This is a question I struggle with myself on a regular basis. Can abusers really ever change or is it just theater to try to pull you back in so they can mistreat you again? Should you ever let a prior abuser back into your life if they seem to have changed for the good?
None of these are easy questions and there are certainly many contributing factors that should be considered as well. Perhaps abusers who once had drug or alcohol addictions and have now gotten clean for a significant period of time will have changed enough to give them a second chance.
What about those who lived for years with undiagnosed, untreated mental illness and finally get the help they need? How much of the abuse was who they truly were and how much was the influence of the untreated mental illness? This scenario is one I personally have experienced to some extent with my own family. How much responsibility should they hold for the abuse, especially any times they may have actually dipped into psychosis?
I know many abusers find religion at some point in their lives and claim to have been completely changed. I must admit I am suspicious of this claim. Perhaps religion truly does change the hearts of some, but much of my personal experience has taught me that if someone is a bad person before they find religion, they will likely be a bad person after they find it. Superficialities may change, but does their behavior/attitude/actions?
Unfortunately, I have no real answers to the question of whether abusers can ever change, but I hope that they can. I would warn everyone to be cautious in extending an olive branch to anyone who has deliberately hurt you again and again, but I do understand the desire to believe in the power of change.
Last night I was thinking about my history of abuse and how I grew up seeing so much of it. As far as physical abuse goes, I did endure some growing up, but it was much more common for me to see someone else physically abused in my family. There was a “scapegoat” in our family who seemed to be the target of much of the worst of the abuse.
Thinking back, I remember how when this abuse would happen, I would scuttle into the corner or hide in a nearby alcove, but I never tried to actually leave the room. Common sense would seem to dictate that when violence is happening, you would want to get as far away from it as you can, but I didn’t even try.
I questioned myself last night why this was so. I came up with several possibilities. First, perhaps I was afraid to leave the room because I thought it would draw further attention to me. My main goal when violence would erupt was to try to become invisible. Sometimes the rage would boil over and the physical and verbal abuse would extend to me if I happened to get caught in the crossfire, so I naturally tried to fade into the shadows. Sometimes, early on, I would try to distract and please the abuser in hopes of calming them down, but that never really worked.
Another reason I think I stayed to watch was because deep down I feared for the safety of the scapegoat and I wanted to make sure they didn’t die. There may have been some morbid curiosity tossed in there too, the way that human nature makes us crane our necks to see what happened when driving by a car crash.
Lastly, I think I stayed and risked my own safety because I felt responsible for trying to make peace after the explosion. I hated to see the division in my family and the anger and pain created by these confrontations. After the worst of it was over, I would often go to the victim and try to comfort them, and then I would even go to the abuser and try to comfort them. I would try to mend the rift between them, although obviously looking back with adult eyes, I see the utter futility of my efforts and sometimes feel anger that I felt responsible to hold the family together in the first place, as I was so little at the time (elementary school age).
For at least a year or two now, I have been debating with my husband whether we should get a handgun for home protection. You see, I have an intense fear of home invasions. I often have nightmares about it. I think part of it may stem from being robbed at gunpoint when I was 17 years old. Or maybe some of it comes from living in several areas over my lifetime that were crime ridden in one way or another. A history of physical abuse and c-ptsd certainly doesn’t help either.
That is why I believe that I might feel a little more safe with a handgun in the house (most likely locked up in a safe). My husband worries about keeping a loaded gun in the house though because of my intense periods of depression. I have bipolar type 2, and while I have never had a psychotic episode, have never tried to commit suicide, and do not think I am generally a danger to myself, my husband has seen me go through some extreme emotional lows that worried him. He fears that if we had a loaded gun in the house there is always the possibility that in a moment of intense depression I might make a rash decision.
I am thinking that perhaps I should discuss the possibility with my therapist and psychiatrist. I know both of them have said they do not think I would ever actually commit suicide. Personally, I agree that I am very unlikely to commit suicide unless my husband died and I was somehow left all alone without any help in the world. I do not think I could kill myself unless the prospect of living genuinely became worse than death. I also would not want to cause anyone who cares about me pain, as I know first hand what it is like to lose someone close to suicide.
Last night I had a bunch of nightmares. In fact, I woke up feeling like that was all I did all night – face some of my darkest fears. These nightmares didn’t feature vampires, ghosts, ax murderers, clowns, or spiders…they featured the person I love the most in the world, my husband.
In these dreams my husband turned cruel and cold. He stopped caring about me. He wanted to leave me or even kill me. The betrayals started small in the dreams, with him choosing friends over me and simply being uncaring and dismissive of my feelings, but they accelerated as the dreams went on and turned to him expressing extreme hatred towards me and even trying to stage an “accident” to get rid of me.
Let me say that these dreams ARE NOT representative of my husband’s treatment of me. We have been together 15 years and he has been wonderful. Caring, patient, understanding, loving, forgiving….all of these are adjectives that fit him perfectly. He always puts me first before anyone else, often, even before himself.
So why the bad dreams? My guess is PTSD. When you grow up in an unstable environment with mentally ill, abusive, and selfish people who often put their own desires before your needs, it fucks you up for life. You always feel unworthy. You always feel like the rug of security can be pulled out from beneath your feet at any time. You feel like you don’t deserve good things, and if you do happen to get love and affection, you are suspicious and paranoid about it. How I wish I could just forget the past.
Unfortunately, I’ve faced a great deal of abuse in my somewhat short lifespan. Physical abuse, verbal abuse, mental abuse, and emotional abuse. Most of this abuse happened when I was growing up and happened at the hands of people I should have been able to trust and look to for protection.
There is a part of me that desperately wants to be open about all the things that happened and purge my heart and soul of them publicly. I want to speak the truth out loud and shed light on things that have always lived alone in the darkest part of my psyche. However, I find myself so scared to share the truth and feeling immense guilt at the thought of outing those who were responsible. I feel protective towards my abusers because I still love them through it all and feel guilty at the thought of tarnishing their reputations, both the living and the dead.
Why, oh why do I still feel such loyalty and duty to those who hurt me the most deeply and betrayed me the most selfishly and cruelly? Why am I swamped in guilt for just wanting to be open and honest about my own experiences? Why must this battle between my need for expression and my sense of loyalty tear me apart? How do I ever find healing?
* Art by Maranda Russell
I’ve been dealing with depression a lot lately, mostly due to unresolved childhood trauma I believe. Today I finally felt at least well enough to make a video talking about some of the things I am going through and wanted to share that in case it might help anyone else struggling. I am also going to share the written version of the poem I read in the video here:
Written by: Maranda Russell
If I only had a dollar
for every time
I have looked down
from a great height,
shook a full bottle of pills,
held my breath under water,
or inhaled exhaust fumes
I could actually do it,
I could end it all –
I would have more
to pay for all the
I obviously need.