It was my mother’s birthday, June 5th. Middle school let out and I, as usual, went to the bar my mother frequented for reasons only she knew. Whenever I didn't want to go to the babysitter, or wanted some money for pizza, I knew I could find her there. This particular night, she finished her after-work brew, and away we went, walking home in what was a humid, early summer stroll filled with perspired foreheads and t-shirts stuck to our backs. What cemented this day so vividly into my memory wasn’t the conversation on the way home, or the lack of a cake topped with candles, but the rage in my mother’s boyfriend’s eyes when he stumbled in just a bit after we came home.
I had been listening to my mother and her boyfriend argue in the kitchen since he had gotten home. I assumed that the argument which started in the bar would ultimately come to an end, until chaos ensued. Violence and chaos were not unusual in this house, and yet it was never as palpable as it came to be on this particular day. My mother’s boyfriend stormed into my room and took out his frustration on someone who couldn’t defend himself - an insecure, adolescent boy - me.
I remember the smell of my mother’s cigarette burning in the kitchen, the smoke billowing from the ashtray next to the lazy Susan. She screamed for him to stop. Her frenzied voice began to crack; the tears streaming down her cheek would only dry up like the blood that would trickle down my face once his breathing couldn’t keep up with the forcefulness of his punches. Looking back, I know why she couldn’t stop it: he was doing to me what he had already done to her.
I seemed to encompass his rage after he was done, wailing at the top of my lungs for someone to hear me, someone to save me. That scream would not get answered, even when I punched my bedroom window while weeping uncontrollably, breaking through the glass, just to feel something, to make sure that it wasn’t all just a dream. The pain would subside, the scars would heal, but the memory of that day would change me forever.
They say pain is the cornerstone of change, but what really changed that day? Was it the way that I viewed the world? The way my mother began internalizing everything? I wish I could capture all that changed that day in this essay, but that will take the rest of my life to come to terms with. One thing is for certain, my entire being changed that day -- from innocence to treachery.
Domestic violence is not just something that seems to be bred into the abuser, but often another disease—alcoholism—parallels it. Both not only plague my family, but also an insurmountable number of others. My mother began drowning her emotions into the bottle more and more after the incident on that hot summer’s day, something I myself would begin to mimic just a few years later.
I am not writing this article to draw attention to what happened to me but to bring to the discussion how alcoholism, at least in my life, has been the driving force behind most, if not all, violent incidences from adolescence to adulthood.
As a child living in fear and surrounded by violence, I didn’t want to become what I was surrounded by, and yet, that was all I knew. I am fortunate enough at this time in my life, more importantly today, not to live in fear or be surrounded by violence. The fear instilled in me as a child made me a victim. When I relive those same fears as an adult, I become a volunteer to them. It’s like I am carrying a 1,000 pound bag of demons on my shoulders, waiting for someone to take it and, at the same time, learning that I have to let it go.
This Zen-like sense of clarity usually is fleeting and gradually becomes distorted by the ghosts of my childhood, but I try to program my mind to forgive, to move on, to tell myself that they did the best they could.
Soon enough, I become lost in my day-to-day life, all too worried about financial insecurity and my typical thirty-something problems. Other times, I just can’t seem to let go of what happened during my childhood; it ebbs and flows, and is everlasting. Those instances of violence, and put-downs in my childhood have instilled self-doubt, a reliance on validation, and a multitude of other degrading thought patterns of “you’re not worth this; you’ll never be happy”, my entire adulthood. I’ve learned to reach out for help and advice, and in turn, I ask myself, “would I let someone else treat me the way I treat myself?”
Would I have left my boyfriend, unlike my mother? I can soundly answer that question with “yes”, because I did, and it was one of the hardest and most rewarding decisions I’ve made in my life.
Ours was a May/December romance fueled with booze, infidelity, insecurity and manipulation. Being the naïve, young man I was, the trust came instantaneously; we moved in together within six months of meeting. The first couple of years were fun, exciting and new, but something always seemed awry. Like most tumultuous relationships, I thought it was my fault, that I deserved no better and that those volatile insults would be the last. Of course, all those insults would merely be followed by apologies - a vicious cycle-- rinse, lather, repeat!
One night, my boyfriend came home drunk and hostile; I recognized the same look as was on my mother's boyfriend’s face back when I was in middle school. The takeout food he bought on his way home was thrown all over the walls. I had locked myself in the bedroom with the dog after the punches were over. I was too alert to fall asleep. I knew I couldn’t go on living like this. The dynamic changed from this once blossoming desert rose into this cold moonless desert night. It was time to trudge on. The first step was the hardest one -leaving with a heart filled with fright- trying to figure out a plan of how I was going to do this alone.
I was fortunate enough to have reached my breaking point, supersaturated with this insufferable need to move on…which was exactly what I did.
I stayed at a close friend’s house until I found a roommate and started my life over. I make this joke that I left with nothing but my name, like Tina Turner, because I literally left everything, even the dog. He had been so good at manipulating me that he put the dog in his name at the ASPCA and constantly made it clear that if I took the dog, he would have me arrested. He played this morbid, unhealthy game of cat and mouse with chess-like strategy and tried to use our poor beagle as leverage to lure me back.
I know that my story is not unique and that I am far from special. One thing I also know is that being a victim of domestic violence, does not make me a victim in life. This change in consciousness has helped me to begin loving myself and really shed away all of those old ideas, sometimes quickly, sometimes slowly. I put the bottle down a little over three years ago. Everything from my past that I covered up with alcohol still comes up every now and then, especially as I write this, but I have learned to cope with it so much better. Today it is not about what happened to me in my past, the promises that were made and broken, but about what is happening to me in the present.
I must confess that, when I was asked to write this article, I cringed with resistance, because I was essentially being asked to relive all that has caused me such savage anguish in my life. I still involuntarily flinch, when touched by another person. I have to remind myself to stop and tell myself that I deserve to be loved, and that I am worth all this. Those old ideas I’m still working through. The fear still wrestles me at night. Still, here I am, learning how to love again, starting with loving myself.
Edward Keith Jr., originally from Far Rockaway, Queens, a beachside suburb of New York city, moved to Fort Lauderdale a little over 10 years ago.Edward is a Paralegal; a member of GLLN, Gay and Lesbian Legal Network; and a softball player for the Broward Ballbusters, a sober, gay softball team that plays year round in the SFAAA (South Florida Amateur Athletic Association). Ed volunteers often and has spoken at Covenant House, a non-profit agency that provides residential and walk-in services for runaways, homeless and at-risk youth under 21, telling his story of violence and alcoholism.