Is Silence Golden In Abuse?
In the quiet of the sleepy morning, I find myself, as I often do, on the bottom of the stairs in my home, cuddling my two kids, who are triggering and on high alert. I often am too, in the mornings. The three of us are afraid a lot at that time of day.
My son whispers to me, “Mom, everyone seems upset today.” My daughter’s eyes keep darting around the room, focusing on her step-dad, who is sleepily making their lunches for school. I know what she was doing. Assessing the situation. Everyone stays quiet.
Is he mad? Is he going to yell or be ok today?
My new husband has had to see the three of us like this many mornings. He has lovingly learned to be really gentle and communicate with us, so that there can be fewer presumptions, fewer triggers for us. But they still happen. Just the mere fact that it is morning, aka danger time, is all it takes to trigger one or all of us.
My current husband is a good man, a kind man. So what was it that triggered us today? Silence. It was just the silence. It was silence that wouldn’t reveal if we were safe or not.
I’m no longer technically in the abuse. But thanks to the not-so-judicious judicial system that does not recognize covert aggression as abuse, my kids still have half their time with our abuser. So I guess really, I am still in it too. I am a little farther removed now from the direct assaults, but this is still a very, very raw reality for my kids and so it is still, for me too.
I think they figure that men are all like this. They are still taking awkward baby steps in learning to trust their step-dad and to understand that he is not the same as their bio-dad. Often, so am I.
They never know when their bio-dad will wake up happy or angry. Will they get hugs, a cold silence or yelled at today? That’s anybody’s guess from day to day. Those are the egg shells they walk on.
When you live under a situation like that, you learn ways to cope. Most of them are maladaptive, but they help you to survive, so you do them anyway. Sometimes you do things you are ashamed of, because surviving is more important in that moment, than doing what you know is right.
Hypervigilance means to be keenly watchful of danger. That is probably a victim’s main mode of survival. If you know what is coming, you can sometimes soften the blow, or even (rarely) manage to avoid it. My daughter assessing the room is a perfect example of this technique. The problem is, it doesn’t just turn off, like a faucet when you want the water to stop. Your system gets so used to this constant state of over-awareness, and you can’t stop, even when you are safe.
Lying or omission of truth because the truth will get you seriously hurt. I’ve done it, and my kids have done it and still do it. I am just now learning that it’s safe to tell the truth again. I won’t get beat up for it any more. There will be no more laundry lists of faults, created to rip me to shreds any time I risk admitting I have messed up, or even just telling the truth about what I have done with my day. I won’t be criticized, berated or belittled for spending five dollars over the grocery limit for the week any more. I don’t have to pretend to enjoy him dominating and using my body any more. That’s over. I am safe to be honest again. But I often feel afraid and still have to fight to do so. So do my kids.
My husband and I still often have to weigh what we tell the kid’s bio-dad. Will this information be used to hurt them? Will this information give him ammunition to throw at them the next time they make him mad? Sometimes, we still have to choose omission, just to keep them safe, and I don’t think that’s wrong in these circumstances.
Sometimes tactics designed to actually bring on the abuse are used in the tension building phase, to draw out the abuse and just get it over with. Picking fights is a good example that both my kids use and I have at times, as well. The tension building phase can be so hard to handle, because you know what is coming, and at times, it’s much easier to just get it over with, instead of waiting until the moment your abuser decides to strike. At least then you know when it will happen and how. It gives you the illusion of having a small piece of control in the situation. It speeds up the cycle.
Withdrawal is another common one in my house. We all do it. When I feel attacked, this is my most common go-to. I withdraw into myself, or sometimes outside of myself, via disassociation, because I think that I will be safe if I just hide away somewhere long enough to get through the perceived danger. It has become an automatic response for me, and one I have had and still have a very hard time letting go of. My son hides in books. My daughter disengages and ignores everyone around her.
It is a long and often confusing road to healing we travel. Three scared abuse survivors and a very loving and patient husband and step-dad. We are getting there, and maybe one day, even in the face of silence and unknown, my kids will be running down those stairs, chattering away the morning, free of fear. For now in our every day, there are cuddles and lots reassurances that no one is angry and no one will be hurt today.