Content warning for discussion of flashbacks, child abuse, domestic abuse, and trauma.
Workplace cubicles don’t allow for privacy.
On the small floor where I work, a small second floor perched like a hat on a larger building, the windowed offices ring a large area which has been packed with cubicles. At one end of this rectangle is the access stairwell. At the very far end from that stairwell is my workspace. The cubicles end, and my desk and filing cabinets are in the stub of space just past the fire exit stairwell.
It’s an old building. The heating and cooling are iffy, approximate, and likely controlled by someone in a different time zone. As a result, people tend keep their office doors open to improve air circulation.
This means everyone hears everything. We all know about each other’s kidney stones, grandchildren, car troubles, and how well we all slept last night.
(Content warning for below the cut)
This morning, the two men who work in the office to my left got on the topic of disciplining children. I’m not sure how the conversation started out; I was concentrating on some stats and my ears only tuned in when one voice got a bit louder. By the time I clued in to what they were talking about, “Gord” was animatedly describing the one time he “really got into it” with his “disrespectful son.” His colleague asked “Physically?” And Gord laughed “Yeah!” and went on to describe shoving his 15-year-old son up against the wall—at which point I was completely overwhelmed and started having trouble processing what was said next as Gord continued his description of the confrontation.
By “completely overwhelmed,” I mean my body was shaking, my heart was racing, my head felt felt like it was light and floating, especially right at the very top and back, the way I used to feel right before I would dissociate. My throat was tight and it was hard to breathe.
Years of learning how to deal with this shit has made me better at coping, but “better” is not the same as being proficient at it. Still, as I felt all these sensations escalating, and Gord’s laughing voice went on describing his [abuse of his] [physical emotional financial spiritual] power over his son, the way he [abused his authority] [lost his temper] [scared his child] [lost control] [demanded respect] [raised his voice] and fucking laughed about it and tried to make it funny for his colleague, I managed to coordinate my arms and legs and torso enough to stand up, walk around my desk, go to that office door and pull it shut, saying to them “I’m just gonna pull this shut for a minute” in a tight little voice I barely recognised as my own.
I don’t remember making it back to my desk, my legs wobbly, but as I tried to refocus on my stats, I felt like I was working underwater, both physically and mentally. My hand was slow to find the mouse. I’d move the mouse around slowly, trying to get the cursor to the right spot, and then think for long seconds before clicking. I’d look from the paper on my desk to the screen and back, multiple times, trying to figure out how the data was supposed to connect.
And then the memories came up and settled into my body and made sense of all the sensations. Two in particular: the time my dad found out about my brother shoplifting, and took him down into the basement. My stepmom ordered me to stay upstairs with her, and at first I did, but when I heard my brother start crying “No, please, don’t!” I headed down there. I was halfway down the stairs, far enough to see my dad starting to remove his belt and my brother cowering in front of him, when my stepmother caught up to me. I flung her hand off my arm and she got a handful of my hair, and at this point she and I were both screaming and my brother was still crying and pleading. My dad turned around and looked at me and he had the strangest expression on his face. He was enraged but also somehow stricken. My stepmother was trying to pull me up the stairs by my hair, but I was beyond any pain or caring. As terrified as I was of her and my dad, my protective instincts about my brother were stronger. I yelled at him to get out of the house and wait outside, and when the parents tried to stop him, I can’t even remember what I said or did anymore. I think I just shrieked “Don’t you touch him! Don’t you fucking touch him!” but honestly, I don’t remember anything else except that at a certain point, my brother was outside, and I was in the doorway blocking them from reaching him. And then my stepmother said they wanted my brother’s keys back because he was a thief. And my brother, heartbroken and sobbing, took his keys out to hand them back. But I took my keys out as well and threw them into the house, and then I didn’t see my dad for a while.
It’s not funny to discipline your kid. It’s not a fucking joke. It’s heartbreaking when a family gets to that point. It’s a fucking crime when a big guy like Gord shoves his kid against the wall. It’s a fucking crime when a parent tries to beat his kid with a belt, or drag her kid up the stairs by her hair. Maybe not a crime in the legal sense, but an ethical crime, a parental crime. A crime against one’s child.
And the other memory, the one where my ex back when I was barely twenty shoved me up against the door of his apartment, screaming in my face, and I was flailing against him, too enraged to realise how scared I should be. And then when he lifted me by my throat, pinning me against that steel door, my toes stretching for the ground but not reaching, his other hand sometimes on my throat to shove me further up the door, and sometimes hitting me elsewhere or twisting my arms to get me to stop trying to hit and scratch him—it must have been quick, all of this, but it felt like it lasted for hours. And then when I realised I couldn’t breathe, that I was choking, that I was actually going to die—you’d think I’d fight more, right? But no, I suddenly understood that I was going to die, that I was going to be killed, that this was the end for me. And as I got lightheaded and shaky, I utterly accepted my death. I turned away from the fight in front of me and accepted that I was about to be gone. I stopped fighting. I went limp.
I guess it scared him because he put me down and we restarted the endless cycle of remorse, atonement, and forgiveness. But although I got out of that relationship, that day has always stayed with me. That moment, really, when I knew I was going to die.
So it’s not funny. It’s not normal discipline. It’s not okay to shove anyone up against the wall, to use your weight and power and authority against them. It’s not okay to threaten your kids with death. And let’s be very, very clear: when you use violence against your kids (whether it’s physical or verbal / emotional), that is a death threat. Kids are utterly dependent on their parents, especially when they’re younger. Withdrawal of parental protection and affection is already awful for a child. The threat of worse, is, well, it’s traumatic and cruel and it stays with kids for the rest of their lives.
One way it stays with me is this kind of body flashback that happens before I have the actual memory. Sometimes the actual memory doesn’t even arrive. I get panic attacks (less now than ever, thank you venlafaxine!), or nightmares, or moments like today when I overhear something or read something and suddenly I am overwhelmed with fear / anxiety / nausea / despair.
Another way is stays with me is my rage at injustice. I don’t always handle myself well, but I usually try to say or do something, even if I can’t do it in the moment, even if I have to come back to it later.
Gord came over later and asked why I had shut the door. I told him “I couldn’t listen to that conversation. It was really upsetting to me to hear you laughing about shoving your kid up against the wall.”
Gord tried to make it about three things: First, that he had the right to talk about whatever he wanted to whoever he wanted (“I know, that’s why I shut the door”). Second, he tried to justify his storytelling as describing the one time he made that mistake (“I’m not criticising you; I just didn’t want to hear it. That’s why I shut the door”). And third, that I would just have to accept that my issues and his issues were clashing here and why were mine a priority (“Never said they were. That’s why I shut the door”). it’s hard to stay focused on the core issue when someone is derailing you. It’s hard, especially when your limbs and voice are still shaking.
I suspect there’ll be another conversation about this at some point. I don’t look forward to it. But I am ready. I survived my childhood. I survived being choked. I’ve survived everything else so far. Gord is a big guy and I will always be scared in confrontations. But I try to stand up for myself now as much as I ever stood up for my little brother. And sometimes, the door just needs to be shut.