If you have been following me, you may know that I am writing a true memoir for a survivor of Domestic Abuse. I’m hoping to have it completed by the end of February. This is one chapter of my book. It is more than just a story. It is unique in it’s ending, and it is also much more than the words of someone’s life. It’s a deep dive into victims and abusers and the “whys and wherefores” of their respective roles in this convoluted plague on society. You may think it’s a worn-out topic, but as long as this problem continues, there will continue to be a need for awareness and help for victims, and for abusers. Names have been changed and some true situations embellished for effect, but the story did take place in New Jersey, in the Wake Forest, NC area , and at Duke University Hospital in Durham, NC. Stay tuned. More to come. Please feel free to share this post!
“Max needed a heart transplant to live. The reality was being absorbed slowly, one scene at a time. Donna and Max had lived in New Jersey all their lives, and now they faced the possibility they would have to pick up and transplant themselves, too, but they wanted to give Max a shot at living. She tried to look at the situation from a positive stance. Maybe this is what they needed. They would be moving away from all the friends and negative influences that Max had in his life. Maybe they really could start over. New home, new heart, new social circle. For the first time in a long time, Donna could see some hope in a seemingly hopeless situation. It would be good for everyone. They decided together that this was the right move for them. They went through all the red tape that was required of potential organ recipients at Duke University Hospital and put their home in New Jersey on the market. Max was sternly warned that there would be no second chances. Only one strike, not three, and he was out. He had to stay clean. They sold their home and found a beautiful new home in Wake Forest, NC, a nice community that was away from the busy streets and neighborhoods of Durham but close enough to Duke that Max could get there quickly if a call would come in that a donor was available. Donna enrolled Alex in school, set up the house, located the shopping areas, and waited for the bittersweet phone call from the transplant team that a donor was available. She knew what that meant: that another family, somewhere, had just lost a loved one to tragedy, and she prayed that Max would appreciate their sacrifice and protect the gift he would be receiving.
Max tried. He knew his actions were wrong, and he knew his anger was fueled by his substance abuse, but like most addicts, he found it difficult to change.
“I’m Max, and I am an addict. I’m addicted to alcohol and drugs, and I’m here because I’m on the heart transplant list and it’s a requirement”.
“Hello, Max”, came the collective reply from the room.
The leader let his qualifying statement pass, for the time being. There would be time enough for exploration into those feelings later. One by one, the members of the group introduced themselves. Max looked around and felt he didn’t belong there with these people, he was better than them, but he knew he had to stay. They said a prayer and did a reading from the Big Book, the basic textbook of Alcoholics Anonymous.
The Big Book is one of the best-selling books of all time, which is a sober testament to the gravity of the addiction problem. Many AA groups also allow those addicted to other substances or behaviors as well as alcohol. Its renowned Twelve Step Program has helped innumerable people achieve and maintain sobriety since 1936, but it is not an easy process, and not everyone makes it. One basic tenet of the program is a belief in a higher power and the faith that you are not alone. Prayer is a large part of recovery from addiction and one in which Max freely took part. AA participants are also required to keep a journal to record notes from meetings, write down thoughts and feelings, and experience catharsis. Having access to Max’s AA journal has provided an insight into who he was. His sober self was unlike his impaired self in many ways. Max was like a Harlequin mask: smiling one minute, crying the next, or maybe angry. He appeared to be a tortured soul inside, knowing what he had to do but powerless to defeat the demons causing his torment. I want to believe that is true for many abusers. I like to think that they don’t want to be who they are but lack the fortitude to resist their violent urges. Good or bad, they are people, too, and, just as you and I, are a combination of both. Without wishing to be repetitive, I will call up the memory of Donna’s account of Max’s childhood from earlier in the book as a prerequisite to my next words: affluent, alcoholic and absentee parents, being left alone to his own devices, tossed out like an old dishrag as a teenager by his mother when his father left her for his secretary, etc. Common among abusers, Max had a narcissistic personality. Some of the hallmarks of narcissism are lack of empathy, a need for admiration, arrogance, self-centeredness, manipulation, and being demanding of others. Although the exact cause of these traits is not well-understood, it is felt that a combination of nature and nurture, as we have seen is true for every aspect of our beings, mix it up to form these traits. Unfortunately, the actual personality disorder of narcissism is difficult to treat because these people don’t think there is anything wrong with them; they feel everything bad that happens is someone else’s fault, not their own. It’s a well-accepted belief that you can’t help someone who doesn’t feel they need help, and that pretty much describes a narcissist. Although she was able to see the good in Max, Donna’s accounts of him spelled narcissism, and her accounts of life with him are largely disturbing. They are also, however, backed up by Max, himself. In his journal, he admits to treating his family poorly, to possessing all these characteristics, either directly or indirectly, and he even uses the word narcissistic to describe himself at one point. When he was sober, he had an incredible self-awareness of who he wanted to be, and of the person he turned into while he was impaired, like a Dr. Jekkyl and a diluted Mr. Hyde.
Not unlike the outwardly haughty Cowardly Lion from the Wizard of Oz, beneath the layer of anger in Max was an insecure, terrified soul, who didn’t really believe that he had the courage to overcome his adversarial self. He picked on people weaker than he was to appear fierce and to prove himself as a force with which to be reckoned. Unlike the fabled lion, however, it took more than a slap across the face to make Max see the error of his ways. It took him staring into the face of death to get him to an AA meeting, which then required him to peal all the layers of the onion off until he got to the core of who he was, and he did. Sadly, once outside the secure, comfortable walls of the AA meetings, he found it impossible to hold onto the strength that had been generated within the safety of those walls, and whatever protective mechanisms he had honed at the meetings collapsed in the face of triggers for his anger, no matter how minute.
Max was also a consummate liar, such a convincing one that even his family supported his accusations that Donna was to blame for his failing emotional health and descent into addiction, even though that journey had started long before they met. Concerning his mother, that makes sense, since she could never take responsibility for her own shortcomings either, as was previously noted. She wasn’t going to blame herself for Max’s problems. She and Donna got along in the beginning, until Donna started bringing the family’s attention to Max’s problems, then she became an instant nemesis in their lives. Others in the family suffered from addiction as well, so no one wanted to look at Max because if they did, they would have had to look in their mirrors and see themselves.
Research shows that there is a proven genetic connection to addiction, be it nicotine, alcohol, or drugs. In fact, studies have shown that even up to half of a person’s risk for addiction can be attributed to his or her genetic make-up. Tangible as genetic sequencing may be, it is essential to consider environment as a factor in the disease of addiction, and one that can be controlled, unlike your inherited DNA. Environmental influences have been proven to affect the way certain gene markers are expressed. For instance, identical twins have identical genetic make-up and most of the markers that define things such as physical features will remain prominent in both, but environmental circumstances can serve as influencers as to how a person’s character or personality unfolds. Living conditions, degree of family support, education, availability of economic and other resources, and relational influences in someone’s life are some of the things that can change genetic make-up so that that even identical twins can exhibit different characteristics when raised in different environments. In addition, it is believed that these influencers can change the DNA of a person to the extent that the altered gene can be passed on to future generations, which may explain similarities in familial traits and habits. Although eerily similar stories of twins who were separated at birth, both good and evil, have been published, environmental influences could also lend credence to the “evil twin” story lines that the cinema loves.
Could that be what happened to Max? Listening to Donna’s accounts, the question of his own mother’s mental health must be entered into the equation of additive factors that contributed to his demise. Did it start with her, or did it start back a few generations and the cycle just continued with her? By looking at all of these biological and external events that can team up to cause unhappiness, it’s clear that although we have no control over some of them, we can make conscious choices to start in motion new events that can disrupt destructive cycles, and we must.
Once you dissect the details of an abuser’s world, past and present, a picture can begin to appear that may tend to explain abhorrent behavior. There are reasons for everything we do, for who we are, all of us. We can understand, and maybe even pity, a person whose own personal black hole is tangible enough to explain away the destructive actions that are negatively impacting someone else’s life. However, we can never excuse violating the rights of others; this behavior is never, ever, acceptable. Understanding is fine and good, but never acceptance. Nothing short of self-defense should give anyone legitimate cause to intentionally hurt another person or treat them with disrespect. Conversely, no one should allow themselves to be convinced that they “bring it on themselves”, that it is somehow their “fault” that the abuser is the way he or she is, or that victims are less than who they are. Max tried that with Donna, and even if she didn’t really believe it deep inside, it was enough to knock her self-esteem down a few notches with each insult. Note to victims: The cycle of abuse must stop, and it can stop with you. I won’t lie and tell you it’s easy, but it’s worth giving it everything you have in order to win your freedom and your peace, because you deserve it. There are plenty of success stories; maybe you can be the next one.”