TW: Scenes of domestic violence.
I grew up in a toxic and dysfunctional household. My parents were always at each other’s throats, fighting and throwing things around. One of their arguments led to an accident that can never be taken back. I’ll remember this day as long as I live. It was the day my baby brother Joey died. I’m writing this to help anyone who might be in a similar situation, living in a violent environment.
“Why!” My father’s voice boomed across the room.
“Peter, I needed the money for the power bill, we can’t be without power!”
Mum was cornered, dad had her pinned up against the wall, with his fist against her throat, and she was finding it hard to breathe. My older sister Maia was holding our baby brother in her 11-year-old arms, and we were hiding behind the couch. It was a soft couch, with patterns on it, but it was buggered, one side completely collapsed. In my 9-year-old mind, this was normal. This is the way we lived and so we rolled with the punches, the bruises and the scars that have never really healed.
“But I needed that money for happy hour tomorrow night after work.”
Dad was in a rage. He pushed mum aside, calling her horrendous names. When he spotted us hiding he was livered.
“What the fuck are you looking at?” he demanded.
“Dad, we are scared,” Maia spoke up, her voice trembling.
“Shut the fuck up you little shit! Pass me your brother!”
All was silent, just for a sec, then he exploded across the room and grabbed baby Joey from Maia’s arms. As he did so, he tripped on a baby toy, and fell over on top of my brother. Time stood still. Terror gripped me as we waited. Mum was sobbing and shivering in the corner. When she saw dad fall with Joey in his hands, she screamed. But it was too late.
The police and emergency services arrived, lights flashing, sirens wailing in the pitch-black night. They took baby Joey away and I never got to see him again, until his funeral. I think that day, seeing my baby brother in a tiny casket, broke my soul. They said he had broken his little neck in the fall. Dad went to jail for some time, and then he came back, meaner and more terrifying. I still visit Joey’s grave, but never my dad’s. He can rot in hell for what he did to our family. He died from prostate cancer when I was in my early twenties. We had a tragic childhood, one that would echo around the country.
I am a social worker now, and I mostly work with families who struggle with violence in the home. Where I live, it’s a little town where everyone knows everyone. I know which families are delivering atrocities towards their loved ones, behind closed doors. What I have come to learn, is it isn’t just men who perpetrate violence towards their families, I have met mothers who are just as bad. First off, I never judge. That is not my place to do that. I can never bring any prejudice into a situation, though my experiences can help me see things clearer than perhaps another social worker, who doesn’t know the signs of a violent household. When they don’t recognise the signs, they can be easily misled into thinking everything is okay.
Another thing I consider is, where did they come from to be capable of terrorizing their own children, and brutalizing the women they proclaim to love? Love isn’t punching holes in walls, smashing windows, kicking in doors. Love isn’t beating your wife and children until they are too scared to even breathe. That is not love, it is domestic violence. Some of the families I deal with have other issues to face, besides domestic altercations – they suffer with addictions, intergenerational violence, mental illness and past trauma they had to live with in their childhoods.
I promised myself that if I ever got married I would always treat my wife like a queen, and I would never lash out at my defenseless and innocent children. Well, that is what I told myself, but it didn’t happen like that, I became my father’s son. The first time I hit my wife, Leanne, we were dating. She should have left me then, but she had her own baggage to deal with. Her childhood was similar to mine; however it wasn’t her dad who dished out the punishment, it was her mum. Her mum who too grew up in a broken home. So to Leanne, a whack across the face was normal. As devastating as it is to write about, I became the man I promised I would never become. I was a monster.
Leanne and I married young, we were both in our early twenties and we partied a lot. We were both heavy drug users and drinkers. I’d tell myself I would only have a couple, then after two dozen I was blitzed and didn’t have any self-control. The drunk me was a disgrace. I still can’t believe some of the things I did back then. Then the kids were born. Our first, a little girl, our precious angel, came to save us from ourselves. But the novelty soon wore off, after sleepless nights, and a colicky baby certainly tested my patience.
I started to drink every night. I worked as a shop assistant at the petrol station down the road from home. I was the jealous type, so I would call my wife ten times a day to see where she was, and what she was doing. My negative thoughts fed my insecurities to the point of irrational thinking, leading to me lashing out the only way I knew how – with my fists and my mouth.
Without realising it, my trust had been ruined in my childhood; I was a broken man with a broken mind and a smashed in heart. I became possessive. I wouldn’t allow her friends or family to visit, and if I came home early and caught anyone at the house, there would be hell to pay. One time I saw her on our porch, talking to a man. I hit the roof, and nearly assaulted the landlord, whom I had never met before. He’d been there doing his annual house inspection. We nearly got kicked out of the house because of that, and the holes in the walls and smashed windows didn’t help our situation. Though it wouldn’t have been the first time – we’d already moved a dozen or so times.
The worst of this all, is that I could feel my father in my actions, I could hear his voice coming out in my words. The names I called her in front of our children are unforgivable. But she persevered, even if it was only for the sake of the kids. Here I was thinking she loved me, but how could she love someone who was bashing her? It didn’t make sense to me, and still to this day, I ask her why she stayed? And the answer is always the same, she wanted to have the man back she fell in love with. She could see I had the capacity to change, if only I would realise what I was doing. I didn’t see the damage I was causing, until it was nearly too late.
Sometimes, I look at myself in the mirror. In my head I see the teenage version of myself acting out; breaking into cars, drinking till I passed out, and the time I woke in A & E after someone found me dying in a ditch – I’d been beaten to within inches of my life. You would think something like that would change you, teach one a valuable life lesson. But, nothing changed, no miraculous light bulb moment. By the time I was 18 years old, I’d been to court half a dozen times, for all sorts of mischief – tagging, stealing from the local dairy, general wayward behaviour.
Somewhere in between the drunk fogs and the blackouts, I met my wife at a party. This was my first real relationship, and I didn’t have any good role models nor experiences to draw any knowledge from. How to love another person. How could I? I didn’t love myself, so how the hell was I supposed to love someone who could hurt me? All I had in my pocket of knowledge, were chairs flying through ranch slider-door windows, boarded up with plywood. Unmown lawns, it was never a good idea to play outside, where the grass hid dog shit from untrained and half neglected pig dogs. Laundry that hung on the line for weeks. I’ve no idea how we survived on takeaways every single night. There was never any breakfast, and if we were lucky, lunch was a stale Vegemite sandwich, or an apple off the tree if it was the right season. I spent a lot of my early years starving. Yes, my life was hard. But that doesn’t and will never excuse the things I have done.
My wife, she lost her mum at an early age. She’d gone out to score drugs and never came home. Her dad told them kids that their mother had run off with another man. That is what they were told, so they believed it. Until someone walking their dog found her car burnt out in a car park, and her remains inside. My wife found out about it on the news. It broke her. Her dad had not even made a missing person’s report!
I broke my wife’s arm. This is when she was pregnant with our second child, my only son. Everyone at work were elated when they found out I was having a baby boy. My wife suffered badly with this pregnancy; she was sick 24/7. This night, some of the crew from work decided to throw me a little bash to celebrate the news. Needless to say, I was pretty well pissed off my head by the time I drove home. Yes, that was another demon I had to conquer. I was a terrible drunk driver. I’ve side swiped cars driving home drunk from the pub. One night I vaguely recall hitting a dog and not stopping. Anyway, this night, my wife and little girl were starving and complaining. I’d forgotten to grab some groceries on the way home. No, that’s not what happened. I chose to go drinking with my buddies, instead of looking after my little family at home, who were waiting for me. When I got home, there was no food in the cupboard, not unlike the empty fridge and pantry I had grown up looking at.
Leanne wanted my ATM card to nip down the road to grab some food from the all-night super mart, but I wouldn’t hand it over. Plus, there was nothing left on it. I’d played on the pokies during my lunch break, and wasted the rest on shouting the pub a couple of rounds. Oh yeah, I thought I was the man. I wasn’t and all though I know it now, in those days I wouldn’t listen. I’d ignore my wife’s pleas for me to change. She even suggested marriage counselling;
“And when would I spare the time to see a shrink? I work and you stay at home. I can’t take a day off to deal with your dramas. Just be grateful you have a roof over your head, power and hot water. I wasn’t that lucky growing up!”
I feel myself heat red inside – I know now I was triggered. It always starts that way. It’s almost like I’m going out of my body and I can see myself. I hear what I’m saying, but it’s not my voice, it’s the voices of all the men before me. My ancestors: My role models. It’s easy to recognise my grandad, and my dad. They are all the same, we are one. One giant mess perpetrating what I had promised I would never become. But if I wouldn’t listen to those around me who needed me to change, I certainly wasn’t listening to my wiser self, the true person I was meant to be. I was failing as a husband, as a father. Disenchanted, lost somewhere between reality and the past. The past having a stronger hold on me. I desperately wanted to change, to be a better man, a better father and husband, but I had no idea how to do that. What would it take to change? I decided it was too much hard work, and carried on as normal. Or what I perceived to be normal.
The night I came home after drinks, and she wanted my ATM card, I slapped her across the face – hard enough for the slapping sound to register. She pushed me away and I reacted in the only way I knew how. I shoved her hard, and to protect our baby inside her, she put her arm back to brace for the fall. She fell backwards and in doing so, broke her arm in two places. All hell broke loose. Her screams were piercing! On top of that our little girl saw the whole thing from her high chair. Her screams mingling with those of her mother’s. Our neighbour came to check on us, she called an ambulance. Needless to say, I spent the night in a police cell, and off to court the next day. We were forced into counselling and I lost my job.
This was a defining moment. In order for me to stay with my family, we started couples counselling. Those were rough times, having to face someone about my behaviour. Initially, I was pissed off with having to go every week to air our dirty laundry. I was feeling sick inside every time Thursday rolled around. The counsellor, Greg, he pushed me into facing my demons, and trust me there were many. He was actually a really nice bloke, and after several weeks, I came to trust him with my dark and damaged past. He told me I could break the cycle of violence, that meant everything to me. Eventually we were taught strategies to cope with our situation. It took us six months, but we made it to the end. I will be forever grateful we got the right social worker – I believe it makes all the difference.
Our life at home changed for the better, in the sense I had grown to trust and love my wife with all my heart and soul. I was now fully aware of the damage I’d caused, and that it was unacceptable to lash out in front of children. I was on a mission now – to save myself, from becoming that man again. With my new found identity, and a pocket full of new knowledge, I wanted to help other people. So I enrolled in a social work course. It took three hard years of study, but I finally got my Bachelor Degree in social work. Even though I had been in trouble with violence in the past, and because I was never convicted when I broke Leanne’s arm, they allowed me to graduate. From there I started working at a mental health facility. I loved that job, but I felt my skills and education were needed somewhere else.
I enrolled in a counselling module. I enjoyed the course; I met many likeminded people. It made me think of the impact Greg had made, helping to save our family from total devastation. Now with a social work degree, counselling and mental health certificates under my belt, I was ready to help other people face their demons. My first job took me to a home on the outskirts of town. The children who lived there were not attending school on a regular basis. The eldest child, he hadn’t attended school for a whole month, no reason given. The first things I noticed were the overgrown lawns, the jacked-up car rusting on the driveway under a blue tarp, and the front door with plywood covering what should have been glass. Inside were three children and two drugged out parents. After months and months working with this family, they made the necessary changes. I felt good, this gave me the courage I needed to push forward with other families. Some have failed, but most of them have come out the other side, better for it.
Leanne has been the rock I needed – she stayed when others would have run. She made the house a safe zone, where I could learn to become a better person, not just for her and our kids, but for me to live a better, truer life. Sometimes, the terrible things that happen can define a person. But it doesn’t have to be that way. Change is necessary in order for one to grow and develop. Often people are too scared to change. Maybe they don’t know how to? Perhaps they lack the fundamental skills to be self-aware? Some might need intervention, like a social worker who actually gives a shit, but some might need a stint in jail, before they realise the damage they have caused. Like me, sometimes it might take a tragedy or a life changing moment to initiate the incentive to change for the better. I am hoping, writing about my experiences will help even just one person. If you are that person and you think you are incapable of change, hopefully my story can help you see you have the ability to break the cycle, you have to believe. You have to make the step, take a leap of faith, because no one else can do it for you.