It’s funny how things capture our imagination and trigger memories. I was just walking across the waiting room and noticed a smiling face in a car at the road; a client who is early for a session and looking up at the office. Now this was not one of my clients, but a client who is treated in this office. It does not have to be mine to bring about a smile in return. Her smile warmed my heart and I found myself instead of doing paperwork, feeling the need to write about the memories she brought out. I really like my office. It is a quiet office on a quiet street in a relatively quiet city. It was once a single family home that I turned six in and lived in it my entire life since. When I was old enough to buy a home it came up for sale and I purchased it. I was not always a source for smiles. I love my dad and mourned him when he passed away several months ago (and I still mourn his loss) but he was a difficult man to deal with. He could switch from a smiling man to a man who would curl/bite his tongue while threatening to smash you through the wall. A man who could make fun of you relentlessly and who had a great gift for making you feel useless and worthless. At times he would get physical but mostly he would just threaten to hurt you, perhaps hit a wall by your head or throw something at you. He even made me feel guilty for having reflexes once when I was young. He got mad at me and started swearing and threw an ashtray at my head. I saw it coming and ducked just as my sister turned the corner into the room. A visit to the emergency room followed, though never told to lie, she just instinctively knew to tell them that she got hurt while playing. Many “accidents” happened. Abuse can run in families and though some may deny it, it was present in mine though I cannot tell you for how many generations. Some things just aren’t talked about. I remember being afraid to invite friends over due to what may happen. I remember feeling unlike other kids, growing a wall around me. It was like I was not in their world but I could watch them through a screen (not in a dissociative sense but that it was foreign).One of the last times I had a friend go someplace with me and my parents ended with my dad getting angry at the after parade traffic and leaning out of the window screaming obscenities and “flipping the bird” as someone who was trying to cut into line. While doing this he neglected to notice that traffic stopped and he ran his truck into the small car in front of him. Thankfully no one was hurt and the folks in front of him were not like he was. Seeing no damage they wished him well and drove off. As I got older I started body building. When you build muscle a few things happen. First, you get bigger and people are less likely to hit you and second, should they hit you, it hurts a lot less due to your size. My dad learned this when I was in my mid teens. He threatened me and I didn’t back down, in fact I said something like “do what you need to do and so will I, when you hit me you will no longer be my dad, you will just be someone hitting me…” He ran up with that famous curled/bit tongue and grabbed me by the throat and squeezed. This time I grabbed him and squeezed back but I did not show the restraint he did and I progressively squeezed harder until I heard him give out a noise. I remember telling him “I can do this too, now what?” He let go of me and walked away. I walked away shaking but feeling like this would be the last time (it wasn’t but it was one of the last times). He always seemed to do this when mom was not home… Growing up I had some friends from similar backgrounds and many who were “normal.” I remember hearing some say that they hated their house and never wanted to see it again. I knew a few adults who shared the same thing and for the same reasons. When they saw that house they remembered all the pain and abuse that happened within those walls. I didn’t want that. When I was old enough to move out I stayed put. I did not want my mom who was disabled by a car wreck years before to be alone with him. I wanted to do what I could to keep her safe. Eventually I was looking for a house to share with my future wife (celebrating 16 years thanks) when I learned that my mother had had enough and was getting a divorce. We decided to buy the home and I told my parents “mom, you have a place to live forever, dad, you have a place to live while you look for a place.” I proceeded to add a floor on the house; I learned how to do it as I went along. I think I scared the electrical inspector when he inspected my work, passed it and then I asked him a very basic electrical question. He looked at me in horror and said “you just upgraded a 100 amp service to a 200 amp and you don’t know what load one and load two means?” (You had to do the upgrade with the wires live). Not wanting to make this house a symbol of bad memories and abuse, I doubled it and designed it to one day be a clinical office. Though I had years of school left, I knew that I wanted to open a not for profit and help all I could. I felt powerful when I tore down walls, added others. As I removed the smoke stained ceilings and walls, I removed some of the bad memories; the source of so much pain. The behaviorist in me says that common sense and logic dictated where my office would go, but the Freudian would have a field day. The room where my sister “took my hit” is now my counseling office. It is a place where people enjoy going. My office has been described as “friendly, comfortable, warm, an oasis and my respite.” Those would not have been used in the past. The area where my dad once grabbed my throat is no longer a kitchen but instead is now a reception room where “Nana” my mom, greats our clients as they come in the door. Though still disabled, my mom has been a faithful volunteer since we opened. She does what she can and usually does so with a warm smile. The waiting room is no longer a dining room where my dad would chain smoke and drink pots of coffee day in and day out. Instead an overstuffed leather couch and chair, an antique table, magazines and music great my clients. The yard that was once overgrown and filled with debris now has a large Buddha, a large painted carousel horse (that I bought at an antique shop and painted myself), several gardens and benches. Many clients have used these areas for both sessions and moments of respite from the rest of the world. As clinicians we need to help encourage our clients not to be owned by past events. Though we may have come from a long line of drop outs, as I did, we can still go on to a job and career that we really want to do. Even if no one else in our family has crossed the stage of the local High School, we can get our hoods and cross the stage to give our speeches at our doctoral graduations. If I did it, we all can. Though we may have come from abusive backgrounds, we do not need to be abusive ourselves. Some of us from just such backgrounds grow up to become pacifists. We do not need to be defined by our family tree, the abuse we have survived nor by the baggage that it all can bring with it. Working with clients I have often heard a variation on “it’s not my fault, look what I grew up with.” I never bite that apple. I focus on free choice, on ways they can break the cycle of abuse and on ways they can adopt a survivor’s mindset. Some folks take to this well, others reject it either due to fear or due to wanting to stay in the known comfort of their discomfort because at least there they know what to expect (there are other reasons as well). When I drive up to the house that I grew up in I see a place of growth. I see happiness and I see warmth. I learned years ago to let go of anger and the pain. Though I have not forgotten what happened, I can accept it while not being held back by it. I can remember my father and others who were abusive and view them for what they were, people who were ill and either finally got help, or people who never had the courage, strength or knowledge that help was out there. I do not remember only the bad, I remember in toto; the good in them as well. Giving up the anger and hatred frees us to not only grow but to thrive. I, like so many clients am not an adult victim of abuse but instead a survivor of abuse. Actually, I just prefer to think of myself as “me,” no labels are needed. As we move along that path of recovery with our clients, let us help them to remember the blossoms of flowers, the smell of clean air and the good that can often get lost in the flood of memories of the bad. If we do that we can get them from a source of abuse to a source of healing. They will have turned tragedy into triumph.
Warren Corson III (Doc Warren) is a counselor and the clinical & executive director of a community counseling agency in central CT (www.docwarren.org).