they cannot be hidden forever."

"...But I love you."

There is no comprehensive data on the prevalence of child abuse in Australia, but the Australian Bureau of Statistics' 2016 Personal Safety Survey estimated that about 2.5 million Australian adults (13 per cent) experienced physical and/or sexual abuse during childhood.

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Steve's perpetrator was his mother.

Between the ages of 5 and 12, she made him strip naked and struck him with wooden canes across his backside and legs between 15-20 times a year.

The beatings were so brutal, his mind entered a dissociative state to protect itself from the trauma, almost disconnecting from what was happening. As a result, Steve can only clearly remember a handful of canings.

One of them, he was aged somewhere between nine and 11, and was struck more than 20 times for leaving a tissue in his pocket on wash day: "Afterwards I lay on the floor, tears flooding down my face, barely in control of my body, and I say what? 

"'But I love you.'"

Another involved his mother letting him choose between being beaten with a stiff cane or a flexible one: "I clearly remember debating their merits... At the time, I actually thought she was being nice."

He was repeatedly slapped across the face, too. So hard that it left him with nerve damage and breathing difficulties. 

Listen: The Quicky looks into the laws around smacking and the psychological effects on our children when we use corporal punishment. (Post continues below.)


Steve says his mother claimed to be seriously ill, and spent much of her time laying in and reading romance novels. She also told him he would never love her, and that he was lazy. 

He did everything to prove her wrong. In his final years of primary school, every morning before he left, he'd make his own lunch, vacuum and dust the entire house. In the afternoons, he'd do the shopping and water the garden. And on the weekends he mowed the lawns. 

Still, the beatings came for him and his big brother. 

No one intervened. Not even when his mother was institutionalised for three months when he was in Year 7, leaving the boys entirely on their own (their father — "a very nice, gentle man" — left when Steve was seven years old, and their maternal grandparents were elderly and unable to provide full-time care).

"Anyone looking at the kid with a safety pin holding up his pants, or the sick notes signed by his brother, should have known something was wrong," he said. "It was the 60s, and I think in those days they blamed children for these things."

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The legacy of abuse.

It wasn't until Steve was 33 that he truly realised what he'd been through. 

His mother lived with Munchausen syndrome, a disorder in which a person repeatedly acts as if they are sick in order to earn attention. And one Saturday evening, three decades ago, she was detained after becoming aggressive toward a sceptical hospital triage nurse.

She was sent to a psychiatric institution, where doctors confirmed Steve's fears. His childhood had been anything but normal.

Like many survivors, Steve found coping mechanisms for his trauma. 

He became addicted to exercise and, later to work ("I have clocked 30-hour shifts"), which he speculates may be a hangover of his mother's taunts about laziness. And from the age of 18 to 40, he drank excessive amounts of alcohol on weekends: "I was a very quiet introspective drunk, and after [drinking], I slept knowing I would not have any nightmares."

After years of avoiding his mother's gaze, he now struggles to maintain eye contact with new people. He doesn't embarrass easily. He feels empathy for stray dogs but struggles to see why people cry at funerals.

And until a decade ago, he would often walk around with loose or undone shoelaces.

"Looking back, I remembered: one day, when very young, I had tied my shoelaces too tightly for my mother to undo easily. Even at that very early age, I knew not to make my mother angry," he said. "Incredible how the mind and body work."

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As Blue Knot Foundation National Centre of Excellence for Complex Trauma notes, unresolved childhood trauma negatively impacts emotional and physical wellbeing in adulthood. 

Survivors can experience a range of issues including anxiety, depression, health problems, disconnection, isolation, confusion, being 'spaced out', and fear of intimacy and new experiences. "There is no 'one-size-fits-all’, but reduced quality of life is a constant," the foundation states.

In fact, according to 2015 estimates by the Federal Government's Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, if no one in Australia had ever experienced child abuse or childhood neglect, there would have been 26 per cent fewer suicide and self-inflicted injuries that year, plus 20 per cent fewer depressive disorders and 27 per cent fewer anxiety disorders.

Yet resources for survivors of at-home abuse are notoriously scarce and under-funded.

Steve's path.

Steve lives with post-traumatic stress disorder and has, in his words, "very poor social skills" and low emotional intelligence.

He learned to appear 'normal' by watching.

At 21, he would go to a local wine bar on Saturday nights and sit with a book for several hours, just observing.

"I would just watch people in the room," he said. "I would try to understand, try to reduce my own personal intensity, and just try to see how people interacted."

He then followed the 'normal' path. Career. Marriage. Children.

His wife is also a survivor ("It's extraordinary how often abused children partner up with other abused children," Steve said), and while their marriage hasn't been perfect, Steve credits his "amazing" wife with their longevity as a couple. 

He says he's worked extremely hard at his relationships with her and their children, and has never perpetuated the cycle of abuse. But he acknowledges his shortcomings.

He once broke a table in anger. And he was barely involved in his children's lives until one started playing sport during primary school.

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"I wasn't a parent; I was a coach," he said. "I could never get the warm, love thing. I was the one that, when the child was hurt, I would basically tell them to get back on the field... I really hope to get a second shot as a grandparent to learn from my mistakes. Because I'm always learning."

Steve's mother is still alive and living in an aged-care facility. He only visits once or twice a year, and last time she didn't recognise him.

In truth, he doesn't know who he is beneath the trauma she inflicted on him, what parts of him and his behaviours are innate and what are a product of what he went through.

He tried counselling, but prefers to engage with other survivors. He's been involved in online forums for more than seven years now, and draws on the resources of Blue Knot Foundation.

It's all shown him the capacity for healing, if you work at it. In his view, that means understanding and managing your coping mechanisms, seeking out resources and support, and engaging in a hobby or interest into which you can escape occasionally (say music, or fitness, or fandom).

"If you're not willing to really try to work to improve, it ain't gonna get any better," he said. "It's no good standing back and going, 'Life is unfair.' Life is unfair; that's a given. But you can make it a lot better. If you work at it, you can have a wonderful life. And I think you appreciate it much more, because of where you've come from."

And it's shown him he doesn't always have to pretend.

"Numerous people will come on to the forums and say, 'yeah, this is what happened,'" he said.

"And every time someone posts one of these stories, I look at parts and go, 'yep, that's my path.' It's that validation...

"You're not sick, you're not disturbed. Don't be ashamed of who you are. 

"You are a normal person who has lived an extremely abnormal life."

If you experienced abuse as a child, resources and support are available via Blue Knot Foundation. Visit the website or call 1300 657 380 between 9am–5pm AEDT to speak to a trauma counsellor.

*The subject of this article is known to Mamamia, but has chosen to remain anonymous.

Feature image: Getty.