It’s 3 am on a weeknight. A loud *crash* wakes me up. A man is yelling angrily as a woman screams in terror and pain.
A whiff of alcohol hangs in the air…
My mom’s boyfriend had just thrown her down the single step separating the bedroom from the living room in our one-bedroom house.
I watch as her screams turn to gurgling as he puts a chair on top of her throat and sits on it, strangling her.
Through the haze of disorienting carnage and drowsiness, a voice in the back of my head yells, protect your baby brother!
I run into the kitchen and throw my body over his crib, trying to shield him from the monster in our living room.
I can’t protect my mom.
I can’t really protect my baby brother.
And I know, deep down, I can’t protect myself.
All I can do is stand there and watch this guy beat the shit out of my mom for what seems like hours.
All because she didn’t pick him up from work that night.
He had a friend drive him all the way to our place, so he could teach her a lesson…
When he’s had his fill, he walks out to his friend’s car and they drive off lazily.
Violence like that stays with you. It changes you. It changes how you see the world and what people are capable of.
My mom and I slowly pick up the pieces of our life that had just been shattered, then I get ready for school.
Like it was another ordinary day of second grade.
I don’t remember much about elementary school. I don’t remember much about that time of my life, period.
Instead of a whole childhood, I have fragments.
I get flashes of memories. Out-of-context swirls of events and emotions — mostly fear.
That night was the first time I can remember his abuse — but it wouldn’t be the last. Over the next few years, he’d regularly get drunk and beat the shit out of her.
Home wasn’t home anymore because it didn’t feel safe — I didn’t feel safe.
One time she’d been out with friends and broken her finger after riding a mechanical bull. She had it in a splint.
When he was beating her later that night, he bent her broken finger backward to cause permanent damage — so she’d remember her lesson.
One time when he was beating her, I pulled a knife on him and screamed “Get your hands off her, you asshole!” My only thought was, Shit. I just cussed in front of my mom! Not the fact I had just drawn a weapon against a full-grown adult.
I didn’t care what happened to me. I just wanted to protect the people I loved, but I was still too young to do anything about it.
Throughout elementary school, teachers would say to me, “You’re so mature for your age!”
Thanks. Trauma makes you grow up fast.
Depression’s Older Brother
As I got older, fear turned to anger. Anger at my mom for not stopping it. Anger at myself for being too weak to do anything about it. Anger that someone could ever treat another human being like that, then go about their day like nothing happened. Anger at being afraid — at feeling like a victim.
When I was a teenager, I got into fights to feel tougher. I started arguments to feel smarter. I ran around with the wrong crowd — the kind that deals drugs, some casual breaking and entering, mild arson — that sort of thing.
I never wanted to feel inferior or afraid again, so I went out of my way to prove I was tough. I turned into an asshole.
Psychologists say anger is depression’s older brother — they’re right.
No matter how much I tried to wear my anger as a protective shield, the person holding the shield was still that fragile, afraid little eight-year-old boy cowering in the kitchen trying to protect his baby brother as he watched his mom get pummeled.
I did whatever I could to stay angry. As long as I kept that fire stoked, I could distract myself from how vulnerable I felt.
Most nights, I laid awake for hours imagining all the ways I’d kick his ass if he ever came around again — or all the things I would’ve liked to have done to him back then.
Seething rage was my bedtime teddy bear.
All because I couldn’t stand the thought of feeling like a victim ever again.
A Victim Mindset
Years went by and I continued to carry around a victim mindset.
My mom tried to help by sending me to therapy.
After I burned through a handful of therapists, one called my mom into the room and said, “Ms. Wilks, your son is too manipulative for therapy. I can’t get through to him.”
My mom was dumbfounded.
I was proud of myself.
“If I can outwit someone with a doctorate in psychology, that means I’m smarter than them!”
“Honey,” my mom exhaled, exasperated, “that’s the problem. You need help but won’t let anyone in.”
Therapy didn’t help because I wouldn’t let it help. Being a victim had become part of my identity. And good or bad — we do everything in our power to protect our identity.
Grasping Hot Coals
It wasn’t until, years later, I looked back on my life and realized my anger had infected every part of it.
I was tired of being a victim, but I didn’t know what else to be.
So I started reading about psychology and practicing introspection.
Why do I still feel like a victim?
Why am I holding onto shame for feeling powerless all those years ago?
How can I heal myself from all this mental damage?
I discovered modern psychology is rooted in ancient philosophies like Stoicism and Buddhism, so I delved into them, too.
One quote from Buddhism stuck out:
Holding on to anger is like grasping a hot coal with the intent of throwing it at someone else; you are the one who gets burned. — Buddha
I realized I was holding onto my anger in some twisted attempt to get revenge on my mom’s abuser — as if me being angry would somehow affect him.
My anger had been my daily companion since the second grade, slowly burning through my system.
That day, I vowed to do everything I could to let go of that burning coal.
Trial By Fire
I focused on what was within my control. I couldn’t change the past, but I could control how I acted in the present. I could control my racing thoughts and choose to stop rehashing those nights of abuse and imagining how I’d hurt him.
I practiced mindfulness to identify what triggered my anger and understand the underlying emotions anger had been masking all those years.
Then I started practicing relaxation skills to calm down quickly, so my anger couldn’t control me anymore.
I stopped getting into fights, stopped arguing over petty things, and said goodbye to the old crowd of delinquents.
In college, I dived deeper into psychology and philosophy.
One radical concept I found was called amor fati. It means, “love of fate.” It basically means, how can you look at what has happened to you and be grateful for it? Beyond just tolerating or accepting it — how can you love what happened?
It’s not naive Pollyanaism. Retired Navy Seal and TEDx speaker Jocko Willink has made amor fati a core component of his life — what he calls his Good philosophy.
This concept cooked my noodle for a minute.
How could I look back on all the years of abuse, anger, fear, of feeling like a victim possibly be something I could love?
Then I realized how…
Because it taught me how much fucked up shit I can go through and still survive. It taught me compassion for other people’s suffering. It taught me that real men protect their loved ones — they don’t abuse them. And it taught me that I am in control of my thoughts, my emotions, and my actions — and I can regain that control anytime I choose.
Trial by fire, as they say…
A Victim No More
After a lot of practice, a lot of long nights doing deep introspective work, and a lot of owning up to myself and the people I hurt along the way, I can confidently say this:
I dropped my hot coal — not because he deserves forgiveness, but because I deserve peace of mind. I couldn’t move on with my life and become the person I wanted to be as long as I kept holding onto my anger — my trauma.
I deserve a better life and have too many awesome things I want to do with the time I have left. And if you’re still carrying around your own hot coals, you can learn to let go of them — because you deserve a better life, too.
Think of everything you’ve survived in your life. Developing an identity as a survivor empowers you to persevere through hardships. Adversity, struggles, failures — these are unavoidable in life. But you, and only you, can choose whether you’ll be a victim of what life throws at you, or if you’ll be a survivor — someone who faces life’s obstacles and comes out victorious.
So here’s to the death of being a victim.
We’re all survivors here.