I’ve worked for a long time on rebuilding self-esteem, though I’ve never been sure whether the lack of it contributed to depression or the depression killed off the self-esteem. It hardly matters. When I was a kid, that confident, robust me, sure of who he was, feeling like a whole person, apparently never made it off the drawing boards.
Whatever happened back in childhood filled the psychic space that was trying to be me with a lot of broken pieces. Some gems, some junk. I never felt as a kid that it all added up the way it was supposed to. There was something wrong. A lot of these parts weren’t very good – or at least not good enough. Never good enough.
As a kid, of course, you don’t go around analyzing yourself. I just looked to my parents for – something, I couldn’t have said what at the time. Often, I didn’t get much of anything from them. Because I was looking pretty hard, though, the few things that came my way sank in deeply. I think those looks, words, and tones of voice that I was trying to get my cues from became more important than anything I might be feeling or thinking. I was anxious just waiting to get a signal. Had I done this well – or had I gotten it all wrong, once again?
Much later, all grown-up and outwardly capable but still shaky on the inside, I spent a lot of time with therapists. I made all sorts of connections between life with my “family of origin” and my current versions of self-defeating behavior and misery. I thought I had it down pretty well, and I’ve written here about several incidents and unmet needs. But the other day, I started to add up a lot of things I’d always thought of as isolated moments. Those parts of a long-gone past suddenly came together in a different way.
It happened while I was reading a report. It summarized a study on the impact of different forms of childhood maltreatment on the psychological problems that develop later in life, including depression. The study measured the effect of emotional attacks through verbal aggression as well as other forms of abuse, both separately and in different combinations. The language was technical but included parts of the questionnaire administered to 554 college-age subjects. Despite the jargon, it hit home.
The questions about the different forms of abuse were written rather broadly since the researchers wanted to come up with a scale of intensity that captured the full range of impact. My first reaction to all these forms of abuse was that they didn’t have much to do with me at all – I was just looking for material to write about.
I’ve never thought of myself as having been abused in childhood. Whatever had happened to me paled in comparison to the horrors of violence, sexual abuse and the psychic torture that some kids have to grow up with – and that several brave writers have detailed in powerful blogs like Clinically Clueless and Melindaville.
I still believe that, but as I looked at the details of the definitions I realized that my experience fitted a number of them – though at the lower end or midrange of the intensity scale. More important than that, though, was the study’s finding that the combined effect of multiple forms of abuse had the most serious effect in leading to later disorders. That’s when I started adding things up.
Take physical abuse. Of course, I wasn’t physically abused by my parents – they never hit me. But naturally, like all younger brothers, I got beaten up a lot, and, well, I was afraid of what my brother could do to me if he really lost it. Sometimes he did. The definition included not only assaults resulting in serious injuries but also a series of less serious attacks. There were plenty of those.
As I thought it over, I realized that physical injury hadn’t been the problem. Instead it was living with the fear of his explosiveness and the constant humiliation of being helpless to fight back effectively. He could be wonderful and protective of me too, but I never knew which side of him I’d be seeing. (Thank God, he left physical violence and rage behind as he got older.)
History of witnessing domestic violence? Yes! Lots and lots of that. Searing, frightening, paralyzing. No broken bones, no black-and-blue bodies, no visits to the hospital. But that could hardly matter to a kid. In terms of my experience and that of my friends, my father and brother smashing each other, doors broken down, a gun leveled in cold fury. That was plenty.
Verbal abuse? Sure, my mother had said some incredibly vicious things to me, but not very often. Those were abusive but sustained abuse? – I didn’t think so. Then I looked at the list of verbal abuse components. Yelling? There was little yelling, at least at me (I worked hard to avoid that) and no swearing – at least by today’s standards. My mother and father just didn’t swear much, only a few stock phrases that sound pretty lame now.
But scolding, blaming, insulting, threatening, demeaning, ridiculing, criticizing, belittling? Each of those brought to mind a steady stream of my mother’s cutting words. They suddenly filled the gaps between the most vicious ones that cut into my memory. (Sorry, I just can’t write those down.) Some of it was offhand, matter-of-fact, even light-hearted when in the presence of a friend. (“Oh, isn’t it terrible when one of them takes after the wrong side of the family!” or “He always was a sneak!” – as I would sit there, a quiet, well-behaved 10 year-old.)
I started putting two and two together, as I hadn’t quite done before. The picture that emerged had much more detail than I wanted to recall, but the components of emotional abuse were all there. Not anywhere near the top in the study’s scale – probably below the level that gets into the charts, more in the category of serious or “unusual but not rare.”
Whatever personal insight I gained, the report’s conclusions were startling. The researchers gauged the effects of the various forms of abuse on later problems with anxiety, depression, anger-hostility and dissociative experiences, among others. Emotional abuse through verbal aggression, considered apart from other forms of abuse, turned out to have strong links to later depression, in particular, as well as to anger-hostility and dissociation. But the combination of verbal abuse and witnessing domestic violence had one of the most powerful connections to later depression and other problems, surpassed only by sexual abuse by a family member.
This study has its limitations and doesn’t pretend to be definitive, but it brings out the lasting impact of emotional abuse as few other studies have done. Currently, emotional abuse together with witnessing domestic violence is not considered to be trauma under the PTSD diagnosis. However, the combination of witnessing family violence and experiencing physical abuse does qualify as a traumatic event.
The researchers raise the question of whether threats to a child’s mental integrity and sense of self can be as traumatizing as physical threats and assault. I’m not sure what you should call it. All I know is that the events I had managed to keep separate in my memory of childhood actually worked together to hit me hard, over and over again.
Part of me broke back then, and I’ve had to spend far too many years trying to fix it.