Growing Up with Domestic Violence: How to Heal

Childhood domestic violence survivor Brian F. Martin's new book, Invincible aims to help other survivors

by
Oct 29, 2015

childhood domestic violence: how to heal | Guideposts

October is Domestic Violence Awareness Month.

Brian F. Martin thought he had healed from the childhood trauma of witnessing his mother being abused repeatedly by her boyfriend.

Though adults who grow up witnessing domestic violence as children are six times more likely to commit suicide, fifty times more likely to abuse drugs and alcohol, and seventy-nine times more likely to commit a violent act against another, Martin hadn’t become a statistic. Though he tells Guideposts.org he “used my fair share” of drugs and alcohol, he was not an addict and he wasn’t in a violent relationship. He even pulled himself and his mother out of poverty by getting undergraduate and graduate degrees and landing a well-paying job.

Martin also regularly visited children living in domestic violence safe houses and shelters, founding a program to mentor them, serving as a role model for them and providing them with trips to places like Disney World, so that they could see a better life was possible.

Still, it wasn’t enough.

The violence he witnessed growing up festered in his subconscious. It would take the failure of his program in order for him to truly understand how deeply impacted he still was by the terror of childhood domestic violence.

“I would go to visit these kids at domestic violence shelters and it was surprising to me that I couldn’t connect with them,” Martin tells Guideposts.org. “I remember the exact moment [I realized my program wasn’t working].”

“We were all at the Magic Kingdom at Walt Disney World watching the fireworks at Cinderella’s castle. ‘When You Wish Upon a Star’ was playing as a shooting star flew over the castle. I even had tears in my eyes,” he says.

“As we’re walking back to the buses, I was feeling great about myself. I asked a kid, ‘When you saw that star go over, did you make a wish?'  The kid didn’t really say anything and I kept asking and finally he said ‘I wish that when I got back home that he wouldn’t hurt her anymore.’ If a kid can’t at [Disney World] have a dream that gets them through the nightmares, when will they ever? That was the last moment of the last trip.”

But Martin didn’t give up on his goal of helping children. He gathered together top researchers in domestic violence so that he could understand what these children were thinking and feeling, in order to better help them.

In one meeting, the researchers all took turns sharing what domestic violence causes kids to believe about themselves: that they are the cause of the violence in their homes; that they should feel guilt and shame that they can’t stop it. They feel resentful that other kids don’t have to deal with it; they get angry and take anger out on those kids like bullies do; then they get depressed and feel hopeless. The hopelessness makes them feel worthless, unlovable and alone and afraid that they’ll always be alone.

“As the researchers were talking,” Martin shares, “I wrote all of these things down. Almost everything that I wrote down, I believed to the core about who I was. It was like someone was reading the deepest inner thoughts of my mind.”

Even as an adult, those childhood feelings of fear, worthlessness and hopelessness were still deeply embedded in him. “I thought, ‘If I believe these same things about myself now, why won’t these kids believe the same things about themselves when they get to be my age?’”

Martin began to focus on his own life and healing to find out just how deeply domestic violence had scarred and stunted him. “It’s the moment I realized that maybe I’m not who I think I am. ‘Are you telling me that I shouldn’t have, as a kindergartener, been responsible for getting this 250-pound ex-football player out of my house? Because I certainly did believe that before. It got me to question a fundamental belief I had, which led me to question more. What if I wasn’t cowardly? What if I wasn’t weak? What if I was confident?”

That research became the basis of his book, Invincible: The 10 Lies You Learn Growing Up with Domestic Violence, and the Truths to Set You Free. Featuring advice from renowned psychoanalysts and researchers in the field, Invincible helps adults who survived violent homes to first understand the biological impact their trauma has had on them, then deconstructs each of the 10 lies they believe about themselves and explains how to replace those lies with 10 truths. 

“Children raised in these conditions have neither the intellectual nor emotional maturity to separate the actions of others from themselves,” Martin writes in Invincible. “Unless these children unlearn those terrible lessons, the reprimand to simply ‘get over it’ is not only useless, but harmful.”

He aims to educate and encourage all who read it to start focusing on childhood domestic violence—what UNICEF calls one of the most pervasive human rights violations in the world, impacting 1 billion people globally—instead of believing domestic violence is simply an adult issue.

“The best predictor of whether you’re going to be in a domestic violence relationship is whether you grew up living in one, but we don’t address it.  It’s like trying to solve lung cancer without ever addressing smoking,” he says.

Along with the sobering statistics and hardships that await survivors of childhood domestic violence, Martin emphasizes the hope that lies ahead for those who are equipped to unlearn the lies trauma teaches them.

“Yes, there’s post traumatic stress,” he says. “But there’s also post-traumatic growth.  It’s our job as a society to help [survivors] understand not, ‘Because of what I went through, I can’t,’ but ‘Because of what I went through, I uniquely can.’”

“There is great strength, great hope, tremendous gifts in [surviving] the experience, but only if we as a society acknowledge the problem.”

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