“There’a a phrase, “the elephant in the living room”, which purports to describe what it’s like to live with a drug addict, an alcoholic, an abuser. People outside such relationships will sometimes ask, “How could you let such a business go on for so many years? Didn’t you see the elephant in the living room?” And it’s so hard for anyone living in a more normal situation to understand the answer that comes closest to the truth; “I’m sorry, but it was there when I moved in. I didn’t know it was an elephant; I thought it was part of the furniture.” There comes an aha-moment for some folks – the lucky ones – when they suddenly recognize the difference.”
― Stephen King
I can’t think of any illness or situation that frustrates me as much as an abusive relationship. Part of this is that I have zero tolerance for violence. I refuse to watch gory movies or even read horror novels. I’d find it hard to sleep if I did. Most of it is because I see so many lives wasted, crippled and destroyed by irresponsible human beings who have been placed in a position of trust. To make matters worse, these despicable souls usually find a way to make the victim feel guilty for their criminal behavior. Or they intimidate helpless, dependent relatives into submission.
Some people manage to rise above their environment; they realize that this situation is not healthy and is avoidable. They get out, or they pledge that once they grow up they will never fall into this trap again. Most people, however, are scarred and never achieve what we would call a normal existence. I’ll give examples of both occurrences.
I treated a young woman with chronic, unexplained pain. Her sleep disorder, headaches, and constant pain were strong clues that she had once been abused. After I gained her confidence I asked if she had ever felt unsafe. She detailed the most frightening tale of mistreatment I’ve ever heard. At age 3 men began to touch her in a sexual way. At 9 her mother basically sold her to a man who agreed to move in and pay the bills as long as he could have the little girl. This was an agreed on deal, not a random happening. She left her home to live with her grandmother, who administered daily beatings. She went through two abusive marriages. Finally, at some point, she developed insight. She realized that she did not have to accept this kind of life. She squirreled away a few dollars a week out of the grocery money. Within two years she had enough. One day, after she left for work, she went to her son’s school, picked him up, and drove straight to the airport. She paid for her tickets in cash. She left everything behind, arriving in St. Louis without a suitcase, with only the clothes on her back. Eventually she went to school, became a medical assistant, and married a good man. But her pain and her panic attacks may never go away.
Another woman came to the office with a black eye. She told me that she had run into a door. After a long conversation which probably felt like an interrogation to her, she admitted that her husband had beat her. This was not all. The man drove while drunk, even with the children in the car. He went to work drunk. He had numerous accidents, but he always seemed to know the right policeman, or the right lawyer. A few weeks after he beat her he tried to rape his 16 year old daughter. He had drilled holes in the bathroom wall so that he could see his child naked.
I asked her what she intended to do. This was in the days before hot lines. She told me that she could not leave him. She said that she loved him, and that he only behaved like this when he was drunk. She had no job and no training. In a very sick, pitiful way, she did not think that her situation was that bad. Her daughter ended up running away from home, seduced by a much older man who ended up beating and neglecting her. Nothing ever happened to her husband; he was never arrested or fired.
I often think about why some people manage to recognize that they have choices when they’re placed in these situations, and why some feel trapped and helpless. I’ve seen female physicians tolerate daily abuse, so I’m not sure education or having a good job is the complete answer (although it helps an awful lot). There’s some evidence to indicate that there is a genetic connection; that both abusers and victims may have genes that predispose them to this type of behavior.
I try to convinced these people that they don’t have to remain in these traps. I spend an awful lot of time telling them that this is NOT their fault. That they just happened to be in the wrong place with the wrong person. It’s rare that I succeed.
Abused children and spouses are a huge drain on our economy. I find it very hard to understand why we have billions of dollars to invest on weapons (I recently read that one Tomahawk missile, one, costs in excess of a million dollars) and so very little to make sure that our children grow up safe, warm, and well educated. This is a huge scandal that no politician will ever try to approach. It’s up to us to raise our voices and demand change.