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Learning to Breathe Again
I was a witness to my father's violence

The first time I remember my parents fighting was when I was about 6 years old. I was sitting on the floor in the middle of the bedroom my parents and I shared, drawing in my notebook. I heard my parents screaming at each other in the living room.

When I went in to check on what was wrong, I started to cry. They stopped arguing when they noticed me standing there and moved to the bedroom. I stayed behind in the living room looking at them through the doorway. There was so much fire in their eyes, so much anger. I looked on with fear and curiosity. More harsh words were exchanged until my father wrapped his hands around my mother’s throat, squeezing as my mother gasped for air.

As I watched I felt like I was choking too. I had so many questions. Why would something like this happen to our family? How could it be fixed? Was it my fault?

And I had this instinct to protect my mom. But I wasn’t strong enough and didn’t speak up; I had been raised not to interfere in “grown folk business.”

My mother pushed my father off of her and he stumbled backwards.

Then it was silent. It was like the whole world had stopped to see what would happen next.

Silence fell over the house, a heavy, uncomfortable silence that left my stomach twisting. It made me think that this was what my life was going to be and nothing could change it.

My father left the house to cool off while my mother and I stayed behind. I tried to watch television but I was too distracted; the image of my parents fighting was all I could see.

A few hours later, my parents talked again like everything was normal, which confused me. I couldn’t understand how our happy family could be shattered completely and then be put back together easily in just a few hours.

It Never Felt Normal

My parents had these arguments every couple of months. When I heard them start to fight, I would seclude myself in my room and wait until their anger dissipated. During these times I would relive everything.

The fights wouldn’t always escalate to physical violence. Sometimes things like remotes and phones would get thrown around the house, or vile words were exchanged. Even though I have witnessed the fighting and arguing most of my life, I never got used to it. It felt like a bad dream that I couldn’t wake from.

When I was 12, my father moved to Atlanta, Georgia. I still don’t know exactly why. I didn’t want to ask either of them. I assumed it was because of their fighting.

Every six months, he came up to visit us for a few weeks. At first, my parents got along. But then he would start drinking, the alcohol turning him into the monster I’d grown up with. His speech slurred, his eyes became bloodshot, and his temper rose. They fought, but it wasn’t physical. Still, I feared that it would rise to that level.

Acting Out

Although they had split up, the violent behavior I had to witness continued, just not as often. By the time I was 13, I was angry with my mom, but I loved her too. She was a strong presence, a hardworking woman and a dedicated mother, working late hours to support me and checking to see if I was doing my best in school. I couldn’t understand why that same woman could allow my father to abuse her. I thought that it was her fault because I had no understanding yet of the dynamic between an abuser and a victim.

As a result, I started treating her with disrespect. I purposely disobeyed her rules. I would invite my friends over without asking first and with no supervision. We’d mess up the house; she would come home to dirty dishes in the sink, papers scattered around, and me unwilling to clean up the mess I’d created. She punished me by taking away my TV and internet, and this just infuriated me more.

Although I wanted to, I didn’t have enough courage to approach my parents about their fighting. I thought that they would get upset with me for asking questions that a child shouldn’t ask. Yet, I wondered if there was a specific reason why they wound up at each other’s throats. Did I have something to do with it? And if I did, what could I do to stop it?

No Longer a Bystander

When I was 15, I got up the nerve to confront them. I had told myself that the next time things looked bad, I would summon the courage to stop my father. I couldn’t be a bystander to the madness anymore.

The next time I heard my parents arguing I went into my mother’s room. “Let me jump in here,” I said, cutting him off. He waved his hand around, trying to dismiss me.

“No, no, no you’re not jumping in,” he said. He continued to get louder and harsher, and I began clawing at my dad, trying with all of my strength to pull him off of my mother.

image by YC-Art Dept

I was older and bigger now, not the little girl who could do nothing to help.

I yanked him off with all my might, leaving his arm scratched up like a lion had attacked him. The doorbell rang; it was the police. Maybe my neighbors called because they heard the commotion.

The cops took statements from my parents while I sobbed in my room. I felt myself kneel on the floor, like my knees were weights bringing me down. I spoke to God. “Please keep this from happening again.” My hands were clasped in front of me like I was holding on to God himself. I stayed in that position a long time, just hoping and praying for things to get better.

The cops asked my father to leave and he did. Then they asked my mother if there was anything else that we needed. When she assured them that we were OK, they left.

My mother sat me down.

“Who were you talking to in your room?” she asked. I told her I was praying to God to see if he could help us out of this situation. She told me that nothing like this would happen again. I wiped my tears away and hugged her. Despite a lifetime of witnessing these fights, I believed her words and held them close to my heart.

After that happened, my dad would only come up for a day or two and the fights stopped. I visited him in Atlanta, and we had fun together. Sometimes I’d feel guilty hanging out with him because of the things he’d done, and I felt angry at him, but I still loved him.

Learning on the Job

That same year, I decided to look for a summer job. I wanted to get the experience of earning my own money and saving up for the things I wanted. I saw a poster at my school advertising peer educator jobs with the Relationship Abuse Prevention Program (RAPP). RAPP educates teenagers about dating violence, racial inequalities, sexual abuse, and other social injustices. I was interested in those issues, so I applied and got the job.

I got so much more out of it than just a paycheck. I learned about domestic violence. I learned why I had so much resentment for my mother. I saw her as a hero that could stand up to anything. But that image of her was shattered when she and my father fought. I blamed her for not being tough enough.

But this program taught me that victims feel powerless in abusive relationships, and that makes them believe that there is no way out. Some victims believe that they can change the abuser so that the violence stops. But I also learned that doesn’t happen. The change has to come from inside the abuser.

The program made me see that my mother wasn’t to blame for my father’s abusive behavior. During a workshop, I learned an abuser seeks power and control over their partner because they often feel powerless in other aspects of their lives. The victim isn’t to blame for an abuser’s feelings of inadequacy. I was able to stop blaming my mother for my father’s actions and I stopped resenting her. It helped us repair our relationship.

Perhaps most importantly, if my father attacks my mother again, now I know what to do: I will call the police. Before I was afraid to do that, but I’m not now.

I told my mother about my job, but I chose not to talk to her about what I’d learned. I feel it’s not something she’d want to discuss, and I don’t want to upset her. The only thing that I told my father about the program was that I got into it. If I discussed any information about abuse to him I believed he would try to defend his actions.

My mother and I get along well now and I trust her with anything. Although I don’t see my father often, we speak to each other over the phone every few days. My parents get along with each other because they are separate. They are both good people, but when they are together it turns toxic.

I hope that someday I will be able to talk to my parents about what I learned, so that we all know how to put the past behind us. Then maybe I can stop replaying those scenes from years ago in my head.

Getting Help
If you are a witness to or victim of domestic violence, don’t keep it to yourself.

Here are two New York City programs that offer teen counseling and other services:

Day One

Steps to End Family Violence

You can also call 1-800-621-HOPE for the New York City Domestic Violence Hotline, or 911 if you are in immediate danger.

The Relationship Abuse Prevention Program (RAPP) educates teenagers about dating violence, racial inequalities, sexual abuse, and other social injustices. Check the website to see if the program is offered at your school.

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