Do you remember the first time you made toast? How old were you? Did you burn it? Was an adult supervising you the whole time, just to make sure you didn’t hurt yourself?
These initial steps of independence that we take as a child are often ones that we forget. Our first steps, first book we read, first drink we made ourselves, first time we made toast… Our childhoods are jam-packed with a variety of milestones and memories, some good and some bad, overall forgotten because entering adulthood requires a great deal of our energy and attention.
But I want to bring to attention one small memory that I have, that’s around 20 years old and yet I remember it. I rarely delve into my childhood memories, not through writing and not verbally, only in my private thoughts where there is no real urgency for me to say this out loud.
I’ve kept quiet for a long time, doing now as I was told then; keeping my mouth shut. However, this code of silence has created a barrier that I never asked to be put there. It’s created something internal within me that casts doubt over the severity of anything I choose to reveal about myself. If I don’t feel worthy, it isn’t necessarily because of past relationships or because I wasn’t shown love as a child. My lack of self-worth, though it improves daily, stems from my childhood, where my experiences and feelings were often overlooked because of domestic violence within the home.
A few months ago I was asked, by inspirational woman Natasha Benjamin, to become an Ambassador for community interest company Free Your Mind. FYM supports young people who are experiencing mental health as a result of childhood domestic violence. After interviewing Natasha for an article, I was amazed at how she was able to be so open about what she experienced as a child. It gave me much to think about and I considered the idea that perhaps one day I’d have the confidence to do the same.
Here I am.
I remember the house I was living in because of the things that happened there. South Road, Erdington, Birmingham. I can’t remember the door number. I can’t remember what the front room looked like but I remember the back room. I remember what room was where and what happened there. It was a house similar to the house that I have now, terraced Victorian house, with two downstairs rooms and a steep staircase between them.
I think I was around 7 years old. I remember that because this was the same house I lived in when I was hit by a car. I’d been asked to go to the shop, it was only over the road and a bit up the street, but I ran out behind a bus and didn’t look the other way. BOOM! My child self was winded and injured. I was lucky to get away with the cuts and bruises that I did, and the deep cut on my forehead where I’d come into contact with the car headlights was quickly stitched up at the hospital.
I remember that house and I remember the time I learned to make toast. My mum was in hospital. I remember she had problems with her lungs, they’d collapsed or something, and it seemed like she was in and out of hospital a lot. As a child, I accepted it but as an adult, I wonder what the real issue was. My mum was a very young mum. She’d have been around 23/24, what was really going on?
On this occasion, she was in hospital and we (my three siblings and I) were left in the care of her husband. My sisters’ dad. My stepdad. He decided one morning that I had to learn to make toast. I had to learn to make breakfast for my brother and sisters, and toast would be the first step. So, I listened to his instructions while remembering the many times I had watched my mum do the same. He explained everything to me while standing over me. Perhaps supervising my efforts, being only 7 years old and relatively new at all this independent stuff. The bread was in the toaster, my knife and margarine were ready, all I had to do was wait for it to pop up. And when it did? My stepdad, being the adult, reached for the toasted bread and all that was required of me was to spread the margarine. How hard could that be, right?
I got it wrong. I did it wrong. Spread way too margarine much on the toast and I’d have to do it again, he said. I’m paraphrasing here. I’m typing this all politely but my reality was this: A thirty-something very angry and very abusive man was screaming obscenities in my face, slapping the toast up against the wall and using this as a way to inform me that I had put way too much margarine on there. He was enraged because it stuck to the wall. If I had done it properly, then that wouldn’t have happened, he said. It was all my fault. He screamed at me to do it again, swearing at me and calling me names. I wanted to get it right. I didn’t like it when he was angry. I can’t even remember if I was crying or if my siblings were crying, but we would have been used to this . My mum wasn’t there to protect me and even when she was, she was often helpless herself.
Did I tell anybody about this? No. I was 7 years old. There was a lot I didn’t talk about. Even if I had the vocabulary to accurately describe my life, I was way too scared to say a word anyway. I was discouraged from talking about it to anybody. And this kind of activity, and much worse, happened all the time when I was little. I was used to it. I didn’t know any different, not until much later. I had this need to get things right the first time, to people-please, because I was eager for a different outcome each time. I blamed myself for the things that I had experienced, often dismissing my own feelings and experiences in favour of others. As a child, I learned that I didn’t matter. What I had been through didn’t matter. I suffered from abuse and felt unsafe for a long time, and I did so silently. Nobody spoke up for me, I was the oldest child. My mum couldn’t protect herself from him, so there was no hope for me or my siblings. It was my job to be sensible and back then that meant being quiet.
Even as I type this, I can feel the doubt creep in as negative thoughts taunt me about this ‘non story.’ These thoughts tell me that this is nothing, it’s not that bad, nobody will care or be interested in it now, but I have to fight against them because I want to be heard.
When I was a child, I couldn’t speak out about living with domestic violence because I didn’t have the terminology and it wasn’t a massive secret either. Now, we have safeguarding guidelines in schools where teachers can identify signs and intervene, but there was nothing like that 20 years ago. I found an old school report from my first year at school, with comments about my character that would raise questions now, but it didn’t back then.
I’m an adult now but I experience daily the impacts of growing up in an abusive home and feeling afraid. If it hadn’t been for a conversation with somebody who had also experienced childhood domestic violence, I wouldn’t be typing this now. I wouldn’t be able to trace back my anxiety and depression to my childhood. I thought I was alone but now I know I’m not. He thought we’d never tell but now I will.
My mum died 10 years ago but I remember what she told me and I remember what I saw. I may have been young but I was old enough to remember. I can’t forget. I know that speaking out about it all will open up some old wounds, but I need to remind myself that this is not my fault. I never asked for any of this. We didn’t deserve to be treated that way. We don’t have to keep those secrets anymore. I don’t care if he ever knows or ever sees this. I don’t care.
This is my story.
is my truth.
It is time to speak out.
This is a start.