Invincible: The 10 Lies You Learn Growing Up with Domestic Violence



Because of what they experienced, they can reach a plane that few humans can reach.

—Cloé Madanes, world-renowned innovator and teacher of family and strategic therapy

Born in the 1960s in rural Virginia to a third generation of Irish immigrant coal miners, Annabelle grew up living with domestic violence. Both parents came from a generations-long cycle of alcohol-fueled domestic violence. Most of her family eked out their livings in the coal mines, driving coal and garbage trucks, relieving the poverty with hard liquor every day after work.

Annabelle’s father grew up living with domestic violence. Her mother’s immediate family of seven siblings (three out of ten had died) lived in a house with no indoor plumbing, so marrying Annabelle’s father, a man with a job and the first person who showed an interest, was considered a step up—and a chance to get out of the house.

Annabelle was the eldest surviving child, and the brunt of her parents’ anger, frustration, and disappointment. “I caught hell all the time,” she recounts, “just for looking at the wrong way.”

“I was never allowed to speak and was often told, ‘You have nothing to say; you are stupid, dumb, ignorant, ugly, fat . . .’” She wasn’t even allowed to sit at the dinner table with the rest of the family.

Her only joy came from playing the organ at church—brief escapes into music that gave her a sense of hope. Annabelle also caught glimpses of what life was like for other people—school friends whose homes were always welcoming, where parents told their children they loved them and everyone sat down at the table together and shared stories about their day. It made her question her own home life, which, “didn’t go over too well.”

Instead, her parents drummed home a much darker worldview.

“We were always taught in our house to keep running, that life is dog-eat-dog and no one gives a shit about you, so don’t you dare care about them,” Annabelle recalls. “Our parents believed that you were not a success until you were high on a throne, and nothing else mattered.”

Annabelle came to believe the lies that it was a hard, cold world where no one could be trusted, love wasn’t for her, and she didn’t deserve to be happy. But taking her parents’ words to heart, she threw herself into her school studies, so that she could make the grades that would get her into a good school to study a profession that would afford her a means to escape.

“I just wanted to keep going, to survive as best I could.”

She eventually made it into a college in Savannah, Georgia. But even then, when she told her father that she was going to study to be a dental hygienist his response was, “Go pick dirt off of people’s teeth, because that’s all you’re good for.”

By then, the hope inside that little girl who sang and played the organ in church had been extinguished. Her situation at home had ground her down, and Annabelle was just going through the motions. She was just about to begin her adult life believing it was all hopeless.

Growing up in a violent home is not simply an emotional and physical ordeal—watching our loved ones regularly hurt each other is spiritual torment. Feeling the neglect and rejection of the very people who gave us life is worse than a physical blow. How can we make any sense of so much pain and confusion? How do we give our lives meaning when they’re filled with so much suffering?

“Dwelling on negative thoughts and feelings gives rise to a host of unpleasant consequences,” explains psychologist Sonja Lyubomirsky. “Those of us who ruminate, self-focus, and worry are relatively more likely to prolong our stress, to feel pessimistic and out of control, to view ourselves disapprovingly, to lack motivation, have trouble concentrating, and are more likely to get stuck while solving our problems.”

This sense of futility and overwhelming despair leaves us feeling like we’re in a hole so deep we’ll never get out. It is called hopelessness.


Annabelle spent the next few decades of her life on a treadmill, living by her parents’ creed to just “keep running.” Life became all about those external markers for success—career, marriage, kids, house, money. She got her first degree, qualified as a dental hygienist, and married the son of a wealthy Southern family. Her parents were impressed; she was climbing onto the throne.

But her husband turned out to be a drinker, a liar, and a womanizer who could never hold down a job. For nine years she supported him financially and tried to make the marriage work for the sake of their two sons. On some level, she turned into her mother, initiating fights and being verbally abusive to her husband out of anger and frustration.

When they divorced, her parents couldn’t understand. “It must have been you,” they told her. Annabelle had moved back in with them temporarily, to get help with the child care while she figured out her next move. But things in their household hadn’t changed. If anything, they’d gotten worse. Her father drank heavily, and both parents berated her in front of her children. On one occasion, when Annabelle was heading out to work and called to her kids, “I love you,” her father whipped them around and told them, “You don’t ever have to listen to that crap again. And you never have to say that to your mother.” But the final straw was when her mother started encouraging Annabelle’s sons to call her “Mom” instead of “Grandma.”

“I hooked up with the first single guy I could find and got out of there,” she says.

The second marriage wasn’t violent. He stayed home, looked after the kids. For Annabelle, it wasn’t great, but it was good enough. She wanted to have more kids, in particular a daughter whom she could raise and love in the way she’d always wanted to be loved, and he gave her that much.

After another nine years, Annabelle tired of having to financially support and care for another man in addition to her four children. On top of everything else, she was working to pay her way through medical school, studying to become a naturopathic physician.

“I did the heavy lifting my whole life and I would have loved to have found someone to take care of me for a change.”


Instead of waiting for Prince Charming, however, Annabelle started taking care of herself. She got her qualifications, set herself up in a successful practice. She moved to the Midwest, a brand-new market for naturopathy, and set up a thriving practice that charged $350 an hour for her services. She’d established herself enough to become financially successful, with a nice house, four bright, happy kids who loved her, and the respect of her community.

Then a tornado hit the town. Annabelle lost everything—and that sense of hopelessness and despair returned. All the things she believed made up her worth as a human being had been swept away in the wind. Her entire life, she’d lived for acceptance, wanting nothing more than to prove herself and be welcomed by others. She’d talked too much and tried too hard, effectively trying to win over the people she never could—her parents.

But at her lowest point, when all the symbols of her material success were taken away, she finally understood that none of it mattered. Those things were not who she was; they did not define her, because she was much, much more. She realized that she had a deeper purpose. That she was guided toward something more meaningful.

“It took me losing everything to realize I didn’t need to be or do all of those things I thought I needed to do. It was all just stuff, and it wasn’t working for me anyway.”

Annabelle gradually started re-creating herself. “I didn’t know who I was anymore.” Over the next few years, she reassessed what did and did not work for her; unlearning the things her parents had taught her to believe were the truth.

She simplified her life and moved back to Savannah, the place that had given her a sense of serenity. And today, in her middle years, Annabelle finally understands that her chosen path is about much more than a desire to earn status in her community and have nice things. She now realizes her own value and knows that she’s been guided to this point in her life for a higher purpose.

“I am not just a wife, a doctor, a mother, or any of those things. I am a grand soul brought here for a reason—to help others heal.”

But Annabelle, whose faith has expanded beyond the strict Catholicism of her childhood, doesn’t try to “fix people.” She offers love and compassion, to be there for other people, “the way I would have liked people to [have been] there for me.” When she sees patients, instead of just prescribing a pill or herb, she looks at their whole life, trying to understand their emotional state and what they need for a greater sense of well-being, combining her faith and humanity along with the science she learned over fourteen years of professional study.

Annabelle’s was a long journey, but each experience taught her something and guided her along the path she was meant to travel. She opened herself up to the guidance of others who already experienced what she experienced. She believed that she was guided by something bigger, by the God that she cried out to as a little girl playing the organ. Although her faith had been dimmed over a lifetime of hurt, lies, and disappointment, it was always in her. Contained in her hopelessness were the seeds of hope and faith—her secret weapons—and a determination to find something beyond the domestic violence she lived with as a child.


Hopelessness is a lie that children of domestic violence naturally come to. When we can’t control the pain and suffering around us, our expectations are reduced to simply getting through another day. We lose any baseline faith that we live in a fair and predictable world, where there’s a chance for a hopeful future.

The lie of hopelessness is further reinforced when we discover how poorly equipped our society is to protect us. For many children, the problem may be so hidden that neither the police, nor the schools, nor social services, nor even the extended family may be able to help. No one ever talks about it. These children then grow into adults feeling that they are truly alone and unprotected in the world.

Under these kinds of circumstances, children fall into a psychological condition called “learned helplessness.” Research has shown that the prolonged and repeated exposure to unpredictable and uncontrollable stress conditions will eventually train the mind to relinquish any feeling of control. When we’re taught over and over that we can’t affect the outcome of a painful experience, our minds expand the lesson to our whole lives—even long after the stress has disappeared. A sense of loss envelopes us, as “giving up” becomes our standard mode of living.

Children growing up under these conditions must contend with a loss of meaning in their lives. In order for people who grew up living with domestic violence to restore a sense of meaning in their lives and feel like they are part of something bigger than themselves, they must reconstruct the story of their life in a way that offers some sense of hope and control. They must find a way to transform their pain into their purpose.

Often that means confiding in someone or finding a role model—someone who has been in a similar situation and has succeeded in spite of their suffering early in life. Viktor Frankl, the psychologist who wrote the international bestseller Man’s Search for Meaning, said it best: “In some ways suffering ceases to be suffering at the moment it finds a meaning.”1


Believing in one’s own progress is important for anyone who grew up living with domestic violence. Because many of the lies that we’ve been taught are interrelated, each step forward opens up new opportunities to discover new truths. As we start to feel a greater sense of confidence in ourselves and place more trust in the people around us, we can begin to better understand our place in the world. We can place more faith in our own future, and believe—perhaps for the first time—that our life has purpose and meaning.

That’s certainly how I felt. I was stuck in a state of despair. I didn’t see the possibility of anything beyond the life of survival I was leading, much less a higher power that could guide me toward something greater or give me a sense of a higher purpose.

I carried around this feeling of hopelessness—nothing I did would ever make a difference; that my life was going nowhere.

I couldn’t see the real truth because I didn’t have enough perspective. I didn’t realize that my own courage was carrying me through, and that I would eventually arrive at a place in my life where I could feel safe and be able to help others and feel with absolute certainty that my life has meaning and purpose.

It didn’t help that I’d struggled in school. From first through fourth grade, without fail, each year, one of my teachers would say to me, “Brian, you just aren’t that good at [fill in the blank].” You name it: math, science, penmanship, reading, and so on. In their eyes, I wasn’t measuring up in any of the standard academic subjects.

When they asked me why I wasn’t paying attention, I chose not to reply with the truth, that I was too preoccupied with fears about what the night would bring. When they asked me why I didn’t do my homework, I didn’t bother to explain to them that I didn’t understand it because I wasn’t paying attention, and there was no one at home to help me. When they asked me why I was fighting with the other kids, I didn’t admit that I thought I was being threatened, even though as I look back now I see it wasn’t true. When they wanted to know why I never asked for help, I didn’t tell them that I was ashamed to admit that I was letting my mother get hurt and I wasn’t courageous enough to kill the man who was doing it. I didn’t say there is something inherently wrong with me.

So I was told that I just wasn’t that smart. And of course the brain, doing its job, finds evidence to confirm what you believe or what you are told to believe. After all, my own grades proved it. I got by on Cs and Ds. It was a foregone conclusion that I was stupid, so I’d stopped trying. Why bother? I’d already been written off as a hopeless case, and that was the lie I’d clung to for years.


This is a common story for those who grew up living with domestic violence. They are not able to reach their full potential in school when they are young because they are focused on threats in the classroom, in the same way that they are focused on them at home. They can’t concentrate. They worry about what others think. They grow up thinking they’re not as smart as others, for reasons that have nothing to do with intelligence. I eventually decided that I did not want to end up in jail, so I applied to county college. The good news about county college is that they will take you no matter how bad your grades are. But this time it counted. I had to get good grades or I wouldn’t get the interview that would get me the job that would get me the money that would give me the security I wanted so we could finally be safe and I could be important and loved.

So I started researching how to study and came upon work by Howard Gardner, a developmental psychologist and professor of education at Harvard University. In his groundbreaking book Frames of the Mind: The Theory of Multiple Intelligences, which is a critique of a notion that there is a single intelligence we are born with that can’t be changed, one line in particular struck me: “The score on an intelligence test does predict one’s ability to handle school subjects, though it foretells little of success later in life.”2 Gardner went on to describe how we have eight intelligences, but we are measured for only two of them in school. There are people who are naturally brilliant at music and art. Some have a gift for dealing with people. Others have an extraordinary eye for detail. But the mechanism for measuring these other intelligences through our education system is nonexistent. From the first moment I read that passage, my brain began to unlearn the lie that I was simply not intelligent.

Suddenly, I could see that there was more for me than a life of petty crime and disappointment. I had something—a special skill, a possibility to achieve and the means to achieve it. My whole life up until that moment, I never would have guessed that I was intelligent simply because school defined my definition. Being in a state of hopelessness, it was safer to expect the worst, and that was my natural reflex. But that is a lie. The fact is that our gifts and talents often lie hidden, in unexpected areas. And often, our purpose in life can be as surprising as our real abilities.

When we’re young, and coming through the pain of living with domestic violence, our lives feel like they’re in tatters, and the truth that we are destined for something greater can be hard to see. It’s all too easy to feel that loss of faith.


When I met Chelsea Waldroup, she was a lovely young teenager who had found herself in the newspaper headlines. After a long history of domestic violence, her father attacked her mother and murdered her mother’s friend. He got thirty-two years with no possibility of parole. It was the end of the violence in Chelsea’s family, but the beginning of a long road of healing for Chelsea, her mother, and her siblings.

Raised in the quiet, rural town of Benton, Tennessee, just above the Georgia border, Chelsea speaks in a polite and self-assured voice. She seems to be a typical teenager, with her long, brown hair streaked a punkish, bleach blond, and hazel eyes that nervously sweep the floor when she searches for words to describe her feelings. But that sad smile gives her away, a little weak and turned in at the corners, because she’s already seen far too much for her age.

Both of Chelsea’s parents, Brad and Penny, were children of domestic violence repeating what they had learned. Although he never laid a hand on his kids, Chelsea witnessed years of her father’s violence against her mother, culminating in that fateful night when her father held the whole family hostage at gunpoint. Until then, their experience of violence in the home was “a part of life,” Chelsea explains. “When you’re raised this way, you think it’s normal.”

Chelsea’s parents were separated at the time of the incident. About a week before, Chelsea had told her dad that her mother had planned to file for divorce. He told her he’d “take care of it.” Chelsea had no idea what that meant at that time, but she later blamed herself.

That fateful day in 2006, her mother, Penny, had gone to Brad’s home to drop off Chelsea and the other children. She took her best friend, Leslie, with her because she was afraid to go to that isolated spot alone. She’d even left word with a neighbor to contact the police if she didn’t get back by a certain time. After unloading the kids’ luggage and a few groceries, Penny and Leslie headed back to the van. Brad told the kids to go inside, and followed Penny to her vehicle, telling her he wanted to discuss their marital problems, but when she refused, Brad’s anger quickly turned to murderous rage.

First, he accused Leslie of meddling and then shot her in the back. She died almost immediately. Hearing the gunfire, Chelsea and her younger siblings ran out of the trailer to see what was going on. What they witnessed was a brutal fight between their parents that dragged on for hours and ended with Penny losing consciousness from so much blood loss. The violence only ended when the police and ambulance came in response to the neighbor’s 911 call.

Penny’s physical and emotional injuries made it impossible for her to stay at her job, and she was out of work for the next twenty-two weeks, forcing her to declare bankruptcy. Unable to cope as she tried to heal, Penny often had to send the kids to stay with friends or relatives.

All the attention, the ensuing difficulties at school, the emotional trauma of constantly reliving that night were all too much for Chelsea, who was just ten years old when the murder happened. In spite of everything, she loved her father. He had been her role model, the one who motivated her to do well in school. And there were many times that she blamed her mother for provoking her father, and for starting all the arguments that led to the violence.

During the trial, Chelsea testified on his behalf, describing herself a “daddy’s girl.” She was clearly angry at Penny, declaring that her mother had been away from the home a lot and didn’t seem to have time for them. “I took his side,” Chelsea later explained. Chelsea was in shock for the first few years after her father’s arrest and in denial about just how bad it really was. Throughout most of her early teens, she was confused and blamed her mother. She put her guard up, keeping school friends at a distance and withdrawing into herself at home. She didn’t fully comprehend what had happened until six years later, in January 2012, when the family was invited to appear on Dr. Phil. Hearing the intimate details of her life talked about like that on national television brought it all home to her.

“I was like, whoa! That’s my life. It kind of got slapped in my face.”

That was when I met Chelsea. I’d appeared on the same show, and we decided to feature Chelsea and her family in a documentary that we were set to produce. Afterward, I invited the family to my home in New Jersey, and I could see how Chelsea was struggling. There was strength in her, a spark, but in the weeks after the show I could see the transition from numbness to anger and despair. Hit by a tidal wave of emotions she’d been holding back all those years, Chelsea went into a depression, driven by the fact that she’d asked to visit her father in prison and he refused to see her. For Chelsea, the anguish, conflict, shame, and trauma added up to proof that her life was hopeless. “I know I am not going to be successful,” she wrote to me a few months after she appeared on the show. “Experience has shown me time after time that wonderful things don’t happen to people like me.”


Chelsea’s own turning point, and her discovery of the truth, came as she began to find peers and role models who experienced a very similar upbringing and had managed to achieve success in their lives. This created in her a belief that it was possible, which gave her the faith to persevere when facing obstacles or dealing with temporary failure. She felt that she was being guided by their experiences. For Chelsea, it was a particularly important connection, because it allowed her to feel understood, and more important, it allowed her to see that there were people in this world who had turned their own lives around. Not only did she feel inspired by their experiences but motivated by discovering a purpose for herself.

She found a meaningful purpose for her life—to raise awareness for children who are living or have lived with domestic violence, and it starts at home, with her own siblings. She became fiercely protective of her three younger siblings, and she now considers it her personal responsibility to take care of and teach them: “Family is all we have,” she says, “and I want all of us to grow up with more than what we learned as kids.”

This purpose extends to her community and beyond. It’s a deep sense of her life’s mission and the one thing she believes will stay with her no matter what career path she decides to take. Of course, you don’t need to decide a purpose for your life that is forever. Your life will evolve. But you must decide on what is your purpose for now, your life’s purpose today. Giving back will likely always be part of who she is, but her purpose for now is to ace her senior year of high school and earn scholarships to fund the next phase of her education. A path that she is clearly on.

Meanwhile, she’s relishing her role and discovering many hidden talents as both a counselor and public speaker. As she is now in her senior year of high school she’s become something of a celebrity in the town where she lives, and friends and acquaintances often remark on how mature she is for her age.

“I’m not your average teen,” she admits. “I’ve been through more than most adults.”

Because her story is so publicly known and because she has volunteered to help children of domestic violence around the country, random people of all ages approach her and seek her advice.

“People feel comfortable talking to me, so I get asked for advice by teenagers and adults coming from violent homes. They say, ‘Oh my god, this kid knows a lot!’”

Chelsea is so poised, so eloquent, that she can stand up in a room of 500 people, share her story, and captivate her audience. “I love to talk, to communicate with others and help.” She wants to parlay that gift to help others. “I want to travel as far and wide as I can and spread the word about childhood domestic violence because it’s a part of my life. It is me.”

Now that she has a sense of purpose, she doesn’t view herself as a tragic figure, as someone who is helpless, as she once believed, but rather as someone heroic—someone who overcame the odds through struggle and transformed her pain into something more powerful. Viewing the events in her life in a positive light restored a deeper sense of faith to her life. She now believes that her mother was saved for a reason and that her own survival proved she was being guided toward a higher purpose.

Today, at seventeen, Chelsea’s sad smile has broadened into a confident grin. Externally, her family’s circumstances haven’t changed much. They still struggle financially. Their house is still covered in makeshift construction materials. And Chelsea needs to work her job as a cashier throughout the school year if she wants any spending money. Life is still hard, but Chelsea knows it’s nothing compared with what she’s already overcome. She feels as if she is destined for something greater, and knows her life is rich with possibilities.

She and her mother have never been closer. Now that she’s processed what happened, Chelsea recognized and respects Penny’s strength. Chelsea has even made peace with the fact that her father won’t accept a visit from her in jail.

“I never got an explanation and it makes no sense,” she says, “I opened up the gate and he did not walk through. That is not my fault.”

In fact, over the past two years, Chelsea has come to terms with painful issues it can take some adults a lifetime of therapy to sort through. “As I’ve gotten older I have counseled myself through everything and accepted the fact that it’s not Mom’s fault, and it’s not Dad’s fault,” she says, with a maturity beyond her years. “Both parents were just part of the cycle.”

Chelsea now sees the possibility of a happy life, and firmly believes that she will be a success at anything she chooses to do. “I used to look at myself in such a negative way,” Chelsea says. “But now I realize I am going to go somewhere in life. Anything I want to do, I can do. I’m getting ready to really start my life and jump into everything. I’ve done all the preparation; I have the right mind-set. Now it’s all about the action.”


Chelsea’s experience, and her remarkable turnaround, is a real-life demonstration of recent discoveries within the growing field of post-traumatic growth, in which survivors of deeply disturbing events show a remarkable and profound sense of new meaning and faith in their lives, emerging stronger as a result of adversity.

As psychologist Stephen Joseph, author of What Doesn’t Kill Us, puts it, “post-traumatic stress is a natural and normal process of adaption to adversity that marks the beginning of a transformative journey.”3 Whereas before we may have written ourselves off, believing that because of what we experienced we can’t, the new science confirms that it’s actually the opposite. Because of what we experienced, we uniquely can!

We have the strength, the insight, and the ability to rebound without years of therapy or pills. It’s possible to tap into that potential, and for many who do, the turnaround can happen in an instant.

As Nobel Prize–winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman notes, “Once you adopt a new view of the world, you immediately lose much of your ability to recall what you used to believe or how you felt about it.”4 All it takes is an instant, a moment of sharing your experiences with another, an insight from the One who comes into your life and helps you see things in a whole new way, a life-changing event, or even a single line from a book to shift your whole perspective. Remember what Renee McDonald said in the preface of the book: “Even a small change in perspective can transform a life.”

Both Annabelle and Chelsea were able to turn their painful experiences into gifts. Chelsea has language and interpersonal skills in abundance, while Annabelle’s intuition and empathy enables her to communicate with those she’s trying to help on a level beyond words. The ability to do and be something great was there inside them all along.


As a kid, I used to love watching that Jimmy Stewart film It’s a Wonderful Life. At night I would think about what it would be like if I had a guardian angel—someone who would come down to me like Clarence the angel did for George in that film. He would visit me from heaven and say: “Now Brian, we have big plans for you up there. But I have an important question for you. While I know you will be busy here on Earth, when your life is over you will come back to us. And when you do, we are going to ask if you fulfilled your purpose while you were on Earth. You may ask, ‘What is my purpose?’ That is what we will decide right now. While Earth is a wonderful place, we still face many challenges. Is there one challenge in particular that you would like to work on? What problem would you like to help solve? Whose life would you like to make better? How would you like to contribute?”

From the age of seven to my teenage years, my answer was always the same—to have enough so that I could help my family live the life they were meant to lead and to help others so they don’t have to go through the same things that we did.

You don’t need Clarence the angel to tell you how to decide on a purpose for your life. Whether it was to get through the night or stop the violence from happening, you know what it feels like to want something with every ounce of your being. You are resilient because you had to be in order to survive. The proof is in the fact that you are still here. You are alive on this very day, reading these words. You are present. Now is your time.

From the Lie to the Truth

The Lie

Life is hopeless, and it will never get better. There isn’t anything you can do to make it better, so you might as well not even try. Good things don’t happen to people like you. You know it’s a dark, cruel world, and in the end that’s all there is.

The Why

Hopelessness is a common feeling for many who’ve grown up with domestic violence. When there is no certainty or security, there is no hope. When you can’t control the pain and suffering around you, your expectations are reduced to simply getting through another day. You lose any baseline faith that you live in a fair and predictable world, where there’s a chance for a better future. It’s safer to expect the worst because it always ends up that way.

The Truth

I am guided.

When I was young, I had a purpose—to get out of that environment—and I achieved it. I achieved the most important purpose of my life at the time. Because of that, I have the means to realize my purpose in life now. I am inspired by the success of others who have come before me who grew up living with domestic violence and whose experiences I use as lessons to help me fulfill my own potential. I am not alone.

I am guided by something more than myself.

Now, I turn my attention to making daily progress toward my true life’s purpose, whatever I choose that to be.

To Try

1.    The purpose of your life will evolve over time. But right now, ask yourself, What feels right today? It does not have to be a purpose that stays with you forever; don’t put that kind of pressure on yourself. It can be your purpose for now.

2.    Ask yourself the following questions:

·   What problem (in my family, my community, the world) would I like to help solve?

·   What dreams do I have for my life?

·   For me, what is life about? What is my driving desire?

·   What would I like to have, experience, or give during my lifetime?

·   Whose life or lives do I want to make better?

1.    Jot down some quick answers, whatever comes to mind first. Remembering that your purpose will change as you change and grow, what is the purpose of your life for now?

2.    Write it down. “My purpose in life for now is to