June 03, 2015
Last year, Carol’s mother died from pancreatic cancer. It was a swift and terrifying demise. Carol, a single mom of a 5-year-old girl, provided a great deal of support at the time. They spoke on the phone daily and Carol spent many hours at the hospital holding her mother’s hand.
A few days before her mother’s death, during a rare moment of lucidity, Carol was given some heartfelt advice.
“You and Ken make a good couple,” her mother said. “Stay together and be patient with Ashlee.”
Stay together and be patient with Ashlee.
These words seemed simple on the surface, beautiful advice passed on before her mother left this world. But, there was so much her mother didn’t know about her marriage. In fact, no one really knew what was going on.
“It took a long time before I decided to leave,” Carol confides. “Sometimes I still wonder if I did the right thing.”
I have permission to share Carol’s story. My friendship with this gentle and intelligent woman spans decades. For most of her 10-year-long marriage, I assumed that all was well. It wasn’t. Like many women -- and men -- caught in the drama of a verbally abusive relationship, struggles are often experienced in shameful silence.
When children witness these struggles, we are obligated to examine the cost, seek out needed healing and offer prompt support.
“Most of our friends really never believed me when I explained that Ken has an ugly temper,” Carol states, shaking her head. “But he does, he does.”
Carol remembers the turning point.
Ashlee was almost 4. It was lunchtime. All in all, it was a normal Saturday afternoon in our Bryn Mawr home, except that Ashlee was hungry, impatient and whiny.
Ken was in one of his moods. I could feel the tension in the air. As I struggled to pull together a quick meal, I saw him lean across the table. His face was positioned just inches away from our daughter.
“Shut up!” he screamed loudly, right in her face.
It was terrible and terrifying. Ashlee nearly jumped out of her skin. I literally could see her entire being shake with the echo of her father’s words. She began to bawl.
I ran to her and threw my arms around her body. She turned and buried herself into my chest. Her heart was racing.
“And you…” Ken continued, pointing to me. “You always rush to her side. F--- you, Carol. F--- you.”
He walked out the door and didn’t come home until midnight.
Upon hearing Carol tell her story for the first time, I found it hard to imagine Ken raising his voice, let alone screaming at his daughter or directing expletives at his seemingly happy wife. Such painful and angry outbursts stand in stark contrast to Ken’s charming, even playful, self.
“It really felt like I was married to Jekyll and Hyde,” Carol reflects while admitting that for most of her married life, she was “sadly and quietly” used to Ken’s yelling, name-calling, bullying and anger. On numerous occasions, she petitioned him -- “begged him really” -- to go to therapy and work on integrating his rage. He always refused.
Underneath anger is always the wound of grief. Sadness is the undercurrent characterizing the life of the verbally abusive. Underneath the ugly words is a great deal of heartache.
When Carol put Ashlee to bed that evening, her daughter turned to her.
“Tell me a story, Mommy.”
“Sure sweetheart,” Carol replied.
“Tell me a story about why Daddy gets mad.”
Ashlee looked at her mom. Carol held her breath.
“My heart is still sad,” the 4-year-old stated, gently touching her chest.
That’s the day Carol knew she had to leave.
“If we do not know how to transform and heal the wounds in ourselves, we are going to transmit them to our children and grandchildren.”
-- Thich Nhat Hanh
I clearly remember the moment my Aunt Kris gave me a book that changed my life. I was in high school at the time. My parents were deeply unhappy, and my home life was, on good days, challenging. I planned to go out of state for college. On one hand, I focused on my studies. On the other, I hung out with a rather rebellious crowd. My aunt was worried.
“I have a little something for you, Amy,” she stated.
We stood in her kitchen in Plain City, Utah. I remember the afternoon light coming through the window. Clean dishes rested on the drying board. She placed a copy of Robert Bly’s “A Little Book on the Human Shadow” in my hands.
I devoured it.
In my experience of being raised LDS (the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints/Mormon), little directive was given with regard to integrating the human shadow – the negative and normal aspects of the human psyche. Jealousy, anger, pride, lust and aggression were associated with the devil, and prayer was invoked as the most appropriate method in dealing with such feelings. How grateful I was for an alternative narrative, one that helped fuel a lifelong interest in the study of psychology, comparative religion, philosophy and ethics.
My studies in yoga also inspired deep inquiry. One afternoon during my Kripalu Yoga 200-hour teacher training, a senior teacher led us through a moving activity structured to give voice to the human shadow.
“The point of yoga isn’t to replace the darkness with light,” she said. “No. We are working to integrate and honor all of life’s energies.”
Our teacher created a confidential space wherein each individual could safely express anger, fears and hurt. We spent hours working in partners. I was honored to hold non-judgmental space for a dear friend as he worked through memories that carried a great deal of shame and sadness. I don’t remember his words, but I do remember his tears -- and how gently and tenderly I silently listened.
According to Vietnamese Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh, we are wise to “take good care” of our anger. We are wise to mindfully embrace it “with gentleness.” Gentleness. Why?
Underneath anger is always the wound of grief. Sadness is the undercurrent characterizing the life of the verbally abusive. Underneath the ugly words is a great deal of heartache. For men, in particular, it is much easier to stay with the surface emotion of anger -- to humiliate, point fingers, yell, curse and claim that another is the source of one’s righteous rage.
The “fever” of anger manifesting in verbal abuse is fierce. It intends to harm the feelings and control the actions of those nearby.
We all carry wounds. But do we carry them with gentleness, mindfulness and mercy? If we do, our children will learn how to do the same.
“Take a deep breath, Mama,” my 3 ½-year-old son reminds me.
He is perceptive, sensitive and watches me carefully. How do I manage the energies of frustration and stress that are natural and normal parts of living?
“In our family, when we get mad, it’s OK. We take deep breaths,” I tell him.
Then, I do my best to live up to this mandate -- not by repressing my feelings, but by tending to them with as much kindness and spaciousness as I can muster.
In his remarkably insightful book, “The Happiness Hypothesis: Finding Modern Truth in Ancient Wisdom,” New York University professor Jonathan Haidt explains that “good parenting” crafts an environment where a child feels safe and is able to develop “a more positive affective style.” This lessens the chance that she or he grows up to be an anxious adult. On the other hand, if a child’s daily environment is full of “uncontrollable threats,” then “the child’s brain will be altered, set to be less trusting and more vigilant.”
Child psychologist Dr. Laura Markham concurs. When situations of stress are repeated often in a home, the amygdala – the part of the brain that signals danger – remains on high alert. In “Peaceful Parent, Happy Siblings: How to Stop the Fighting and Raise Friends for Life,” Markham writes: “… the more we ‘fly off the handle’ the more our children get the message that life is often an emergency. They build a brain that’s geared for self-protection, which makes the child more aggressive.”
Hence, the cycle of verbal abuse is primed to repeat itself. For adults who were raised by parents with amygdalas on high alert, childhood homes were characterized by yelling, name-calling, blaming, screaming – or worse. These adults grew up in homes where a chronic sense of conflict lurked around each corner, waiting to transform Jekyll into Hyde. A great deal of mindfulness is needed to bring healing to such wounds.
“The cost to my soul has been a numbness that I can hardly put in words,” Carol speaks softly. “I didn’t want Ashlee to become used to it. I didn’t want my daughter to think this was normal.”
According to Patricia Evans, author of “The Verbally Abusive Relationship,” a verbal abuser doesn’t seek out intimacy in relationships; rather he or she seeks control.
Perhaps this control is sought because so much of the inner landscape of the verbal abuser is under lock and key. Their wounds are purposefully frozen, forgotten and pushed aside. If a verbal abuser lets go of his or her grip, the underlying anger and grief would feel unbearable. Yet, by bearing the “unbearable,” we make room for healing.
Ken wasn’t open to therapy. He didn’t want to talk about his rage or outbursts.
“I know he had a very troubled childhood,” Carol reflects. “But he never wanted to discuss it.”
For nearly 10 years, Ken blamed Carol when he lost control. Once Ken and Carol became parents, the balance of power shifted, and his unwillingness to explore the roots of his own suffering suddenly came with a steep price.
“If it wasn’t for Ashlee, I’d still be married to him,” Carol states clearly. “My love for my daughter gave me more courage then I ever thought I had.”
We can make room for difficult feelings to move through the body and breathe with gentle acceptance. In doing so, the shadow energies dissipate, integrate and resolve.
Gratefully, not all verbal abusers are so intransigent. Many are willing to examine their anger, underlying sadness, patterns and past. Certainly, all parents have said words in anger, and too often, “little ears” hear them. We then do our best to make amends, resolve differences with adults in private and put forth (once again) our best efforts to model emotional regulation for our children.
Carol found courage in her motherhood. She found the courage to confront and transform a situation of deep suffering for the sake of her daughter. In “Parenting with Presence: Practices for Raising Conscious, Confident, Caring Kids,” Susan Stiffelman writes: “That is what parenting does; it invites us to stretch beyond ourselves, move through resistance, and tap into inner resources we didn’t know we possessed.”
In therapy, Carol allowed herself to feel and integrate the anxiety, fear and hurt that rooted into her childhood. By taking action to protect Ashlee, she found that she had unlocked access to return to, and protect, the little girl who lived within her own heart.
She also learned to meditate.
“I finally learned to breathe deeply,” she says with a smile. “Even when I doubt myself.”
Mindfulness breath practices and meditation are powerful healing tools. Recently, Harvard Medical School neuroscientist Sara Lazar reported that the amygdalas of participants in an eight-week-long mindfulness stress-reduction program actually “got smaller,” and this change directly correlates with a reduction in stress. In a recent interview with Brigid Schulte from The Washington Post, Lazar reflects upon her own meditation practice: “I’ve been doing this for 20 years now, so it’s had a very profound influence on my life. It’s very grounding. It’s reduced stress. It helps me think more clearly. It’s great for interpersonal interactions. I have more empathy and compassion for people.”
We can make room for difficult feelings to move through the body and breathe with gentle acceptance. In doing so, the shadow energies dissipate, integrate and resolve. In his national bestseller, “Anger: Wisdom for Cooling the Flames,” Thich Nhat Hanh writes:
“… when the mental formation that arises is negative, like anger or jealousy, we should go back to ourselves and embrace it tenderly, calming it with our mindful breathing, like a mother would soothe her feverish child.”
The “fever” of anger manifesting in verbal abuse is fierce. It intends to harm the feelings and control the actions of those nearby. Children who witness or experience verbal abuse are at risk. Consider the physiological overwhelm Ashlee experienced when her father’s angry words sent shock waves through her being. The little girl’s amygdala was immediately triggered to send out the stress hormones of fight, flight or freeze. Carol had become accustomed to living with the constant threat of conflict in her marriage. But she wanted something better for her daughter. She found needed support from close friends and began a mindfulness practice taught in therapy. Sadly, Ken refused to join her in this journey of healing.
Today, Carol’s home is one of peace. Ken does share custody of his daughter, but visitation rights are limited.
“I wish him well,” Carol states. “I wish him peace. I sincerely hope that fatherhood eventually inspires him to untie the knots that block his true expression in this world.”
I share this heartfelt hope.
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