You don’t know this but I still have nightmares about you. Whisked back unwillingly to a time when I was small and you were big and strong and powerful. I wake up bathed in a cold sweat, relieved at finding myself in my own bed in my own house. The man who changed everything lying by my side. Kids sleeping soundly, my daughter snuggled next to me with her nose in my armpit. I look at them and know that they are safe.
The dreams are not the worst of what happened. They are not dramatic – no blood or broken bones, but rather a reminder of the constant state of fear in which I lived. A fear that surrounded me so completely that I often failed to notice its existence. It was the scenery of my childhood, so all pervasive that I couldn’t see it until I left home and the landscape changed. When I moved into my new home with my future husband, I swore that I would leave the fear behind and we created a life together built on a promise of safety. A promise made and kept by a man who means what he says.
When I had my own kids, I promised them that they would never have to face feeling scared in their own home either. A basic tenet of parenting that most would take for granted, but not I. As I watch them grow, dragging me along on the magical journey of their childhoods, I find myself increasingly puzzled by your behaviour. The love I feel for them is immeasurable, the idea of hurting them anathema.
You on the other hand, would make me cry with your cruel taunts, telling me that if I didn’t stop you’d give me something to cry for. If I was lucky you’d soften and tell me that it was all for my own good and that you were toughening me up for the ‘real world’. If only I had known then that you were the biggest challenge I would ever have to face. Nothing out here in the real world has the power to hurt me as much as you did. If I was unlucky I would be given the choice of the belt or the slipper and then sent to my room for some imagined wrong. I would climb into my wardrobe and hide at the back behind the clothes. Sobbing quietly. Wishing I could close my eyes and disappear.
If we’d had you first we would never have had any other children you’d joke. Take a long walk off a short cliff. Go and play with the traffic or I’ll rip your arms off and hit you with the soggy ends. How you would laugh at your own wit. Always the joker, until I grew older and developed my own sharp tongue with which to retaliate. I soon learnt that things weren’t so funny then.
Your plan worked and I grew tough. I developed a hard and spiky shell and didn’t let anyone in. Years of emotional abuse meant that I blamed myself for your violence and thought myself worthless and unlovable. My defences began to feel like a cage and I struggled to be myself or express who I truly knew I was. When I met new people I would assume that they would automatically dislike me and that I would have to work to earn their approval. I couldn’t possibly let anyone realise this so I cultivated an air of bravado and pretended I didn’t give a shit. To my surprise, this worked. People thought I was strong and brave and even intimidating. I knew I was soft and warm but it was my secret. This was the real world after all.
I now know that the way you help kids to face the real world out there is to help them become the best versions of themselves they can be. You don’t achieve this by trying to rip them apart and build them in your own image but rather you nurture them and love them and make them feel like the most special person on the planet. This was your job and you failed miserably.
It is for these reasons that I feel I will have to respectfully decline the invitation to your 70th party, arriving so unceremoniously in the post last week. I can’t quite bring myself to tell you that I never want to see you again, but I know this is in part because I have been raised to put the needs of others before my own. Selfishly I worry that you might die and then I will regret these lost years when it is too late. This wasn’t an easy letter to write and I already know that I will never send it. Each time I break the silence on your abuse however, I feel as if I gain a little bit more power and the shame of the survivor lifts. For this I am truly grateful.