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Translation from an article I wrote for a French feminist review, le Roseaux.
I am sharing with you an experience that has affected me and had consequences throughout my life: growing up with domestic violence. I grew up hearing my mother being belittled, humiliated, beaten, strangled, threatened with death, for many years.
Domestic violence remains a subject of little interest and/or taboo. Yet in 2019, in France, (at least) 146 women were killed by their partner or ex-partner as a direct consequence of domestic violence. These women, who are physically, psychologically and financially abused, are often not understood and are judged not only by their entourage but also by public opinion and the services that accompany them.
Even less talked about are the beaten men and children win such an environment. Growing up in an abusive environment is traumatic and also has mental and physical health consequences, affects one’s self-esteem and self-esteem of others, as well as shifts one’s perspective on human relationships.
When I heard the first time my mom being beaten, I was 6 years old. I could hear my father yelling at my mother. I got up, I saw my mother kneeling in the hallway, crying, and my father holding a belt in his hand. I went back to my room, to my bed and I started crying in turn, because I didn’t understand such violence. Then my father came into my room and ordered me, in a cold and dry tone, to sleep. My mother was beaten regularly, my father did everything he could to find a reason. As I grew up, I started to intervene but it didn’t stop him from hitting, bullying and insulting her.
I didn’t especially like school but at least I was away from home. When I came home I was often sick to my stomach. I wondered what could happen to my mother. Was I going to find her lying on the floor, was I going to find her dead?
Impacts on children’s to exposure to domestic violence
Children growing up with domestic violence are at higher risks for health problems:
- Growth retardation, allergies, headaches, eating disorders
- Behavioural and concentration disorders
- Cognitive development: language, school performance
- Behavioural development: risk behaviour, delinquency
- Post-traumatic syndromes: nightmares, increased anxiety, fears, rumination, hypervigilance, etc.
- Difficulty in building identity: withdrawal, lack of self-esteem and self-confidence
- Difficulties in intimate relationships and the risk of experiencing violence in married life as well
Consequences of domestic violence on my physical health
Personally, I suffer highly from anxiety, I suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder, resulting in high blood pressure, and I have also had some anxiety attacks. I also have cholesterol due to my diet and chronic stress. Children who have been exposed to domestic violence and are, therefore “exposed to chronic stress have a much higher blood cortisol level than children brought up in a calm environment”.
Post-traumatic stress and anxiety are so internalised in me so much so that, the few times I have no anxiety or one of the others symptoms of post-traumatic stress, I don’t feel normal, I’m missing something. These symptoms have more or less improved because, from the age of 9 to 17, I had practised sport. Then they came back more intensely in the last three years, in my final depressive phase.
Consequences domestic violence exposure on mental health
In terms of self-construction, I found it very difficult to gain self-confidence and self-esteem. I often devalued myself in relation to others, an underestimation of self hidden under false modesty. I constantly compared myself to others and found myself lacking in quality. Only in the last year my self-confidence and self-esteem have improved significantly.
Health problems can be caused by exposure to domestic violence through two distinct disorders. Adjustment disorders (school phobias, separation anxiety, hyperactivity, irritability, learning difficulties), and impaired concentration.
I find it very difficult to concentrate, I can concentrate for 30 minutes at most, then I either have to take a break or do something else as I get bored quickly. Concentration difficulties are not helped by the technological objects surrounding us that encourage distraction. Exposure to domestic violence does not only affect oneself but also affects us at the relational level.
How exposure to domestic violence has changed my perspective on human relationships
My perspective on human relations has changed. I have become a very distrustful person with a negative image of the people around me. I can’t help it, I have this fear that the person will hurt me. For me it has been very hard and it still is for me to trust someone, I remain very watchful and on my guard. It’s a way for me to protect myself but slowly I’m working on it. By being hyper-vigilant and suspicious, you can’t build a deep relationship, you can’t be close to someone.
Mistrust and hypervigilance put a barrier. Then, concerning love relationships, having been used to a violent and conflictual relationship, I become aggressive easily. Through aggressiveness, I see a way to impose my point of view and solve the problem. Love relationships cause me great anxiety and anguish. I am constantly afraid of repeating the vicious circle, either by being the author or the victim. It is possible (and important) to get help.
Suffering from depression and anxiety
It took me a long time to realise and accept the idea that I needed help. Mental health in Senegalese culture remains a taboo subject or one that is totally discredited. It is still considered “white people’s diseases” by many Afro-descendants. My depression lasted for 10 years, from 16 to 26 years old. It was punctuated by suicidal urges, eating disorders, irritability, aggressiveness, anxiety, fatigue and recurrent sadness. I knew I had behaviours and attitudes that were not part of my personality. Yet I couldn’t put words to what I had.
Then I had my period of denial, drinking alcohol and smoking to be able to forget, or eating little or too much to punish myself for not getting better. When I arrived in Berlin in 2017 my depression got worse. I had no motivation for anything, I avoided going to work, I frequently had suicidal urges. I went to psychologists but without success, they were not the right people for me. The first one was a man, and I am clearly not comfortable with men in general. The second was simply an incompetent psychologist. However, you shouldn’t give up on your research, it’s hard but necessary work to find out how you will overcome these traumas.
It’s getting better and better
The trigger occurred in June 2019. At work, I had a little voice in my head telling me “Kill yourself, you’re useless”. When I got home, I cried and said to myself, either you do it or you decide to get better. An ultimatum had been given. So I decided to stay on earth and get better.
I decided to work on myself first by taking the good advice from the book “Overcoming childhood traumas”. The book teaches us how to analyse the consequences of our traumas in everyday life, how to work on our self-image and self-protection, how to gain a balanced perspective on things, how to feel and manage anger and much more. It is a book that teaches us to be better with ourselves and others and is of great help especially to people who have been exposed to domestic violence.
And since a few months, I started therapy.
Don’t give up
While growing up and being exposed to domestic violence, we normalize so many layers of physical, emotional violence and abuse. We also normalize our physical and mental pain. It can take years to realize it, to realize how domestic violence is impacting us in our grown-up daily lives. However do not give up. Work on your traumas, on your toxci behaviors, on mental healh, your self-esteem, your selfcare. Because as everyone, we deserve the best for ourselves and our past won’t be a burden.