Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Growing Up With a Jaguar: Domestic Violence

Illustration by Taylor Christensen for It's This Monkey's Business
children's book promoting prevention of domestic violence due out Oct. 29
All rights reserved.
by Debra Mares

Over 3 million children witness violence in their home each year.  As many as 275 million children worldwide are exposed to violence in their home.  It’s a big topic this month.  October is Domestic Violence Prevention Month.  And this topic is real for me.  
What most people don’t know is that I grew up with a jaguar: domestic violence.  It wasn’t easy.  Its effects are long-lasting.  Children witnessing domestic violence or are victims of sexual assault or physical assault constantly respond with stress, which affects their ability to focus, learn, trust and develop empathy. 
Whether you were around it as a child, were an abuser or victim, the pain pushes forward.  Boys who witness family violence are more likely to batter their partners as adults and girls who witness abuse are more likely to become involved in abusive relationships.
I hope if you are reading this, you never experienced domestic violence as a child or adult.  However, chances are you know someone who has.  1 in every 3 women will be assaulted by their domestic partner.   Domestic violence happens behind walls and its usually not discussed outside the home.  If you’ve ever been through it or know someone who has, I hope this post will help.
I still remember the day my dad left home and my parents separated.  I was so relieved, thinking I would finally live in peace.  He walked out the back door off the laundry room . . . 
That’s when a new set of problems began.  To numb the pain, I began to escape.  Children of domestic violence are more likely to abuse drugs and alcohol.  The average age a girl has her first drink is 13.  For a boy, it's 11.
Then, my sister came home from her freshman year in college . . . pregnant.  Another effect of children of domestic violence is teen pregnancy.
Life sure does have a way of teaching you the lessons you need to learn.  I graduated from college, then law school.  I got married . . . then divorced.  I’ve been through a lot of relationships . . . and therapy.  It took a while, but I got through it.  Today, I have a healthy relationship with both of my parents, who I love and trust.  I mentor over 100 youth as a Community Prosecutor; many who have also been affected by domestic violence.  I am happy I can teach them tools to get past their pain.  I share my story with them and tell them things like, “it’s not your fault,” “you’re not responsible for what happened,” and I encourage them to focus on their education, learn about healthy relationships and build positive self-esteem. 
People have asked me how I overcame the effects of growing up with domestic violence.  But all I can say is I’ve handled it like a jaguar: tamed it, managed it, and trained it as best I could.  I work daily to keep my mind, body and spirit balanced.  Meditation.  Exercise.  Discipline.  I practice and teach empathy.  I also focus on the happy times growing up.  Because there were a lot.  Summer trips to Tahoe.  Fishing.  The beach.

I also remind parents there are ways to lessen the negative effects to their children.  Keep a close relationship with your child and let them express their fears, talk about the chaos at home and don’t keep it a secret, help your child stay connected to extended family, help them build healthy self esteem & relationships, teach them empathy, help them develop an easy temperament, stress the importance of education, facilitate relationships with mentors, educate yourself and your child on the affects of abuse so you know their triggers, teach impulse control, incorporate healthy eating, exercise & meditation, and most importantly, make life fun and don’t forget to laugh!  Life has already been stressful enough.  

Another thing most people don’t know is that I write poetry and legal thrillers about domestic violence.  I'll be releasing my debut children's book later this month, It's This Monkey's Business, targeting ages four to eight and bringing awareness to domestic violence.

If you would have asked me ten years ago if I would ever be able to talk publicly about growing up with domestic violence, I would have said, “no way.”  But poetry has helped me express the ineffable, especially childhood fears.
Behind the Wall
Little girl, behind the wall.
Curled up, in her ball.
Parents fighting, while she's alone.
Another scream, another moan.
Always worried no one could hear,
Her silent death, caused by fear.
Every time she feels him pull away,
It takes her back, to that abandoned day.
Curled up, in her ball.
Now a woman, behind an imaginary wall.

If you are struggling with the effects of domestic violence or know someone who is, know this:
You will get through it.
You’ll come away from it a stronger person.
You WILL find serenity and love in some form.
You WILL learn to trust.
Take each day at a time & balance. Mind. Body. Spirit.
Go easy on yourself and from time to time, visit the sea to breathe.