Naming Trauma

By a guest Youth writer from Outright Vermont

Content warning:  This post is a very honest, up front account of surviving sibling abuse.  The content may be difficult to read.

When we are constantly told that our family is supposed to be the ones closest to us, the ones to shield us from harm, to care for us, to help us grow, it can be difficult to recognize and name when they become our abusers. We can minimize our own struggles with domestic violence, especially since it can seem so unreal when it’s happening.

Growing up, my brother was always the one that assaulted me physically. He had a powerful temper, like an orchestra reaching crescendo repeatedly. He has 3 years, just over a foot in height, and about 100 pounds on me. If something didn’t go his way, he would quickly let it be known; first with his words, then with his fists.

I often wore scarves throughout high school. Part of it was a fashion statement, but they were such a convenient accessory because they hid the thick, finger-shaped bruises he left on my neck when he throttled me. I always covered myself up fully, for fear of showing bruises, cuts, friction burns or other such marks he left on me.

One night, his temper reached a fever pitch. We were sharing an apartment owned by my parents in my first year of college (his second year). He had made the common area a mess: Dirty clothes, dishes with festering food, and various papers decorated the room. I thought it would be perfectly reasonable to ask him to tidy up. He didn’t like that.

At first, he started hitting me. Then, he followed me back to my room. Afterwards, he lifted me off of the ground, and hurled me into the wall. I was left with a concussion and a small cartilage crack behind my left ear (that’s still there a few years later).  My parents, who lived about an hour away, rushed to the house to take me to hospital.

My mum told me that I shouldn’t have angered my brother, that I was baiting him, and told me to tell the doctors that I had just had a particularly nasty fall. My dad told me he could understand why my brother would react in such a way. After all, “you can be quite grating at times.”

When I finally saw a therapist, they told me that living with my family had caused me to develop PTSD. It made sense: I was hyperaware of my surroundings, apologized frequently for things that I had not done, and, most importantly, I had experienced trauma.

This last one stuck with me for a long time. It never occurred to me that my family could be the ones abusing me. Even though it is so obvious to an outsider, when you live in an abusive family, you’re often fed the idea that the parents know best, and their word is law. My parents told me that my brother wasn’t being too serious, and that this was simply a case of “Sibling Rivalry.” This would be the phrase that they would continue to use to minimize what was actually happening, to refuse calling it “abuse.”

I remember one time, after my brother had beaten me, I fled the house and tearfully called my parents hoping that they could help me. I suggested that I might call the police if it happened again because I feared for my safety. After a beat, my dad responded with “Okay, if you do that we’ll be kicking you out of the house.” They didn’t want to impede my brother, and didn’t take the situation seriously.

It can feel super scary to try and name an abusive system for what it actually is. A lot of that fear for me came from the nagging doubts my family piled onto me: My brother shouting “Stop pretending! It’s pathetic!” after he’d thrown me to the ground; my mother screaming “Don’t engage her, she’s doing it for attention!” to my father and brother. I was petrified about them being right. What if they aren’t being abusive? What if I am taking this too seriously? What if this is actually normal familial behavior?

For people who live in supportive families who nurture their kids’ dreams and hopes and protect them from harm, a story like this can not only sound horrifying, but so impossibly bad that there’s no way it could be true. Such a person might think “There’s no way that could happen; I can’t even imagine my family acting in such a way!”

There is a lot of stigma surrounding how families are supposed to be thought of, and it can be super damaging to reinforce this idea of a perfect nuclear family with no problems. Sometimes, the people who are supposed to be the closest to you end up being the ones you need protection from. It is crucial for other people to recognize this, so that an abuse survivor can feel safe talking about their experiences.

There is a phrase that is often misquoted is (and was used) by families similar to mine: “Blood is thicker than water.” The quote is commonly used as a stand-in for “We are your blood family, we know better than anyone else! Don’t listen to people like your untrustworthy friends or therapist!”

The actual quote, however, makes this sentiment fall completely apart: “The blood of the covenant is thicker than the water of the womb.” This phrase essentially means that you get to choose who you consider your family;  you shouldn’t have to suffer through abusive relationships because you are blood related; it is okay to love and trust friends more than you might do so with your family.

For more information on sibling abuse, check out the Centre for Abuse & Trauma Therapy Inc. and University of Michigan Health.

If you or someone you know needs help, click here to find support from the Network Program in your area.