Invincible: The 10 Lies You Learn Growing Up with Domestic Violence
FEARFUL TO CONFIDENT
There is no fear like the fear I have already faced and conquered. I recall that whenever I feel uncertain and from that place is where my confidence comes.
—Chelsea Waldroup, 17
For any child who grows up with domestic violence, fear dominates that young person’s view of the world—a worldview that is often carried forward into adulthood.
Whether it’s anxiety over meeting someone new, having a job interview, or facing a difficult challenge, fear stops us from doing what we want to do.
As psychiatrist Sonja Lyubomirsky explains, “In a home full of pain, quarreling, or coldness, children are chronically stressed and on guard.”1
Perhaps you hide, preferring to stay in the shadows or blend into the crowd. You may even act out, becoming aggressive to mask the fear you are feeling deep down inside.
Maybe you walk around with hunched shoulders, bent down in an unconscious attempt to withdraw into yourself, seeking a sense of security you never felt when you were young.
Many children of domestic violence, “prefer the certainty of misery rather than the misery of uncertainty,” says child trauma expert Bruce Perry.2
Whatever forms this lie takes, know that it comes from living with that visceral fear you experienced as a child. That feeling of terror, and the underlying childhood trauma behind it, feeds the lie that children of domestic violence believe: that deep down they are fearful.
But the truth is that, as someone who grew up living with domestic violence as a child, you are among the bravest—a member of a group of courageous people who have survived difficulties that most people will never face.
Brené Brown, research professor at the University of Houston Graduate College of Social Work, points out that the root word for “courage” is cor, which is Latin for “heart.” “In one of its earliest forms, the word courage had a very different definition than it does today. Courage originally meant to speak one’s mind by telling all one’s heart.”3 Instead of referring to the heroics we associate with courage today, this earlier definition is about being brave enough to own our stories and telling the truth about who we are. Or, to use another word, confidence.
To realize that truth for yourself, however, you must face your fears as they come and be confident in the knowledge that you have dealt with far worse. You can increase your awareness of the inner courage that has always guided you, whether you realized it or not.
GROWING UP WITH DOMESTIC VIOLENCE MEANT YOU GREW UP LIVING IN FEAR
As a child who lived with domestic violence, Olivia knows what it was like to fear for her survival, or the survival of a loved one. Her story begins with the transcript of a 911 call that opens the documentary that I produced, The Children Next Door:
911 Dispatch: 11/21/1990 22:13 San Diego, California
Dispatcher: What’s your standing emergency?
Olivia: [crying] My mommy and daddy are having a fight. [screaming in the background] . . . Stop it! . . . Don’t hurt the baby! . . . Could you just send the police please?
D: OK, we’re gonna be there. . . . Let me talk to your . . . where’s your mom?
D: What’s going on?
O: They’re having some fighting because this has been going on forever and ever. . . .
D: How’s he hurting her?
O: He made some red marks on Mommy’s neck.
D: Where did he make the red marks on her neck?
O: Momma, don’t . . . the police are coming. Mommy . . .
Two years, and at least a half dozen more 911 calls later, Olivia stepped off her school bus and let herself in to the house with the key that they kept beneath the potted cactus on the front steps. She found her mother lying unconscious on the kitchen floor with a large bruise on her forehead. Her stepfather was nowhere to be found. Olivia was quick enough to get help from the neighbors and call an ambulance, saving her mother’s life, but she never really recovered from the shock.
For weeks, Olivia refused to attend school or even part from her mother’s side. She followed her everywhere, even into the bathroom, and slept in the same bed. Olivia was seeing the world through a lens of fear and retreated from any hint of danger.
Scientists and pediatricians have long observed that overexposure to constant stress creates a state of hypervigilance in children, but recent studies have helped explain exactly why. As detailed by Harvard University’s Jack Shonkoff, the conditioning effects of fear and stress actually alter a child’s brain architecture. Chronic stress exposure puts the part of the brain that detects danger, the amygdala, on permanent alert. As a result, all incoming stimuli, whether a siren, the phone ringing, or a stranger’s arrival, are easily mistaken for a threat. Fear becomes the default response to everything.
As brain expert David Sousa explained to me in a recent interview:
This puts children at a terrible disadvantage. They’re constantly evaluating potential threats, so their brains get stuck in survival mode, without any time or energy left over to actually thrive. Instead of channeling their attention towards learning and building their advanced cognitive skills or social interactions, exercising that developing part of the brain called the neocortex, they prefer to withdraw. They carry this extra burden throughout the day; they have to know they’re safe in order to learn—but they can never really feel safe.
Even today, at twenty-nine years old and the mother of a son and daughter, Olivia still struggles with fear in all its manifestations. “Every aspect of life I’ve lived through the filter of pain and paranoia,” she says. “Something I acquired from being afraid all the time.”
It’s a common theme for many who’ve lived with domestic violence. As Rick Warren points out, “Regardless of the cause, fear-driven people often miss great opportunities because they are afraid to venture out.”4
I RESCUE YOU ONE NIGHT, YOU HURT ME THE NEXT
As is often the case for those who grew up living with domestic violence, no one on the outside could have guessed Olivia’s circumstance. Her family lived on a quiet, middle-class street in Rhode Island. A family snapshot shows seven-year-old Olivia, wearing pink sunglasses, and her younger sister, just three years old, playing in a small Little Mermaid wading pool on the driveway of their colonial house. It’s hard to reconcile that adorable smile with the call that was recorded by the local police a few weeks later.
“People are just terrified by that tape, but it was just one of many like it in childhood,” says Olivia. “It was my life, on a daily and weekly basis, and what’s been recorded is not even my worst childhood memory.”
Her mother was typical of many women who have babies when they are still just children themselves. Olivia never met her birth father and instead endured a series of men who cycled in and out of her mother’s life. Olivia was hit too but, as is often the case, it was the physical violence and verbal abuse against her mother that hurt her most.
As a child, Olivia’s role would alternate from savior—the supportive eldest child who comforted her mother after the latest outburst of violence from a boyfriend—to an inconvenient presence just two or three days later. The insanity of having to keep peace between these two adults “pretending not to see the elephant in the room” was like torture, Olivia confesses, but nothing was as painful as the fact that the woman who was supposed to be her protector “always picked him. That’s what haunts me most.”
After the police became involved in a few more incidents, Olivia spent part of her childhood at her grandmother’s house, dividing her time between that quiet suburban home with strict rules on behavior, and her mother’s apartment, which had become a kind of “urban ghetto gang environment” on the poor side of town.
This dual existence took its toll on Olivia’s education. Shy, withdrawn, and constantly on edge, she was bullied in elementary school, which is common for children like her. She didn’t play much with other kids her age. They often called her names, sensing as children do that she was different and vulnerable. She had so much trouble concentrating that her teachers became exasperated, wondering why she could not do the simplest work. When she got back to her grandparent’s home, there was even less sympathy.
The negative feedback was unrelenting. “As a kid, you just end up thinking the world is so horrible.”
She flunked eighth grade and “screwed around” so much her second time around that her teacher finally asked why she bothered to come to school. “Because,” Olivia replied, “my mom calls the police if I don’t leave the house.”
The teacher, anxious to move Olivia through the system, gave her some books and reports to write up and then passed her. Olivia was always bright and articulate; there were just certain roadblocks she couldn’t get past, and no one to help her at a time when it could have made all the difference.
High school was worse. The anxiety-ridden teen had many social phobias and was especially wary of boys. She begged to go to the same school as the rest of her friends, but Olivia’s mother refused, insisting it was in a bad neighborhood.
“I spent my teenage years on the streets during the day, then going back to a very violent home during the night.”
“Even when I was sixteen, I knew there’s no possible way to build a life when you don’t have a platform, an education, or a family,” Olivia recalls.
She never went back to high school; instead, like so many people who grew up under the shadow of domestic violence, she played out the cycle, reliving her worst fears and memories by moving in with a man whom she believed would take her away from the violence. He was no different from her mother’s abusive boyfriends, and yet Olivia stayed, even as the violence got worse.
She felt trapped because she was totally financially dependent on her boyfriend. But something inside her told her there had to be more.
“By the time I was nineteen, it felt like my friends were moving on and doing great things with their lives,” she explained, “but I just felt like the weight of my traumatized past was bearing down on me. I needed to be a part of something. I was tired of feeling like I had nothing.”
TAKE ACTION EVEN WHEN FEAR HOLDS YOU BACK
One day, she opened up to one of her few close friends. “I was telling her about that 911 call I made that saved my mom, and how I knew that someday, if I stayed with my boyfriend, this was going to happen to me,” Olivia recalls. “My friend said something like, ‘I could never have done what you did. To be six years old like that and call the ambulance and take your mother to the hospital and take care of her. You’ve got more guts than anyone I know.’” That casual observation gave Olivia an opening to look at herself differently. It was a moment when someone came into her life, and a simple act of sharing helped Olivia awaken to the truth: In spite of the fear she had showed not only a deep and abiding resiliency but also an incredible amount of courage for one so young. As Lyubomirsky points out, “Having a history of enduring devastating moments toughens us up and makes us better prepared to manage later challenges and traumas big and small.”5
“Hearing my friend’s words—that I was stronger than I realized—made me start thinking about what was really possible in my life, that deep inside I was courageous and confident,” said Olivia. “It actually changed my point of view on who I really was. It didn’t take away the fear, it didn’t take away any of the problems, Lord knows. But I saw myself differently. It’s like I became someone new at that moment.”
After a lifetime of hurt, it can take a while for awareness to lead to action. Often fear will stop us. Olivia discovered that she could address and deal with any fear that presented it to her as an adult because it paled by comparison to what she had already faced and overcome as a child.
By the time Olivia’s second child was born, she was determined not to follow in the footsteps of her own mother. She didn’t want her children growing up living with the violence she’d experienced as a child. And for the first time in her life, she asked for help.
She turned to a woman who’d reached out to her after hearing the 911 tape, which the police had released to help train officers and raise awareness about the effects on children who live with domestic violence. This woman had tracked Olivia down and helped her to get the resources she needed.
Olivia spent the next several months staying in shelters until she could get on her feet. The circumstances weren’t ideal, but by then she’d developed enough of a network that at least she had plenty of support and protection. Financially, it took her a while to get established, but there was no way she was going to put up with the violence she’d lived with for so long.
“I want to be around for my kids and give them a good life. I now know that I’ve got it in me to fight for that.”
CONFIDENCE GROWS WHEN YOU KNOW YOU’RE NOT ALONE
What required the most confidence for Olivia was asking others for help—the same confidence it took for her to call 911 when she was that frightened little girl. In the past she put walls up and was suspicious of everyone’s motives, fearing more hurt, disappointment, and rejection. But then her preparedness instinct kicked in.
Olivia’s greatest desire is to give herself and her children a safe home—a better life. By honing her survival instincts, a powerful by-product of living with fear for so many years, she got past her fear and found the confidence to get them out of a situation that could have destroyed this dream. However paralyzing fear can sometimes be, it can also give you the confidence to prepare and to clearly see the outcomes for your life that you most want.
Once she began opening up and sharing her story, Olivia received overwhelming support. She’s been raising her daughters, working various part-time jobs, taking classes at a community college, and working toward her GED. Olivia discovered she’s great at sales, communicates well, and has an aptitude for business, although she knows she has more work to do to reach her most important outcome of financial independence. It’s not been one single breakthrough so much as it’s been daily progress toward that which she most wants.
“In the past, I always felt broken in some way. I felt like I could go only so far before I’d be defeated by the onset of some memory, and I was always afraid. What I didn’t see was that the same strength that let me get through my childhood could help me overcome my fears. It was possible to beat my past before it could beat me.”
Olivia began to recognize that many of her actions and feelings such as her low-level anxiety, a slightly cynical, suspicious nature, a fear of failure, jumpiness, mood swings, avoidance of confrontation, even an inability to show affection without reservation—all of this was tied to the lie that she learned. That she is fearful. And while the lie of fear may affect everything we do, we put up a brave front. We keep that fearfulness well hidden, even to ourselves.
WHY DO I HESITATE? WHY AM I UNCERTAIN?
There are no visible scars on Payton. No one could imagine what she’s lived with most of her life. This stunning twenty-three-year-old Idaho native is literally a beauty queen. She walks tall and proud in front of thousands of people on the Miss America pageant circuit, sings, gives speeches, and throws herself into her work mentoring other young women and girls.
But the reality is that she has never felt truly safe. A sudden noise, an innocent hand gesture too close to her face, anything that even remotely echoes the violence of her past can cause her to flinch, and send her heart racing. She suffers all the classic symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), just like a military veteran who’s seen combat.
And that’s exactly what her childhood was: a combat zone. Payton’s mother, who had grown up with domestic violence herself, was only a teen when her daughter was born. Payton’s father left them by the time she was a year old. Her mother soon became pregnant by another man, and gave birth to a son. So by the time the man who would become her stepfather came along, when Payton was about two and a half, her mother didn’t believe she could do much better. And that’s when the violence started.
To the rest of the world, Payton’s childhood must have appeared like a comfortable, middle-class existence. They weren’t rich—her stepfather was a supervisor on a cattle ranch—but her mother could afford to stay at home and raise her kids. Outwardly, they were devout Christians, with a wide circle of like-minded family friends.
But behind closed doors, it was a starkly different picture. Anything could trigger the violence. Her earliest memories are of her mother screaming. “It got ugly really fast.” Her stepfather physically abused Payton and her brother, but it was the violence between him and her mother that made her the most fearful.
“When you’re little you don’t know, you’re just so scared,” she says. “I would always panic and didn’t know what to do, I was so uncertain.”
They had another child, and her mother continued to defend her husband to her children. Payton’s mother would put makeup on her daughter to hide the bruises when she went to school. When the bruises were too bad to hide, her parents would phone in and say she was sick. At the time, Payton didn’t even know it was wrong, because she had nothing else to compare it to.
As she got older, she became more aware of how the world works, and started asking questions, so her mother lied some more. “She used to say that if we ever told we’d be sent into foster care, we’d get separated, and I could be really hurt or molested,” Payton recalls, although she found it hard to imagine anything worse than the life she was already living.
As Payton got older and stronger, she started fighting back. Normally outgoing and social with friends, no one in her high school knew what was going on. But it reached the point at which she withdrew from people, cut classes, and her grades suffered. This triggered more violence at home because, “my stepfather expected all of us to be perfect.”
When Payton was sixteen things really escalated. One day, as her stepfather was being verbally abusive, she turned and walked away. As she headed up the stairs to her room, he grabbed her by the hair and started hitting her in the head.
Later that day, her head still throbbing, she decided to see a counselor at school, who immediately sent her to the hospital where they checked her out and admitted her for the night. It gave her time away to think about what she wanted most in her life. This moment in the hospital was a moment of peace and she was able to reflect on her future. “I was so tired of feeling this way, physically and emotionally,” she says, “I was sick of the pain, and the fact that I never had my mother’s protection.”
Payton figured that the best way out was to get into a college far away from home. She applied for scholarships and worked on her grades. Her instinct told her identifying an outcome, seeing it clearly, and taking steps to prepare for it to happen would get her what she most wanted.
She got accepted at a college in Arizona, and at first everything was going well. But even in this safe haven, all the fear and panic that she’d experienced as a child caught up with her. She was finally away from home, living in residence at college, but the safety of distance didn’t end her pain. Within her first semester at college, she began waking up every night in a cold sweat from nightmares.
She started chugging an over-the-counter sleep aid to help obliterate the dreams, but they kept coming back, triggering panic attacks. It was worse during the school holidays, when all the other students went home and she stayed in her dorm, avoiding family. Without the distraction of classes and the chatter of other people, there was nothing to keep those dark memories away. At one point in her profound exhaustion and constant state of panic, she attempted suicide.
“I know this wasn’t normally me and that something was going on here causing me to be like this, but I didn’t know who to talk to about it.”
In her second year at college, a school doctor told her she was depressed and prescribed an antidepressant and an anxiety medication to keep her sleeping through the night. The doctor never asked her about her past in an attempt to find the source of her emotional state. Masking the problem with drugs only made her feel worse.
The fear was always there, lurking under the surface. So she quit school, feeling hopeless about getting better. Over the next year, she tried a couple other therapeutic programs and pharmaceuticals until she was finally diagnosed with PTSD and was put on more medication to keep her anxiety under control.
• • •
With nowhere to go once she’d quit her studies, Payton moved in with her grandmother and things were OK. But the reprieve was only temporary. Her grandmother decided to buy a house together with her parents. And with no income and nowhere else to go, she was forced to live back under the same roof with the people she was trying to escape.
The moment she was back in her stepfather’s presence she reverted to her state of paralyzing fear. All he had to do was raise his voice to send her back to that place where she felt like a frightened little girl. Twice in one year the panic attacks became so acute she had to go to the emergency room.
THE KEYS TO CONFIDENCE
In the back of her mind, Payton had the notion that she might be attractive enough to participate in a beauty pageant. And she saw this as a possible way to get out. When she was researching how to get into a pageant, she met a woman who saw her potential and helped her prepare to compete. Sparked by her new friend’s confidence, she threw herself into the process. She worked on her singing, signed up for training in public speaking, and even took the lessons on how to walk and hold herself.
“I would get really irrational over small stuff,” she says, when she thinks about the effort it took. “I am a people pleaser, and when something was not going right or someone was upset with me, I automatically got nervous again. I always saw myself in a certain way. It was hard for me to accept the compliments. I couldn’t even look people in the eye. Even positive feedback scared me. I guess that I thought it could all be taken away so quickly.”
The pageant circuit took her out of town and out of state and away from her family, creating more circumstances that allowed her to heal. Instead of hiding out in hotel rooms crippled by fear, she ventured out and introduced herself to some of the other girls and slowly built up a confidence she never knew she had.
Payton, like so many who’ve grown up with domestic violence, had to get past the lie of fear. She made the decision to change her life and followed through with her plans about what to do at each step, so she was prepared for the obstacles that might have thrown her off course. Because she prepared herself, she was able to be bold. She came to believe in herself and know that it was within her to get what she wanted.
There is new evidence from Harvard that concludes that this preparation can come from simply using your body differently. Professor Amy Cuddy found that when people breathe deeply, lift their chest, move their shoulders back, and keep their head up that this “power pose” actually creates greater confidence and makes it easier to take a step forward when we feel afraid or tentative. Perhaps when a feeling of fear is triggered within us this is our first step, a step of preparation.
Payton used this technique, as for her, the pageant work wasn’t just about strutting on a stage. In fact, it led her to find a cause to support, which was part of qualifying for the pageant. She eventually became a very vocal advocate for children of domestic violence, speaking on their behalf at every opportunity, campaigning to give them a voice, and building one-on-one relationships with young girls in shelters who come from these homes.
“I finally saw that it was all connected. A lot of people were in the situations they were in because they grew up living with domestic violence. I wanted to let them know that what they experienced in their past doesn’t have to be their future. I was able to clearly see that everything I went through has prepared me for my true calling in life.”
Payton had made mistakes, giving in to despair, giving up on herself. She almost let fear crush her dreams and end her life, yet even her doctors couldn’t figure out the connection to her past. But she made that leap for herself once she was aware and had the understanding, accepting that the past and present are linked, and now she uses that awareness to help others.
Payton doesn’t let her fear stop her. She’s no longer afraid to hope and to believe in others. She has the confidence to confide in people and accept their help. She’s built up a tight-knit circle of friends at her church who she knows are there for her whenever she needs support. And she met a patient and kind young man who makes her feel secure and who is now her fiancé.
THE FEELING OF FEAR IS OFTEN A SIGN—TO PREPARE
Payton’s blossoming into a beauty queen and becoming an advocate for children of domestic violence took a confidence that came to her only after she recognized her own courage. Once Olivia shared with another she was able to see the confidence she always had inside through the eyes of another. Awareness, sharing, and preparedness helped these young women tap their vast inner reserves of strength, so that they could begin to live their lives on their own terms. Their stories reflect a famous maxim from Mark Twain, which defines the truth for all children of domestic violence: “Courage is resistance to fear, mastery of fear, not absence of fear.”
Whatever form it takes, fear is that thing that stops you from doing what you desire most, whether it’s telling him you love him, believing in yourself, or going on the interview. But it doesn’t have to. When you feel fearful it is a reminder that you have to prepare and make real the outcomes that are most important. This preparation and visualization allows us to enjoy these desired outcomes ahead of time and provides us with the confidence to act as such, leading us right where we were destined to be.
Further, for you, preparation is natural. When you were a child, you had to think ahead. You watched for the signs and read every subtle cue for the next episode of violence, the next hurtful word, and then you thought through your next move. Planning and preparation is what pulled you through. The more you prepare, the more confident you can become. Growing up, you never got to feel that natural confidence that is in you, because the fear was so real. It was a constant. In your mind, you did prepare, but it didn’t stop anything. It didn’t work. That’s how I felt, well into adulthood. I’d always identified myself as fearful, even cowardly, because I was never able to stop Keith. I was embarrassed that I could allow the violence to happen. I kept asking myself when I was a boy, “How can you allow someone to hurt the woman you love most in life, your mother, the person who created you?” It defies all laws of masculinity; it emasculates a boy before he ever has a chance to become a man. And that lie was the deep, dark secret I’d clung to since childhood, until a random conversation with a stranger on a plane.
It was a flight from L.A., and for some reason I struck up a conversation and let my guard down. The conversation flowed, and he asked some good questions, one of which was, “Who do you admire most?”
I told him that I admire those who are strong and confident and courageous. When he asked me why, I froze. It was my greatest fear. But instead of doing what I would usually do—look down and change the subject—I said, “Because if I was confident, what happened in my home when I was a child wouldn’t have happened.” Then the next step was easier as I told him the truth, which I had never shared before: “It was because I was not strong, that I lacked courage,” I noted, while explaining how I grew up. He looked increasingly shocked as I went on. I thought he was shocked about the story, further solidifying the point in my mind, “How could you not have stopped it?,” but he wasn’t. He was shocked that I believed what I believed about myself.
“Wow, I don’t see it that way,” he said. “I couldn’t imagine my kids experiencing that for even one night. I can’t imagine experiencing that as an adult! But you, you lived through it, you are here. You are courageous. You were scared but came through it anyway. No other fear could compare.”
As he said that my eyes welled up. I didn’t cry exactly, it was just the type of tear that comes over you on occasion, so that when you blink it washes your eyes and makes everything very clear a moment later.
From the Lie to the Truth
You are fearful. You lack confidence and courage because you were unable to stop the violence you grew up with. You will always be afraid of rejection because you were in some way rejected by those who created you. It’s safer to bend down and fit in. You are destined go through life allowing fear and anxiety to hold you back, to stop you from realizing your goals and dreams.
The conditioning effects of living with fear alter a child’s brain architecture. Exposure to chronic stress puts the part of the brain that detects danger on high alert. Fear becomes the default response to everything. You naturally focus on all the bad things that could happen and that thought process stops you from taking action.
I am confident. There is a natural confidence and certainty that was conditioned in me from a very early age.
There is no fear that I could potentially face this day that will compare to the fears that I have already faced and overcome.
I recall this simple fact when facing a fear that holds me back from taking action toward my full potential. I am confident. There is nothing that can be thrown at me that I can’t handle.
1. Review your answers to the questions in the “To Try” exercise in Chapter 8.
2. Choose three of the desired outcomes from that list that you want to make progress on in the next three months.
3. Write down three action steps for each outcome that you can take this week, something straightforward for you to do. Something that will build momentum.
4. Write these three outcomes somewhere where you can access them each day.
5. Take three minutes or so each day to say the outcomes aloud and after you do, see them in your mind as if they had already happened. For example, close your eyes and imagine a TV screen in front of you that shows you realizing and living that desired outcome. Think of it as a thirty-second commercial. Let the commercial for each outcome loop a couple of times.
6. Schedule time this week to take the action steps you wrote down.
7. When you know you need to act, but something is holding you back, adopt a power pose and take the first step with confidence.