The Antidote to Violence

A violent past can drive us on a journey. Some choose fighting and war; some choose to run from themselves; others set out to experience the transformative power of love.

The motto in my family when I grew up in the fifties was: Children should be seen but not heard.

Apart from that my childhood was pretty normal really, by today’s standards at least. The commonplace beltings with a strap, time-out in our rooms for seemingly minor infractions of the good behaviour code, chores to be done, and good reports to bring home from school were all a part of life. My dad was the best dad in the world and violence only existed in the scary world out there where bogey men could ‘get’ you.

There were happy times of making cupcakes topped with icing and being allowed to lick the bowls and spoons, of sitting on my father’s knee while he helped me read the first book I brought home from school, and my mother reading bedtime stories – not just the usual fairytales of kissing a frog prince or a sleeping beauty, but adventures of a rabbit with wings who “set the world right,” and Jason and the Argonauts’ search for the Golden Fleece.

But my fairytale childhood ended when I was ten and my parents split up. It was then I discovered the power of hate in rape, what it felt like to fear my mother, the horror of kidnapping, the confusion of private detectives snooping around the house, and a custody battle that created such bitterness between my parents that it spilled over me like glue that would not wash off.

Poverty and neglect became our normal way of life for two years, ending when our mother completely abandoned us. But worse were the alcoholic tirades of a stepmother who never wanted an extra three kids, and I grew up believing Malcolm Fraser’s famous line that “life was not meant to be easy.”

By the time I married and had kids of my own I had shut down my feelings and become hard-hearted. Occasionally I smacked my children with a wooden spoon (or threatened to), but time-out in their rooms was rare. We made muffins together and they licked the bowls and spoons. And bedtime stories were a given every night.

But something had changed from my childhood to theirs. During my teacher training I studied child psychology and learned about the developmental needs of children, the importance of sharing quality time, and really listening to what they had to say.

I was a stay-at-home mum who loved lively debates with my mother-in-law – usually over politics. I berated the Australian Labour Party’s stupidity for creating a high deficit with an escalating social welfare bill that supported dole bludgers. And it riled me that free medical care kept doctors’ waiting rooms stuffed full of people with trifling complaints.

My mother-in-law always retorted, “The government has to do something for people put out of work by capitalist greed.”

Everyone has to learn to fend for themselves, I’d say, otherwise all they’ll learn is how to be helpless. And the debates would go back and forth as I sorted out all the problems of the world in my hard-hearted, short-sighted, and bigoted way.

Then, something happened of seemingly no large consequence to an outsider, but which had a profound impact on my life.

My husband carried our young son into the kitchen one day after an accident on the farm. “I’m just going to put him to bed,” he said. “He’s a bit sleepy.” I looked at him aghast, unable to comprehend that he couldn’t see that our son had a broken leg.

At that moment I slipped out of this world and into a twilight zone of grief, unaware that this scene had triggered the memory of a similar scene with my father when I was five years old.

And then I became one of those people in a doctor’s waiting room with a trifling complaint: I could not sleep.

The anti-depressants the doctor prescribed I thought were “sleeping pills,” so oblivious was I to the fact I was depressed. But those pills also kept asleep the memory that was trying to surface, and it remained anaesthetized for another twenty years under repeated medication for stress and depression.

There is a saying that the truth will come out in the end. And I was about to learn that it will come out – even at the cost of destroying your whole life as you know it. It will take away all the props and strip you bare of riches and roles until you stand naked before it and ask, “I demand to know what is going on.”

And this is what I had to ask when my marriage broke up, the yacht we bought to sail the world sank at anchor, and I lost custody of my children after refusing to play the courtroom game and fight bitterness with bitterness.

In the middle of this tumultuous time I took a job teaching a year seven class – reportedly the worst class in the school. They were often so restless and unsettled that I began each morning with aerobic exercises, games, and running. But when that didn’t settle them I finally asked, “What happened this morning before you got to school?”

A deluge of hurt feelings poured into the room. Some parents had called them names like “fat” and “dumb” or a “lazy oaf”. A third of the class was unhappy or miserable over continued bitterness between their parents after a divorce, or denied access to a loved parent. There was grief over parents working long hours, and problems with step-parents and inappropriate touching.

They began acting out their feelings in creative drama, writing about them in stories and plays and poetry, and releasing them in art and music. The ‘worst’ class became the best class I ever had. And I began to learn about the power of love, and that listening and caring are acts of love.

For the following two years I lived on the yacht and rebuilt it while I wrote a book about my experience of divorce. Within the safety of this steel cocoon I began to cry the tears of the broken-hearted over the separation from my children. I also began to replace self-hate with self-love, and learned to return love for bitterness during a long-drawn-out property settlement over the yacht.

After the yacht was sold, and with a completed manuscript, I headed off to the United States to find a publisher, unaware that my story still hadn’t finished with me.

In New Orleans a young man reeking of beer stopped me in the street and asked for twenty-seven cents. When I refused his request – on the grounds that he would only spend it on beer – he blocked my way and begged me to listen to his story.

His friends had bought beer to celebrate him getting out of jail the day before, where he had been for three months after a street fight defending a friend. His mother had kicked him out to live on the streets when he was fourteen because he didn’t get on with her new boyfriend. He said he wanted to make a new start in life, and asked if I would pray that he wake up in time for a job interview the following morning.

I was face-to-face with a ‘street thug’ saying things like, “I know it seems that your mother didn’t love you, but it is now okay to love yourself.” “How?” he asked. “By learning to face your fears and becoming your own best friend…”

Tears instantly misted his eyes. I offered extra money to help him out. “I just want twenty-seven cents,” he said, “to put in my back pocket for luck. I am twenty-seven years old.”

A huge orange ball of sun was setting into the sea over Biloxi when I prayed for him later that day, as tears streamed down my face.

In Florida I became part of another story when a ‘nutter’ burst into a gallery where I worked, the banging of the door echoing as he quick-marched to the view the paintings at the far end. A short while later he suddenly wailed, “Why is it that women always paint f**king butterflies and flowers?” He looked at me through dull and lifeless eyes, the corners of his mouth encrusted pale yellow from the lithium he was taking for manic depression (bi-polar disorder).

When he revealed that he had been released from the crisis unit of a mental hospital a few days ago, my dominant emotion was fear. However Jack’s story was to painfully erase my fears and ignorance surrounding mental ill-health.

His ambition was to become a doctor. But a fellow student stabbed him in the leg during a card game, ending his time at medical school because his mother feared for his life.  He studied art instead, got into drugs, and became an alcoholic for ten years, during which time his father destroyed all his paintings stored in a warehouse.

A sculpture of a bath painted red and containing a broken cup holding a doll’s head had triggered his recent stay in mental care. My questions revealed that when he was five his mother had scissors in her hand while he was taking a bath, and the water turned red. Furious over her husband’s infidelities, his mother dumped all her bitterness on Jack in angry tirades. It caused him to shut down his feelings and live in his head, which is what the doll’s head in the broken cup represented.

After completing the sculpture, Jack released the rage of a five-year-old boy still angry over his mother’s abuse. Police found him screaming insanely at cars on a busy freeway. This is how he ended up in a crisis unit…in a straight jacket, pumped full of drugs, and locked in solitary confinement. In ten years of being in and out of mental hospitals, no one ever asked about his story, and as I listened to it and studied his paintings, I began to feel his pain within myself. And it helped prepare me to face the truth about my own past, which came in a most unexpected way.

Doubleday rejected my manuscript and an editor suggested that I do a rewrite and tell the “whole” story. It led to ten years of rewriting, and digging deeper and deeper into my past to find it. But the “whole” story remained elusive – even though the rewrites brought up hidden memories of domestic violence and sexual abuse.

Then finally at the end of a happy summer serving Devonshire teas in my garden, the memory came back that had tried to surface when I saw my son in my husband’s arms twenty years ago. The ‘naughty’ little boy my father had brought home from an orphanage lay dead in his arms. In a fit of rage he had violently shaken him with his hands around his throat.

I was then forced to confront the violence within my father I held in denial, and the fantasies I created about him that hid it all those years. I knew he was capable of killing a child, for when I was sixteen he had beaten me unconscious in and out-of-control rage.

It was perhaps no coincidence that within a few weeks of this memory returning, I began a job teaching core subjects to a year ten class of boys with learning difficulties and behaviour problems. Perhaps it was an unconscious urge to protect and “fix” the boy from the orphanage so my father wouldn’t “kill” him.

And it was played out in a battle with the deputy principal who wanted the boys to sit mainstream exams, and my refusal to allow this because he was setting them up to fail. My year ten boys were teaching me that an unhappy home life, coupled with failure at school and the sense that no one cares, is the breeding ground for delinquency. Knowing this, I wrote exams to correspond with a different style of teaching to give them a chance to regain some of their lost self-esteem.

But my efforts were not without a huge personal cost, for by the end of the year, after losing heart in teaching and having a breakdown, I resigned, only to have my life unravel in a most disturbing way.

I went into credit card debt while I tried to earn money as an artist. My ex-husband died in a motorcycle accident. I began another rewrite on my book and became stuck in grief when I saw myself as a child, standing at the door to my father’s heart and knocking until my knuckles bled. I became suicidal.

Finally, with my savings exhausted and in ever-deepening credit card debt, I became a beneficiary. And one more statistic that Steve Maharey talked about in his ‘Social Development in Action Speech’ in July, 2005 when he said, “The growth in the number of people relying on a benefit due to disabilities or ill health has become the single biggest issue in welfare in every country in the world.”

Perhaps my case can highlight some of the reasons why this is so.

After an initial diagnosis of major depression, I discovered three years later that I had all the symptoms of post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), an anxiety disorder usually associated with war veterans and formerly known as ‘shell shock’. However, doctors in the United States have now discovered that victims of domestic violence and child abuse also have symptoms of PTSD.

According to Bruce Perry, M.D., Ph.D., an internationally recognized authority on brain development and children in crisis, the typical signs and symptoms of PTSD in children include “impulsivity, distractibility and attention problems (due to hypervigilance), dysphoria, emotional numbing, social avoidance, dissociation, sleep problems, aggressive (often re-enactment) play, school failure and regressed or delayed development.”

Because the symptoms of PTSD are similar to attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and major depression, it is often misdiagnosed. Several doctors in primary care I have spoken to about PTSD were unaware of its symptoms.

By connecting some dots a very disturbing picture emerges. And also a question needs to be asked: What happened to all the men returning home from war with undiagnosed PTSD?

Many studies now reveal that PTSD is a significant risk factor for domestic violence, child abuse, problems in interpersonal relationships, violent crimes, incarceration and problems with the judicial system, poor educational outcomes, unemployment, benefit dependency, and homelessness.

PTSD also affects mental and physical health and is a significant risk factor in the development of depression, anxiety disorders, drug addiction, alcoholism, suicide, smoking, teenage pregnancies, eating disorders, obesity, diabetes, ischemic heart disease, cancer, lung disease, asthma, and many debilitating minor ailments.

It is no coincidence that the higher rates of child abuse and domestic violence within the Maori population, correspond with the higher numbers represented in most of the above problems.

According to the National Center for PTSD in the United States, the risk factors for developing PTSD for women are rape, sexual molestation, physical attack, being threatened with a weapon, and childhood physical abuse. For men the risk factors are rape, combat exposure, childhood neglect and childhood physical abuse.

Further to this, Dr. Perry found in recent studies that ninety three percent of a sample of children witnessing domestic violence had PTSD.

I shared this information on PTSD (and its financial cost and impact on society) with John Key (elected Prime Minister in 2008) in 2005 in an email, and followed it up with a face-to-face meeting. I am now left wondering if boot camps, longer prison sentences, building more prisons, and getting tough on beneficiaries is the best he can do with it.

In a recent New Zealand Herald interview John Key said, “I have quite a strong sense of wanting to sort of, wanting to help others.” But is this at odds with a boyhood dream of becoming prime minister, where going backwards in time to ‘boot camp’ mentality is one way of winning the popular (but uninformed) vote?

This clearly demonstrates uninspired leadership, reminiscent of the deputy principal who was totally out of touch with the needs of ‘problem’ boys. Each time the school-wide problem of lack of discipline reared its ugly head, the battle cry became: “Let’s get tough, give more detentions!” It never worked.

Every election year we demand that politicians deal with the escalating violence within our communities. Labour has already built more prisons, and violent offenders are serving longer sentences. But we presently ignore this fact. “Take tougher action,” we demand. But no matter how tough it gets, it won’t ever be enough. And the time has come for us to give up our anti-depressant mentality that keeps us slumbering on in ignorance of this fact.

Since we create the violence within our homes that spills out into the community, collectively we are a part of the problem – even if the violence we commit is ‘only’ contained in angry silences or harsh and unkind words. And since we are part of the problem, we all need to become part of the solution. It is not an easy task. It requires that we each end the war within ourselves so we can bring peace to the violence within our homes, schools, workplaces, and communities.

If we do not undertake this task, we will continue to suffer the consequences of unbridled self-hate, and we will all pay dearly for it on every level for decades to come. Not only do I continue to pay for the legacy of violence within my childhood home, so do my children (my son now has PTSD from the abuse and emotional neglect that occurred while living with his father, and self-medicated on drugs and alcohol to relive his constant anxiety).

PTSD can be a lifetime disability. It does not go away by itself and requires medication and extensive therapy. It takes courage and strength to confront and work through the terror, horror, and shock created by violence and abuse committed within the ‘safety’ of home. It is the most frightening thing I have ever done, akin to what I imagine it would be like to walk through the fires of hell. Many times I thought I was losing my mind.

During these times I often thought of Jack and the last time I visited him in mental hospital. He was distressed that at the age of forty-nine, he was about to lose his freedom and be placed in a home under the guardianship of his parents to ensure he took his medication. In deep shock, all I could say was, “I could have been like you…if I hadn’t been so determined to learn how to love myself and heal my life.” His face took on an expression of deep, agonising despair. Then a tear rolled down his cheek. He finally gave up on his life at the age of sixty-six.

I have now accepted that I may never make a complete recovery from PTSD – despite years of intense healing work I have done on myself. Although it has crippled my life in many ways, I take comfort that I didn’t give in to the temptation to numb my pain and terror with either alcohol or drugs. With deep humility (and a lot of tears) I can say, “Here but for the grace of God go I.”

But what about the “whole” story I struggled so long to find as I rewrote my manuscript? With great surprise I discovered that it was about a miraculous adventure of opening my heart to love by letting go of bitterness, fear, judgment, self-hate, and finding compassion for my father and what he endured as a child…

And that love is the antidote to violence.

First published in Scoop, October 10, 2008

Information  about PTSD


I was inspired to write the above after reading The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane, by Kate DiCamillo.

“Kate DiCamillo and Bagram Ibatoulline take us on an extraordinary journey, from the depths of the ocean to the net of a fisherman, from the top of a garbage heap to the fireside of a hoboes’ camp, from the bedside of an ailing child to the streets of Memphis. And along the way, we are shown a true miracle — that even a heart of the most breakable kind can learn to love, to lose, and to love again.”

This is truly a delightful story about how to open your heart to love. It begins with a quote from The Testing-Tree, by Stanley Kunitz…

The heart breaks and breaks
and lives by breaking.
It is necessary to go
through dark and deeper dark
and not to turn.

My Story: You Don’t Have To Go To War To Get PTSD

To the outside world I came from a ‘respectable’ lower-middle-class family in Australia. But behind closed doors within the ‘safety’ of home the violent explosions of war between my parents terrorized me. Horrified and deeply shocked and…

How to Change Your Life

February 21, 2014
It is often not until some personal crisis that we will confront ourselves and change. Yet how do we take charge of our life and guide it towards inner peace? A young man stopped me while walking up a flight of steps in New Orleans many years ago, to ask for twenty-seven cents. His breath reeked of beer, evoking an…

Gifts Found in Unlikely Places

October 13, 2011
What you may call a disaster could actually become the greatest gift in your life. This is what I learned when Zeehaen, an eighteen-meter steel yacht my husband and I had bought to sail the world, foundered on a sandbar while at anchor, flooding the interior when she rolled into deeper water. After the high drama of a fight with salvagers…